Fandom is not grown overnight. Like a precious Mariphasa lupina flower, it takes years of cultivation and care to develop into the monstrosity that will eventually become your life’s passion and estrange you from your loved ones.
As a creepy kid growing up, my fertilizer was the monochrome horror films of the 30s and 40s. As an amateur writer, that last sentence sounded a lot better in my head. But when I had run the video tape thin from my Blockbuster rentals and saw that AMC’s Monsterfest was still months away, I needed to mine other sources for the nasty nutrients that my budding mind so hungrily craved.
Thank the Lord for monster books.
Without these little tomes of terror, my fandom and more so my love for learning about the genre would have been in a sad, depressing state (believe it or not, though, boasting that you can name all the actors that portrayed the Universal monsters has an impact on making friends and influencing people that is grossly lacking). They entertained me during many an afternoon and fostered my thirst for knowledge like drops of blood to a withered, evil weed.
Everyone tired of the plant metaphors yet? Great. Then let’s tiptoe through the tulips and take a look at these horror-cultural books.*
P. S. This post originally started out just centering on nonfiction works, but the eight-year-old in me started getting all giddy as I started to recount all the fearsome fictions that I read, so they started to pop up here too. Hooray!
The Crestwood Monster series
But of course. Who among us hasn’t held one of these orange-spined beauties in our sweating paws at one point in time?
I first encountered these in the library of an elementary school I went to in Arizona. My memory may be tricking me, but I think these were the very first “monster books” I ever read. I couldn’t even comprehend that the cinematic beasts that I adored could actually appear in a book. It’s one of those things that only a kid at that age could find amazing. I was further blown away when I discovered by way of Will Errickson’s essential blog Too Much Horror Fiction how old this series really was. They’ve been trawling the shelves of public libraries and schools for some time it seems!
I tried checking out each volume the library owned and I would pore over them at home for hours. They typically contained fairly detailed synopses of the films the monsters appeared in, along with black and white photographs and filmographies. Chances are I probably even traced the front covers with the sketching pad I had. These little books were the black cat’s meow. If I ever work up the desire I might try to get my hands on the whole set someday. They’ll probably occupy the same shelf as my Sideshow Toy monster dolls.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Even more popular amongst all kids everywhere was this seminal series of books that retold popular folk tales and urban legends of a most macabre nature. Although I don’t actually recall ever reading these stories in the dark with my friends (I doubt exchanging shouts of “I am the viper! I vish to vash and vipe the vindows!” with my sister really counts), the impact that these spine-tingling tales had on me was undeniable. And as frightening as some of the stories were (“Harold,” anyone?), the real scrotum-chiller from these books was Stephen Gammell’s otherworldly, jaw-dropping illustrations.
Looking like something that Graham Ingels might have drawn while tripping on a particularly hellish brand of LSD, Gammell’s art alone was enough to induce instant nightmares in any tot who was unfortunate enough to gaze upon them. Just take a cursory glance at his work for stories like “The Haunted House” or “The Dream.” Eeek. Even his art for some of the more humorous stories like “The Ghost with Bloody Fingers” and “The Hog” is at turns grotesque and just plain unsettling. If his drawings ever had their own gallery, nobody would have the nerve to go.
Does anybody remember these? It seems that anytime I mention them I get stares that people generally reserve for experimental films and cabbage. They look to have come out in the early 90s, a guess solely based on the boom of horror series for young people that occurred at the time and the artwork seeming reminiscent of Nancy Drew novels (I know that’s kind of anachronisitic, but surely you know what I mean, right?). There were three stories in each book, written by a myriad of authors that you’ve never heard of.
Most of the tales were just as memorable, and they all seemed to have an older flavor about them. Still, most of them had an earnestness worthy of applause. They weren’t the type of Goosebumps knockoffs where you’d see kids fighting animated super-villains from comic books is what I mean. There were some effective episodes, such as the cover story from Volume #3, wherein a newspaper delivery boy finds that all of his neighbors have been turning into phantoms and ghouls following the appearance of a mysterious symbol on their houses. Musty Goodwill horrors at some of their sort of-finest.
Movie Monsters by Thomas G. Aylesworth
This was a tiny yellow volume (yellow because that was the color of the actual hardcover, something that was revealed to me after the laminated artwork was torn away and the thing was only being held together by a few, meager strings of binding after so many readings) that had kid-friendly large print and some scattered monochrome photos. It dealt mainly with older films, covering a timespan that ended with Vincent Price and those crazy Poe films of his.
This was the book that I remember hearing the first few mutterings of long-lost silents like the Frankenstein adaptation Life without a Soul and probably saw Boris Karloff for the first time out of make-up. It was also the first time I came across the word “conscience,” here used in regard to the Jekyll and Hyde films. And you bet your ass that I pronounced it like “con-science” to everyone who would listen to me. Funny the things we recall. It seems Aylesworth was fairly prolific with other similarly-themed books such as Monsters from the Movies, Werewolves and Other Monsters, and The Story of Vampires.
Deadtime Stories by A. G. Cascone
Another of the endless Goosebumps imitators that I read as a macabre little kid. I’m not entirely sure how many of these I read. I still have a copy of Welcome to the Terror-Go-Round and I know for sure I read Grandpa’s Monster Movies because, well, look at that title. How could I not? A. G. Cascone was actually the pen name of two writers, sisters Annette and Gina Cascone.
It seems that unlike its contemporaries though, the Cascone sisters’ series is outliving the time in which they originated, with several of the Deadtime Stories titles being reprinted by Tor’s Starscape line with wonderful artwork adorning it. Not only that, but it looks like they’re being adapted into a TV series for Nickelodeon. I love it when opportunities come for kids to get exposed to this kind of stuff, and being that I can’t remember how long it’s been since a series dedicated to creepy things was around for the younger generation, I wish DS all the luck in the world in its new resurrection. You can lurk around their website for more info.
The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin
Back when I was a library assistant in middle school, I discovered this book (I’m sensing a theme here). The library also had two other books by Rovin, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes and The Encyclopedia of Super-Villains, which, for whatever odd reason, were in the reference section (meaning “no check-outy”) while this one was just in the general nonfiction area with the few other books about the supernatural. I would usually speed through all three of them during the time I had to kill when I wasn’t being a withdrawn little caterpillar.
Rovin’s book is particularly humbling because it makes you realize how much work must have went into it (all three volumes, for that matter) during a time when computers weren’t anywhere near the information-basted turkeys that they are today. I don’t mean to say that contemporary books like these are completely obsolete but, honestly, with the Internet around, why bother? That’s a pretty cynical view, but looking through Rovin’s detailed descriptions of creatures from all walks of life (film, television, comics, literature) was and is a warming experience that always makes me feel like a kid again.
Ghosts of Fear Street
I never quite picked up steam in R. L. Stine’s original Fear Street series, only reading the occasional entry like Silent Night. The spin-off series, Ghosts of Fear Street, was aimed at a younger audience and was probably a lot dumber than it needed to be. As Eric mentioned in our Goosebumps podcast, there was actually a fitting scene from The Ooze where, upon being attacked by the eponymous blob that had the power to decrease its victim’s mental capacities, one of the characters cries out in horror: “It’s making me stupider!” If that wasn’t enough, take a look at the terrifying artwork on the covers of those books. Go ahead, look at them.
Look. At. Them.
I read more of these than I probably should have, but my insistence to get my hands on all things Stine led me to make some poor life decisions. To further add insult to injury, I don’t think any of these were written by ol’ Robert Lawrence himself. So perhaps it should have been called Ghost Writers of Fear Street. Ha! Put that on cheap horror book for a kid and tell them it’s funny.
Short and Shivery by Robert D. San Souci
The moment I came across this book is quite vivid in my mind. It was a book fair during fifth grade, night. I was walking through the little room, scanning the shelves, when I saw this little volume on a floor-level shelf near the back. The minute I saw those words, “short” and “shivery,” a tiny little flame of excitement started to quiver in my mind. Needless to say I snatched it up with all due haste and still have it to this day.
San Souci penned three more sequels, I believe, but the first is the only one I’ve read. In the same vein as Schwartz’s Scary Stories, Short and Shivery recounts all manner of horrible tales, including fairy tales and adaptations of Hawthorne and Irving in addition to folklore from around the world. San Souci takes a more scholarly approach, providing famous stories (like the girl who stood at the grave) in their original, historical context. His polished sense of storytelling is just as enjoyable as Schwartz’s corncob, homespun style. The illustrations by Katherine Coville are dandy, too.
Oh yeah, here’s another sterling series. While author Betsy Haynes penned the first ten entries, the series was then turned over to a legion of other nameless authors, two of which I remember definitely reading (and I was probably in middle school at the time—shameful!). So it had all the makings of another Ghosts of Fear Street, and brother did it deliver.
The first book whose title is almost too terrible to repeat, firstname.lastname@example.org, has to do with a boy unleashing an imaginary killer he made up from the hard drive of his computer yadda yadda. If I’m not mistaken, the kid for some reason gave the maniac a special allergic weakness that sure came in handy when the loon was trying to snatch the kid from his bedroom window. The second one, the equally embarrassingly-titled Scare Bear, involves the titular teddy coming back from the trash heap that his owner tossed him into with an agenda to make the boy cool. Oh, and he’s EVIL.
The icing on this cake was definitely the moment when the bear busted down some sick moves for the boy to use during the school dance and impress his peers. The song that the boy got funky too? One of his favorite rap tunes, with the killer lyrics of “Yo momma smells, it’s enough to ring bells.”
I think at that moment I heard Jesus crying.
Universal Monsters series by Larry Mike Garmon
To be honest, I don’t remember too much about this series. One of the few things that I can recall was that I read this particular volume after finding it in the small public library our town had before it moved and got revamped (note to self: write book called The Revampired Library, sell millions).
I could not have enough horror anthologies and collections as a kid, and that’s still true to this day. Anything that had “Tales” or “Stories” in the title (and accompanied by spooky covers, naturally) always pinged my antennae and ensured that I made an immediate bee-line in their direction. Tales for the Midnight Hour was one such series, but it was the third entry (“Still More…”) that was my introduction to Stamper’s shivery stories. Although she recycled some famous urban legends and refurbished them a bit (“The Furry Collar,” “Wait till Martin Comes”), she also wrote a fair amount of original yarns that ranged from “alright” to “pretty damn cool.”
Man did I dig The Monster’s Ring when I read it in elementary school (guess where I found it?). It might have even been around Halloween time. Needless to say I could find some sympathy for Russell, our hero, a boy who had a fascination with all things monstrous. I just loved everything about it… the dusty magic shop, the transforming ring. Simply beautiful. And the next thing Russell knows he’s changed into his monster-self perhaps forever. Just in time for the school Halloween party. The copy I had was hardcover, and I can’t find it’s old-fashioned, dusty artwork anywhere!
I also had a copy of Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters, one of the many anthologies he edited for young readers. Don’t let that description fool you though. These stories were often fairly sophisticated and, at times, could be as no-holds barred any adult yarn in regards to terror and gruesomeness. Just take a look at chillers like “Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen” or “Bloody Mary.” Do I even need to mention the full-scale elf slaughter that caps off “Timor and the Furnace Troll”? Well I just did. Now go grab a copy.
Ahh, the king of the mutant-monster books! If a kid wanted to know how he could find the equivalent of monster movies from the 50s in fiction form (because what kid wouldn’t?), then Paul Zindel would be their man, as he was mine. Hey, there’s one of those awkward amateur writer lines again. At any rate, Zindel started his career penning acclaimed works such as the Off-Broadway play The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and the YA novel The Pigman and then, for whatever strange and mysterious reason, gravitated towards writing pulpy creature features that starred everything from ravenous bats to angler fishes from Hell.