The Stories that Scared US

Obviously, all of us at Spooky MG love creepy stories. And we love the ones written for young readers with a special fierceness.

But I wanted to know about the books that genuinely terrify us—or that terrified us when we were young and impressionable, and that may have given us writing (or nightmare) material for years to come.

I’ll knew what my own answer would be:

Scary Stories Trilogy

Like pretty much everyone else in my Elder Millennial/Oregon Trail generation, my third grade mind was blown by Alvin Schwartz’s SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. I was terrified by those collections, and I adored them—probably for the same reasons. My friends and I would read them aloud at sleepovers, poring over Stephen Gammell’s illustrations, scaring ourselves catatonic. On my own, I would turn back to certain stories or images again and again, seeing if they were as frightening as I remembered. They always were.

If I had to pick a few stories that really dug their hooks into me, I might say “The Bride” (Gah, “The Bride”!!), “The Wendigo” (Its frozen, empty eeriness hit this upper Midwesterner hard), or “Me Tie Doughty Walker,” where the protagonist’s dog begins speaking in strange nonsense words, and is answered by a voice that comes from somewhere in the darkness outside his little cottage… The thought of that one still makes me shudder.

I know some grownups who say they were scarred by these books, and who wish they hadn’t read them when they were small. I suppose I was scarred by them too. But I’m weirdly grateful for it. Without them, I’m not sure what dark and terrible things would be missing from my imagination. And now I get to play with those dark and terrible things when I sit down to write creepy stories of my own.

So, what books for young readers scared—or scarred—my fellow Spookies?

 

Ghostly AnimalsSarah Cannon (ODDITY, TWIST)

Before SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK or GOOSEBUMPS, there was an author named Daniel Cohen who used to put out scary story collections, and GHOSTLY ANIMALS in particular scared the pants off me. There was a ghost that was a skunk with a human face, which was so completely out of left field that it blindsided me…it hadn’t even occurred to me to be scared of such a thing before! Also, Phillis Reynolds Naylor’s Witch series (WITCH WATER, WITCH’S SISTER, etc.) scared me half to death, mostly because the villain was a scary old lady neighbor. The adults could *see* her, they just thought the kids were being fanciful. But they weren’t, and the scary incidents that illustrated this were extremely real to me.

 

LionWitchWardrobe CoverSamantha M. Clark (THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST)

The book that terrified me most as a kid was actually THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. I was terrified that the Witch was going to turn me to stone and horrified about all the animals that had been turned to stone. The idea still haunts me to this day. I’ve never been able to look at realistic statues without wondering if a person is trapped inside…

 

 

The_BFG_(Dahl_novel_-_cover_art)Tania del Rio (WARREN THE 13TH series)

So a book that scared me as a kid was The BFG by Roald Dahl, which is funny because it’s not even a scary book, at least not compared to, say, THE WITCHES. And even though BFG literally stands for big FRIENDLY giant, I still used to lay awake at night terrified that an enormous eye would peer into my bedroom window or that a massive hand would reach through and whisk me away. Even the idea of a giant man blowing pleasant dreams through a long horn creeped me out. It didn’t help that I had tall poplar trees in my backyard and at night, their silhouettes looked like giants wearing long cloaks! 😬

 

Janet Fox (THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE)

I hate to say it, but almost nothing I read as a kid scared me. Even the grownup books. Even DRACULA. But put me in front of a mildly scary movie – even today – and I will have nightmares for weeks, months, years. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s the truth. And maybe why I can write scary books today.

 

Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)

In a Dark, Dark Room

Lorien Lawrence (THE STITCHERS)

The first scary story that comes to mind is “The Green Ribbon” by Alvin Schwartz from his IN A DARK, DARK ROOM collection. I remember a librarian reading this to my class as kindergarteners – which seems bizarre now because it’s SUCH a scary story, even by today’s standards! We were all sitting on the carpet, huddled together, just listening. I could not stop thinking about it for days afterwards. It definitely gave me nightmares, but it also left me wanting more. I’m sure that read-aloud jump started my love of all things spooky!

 

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

The Children of Green Knowe

Cynthia Reeg (FROM THE GRAVE, INTO THE SHADOWLANDS)

I have to admit that I was a Nancy Drew addict—these creepy, spooky, mysterious books always appealed to me. Plus, I enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle, and they were easily accessible at the small local libraries where I lived when I was an MG reader. But I also remember how creepy and chilling the GREEN KNOWE books by Lucy M. Boston were. Loved them! And often I would ready spooky Clyde Robert Bulla books like THE GHOST OF WINDY HILL. First and foremost in monstrous books for me were fairy tales and folklore stories, which were again easily accessible and often taught at school.

 

Kim Ventrella (THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM, THE SKELETON TREE, etc.)

As a kid, I always found myself yearning for stories that both transported me and reflected my experiences, and those experiences weren’t always roses and rainbows. Books that tackled tough topics or delved into the scary or macabre, rather than frightening me, made me feel accepted and understood. They validated my experience and gave me courage. I especially loved SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, mostly thanks to the disturbing, ethereal imagery. Unlike other scary books for kids, that collection didn’t sugar-coat things. I remember being in fifth grade and getting super upset when I read a book (that shall remain unnamed :P) where the ‘monster’ turned out to be some big misunderstanding, basically a Scooby Doo ending. I wanted the monsters to be real, so that I could see kids overcoming true evil. I longed for that catharsis. The funny thing is that now, as an adult, my books with ’spooky’ themes are all about finding light, whimsy and wonder in the midst of darkness. The spooky elements are there partly to lessen the blow of the real-life tough topics I address, like loss and grief. But I think the two needs are connected, i.e. the need I had as a young reader to see kids overcoming true evil, and the recognition that, as an adult, real life is much more terrifying than any kind of fantasy monster.

 


Jacqueline West is the author of THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE, THE COLLECTORS, and DIGGING UP DANGER, as well as the YA horror novel LAST THINGS. Visit her at http://www.jacquelinewest.com, or find her at jacqueline.west.writes (Instagram) or @JacquelineMWest (Twitter).

DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS!

Like most kids of the eighties and nineties, I grew up reading the SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK anthology by Alvin Schwartz with haunting illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Unlike other scary books for kids, that collection didn’t sugar-coat things. I remember being in fifth grade and getting super upset when I read a book (that shall remain unnamed :P) where the ‘monster’ turned out to be some big misunderstanding, basically a Scooby Doo ending. I wanted the monsters to be real, so that I could see kids overcoming true evil. So I could believe that I too could conquer my personal demons. I longed for that catharsis, and it required real monsters.

That’s why I’m so thrilled to have a story in a brand new anthology, DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS: A TRIBUTE TO ALVIN SCHWARTZ’S SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, presented by the Horror Writers Association. For me, this was all about coming full circle, returning to the series that inspired my creativity as a child. The anthology features 35 original tales by 35 of today’s top authors, edited by Jonathan Maberry.


I had a chance to chat with just a few of the contributors to ask them about their contribution and the influence of the original SCARY STORIES series. Here’s what they had to say:

Kami Garcia

Kami is the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author and comic book writer of thirteen novels including the Beautiful Creatures novels, BROKEN BEAUTIFUL HEARTS, TEEN TITANS: RAVEN, and TEEN TITANS: BEAST BOY. Find Kami online at www.kamigarcia.com

Kim: What inspired your contribution?

Kami Garcia: My story is about a bottle tree and a ghost. My mom’s family is from North Carolina and bottle trees are very common there. My mom has one in her yard. According to the superstition, if you put brightly colored bottles on the branches of a tree, ghosts will be attracted to the color and they will get caught in the bottles. 

Kim: Oooh, can’t wait to read it! This anthology is a tribute to SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. What memories to you have of that series from childhood?

Kami Garcia: I loved reading SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK when I was in elementary school. They have a timeless quality. I was a teacher before I became a writer and my students loved SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, too!

Kim: Why you think kids are so drawn to these chilling tales?

Kami Garcia: Reading stories about scary things allows children to experience their fears in a safe way. 


Z Brewer

Z is the NYT bestselling author of THE CHRONICLES OF VLADIMIR TOD series, as well as INTO THE REAL (coming 10/20), THE SLAYER CHRONICLES series, SOULBOUND, THE CEMETERY BOYS, THE BLOOD BETWEEN US, MADNESS, and more short stories than they can recall. Their pronouns are they/them. When not making readers cry because they killed off a character they loved, Z is an anti-bullying and mental health advocate. Plus, they have awesome hair. Find out more at http://zbrewerbooks.com/.

Kim: What inspired your contribution?

Z Brewer: When I was a kid, my dad used to warn me that it was bad luck to pass a graveyard without whistling. His mom, my grandmother, had told him that same thing his entire childhood. It was a “fact” that they both passed on in a very serious tone. I was twelve before I was brave enough to not whistle past the graveyard. Fortunately nothing happened to me because of it…yet. But that fear has always been at the back of my mind.

Kim: What memories do you have of the SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK series from childhood?

I was obsessed with SCARY STORIES when they came out. The artwork was terrifying. The tales made my heart race. I loved every frightening moment. But my favorite memory is what transpired after I read “The Green Ribbon.” The story is about a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck at all times. She meets a boy and falls in love, but the boy asks her over and over again throughout the years why she wears the ribbon around her neck. She eventually gets very sick and as she’s lying on her deathbed, she tells him to untie the ribbon and he will understand why she’d never told him why she wore it. He unties it…and her head falls off. It was gruesome. I loved it.

…which is why I took a bit of curling ribbon from a gift that had been opened and tied it around my neck (looking back on it, I can see how stupid and dangerous that was) so I could tell people that if I removed it, my head would fall off.

Did I mention I had no friends?

Kim: HAHAHA, yes! I think we are kindred spirits! Why do you think kids are so drawn to these chilling tales?

The stories were not at all reflective of children’s books at the time. They were dark. They were gritty. They had imagery that horrified even adults. There was so much about them that was forbidden fruit to so many people. Parents and teachers told kids not to read them, which made them even more tantalizing. Apart from the chill up my spine, I think my favorite thing about them is that SCARY STORIES inspired so many to rebel and pick up the books. I’ve always been of the mind that if someone tells you not to read something, you should absolutely read it to find out what they’re keeping from you. Viva la Resistance!


Barry Lyga

Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published twenty-four novels in various genres in his fourteen-year career, including the New York Times bestselling I Hunt Killers. His books have been or are slated to be published in more than a dozen different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia.

Kim: What inspired your contribution?

Barry Lyga: I was thinking about something that could happen without reason or logic because those sorts of things, in my opinion, tend to be the scariest. I’ve always liked doppelgänger stories, so the idea of a murderous twin that comes out of nowhere really resonated for me. Originally, I thought a cursed mirror would create the doppelgänger…but then I realized that cursed mirrors have been done to death (literally, sometimes!). So I thought and I thought…and then I looked down at my keyboard…

Kim: Who doesn’t love an evil twin, am I right? Why do you think kids are so drawn to terrifying tales?

There are many different theories on this, but I think it’s because horror provides a way for them to experience and even experiment with things that are dangerous or frightening without actually being in danger. It’s almost like a training session for dealing with the more mundane — but very real — terrors of the real world.


Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan is a New York Times best-selling and five-time Bram Stoker Award-winning author, anthology editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator, and writing teacher/lecturer. He was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. His books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries. Find out more at http://www.jonathanmaberry.com/.

I also had the pleasure of chatting with the editor of DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS, Jonathan Maberry!

Kim: Sum it all up for us. Why do kids have such an enduring love for scary stories?

Jonathan Maberry: Kids like being scared for a whole slew of reasons. Partly it’s the simple thrill –the physical and biochemical reaction to fear that releases a bit of epinephrine (aka that old fight or flight hormone popularly known as adrenaline) which makes us feel stronger, faster, and more capable of escaping danger or dealing with it on our own terms and with our own resources. Kids, being younger and smaller than adults, have a natural inferiority complex, but the more challenges kids face –however virtual—the more agency they take over themselves. 

Scary stories –especially those written expressly for kids—teach problem-solving; they often focus on elements of teamwork and friendship; and they often have better third acts than does the real world.

From a personal perspective, I grew up in a very troubled household that was in a crime-ridden and dangerous neighborhood. I read scary stories of all kinds because in those stories there was always an ending. But the stress in my life went on and on for years. So the stories were true escapism for me. This is something common to many millions of kids –and not just those from bad neighborhoods or abusive families. Kids face the challenges of a scary world every day, but in their stories those frights are encountered, experienced, and ultimately left behind. There is a measure of closure. Or, at least, the promise of one. 


Want a sneak peek at the contents?

Here’s the line-up for this totally terrifying anthology:

Editor’s Foreword by Jonathan Maberry
“The Funeral Portrait” by Laurent Linn
“The Carved Bear” by Brendan C Reichs
“Don’t You See That Cat?” by Gaby Triana
“The Golden Peacock” by Alethea Kontis
“The Knock-Knock Man” by Brenna Yovanoff
“Strange Music” by Joanna Parypinski
“Copy and Paste Kill” by Barry Lyga
“The House on the Hill” by Micol Ostow Harlan
“Jingle Jangle” by Kim Ventrella (Oooh, it’s me!)
“The Weeping Woman” by Courtney Alameda
“The Neighbor” by Amy Lukavics
“Tag, You’re It” by N. R. Lambert
“The Painted Skin” by Jamie Ford
“Lost to the World” by John Dixon
“The Bargain” by Aric Cushing
“Lint Trap” by Jonathan Auxier
“The Cries of the Cat” by Josh Malerman
“The Open Window” by Christopher Golden
“The Skelly-Horse” by T. J. Wooldridge
“The Umbrella Man” by Gary A. Braunbeck
“The Green Grabber” by D.J. MacHale
“Brain Spiders” by Luis Alberto Urrea and Rosario Urrea
“Hachishakusama” by Catherine Jordan
“Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” by Margaret Stohl
“In Stitches” by Michael Northrop
“The Bottle Tree” by Kami Marin Garcia
“The Ghost in Sam’s Closet” by R.L. Stine
“Rap Tap” by Sherrilyn Kenyon
“The Garage” by Tananarive Due
“Don’t Go into the Pumpkin Patch at Night” by Sheri White
“Pretty Girls Make Graves” by Tonya Hurley
“Whistle Past the Graveyard” by Z Brewer
“Long Shadows” by James A. Moore
“Mud” by Linda D Addison
“The Tall Ones” by Madeleine Roux


Hold on, what about the artwork?

I know what you’re thinking: The artwork was what made the original books so terrifying, right? I couldn’t agree more, and this anthology will not disappoint. It features gorgeous, ethereal and so-so haunting images by the amazing Iris Compiet.

Iris Compiet

Iris Compiet is an award-winning artist from the Netherlands. She has worked for a wide range of international clients and contributed to gallery shows and art annuals. She is also the creator of the book Faeries of the Faultlines. Drawing inspiration from European folklore, mythology, fairy tales, and the world around her, she strives to open a gateway to the imagination to ignite it even further.

Kim: Your illustrations are gorgeous, surreal and unsettling. Were you inspired by Stephen Gammell’s illustrations from the original SCARY STORIES books? How did you bring your own voice to the project?

Iris: I’ve been working in this illustration style for a while now, mixing ink with pencils and such to create a mood. I always try to adapt my illustrations to the needs of the book and stories, to help get across the feel of them and this style was the perfect fit. Rough and a bit gnarly. I think the use of materials and technique is very important in getting across the feel of the story, the illustration has to give the reader a little bit more information, heighten the mood so to speak. It seemed a perfect fit for these stories and it naturally ended up as a nod to the original scary stories, almost a homage if you will because those originals are pure genius. I wanted the illustrations to just underline that unsettling feel of the stories without giving away too much. 

Kim: What scared you as a kid? Do those fears inspire your artwork?

Iris: I think I was afraid of the usual things as a kid, the thing hiding in my closet or under my bed. The creak upstairs at my grandmothers, things like that. I love a good scare and loved watching shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark. When I worked on these stories I tried to tap into those feelings

Kim: You’re known for creating fantastical creatures with touches of darkness and whimsy. How did you develop your unique artistic style?

Iris: Developing a style takes many years and a lot of work. I didn’t set out intentionally to develop my style like this but I love to mix things, I don’t believe something is 100% good or bad. Without darkness there can be no light, that’s the way I see things. So I love to create art that has both in them. Depending on who is looking at the artwork, they’ll be either drawn to the dark or light in a piece. I enjoy creating art that has both. 

Kim: Why do you think kids connect so deeply with scary stories/art?

Iris: I think there’s nothing like a good scare, that rush of adrenaline, not just with kids. I think we all enjoy a good scare once in a while, to confront those fears and come out of it as the victor because we ‘survived’ the story. It’s a safe escape, reading scary stories. As a kid I grew up with the real fairytales, the ones with the chopped-off hands and the livers being eaten, things like that. I enjoyed Jaws as a kid even though it made me scared to go into the local pool, because there might be a giant shark there. It gave me a rush but it was a safe rush, nothing would ever happen to me. 

Oh, and in case you wanted a sneak peek at the chapter art:

About the Author

KIM VENTRELLA is the author of THE SECRET LIFE OF SAM (Fall 2020, HarperCollins), HELLO, FUTURE ME (Aug. 2020, Scholastic), BONE HOLLOW and SKELETON TREE. Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Find out more at https://kimventrella.com/ or follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram.

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Spooky Summer Writing Contest

Greetings fellow ghouls! Welcome to our first-ever Spooky Middle Grade Summer Writing Contest. Do you have what it takes to scare the pants off our spooky authors? Here are some quick rules:

  • Must be ages 8-12 to enter.
  • Submit your story to spookymiddlegrade@gmail.com by midnight CST on July 31, 2019.
  • Stories must be submitted as Word documents, 12pt font, double-spaced.
  • Stories should not exceed 1000 words.
  • Stories must start with the prompt (see below).
  • Include your full name and preferred contact email.
  • Ask for your parent or guardian’s permission before entering.

Three lucky winners will have their stories posted on spookymiddlegrade.com. They will also receive some cool, spooky swag and be forever known as “Official Scare Masters.”

STORY PROMPT:

Spending the summer in a haunted school bus in the middle of the woods was bad enough. Did there have to be killer pineapples?

SPOOKY SUMMER WRITING CONTEST

Spooky Stories All Year Round

There are many different types of spooky stories. Some feature humor, adventure and straight-up chills, while others explore sensitive topics and tug at readers’ emotions. No  matter what type of story you love, spooky books have a place in the classroom, library and beyond all year round, not just at Halloween. To delve deeper into this topic I spoke to some of today’s foremost authors of middle grade spooky stories.

Jan Eldredge

Why do you write spooky stories?
I guess I write spooky stories for the same reason I love to read them. They allow us an escape to dangerous, exciting worlds, worlds that we get to explore from the comfort of our safe, everyday lives.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories are chock full of benefits, particularly for young readers! Reading about young protagonists defeating evil can be very empowering for children. Spooky stories can also provide safe ways for kids to explore fear and experience a sense of danger, sort of like trying on a costume to see what it feels like to be someone else for a while. Spooky stories are great reminders that our boring lives aren’t quite so bad after all.

S.A. Larsen

Why do you write spooky stories?
For me, spooky stories are like passageways into the unknown and the misunderstood, mysteries that keep me on the edge of my seat. I’ve always been curious about the great beyond and the aspects of life we can’t see – like what really goes on inside a cemetery when none of the living are watching. Writing spooky tales with otherworldly or ghostly elements gives me the freedom to explore life themes such as the importance of family, self-esteem and confidence, and friendship in new and unexpected ways for young readers.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Tales with spooky and eerie elements explore the same important life struggles, hopes, dreams, and challenges that contemporary stories do. They also help kids see that fear is a part of life – fear of change, fear of a new school, fear of taking a test – and helps them see and workout solutions to overcoming fear. These are universal emotions and challenges that can be discussed throughout the year. The possibilities are endless!

Janet Fox

Why do you write spooky stories?
Really, the spooky part of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE was accidental! My original idea was more mystery/fantasy, but as I wrote the antagonist she became darker and darker and more nuanced for it. And the darkness of the antagonist reflected something in my own mood, something I needed to sort through. But my son said something recently that was inspired in this regard. He said that he loves dark, spooky stories because that one tiny glimmer of hope within the darkness – even if it’s just a candle – can feel like a brilliant light. And I thought, yes. That’s what I like, too. Magnifying the light in the darkness or the happiness within the spookiness. That’s the secret.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
I would say that’s why spooky stories are always in season – they offer that recognition that hope flickers brilliantly in the dark.

Samantha M. Clark

Why do you write spooky stories?
I get scared easily when I’m reading spooky stories, but I still love them. Spooky stories get my blood pumping, and I need to know if everything’s going to end safely. When it does, it helps me know that when I’m scared in real life, everything can be okay. So when there’s an opportunity to put some spookiness into my own stories, I jump at the chance. Getting scared can be fun, especially when we know we can always close the book if we need a break.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Halloween is, of course, when we celebrate spooky stories the most, but reading spooky stories is fun and good for us at any time. They remind us that it’s okay to be scared, and show us that we can be brave just like the characters in the stories. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” And with spooky stories, we can build courage and confidence safely while facing our fears within the pages of the books and with the characters as our guides and companions. Spooky stories help us grow, and that’s a good thing every day.

Jonathan Rosen

Why do you write spooky stories?
I’ve always loved spooky stories. Much more so than horror. I like the creepiness factor of the unknown. What’s there lurking in the shadows? The mystery, to me, is much scarier and interesting, than having the monster actually appear on the stage. Why is the ghost there? What’s the story behind it? How was that monster created? I loved these stories as a kid, and always felt fascinated by them. I like to write to my younger self and kids who were like me.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
There is no bad time to read scary stories. Yeah, they’re much better to read at Halloween time, but the kids who love them, don’t want to be relegated to one season a year for books. Kids like to be scared, to a degree, but then they know they can put the books away. They’re safe again. I also read a long time ago, and it’s true, spooky stories give kids the consequences of not following rules. Your Mogwai will turn to a Gremlin if you don’t follow them. Your vampire neighbor can get in your house, if you don’t follow the rule about not inviting him in. Spooky stories also open the mind to think of different possibilities. I know when I read them, I always went searching for more. More stories about the subject. I wanted to read about haunted places. The times when the ghosts came from. I think reading leads to more reading.

Kim Ventrella

Why do you write spooky stories?
I have always been interested in the intersection of darkness and whimsy. I love the space where macabre tales meet deeply-felt emotions and discoveries. Adding a spooky element allows me to explore difficult real-life topics in a way that I find more palatable and easier to understand.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories aren’t just about Halloween. They’re about exploring the mysterious all around us, searching for new possibilities, confronting our deepest fears and stepping out into the darkness to find that courage and resilience that resides within us all.