When I was a kid, there was a trio of books called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. The books were filled with ghost stories, folklore, and other... well, scary stories. It was in these books that I first learned of such classic tales as the babysitter who discovers the ominous phone calls are coming from inside the house, and the hook-handed killer who stalks kids making out on country roads. These books were among my favorites, but not just for the stories; it was for the art.
Stephen Gammell is the madman behind the drawings in Scary Stories. But he’s not a madman, nor does he specialize in terrifying art. He’s a children’s book illustrator who happens to have created some of the most iconic literary art of my lifetime. It has a ghostly, frantic quality about it, and that is what drew me to the Scary Stories books.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first got the Scary Stories books; I wasn’t yet in double-digits, that’s for sure. I was already growing out of my childhood fears and found very little to scare me anymore - except the art on Scary Stories. Once the sun went down, those books went into the closet or beneath a pile of clothes, purely for those illustrations. Those images stayed with me my whole life, to the point where, as a grown-up in my mid-20s, I bought the entire set again, and those drawing still give me a chill. I pulled them out the other night for this article, and was worried that the drawings would give me nightmares (they didn’t).
I am so glad I bought that set because “in honor of” the 30th anniversary of Scary Stories, Harper Collins decided to reissue the books - with different artwork. The artwork belongs to Brett Helquist, and while it is lovely, you don’t want “lovely” illustrations for a book like Scary Stories. You want something visceral, something phantasmagorical, something that will leave an indelible mark on its reader 25+ years later. I doubt that I would ever grab the Helquist Scary Stories off the bookshelf; it just looks like every other volume of “scary stories” that rarely ever scared.
The interesting thing is that Scary Stories has been one of the most frequently challenged children’s books since its publication in 1981, in no small part due to the images; yet the publisher has steadfastly kept the books unedited - until this 30th anniversary edition. What’s worse is that the Helquist editions aren’t just a tamer option for someone looking to buy the books; they are the only option. Harper Collins stopped printing the Gammell editions altogether. Individual volumes of the Gammell-illustrated books are selling for up to $40 apiece - and good luck trying to find a complete box set.
Below are a few examples of Gammell’s original, blood-curdling illustrations - and Helquist’s fine-but-average replacement illustrations. You tell me which you would be more likely to buy!