THE DARK WAY Stories from the Spirit World By Virginia Hamilton Illustrated by Lambert Davis Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 154 pages. $19.95
THE COVER of this grab-bag of myths, legends, tales, fables, yarns and fibs shows a three-eyed horned demon spewing both blood and a hero out of his gaping maw. Not a very pretty picture, but it's sufficent to seize the reader and propel him inside, where things promptly get problematical.
It must seem simple to do a book like The Dark Way. You comb sources like Lafcadio Hearn, Katharine Briggs, Edith Hamilton and the Brothers Grimm, adapt their efforts into modern prose suitable for teen-age consumption, and voila`: a finished text. That's more or less what's been done by Virginia Hamilton, the winner of enough awards to stock a whole neighborhood of mantelpieces. Unfortunately, the text coexists uneasily with the scholarly trappings.
Footnotes in a book of this type are intrusive, as are the afternotes explaining each story's origins and Hamilton's practice of hyphenating the first appearance of complex names (Van-der-decken, Man-a-bozo). You have to wonder who this book is aimed at.
Hamilton redeems herself somewhat with the tales themselves. "A blowing wind knows when to stop. But a wicked woman never quits her evil. So the story is told, and here it begins," is the start of "The Wicked Stepmother," a well-told tale that isn't going to please many members of that much-maligned group. "The weather is looking like it is about to fall down on us," warns the hero's best friend in "Rolling Rio, the Gray Man and Death." In "Joseph Golem," "They chanted magic words and secret formulas, which have not been repeated since that night."
The writing is almost always serviceable, sometimes effective, but rarely this memorable. The same could be said for Lambert Davis's acrylics, which betray influences ranging from Leo and Diane Dillon to Chris van Allsburg. Davis is best with landscapes and objects; his humans tend to resemble over-stuffed dolls. In one painting, he depicts God, who shouldn't be attempted by anyone short of Michelangelo. David Streitfeld writes the Book Report column for Book World.