Ghosts: Scary Stories' Stepchild

In 1981, Alvin Schwartz unleashed his horror classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark upon the world, and it and its two sequels would scar psyches for generations to come. 1984 saw the release of In a Dark, Dark Room, a similar book that Schwartz had tailored to somewhat younger readers. Unlike the Scary Stories books, though, this one never got a sequel...or did it?
Ghosts!, published in 1991, is an oft-overlooked installment in Alvin Schwartz's oeuvre that serves in many ways as a spiritual successor to In a Dark, Dark Room. In belongs to the somewhat redundantly named "I Can Read" book series, like Dark Room, so it is targeted at a similarly young audience, and of course it shares the supernatural theme of the aforementioned works. But how does this one stack up against the veritable murderer's row of Schwartz's earlier classics? Let's find out.
The first thing that jumps out at you is the artwork. Victoria Chess has a strikingly different style than the late, great Dirk Zimmer's creepycute, classical illustrations from In a Dark, Dark Room, and her various spooks and specters are certainly a far cry from Stephen Gammell's brief glimpses into hell from the Scary Stories series. But there's nothing wrong with that. As you can see from the cover, she favors a bloated, porcine appearance for her ghosts, which serves as both an interesting take on a classic monster and an important reminder to children of the dangers of obesity. Overall, the art is less disturbing than that of Schwartz's other horror works, but it has its own charms. More on that later. But for now, to put the artwork of the various titles in terms of Taco Bell sauces:

The second thing that jumps out at you is the title page:
The title of the book is Ghosts!, but those are clearly bats. This of course raises some questions. Is this merely a baffling editorial decision? Was there a fear of ghost overload after the cover art, and some other creatures of the night were substituted in? Or are the bats here ghosts themselves? ARE THEY GHOST BATS?
Alright, let's get into the stories.

THE HAUNTED HOUSE

Not to be confused...the first story here is actually based on a joke. Basically, two kids go into a supposedly haunted house. The sister tries to scare the brother with a loud, "BOO!" The brother screams, but not because of the girl's prank...rather, he shrieks at the phantom lurking behind her. It's a perfectly fine way of starting things off, basic and inoffensive. Unless both children are murdered by the ghost in the story's unseen aftermath, in which case, wow, dark.

SUSIE

This is about the point where you start to notice the most unsettling thing about the artwork in this book: the eyes. Every character manages to have eyes that are simultaneously sunken in and popping out. Look at those things.


This lady looks like she keeps a sharpened axe under her shop counter, and it never goes unused for long. "LOOK AT MY BABIES," she seems to say.
Now in terms of the story itself, the woman sells cats. She seems to run an exclusively cat-based pet store, if the ample stock of catnip, mouse pie (?) and Ratsnax (???) on her shelves are any indication. When a woman and her daughter visit the store, the daughter is immediately enchanted with one of the cats, and the mother inquires as to the cat's price. The store owner responds that she can't sell the cat, because the cat died a year ago and is now a ghost cat that haunts the store. Great business model! I've heard of unobtanium, but this is really next-level.
My two main takeaways from this story:
1. Ghost animals are a thing in this universe, so my theory about the title page bats being ghosts now has some precedent behind it.
2. The lady running the pet store looks just like my mom's neighbor in the seniors mobile home park.

A LITTLE GREEN BOTTLE

OK, I really need to talk about this one. It concerns two elementary school-age kids, Joe and Kate. Joe is a little twerp and Kate is a big bully, so she spends her time menacing him into compliance with her every whim, up to and including stealing his new bike. When she gets in trouble for this, she doubles down and vows to be even more awful to Joe. And then she just dies, which...I'm not going to say she deserved it, per se, being a kid and all, but I'm not exactly moved to tears by it either. In a way, it's a nice lesson for young readers: don't be an ass, because you could just keel over at any time.
This is where things begin to get strange. Kate, being apparently a woman of her word, triples down on her commitment to harassment and begins haunting Joe as a particularly annoying ghost. She turns Joe's life into a waking nightmare, giving him jump scare after jump scare and even re-stealing his bike just to ride it around on the table while he's trying to eat. It's probably the most honest portrayal I've seen of just how annoying a little kid ghost would be. Understandably, Joe begs Kate to just leave him alone.
This is where things get really strange. Kate just straight up turns into a ghost bull and starts wrecking shop. Then she grows in size until she fills up the whole room, mockingly informing Joe that, as a ghost, she can do whatever she wants. Has she had these transmogrifying powers the whole time and has just has been choosing to waste her time with petty stalking and pestering? She really is quite dedicated to her craft.
Joe is understandably quite vexed by this turn of events, but gets an idea. Playing on Kate's ego, he inquires as to whether her ghost powers would allow her to shrink down small enough to fit in the green glass bottle on the table, which I'm guessing is one of Joe's dad's empty Heinekens. Kate, lacking both vision and sense, boastfully desizes and hops in the bottle, which Joe promptly corks and hurls into the river. The story ends with a warning to the reader:

Alright, seriously, what? I'm really struggling with the internal logic of this story, mostly because Kate's powers and limitations seem so arbitrary. I mean, she's basically Ant-Man and Beast Boy in one, but also a ghost, and she can't break out of a dinky glass bottle? As a phantom, couldn't she just pass through the glass? And if not, if she can expand her size at will, why can't she grow big enough to shatter the glass? Is she afraid of getting cut despite being a semicorporeal spirit? Just...why? Perhaps the specter of Joe's dad's alcoholism is the only thing strong enough to contain Kate. In any case, we end this story with one (1) dead child, whose spirit is eternally tormented by being trapped in a cramped bottle with no hope of escape, only endless struggle. Talk about an anti-bullying message! Be Best, kids.

THE UMBRELLA

The one is pretty strange. Adapted from a South Carolina folktale from the same book that provides the source material for Aaron Kelly's Bones, it concerns a man named George who, walking by a cemetery at night, encounters a group of peculiar carolers. Peculiar in the sense that they are singing to the dead. George-clearly a man with a song in his heart desperately yearning to break free-joins in with the choir. One of the singers gives him an umbrella in order to help "keep [his] voice nice and dry," and then all the singers disappear. George naturally freaks out about this and runs home, but retains the umbrella and uses it regularly thereafter. Then he dies, and his ghost takes the umbrella with him. So basically, this is the origin story of an umbrella. Anyway, look how sad this guy's poor dog is:


THREE LITTLE GHOSTS

This is a cute little poem about ghosts eating toast on posts and I think you get where this is going. I guess it would be a pretty good thing to recite while you're double-dutch jump roping. As someone with an aversion to having food on my face, this probably scares me more than anything else in the book.

THE TEENY-TINY WOMAN

Another entry in the "person does something incredibly disgusting and pisses off a ghost" genre of folklore along the lines of Scary Stories' "The Big Toe" and "Cemetery Soup," the story involves a woman who is pocket-sized, for some reason that does not affect the plot at all. One day, she happens to be walking through a similarly micro graveyard and happens upon a set of dentures on top of a grave. Inexplicably, she pops them in her mouth without even rinsing them off and goes on her merry way. Later, she takes a nap, grinning away with her tombstone teeth, only to be awakened by someone outside yelling at her to return the teeth. After some back-and-forth, she throws the teeth out the window, and her unseen harasser skitters back to the graveyard with them. Overall, a pretty classic story, albeit one somewhat hamstrung by its constant, annoying usage of the phrase "teeny-tiny" to describe everything. Yes, yes, this teeny-tiny woman lives in her teeny-tiny house in her teeny-tiny neighborhood and eats a teeny-tiny lunch at a teeny-tiny bistro and drinks a teeny-tiny negroni and PLEASE JUST STOP.

GHOST, GET LOST

Who knew an exorcism could be so simple? If only Joe from "A Little Green Bottle" had known about this technique, that story would have been a lot shorter and less cruel.

And that's Ghosts! As a whole, it's certainly the least impressive of Schwartz's horror output, but it has its charms. I'm not surprised that it's more obscure than In a Dark, Dark Room, despite their similarities, since there's nothing on the level of, say, "The Green Ribbon" in this book. It feels very toned-down and jokey, but there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. Consider it the stepchild of the group, a gateway drug promising spooky good times en route to the childhood-warping terror of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. In a sense, Ghosts! is very much like one of the phantoms within its pages: a faded vestige perhaps, but one that won't quite allow itself to be forgotten.



Seriously though, are they ghost bats?

Joey Marsilio loves October, when he finally has a chance to pump out some serious Halloween content. He loves it so much, in fact, that his debut novel takes place right around Halloween. Synergy! Seriously though, BUY IT.

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