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Bump In the Night: Vintage Horror Illustrations Gave Us the Shivers

Bump In the Night: Vintage Horror Illustrations Gave Us the Shivers

When I was a kid I was obsessed with horror films and horror stories. I’ve written about that before for CrimeReads.

But I was also a little freaked out by them, particularly the illustrations that accompanied horror tales published in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Not gonna lie, sometimes more than a little freaked out. 

In 1971, Peter Haining edited a collection called “The Ghouls: 18 Spine-Tingling Monster Tales That Became the Most Famous Horror Movies.” I got the 1972 paperback edition, when I was still not quite a teen. The collection was made for me: “Phantom of the Opera,” “Freaks,” “The Fly,” “Black Sunday” and other stories that had been adapted into the movies I loved. And the book featured introductions and afterwords by Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, two actors who personified horror films.

It was the book’s cover illustration of Lon Chaney as the Phantom that shook my young mind. The painting emphasized the Phantom’s emaciated face and his deep-set eyes. I saw that face even after I closed the book and put it down.

I didn’t even know it then, but I’d been conditioned to crave and at the same time recoil from the ghostly and spooky images that haunted me. 

I’d seen the illustrations everywhere, from my school library to the Scholastic Book Fair.

It was a nightmare. A delightful nightmare.

Shock and roll

The 1960s was a time when spooky and creepy stories, books, comic books, toys, movies and illustrations were aimed at Americans of all ages, but especially kids and young people.

Not until R.L. Stine’s series of “Goosebumps” novels began in 1992 was the youngest reader again so squarely in the crosshairs of horror-inspired books as in the 1960s.

Sure, there had been scary movies and attractions for young people before the 1960s, including traveling ghost shows and horror films. And some books expressly for children occasionally had some spicy-scary content. 

But thanks to the release, beginning in 1957, of TV “Shock” packages of Universal horror films of the 1930s, like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” spooky stuff became an obsession, a pop culture mainstay and sales opportunity for companies that sold stuff to young people.

This wasn’t the stuff of “back alley” horror merchandising for kids. It was right out there in the open.

Among the most pervasive horror images of the time came courtesy of a talking dog, a stoner and a van full of meddling kids.

Paddington Bear and creepy monsters 

By the time Joe Ruby and Ken Spears created the children’s animated series “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” in 1969, images of haunted houses, mansions at the top of a cliff, cobweb-festooned hallways and figures looming in the dark were stock elements of our nightmares. “Scooby-Doo” might have solidified those images in young minds as Scooby and Shaggy and the other members of Mystery Incorporated stumbled upon one scary scene after another.

The show – which has been celebrated here in CrimeReads – and its look drew from classic horror images for laughs but was hardly the first to do so. In 1966, Don Knotts starred in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” a comedy with spookiness that played up the horror trappings, as did the TV sitcom “The Munsters” and the timeless TV classic “The Addams Family,” based on Charles Addams’ macabre cartoons that were published by the New Yorker beginning in the late 1930s.

There was often an aura of shuddery fun in the images used to promote horror to young people. Ghost shows or spook shows, traveling shows combining magic and horror, were promoted in trailers that played in movie theaters the week before the live show visited. The trailers, comically taunting and warning audiences, were filled with floating ghosts, skeletal hands and lurching monsters, all in shades of black and white and green, playing beneath a soundtrack promising decapitations of audience members and “girls with hex appeal.” Some of those images were no doubt lifted from pulp magazines and the soundtrack music was “borrowed” from films like “The Thing From Another World.”

But the still images like those that fascinated and haunted me were those in books.

Whitman Publishing might have been the biggest purveyor of spooky children’s books, which stood out from the publisher’s wholesome Trixie Belden adventures. But the covers of their books were full of blue-hued menace, particularly those by Shannon Stirnweis. Like a lot of artists and illustrators in the mid-20th century, Stirnweis was prolific in many genres. He painted foreboding covers for Whitman in the 1960s, for books like “Tales to Tremble By,” but he was also a cover artist for men’s magazines in the 1950s as well as up-market glossies like Outdoor Life, Boys Life, Reader’s Digest, Popular Mechanics and even Time.

Likewise, Gordon Laite varied from detailed, nightmarish illustrations for Whitman’s spooky books to brightly colored, cheerful illustrations for Whitman’s books for children, including the publisher’s Little Golden Books like Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Wild Swans” and “The Blue Book of Fairy Tales.” It’s not hard to believe that Laite could paint beautiful, mysterious covers and incredibly detailed line drawings inside the books, some of them reminiscent of Gahan Wilson’s work. 

Considering the influence film director Alfred Hitchcock had on movies and TV in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s no surprise at all that publishers like Random House chose him to front a series of eerie short story collections. Hitchcock’s practice of licensing his name to publishers began in the 1940s and, of course, including the “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” series of juvenile mysteries, but it’s the horror collections we’re concerned with today.

The Hitchcock collections – ghost edited by Robert Arthur, who gets an acknowledgement for “invaluable assistance” in the 1965 “Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum” volume – drew from some surprising quarters for its illustrators.

Three of them – including “Haunted Houseful” and “Ghostly Gallery” – were illustrated by Fred Banbery, the illustrator of some “Paddington Bear” stories. His Hitchcock illustrations are macabre and whimsical, one showing the director menaced by a looming skeleton and huge bats.

As varied as the illustrators of mid-century children’s horror collections are, I think I was most surprised by the work of Earl Eugene Mayan (1916-2009), who not only illustrated “The Shadow” pulp but books collecting works authored or edited by “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling and Hitchcock, whose “Monster Museum” is illustrated by Mayan.

The cover – trails of red over a black-and-white photo of Hitchcock – foreshadows Mayan’s use of photography and illustration that feels ahead of its time. 

The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine that once had a huge reading audience, featured Mayan on its cover 11 times, and showcases them in its artist archive. His Post paintings, from the 1950s and 1960s, range from an amusement park carousel to Yogi Berra looking for a pop-up foul ball.

They don’t tip to Mayan’s scariest work, but they do reflect the period when so many artists, like Banbery, Mayan and Laite, could move what seems like effortlessly from the sunniest subjects to the darkest.