Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Terrible Workings of Stephen Gammell

If you were a kid in the late 80s early 90s, your elementary school annual book fair was a memorable experience, especially if you picked up a copy of Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Many of the tales are hardly classics, and while many of us have moved on to more competent horrors, this series of books remains a hallmark of childhood for many who straddle the Gen X /Gen Y fence.

Why? The illustrations of course. Artist Stephen Gammell raised each little spooky vignette to a level that creates outright dread. The grotesque meets the atmospheric, and every corpse-like ink splatter made the reader feel less like they were reading a book than being watched, or even hunted. For me, these figures have lingered in the back of my mind well into adulthood.

His scenes are of a grim pastoral landscape (that must have been influenced by his childhood in Iowa) swarming with shapes that you innately know are sentient, savage and hungry. The figures are skeletal, rotting, and gape-mouthed; the art is enduringly physical, and it brilliantly marries with the spectral in these books. While the individual tales may be childish, Gammell reminds us why death frightens us.
The appreciation for this artist's contribution to American nightmares grows, as a Stephen Gammell fan page was recently launched on Facebook


Cyndi said...

I was in Borders a couple of days ago, and saw that the books no longer have these illustrations. They have "friendlier" drawings. Made the book look little kiddish, and hokey. These illustrations definitely helped to make the book!

Ephemerot said...

That ain't right. The illustrations was the reason it resonated with so many of us. My memories of that book exist because of Gammell. I think they do the book a diservice by toning it down. Kids can handle the grotesque. We did.

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