Spooky Stories and Vengeful Lisping with Hillary Albertson
This week’s post is a guest post from Hillary Albertson. Originally from Iowa in the United States, Hillary has a Masters in Publishing and currently works at Harlequin in sales. Hillary likes horror and the “weird” … as you're about to find out!
I work in publishing and a lot of people ask me about “the book.” The book that started the process that got me to where I am now. I went from wanting to teach High school English to wanting to work in publishing—but in order to do either, there had to be something that sparked my interest. A moment that I can pinpoint where “the book” made its everlasting impact.
In order to answer this question, I need to go back to the very beginning. Before the degrees, before immigration, before learning grammar and spelling and then breaking those rules when I got my first MSN account.
In the beginning, I wasn’t a very good reader.
I didn’t spend my free time reading books as a child. I spent my free time outdoors, running around in the grass, stealing flowers from yards, pulling legs off spiders, getting lost in the woods, getting scabs on my knees, those type of things. I fought a lot when I was little; I stole a lot, and I explored my small 150 population Iowan town all by myself. I was incredibly independent—and I was not a very good reader. I didn’t start caring about words until I realised what words could do for me—and I think I was about 15 when that happened. In the meantime I used my voice or my fists to express my feelings.
In fact, I was such a bad reader that I got into an argument with my elementary school teacher about L M N O P in the alphabet. I insisted that it was LOMOP in a sing-song voice. I had a lisp and I was sent to a specialist teacher in my school to be trained out of it, which meant I didn’t read out loud in class very often. And in first grade, I was sent to Mrs Nagy.
Mrs Nagy was another specialist teacher in our school. An old petite lady with glasses that were so thick that her eyes went buggy.
If you were sent to Mrs Nagy, you did not read real good.
And I did not read real good.
In Mrs Nagy’s small classroom, I sat around a crescent table with some other kids from my grade who did not read real good, and we had to go to this class, from memory, about three times a week.
In this class, she had us read books under our supposed reading level and she timed us. Then she tried to gradually have us read harder and harder books, until we had caught up with our classmates. One of us around the crescent table had dyslexia, but the rest of us were just slow.
It was in Mrs Nagy’s class that I encountered the first book I remember reading.
It was October; Halloween was approaching, so she gave us a themed book to read out loud. It was called In A Dark Dark Room and other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz. On the cover was a pirate, a ghost, a beheaded woman and a skeleton being petrified of what was beyond the dark dark door, and you’ll notice that it came from the I Can Read! series from the 80’s. I remember being given the book and Mrs Nagy choosing ‘The Green Ribbon’. And without realising it, I was engrossed. I was absolutely mystified and terrified at the same time—the lights were a yellow tinge as I read it, I was sitting in the most right hand chair around the crescent table with Mrs Nagy sitting on the other side, and I had my hair tied up in this glittery rainbow heart-beaded scrunchie that one of the wheelchair-bound special education kids ripped out of my hair after lunch that very day. (All good though, that scrunchie was fucking awesome.)
For the rest of my time in elementary school, I was routinely taken out of class and made to read a non-fiction piece about animals for 60 seconds and they would record how fast I could read. But then one week I read that the Cheetah was the fastest animal on the earth and the next week I read that the Black Mamba was the fastest animal on Earth. Halfway through reading about the Black Mamba I stopped the clock and argued that, no, it was the cheetah. I had literally learned that last week why the fuck is it the Black Mamba now? And it clicked: I wasn’t a fast reader, true, but I was a comprehensive reader. And generally if I read something I remember it. To help with this, they would give me extra reading time in class. Still can’t spell worth a damn though.
I don’t remember much from my elementary years. I graduated from Nagy’s class by the time I got to the 3rd grade. I remember getting candy from her on our last day. I remember getting bubbles on my last day with the specialist for my lisp. I definitely figured out it was L M N O P. I figured it all out eventually. I read books about ghost cats and Iowan hauntings, I still would swing on the willow branches at the bottom of the hill, I still liked the Monster Mash and was a witch or a cat every single Halloween.
I forgot about In A Dark Dark Room by the time I got to 5th grade. My favourite book in that grade was Skellig by David Almond and I remember Mr Johnson reading it to us with the lights off and the sky overcast outside. Very apt for the book if you’ve read it. If I mentioned ‘The Green Ribbon’ I’d just say I remember reading it somewhere, I couldn’t remember where. I could remember all the peripheral memories but nothing else. I didn’t realise In A Dark Dark Room was what I had read with Mrs Nagy until I started my Masters degree—and I was looking on Book Depository for books about talking cats instead of paying attention in class (I’m a simple creature.) In A Dark Dark Room was in the recommended section of Book Depository and I recognised it immediately and obviously bought it for my collection. I also recognised something else about A Dark Dark Room—the author.
After elementary school, I found another Alvin Schwartz book. Similar in theme, it was called Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, a book of American urban legends and myths to tell your friends while you’re around a campfire. It had everything that a 12-year-old little Christian girl needed in the Midwest: cannibalism, ghosts, serial killers, skeletons coming up from the grave, and a really groovy song. Published in the 1980’s, the Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark series was the most challenged series from 1990-1999 by the American Library Association and has continued to be consistently challenged to this day. For some reason. I wouldn’t know.
It was this book that that I consider my “first book.” The first book to completely trap me in its narrative, to make my eyes widen, to make me mouth the song back to it, to make me not sleep at night. It was the first book that I wanted to buy for myself, the first book that I read out loud in class, and the first book I ever truly loved. In A Dark Dark Room was the first book I comprehended; Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was the first book I ever loved.
I reread those stories consistently through middle school until I “graduated” to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’. Most people don’t want to know about Scary Stories. When I tell them they raise their eyebrows, maybe wonder why I don’t love a usual book like Sense and Sensibility or Huckleberry Finn. My favourite book of all time is To Kill A Mockingbird, but it isn’t where it all started. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me that words could have an effect on culture; Scary Stories to tell in the Dark taught me that words could have an affect on me.
People don’t like hearing that this is the first book. They don’t like hearing about the strange and peculiar, the morbid and the unreal, especially through the innocent memories of the adolescence. They want to hear that my first book was Little House on the Prairie or Judy Moody. But I consistently read horror until I was in 7th grade and someone let me borrow All-American Girl by Meg Cabot. I’m just as surprised as you are.
I’ll be the first to agree: it’s not the normal first book for people. I’ve always been attracted to the strange and weird. Halloween is my favourite holiday, and anything that makes people uncomfortable or breaks the rules I’m usually a big fan of.
As my reading improved I found more complicated books. The aforementioned Poe, The Book Thief, H. P. Lovecraft etc. and I think I know why. It’s really hard for a kid to be told that they can’t do basic skills like read or pronounce TH. I was taken out of my world of introverted exploration and mysteries and put into the strange world of academia and I could never understand WHY I had to read fast or WHY people didn’t like my lisp or WHY I couldn’t start sentences with And. These strange stories were my company. They made me feel better about being the abnormal and the peculiar. If I was feeling down because I wasn’t developing as perfectly as my classmates, I always took solace in my spooky companions. I mean, worst-case scenario you die and haunt your teachers by whispering THHHHHH in the back of a dark classroom.
But the Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark books are the realest books I’ve ever read, with real life lessons that I could apply to my every day adult life. Things like: don’t piss off the random thing in the cornfield, do what the haunt says, the processed meat you’re eating is probably not just processed meat, and if you’re a hearse driver and you start singing a song and someone joins in—charge extra.
All Images by Hillary Albertson