It’s the right time of year for the macabre—Halloween approaching, the air crisp and sharp with the smell of leaves both alive and rotting, the sun setting earlier and the evenings aglow with low red light. It’s my favorite time of year and it has been since I was a wee thing. (Then of course the delightful joy of being able to wear your best dress-up clothes outside with no excuses during the goth-kid teenage years.) Halloween is a holiday, too, that seems to bridge age gaps and swirl us all into a festival of merriment. Whether you’re trick-or-treating or having a few drinks with friends around a bonfire, it’s great fun.
Creepiness seems to me somehow age-proof, also. Many of the things I find myself enjoying around this time of year, or returning to like an old friend to read again, are considered works for “all ages.” Scary Stories, for example—those things still give you the chills as an adult, don’t tell me they don’t. The Nightmare Before Christmas, which will always be a Halloween movie to me. The Halloween Tree, book and film, is perfect for the season. Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies (often joked about as the most inappropriate alphabet book of all time).
There are also many creators making up new, gorgeous, macabre stories for the young readers today who are just starting their Halloween traditions and finding their favorite creepy tales. And they’re damned good for adults, too.
One of the most prolific artists of the “New Creepy” is without a doubt Gris Grimly. A favorite of mine are his illustrated Edgar Allen Poe books, Tales of Death and Dementia and Tales of Mystery and Madness. To call them illustrated books is perhaps wrong—they’re sequential graphic stories, not quite comics and not quite an illustrated book, either. The interesting thing is that they’re published by Atheneum, a children’s imprint of Simon & Schuster—not a comics press, or an adult press. They’re marketed to young readers, and are perfectly appropriate for them (in the way that Poe is; who wasn’t reading him at ten or eleven years old, scared helpless?), but I’m in ridiculous love with them as an adult graphic novel fan. The grotesque is grotesque, the frightful is frightful, and the beautiful is creepily so: Grimly’s art is extreme and visceral without ever treading into territory that a parent might find objectionable. It doesn’t need to be gory or over-the-top because the facial expressions and sketchy, long lines of bodies live and dead hold all the tension they need to.
Grimly has done other work, too, like his Wicked Nursery Rhymes series. One of his collaborations leads me into the next master of the “New Creepy”—Neil Gaiman, who captured my heart as a young reader with his adult comics and again as an adult with his children’s literature. The Dangerous Alphabet, a toddler-oriented book, is illustrated by Gris Grimly and reminds me of nothing more than the Edward Gorey book mentioned above. It’s like a book of deliciously creepy paintings for me, but for a kid-reader, it’s a scary-but-not-too-scary tale that might help teach them their alphabet.
Gaiman’s appeal to kids and adults both can’t be better exemplified than by his multiple award-winning young reader’s novel, The Graveyard Book. It won the prestigious Newberry for children’s literature as well as the Hugo for best speculative fiction novel—those are two seemingly mutually exclusive awards, but the “New Creepy” seems to be all about conquering pre-determined age gaps. The Graveyard Book was dark, beautiful and haunting for me, as an adult reader, and judging by the fact that it spent more than 52 weeks on the children’s bestseller list, kids liked it too. His book Coraline is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read, nightmares and all, but I would have loved it too as a young reader.
Jill Thompson, who also worked with Gaiman on Sandman and Death, wrote a series of children’s books and comics in the late nineties called Scary Godmother that were designed to be for both kids and adults equally. They’re truly all-ages—a touch of the spooky, of the scary, and of the sweet. (More will come later this month on both Scary Godmother and Jill Thompson, just you wait and keep your fingers crossed.)
The “New Creepy” might be all in my head, but I sincerely hope not. I love that barriers are coming down, especially the false barriers against adults reading “kiddie books,” and we can all enjoy books together, celebrate reading together. When my nieces are old enough to read them and enjoy them, I plan on buying them copies of The Graveyard Book and Coraline. I hope we can read them together one day. I hope that if I choose to reproduce one day, my kid and I will be able to curl up over Scary Stories and some Gris Grimly, too.
So, in honor of the Halloween season and the growth of truly all-ages creepy fiction: what are your favorites? Books that scared you as a kid that you still like as an adult? My partner suggested the Weird ____ books about state myths and legends—Weird Kentucky, in our case. (Man, have we got some legends.) He loved local monsters and spooky stories as a kid, and totally still does.
What are yours, or your children’s?