Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gruesome Gateways to New Horrors!

The Gruesome Book edited by Ramsey Campbell London: Piccolo Books, 1983

I remember discovering Ramsey Campbell's work when I was in the sixth grade. He was mentioned a lot by Stephen King, and his name popped up frequently in paperback horror anthologies with lurid covers. While not what I would call a brand-name (especially in the U.S.) the Liverpool-born Campbell has been writing tales of horror since the early sixties with dozens of novels and over a hundred short stories to his name. The Gruesome Book (1983) is an anthology edited by Campbell with the intention of scaring the hell out of younger readers.

Calling Card - Ramsey Campbell
The Pond - Nigel Kneale
The Extra Passenger - August Derleth
Hobo - Robert Bloch
The Deep-Sea Conch - Brian Lumley
Long Distance Call - Richard Matheson
The Graveyard Rats - Henry Kuttner
3:47 AM - David Langford

In the introduction, Campbell states that the scary story collections he read at the age of eight "wouldn't have scared a neurotic three-year-old." He found child-oriented chillers to be weak and decided to compile his own primer for the younger reader of the macabre. Campbell chose a mixed bag of genre authors for this collection. Some of the bigger names are here (Derleth, Campbell, Bloch, Matheson, and Lumley) combined with those more obscure to the casual reader (Kuttner, Kneale, Lanford). Not all of these stories reach the level of mastery some of these authors are known for, but there are a few horrific entries that prove effective. I will focus on my favorites of the bunch.

Gradually, as he stood he became aware of a smell. It was wholly unpleasant. Seemingly it came from the weed, yet mixed with the vegetable odor was one of another kind of decay. A soft, oozy bubbling accompanied it. Gases must be rising from the mud at the bottom. It would not do to stay in this place and risk his health. -- Nigel Kneale, The Pond

Nigel Kneale wrote the screenplays for The Quatermass Experiment (1953), a popular television serial for the BBC that featured horrors from outer space and creeping paranoia on earth.
The successful series spawned some feature-length adaptions from Hammer Film Productions, and opened the doors for a new era of science fiction TV programming in the UK.

Kneale's contribution is "The Pond." The story is a basic cautionary tale against animal abuse, charged with a gruesome supernatural revenge at the end. An evil old man is fond of capturing toads, boiling them alive in a pot, and making taxidermy dioramas with their remains. Having terminated most of the toad population of his favorite pond, he considers looking for a new locale. Taking advantage of the old man's gluttony, a supernatural force guides him to the glowing pond one night with the promise of more victims, only to give him an excruciating taste of his own medicine. The ending is clever and echoes the dark humor of Tales from the Crypt and other horror comic titles of the 1950s.

The boxcar wasn't empty...Sprawling against the opposite side of the wall was the man. He sat there nonchalantly, staring at Hannigan--and he'd been sitting there and staring the whole time. The farther reaches of the car were in total darkness, but the man was just close enough to the opposite door so that flashed of light illuminated his features in passing. --Robert Bloch, Hobo

Robert Bloch was known for writing Psycho (although his contribution to fantastic literature was immense), and his penchant for lurking knife-wielders is shown in "Hobo." Eager to leave town, Hannigan, a down-on-his-luck drifter hops a train that he hopes will deliver him from his troubles. The main trouble being a lone killer who has been fatally stabbing members of the homeless community. Hannigan finds another man in his boxcar whom he judges to be a kindred traveler. Unfortunately for him, trust in strangers yields gruesome results. Bloch employs his "less-is-more" style of terror effectively here, having the main character do all the talking while the unknown man remains ominously silent.

A rat was approaching -- the monster he had already glimpsed. Grey and leprous and hideous it crept forward with its orange teeth bared, and in its wake came the blind dead thing, groaning as it crawled. -- Henry Kuttner, Graveyard of Rats

A friend of H.P. Lovecraft, Henry Kuttner was an avid contributor to the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the 1930s. "Graveyard of Rats" was his first published work, and considered by Campbell to be his scariest. I would have to agree. Although there are some strong thematic similarities to Lovecraft (New England setting, sinister rats, ancient cults), Kuttner's story packs a punch like the best of 1930s pulp fiction and moves at a pace that should appeal to younger readers.

The plot focuses on Masson, the bitter, old caretaker of a cemetery in Salem, MA. He moonlights as a grave-robber, stripping corpses of their valuables before burying them in cheap coffins. Consequently, the rat population nearby has also taken an interest in the cemetery, dragging dead bodies into underground tunnels to eat them. This cramps Masson's style, not only are the rats stealing his merchandise (gold teeth fillings are valuable!) but they make him look like a lazy employee. In addition, he hates the locals, who fear the rats and might be worshiping evil entities that put Salem on the map. Everything comes to a head, when the rats steal a body that had some expensive cuff-links and Masson decides to follow them into their domain. This proves to be a terrible mistake, and he meets horrors beyond rodent infestation.

The cover art and illustrations for this book were provided by Ivan Lapper, and more than live up to the title. Worm-eaten skulls, rotting undead creatures, and all sorts of horrific images adorn this book. Not for the easily repulsed, Lapper's work here is graphic and definitely more in line with the the artwork found on scores of 1980s adult horror paperbacks than anything geared towards a younger audience
. Likewise, the illustrations definitely compliment the stories and present this book as something infinitely scarier than most anthologies targeted at youth audiences.

Ultimately, this is one of those books that I think would appeal to the younger YA crowd who are ready to step from the Christopher Pike / John Bellairs level of scary fiction to the more adult arena of authors like
H.P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King. The best stories here provide gruesome shocks, alternating between chilling horror and pitch-black humor. This collection gives a decent introduction to obscure authors for the curious reader, although finding a copy of this book might prove equally challenging.

On a side note, I find it interesting that visceral horror fiction in the early eighties seemed like something a young reader would have to really seek out, depending on anthologies like this one to discover new gems. This is quite a contrast to the recent upsurge in mainstream popularity of vampires and zombies in current fiction geared towards a YA (and sometimes younger) audience. I would like to write about this phenomenon in more detail at a later date, although I am curious what readers of this blog might think.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Spooky Joy

After an unforeseen dry spell, I am happy to say there is fruitful reading and reviewing in my near future. One of my first reviews for Spooky Books for Strange Children was a supernatural mystery by Melissa Strangway called 56 Water Street. Recently, Ms. Strangway provided me with some great motivation to get back to reviewing scary books for younger readers. After stumbling upon my review for 56 Water Street, she contacted me through my personal blog and offered me a free copy of the next book in the Ravine and Derek series, Abigail's Mirror. After a few friendly comments back and forth she e-mailed me and I just sent her my address so she can send me the review copy. All I have to do is review the book and post it here! I must say it is quite satisfying to see people appreciate the mission of Spooky Books for Strange Children and it gives me an incredible sense of purpose to be more diligent in keeping the postings fresh. Stay tuned for some new reviews soon.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Here, Child, Finish Your Nothing

by Suzy Lee

New York : Seven Footer Kids, 2003

Mirror, by Suzy Lee, is a very simple, elegant wordless book that, if read properly, will trigger an existential crisis (or philosophical breakthrough) in readers of any age. If your child is too young for Sartre, but old enough to feel the burden of consequence and self-determination, then this is the perfect introduction to instill that lasting sense of angst, guilt and self-doubt.

Despite the austerity of the artwork, there is whimsy in its pages, but by the last page, all such feelings of merriment are dashed. The cover encapsulates this dynamic perfectly; the girl, facing away from her reflection, may have a hint of a smile on her lips, but it never quite reaches her eyes. There is a sense that she is disconnected from herself, perhaps dissatisfied with the stark world in which she has been drawn, even as she plays with her own medium. Of course, this could all be projection...

"We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are..."

One of the most interesting things about this book is the way the book itself is part of the unspoken narrative. The "mirror" is actually the crease between pages. It is no simple mirror, however, as the girl is not simple reflected in its pages. At one point, the girl mischievously moves into the crease, emerging with her reflection facing in the same direction she is. Of course, we all know what generally happens when little girls walk into mirrors.

"If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company."

In its way, the artwork in Mirror is sweet, and the girl's interactions with her own reflection are the product of playful innocence. Don't be fooled, though. In the last few pages, the girl becomes annoyed with her reflected self, and in a fit manages to push her other, knocking down the mirror (Lee's work here is brilliant, by the way) and shattering it. Spoiler alert: the last page consists of the little girl curled in on herself, and you can almost hear her sobbing into her arms. It came as a shock, I have to admit; though we review horror for children, I have rarely seen a story for kids with such an unrelentingly depressing ending. I have to say, I respect it.

So, if you're ready to crush your child's innocence, or they're already showing a predilection for German expressionism and long-sleeve black turtlenecks, this is a great book. Just know what your child may grow into:

"We are our choices."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tweaking and Sociopathy for Kids

Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear
by Ken Kesey
New York, NY: Viking, 1990.

Finding this book on the shelf at the library was an experience all its own. Take a good look at that cover. Really look at it. Imagine seeing only the top half of it. Those eyes. Those horrible, all-too-human eyes! Those are not the eyes of one of Goldilocks' three bears. Those bears do not hate like this bear hates. This is a stone cold killer, waiting for you to let down your guard. This will not end happily!

Then, after pulling the book off the shelf (the eyes compelled you to), you see the name of the author; yes, yes it is that Ken Kesey. The only person who could write a children's book this bizarre. You know, the same Ken Kesey who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and drives around in a real life "Magic School Bus":

"Navigate a nostril... spank a plankton too!"

The inside of the book is every bit as crazy and horrifying as the cover advertises. The bear on the cover is the titular Big Double, a monstrous brute who wanders through the woodland equivalent of a trailer park, eating every one of the creatures he meets, all of whom appear to be destitute and possibly addicted to drugs (at least, that is the effect of Barry Moser's illustrations). Each resident Big Double meets tries to escape him by a challenge of abilities, which the bear matches just before eating them whole. Big Double, by the by, bears a passing resemblance to another famous Ken Kesey character.

Note the Cap...

The protagonist of this story is Little Tricker the squirrel, whose primary redeeming feature is his ability to make a fool out of Big Double. Tricker only seems to have two main motivations: laziness and hunger. Until his meeting with Big Double, his only real struggle is between warring impulses to go get food to store for the winter, or to take a nap. Mostly, the nap wins. Incidentally, Tricker looks very much like he could be on meth-amphetamines, which makes him just about the most realistically depicted squirrel in all of children's literature.

As promised, the story ends awfully. In order to escape, Little Tricker lives up to his name, and tricks Big Double into leaping over the side of a wooded hill, where he then "splatters on the hillside like a thumping ripe melon". Certainly, this book is not meant to be read aloud to kids, right? Except that, like The Talking Eggs, Little Tricker is best enjoyed for its rich and highly accented language, which can only be really appreciated when it's performed.

With all that in mind, I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to read a good modern variation on the classic trope of little people fending off scary animals. The language is violent in a way that few childrens' stories are, and it takes a certain amount of judgement to decide what the appropriate age is. Take heart, however, because with that glaring cover, it's unlikely any child is going to pick this book up unless they are comfortable with Big Double's gaze in the first place. For that alone, they should be congratulated (and probably feared just a little).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scary Stories Curing Stage Fright?

Scary Readers Theatre
by Suzanne I. Barchers

Libraries Unlimited, 1994

In my days as a children’s librarian and as mentor to early readers I started to come across articles and happen into conversations about Reader’s Theatre. While I’ve heard of the concept before as another mode for actors to express themselves, blocking and performing with scripts instead of memorizing lines, I hadn’t known much about it as a device for education. Looking through listservs I started to see more and more use of reader’s theatre as a way for children to practice reading aloud in a nonthreatening, fun way. Not only that, the concept helps foster reading comprehension, as oftentimes children are given the freedom to take an existing story and adapt it to suit their interpretation or interests. Exercises such as this can help develop strong narrative skills. I think this type of set up can do wonders for the reluctant reader, those wishing to enhance their writing skills (through adapting a story), as well as the shy public speaker. Without the threat of forgetting lines, with encouragement from teachers and librarians, and with plenty of opportunities to practice, get creative, and to explore, I think Reader's Theatre is a positive way to promote literacy among youth.

This being a scary books blog I just had to find out if there were books out there, with an odd or spooky twist, that followed the principles of reader’s theatre. I was looking to see if there was a book that was suitable for school age children and one that gave them opportunities for freedom of expression through writing, creating/adapting scripts, dramatic expression, etc. I couldn’t find anything at my local library but through my university library I found an electronic resource for Scary Readers Theatre by Suzanne I. Barchers. I was stoked to find a scary book that was specifically designed for a reader’s theatre project. This book provided scripted adaptations of 30 popular scary stories, myths, multinational folktales, and urban legends. Due to the methodical nature of the scripts, sometimes the stories seemed a bit dry and unappealing. Hopefully, in such instances, this is where a child could unleash their creativity to save the story by employing an interesting vocal tactic or modifying the flow of the text. This book employed a rating system of scary, scarier, and scariest and it seemed to have a good mix of stories on all levels for elementary and middle school age children. I think this book was a good first find for a reader’s theater piece, especially since it takes away the pressure of script adaptation. In that sense, the work is already done for you. This book is a great start, but I hope there is more out there. If not, we need to make some! These types of books are great to help encourage literacy, with a spooky bent, in schools, libraries, and after-school programs.