Arielle North Olson and Howard Schwartz, Ask the Bones — Scary Stories from Around the World (Puffin Books, 2002)

Around a summer campfire . . . beneath the covers with a flashlight . . . a candle-lit house during a storm . . . these are all good places for Ask the Bones, a book of scary folktales from around the world, which brings little shivers whether read alone or out loud with others.

The folktale for which the collection is named originates in the Caucasus Region, and was published in A Mountain of Gems: Fairy Tales of the Peoples of the Soviet Land (1962). As retold here, it is the tale of a young boy named Yosef who offers to work for a merchant, doing whatever tasks he is told. One day, the merchant orders him to lie upon the hide of a bull, out in an open plain. Knowing it would be futile to resist, the boy complies, and is quickly snatched off the ground by a giant bird, and carried to a mountain aerie. There he discovers a nest of gems — diamonds, rubies, and emeralds — which the merchant orders him to throw down to him. He does so, and awaits an explanation of how he too will get down. Cruelly, the merchant tells him, "That's for you to figure out . . . Don't ask me. Ask the bones." Upon hearing these words, Yosef notices the bones that surround him, bones that are eerily his size, and realizes his fate. Motivated by anger, he thinks of a plan, succeeds in making it back to the ground, and proceeds to involve his former employer in the same scheme. It is one of the only stories in the book with a "happy ending" . . . one in which the victim turns the tables.

Many of the stories contain a lesson to be learned, such as in "The Handkerchief," which begins "Long ago in China there lived an old man with a heart of stone. He drove away every beggar who came to his door." The old man mistreats his wife and servant girl, and his cruelty becomes so well known that one of the gods decides to come to earth in the guise of a beggar, to test him. The servant girl greets the beggar at the door, and gives him all the rice she has collected for herself, and in exchange she is given a handkerchief that makes her more beautiful with every use. She is beaten by her master for giving away food, and as she wipes her tears away with the magic cloth, the old man witnesses her transformation. He takes the cloth from her, expecting to make himself more handsome, not realizing that what the cloth will do is reveal one's true nature. . . .

There are diverse sources for the stories in the book. "The Laplander's Drum" is an interesting tale from Demonologia; or, Natural Knowledge Revealed; Being an Exposé of Ancient and Modern Superstitions (1827). In this tale from England, a drum made of wood and reindeer hide and decorated with eerie drawings is used as a divination device. As the Lappish drummer beats the hide, he tells a frightening fortune. Bad voodoo follows a cruel master around in "A Trace of Blood," a story first told in Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men (1935). It is documented that voodoo was often practiced to exact revenge for the oppressed and victimized, when no other means were available. In this chilling story, scraps of bloodstained fabric bring apt punishment. And in "The Bridal Gown," a story from Germany that was published in Semitic Magic: Its Origins and Development (1908), a wedding dress is possessed by an evil demoness who seeks to find a new, human dwelling.

There are twenty-two stories in all, offering a varied experience of the macabre, supernatural, or creepy. They are retold with today's kids in mind — quick to read, provoking a few laughs, ending in a thrilling twist or "Oh, my God!" utterance. They would be most widely embraced by the younger end of the recommended reading age (8-12), though would certainly be fun for a group of kids of all ages, and the book is enjoyable for grown-ups to read out loud too. Illustrations by David Linn are detailed and sharp, evoking the right amount of spookiness and horror. Keep this one handy for those Halloween celebrations especially, and don't worry — the kids won't be too frightened by it!

[Nellie Levine]