September 15, 2005


Tales of Terror. By Edgar Allan Poe. Illustrated by Michael McCurdy. Includes CD narrated by Edward Blake. Knopf. $15.95.

Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird. By Vivian Vande Velde. Illustrations by Brad Weinman. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $5.95.

     Preteens can take their scary stuff straight or with a few grains of salt, depending on which of these books they read.  It may be better to read both and see two sides of the “scary stories” coin (so to speak).  The serious side – which really is still frightening – is in the six Edgar Allan Poe tales, four of which can also be heard on an included CD.  Here are “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  The first four are read with straightforward intensity by Edward Blake.  All six are introduced and illustrated by Michael McCurdy, whose dark and stark pictures are well done but actually add little to the pictures that young readers will form on their own as the result of Poe’s words.  McCurdy correctly points out that “Poe’s lyrical language, his rich vocabulary and musical rhythms, beg to be read aloud,” but they do not beg to be pictured: Poe’s terror tales are stories of the mind at war with itself, and are most chillingly experienced within the reader’s own mind.  McCurdy gives each tale a short introduction, but fails to translate passages that younger readers can scarcely be expected to understand, such as the Latin quatrain that begins “The Pit and the Pendulum” and the French couplet that starts “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  The tales themselves are their own glory, though: atmospheric, intense, ghoulishly frightening and still tremendously evocative more than a century and a half after they were written.

     Fairy tales have been around even longer than that, in non-Disney versions filled with gore and fear and frequent sexual implications.  They are therefore ripe for parody, of which Vivian Vande Velde serves up a tasty helping.  What she does is take some of the manifest absurdities of the old stories and run with them.  The king in “Rumpelstiltzkin,” for instance, is a decidedly nasty and self-absorbed character, and a miser to boot – is the miller’s daughter really better off as his queen?  The princess whose golden ball is found by the frog prince is deceitful and murderous – is she really a good match for the transformed frog?  Jack, of beanstalk fame, is lazy and none too bright, not to mention a thief of the giant’s possessions – does he deserve the usual happy ending?  Vande Velde mines a considerable vein of humor from these situations, interspersing them with an all-points bulletin for Goldilocks for breaking and entering, a commercial for hair products featuring Rapunzel, and a few “fairy-tale endings you’re not likely to see,” including “the Emperor orders the execution of everyone who’s seen him naked” and “Snow White and Sleeping Beauty simply refuse to get out of bed.”  The one tale that misfires is “Twins,” a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel” that is quite frightening – Vande Velde writes very effective horror when she chooses to – and is thus out of keeping with the tone of the rest of this collection.  With that exception, this is great fun for all readers of fairy tales (not just ages 8-12, the officially targeted audience).  Brad Weinman’s pointed illustrations neatly complement Vande Velde’s piquant prose.

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