Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Nightmare Soup by Jake Tri, illustrated by Andy Sciazko

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.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Christmas Ghosts

Illustration by James McBryde for the M. R. James ghost story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad". Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Now that the Halloween season has passed- well, HAS been passed for almost a month now- it seems like it should be time to put away all the ghosts and witches and other creepiness and start getting ready for the winter holidays* 

But the season of hauntings and creepy things lurking in the woods is far from over. It’s only just beginning, in fact. For many cultures, winter is a time when the walls between worlds grow thin and beings from Another Place step into our plane of existance. If you look into Yuletime traditions outside of America, you’ll find hordes of ghosts, witches, trolls, household spirits and other supernatural things creeping around the outside walls or hiding behind the stove.

One of the better-known examples of Yuletide spookiness is the British tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmas. When you hear  “Christmas ghosts” you probably think of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (and maybe also the line about how “there’ll be scary ghost stories” from the song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sung most famously by Andy Williams).  But this was just one in a long history of tales. And indeed, it wasn't the only Christmas ghost story Dickens’ wrote.  

Winter ghost stories have been told in Europe for centuries, but in Britain, the tradition really took off in the Victorian period. These tended to be what you might call “cozy” stories. The protagonists were often well-to-do or at least comfortably off. The hauntings frequently took place in or around a stately manor or otherwise well-furnished dwelling. There was little of the macabre alien horror of William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen or the later pulp writers like Lovecraft. Nor did Christmas ghost stories possess the desperate, psychological horror of Edgar Alan Poe or Mary Shelley. These were tales meant to spook, but not horrify. Something to create a little creepy fun on a cold winter’s night.** A good example of this scary but ultimately harmless haunting is M.R. James' "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad", available to read here

James, by the way, is one of the better known ghost-story writers. Head academic administrator first at King's College in Cambridge, then at Eton College at the beginning of the 20th century, he was renowned as a medieval scholar and antiquarian, as well as a prolific author. Each year around Christmas he would write a new ghost story then invite his close friends, academic fellows and favored students to his rooms at the College where he would read the tale out loud by the flicker of a candle or a crackling fireplace.

There are many, many more creepy things lurking in the shadows around the winter holidays. I’ll detail a few more of them in future posts.

For now, here are a couple of great articles that delve deeper into the origins and traditions of the British ghost story:

*(If you’re into that, of course. I personally love Christmas, but I know there are plenty of people who aren’t big on this time of year. For some, it’s the constant barrage of commercialism. For others, Christmas is a time of painful memories and loneliness. Some just aren’t that into it. I can understand all those points.)

** As with any literary genre, of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the "cozy haunting" style of Christmas ghost. See, for example, Dickens' strange "To Be Read At Dusk"

Monday, November 20, 2017

Real Life Scarecrows

With this book I'm working on for my son, I've had scarecrows on my mind a lot lately.  And so I knew I just had to build some real-life ones for Halloween this year. My son enthusiastically seconded the idea and made sure I followed through by reminding me pretty much every day.

My son posing with Bauer. And also a random witch's arm prop from Spirit Halloween
Our first scarecrow, Bauer, was made out of old clothes from the Good Will store fitted over a wooden cross-frame, which you can partially see behind his legs. The arms are dead spruce branches from my backyard and the skull is a plastic prop tied on with rough hemp rope.

Bauer after losing his hat on a particularly windy day.  Decorative mummified cat for scale.

In this second picture you can see the base I used to keep the scarecrow from falling over. Initially I tried to simply drive the bottom of the cross-frame into the ground, but the soil is all hard-packed clay. So I had to stand him up with a wooden base instead.

For our second scarecrow, Cervus, I wanted an even more cobbled-together look. His body is made entirely of dead tree branches held together with zip-ties (the rope wasn't secure enough and kept falling off). The covering is a sheet of black scrap fabric from an old art project. While I would have loved to have used a real deer skull for the head, I couldn't find one on such short notice. So instead I used a plastic replica.

Cervus' body held together with zip-ties. Not the most stable structure. He fell over pretty much every day. 
Now that I've figured out the basics of scarecrow-making I plan to add more next year. Maybe a whole "Night Parade" of them marching across the yard. Stay tuned.