For a certain subset of readers who came through their middle-grade years in the 1980s, there are few books as iconic as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy, in which author Alvin Schwartz collected and retold chilling tales from folklore and urban legend for a young audience. The stories (and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell) were both personally and culturally significant, delightfully scarring and shaping a generation of readers (and, to a lesser degree, those generations who have followed), despite outcries from some educators and librarians, who felt the violence, subject matter, and tone (all the elements that made the books so popular) were not appropriate for children. The trilogy sold more than seven million copies and paved the way for the YA horror boom of the late 1980s and ’90s.
Now, Kitchener, Ontario, writer Jeff Szpirglas seems poised to carry Schwartz’s mantle forward. The first two books in his new series, Tales from Beyond the Brain and Tales from the Fringes of Fear, each contain 13 scary stories, illustrated in stark and disturbing monochrome by Steven P. Hughes.
Unlike the Schwartz collections, Szpirglas’s tales are all original, each dipping into the horror canon and distilling crucial tropes and motifs as an introduction for middle-grade readers. The chills are effective, not only because the stories are rooted in tradition but because of how they are grounded in the everyday reality of their young readers. “An Apple a Day,” the first story in the first collection, is a revenge tale set in Mr. Oakwood’s classroom in which young Megan is named Student of the Day. “Megan knew that the Student of the Day was expected to give Mr. Oakwood an apple. It was one of those things nobody questioned, like standing up to sing the national anthem, or lining up with your class outside the school when the entry bell rang.” Mr. Oakwood, though, is not a nice teacher, and he doesn’t respond well when Megan brings him a fig. Nevertheless, he eats it and the wasp eggs concealed within it, which gestate very quickly in the warmth of Mr. Oakwood’s stomach. “Like a bee, when Megan got angry, she could sting.”
“A Kernel Takes Root,” also from the first book, takes a similar approach, anchoring the story in the most mundane of occurrences – in this case, a popcorn kernel stuck between the teeth – and shifting effortlessly into body horror and transformation. It’s genuinely chilling.
“Hibernaculum,” in Tales from the Fringes of Fear, follows a class field trip to an “outdoor education center” featuring a series of scary waypoints, from the natural creepiness of a hibernaculum (a winter nesting ball of snakes), to a deserted schoolhouse with a mysterious well, to a forced intrusion and possession of one of the students. Word to the wise: if you have any remote wariness about snakes, you might want to avoid this one.
Szpirglas doesn’t limit himself to eliciting fear, however. A number of the stories draw on science-fiction tropes, including time travel and tears in dimensional walls. But they always come back to the horrific – or, at least, the deeply upsetting.
Szpirglas writes with a casual straightforwardness and has a keen sense of when to embrace terror and, crucially, when it is more effective to cut away, not out of coyness or reticence but in order to let the horrifying implications build in readers’ minds. There is a strong understanding of children in these stories: their fears, of course, but also their frustrations and joys.
While it may sound trite, the key to the success of these volumes is that the stories work. They are, in the main, genuinely scary, achieving Edgar Allan Poe’s ideal “single effect”: every element of each story working together to frighten a new generation of children.