An “Adult” Re-reads Scary Story to Tell in the Dark

I consider myself an “adult.” I’m a college student. I have a job. I can and do pay for things like ramen and toweling paper, boring adult stuff I’d never have to think about buying for myself before. Still, there are things I and probably the rest of the world believe keep me from reaching that status of full adulthood. I freak out when I have to figure out insurance and tax forms. I have no clearly defined path of what I want to do with my life after graduation. Most importantly of all, though, I was, until recently, still completely terrified of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a book I hadn’t allowed myself to read since grade school.

This classic book with terrifying illustrations has terrified many a child, and unsettled enough parents to cause controversy over its content. With much of its original audience now grown, though, there’s a lot of fond nostalgia for this old book and its terrors. I was not one of those people contributing to the fond memories train of nostalgia on this one, or, I guess I wasn’t until I decided to write this article. Dang it.

In order to take a bit less emphasis on the sarcastic air quotes around my official “adult” title, I decided to celebrate Halloween by digging this book out of a library somewhere and seeing if it still scares my pants off.

Seriously, What the heck clown head? What are you doing here?! You aren't in the book. I checked. Go away!

Seriously, What the heck clown head? What are you doing here?! You aren’t in the book. I checked. Go away!

So, one late night, (or maybe it was the middle of the day and I had all the lights on and blinds wide open, and my pepper spray ready on my desk as I read. I’ll never tell.) I took out an old yellowed library copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and read it through, cover to creepy clown-head cover.

The first section was a success or a disappointment, depending on how you look at it. I wasn’t terrified, so that’s a win, I suppose for “adult” me. I realized how many of these stories were meant to be shared and read aloud. Many of these scares relied on a cue telling the reader “[Now grab the person next to you and scream.] AUUUUGGHHH!” I liked how the book spelled out the approximate sound the kids should be making when they scream, like they weren’t sure a kid could remember it without prompting.

It seemed this first section of stories was meant to be shared aloud for full effect. I considered finding someone to help me out and read them with me, but that might mean the scary stories would actually start scaring, so I was like, “Nah, I’m good huddled safely in my room, all by myself.” Again, I was not scared, so I still called this a win.

The next couple of stories didn’t rely on screamed jump scares, so I felt reading them might go better, or worse, again, however you want to look at it. That’s when I came across it, the story, the one my pure evil fifth grade teacher read aloud for Halloween one day and led me to swear never again to let anyone touch that book in my presence. It’s called “May I Carry Your Basket?” and for a one page tale with a simple, only slightly eerie picture of a basket next to it, this story packed a punch for younger me.

The story goes that a boy sees a woman walking down the road,so heavily bundled up he can’t even see her face. She’s carrying a basket, and the boy, like a polite little child, asks if he could carry the basket for this feeble old lady. Well, turns out her severed head is in the basket, and it bites him. The boy screams and runs away, but the lady and her severed head chase after him, trying to attack him again. The story ends with “the head leaped into the air again and bit into his other leg. Then they were gone.” Wow. Okay.

What I think scared me most about this when I was younger was the last sentence and what I took as its ambiguity. Who was the “they” that were gone? Was it just the old woman and her severed head? That’d be good, I guess. The kid would have some un-dead bite wounds that he’d need to get a tetanus shot for or whatever but he’d probably pull through.  Or, could it be that the “they” included the boy himself? Did he vanish back into the hell-scape with the evil headless lady once she got her teeth sunk in him? Younger me definitely preoccupied herself with that latter image. I don’t even know if the vagueness was on purpose, but that ending, combined with the generally terrifying images of a severed head chasing and biting some poor kid made “May I Carry Your Basket” stick unpleasantly in my brain for the longest time.

Reading the story now was a pleasant relief. It decidedly did not terrify me as it used to. Part of it was, I remembered what to expect going in. Also, I’ve read creepy pastas and been to other arm-pit regions of the internet much scarier that story since fifth grade. “Adult” me has seen enough stuff that I didn’t wet myself at this returning ghost of a story. At the same time, I definitely recognized that it was a pretty messed up, terrifying tale nonetheless, and so validated my fear on a way. Yes lil’ Maddie, severed heads attacking you are for real scary. You had every right to freak out.You weren’t being a “whimp” or “chicken” as some of your less kind peers may have indicated. This catharsis allowed me to enjoy reading the rest of the book. I may even look for some of the sequels now, to get in the Halloween spirit.

Well, I’ve taken one more step from “adult” to just plain adult now. Maybe I’ll even polish up my resume and head to the Career Development department for advice in pursuing my future.

Nah.

Somethings are just too plain scary, even for Halloween.

Twilight, Life and Death: An Encounter With My Ex

So I had an encounter the other day, an encounter I can only describe as running into an ex. I quite literally bumped into one of those cardboard displays of books at the store and turned around to find a new Twilight book.

Whaaaaaa???? Went my internal narration at that precise moment. Sure, we hadn’t spoken in years, but I thought for sure Twilight would have told me some how that there was a new book out.  Why hadn’t they called?

I was frozen, wanting to pick it up and look at this new book but at the same time reluctant to do so. Books aren’t all that observant, So picking up and reading the inside flap would be the equivalent of going up to and greeting an old ex who, up to that point, hadn’t seen me. I caved in though, and picked up this new book called Life and Death.

Turns out, my ex had a sex change. Life and Death is a re-imagining of the first Twilight book, but instead of Bella the lovesick human and Edward the mysterious vampire we have Beaufort the desperate lover and Edythe the aloof supernatural creature. This was no fanfic from Tumblr gone public either, Stephenie Meyer herself wrote this and released it to commemorate Twilight’s tenth anniversary.

This idea intrigued me. Maybe Meyer was looking to address the many accusations of Twilight being sexist and creating bad role models for women. Maybe she was using this chance to go back and improve a work she wrote ten years ago. Maybe she wanted to explore connotations of gender identity in romance. Or, maybe she simply hit “find and replace” on the ol’ Microsoft Word and switched out the names and genders of most of the characters to have something that could capitalize on any Twilight anniversary buzz. I don’t know. I did not read the book beyond a quick glance at the cover and inside flap. In the end, it was just too awkward for me.

Who can blame me, really? You can want to be the bigger person and ask an ex out to coffee just to catch up, answer any itching questions you each might have about the other’s life, (especially if you’ve discovered they had a sex change,) but dammit that is easier said than done, even with an ex who is technically an inanimate object.

Maybe I handled the break up more roughly than I originally thought. I recall feeling that general tiredness with the series towards the end. The story seemed a bit juvenile, and so did my former love for it. It’s a familiar sensation for someone who grows up reading a lot of books, but then there was the fact that I had, for a while, bought into the whole Twi-hard culture, and that made everything worse.

Things didn’t start out bad. Long before the movies came out, before the series was even finished, Someone gave me a copy of Twilight and I ate it up in a matter of days. I was into supernatural YA fiction, and adding vampires and werewolves to a story was an excellent way to get me to care about a teenage romance.

The books had a smaller but passionate following back in those days. I liked that intimacy. I ate up any scrap of info I could waiting for the release of the final book, Breaking Dawn, and went to its midnight release party. It was a whirlwind romance.

I guess things really started going south once the movies became a thing. More and more fans started popping up. Some of my friends converted. It was swell. Then, though, with that increased number of vocal fans, I felt things start to change, and not for the better.

When I first got wind of the Team Edward and Team Jacob stuff, I didn’t get it. Blindly siding with one romantic interest over the other seemed like a stupid simplification of the work. Reading while on someone’s team meant your man was always a shining beacon of sexy righteousness and the other was just plain evil/dumb/a total doo-doo head etc. In reality, both Edward and Jacob could be idiots sometimes, one could be right and the other wrong, or both right but for different reasons. No, Twilight was never a literary tour de force, but I felt it was a more complex exploration of adolescent love and sexual desire, but with vampires, than a bunch of very rabid fans wanted to make it.

Instead of turning away from this though, I let the excitement of the relationship blind and went fully into it. I did some things I wasn’t proud of. I made my dad read the books. I kept nagging my friends who hadn’t read it yet to “join up” with us already. I once tried to claw my cousin’s eye out because he wouldn’t stop calling me “Team Jacob,” and laughing. If I even knew what my bank account number was at that time, I would’ve given mine to Twilight and moved into its compound in the forest, to hunt for proof of werewolves and vampires that wanted to make love to me.

After a couple years, I started to get more and more uncomfortable with how unapologetic Twilight was for being so extreme with its fandom, how I found it so easy to just follow along blindly for so long. I grew tired of werewolf vampire debates, felt the story, (now complete, but with movies still coming out,) start to bore me. Rereading the books, the story seemed hollow, even silly. I left Twilight, bitter and disillusioned, wanting nothing more than to blend into the crowds dissing the book and pretend we’d never even met.

I’ve grown now, and I thought I’d gotten a bit better at dealing with past (book) relationships. I admit to others that I used to be into Twilight, but now I kind of think its silly. I thought I was maybe mature enough to make eye contact with Twilight in a bookstore without blushing, without feeling my heart break again. Life and Death proved, though, that I still feel kind of weird about my Twilight relationship, and we’re still not ready to just hang out over coffee yet. Sorry, you won’t be getting a review of this one from me, not now. Happy anniversary Twilight. Maybe you could use your magic vampire powers to help my cousin grow his eye back. I still feel bad about that one. Don’t pretend you don’t owe me!

Should You Read the Cormoran Strike Books?

Coming out on the 20th, Tuesday of next week,  is a lovely little book called Career of Evil, the third what you can probably officially call a series, or maybe a trilogy of books called the Cormoran Strike books, written by Robert Galbraith. If you are thinking that name sounds familiar, you might be remembering the sensation created when it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a pen name for none other than J.K. Rowling. Her one book she’d written at the time as Robert Galbraith, Cuckoo’s Calling, got massively popular and they released additional books with this positive feed back, first Silkworm and now Career of Evil.

With this next book coming out this week, you may start to wonder, should I read this series? I know I will continue to read it come Tuesday, and I hope I can get a few more people to enjoy the series too, by telling people what to expect.

First, it’s not Harry Potter. You’d think such a statement would be fairly obvious, with these books clearly stating they follow a war vet Private Eye living in London and solving seriously violent crimes, about the furthest thing from a bunch of children/teenagers going to wizarding school, but this will always bear repeating. When a writer creates such an insanely popular work, their work afterword will be compared and linked to that famous work, for better or for worse. Part of the reason I think her first non-Harry Potter book, Casual Vacancy was not received better, was that people couldn’t help but grumble “This is not Harry Potter. There are absolutely no hippogriffs. Harumph.” under their breath. Basically, all her work after Harry Potter risks becoming a of literary step-dad, of sorts, resented for appearing to try and fill in a role we readers don’t want it too. Harry Potter’s my real dad!

By that train of logic, the Cormoran Strike novels may have been greeted with such fanfare after J.K. Rowling was revealed as the author because it was really trying not to act like it was our Harry Potter step dad. When everyone found out, it was like coming downstairs one morning and finding a really bad ass detective with an artificial leg was having coffee in our kitchen. Shocking, and he definitely wasn’t Harry Potter but hey, he never said he was. He’s pretty cool too.

Read the Cormoran Strike novels if you like a good detective story with compelling characters and great suspense.  J.K. Rowling is extremely talented at writing well rounded characters and having complex dynamics between them. The relationship between Cormoran, the detective and his assistant Robin is very compelling, especially because they don’t speed full throttle towards a cliched steamy romance. They act like real people. In this next book, they’ll act like real people that get sent a severed leg in the mail by an anonymous enemy. Truly, its the sort of relationship spice you can only get from a detective story.

That said, the only caveat I would have for potential readers is that this is the type of series where people get sent severed legs in the mail, and other kind of graphic crimes and violent acts are committed. Don’t read these books if that’s not your bag. We’re talking True Detective level crimes here but with much less heinous sex acts, mostly just normal sex that makes people get all angry and motivated for murder, and/or targeted for murders, or at least tailed by Cormoran Strike on behalf of jealous spouses.

Detective stories are a dime a dozen. Really good detective stories are quite a bit rarer, so I for one am glad that the work of “Robert Galbraith” was allowed to flourish as much as it has without being utterly smothered by the Harry Potter brand related expectations. As much as it has the J.K. Rowling fame to thank for the popularity books, the series wouldn’t be so nearly well received if it didn’t have something special to give readers on its own. In this case, you get compelling characters ratcheting up edgy suspense and genuinely exciting mysteries.

Is Dracula Still Scary?

It’s October and ton of us are looking for something spooky to read. Maybe you can’t think of many modern horror books you’re interested in, or maybe you’ve read them all already. Chances are, you’ll start to think about reading a classic horror story like, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This nineteenth century classic is probably one of the most definitive works in the vampire district of horror. You might be reasonably confident that you can immerse yourself in a period world with period language from gathering up other classic literature, but can this book really scare you?

A poster for an old theater production of Dracula. He's bee around awhile.

A poster for an old theater production of Dracula. He’s been around awhile.

“Of course not! You might think.” This book was written when people were terrified of homosexuals and women’s ankles. I have nothing to fear from this book.” You might say that, but you would be very, very wrong. Stupid, even. I myself would never be stupid enough to think that exact same thought while opening up an old horror classic like, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Nope, never happened. Not to me. This is a hypothetical you we are talking about here. I may have a tradition of reading a highly regarded horror novel every October, but that’s just a coincident. I may have read Dracula way back when I was a naive teenager who often doubted the power of acclaimed classics, but this never ever happened to me.

Anyway, like I was saying, you pop open Dracula and start reading. You become fascinated by the novel’s form. It’s what your English teacher called an Epistolary novel, pierced together from journal entries, letters and medical notes of each main character. They even note how one of the main characters is compiling all these documents to record this strange story as it happens. It’s probably the closest thing to the whole “found footage” genre of horror films this pre-film era could create. Maybe it adds an element of extra intrigue and suspense that you hadn’t anticipated from such an old book.

There’s even horror stereotypes you recognize. There’s the dashing lead and his girlfriend, (Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray-eventually-Harker) the slutty best friend (Lucy, who had the audacity to let herself be courted by three men at once and present some form of romantic and even sexual agency, the nerve!)  a doctor nerd who will bring a scientific aspect to things (Dr. Seward, who works at a mental asylum and loves “slutty” Lucy) the dashing rich guy (Arthur Holmwood, who loves his fancy title and “slutty” Lucy) and the brash type who would be a jock if the cast is in high school or otherwise just a real tough adult, often with weapons experience, (Quincy Morris, the Texan who loves hunting and “slutty” Lucy) and of course the one smart older mentor type who actually knows what’s going on and is the group’s only chance at survival (Van Helsing, who loves vampire slaying and is indifferent towards “slutty” Lucy).

Really, despite the centuries old language and atmosphere, you find yourself connecting with the story in odd ways anyhow. Maybe this vampire guy might even end up being kind of… spooky.

Well sure enough you find out that classics become classics for a reason, and that this dusty old vampire may even have some bite in him left, without help from his various modern and cooler movie incarnations. Maybe there was a reason he had so many movie incarnations in the first place. Maybe, while you are reading this book and also for quite a while afterward, you refuse to go into dark areas first without checking for glowing red eyes. Maybe you start to get a couple nightmares about crazy people and rats. Maybe you start to jump any time you hear a noise while reading this book. Maybe you pick up and throw the nearest object into any darkened corner with lumpy shadows in it. I don’t know. This is, again, all a hypothetical story all about a hypothetical you. Nothing remotely similar ever happened to me. It did not, I say!

After reading Dracula, you’ll probably have a greater respect for classic works of horror. Sure, it may be set in an era that demonizes visible lady ankles, but ultimately it is a classic. Classics become immortalized when they latch onto some deep, inherent part of the human psyche and illuminate it.That’s how people can still get romanced by Darcy or, yes, terrified by Count Dracula years and years after those characters were written. I should know, believe me.

Top 5 Most Dangerous Banned and Challenged books

Well, I hope everyone has survived this week okay. What, you’re not trembling with fear in your safety bunkers? You fools! This is banned book week! People are celebrating some of of the most heinous and reprehensible pieces of literature the world over! You should be terrified. Here, I’ll try to scare some sense into you by describing some of these abominations in print and why they were banned, in the US or abroad.

1.Green Eggs and Ham By Dr. Seuss.

That’s right, you heard me. You probably read this when you in grade school. Maybe you were even foolish enough to read it to your own children! For shame reader, for shame. The People’s Republic of China were smart enough to see through what was clearly a critique of “early Marxism.” Now ,I don’t recall reading this book in any of my college courses analyzing communist literature, so I’m just going to have to trust China on their analysis. Starting a faulty dialogue on Marxism with the  2-7 year old children of our nation is one of the most serious offenses a book can commit, but apparently not so serious that China couldn’t repeal the ban after Seuss’s death.

2.Alice in Wonderland By Lewis Carroll

China comes to the rescue again, this time attempting to save the world from the danger that is this 19th century children’s classic. Apparently, showing animals that can talk and reason puts them on the same level as humans, a grievous sin. No telling what level being able to disappear and smoke hookah puts some of these animals on.

Americans also got notably disturbed by what they felt were harmful references to drugs in the book, though this was in the sixties, so I feel they may have been unfairly influenced by the Disney adaptation of the book, which I once watched and afterward concluded that every single cartoonist was extremely high on LSD and ‘shrooms throughout the entire production.

3. Lord of The Rings By J.R.R. Tolkien

The books and movies of this famous series have garnered criticism for encouraging paganist beliefs like witchcraft. Never mind the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, or that he and many other literary critics point out strong Christian themes and references in his work. Magic wizard man made fire with his stick. Demons I say, demons!

Again, we also have people smoking plants from a pipe and talking to trees, so there’s also probably unholy references to drugs and/or environmentalism. I can hardly tell which is worse.

4. The Dictionary

Several schools have sought to ban dictionaries from their library shelves, seeking to protect children and other fragile minds from the explicit definition of various terms. One recent incident involves a Southern California school banning the 10th edition of the Merriam Webster Dictionary for its definition of oral sex. School’s can’t just give children the power to learn the meaning of words. We should stick to the tradition of children hearing insults or comments they don’t understand and quietly carrying the shame and fear of that ignorance until a friend incorrectly explains it and they grow up thinking sex is when a baby comes out of a woman’s butt hole and then the man and woman burn in hell forever. It’s what God would have wanted.

5. Where’s Waldo? By Martin Handford (released in England as Where’s Wally?)

Some simple minded fools might find it strange that a book with next to no words, besides instructions to find the famous Waldo in each of the book’s expansive illustrations, could be banned. Well, if you spend long enough going cross-eyed at the tiny little people on each page, sources say you can see inappropriate images hidden in the crowds. One of the most famous incidents involves an image of a topless woman lying on her stomach and sunbathing on the beach, a common enough scene in the real world that Hartford should be ashamed for illustrating. Let me tell you, you haven’t read thrilling literary critiques until you’ve read upwards of seven articles debating whether a centimeter sized woman has visibly erect nipples, or a tasteful side-boob with one of the many grain of sand dots only making it look like she has nipples to the untrained eye. Thrilling stuff.

Okay, I’ve done my best to warn you of five of the most dangerous books you might come across on this dangerous week. Luckily, it’s almost over and you won’t have to worry about wearing a thick enough blindfold when walking through a library or bookstore anymore. I only hope that my descriptions here were not too vivid that they destroyed your delicate sensibilities, dear reader. I only have your personal safety and moral sanctity in mind.