Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Anders Nilsen
Disney has done a fine job watering down many of Andersen’s stories into happy-go-lucky singalong extravaganzas. But if you grew up before a majority of these stories (like me), then you got a heaping dose of tragic pathos. The Little Mermaid must choose between murdering her love and suicide. The Little Match Girl dies of hypothermia. The Ugly Duckling is physically abused by his kin, then runs away to an adoptive family only for them to be slaughtered by hunters. And I told you what happens to the poor dancing girl in The Red Shoes. These, my friends, are the original tales of terror.
Based on the forewarning tales of his beloved grandmother, Dahl’s 7-year-old hero is well-schooled in recognizing the evil witches of the universe. While on holiday at a hotel, he stumbles into the annual gathering of England’s witches and overhears the Grand High Witch’s master plan to kill every English child within a year. When he’s discovered, he gets a personal dose of Formula 86, a “sweet” that transforms the eater into a mouse. Even after the witches are defeated, he’s cursed to live the rest of his life as a little rodent. It doesn’t get more macabre than that. Is it any wonder I still hesitate to take treats from strangers?
Dark fantasies and horror stories for readers of all ages have mushroomed into a contemporary genre giant. From R. L. Stein to Stephen King, the popularity of a good nail-biter is unquestionable, and October is its beacon month. Scary-read lists are as profuse as bags of trick-or-treat candy, but sometimes it’s the unexpected spine-chillers that haunt us all our lives. I still shudder at my childhood reading of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, wherein a dancing girl’s unstoppable feet are amputated, and she dies from a burst heart. For a spin on October’s conventional reads, check out this shelf of children’s books that scared us back then—and still do.
Featured illustration: Marta Pantaleo