Since my previous post was all about spooky Yuletide stories, I thought I'd review some more horror books for the holiday season (okay, I admit this is also partially to finish reviewing some of the books I read for Halloween, too. I had big ambitions, folks!)
Folks who grew up in the late 80s/early 90s will remember well Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in The Dark. Well, mostly people will remember- and are probably still haunted by- the books nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell. As far as I know, no other kid’s horror book since then has really been able to precisely capture the raw hiding-under-the-covers-all-night fear of that book and its stories. But Nightmare Soup, written by Jake Tri with illustrations by Andy Sciazko, digs its twisted, ghostly roots dug pretty deep into that world.
The tales in Nightmare Soup are short and simple, like creepy tales kid’s would tell each other while sitting around a lone flashlight in a dark room (kids still do that, right?). The stories are all original but clearly drawn from contemporary horror and urban legends such as monstrous clowns, aliens and ominous, lurking Beings From Elsewhere like Slenderman and The Rake. There are also several works dealing with creepy real life animals- skin-burrowing botflies and the tongue-replacing sea louse Cymothoa exigua- that have gained infamy thanks to the internet. Many of these tales have the feel of Creepypastas, the internet’s answer to old campfire tales.
Andy Sciazko’s creepy black-and-white drawings are very clearly done in the spirit of Stephen Gammel’s illustrations. While some of the pictures are quite effective, I can’t help feeling like the art is trying a bit too hard to gross out the reader or project that nightmarish shock that Gammel’s art had. That is not to say they aren’t good. Indeed, the illustrations often compliment Jake Tri’s stories quite well. And some of them can be extremely eerie. But it’s the difference between finding a room with blood and innards splattered all over the walls and ceiling versus coming across an otherwise clean room with a few small crimson drops leading to the basement door.
There are some excellent stand-out stories in this book. I particularly like the poem The Sloth. I would not normally have thought of these slow, sleepy xenarthrans as being horror material, but this poem makes them into a particularly creepy predator that stalks its prey slowly, but inevitably catches them. The accompanying artwork is effectively macabre and unsettling.
I am also fond of the tales Full Moon Guests and Mr. Wilson, Their twist endings feel as if they’ve been pulled right out of old EC horror comics. And, of course, I can’t help but enjoy the story Tongue- because really who can resist a story featuring the ghoulish charm of the aforementioned Cymothoa exigua.
If there is a flaw in Nightmare Soup it is that it seems to be trying to emulate the look and feel of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark without having enough of its own identity. I do genuinely admire the attempt to capture that nostalgic fear that Alvin Schwartz’s original books spawned in so many kids. I think this anthology will be most effective on modern kids who don’t know Scary Stories and will get the chance to experience that squeamish fear for themselves.
You can get a copy of Nightmare Soup on the book's website.