Wednesday, July 27, 2016

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.

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