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A Playground For Fear:
Horror Fiction For Children

by Robert Hood

The following article is the text of a talk given at the Children's Book Council Conference in 1997.

Is there a place for horror fiction in children's books? What on earth can young readers get out of stories of unnatural ghastliness and terror?

Though it has always existed at the edge of popularity, horror fiction has undergone a renaissance of sorts since the late 1970s. Central to this is Stephen King, whose prolific output has turned him into one of the biggest selling (if not the biggest selling) authors of all time. His successes -- and the mainstream popularity of modern horror films such as The Exorcist -- have given impetus to a whole range of best-selling novels and box-office smashes, and have firmly established the horror genre in the forefront of popular literature.

Children's publishers have only recently exploited this popularity, with the marketing of such writers as Christopher Pike -- the 'Stephen King' of teen fiction. In Australia, the gap has been filled by the ever-popular short stories of Paul Jennings, and occasional young-adult and junior novels by, for example, Victor Kelleher, Margaret Clark and Gary Crew. Local publishers are now looking to enter the apparently insatiable junior horror market (at the moment dominated by R.L. Stine's ubiquitous Goosebumps series) with books by Australian authors. One example is a series of nine short novels under the title Creepers, written by Bill Condon and myself and published by Hodder Headline Australia. No one can deny that, whether or not it should have a place in children's reading, the horror genre has already established a place for itself in the field, and, at least for the near future, shows no inclination to go away.

So what is horror fiction? What does it seek to achieve?

The word 'horror' itself, when used in a literary context, evokes varied responses. Often horror fiction is perceived as 'junk' fiction at best and, at worst, a danger to the hearts and minds of everyone concerned. Horror films are frequently -- and often irrationally -- banned or cut. In the UK, for example, the classic and influential The Exorcist is still prohibited! When it comes to books, official proscription is less common, though some parents and librarians have been assiduous in establishing their own forms of censorship -- the classification of horror novels as 'junk' is one of these. The often lurid and sensationalistic covers seem to confirm the disdain with which the genre is frequently greeted.

Certainly there are 'junky' horror novels, if by 'junk' we mean exploitative, sensational books churned out by hack writers with little talent and no commitment to the genre. Yet many widely acknowledged 'classics' fall within the horror genre -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Turn of the Screw by Henry James, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and the most filmed novel of all time, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Many 'classic' authors have written horror stories: my edition of the definitive anthology, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, includes stories by Balzac, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Hardy, Wells, Dorothy Sayers, Faulkner, Hemingway, Hawthorne, Henry James, Guy De Maupassant, Kipling, E.M. Forster and Dickens.

All this sounds a bit like apology, but I don't intend it to be. I merely want to illustrate that horror fiction should not be defined as 'junk' fiction -- that is both inaccurate and pointless. The horror genre can produce 'junk' just as any other genre can; it can also produce great pieces of writing which get to the heart of human experience. That the horror genre focuses attention on the darker side of life and seeks to make an entertainment of things we would rather not entertain in 'reality' should be a descriptive statement, not an evaluative one.

So what is horror fiction about? Firstly, horror stories might be said to deal with the evocation of a particular emotion -- horror. They set out to scare the reader, provoking anything from subtle disquiet to gut-wrenching shock. I'll discuss this aspect later, but before I do, I want to make a different, and often forgotten, point: that evoking that particular emotion should not be seen as the genre's sole rationale. Like all literature, horror stories can and do achieve many things: they can show human beings living lives and facing fears and desires; they can ask us to examine our social and individual assumptions; they can create imaginative worlds in which, for a time, we escape from the problems and mundanities of our lives; they can allow us to share the joys and sorrows of being human; they can revel in the creative power of language; they can make us laugh at ourselves; and, most importantly, they can entertain and be fun. Horror stories can achieve all these literary ends. That they do them in a particular emotional context -- dealing with the primal emotion of fear -- and using a particular imagery, defines the genre but does not exhaust it.

Of course, most readers of horror fiction would expect to be exposed to at least the possibility of fear and horror. So why do they do it to themselves? Well, why do people read any kind of literature? Enjoyment. Exercising the imagination. Revelling in the power of language. As a conscious or subconscious means of dealing with aspects of life. As social commentary. Horror fiction can and does do any of these things in common with all literature. But it couches its characteristic exploration of human life in particular forms of imagery which are dark and terrible and unnatural, and which are associated with fear. In certain contexts, people like being scared. Perhaps it has something to do with the primal nature of fear. As Lovecraft put it: 'The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts ... must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of ... weirdly horrible tales as a literary form.' To deal with these primal emotions is to plumb the depths of human nature, to pluck a potent imaginative chord. Moreover, as death is the inevitable end of human life, and as death remains one of the most profound of unknowns, the imagery of death which horror fiction adopts -- ghosts, vampires, the living dead, unnatural killers -- has unusual potency.

But there's more than it than that. Death as an image is about more than simply the end of life as such. Metaphorically, it encompasses other loss -- bereavement, uncertainty, alienation, insecurity, embarrassment, loss of belief or self-image, change ... in fact, anything that represents the encroachment of the Other or a concept of reality that isn't ours and which we can't control. Powerlessness -- loss of control -- is a central theme of the horror story, and who hasn't felt powerless? Certainly not children who face a world that is mysterious, alien, sometimes brutal and often domineering -- a world that creates a strong need for love and community. If adults react strongly and intuitively to such themes and images -- and perhaps gain a degree of resolution by safely indulging the feelings at their most intense -- then why not children? Generally the satisfaction gained will not be rationalised as such, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Literature in all its forms is about making imaginative worlds which resonate metaphorically, but when asked why they liked a book, most people will simply say it was involving or moving or entertaining. We read to be entertained -- but beyond that lies the serious business of self-examination, social questioning and emotional catharsis. Perhaps, indeed, it is these things which, to varying degrees, make a story entertaining.

So, horror stories can be both unsettling and reassuring. They unsettle by suggesting that the safe, comfortable lives we generally lead exist on the edge of a precarious drop into darkness. Maybe things aren't what they seem. Maybe we're not in control. But in the end, these ideas are expressed through a fiction -- a fiction from which we can more-or-less safely emerge to resume our ordinary, safe lives. The terrors are there, but having indulged them, we have, for a while, diminished their power over us. We feel reassured. I'm not so badly off, we say. Things aren't so bad. Phew!

What about the monsters and supernatural terrors that populate horror fiction? It is undoubtedly true that many of the works we would want to classify as 'horror' deal with 'naturalistic' horrors, taking in stories on the edge of the crime genre. Many of Christopher Pike's teen novels fall into this category. Yet, in a way, one of the things that pushes a crime novel, or a mainstream novel dealing with grim themes, over into the horror genre is the manner in which the horror is presented. Where the perpetrators of the crime (or its implications) take on a larger than life, almost mythical quality, you're likely to have crossed over into horror fiction. The killer becomes a monster, a demon, so fearsome as to be almost supernatural -- or at least frighteningly unnatural. Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs is a good example. Hannibal Lecter is an emblem of our fears. Such monsters -- supernatural and human -- are the metaphors that horror literature uses. Lots of things are frightening, but using them in a book doesn't necessarily make that book a horror story. It is the particular images that any age sees as emblematic of death and primal fear that put a story into the horror genre.

Are high levels of depicted violence characteristic of horror fiction? Though a horror story may use the imagery of death, the death with which it deals need not be violent death. Many of the great ghost stories are both subtle and frightening. Indeed, one of my favourite adult horror novels, Ramsey Campbell's Incarnate, is about the disorienting cross-over of the dream world into the real world, so that the distinction between the two is gradually lost. No gore. Little violence. Violence in fact is not as characteristic of the horror genre as it is of the crime genre. I'm not saying there isn't violence in horror novels -- any genre which looks so closely at death and examines human fear in such detail is not going to be devoid of violence -- but violence is not its defining quality.

So what about children? Does what I've said above apply to them as much as it applies to adults? Do stories which use the imagery of horror help children deal in some way with their fears and insecurities? Without being too pretentious about it, I think, to a degree, the answer is yes. On one level it's like a ghost-train ride or a furious rollercoaster dash. There's an exhilaration to feeling scared, to feeling the inevitable threat of our mortality, without any actual danger. We can shrug it off, mock the spectre of death with impunity, get an adrenalin rush without the need to face real danger. In this context, children can realise, at least implicitly, that looking at the scary side of life -- loss, bereavement, fear, the monster under the bed -- is possible. They can examine these emotions, even play with them, and by so doing gain some power over them. After all, aren't we told by behavioural scientists that that's how the more intelligent animal species (including the human species) learn -- by playing? Horror fiction isn't going to make everyone stable and save society from the ills that horror fiction often depicts, but it can offer a safe forum for examining, and maybe lightening, the dark. Horror stories provide a playground in which children (and adults) can play at fear. And in the end they'll be safe and, hopefully, reassured. Overall, it seems better than repression.

So to the question: what are you trying to do when you write horror stories for kids, scare them? my initial response must be 'yes, hopefully!' There is nothing wrong with being scared. It's a survival response. Expressing and examining the dark side of human experience -- the side that lives in fear -- has always been a significant cultural imperative. The modern trend in horror fiction merely reflects the same needs as are reflected in the inordinate violence and morbidity to be found in folklore, traditional stories, urban legends and 'fairy tales' from as far back in human history as we can see.

Of course, there are limits. Though these limits are likely to be re-defined continually according to particular times and places, one limit is that when you're writing for a pre-teen audience, the horror is likely to be less realistic and to occur in a less naturalistic context. Fantasy elements come to the fore. It provides a necessary degree of distance.

Humour, too, becomes more important the more essentially ghastly the imagery becomes. Bill Condon and I do things in the Creepers books, which could not be done in a serious manner in a children's book. Beheadings, exploding bodies, brains falling out, people getting eaten by zombies ... even many adults would have trouble with such things, if we took them too seriously. The humour provides a buffer, making the fear experienced a literary fear and not a psychological trauma.

In short, as a horror writer you can't depict genuine horrors so realistically that your young and impressionable audience is traumatised and develops fears that they transport into their everyday life. But nor can you mock the monsters too much or there will be nothing to evoke the appropriate terror. While they're on the rollercoaster, your readers have to believe in the horror or they gain no emotional pay-off. It's a delicate juggling act but one that is fun to take part in.

And if it isn't fun, then don't do it. Horror stories aren't for everyone. I know many adults who can't watch the scary movies and don't like to read the books. They don't seem to mind the sort of violence all-too-common in Lethal Weapon and other pseudo-naturalistic cop shows -- but can't abide the atmosphere of horror stories. Some children are going to be the same. I think for such people the visceral experience is too strong and the sense of disorientation too unnerving. That's okay. To each their own. Declaring horror stories compulsory would be as absurd an act as banning them -- as attractive as a captive audience might seem to the writer.

There's one other characteristic of horror as a genre which I haven't mentioned directly but have hinted at. That characteristic makes it appealing to writers, threatening to the would-be mind-police and compelling to readers. It can be described in many ways: 'pushing the boundaries', 'going too far', 'being irresponsible', 'going beyond the pale'. In a way, horror fiction (though at its heart fairly conservative) should never be entirely acceptable. In it, writers and readers imaginatively indulge the dark side of human nature, scoff at social norms, play with dangerous thoughts, question moral and ethical standards. This is one of the reasons horror stories tend to be looked at suspiciously. Yet perhaps doing these things -- in a theoretical literary context -- is not bad. In fact, perhaps it's useful. Perhaps, without such questioning, our society becomes morally flaccid. Horror is hardly a revolutionary genre -- it won't bring about genuine social change, nor will it bring about the apocalypse -- but, again, it can allow the dark side of our nature to be indulged safely, keep the guardians of good behaviour alert, and challenge the moral hypocrites who are actually the ones with a problem distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

Of course, in so far as this 'naughty' side to the genre appears in children's horror stories, it offers an obvious appeal to young readers. Children love pushing the boundaries, eating forbidden fruit (or at least forbidden lollies) and being allowed in some measure to indulge in bad attitudes. It's a way of testing the limits, of coming to understand the ethical chaos through which we're all forced to find our way. Why shouldn't we let them be naughty, here where it's safe?

Besides, how can we expect them to value the light if they never play in the dark?

References

I would direct the attention of anyone interested in the whys and wherefores of horror fiction to books by two of the world's most successful horror authors:
H.P. Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature (Dover, NY, 1973; first published in 1945);
Stephen King's Danse Macabre (Macdonald, London, 1981);
and a collection of interviews with the latter author, Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (New English Library, 1988).
Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser (eds) Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (4th edition, Hammond, Hammond & Co. London, 1965) is a good collection of older, 'classic' horror stories.

 

1997 Robert Hood

 

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