Sunday, October 16, 2016

Halloween Book Reviews: Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs

I didn’t realize until recently, but a lot of my childhood was defined by scary stories. Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark, Tales From the Crypt (the edited version that aired on basic cable, anyway), TNT’s Monstervision (I can’t be the only one who remembers that, right?), Puppet Master and other Full Moon movies.  And of course that classic of “illustrations that scare-the-absolute-crap-out-of-kids”: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

My own son is already starting to follow in my footsteps. He’s only four, but he loves graveyards, skeletons and ghosts (though I’m not entirely sure he knows that they’re the souls of the deceased trapped in the mortal plane, doomed to a purgatory of undeath until they can gain restitution for the wrongs done to them. I, er, probably should wait a while before I tell him about that part...)  He’s already watched Nightmare Before Christmas at least a dozen times. It’s only a matter of time until he starts getting into the spooky stories. And luckily I happen to have plenty on hand.

So with that spirit (heh), I’m going to do a series of reviews throughout the Halloween season on some of the scary story anthologies that were such a big part of my life growing up. I’d been hoping to start at the beginning of October, but things got busy for a while. Let’s see how many reviews I can get through before Halloween. Maybe I’ll even go over into November a little. It would be a nice way to fill up that autumn limbo until Thanksgiving

Anyway, today’s entry is Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs, written by R.C. Welch .

The first cool thing I’d like to point out is that the interior illustrations were done by Ricardo Delgado, writer and illustrator of the amazing Age of Reptiles comic books- a series of wordless tales about the (admittedly somewhat anthropomorphasized) drama and adventures of a group of dinosaurs. Delgado’s drawings in Scary Stories are more subdued and less detailed than his AoR work. But they still have a creepy atmosphere that carries the book well.

The thing that really struck me about these stories as a kid- and even now as an adult- is how nightmarish they are. These are no light, spooky haunted house scares where everyone just runs home and hides under the covers until morning. There’s real dread and danger in these tales. And children are explicitly NOT safe. Most stories end with a nasty fate for the kid protagonists.

Here’s a run-down of the stories

The Hermit of Collins’ Peak
A strange old man who lives in a shack on the edge of town has become the “boogeyman” for the local kids. Every time anyone gets near his home, he runs out screaming and chases them away. But one day the hermit gets sick and has to be rushed to the hospital, leaving his shack unguarded. So of course a group of kids decide to see what’s inside. The story itself is fairly typical fair, but the twist ending is ambiguous and creepy enough to make it memorable.

Dead Giveaway
One of the less memorable tales, I find. A kid discovers that every time he wishes something nasty on people, they end up getting killed in gruesome ways. The school bully even gets dismembered by lions when he falls into their pit at the zoo after something frightens him. The ultimate cause of their deaths is at least a satisfying twist.

The Gift
This one is a dark take on the “boy learns a lesson about being cruel to animals” tale. The animals, in this case, being the ants in a little farm that he got as an unwanted birthday present.  By far one of the best scenes in the whole book is when the insects, fed up with this kid’s shit, build their tunnels to spell out HATE. Pretty goofy reading it as an adult, but a seriously disturbing image when you’re a kid.

A Camping Trip
This one’s the weakest story in the anthology. Sort of a Kid’s Lite version of an 80s slasher film. A bunch of boys go camping. They meet a friendly, forgettable park ranger who disappears right away (foreshadowing!). Their counselor tells them a story about some kids getting killed by a Native American mummy. Someone goes missing in the night and they start a search and, er, that’s basically it.

Oh, also, it’s implied that someone killed the kid. I’ll let you guess who.


Mummy’s Little Helper
Anne keeps hearing a little girl crying for help in the middle of the night. No one else hears it, so she has her friend Robin stay over to help her solve the mystery. Like The Hermit of Collins’ Peak, this one is a classic story with an ending that seriously creeped out second-grade me.

Shadow Play
This story is by far the most frightening one for me, and the main reason this anthology got etched so deeply into my memories.

Like many of the stories, it’s a familiar premise: a young boy is being haunted by living (or maybe not-so-living) shadows that appear in his room every night when the lights go out. Just the mere idea is frightening enough. But the slow, mounting dread really gets to you. That feeling of helplessness against the dark and the things hiding there as they come closer and closer each night. Even as an adult, reading this at 3am in a darkened house (yes, I totally did that to set the mood), it got me spooked.

The Dollhouse
Karen likes to collect miniatures- tiny animals, doll furniture, figurines, etc. While trying to make friends with the shy new girl, Jenny, Karen discovers that she likes miniature things too. Jenny even has a dollhouse at her home with tons of furniture rendered in perfect tiny details, which she offers to show Karen. The ending to this story always reminded me of the “It’s A Good Life” segment from the Twilight Zone movie. The one about the boy with god-like powers. Kids with powers are always freaky in my mind.  Because kids can be mean little assholes without even trying, so the last thing you want them to have is control over the fundamental laws of the universe.

Another mostly forgettable story. A kid builds a robot and (SPOILER) it kills him in the last sentence.

 This story is actually memorable for the huge amount of detail the writer puts into describing just how the kid goes about builds his mini-Terminator. Most of the story is about him building the limbs out of an Erector set, making the body out of a breadbox, splicing some wires together, then using a dead lizard as the “battery” or “brain” or something.

So I guess it was the zombie-lizard that killed him? Why you have to be such a jerk, zombie-lizard? The kid made you a freaking mech-suit to tool around in! What are you even going to do with it now? Probably just lie around on a warm rock looking bored until another lizard gets too close, at which point you’ll try to do one of those little push-up things to intimidate them. Except you’re in an awkward robot body, so you’ll probably just tip over and flail around on your metal back like a dumbass.

The Girl of Their Dreams
Two kids keep dreaming about a mysterious girl. Then one day a dad and his daughter move into the house in the old field at the end of the block that’s been abandoned for years. And yeah, the daughter is totally the girl they keep seeing in their dreams. And she invites them to come in, which they accept because they do not know they are in a horror anthology and clearly nothing bad could happen here.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Somebody is killing people in town. Jack says it’s a monster, but Craig thinks that’s stupid, so they end up getting into a fight and being mad at each other because kids will fight over dumb shit. Hence why they should not have god-like powers (see The Dollhouse above).

Craig actually gets an interesting bit of characterization in that he’s unhappy because his parents are always too busy to pay much attention to him. So busy that they can’t even be arsed to pick him up from school when there’s- holy shit! there's a goddamn serial killer on the loose! Assbutts.

Oh, also, Craig’s the stupid one. It’s totally a monster.

The Thrill-Seekers’ Club
A kid needs to go to a cemetery in the middle of the night to steal a flowerpot from a grave so he can get into the titular club. Another spin on a classic ghost story. Especially in the way the undead WAY overreact to someone trespassing in their graveyard at night. Lighten up, guys.

As much as I joke, I really do love this anthology. Like I said- it left quite the impression on young me. Even though the stories are pretty predictable, I realize now that they introduced me to a number of classic horror tropes like the Hermit with a Dark Secret; the Karmic Death from Mistreating Animals; Creepy Supernatural Children, etc.

And those living shadows. Brr.....   

Although Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs is long out of print, you can still find plenty of copies on Amazon.