THIS JUSTIN: The Horror Of Childhood Literature

Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. 

Childhood is a period fraught with fear. People tend to fear what they don’t understand, and children, not understanding as much as adults, tend to be afraid of more things. Usually, art that is produced for children tends not to be as dark or frightening as movies and books and shows for adults. And on the rare occasion that it’s supposed to be “scary”, more often than not it’s just mildly spooky. But…there are times when children’s movies and books and TV shows hit a note of horror that is unique to that work and unlike anything else out there. In this series, I’ll explore some of the works of art that affected me as a child in the realm of horror.

My love of horror literature began at an early age. Even before working my way up to Stephen King and some of the other heavyweights of the genre, I was reading books that were the kids versions of that. Goosebumps was a series I couldn’t get enough of, and there was a series called The Nightmare Club I was equally fond of. I read the illustrated version of War Of The Worlds in elementary school and was shook by how different it was from the first film adaption. The Martians weren’t just there to take over the world and use it for their own devices, they were also using us as a food source. There’s one scene where the narrator witnesses Martians draining a man of blood and then injecting themselves with it, something that was somehow far worse than even annihilation by heat ray or black smoke. The thought of people being harvested for blood by Martians who strode about the countryside in great three-legged war machines stuck with me for years, and when Tom Cruise’s character witnessed this happening in the Spielberg adaption I felt that same primitive chill.

There are three books I’m going to talk about in this column. Well…one book and parts from two other books specifically. I’m sure there were other pieces of literature that affected me as a child in a spooky way; unfortunately, most of them are lost in the strange and melancholy fog we view our childhoods through at my age. So, for now we’ll just settle on these three.

No conversation with a thirty-seven-year-old in 2020 about stuff that scared them as a kid would be complete without touching upon Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. I’m far from the first to talk about the baffling phenomenon of a children’s book being packed to the gills with some of the most grotesque and nightmarish imagery that I, an adult who actively seeks out the grotesque and nightmarish as a pastime, have seen in my entire life.

There were three books to the series, each written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. They were re-issued a few years back with all new illustrations and reading them without Gammell’s windows into the dissident nightmare hell ride that must be playing behind his eyes at all times, the stories are not all that frightening for the most part. Sure, most of them have an air of menace to them, but a lot of them are kind of funny and even a bit whimsical at times. The ghosts and monsters in the stories are often more mischievous than anything else, and sometimes even rather friendly. It’s Gammell’s illustrations that were the kind of imagery that made children wake shrieking bloody murder at the three in the morning convinced that Harold the animated and malevolent scarecrow was going to fucking skin them.

Or were they afraid of the voice that told them it was at the bottom of the stairs, then just outside their door, then inside their room, then next to their bed. Maybe it was both and if it was both it was because the illustrations accompanying this looked like something a device from a Vonnegut story that could record your nightmares would spit out. There was a true sense of malice to these illustrations, like they were a glimpse into a universe that made zero sense and was just a ceaseless fever dream wall-too-wall.

Gammell took Schwartz’s text and adhered to it just enough to have it be considered supplementary to the story and then ran wild with it. When I was nine or ten, I’d sleep over at my friends Nick and Eric’s, two brothers whose mother (my Aunt Lou, who I’m fairly certain I’ve written about before) was a good friend of my own. Nick, the older of the two, had copies of all three books. I remember being almost unreasonably afraid to look at them but also not being able to help myself. I say this literally: I knew I was going to see something that was going to keep me up that night, and yet I desperately had to see it. I would page through these books feeling a dreadful sense of awe at what I was seeing, wondering not only if adults knew what was in these books but also if I was the odd man out for being so scared of them.

One of these stories in the third volume, a rather boring tale named “No Thanks”, had an accompanying illustration that to this day I can barely stand to look at. The story itself is just sort of weird, something that as an adult I find kind of unsettling but as a kid I thought was dumb: a stock boy leaving work one night is approached by a strange looking man who offers to sell him a knife. Again: as an adult, that’s kind of weird and I’d be freaked out if that happened to me. But as a kid I was like “that’s it? Just walk away dude haven’t you heard don’t talk to strangers?” But the illustration…oh lordy. Imagine Supreme Leader Snoke from The Last Jedi crossed with the Ronald Reagan puppet from the video for Genesis’ “Land Of Confusion” and then make it even creepier. That’s…kind of what it looks like. It’s a goddamn nightmare committed to paper. It’s so strange to look at it. When it was announced that there would be a live action film adaption of Scary Stories… I honestly panicked a little because I didn’t want to see that picture made into a moving story. I would’ve walked out of the theatre pissing myself.

Less existentially frightening but with an equal impact was the work of children’s author Bruce Coville. Coville was mostly known for goofy fare with titles like Aliens Ate My Homework and I Left My Sneakers In Dimension X. To be fair, his My Teacher Is An Alien series, in which a group of middle schoolers discover that several of the their new teachers are actually aliens on a covert mission to Earth, is way better and more philosophical than a children’s book with that title has any right to be. Instead of some beat to death “they’re here to take over the world” BS, Coville’s aliens in that series are actually on a mission to ascertain whether or not Earth should be destroyed, isolated and quarantined, or simply left alone. They are, in other words, far more afraid of us than we are of them. The entry from Coville’s bibliography that hit hardest was a book called Bruce Coville’s Book Of Monsters, a collection of short stories that I think he just edited overall. One of the stories, simply entitled “My Little Brother Is A Monster”, creeped me out with the imagery of a kid my age hearing his weird baby brother talking to someone in the next room. Upon investigating, he finds a horrifying green monster in the closet and is rescued by a gruff but friendly troll/wizard/goblin creature who is there to take his brother back home to the monster place or whatever.

There was one story, however, that scared me far more than any of the other ones in that collection. It was a story called “Kokolimalayas, the Bone Man” and it was a story from Pacific Northwest indigenous folklore. In it, a young boy is raised by his grandmother because everyone else in their tribe has been devoured by the monstrous Kokolimalayas, a giant skeleton creature who showed up the day Nulwee (the young boy) was born. Also, it drank the river that his people depended on for sustenance and Nulwee must face it in combat. Now, I don’t think I have to explain why this would scare the shit out of a ten-year-old. Unlike the rest of the stories in this book, there was something genuinely frightening about the idea of a gigantic skeleton devouring your family and then declaring that one day it would return to fight you. Maybe it’s some kind of strange primordial animal reaction in my lizard brain that’s prey reacting to predator. A few years ago, when the trailer for the live-action version of Attack On Titan dropped, the first thing I thought of was Kokolimalayas. The idea of grotesque giants eating people alive has always creeped me out hard and that story was the start of it.

Aside from horror and films in general, books on the paranormal probably make up the largest part of my personal library. Some would say I have too many books on cryptids, UFOS, high strangeness, Sasquatch, and all sorts of dumb bullshit that keeps me awake at night. While I don’t really buy into much of it anymore and it’s mostly a weird hobby of mine, it’s a hobby that’s stretched back to my early childhood. In the library of Cheston Elementary School, if you walked in, walked to the center aisle and took a right, then walked all the way down to the other end of the library and took another right, in the bottom left corner of the last shelf was a small collection of books on Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Mothman, etc. I read all of them at least once.

My teachers hated it, and my parents probably did too, but whatever. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. One of the books that I read and re-read and decades later actually tracked down on eBay was a book called America’s Very Own Monsters by Daniel Cohen. It was a thin volume, something you could read in five minutes or so, and it was essentially a breakdown of the classic cryptids of America (aside from an unforgiveable snub to the Dover Demon, that is). You had your heavyweights like Bigfoot and Champ, you had your lesser known, but still spooky, White River Monster, and you had your…peculiar addition of the Demon Cat of Washington D.C.? It wasn’t anything remotely approaching all encompassing, nor was it a deep dive into the subject. It was the perfect primer on the matter. What made the book stand out to me was, once again, the illustrations.

While Tom Huffman’s illustrations in Cohen’s book weren’t anywhere near as ghastly and otherworld as Stephen Gammell’s work in the Scary Stories books, they still possessed an eerie quality that affected a younger me. They were simple black and white pencil drawings, somewhat smudged with charcoal to add a dreamy texture. They weren’t super detailed but that made them all the more striking.

Bigfoot was portrayed wandering about on a moonlit field before being shown close up with their face right in front of the readers.

The aforementioned White River Monster was shown leering at the reader from its home in the river. The Demon Cat of D.C. was stalking an unlucky security guard under the Capitol building. The creepiest drawings were of Mothman and Champ.

Mothman was drawn as a Nosferatu-esque figure peering into a window and seen largely in silhouette, eyes aglow and mouth agape. It didn’t take a huge leap in the logic of a child to make that window my window. The other drawing, that of Lake Champlain’s most famous resident Champ, was frightening in how they chose to depict Champ. Making Mothman something like Max Schreck in Nosferatu isn’t really a drastic departure aesthetically speaking; Mothman could be seen as a man wearing a cape. What else wears a cape? Dracula! Who’s a creepier version of Dracula? Nosferatu. Boom.

But the drawing of Champ went way out into left field. Sightings of Champ usually depict it as serpentine and reptilian. A sea serpent, in other words. The illustration of it in the Cohen book, however, made it something like a mix of an insect and a snake. The body was definitely snake-like, but the face was something else. Its eyes bugged out like a grasshopper while the mouth was a vaguely beakish affair that was still decked out with snake-like fangs. I used to think about what I would do if I was swimming in a lake or river or even a large pool and that thing popped up in front of me.

The literature of childhood is supposed to be fun and educational, and sometimes thrilling. “Scary” children’s literature is often folk tales trimmed down to make them relatable, or some variation of classic spookers. However, there are examples of art that crept in under the radar to affect me. These were a few and I’m almost positive I’ll think of more after I’m done writing this. If you have kids of your own, younger relatives, or if you yourself are curious about these books, I implore you to check them out. The Scary Stories series was recently republished in one complete volume but with different artwork and I can tell you firsthand it’s nowhere near as unsettling as Stephen Gammell’s work. So, if you read them as a child and are wondering if they’re still creepy, go track down a copy of the books with the original artwork. And then give that copy to your kid, because what better time to learn the wonders of horror?

Justin Lore
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