You don’t mess with a classic!

changed art

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Alvin Schwartz, Brett Helquist (Illustrator)
HarperCollins, 2010 (first published 1981)

scary stories1I’m not giving any stars here, only a warning: beware which edition of this collection you choose, for if you choose unwisely, you will be sorely ripped off in more ways than one.

I chose unwisely. My edition is the 2010 “updated” version published by HarperCollins with new illustrations by Brett Helquist. To say that it’s been sanitized for safe consumption is an understatement. The reason the original 1981 edition became an instant classic and a frequently challenged book in schools and libraries was for Stephen Gammell’s ghoulish and nightmarish artwork.

Stephen_Gammell_by_tomwatkins

I cry foul and bullshit. You don’t mess with perfection and genius. Without Gammell’s drawings, this collection loses its bloody, beating heart and is barely worth the paper it’s printed on. Who thought this was a good idea? I’m incensed, especially for all the kids who might pick up this book expecting to have the bejeebers scared out of them and wind up merely bored or slightly amused. Unforgivable!

I was going to rant here about our ill-conceived, often hypocritical efforts to “protect” our children and censor their reading materials, but I’ll save that for another day. Perhaps for when I write a real review for the real version of this book, the only one that counts, the only one that should be bought and gifted to any young person seeking his or her gateway drug into the realm of the macabre.

Quick kisses in the dark

Night Shift ★★★★★
Stephen King
Doubleday, 1978

Signet paperback, 1979

Signet paperback, 1979

In his introduction to Skeleton Crew, Stephen King writes: “a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair” whereas the short story “is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” My literary proclivities definitely lean towards those long affairs. I don’t read a lot of short stories nor am I a fan of the format (though I’m improving). At least give me a novella!

Stephen King is one of only a handful of authors who can make me a believer in the beauty and effectiveness of the short story. For a man who has been lambasted for his “bloated” novels – King himself has referred to his condition as “literary elephantiasis” – he can still write a short story like nobody’s business. Stories that will stop your heart, chill your blood, and see the world in a new way.

King has written hundreds of short stories over his lifetime but for me none can quite compare to the ones collected here in Night Shift. The majority of these stories first appeared in the men’s magazine Cavalier, written before Carrie’s publication in 1974 and the gargantuan financial windfall that followed. King has talked quite a bit about what life was like before that watershed moment:

There were some hard, dark years before Carrie. We had two kids and no money. We rotated the bills, paying on different ones each month. I kept our car, an old Buick, going with duct tape and bailing wire….

The boy who would be King.

The boy who would be King

There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me these stories burn bright and hot as if King wrote them in a fever. I can picture him now pounding them out on his wife’s Olivetti portable typewriter between the washer and dryer of their cramped trailer’s tiny laundry room. The modest sale of these early stories was often a reprieve from the poverty bearing down on the young King family, cash-strapped with two small children. That was motivation enough, but it wasn’t the only motivator. King wrote because he had to, the stories lived inside of him screaming to be born.

There’s another reason why I love the stories in this collection – they represent King’s early fascination / obsession / dedication to fear, to what haunts, creeps and crawls. King knows what scares us, because it scares him too. He gets it, it’s not a put on and these stories are as authentic as fear gets. In the introduction he writes:

The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never grab my ankle.

No waking or dreaming…but only the voice of the writer….He’s telling you that you want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right – you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more; he wants you to put your hands on the shape under the sheet. And you want to put your hands there. Yes.

I think Poe and Lovecraft would agree.

For me, this collection contains some of the best examples of the modern horror story. King has tapped an artesian well of contemporary fears and anxieties penning macabre, ghoulish tales that deserve to be called classics. Not to be missed: “Children of the Corn”, “The Boogeyman”, “The Mangler”, “Strawberry Spring”, and “Quitter’s Inc.” My deepest thanks to King who was the first to convince me that sometimes even I, can be seduced by that quick kiss in the dark from a stranger. Oh yes.

Short stories to make you shudder with delight

At The Mouth Of The River Of BeesAt the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories
★★★★★

Kij Johnson
Small Beer Press, 2012

The very short and dirty review for this collection could be — when it is good it is very, very good. But when it is bad it is horrid.

I did not love all these stories equally. In fact, several verged on epic fail for me. Which is not hard to do. I am probably the worst reader of short stories. However, those that did work sent me into such shuddering, paroxysms of delight there are no words to express my infinite admiration. My favorites worked so exquisitely on a sub-atomic, cellular level that I immediately wanted to catch a red eye to Vegas and marry them no questions asked, no pre-nup, with Elvis Presley looking on curling his lip in approval. Thank you, thank you very much. My five stars is the only way I can think of to reflect that boundless joy. Is it for every story? Absolutely not. But I have no problem letting those five stars stand.

My first introduction to Kij Johnson was in June 2011 when I read her short story Ponies. It tickled something very profound in my imagination and gave a real goose to my pleasure center (at least the part of my brain that perpetually craves dark and disturbed). Funny thing is, I picked up this collection based solely on the cover and title. I didn’t even notice that the author is the very same author who had impressed me with her little diddy about prepubescent girls and their pet ponies. When I finally put the two together in an “a-ha, duh” moment, saying I was pleased would be quite an understatement.

Kij Johnson is a bit of a mad scientist in her approach to storytelling. There is folklore, magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, fable, myth and legend. That sounds messy and confusing, and it should be. It should be a disastrous, alchemical experiment that blows the whole meth lab sky high. But somehow she makes it work, each story its own landscape playing by its own rules. She blends things in ways that made me think of how van Gogh saw sunflowers and starry nights. Even where I floundered, and did not appreciate the final destination, her prose ran like silk across the neurons of my brain, stroking them into a blissed out reader high.

Kij Johnson is on my radar. I will most definitely be keeping my eye out for more of her strange and wonderful words.

My two favorite stories of the collection are available online for free:

Ponies: If you haven’t already, read this weird and deranged tale about youthful female rites of passage and the more brutal realities of fitting in. This is a macabre spin on the innocence lost theme delivered with cutting precision that slices deep.

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss: This one made me laugh with its whimsy and weep with its melancholy. I don’t even know how to describe everything it made me feel actually. Aimee becomes the proprietor of 26 monkeys and a series of circus acts. Her biggest trick is that she makes all the monkeys vanish onstage. Where do the monkeys go? She does not know. All Aimee knows is that they return to her a few hours later bearing little trinkets from wherever they have been. The ending? Perfection in eight little words.

Honorable mentions must go to:

Names for Water – a phone call from unknown origin that whispers like water. I don’t know if everyone will love the resolution here, but it gave me goosebumps.

Fox Magic – an Asian-themed fable about love’s blindness. A fox falls in love with a man and lures him away from his human life.

Dia Chjerman’s Tale – short, almost purely science fiction tale with apocalyptic overtones. There is a vibe of dread here that I really grooved on.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees – I’m usually not one for magical realism (sometimes I’m not even sure if I’m applying the term correctly), but there’s a real dreamy quality to this one that almost hypnotized me. A woman follows a literal river of bees to its mouth. What will be waiting for her when she finally gets there? I’m thinking pet owners (and dog lovers) will find this one especially poignant.

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

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