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October 9, 2012

How The Mike Met Horror, Volume 1 - The Books

I told y'all it was coming, and now it's here.  As the main course of From Midnight With Love's October festivities, I offer up an autobiography in four chapters, listing the inspirations that led me to become the dude I am today.

The first of four categories might be a surprise to some, as I discuss how books influenced my path to blogdom.  I often crack wise about books, because I'm lazy now that I'm old and mostly watch movies, but it would be a bald-faced lie if I told you all that books aren't important to the growth of anyone.  Do you think I could sit here and type these semi-sentences and use words that are probably too big for the point I'm trying to make if I hadn't read a butt-load of books? Of course I couldn't.  (Though, to be fair, few of the books I've read use words like "butt-load".  That's a different story for a different day.)
Not all of these books are exactly works of art...but they all had a special place in making The Mike happen.  And that's why I'm here tonight. So let's do this.

(And, if you missed the explanation behind this series, you should know that all credit for this idea belongs to the wonderful Mrs. Christine Hadden over at Fascination With Fear, who does lists better than anyone in the Western Hemisphere. For that, I salute her.)
The Spooky Old Tree
The legend may have grown over the years - I think one version of this story has me wrestling a bear - but one of my very first memories is "learning to read" The Berenstain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree when I was not yet three years old. It was my absolute favorite bed time story, and it was read to me so many times that my parents and I claim that I could pick up the book and re-tell the story to myself while I was still two years old.  Again, I'm not sure if this actually happened - I don't believe I've ever been that smart - but I know that the first thing I remember loving to pieces was this horror tale for children.

It's been a long time since I was that little boy who (pretended to) read a book for its horror contents, but I'm relatively sure I can still recite the book word for word.  (It starts with "Three little bears. One with a light, one with a rope, and one with a stick.")  At my current age, I'm not sure there are many chills - or as the book calls them "shivers" - left for me in The Spooky Old Tree.  But I'm pretty sure that this was the first horror story I learned, and that makes it extraordinarily special to me.
Those Orange Back Monster Books from the Library
These books actually have a name - the Crestwood House Monsters Series - but if you ask any monster fan who grew up in the late '70s and early '80s they probably know what you mean when you mention "the orange back books".  At least in my neck of the woods, they were kind of a big deal.

As best as I can remember, each book focused on one classic monster and retold the story of their films in a matter of fact way.  Even though they were re-telling fictional events, the way they were presented made them feel like they were basically research books for monster nerds.  In fact, I did a project on monsters for a school fair when I was in 2nd grade, and these were my main source of information.  I'm not saying I was the star of the show - that'd be boasting - but I don't remember anyone else from that 2nd grade fair whose booth was as popular as mine. I don't remember anything else from that 2nd grade fair, actually. But I know that I was awesome, and that (at least according to my mother) I've been a superstar ever since. (My mom never actually said that. But I know she would say it.)
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Series
As I got a little older, things like The Spooky Old Tree just weren't scary enough for little The Mike.  So, I asked for more "scary" stories...and I literally found more scary stories.  In this case, I found scary in three books of folk tales compiled by Alvin Schwartz, which retold urban legends and ghost stories that have been passed down through the generations and complemented them with spooky illustrations.  I feel like a lot of my respect for horror history came from these books, because this was about the time when I started trying to remember these horror stories so I could re-tell them myself.  I understood the idea that these were passed down through time, and that really lit my horror fire.

One of the first horror tales to truly corrupt my mind came from one of these books.  It follows two farm brothers and an abused scarecrow named Harold, who - naturally by horror standards, but surprisingly by young The Mike standards - rises up and gets revenge on the farmers who torture him.  I forgot the details of this story for years - even lamenting my inability to recall the "perfect" scarecrow story I once loved in a review once - but I always had the image of the scarecrow atop the farmhouse in the distance stuck in my brain.  And then I remembered that everything is on YouTube and found the audio of the story. And it was good.
The Amityville Horror
My relationship with The Amityville Horror is kind of like that line from The Royal Tenenbaums. To paraphrase - "We all know that The Amityville Horror isn't true...but what I'm presupposing is: Maybe it is."  I mean, I'd seen the movie, I'd heard how it wasn't real, even though a bunch of money grubbing folks tried to say it was. I was smart enough to know crud when I heard crud.
At the same time, I must admit that the presentation of this tale - at least to a middle school version of The Mike - was quite convincing.  I know it's hard to explain, just like that circular Tenenbaums quote that was intended for comedic purposes, but the part of me that knew this was all bollocks also wanted to believe that it wasn't. I sat there and I read the book and I was like "This isn't real...but it could be." I guess I just wanted to keep the horror dream alive, and The Amityville Horror at least gave me a chance to talk about a horror story and say it was a little bit true.  (Even though none of the horror parts were.)
The works of Stephen King
There's not a lot I need to say about why Stephen King is important, and I already said most of what I could say about King last October.  Yet I'm sure that many other horror fanatics out there can relate to the feeling I had when I first read King's work.  It was as if I had graduated from childhood horror fan to adult horror fan.  Y'know that feeling you got when you first got to watch R-rated movies or got to drive the car without your parents? It was that feeling, but with horror stories.  I was in the horror big leagues.

My first King novel was Insomnia, his over-long tale of geriatric fright that isn't the best representation of his talents.  But I was too pumped up by the fact that I was reading Stephen King to care.  I kept reading his works throughout my teenage years, and my love for horror only continued to grow.  As I learned more about The Shining and The Dead Zone and all these other King tales I'd seen in movies and on TV, I learned that there's a lot that can be done for horror in print that can't be done on screen.
I thought I loved Frankenstein from the moment I read those orange back books and even more when I saw the Karloff movie. But it wasn't until I went to college that I randomly picked up a copy of the book, mostly because I was buying textbooks and saw it on the shelf for an English course that I wasn't taking and bought it anyway.  And while I was sitting in the laundry room waiting for my laundry to get done (What? I'm from a small town, I didn't know if I could trust a tower full of 500 18-21 year olds), I read the whole thing over two nights. (This might be why I didn't have many friends, but that's OK. I'm an introvert anyway.)

Going from littleville to college was a big culture shock for me, but it was this reading of Frankenstein that reminded me of something great about horror.  People sometimes give horror a bad name by pointing out examples of the genre that aren't exactly high art, yet Mary Shelley's novel - which makes the monster a more introspective being than even Karloff could - reminded me that horror can tap into scholarly and artistic avenues as well.  I planned to grow up and be an intelligent adult, and Frankenstein was a reminder that I didn't need to leave horror behind to do so.
I'm not sure that "intelligent adult" thing has worked out yet, but at least I still love my horror.  And next week I'll share another few items that strengthened this love of horror in Volume 2 of this series. So come on back then, and if you have your own favorite horror books from times in your life as a horror fan, please do share them in the comments below. Until then, enjoy another selection from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which presents a scenario that you may recognize from a horror film of the '70s.  Until next time!


Will Errickson said...

I pretty much had the same experience with the same books...

Enbrethiliel said...


Why am I not surprised that you began with books? ;-)

I'd say I began with stories from an oral tradition, flirted with some R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike for a while, dove into movies, and then discovered the real wonder of Horror literature only a few years ago. You are so right that the humble printed word can do things that even all the wonders of cinema cannot.

Anyway, I've started reading Pet Sematary and am loving it! =)

Jose Cruz said...

Strongly echoing Will's comment over here, Mike. Even growing up in the 90s, those Crestwoods still haunted my elementary school library. I also remember the amusing-in-retrospect moment when I asked my grandmother to tell me what this word "penis" was in my first King novel THE DARK HALF.

P.S. The Stephen Gammell illustrations from SCARY STORIES, I am certain, are what Hell truly looks like.

Christine Hadden said...

I'm just getting to read all your October posts since I'm been so busy writing for FWF's month-long craziness. Thanks for the mention, and glad I inspired you to do these posts - I love to read about horror fans' journeys to becoming who they are.

So we were both crazy about The Amityville Horror! I'm not surprised.
What does surprise me is that Insomnia was your first SK. Whoa. I don't know if I'd have continued - that book was so insanely long, and hard for me to get into.

And Frankenstein - my favorite classic horror novel. And she was only 19. Love that most of all.

: said...

Man, I got a little teary-eyed reading this post. I, too, was in love with those black-and-orange books. They were never in stock at my local library, because I kept them checked out constantly. :)

Likewise, I loved those SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK books more than anything else in the world. Even today, I find the artwork the stuff of nightmares. I recently bought a copy of the omnibus -- two, actually, one for myself and one for my son -- and the memories were almost intoxicating.

Great stuff, man. You've got a big fan here. Our tastes are almost identical . . . talk about scary. ;)