In my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me, I mentioned how influential horror stories were on me as a kid, and how much I adored seeking them out and reading them, whether they were intended for children or not (my parents were pretty chill that way). Sure, I delved into the very disturbing adult worlds created by Poe and Lovecraft, King and Barker, Matheson and Bradbury. But I was still a kid, and as such, I enjoyed kids’ stories too.
I can’t remember who gave it to me (it could have been my parents or another close relative), but when I was a darkling little sprog I received a delightful black box set containing five slim paperbacks with different colored spines. I recently searched for the entire box set online, but to no avail; it appears that the books are only sold individually now, and used, at that. But it was the more freewheeling 1970s, and I had more scary bang for the buck, yo. While only one of the books was straight-up horror, the others had enough of a dark fantasy or funny fairy-tale vibe to keep me enchanted, and I read those five books until they literally fell to pieces.
The largest and scariest book in the collection was Maria Leach’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was an illustrated compendium of traditional ghost stories, urban legends, and poems, with some handy ghost tips thrown in at the end (for example, I distinctly remember the book warning me not to touch a hat that had been left in the road with a stick lying across it, since it belonged to a spirit who was presumably coming back to fetch it at some point. Stay away from haunts’ hats, kids; the dead are really touchy about their headwear). It contained many, many well-known tales, such as “The Golden Arm,” “Sweet William’s Ghost,” and that one about the kid who goes into a cemetery on a dare and plunges his knife into a grave and then ends up dying of fright like a dumbass because he thinks the corpse has reached up and grabbed him. I also recall a few funny ones, like the story about the guy with the super long teeth (which is actually kind of creepy now that I think about it), or the one about an old man shooting a bunch of holes in a nightshirt hanging from the line because he thought it was a ghost.
The two stories I remember the best, though, were naturally the ones I thought were the scariest. The first of these was “Sop, Doll,” an unsettling tale about a guy who is eating some sort of gruel in his shack and is inexplicably visited by a series of larger and larger cats. Did I mention that the cats could talk, and they kept saying they were waiting for someone? And also that the guy was so freaked out by this situation that he ended up slicing off one of the bigger cats’ paws? Oh, and also that the next day, his wife was MISSING HER HAND and thus was probably, you know, a shapeshifting witch? Seems like something you should sort out before the wedding bells ring, guy, but who am I to judge, right?
I can’t remember the name of my other favorite story (was it in Spanish?), but I still recall the details fairly vividly because it featured beheading, and beheadings have always been one of my morbid fascinations. A dude was ambling back from the butcher with a calf’s head in a bag. He was going to eat it for dinner, which probably horrified child-me more than the outcome of the actual story did. But as he walked, the bag was dripping blood everywhere, and eventually someone called him on it and asked him to show the calf’s head, because your dinner shouldn’t be bleeding that much when you just bought it from the butcher, right? Hell, everyone knows that. (Note: I did not know that.) So the dude pulls the thing out of the bag, cavalier as you please, and it turns out (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN) it isn’t a calf’s head at all, but the severed head of a friend of his. Dude was taken into custody and promptly hanged for murder. Even when I was a kid, though, something about this tale didn’t sit right. I mean, I seem to remember that the story mentioned, “Oh yeah, that dude totally cut off his friend’s head,” but if that were so, why in hell would he be carrying the bloody head-bag through the streets where everyone could see him? And why would he whip out the head for the first rando who asked? I guess I just don’t understand crime.
The second book in the set, The Witch’s Egg by Madeleine Edmondson, didn’t make quite as large an impression as the others, though it did feature a crabby old witch, always a plus in any story (take my novel about a couple of crabby old witches, Red Menace, for instance). It was a sort of Grinch-like story, as I recall, about the aforementioned cranky hag having her black, black heart softened when she raises a baby bird that hatches from an egg she finds. Was she planning on eating the egg at first? Did she kill the mama bird? Probably, she was an asshole like that. I really can’t remember. But still, super fucking heartwarming.
Miss Clafooty and the Demon by J. David Townsend will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was this book (along with John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls) that initiated me into the wonderfully grotesque world of Edward Gorey, who did the illustrations. I absolutely loved his fanciful drawings for this book, and I loved the story itself just as much. The prim and miserly Miss Clafooty is simply rolling in loot, but her mansion is all ramshackle and busted up, she wears layers of old, out-of-style duds like a bag lady, she only eats stale bread crusts and expired peas, and she never invites anyone over because that means she’d have to spend some of the oodles of gold and silver coins she keeps stored in an old stocking. Rather like Smaug if he were a doddering middle-aged Victorian hausfrau, Miss Clafooty loves nothing more than sitting in her broken-down house and running her fingers through her coins and congratulating herself on how much money she didn’t have to spend that day. But this douchey one-percenter is soon put in her place by the appearance of a small purple demon (because why not?) with “a mouth like an oven” who shames the woman so much that she finally pulls the greed-plug out of her butthole and buys some actual food and some nice clothes and fixes her house up and invites everyone over for a big-ass shindig. Occupy Clafooty!
By far my favorite book of the set was Margaret Storey’s Timothy and Two Witches. I was absolutely enthralled by its darkly fantastical atmosphere and its charming British setting and tone. Timothy is sent to live with his aunt, I believe, after his parents die (probably). His aunt is a white witch, and she’s young and pretty, and all sorts of cool shit happens in her house, like the soap just jumps into your hand when you need it, and stuff cleans up after itself. I also have a clear memory (because even as a child I was a total dessert whore) of the little cakes the aunt would give to Timothy. She didn’t bake them or anything, she just made them magically, but they had his name written on them in icing, and I thought that was pretty fab. Come to think of it, I want to go live with this chick right now. Anyway, there was also a little girl, who was either the aunt’s daughter or a neighbor kid or something, and she befriends Timothy, as well as has cakes with her name written on them. And because it was a dark fantasy with a white witch in it, there also had to be an eeeeeeevil witch. I think Timothy fell under her spell somehow, but the white witch was more powerful and everything worked out okay in the end. I remember being particularly taken with the descriptions of the magical woods where the good witch lived, where the trees and grass all glittered with gold and silver. Damn, I’ve been to England, why can’t I find this woman’s place? I want magical maid service and personalized magic cakes and glittery trees. Goddammit.
The final book in the set was a wacky fairy tale entitled The Strange Story of the Frog Who Became a Prince, by Elinor L. Horwitz. It was a sort of send-up of the old Frog Prince story, wherein a witch (another one! There were a lot of witches in this box set, dang) who is out doing some freelance witching one day comes across a happy frog and turns him into a prince. Who knew that witches would just do this kind of stuff for free? I learned a lot about witches from these books. Anyway, the twist is that the prince the frog gets turned into looks more like Prince Charles than The Artist Formerly Known As, with big ol’ jug ears and knock knees and buck teeth and so forth. The witch gets points for accuracy, of course, but the frog isn’t too thrilled with the whole transformation jazz and starts telling the witch how much more handsome and kick-ass he was as a frog. Finally he convinces the witch to change him back, but she can’t remember how. So maybe she’s a trainee witch; that’s why she’s going around transforming amphibians into inbred royals willy-nilly. Much zaniness ensues as she tries to remember the spell to return him to his former state. Lots of words said backwards, as I recall. I think the one that ended up doing it was “peanut butter sandwich” said backwards. Which makes total sense.
I want a peanut butter sandwich now. *heads for pantry*
Until next time (burp), Goddess out.