Ann Laabs presents for your approval a short, sharp collection: Horrifying Tales from Greenteeth Press collects vignettes from a haunted generation of children, bathed in the comforting glow of 1970s and 1980s television…
Horrifying Tales, a slim (55 pages) but mighty collection, is the brainchild of Dr Robert Edgar and the Horrifying Children: Children’s Television, Literature, and Popular Culture Project (part of the York Centre for Writing at York St. John University).
What prompted this cross-pollination between the worlds of entertainment and academia? Among the works Dr Edgar credits for inspiring this collection are those of Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence (co-authors of Scarred For Life, a two-volume retrospective of British children’s television programming of the 70s and 80s), and Bob Fischer’s website, Haunted Generation
These obsessively detailed resources, he says, ‘made me realise that my desire to share these totems of my youth with my own daughter was not simply an act of nostalgia’. Prompted by a desire to connect generations, Greenteeth Press and the York Centre for Writing facilitated the creation of this collection of haunting moments, inspired by British television programming of the 70s and 80s.
Brevity and variety make the Lilliputian short story, and short story collections, a tiny dynamo. A short story, constructed with care for maximum effect, punches far above its weight class in terms of impact, and can be far scarier than a bloated, novel-length behemoth. Unlike a full-length horror novel, you’re not faced with the equally unpleasant options of chucking the book or determinedly reading to the end. If one story doesn’t work for you, on to the next. Odds are you’ll find something worth your time.
At their best, these brief bits of terror effectively create a new scare from the skeletons of memory. Even though I didn’t recognise some of the inspirations behind their creation, most of the vignettes in Horrifying Tales work in their own right, creating reactions that vary from unease to outright fright.
Among the standouts were ‘The Conductor’ by Paul Childs, combining the railway settings of LTC Rolt’s ghost stories, the plot of every Public Information Film (PIF) short film ever, and a Twilight Zone-worthy stinger of an ending (“Stay off the tracks, or it’s the end of the line for you”); ‘Microdose Diaries’ by Sam Jacques and ‘But Emily Loved Him’ by Claire Hinchliff, both deliriously trippy experiments, delivering a ‘what the fuck did I just read?!’ wallop; ‘Sailor’s Wives’ by Harrison Casswell, a dreamy, surreal horror; and ‘Three Matches’ by L. Hudson – a slow-burn story with another stinger ending. Finally, I’m not quite sure what happened in ‘Home Again’ by Stella Miriam Pryce, but the oblique, 70s style story structure and fantastic haunted house atmosphere worked for me.
What didn’t work for me? A few stories felt like listicles, like ‘jukebox musicals’ on Broadway that rely on the reader’s memories of the featured songs to make an impact, not the story itself. As a US horror kid, certain references weren’t there in my memory, so I didn’t get the full impact. Some of the stories created a great mood and atmosphere, but had real-life details that just didn’t ring true before the tale cut off abruptly; instead of gasping at the twist in the last sentence, I wondered what just happened.
Whatever the source – the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or Goosebumps books which generations of US and UK kids read to this day, or the school safety films, television programs, and Public Information Films/Public Service Announcements (PIFs/PSAs) that terrified generations of kids on both sides of the pond – the traumatic effects of children’s media often produce a lifetime of scares. It’s a legacy of terror that Freddy Kruger or Pennywise would envy. Because they must deliver their scares in a parentally-approved package, these stories, in my view, just work harder. Beneath that candy-coated shell of acceptability lurks horrors that burrow their way into kid’s minds – and stay there.