The final horror - Horror - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


39. Horror


Victoria de Rijke


The final horror


Children live under the same shadows of abuse, neglect, over-protection, war, epidemics, economic and environmental crises as adults, and hence share the same cultural anxiety rituals. By this token, horror is a fear one needs, the price one pays for coming contentedly to terms with a social body based on irrationality and menace. Who says it is escapist? Horror fiction can be a socially responsible outlet.

Given that the child carries hope and fear of the future within it (why else are there so many possessed children in adult horror fiction - such as Stephen King’s Carrie?) and the experience of being a child is horrific for some children, the idea of horror for children is no more or less than a metaphor. BOO!, schlock, camp, gothic or Real categories describe a hierarchy of horror as metaphor, from fairly literal to complex and associative, culminating in the most horrific, almost beyond words.

The last question is: who is in charge? If the reader tries to control the book, by tying it up, sitting on it, keeping it shut, surely it’s still there on the bookshelf, and it’s coming to get you ... and it’s DINNERTIME! The suspension of disbelief required in fairy-tale and horror fiction, where the reader generates an ‘intentional reproduction’ of anxiety as a signal of danger, ensures that they manage to enjoy it, as a mark of increasing sophistication and maturity. So many adults make the mistake of believing that the surface characteristics of a text are simply and directly imported into the inert minds of child readers, when their responses are every bit as enigmatic as anyone else’s. Children know there is more to fiction than meets the eye. Every self-respecting child knows that the reader, not the book, is in charge, whether intertextually parodic or not. There are intellectual pleasures in regression, where the reader can resort to the watchful position of the child, to the ‘world of nightmare, impotence and fear’, where ‘the observation of evil is a fascinating occupation. But this observation implies a measure of secret agreement’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 1973: 230). Enjoying horror fiction is a knowing skill. We need to open our eyes to how children’s horror literature explores notions of pleasure, fear, nostalgia, repression and desire, linked inextricably with the concept of childhood itself. It is a childish genre, in the best sense. Long live dangerous fiction and the playful spirit of horror which ensures the danger is (more or less) under the reader’s control. And if not - as in Sally Grindley and Peter Utton’s terrifying picture book Shhh! (1999), in which the reader tiptoes through the book/castle trying not to wake the giant, peeping anxiously back under the flaps to check, raising the last hatch to see what they dread most: his horrible, enormous OPEN eye - well then, shut the book!


There he is!

Isn’t he UGLY?

Listen to that snore.


I dare you to say ‘Boo!’



turn the page

in case he heard us!


Do you think we woke him up?

Peek through the hatch

and see if he’s still asleep.


He’s awake?

Are you SURE?



turn the page

before he comes after us!



He’s coming!



(Grindley and Utton 1999)



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Gorey, E. (1963/1998) The Gashlycrumb Tinies, or After the Outing, London: Bloomsbury.

Grindley S. and Utton, P. (1999) Shhh!, London: Hodder Children’s Books

Haviland, V. (ed.) (1973) Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, Brighton: Library of Congress.

Hughes, D. (1993) BULLY, London: Walker Books.

Lacan, J. (1994 [1973]) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, London: Penguin. Lerangis, P. (1999) The Yearbook, London: Scholastic.

Mahy, M. et al. (1998) Fingers on the Back of the Neck, and Other Spine-Chilling Tales, London: Puffin.

Maruki, T. (1980) The Hiroshima Story, London: A. and C. Black.

Moretti, F. (1982) ‘The Dialectic of Fear’, New Left Review 136, 67-85.

Morris, P. (ed.) (1994) The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov, London: Edward Arnold.

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Noyes, A. (1913/1981) The Highwayman, ill. Keeping, C., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Opie, I. and Opie, P. (1959) The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Philips, A. (1998) The Beast in the Nursery, London: Faber and Faber.

Reynolds, K., Brennan, G. and McCarron, K. (2001) Frightening Fiction, London: Continuum. Scared Stiff Misadventure Series (2002)

Sendak, M. (1963/1981) Where the Wild Things Are, New York: Harper and Row.

Shan, D. (2000) The Saga of Darren Shan, Cirque du Freak Book 1, London: Collins.

Styles, M., Bearne, E. and Watson, V. (eds) (1996) Voices Off: Texts, Contexts and Readers, London: Cassell.

Swindells, R. (1995/1997) Stone Cold, London: Puffin.

Tatar, M. (1992) Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tucker, N. (1976) Suitable for Children? Controversies in Children’s Literature, Sussex: Sussex University Press and London: Chatto and Windus.

Velthuijs, M. (1994) Frog is Frightened, London: Andersen Press.

Warner, M. (2000) No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock, London: Vintage.


Further reading’

Hollindale, P. (1997) Signs of Childness in Children’s Books, Woodchester: Thimble Press.

Hunt, P. (1994) An Introduction to Children’s Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.