The best substitute teacher at Karigon Elementary was Mrs. Wilt, who knew the surest way to control a group of third graders was to terrify us. Her preferred method: reading Alvin Schwarz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
It was a brilliant trick. A scary story wasn't school-sanctioned reading, but in just five minutes we stopped trying to sink the sub and became her co-conspirators.
So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Schwarz's In a Dark, Dark, Room at the library, which I presented to my husband and son after dark. My husband started to read:
Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.
It's the classic boy meets girl story. Boy asks girl why she wears the ribbon. Girl deflects. Boy and girl get married. He asks. She deflects. She gets gravely ill, removes the ribbon and...
My husband, who did not have the benefit of Ms. Wilt's tutelage, did not know the end of the story, but he knew it wasn't likely to end well. He deflected our then three-year old and snuck the book into our return sack.
My son didn't ask about the ribbon again. But I couldn't stop thinking about it. How did this totally inappropriate story get into this book that my three year old can read from cover to cover?
So I borrowed it again, only this time, and snuck it spine-in to the stack of books on my desk, where I forgot about it until this dark and rainy morning.
Schwarz's foreword confirms what substitute teachers know and clearly, parents like me need reminding of:
Most of us like scary stories
because we like feeling scared.
When there is no real danger,
feeling scared is fun.
My son and I have dabbled in scary. We read a lot of Lemony Snicket. We've repurposed his ludicrously expensive swaddling blankets as spectral accessories. But I've never really entertained the thought of encouraging him to be intentionally scared. Or intentionally scaring him.
Meanwhile, I'm reminiscing over the secret thrill of being read a scary story three decades ago and hiding horror books in my office.
A box set of the original three-volume Scary Stories was released in 2014 to nearly unanimously furious reviews from readers who were expecting Stephen Gammell's terrifying artwork but found much more "age-appropriate" sketches instead.
Apparently, I'm not the only child who enjoyed being scared. The publisher brought back the scary stuff in the 2017 edition, so you can refresh your memory before the film adaptation hits theaters. I'm guessing Guillermo del Toro's version won't be appropriate for kids, but I do plan to "accidentally" leave the I Can Read version in an accessible spot before then.