Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

39. Horror

 

Victoria de Rijke

 

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

(R. L. Stine: title from The Nightmare Room series, 2000)

 

In public, the horrors of the world are increasingly centred around but kept from children; in private, children are (over)protected from imagined risk but most at risk in the home. Now more than ever, children need to read horror.

Whilst the range of reference in this chapter attempts to be as international as possible, it is inevitably limited to titles available in English. Of South American, African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Russian, Japanese and Chinese horror fiction I have attempted to find out what children are reading from asking colleagues to survey children, libraries or bookshops, and have found to my horror that, from Athens to Amsterdam, from Sao Paolo to Sydney, Beijing to Benin to Bombay, just about every child reads R. L. Stine. But perhaps this says most about the horrors of globalisation.

The horror genre has its origins in graphic, repetitive folklore, myth and legend told all over the world: Greek Kronos or Cyclops, Russian Baba-Yaga, or Brazilian Mula Sem Cabeca or Saci Perer stories, many drawn from native or indigenous cultural traditions, depicting child-eating ogres, witches and demons. Marina Warner has traced the Pied Piper story of stolen children from 1240, retold all over Europe. Though not exactly horrific, it speaks of international cultural anxieties related to child loss. After the invention of print in Europe, sixteenth-century carnival grotesque broadsheets depicted graphic ‘Child-Guzzlers’ and many fairy stories and poems from Barbe Bleue, The Sandman or Struwwelpeter further established a long line of predatory, menacing figures and themes used as threats to children. In the UK at least, classic ‘gothic horrors’ such as Frankenstein (1818), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Dracula (1897) established the crucial link between the production of horror fiction and wider cultural anxieties, such as the rise of evolutionary theory and the development of science and technology - themes which persist to the present in the genre.

Children’s horror fiction as a separate genre is relatively recent, especially since (bizarrely) fairy tales are not categorised as horror. The rise of the fairy tale in print during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been argued (by Jack Zipes and others) as a means for ‘how script was used to tame the beast in us’, though illustrators (such as Gustav Dore) still dwell on the dark and sinister (as is doubtless the case in illustrations to fairy, magical or supernatural stories the world over). Like Dore, artists have produced very serious and horrific picture books for children: the graphic realism of Toshi Maruki’s The Hiroshima Story (1980) or Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows (1986) is not easily forgotten. Though intended as consoling, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s angry graffiti illustrations to Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1993) have their terrors. The text reads: ‘Panthers in the park, Strangers in the dark. No, they don’t frighten me at all’ (as if). Even in cartoon, David Hughes’ BULLY has some of children’s literature’s most evil expressions and shocking lines: ‘ “Hey, Penguin,” Dog called. “Let’s kick Teddy” ’ (Hughes 1993).

Though horror literature for children can be a vehicle for moral lessons - Tatar’s ‘pedagogy of fear’ (Tatar 1992: 22) - censorship of a genre intended to frighten children is perhaps inevitable. Eminent writers have championed horror: Charles Lamb praised ‘Witches and Other Night-Fears’, Charles Dickens the inspiration of his Nurse’s spine- chilling murder tales, and Walter de la Mare said that ‘a child who hadn’t known fear could never be a poet’ (Tucker 1976: 146).

Children’s literature is heavily influenced by horror (ostensibly) for adults, and by real- life horrors. The Opies’ rich collection includes Jack the Ripper rhymes sung by children from 1905 to 1935, playing out social fears of killers in our midst, whether real or imaginary (Opie and Opie 1959: 111). When you think about it, Peter Pan might easily be read as a variant of Dracula, flying into people’s bedrooms with problematic offers of life everlasting, but that would be no reason to ban it. It has been argued that, since much fearfulness is random, censorship would slide into more frightening stupidities, like banning ‘the word “hill” lest it should sound like “hell”’ (Tucker 1976: 127). Children, like adults, find different things frightening or compelling: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was apparently Alan Turing and Adolf Hitler’s favourite Disney ‘horror’ film, but many children cannot bear to look at the wicked witch with her eyes red as glowing coals. Why does no one think of banning Disney? Similarly, if horror writing were to compete with levels of explicit digital violence and gore in computer games, it would be banned outright. Parent and (Nanny) state censors seem to respond quite contradictorily to horror in visual or written forms.

Adult fears of gruesome harm to children are a rich source of horror writing: Hilaire Belloc’s verse, in lively rhyming couplets (itself a playful satire of nineteenth-century hell- fire writing) dwells on children’s horrific deaths by burning, choking or being eaten simply through playing with matches or string or letting go a hand. The awful irony is: ‘And always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse’ (Belloc 1896/1993: 12). In his turn, Belloc was surely an inspiration for Edward Gorey’s A-Z of gruesome child deaths: The Gashlycrumb Tinies whose horror far outstrips the illustrations to Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. Gorey’s illustration ‘K is for KATE who was struck with an axe’ (Gorey 1963/1998: n.p.) shows large footprints in the snow leading away from the body of a tiny little girl, arms outstretched, an enormous axe embedded in her chest. Her eyes are black pits, her blood spills black, the black of the spindly trees in the distance goes beyond anything in colour. Why has no one ever banned Gorey’s books? Because, like all the best picture books, they evade categorisation (and perhaps everyone assumes that his books are not for children).

 

The horrors of the market

 

Industries such as the ‘penny dreadfuls’ in Victorian England no doubt set the pattern for what would later become cheap, popular horror series. In the USA, the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys stories, with new titles released virtually every month since their inception in 1927, often had titles such as Ghost at Skeleton Rock or Sheer Terror, but seem tame now. Popular affection for horror increased after two world wars (with the fear of the third ever-present) and many horror, thriller and ghost collections or series (such as the Armada, Fontana, Pan and Penguin books of horror stories in the UK, or the 1980s series Alfred Hitchcock Presents: 16 Skeletons from My Closet etc.) were cheap and cheerful night reading from the 1950s to the 1980s. Perhaps inspired by the success of the adult market, the 1990s really began the horror trend for children’s book publishers. Countless collections of ghost stories and horror series, called variously Are You Afraid of the Dark? (Pocket Book), Chillers (A and C Black), Little Terrors or EEK! Stories to Make You Shriek (Macmillan), Point Horror (Scholastic), Simply Suspense (Longman), Tremors (Hodder Wayland), grew towards the late 1990s to bumper collections such as The Young Oxford Book of Ghost/Supernatural/Horror Stories, Nightmares, Scary Tales or Nasty Endings. ‘Spin-off’ literature from US film and TV series, such as The X-Files, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Blair Witch Files seem as popular in print in the US and UK. While many of these multiple-author series, including Point Horror, would probably be considered to be for ‘young adult’ readers, targeted collections also abound, such as Scary Stories for Seven-/Eight-/Nine-/Ten-Year-Olds (Macmillan), Cole^ao Horripilantes, a series aimed at ages six to ten (Editora Record) or Bichos Monstruosos (Rocco) for the Spanish and Portuguese market. Australian and British writers for children have also written or edited collections of ‘dread and delight’ (notably Joan Aiken, Roald Dahl and Margaret Mahy). Much horror aimed at younger children is more humorous than frightening. Paul Jennings and Morris Gleitzman’s Totally Wicked! stories (2000) use comic narrative shifts and devices to deflect the fearful. The aptly named Anthony Horowitz enjoys similarly gory humour in Groosham Grange (1995) which, with its plot device of nasty parents sending their child to a boarding school run by vampire teachers, could be read as a grisly precursor to the Harry Potter phenomenon. And horror is accused of being conservative and derivative! Quite the reverse.

By the turn of the century, horror seemed to be going in two directions: the carefully authentic, and the obvious spoof, from picture-book interpretations of traditional ghost tales and poems such as Charles Keeping’s spooky sepia illustrations to Leon Garfield’s 1985 The Wedding-Ghost, or Alfred Noyes’s 1913 ‘The Highwayman’ (reprinted 1997 and 2000) to ironic parodies such as Kay Umansky’s Hammy House of Horror (1998) (with its pun on the British horror-film company, Hammer), a twist on the Dracula story - with an all-rodent cast, Professor Von Strudel (a guinea-pig) and his assistant hamster, staying at the castle of Count Ratula. Perhaps in reaction to criticisms of the ‘adult’ or explicit writing of some of their series, R. L. Stine’s Goosebump titles for Scholastic (from 1992) read like corny jokes: Revenge of the Garden Gnomes, How I Got My Shrunken Head, Deadly Experiments of Dr Eeek, Creature Teacher or The Blob That Ate Everyone. Tales to read with Mummy.

With the exception of Fingers on the Back of the Neck, and Other Spine-Chilling Tales (Mahy et al. 1998), which includes a story from Africa, America, Australasia, Asia and Europe, collections for children in the UK do not yet enjoy much cultural diversity or global reach. Individuals seem to have better success. Irish writer Michael Scott’s horror books October Moon (1992) Wolf Moon (1995) and House of the Dead (1993) have so far been translated into Catalan, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese (Coghlan and Keenan 2000: 134). Anthologies such as the Oxford Book of English/Canadian/ Australian Ghost Stories (1986, 1990 and 1994), or the Penguin Book of Chinese/Indian Ghost Stories (1982, 1993) include excellent Saskatchewan and sixth-century Chinese ‘avenging’ ghost or vampire tales, written very simply, thus presumably accessible to children.

Outstripping even Stephen King’s output in the adult international horror market, R L. Stine is the best-selling children’s author in history. Originally writing for a humorous children’s magazine, he specialises in ‘thrillers, chillers and killers’ series, including Fear Street, Goosebumps and most recently, The Nightmare Room, marketed aggressively in many countries around the world. A 1996 UK survey revealed that out of 410 votes for R L. Stine’s books, 78 were from boys, loosely suggesting that girls read more horror fiction, contrary to the stereotype (Reynolds et al. 2001: 9) Categorised by its enemies as ‘trash horror’, ‘pulps’ or ‘splatter’ fiction, Stine’s output far exceeds the Blyton, Dahl or Rowling publishing phenomena: his numbered volumes attract loyal readers who consume entire series like so much fast food. Celia Rees, writer of vampire stories such as Blood Sinister, cites Stephen King saying, ‘if he can’t terrify the reader he will try and horrify the reader - and if he can’t horrify, he’ll go for gross-out. So terror is the highest level.’ She defends series like Goosebumps as not being ‘formulaic rubbish, a low grade form of literature’ but as having many ‘emotional rewards’ where ‘you the reader are in control’ and ultimately ‘safe’ (Carter 1999: 214). Stine’s work certainly offers the security (to translator and reader!) of easily recognisable, luridly coloured embossed covers, a strong authorial or narrative voice, high frequency predictable vocabulary, likeable humour, elements of familiarity combined with well-prepared shock tactics (ordinary boy/girl/person/thing meets/turns into mummy/monster/werewolf/zombie) plus classic twists or turns of the screw. He favours the ‘whipcrack’ ending with a grisly or shocking twist (a knowing sales ploy, since it means you can’t read that particular story again with as much enjoyment, and therefore have to buy a new book for a new thrill). In a sense, these books, although marketed as horror, are not frightening but consoling (for all concerned, perhaps especially author and publisher’s bank balance).

The overriding market trend is for sequenced books, though they do not seem to produce the most memorable horror. The hardcover (erzatz ‘traditional/old-fashioned’) Lemony Snicket series (A Series of Unfortunate Events (2001) and sequels) is odd bedfellows with Scary Stories for Sleepovers (Dwight Been and various authors, 1991, 1999), but it all sells. By 2001, publishers were celebrating with triple packs such as Decayed: 10 Years of Point Horror, and for 2002 publishers like Macmillan commissioned individual writers to produce stories for the frankly commercial title series Shock Shop. Buy your horror here! As a category universally marketed and/or recognised to be popular with children, and given that publishing trends reflect the general cultural anxieties of our times, horror is clearly here to stay.