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Friday, September 23, 2022

‘Fright Time’ – ’90s Horror Anthology Books Deliver Scary Fun for Kids [Buried in a Book]

Baronet Books is best known for its Great Illustrated Classics series, but in the ‘90s, the Waldman imprint took a walk on the scary side. Between 1995 and 1997, various authors contributed to a set of children’s horror anthologies called Fright Time. Kids who stumbled upon these books — often at local discount stores, such as Dollar General — got their money’s worth, seeing as each issue includes “3 spine-tingling tales for young readers.” That’s two more stories than usual for books aimed at the Goosebumps demographic. There’s certainly an off-brand quality to Fright Time, though the cover artwork is anything but cheap. Illustrations as eye-catching as these are bound to lure in curious readers of all ages. 

On the cover of the first Fright Time — these books have no individual titles, only numbers — a boy creeps outside a house, unaware of the decrepit old man watching him from the window. This picture reflects the series’ inaugural story, Madman on Main Street, written by Elaine A Kule. Michael finds himself the target of the titular villain, a creepy codger living inside a supposedly haunted house. This geezer named Abner Hilks is not only following Michael, he’s also doing all his school assignments without his consent. Although Michael is getting straight As now, there’s a price to be paid for accepting those good grades — the old feller, really a wizard, wants Michael to help him become their town’s one and only ruler. As promising as the setup of Madman is, the follow-through is shaky. Abner’s endgame is not as daunting as before when he was simply a stalker.

If there really is a hell, I thought, feeling sorry for myself, this is definitely it.

With It’s Almost Dark, Jane Ehlers delivers a story in the vein of ‘80s horror movie The Gate. Ben spends a lot of time at the house of his best friend Spencer, whose father unknowingly creates an army of monsters. Spencer’s dad, a game designer, somehow manifests his ghastly creature designs when he feeds them into his new scanner. The origin of this ability is never explained, and instead the tale focuses on the damage. As the adults go out for the night, Ben and Spencer fight off carnivorous goblins. Ehlers ultimately deflates the dread by unleashing a band of cheesy cyberwarriors — also summoned from the scanner — on the goblins.

The first volume concludes with the most effective and suspenseful story here, Scary Harry by Terry Patrick. Jesse and his brother Harry move into a new house, and immediately the older sibling starts to change in both behavior and appearance. Their mother and father win the “least observant parents of the year” award once they overlook the fact that Harry is clearly turning into an ape. His body is covered in hair, his feet look more like hands, and he’s been eating only bananas lately. Jesse and his new neighbor then uncover the lab of the previous tenant, a mad scientist, in the backyard. Something the ol’ doc left behind has turned Harry into an orangutan, and he wants his brother to join him. Unlike the last two stories, this one ends on a foreboding note.

I looked down at the ground again. Who — or what — made these tracks?

The second Fright Time volume is off to a good start with Eve Marko’s The White Phantom. The cover art captures the two main characters struggling to escape a dreadful cave filled with skeletons. As typical in these stories, the trouble begins when someone moves into their new home. Andy finds large animal footprints outside his house, which his new neighbor, a girl nicknamed Shades, says were made by the White Phantom. Everyone in town knows the dog-like ghost beast guards the Native American burial grounds nearby, but until now, it’s never come this close to someone’s house. From here the story takes on a thorny “white savior” tone as Andy helps the area’s local Seneca Nation population reclaim their land, and exposes the reason behind the White Phantom’s presence. This “make things right” kind of tale indeed feeds into the mysticism stereotype surrounding Native Americans, but it also has the biggest stakes so far in the series.

Sandra Shichtman comes through with an entertaining echo of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers and all its adaptations, official or otherwise. Nightmare Neighbors centers around Matt and his race to stop the invasion going undetected in his town. He first notices the problem at home; his mother has a mysterious bandage on her face, and there’s green goop coming out of his TV. Said glob temporarily paralyzes Matt, steals a bit of his skin, then goes away. Soon enough come the interdimensional invaders who aren’t exact replicas of Matt and anyone else they lifted DNA from. There’s enough of a difference in appearance to avoid suspicions. Matt, however, isn’t keen on these otherworldly immigrants, so once he finds out their weakness, he destroys them all. Nightmare Neighbors ends up making you feel sorry for the alleged antagonists, and wondering who was the real monster here.

That’s when I first saw his eyes. Fiery red eyes. Scary, hypnotic eyes. They seemed to drill a hole right through my head. Red-hot daggers started stabbing my brain.

Fright Time‘s first proper ghost pops up in Claudia Vernakes Camp Fear. This last outing takes place at Camp Sea Dune, which is haunted by a spirit on the beach. The apparition puts people to sleep with magical sand, but aside from that, no one knows what he wants. Initially, the campers from Tent Seven think camp director Skull and his assistant Max have cooked up this ghost as part of one of their secret lab experiments. Later, the spirit is revealed to be that of a homeless man who lived on the island long ago. What he sought in life is now what he seeks in the afterlife: food. The constant mention of a character’s homemade seaweed cookies, as well as the island’s inability to grow seaweed, pays off once the boys realize what the ghost is hankering for.

Time flies when reading Fright Time. No story is overlong, and if one doesn’t quite work for you, maybe the next one will. The tales in these first two volumes will work better when read by the intended target audience, though they’re amusing to “kids at heart” as well. These books were, and maybe still are, a perfect stepping stone for those juvenile readers who aren’t quite ready for teen-horror, yet they still want to be a little freaked out.

There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.

fright time

The post ‘Fright Time’ – ’90s Horror Anthology Books Deliver Scary Fun for Kids [Buried in a Book] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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