A Monstrous Month: Week One

October has arrived, and with it comes the best of the holidays, in my humble opinion. Though December greetings like “Merry Christmas” might ruffle many politically correct feathers and cultural leanings  challenge when we may wish each other a “Happy New Year,” the fact is that no one in America has ever much disputed the mummification and candy-based panhandling of their children — not enough to incite policy changes, anyway. Halloween is my favorite holiday for reasons beyond this, of course. It dares children to scare themselves, or allow their senses to be slyly misled, just this one time a year. We have all reached our hands into a box of spaghetti and peeled grapes and hoped that we just might believe we’re feeling disembodied eyeballs and thin snaky Medusa hair. And perhaps nothing more than books has allowed us to suspend those disbeliefs and ensnare those senses. Too many good spooky books float around out in the ether for the choosing NOT to write an homage to them.

So, here’s the gyst of our Monstrous Month. Each week of October, we’ll list the spooky books we like best (separated by category), and why. And we’d love for you to share your own. Show us the best you’ve got and try to get our hair to stand on end.

WEEK ONE: CHILDREN’S BOOKS

(NOTE: I did not include any books of the GOOSEBUMPS franchise here because, while they were fun reads as a kid and I read over thirty of them, the fact is, I just don’t think R.L. Stein went as all-out with his horor as he could have. The franchise was the first of its kind to mass-market chills to children, but only the choose your own adventure ones — ESPECIALLY “Trapped in Bat Wing Hall” — proved capable of sending a genuine chill down THIS girl’s spine. And I think that’s because it’s the only time you, YOU, the reader, ran the risk of dying on every page. I definitely recommend it as a necessary life experience, but refrain from including it in my list in favor of more genuinely terrifying selections.)

I think it’s our duty to scare children. If we don’t give kids Jack Skellington, how are they going to know with any conviction that Bob the Builder is the protagonist for them? With that in mind, my first selection is THE MELANCHOLY DEATH OF OYSTER BOY AND OTHER STORIES by Tim Burton. Its rhyming little parables within track the tragic denouement of everyone from Oyster Boy (who is eaten by his parents as an aphrodisiac) to the Boy with the Nails in his Eyes, who can only assemble his Christmas tree with difficulty. (And yes, the bloody nails in his eyes are drawn quite baldly onto the page.) The illustrations are, if I may say so, quiet, always standing unanchored on the page waiting for readers to discover them and then move calmly on, past their pools of blood or their inimitable ennui. And I’ve never really read anything else like it.

IN A DARK, DARK ROOM AND OTHER SCARY STORIES by Alvin Schwartz (illustrated by Dirk Zimmer) is a collection of stories in the same vein as Oyster Boy, but only insofar as they try to instill the value of horror in a young audience. Burton finds humor where Schwartz seems more determined to keep half the nation’s children awake at night, wondering about the woman whose head can fall off if her scarf comes loose. The illustrations have a vintage cross-hatching to them that adds an inexplicable authenticity, and I can attest to the fact that as a child I felt exhilarated by my own terror as I turned the pages. In our first grade classroom, there was an underground demand for the book and it got passed around like traded pogs–proof that, when it comes to the downright scary stuff, there’s far less danger of “traumatizing” a young mind than we’ve come to think.

THREE-MINUTE THRILLERS by Eric Elfman. I didn’t know until writing this post that these books have gone out of print, and that, my friends, is a terrible tragedy indeed. Hopefully your libraries still have a copy, because this is where horror writing for young readers really starts pulling out the big guns. This was a book I begged my dad to tell the library we “lost” so I wouldn’t have to return it, only to check it out again in a week. I couldn’t stay away from vignettes like the man-eating venus flytrap, the roller-ghoster, the disappearing highway, and the evil, perpetually-sprinting sweatpants. I can’t even talk about the babysitter who was pulled down the shower drain by a monster in the plumbing. I was wary of bathing for too many years to count.

But here’s a good moment to step in and mention that I nonetheless showered no less than usual. That is to say, scared as I was by that potent and condensed little horror story, it didn’t alter my behaviors and I am none the worse for wear. So what do we hesitate for? Why do we refrain from giving children that exotic thrill known as terror? Do we think exposure to “Night of the Living Dead” will irreparably change them, turn them into a warped and helpless creature for years to come? Or do we fear instead the more immediate repercussions: that someone will see our child exhibit fear and assume we did some bad parenting? Are we mostly worried that the neighbors will think we failed at our jobs? Is that what keeps US, the older generation, up at night?

I don’t have kids. But I know that if and when I do, they will be reared on Funnybones and they’ll be ugly things instead of pretty things for Halloween and they will always, always be taught that fear is no sin, that it’s a brave thing to read and confront what might frighten you, and that a dark dark bedroom on a dark dark street late at night is in fact something to get excited about, for all the possibility it holds, housing (as it does) a million creatures we haven’t yet seen in any book.

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