Please don’t mess with the classics

Mark Pellegrini of Adventures in Poor Taste reveals that publisher HarperCollins has replaced Stephen Gammell’s quite literally unforgettable illustrations from Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. (Via Rob Sheridan and io9.) The reason this is a terrible idea is quite easy to grasp: These are the best chlidren’s book illustrations I’ve ever seen. My wife and I are in our mid-30s and came across these books well over two decades ago, yet Gammell’s art (and Schwartz’s strong prose, too, but mostly the art) are so effective that she and I were still discussing them in reverent, slightly panicky tones just a few days ago, well before I’d heard about this ill-advised bowdlerization. When I pulled my Scary Stories Treasury off the bookshelf to show her a particular illustration, she literally made me put it away. That’s how freaked out a grown woman was by Gammell’s art. Which, I suppose, is why HarperCollins is getting rid of it — but it’s also why the books are rightfully considered classics, why they’re worth re-publishing 30 years after their initial release to begin with. I hate to think of generations of children robbed of one of the most intensely pleasurable frightening experiences they’re likely to ever have, in favor of pleasant but toothless “spooky” stuff.

I reviewed the Scary Stories Treasury a couple years ago, and discovered that it had lost none of its power. I advise you to get your hands on the original versions by any means necessary lest you lose the ability to make that same discovery.

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8 Responses to Please don’t mess with the classics

  1. John says:

    The perception that it’s okay to just replace illustrations always irks me. They wouldn’t keep the illustrations but have someone re-write the text, even though that would be just as valid in many cases.

    That said, it’s always nice to see new illustrators’ interpretations. But why not keep the old one in print? (Well, because it’s expensive, obviously. I can’t offer any solution there… maybe if the original illustrations could be released public-domain when this happens?)

  2. Ryan Cecil says:

    Whaa?!!? That’s such a crazy decision. I share every feeling expressed here. It’s such a shame for all the future young readers who won’t care about this book. The artwork was so amazing… the only comparably effective story illustrations I can think of are from fantasies where it’s just an imagination painting. These paintings are deeper than that: they’re really scary, many are vague but they have a core feeling that connects to the story just right. Some of them were just floaty creepy messes that scared the shit out of me.

    When I look at the new illustrations, it makes me sad, because I think it detracts from the story. It takes me out of it.

  3. Lane Milburn says:

    Great post. I remember kids poring over the illustrations in 2nd-3rd grade? My brain has never healed. When I look at it again I feel like Gammell was probing psychic territory that I don’t recognize in other artists/filmakers. And to get those effects through drawing! If my perception is coated in nostalgia, it’s probably a thin coat.
    His other work is notably NOT like this. What I could find online of Gammell’s illustrations were much more colorful and welcoming.

  4. Chris Ward says:

    I’m with Lane. I have never recovered from those books. There’s something special about that trauma: when I was a kid, I believed adults would never lead me down a road where I had a chance of being scared. Certainly not from picking something up from a Book Fair. My world was shattered a few times. The first was this series, which fucking wrecked my nights. I lost a lot of sleep over these. The second was when a librarian mistakenly filed Bernie Wrightson and Stephen King’s “Cycle of the Werewolf” in the kids section because it was a comic book, and comic books were for kids.

    I’ve never forgotten either, along with my earliest comedic influence: Wayside Stories from Sideways School, which is essential reading for kids. The “Sammy The Dead Rat” chapter is on par with Norm MacDonald’s most absurd, meta stuff as far as I’m concerned.

    I’m gonna make sure my kids get their hands on them too. I still have them.

  5. Thanks for weighing in, everyone. John, Ryan, Lane, I’m particularly gratified to see artists speak to what a profound impact these books had on so many former kids. I’ve heard that across the board everywhere I’ve talked about this — here, Twitter, Facebook — and believe me, the demographics of people following me on those three platforms are pretty diverse. I have to wonder who the heck the publisher was listening to given the uniform awe in which Gammell’s work appears to be held. Nervous school boards, I assume.

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  7. Jesse McManus says:

    several years ago i went up to mr. gammell at a book convention and told him that his work scared the shit out of me as a kid and that i was thankful for it, yessir. he seemed fairly disgruntled/ambivalent. i love these drawings and the thought of them being replaced, the feeling i’m filled with is only comparable to the abject terror i still recieve from his entire catalog, but i doubt he’s distressed.

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