Blood From The Air: The Artwork of “Scary Stories,” And the Value of Nightmares

note: I originally wrote this piece in 2011, though it seems timely to exhume it now that Guillermo del Toro is working on a film adaptation of the books that inspired it.

During my days working at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I spent my fair share of time acting as a sounding board for the champions of “nice things”; politely and empathetically absorbing their stock complaints about the work on hand: why is everything here so depressing?! Why can’t you ever have anything nice?! Different defenses had to be prepared depending on which piece offended the most, and it wasn’t always easy to offer up a mannered explanation that calmed the nerves of the patrons and didn’t make me feel intellectually dishonest. It was easier to, say, make some critical justification for Charles Ray’s orgiastic mannequin sculptures than it was to defend the MCA’s policies restricting public interaction with his art — I had no rebuttal for patrons who wondered why their kids weren’t allowed to play on the life-sized fire truck sculpted by the same artist (it was parked invitingly on the plaza in front of the museum). Of course, there was the great hue and cry raised against conceptualist obfuscation, and extreme distaste for pieces powered by text and technology rather than by oil paints and elbow grease. Then there was the material that just gave people the creeps: there was nary a busy day of gallery-viewing that didn’t include at least one outraged or shell-shocked patron railing against the ‘ugliness’ or ‘morbidity’ of the Francis Bacon work in the museum’s permanent collection, namely his 1949 Study For A Portrait.

Yes, a person or two did feel traumatized by this piece, and let me know all about it, as if I had a direct line to the spirit of the artist. In retrospect, if I had been given the opportunity to take these arguments over the legitimacy of traumatizing art further, I might have suggested that some of the most effectively morbid art I’ve seen resided not in the scientifically austere and “adult” environment of a metropolitan modern art museum, but in the pages of some highly popular children’s books. Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark collections, which I stumbled across when I was about seven years old, were probably my most memorable early introduction to the art of the macabre. It was maybe not the best idea for me, an impressionable young boy prone to inexplicable audio-visual hallucinations, to be taken with this kind of imagery: even without additional reference points, my apophenic imagination often led to nightly conjurings of Beksinski-like limbonic wastelands on my bedroom walls.

Before going any further, I have to stress that it wasn’t actually the text contents of these collections that helped cultivate such a mind state. The actual stories on tap in the Scary Stories… series were, as others have noted before me, not really that frightening for kids growing up in a world brimful of cinematic phantasms, and any American child who had gone on a camping expedition had likely heard some variant on them before seeing them in print. There was, for example, the ‘old standby’ campfire classic involving a voice in the woods that gets closer and closer until, at the climactic point of uneasiness, the story’s narrator jumps towards one of the fireside listeners and screams loudly. There were also stock tales of ghostly revenge, of human body parts being made into sausages, and of confrontations with sinister shape-shifters. Such stories are best read as historical slices of Americana; they are less of a spooky entertainment than they are a window onto attitudes towards justice, violence, and the natural world as they existed on the pre-industrialized American frontier.

Now, the illustrations that fleshed out the book, contributed by one Stephen Gammell, are another story entirely. Despite their also featuring such archaic relics as wooden rocking chairs and the clothing typical of period fieldhands, they transcend time in the same way that a melting Dali pocketwatch seems to be a documentation of a time as of yet unrealized, rather than being a recognizable relic from the past. It comes from some time where there time is, in fact, irrelevant, and where physical laws are infinitely malleable; capable of being dreamed in or out of existence.

To this day, I’m still astounded that Gammell’s work was chosen to enliven these quaint little folk tales- not because his work isn’t up to the task, but because it is far too effective a solvent for stripping the daylight from any given reading environment. Looking back on Gammell’s illustrations, I repeatedly find myself wondering how these potent nightmare generators found their way into a book intended for children. I say this not because I subscribe to the conventional stupidity that tells us children are all helpless and incapable of critical thought, but because there is a media industry that does believe this nonsense, and is not prone to distributing any material that could be seen as remotely challenging to young minds. As such, I’m fairly convinced that, minus these images, the book series would not have held the unenvied #1 spot on the American Library Association’s list of books “most challenged” for removal from public libraries during the years 1990–1999 (the list, by the way, is a predictable melange of titles culled from the sex education, ‘juvenile delinquent drama’ and sci-fi / fantasy categories, and puzzlingly includes the phony drug confessional and morality fable Go Ask Alice among the other ‘moral majority’-provoking volumes).

While I realize I can only speak for myself where this work’s emotive effect is concerned, Gammell’s illustrations gain their eerie affective strength from — paradoxically — his reliance on a compositional veneer of seemingly fragile and mutable elements (e.g. vague cloud-forms and frayed shreds of indistinct organic material). Fog, sinew, and a viscous sanguine liquid are the primary elements of Gammell’s somber and decaying Limbo-scape, all of them conspiring to bewilder the people who tour through it and to make escape seem like less of an option (in fact, the foggier of his images often have me squinting, in a most counter-intuitive manner, to ‘find’ some occluded figure that is not immediately visible on the page, which can only be revealed by a concentrated and demanding gaze). With little more than this spartan set of basic visual elements, combined with a masterful handling of shading technique, Gammell’s monochrome monstrosities achieve an above-average depth of field and fluidity. Nothing is overwrought or baroque in the manner of so much present-day macabre artwork: sparse plains, seething night skies and unfurnished, crumbling interiors act as the main stages for Gammell’s star attractions. These include (but are not limited to) creatures with bottomless pits in the place of eyes, proportionally distorted horse-human hybrids and, in one case, what I can only describe as a conical lump of flesh and / or earth pulling a ghoulish figure through the sky while an airborne face of death looks on amusedly. In spite of their general gruesomeness, these entities trap the viewer’s gaze and invite curious, steady contemplation.

Though Gammell’s myriad visual elements coalesce into recognizably human and animal forms, the impression one gets is not of distinct horrific entities (e.g. ghosts, vampires, werewolves etc.) but of an entire realm where a single malevolent consciousness permeates all organic material, shaping this raw matter into manifestations of its will. Like those old H.P. Lovecraft tales that succeed in spite of having no straightforward narrative, merely tracing the shape of evil and suggesting a coming conflagration, the best of Gammell’s drawings for the Scary Stories constitute a kind of ambient horror: a style with progenitors such as Austin Spare (though his artwork, like the proto-Surrealist hymns of Isidore Ducasse, always proferred a queasy alternation between horror and eroticism). Even in the drawings that do consist of a single figure rendered in a field of negative space, we still get the impression of an omnipresent, endlessly mutable force rather than a discreet entity or “thing” to be fled from. The structurally solid, clearly defined spaces in Gammell’s pictures are regularly at odds with an uncanny evanescence, or a feeling of things either transitioning into being or dissipating into non-being. Doorways and portals also figure into several of the illustrations for the books, but there is no assurance that they lead to anything less morbid. This impression of immersiveness is more characteristic of nightmares than many other examples of horror-themed artwork I’ve seen, and like those other works, it reveals that nightmares themselves do not need to play upon fears of death and pain to maintain their power: they need only to provide vivid examples of realms where the dreamer has no control.

The truly remarkable thing about the Scary Stories illustrations is that they are not even the ‘stock-in-trade’ that is indicative of the artist’s style as a whole. Gammell is a winner of a Caldecott award (an American prize presented annually for ‘the most distinguished picture book for children’), with a few dozen titles under his belt, many titles featuring significantly more vibrant and ebullient imagery. Gammell has also lent his work to more conventional horror paperbacks, with his other foray into grim children’s work being his illustrations for Eve Bunting’s Terrible Things: an Allegory of the Holocaust, which appeared within a year of the first Scary Stories volume. Both that title and others from his late 1970s / early 1980s heyday feature his deeply melancholic, monochromatic fog-scapes with their wild vegetation rendered to look like streaming blood. Gammell capably produces illustrations that are unlike the Scary Stories-style commissions in not only mood, but in technique as well- some would point to this fact as proof of the diverse repertoire an artist must have when producing for a relatively more commercial market, and others would suggest that something “came over” the man and steered his output a la the ‘automatic’ artwork of Spare and the later Surrealists. I don’t know for sure. My reluctance to provide closure by just tracking down Gammell himself stems, perhaps, from the fact that I enjoy entertaining my own fantastic assumptions…I would be let down by learning that there was a more banal back story associated with this work.

Let me just say, for the record, that I am not an ardent believer in ghosts, or any other non-corporeal entities that might bear ill will towards me. I’ve ben invited on “ghost hunting” excursions and related activities that haven’t done much to alter this perception. What I do believe in is the human mind’s amazing capacity for self-deception; an unshakable need for psychic ‘closure’ or for a clear visualization of anxieties and traumas whose confrontation might serve as a necessary step towards mastering them. This, I believe, can result in the projection of internalized phantasms and horrors into the external world, with the reports of people affected by sleep paralysis being just one example of this phenomenon. While the ineffable weirdness they confront in this state may not have the power to reach out and kill them, it must be profoundly unpleasant to lack the ability to set clear conceptual boundaries; the contents of the unconscious mind regularly resisting conscious filtering and overwhelming the senses with a tortuous unpredictability.

Whether the types of things that Gammell illustrates in Scary Stories are real or not, it would not be pleasant to share one’s world with them. What it all comes down to, then, is a solemn reverence towards nightmares themselves rather than a fear of their contents becoming a physical, non-falsifiable reality: Gammell’s talent lies in his clear appreciation of the fact that nightmares can be as meaningful to spiritual development as the most utopian of dreams.