Frights and Fears for The Faint of Heart: How Alvin Schwartz Molded a Generation of Ghost Stories

What’s really scary is all the water damage this book survived. 

When I was a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. As an adult I shifted more towards Christmas because I am now too old to trick-or-treat and I also love getting presents. That said, I figured I’d pay homage this year to my younger self’s favorite holiday. What better way to go about it than review one of my all time favorite spooky books? Alvin Schwartz 1980’s classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Being from a frugal family, I spent a large amount of my summers going from garage sale to garage sale. As you can imagine, we ended up with a lot of weird stuff, ceramic statues of deer, mugs shaped like shoes, eight different Furbys, but, what I loved most about garage sales were the ginormous collections of books families would unload once their kids went away to school. R.L. Stine’s Monster Blood, Mike Thaler’s The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, it was like visiting a library every Saturday, except you got to keep these books. One of my best garage sale finds was a box set of Alvin Schartz’s Scary Stories collection. I read these books religiously growing up. They were just the right amount of scary for the tender age I was at.

Recently, I gave them a re-read and I can say that even without the nostalgia glasses on, the books hold up pretty well. All three collections are short and accessible. As an adult or a child, you can easily consume these books in one sitting. As for the stories themselves, Schartz writes simply. I’d say this man uses maybe 10-20 adjectives throughout the entire first book.

Flipping through these water damaged pages, I find it hilarious that some of the stories that scared me the most, “The Slithery-Dee,” and “Aaron Kelly’s Bones,” are categorized under the “humor” section of the novel. Aaron Kelly literally danced and smiled maniacally until there was nothing left of him but his head. That isn’t funny it’s concerning and causing a scene and guaranteed to give your 7 year old nightmares. The illustrations done by Stephen Gammell are haunting and will stick with you forever. It’s worth noting that Scary Stories is the most challenged children’s series from 1990-1999…but it was released in 1981. Meaning, this series was “okay” throughout the entirety of the eighties. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that someone thought it was too disturbing for kids.

However, what really makes Scary Stories so special and what caused it to stick with me for so long, is the interaction Schartz has with his audience. Although Schartz set out to write a collection of horror stories for children, he also set out to get readers to tell their own ghost stories. You can see him asking his audience for participation in the first section of the series. Throughout each story in the “Ahhhhhh!” section, Schartz provides his reader with instructions on how to tell the story, “”As you give the last line, pounce on one of your friends,” “stamp your feet!” and “jump at your friends and scream.” By all means, he wants these stories shared, but he also wants his readers to become storytellers.

In the book’s forward (something you can bet your bottom dollar I did not read as a kid), Schartz candidly asks his readers to write. It’s a clever way to ask, but he’s asking nonetheless. Most of the forward is spent talking about the origin of horror and urban legends, but it ends with a clear call to action:

“Do your best to frighten me with your sprites,” the queen said. “You’re powerful at it.”
“I shall tell the story softly,” the boy said. “Yond crickets shall not hear it.”
And he began, “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.” But that was as far as he got.
For at that moment the king came in and arrested the queen and took her away. Soon after that, the boy died. No one knows how he would have finished his story.
If you started as he did, what would you tell?

Schartz prompted hundreds of kids to finish the thought with their own ghostly tales, “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard…” What would you tell?


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