Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Covers of Fright Time

What time is it?

That's right. It's Fright Time time.

Do you remember these? These books would haunt--haunt, I say--the shelves of every public library that I frequented in my youth. And yet I would never hear anyone talk about them, certainly not at the frequency of other horror heavies like Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. And yet I would see them all the time. I actually got the bulk of my collection (which I still own) from my grandfather who would always pick up any spooky-related tome that he spotted from the Goodwill where he worked. Bless him.

Fright Time was an original series from Great Illustrated Classics, a fact that had previously eluded me and which now, in retrospect, makes perfect sense. The covers are quite similar to the literary adaptations that the publisher produced (of which I was a faithful devourer of as well), but Fright Time boasts a neat retro-comic book look that tickles my sensibilities, not to mention the identical interior print and the same pool of writers working on both series.

Up first is this awesome Uncle Creepy-lookalike menacing a sweatered boy in the "Madman on Main Street." Mmmarvelous!

Two snoopy kids in sweaters do a little spelunking on the side while a sardonic skeleton scans the scary scenario. Sssss.

Super creepy. Hooded fiends with glowing eyes are always an easy sell for me, but this bugger is sporting some nasty looking purple claws that look perfect for face-ripping.

These children learn from the errors of those who preceded them by opting for jackets over cozy sweaters but that doesn't keep the fetid corpse of a swamp man from tracking them down. I love the garish green color at work and how the title "Don't Breathe" hangs over the zombie.

There's a real weirdness to this one that has only come to me in degrees over the years. I always took the two sprouts pictured here to be adventurous companions like the ones in the previous covers, and for some reason I thought that the orange light was the outdoor glow like from a set of double doors opening (don't ask). But now that I'm older and wiser, I wonder if the little girl is actually the ever-present Threat, but what is she exactly? An alien being beamed down from the mother ship? A ghost with a tangy phosphorescence? A groupie commanding the boy to rock on? I don't know, but that look on her face makes me uncomfortable.

Jack Torrance: The Early Years? It's pretty boss, actually. A thorny saber-tooth tiger with a face that really stays with you even after you've closed your eyes. Fright Time really had some serious artwork in the early "issues" compared to the cartoony renderings of other series. Why am I the only one who bought these?

The return of Gnarled Old Man! Look out, Marty McFly, he's gonna squish your head! That chick is about to karate chop his giant hand! Roller coasters! 

It seems that orange sweaters became the Red Shirts of the Fright Time universe; the wearing of said article always ensured a child's brush with the supernatural, as the boy here will tell you just as he breaks off into a Bionic Man run.

Yikes! Did these tots get stranded on Dr. Moreau's island? It's kind of interesting how the boy's hand is positioned; are those merely his thumb and forefinger paralyzed with fear or did our bestial friend here nibble the rest off? These are questions that need to be asked.

"Allow me to break the ice." Let's hear it for the ever-reliable skull. Nothing says "horror" like that grinning mask that lies underneath our fleshy facades. I like to think that this cover was a Christmas greeting card that quickly went to hell.

Now what the hell is going on here? Is this kid at the beach? Why is he sitting in water with his pants and shoes on? Out of all the things to be wearing in the water, those have to be in the top two. Was he about to begin a race? What has summoned the grimy sea captain from his briny tomb? Is he a demon sent to punish irresponsible swimwear?

The twelfth book in the series saw a shift in artistic designs, the aged, almost painterly illustrations being traded in for a kind of coloring book-art sheen. This graveyard would have looked so much cooler the other way.

Never trust a guy with a widow's peak. Ever. If he's wearing a cape, you have no one to blame but yourself for what happens to you.

Yeah. Gross. 


Carousels are a favorite trope of juvenile horror, so much so that Annette and Gina Cascone's Deadtime Stories series had a carnival-themed book that was called Welcome to the Terror-Go-Round!


Also a favorite trope: the wicked wax museum. I'm always a sucker for a good story in this vein, especially ones that deal with all the terrifying and infamous figures of history and fiction coming to horrible life! And it's a bonus if we get to see the figures putrefying into melted puddles of goo.

An intriguing scenario to be sure. Have the kids meddled with scientific powers too great for them? Perhaps it's a machine that projects their most vivid fears, fear in this case being licorice-lipped Count Dracula.

For me, the most terrifying part of The Wizard of Oz was the twister, a howling banshee of destruction that brought black doom to anyone in its path. If the twister had a glowering face with a Fu Manchu stache, I probably would have looked like the girl waving hello at us.

Tales of the Gross and Gruesome by Ellen Steiber (1995): Squicksilver Highway

Hey guy, don’t let that title throw you off too badly. Yes, author Ellen Steiber’s short stories--a mix of original imaginings and retellings of folkloric mainstays--offer up the bloody bits (all of which are appropriately icky) but underneath that finely-spread coating of grue there is much quaint, evocative, and effective writing to be had in a volume promising Tales of the Gross and Gruesome (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1995).

Steiber, who has such 90s-tastic writing credits as entries in the book series for television stalwarts like FULL HOUSE and THE X-FILES, works with the genre’s trappings with surprising ease, crafting palpable atmospheres of dread and foreboding that reach a level of sophistication that’s incredibly heartening to see in juvenile fiction. Steiber’s at the top of her game especially when it comes to landscapes, none moreso than in the eerie “Shelter,” with her evocations of the damp English moors and the ghosts that haunt its lands, but she’s just as good in “The Haunted Coachman” with her depictions of sweet Southern Gothic in her twist on the old “Room for one more” chestnut.

One wonders why Steiber didn’t write a collection of wholly original fiction. Perhaps it came down to publishing politics (which might explain the familiar ring of the front cover tagline: “Kids Beware—It's Time For a Scare!”), but I would have loved to seen her ply her imagination to full effect. Even the most derivative of the bunch, “Planet Gross,” a saga about a sister enacting revenge on her violent video game-loving little brother, has bursts of tickling glee as Steiber indulges in graphic (and gross) descriptions of green vampire bats slurping up nose slime and worms pouring out of ruptured foreheads. Yeah, it’s pretty sweet.

Steiber's original novel for THE X-FILES series.

Reading Steiber’s modest volume further opened up my eyes to how sheltered I was as someone who grew up predominantly on the fiction of R. L. Stine and the authors that were directly influenced by it. Robert Lawrence always kept things relatively safe in the Goosebumps series; the tongue was never far from the cheek in those books, and any mentioning of blood or even death were kept to a bare minimum.

Here Steiber naturally describes a teenage boy’s throat mauling by ghost dog and another’s sympathetic pain of having his bones broken and flesh mangled after a dizzying fall. The splatter never for a moment feels forced or trite; even the inevitable conclusion of "The Itch," based on the urban legend of spiders laying their eggs in unwanted places, can't help but provoke a shiver in Steiber's descriptions of the crawling, aching horror underneath the hero's skin. The tales are not all viscera though. Steiber knows the power of subdued writing, as she conjures quietly haunting images like a child's footprint in the bank of an arroyo, pictures that stir up unease more for what they imply than what they depict.

I especially liked how threatening the ghosts are characterized. They're never friendly and never afraid to hurt children. This creates a real immediacy in the stories, especially when the tots realize that "The Weeping Woman" on the other side of the mirror or the mutilated mountaineer in "Abracadaver" are eager and willing to steal them away from this world. This is something that was probably a little more common in juvenile horror than I'm giving credit for, but reading Tales of the Gross and Gruesome has acted as a great re-introduction to how merciless these kinds of stories could be.

Steiber's contribution to the ZODIAC CHILLERS series.

Just as surprising are little snippets of prose that seem relatively simple and harmless in construction, but ones that Steiber packs with a solid punch. Take the adventurous boy's realization of his serious predicament from "Abracadaver":

He looked at the wall of crumbling granite in front of him. His life had come down to one very simple choice: Climb or fall.

I mean, damn. That's some heavy stuff. "Killer Bees," the story that caps the collection, is just as eager to bring on the hurt.  It's basically a conte cruel for children. The narrative is mean-spirited in little ways that went way over my head on the first outing. Even being a slight arachnophobe, I was aghast during the scene where the bully villain presents the hero with the dissected body of his heretofore missing pet tarantula in tupperware as his dinner. I'd say you couldn't write this stuff, but apparently you can.

Steiber's adult fantasy appeared in the FAIRY TALE ANTHOLOGIES edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

I remember reading Tales around the time I was in 4th or 5th grade and thinking it was generally unremarkable and to that I have to ask "What the hell  was wrong with you, Little Septimus? Did you not appreciate icy subtlety and genuine suspense because your palate had been so refined with talking lawn gnomes? Are you trying to fill your life with regrettable decisions?"

It's too bad that Steiber didn't get a chance to make a respectable Gross and Gruesome series, as this slim little number proves that she was a true blue hackle-raiser and adept at a chilling turn of phrase. Fans of horrific juvenilia may be remiss that she wasn't more prolific in the genre, but those who take the trip down this squicksilver highway will be thankful for the ride.