If you thought spooky season was on its way out, you haven’t looked at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s bestseller list from local independent bookstores for the week ending Oct. 20, which features a strange study in longevity: “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Originally published in 1981, it’s the inspiration for a new movie, Halloween-ready, and No. 10 on the early- and middle-readers list.

In case you weren’t a child in 1996, Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and its sequels (“More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” “Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones”) contained easy-reading tales of horror complete with menacing titles, some gleefully so: “The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers,” “Somebody Fell from Aloft,” “Wonderful Sausage” (cannibalism-themed) and “Thumpity Thump” (about a poltergeist). 

The books blended urban legend and ghostly lore into a heady nightmare stew that read very much like “A Child’s Garden of Shirley Jackson.” The original versions also had freakish, streaky black-and-white illustrations by Stephen Gammell, with frightening shapes spilling across pages like a less-whimsical Gashlycrumb Tinies. Schwartz’s creations were also among the 100 most frequently challenged and banned books in the country in ’90s. A Polygon examination of this found one such challenge came from a Seattle parent citing “violent material.”

But Schwartz’s books are more weird than overtly graphic. As a kid, I remember being most terrified by a story that contains no violence at all, and yet it still turned my stomach the way that “Mulholland Drive” does now. 

“The Drum” is about two little girls who meet a child with a magic drum that releases teeny-tiny people. The sisters want the drum, but the drum girl says they can’t have it unless they’re horrible to their mother. Their behavior devolves such that their mother leaves, and the girls come home to find a new mother who has glass eyes and a “wooden tail thumping on the floor.” (They also don’t get the drum.) You’d think the maternal abandonment or grifter drum friend would be the part of that story that stuck with me, but no, it was the inexplicable wooden tail — baby’s first visit to the uncanny valley.

And that training-wheels entry point into the strange and unsettling may be precisely the point of “Scary Stories.” “If a story is scary enough, your flesh begins to creep. You get a shivery, shaky, screamy feeling … If something startling happens, everyone GASPS! or JUMPS! or SCREAMS!” wrote Schwartz in the introduction to “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” “Some people call those shivery, shaky, screamy feelings the ‘heebie jeebies’ or the ‘screaming meemies.’ The poet T.S. Eliot called them the ‘hoo-ha’s.’ You’d better read the stories in this book while you are still feeling brave and before it gets dark. Then, when the moon is up, tell them to your friends and relatives. You’ll probably give them the ‘hoo-ha’s.’ But they’ll have fun, and so will you.”


With “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” we’ve been doing just that since 1981. May they bring us screaming meemies for decades to come.


Hardcover fiction

1. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens

2. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

3. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

4. The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

5. Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout

6. The Guardians, John Grisham

7. A Better Man, Louise Penny

8. Turn Around Time, David Guterson, Justin Gibbens (Illus.)

9. Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson

10. The Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes

11. Circe, Madeline Miller

12. The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

13. Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo

14. The Topeka School, Ben Lerner

15. The Institute, Stephen King

Hardcover nonfiction

1. Blowout, Rachel Maddow

2. The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson

3. Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell

4. A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, Timothy Egan

5. Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow

6. Me: Elton John Official Autobiography, Elton John

7. Educated, Tara Westover

8. Know My Name, Chanel Miller

9. Permanent Record, Edward Snowden

10. The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates

11. Erosion: Essays of Undoing, Terry Tempest Williams

12. How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi

13. The Book of Gutsy Women, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chelsea Clinton

14. The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power

15. How To, Randall Munroe

Paperback fiction

1. The Overstory, Richard Powers

2. Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver

3. A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

4. The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

5. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

6. There There, Tommy Orange

7. Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

8. The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris

9. The Best American Short Stories 2019, Anthony Doerr, Heidi Pitlor (Eds.)

10. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

11. Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi

12. Nine Perfect Strangers, Liane Moriarty

13. Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami

14. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

15. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Paperback nonfiction

1. Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

2. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

3. All That the Rain Promises and More, David Arora

4. The Library Book, Susan Orlean

5. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan

6. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

7. So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo

8. White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

9. The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk

10. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Maxwell King

11. On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

12. We Are Puget Sound: Discovering and Recovering the Salish Sea, David Workman

13. The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery

14. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, Sy Montgomery, Jaime Green (Eds.)

15. The Best American Essays 2019, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Atwan (Eds.)

Early & middle readers

1. Guts, Raina Telgemeier

2. A Tale of Magic…, Chris Colfer

3. A Wolf Called Wander, Rosanne Parry, Monica Armino (Illus.)

4. Best Friends, Shannon Hale, LeUyen Pham (Illus.)

5. White Bird: A Wonder Story, R.J. Palacio

6. Beverly, Right Here, Kate DiCamillo

7. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, Rita Williams-Garcia, Frank Morrison (Illus.)

8. Fish in a Tree, Lynda Mullaly Hunt

9. The Cardboard Kingdom, Chad Sell

10. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alvin Schwartz, Stephen Gammell (Illus.)