This week: Kids Enjoy Horror Stories Too Edited by: W.D.Wilcox
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|Kids Love Horror Too|
I had a brief conversation with The StoryMaster last month about kids reading horror, and it dawned on me that there is a HUGE market out there that only an elite few have tapped into. Everywhere I look there are authors coming out with new books in the Horror/ Fantasy genre, and not just books, mind you, but full-blown SERIES based upon the same character(s). So, let's take a look at some of these multi-million dollar (for lack of a better word) franchises, and how they are created to fit little Johnny and Mary.
So to the question: what are you trying to do when you write horror stories for kids, scare them? The initial response must be 'yes, hopefully!' There is nothing wrong with being scared. It's a survival response. 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 and humor elements come to the fore. It provides a necessary degree of distance.
R.L. Stine's popular Goosebumps series has become the biggest money-maker since sliced bread. But it's not junk. It's well thought out, and contains all the elements necessary to qualify as horror, yet not too scary to creep kids out for the rest of their lives. And this guy has covered just about every horrifying idea known to man (I know, because every time I try to write a pre-teen tale I notice that R.L Stine has already done it). 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 there are many widely acknowledged 'classics' which 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. Kids LOVE this stuff.
Also, many 'classic' authors have written horror stories: like the anthology, 'Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural', which 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. My point in saying there are 'hack' writers is merely to illustrate that horror fiction should not be defined as 'junk' fiction. As H.P.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; 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 bad off, we say, or things really aren't so bad after all.
Kids have fears too, more so than adults, and horror writers can help them (instruct them) on how to conquer those fears. That should be our TRUE purpose here. But like all good stories, it has to be entertaining for their age group. Kids are reluctant readers, you gotta catch 'em, pull 'em in. So, how do we do that?
With kids, humor becomes more important than ever, so that the essentially ghastly imagery, like beheadings, exploding bodies, brains falling out, and people getting eaten by zombies is more subdued because 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.
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 candy) 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?
Most books in this pre-teen horror genre share a similar structure or formula - a familiar situation becomes unfamiliar. Cliff-hangers are very effective, because they lead the reader along from chapter to chapter. Frequently the victim never quite escapes, and there's often a slight chill included in the ending.
Again, it's tricksey: too much horror and you damage them, too little horror and you lose them as readers.
Here are a few points I've picked up during my research into this topic.
Don't Kill The Good Guy
One of the most important points to remember when writing children's horror is to keep the victims in the story in charge of the situation. Make them take control of the story; we refers to this as "the safety net". So while they are frantically trying to escape from a wicked witch, dispatch a possessed toy, or perhaps free a friend or family member from a nasty curse, there is always hope, and always a solution. Granted, the solution may require a bit of effort and thought and application of knowledge learned, but there must always be a way to deal with a horrific situation.
It's natural for children to be naughty, so applying this aspect of childhood to this genre offers a very obvious appeal to young readers. Children love to push the boundaries, to test the limits and offer a bit of resistance to authority. In children's horror literature there's an excellent chance for a writer to allow young readers a degree of freedom to indulge their "naughtiness". For children, part of the lure of reading a horror story is that some adults might not approve of the genre, but reading an exciting horror story is a pretty safe way to indulge in a bit of "naughtiness". Children's horror fiction is a way of coming to understand the ethical chaos that we all encounter in our lives, so it makes sense that a good horror story could become a benefit to many young readers.
Writing children's horror gives you the opportunity to help your young readers realize that it's possible to confront the more scary things in life. Fear, bereavement, loss, the monster under the bed... your words can help them examine these issues, and gain some sense of power and control over them. Horror fiction offers a safe place to examine and perhaps take control over the scarier aspects of life. Horror fiction can prove to be a playground for children to safely explore everyday fears.
Mix Humor With Horror
The more ghastly the horror story becomes, so the element of humor becomes an important consideration. A zombie chasing a person - adult or child - doesn't seem so malevolent if it starts decaying and losing body parts during the chase. Always use humor as a buffer, counteracting any possible psychological trauma while you help the child overcome their fear.
The pre-teen market is vastly expanding. Kids like to be scared, it's as simple as that. It's up to us to scare them but as professionals we have to walk a fine line to keep the ghastly horror real but manageable for the youngsters. I challenge you to try. Are you the next R.L. Stine?
Send me your work, by email or just drop it by my house. I'll review it, and maybe, if it's good enough, feature it right here in the next Horror/ Scary Newsletter. Besides, it's gonna be Halloween. Show me what you got for the kiddies.
Until next time,
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My dear W. D. Wilcox,
What a Newsletter! Amazing. Thank you for the Top Ten Tortures, and for featuring my short story, 'Hitler Eats His Vegetables', in your Horror/Scary: Torture and Horror Newsletter.
What wonderfully gruesome information, Bill :) I don't know when I'll need it, but I'm sure it will come in handy in a future tale of Horror!
John R. Petry
This was a great newsletter and very interesting article. I'm surprised you didn't include rat torture. That method really brings chills.
My father had a book when I was young with tortures devices used during the Spanish Inquisition and I remember being horrified. Since then I have always leaned towards psychological horror or fantasy horror. As you said, the wickedness of man has always been with us and to think that one human could actually do that another is hard for me to comprehend. In fact, I would rather not think about it at all. I will probably have nightmares tonight after the reminder of torture devices from the past and reading about new ones. However, despite being morbid it was 'fascinating'.
StephBee celebrating 23!
Bill - how could you forget the chastity belt? Great NL on torture and what it was used for. Just reading the descriptions was pure horror.
I will admit I just finished reading Shutter Island. I wanted to know if the book was so much better than the movie. I wasn't disappointed in the fact the movie went by the book. I was more scared of the movie as there is music and close ups that jump out. I thought both were great and done superbly.
LJPC - the tortoise
Hi Bill! Thanks for all the impressive info about torture. It's shocking to read what people have used over the centuries. Great NL!
Whoa! An annotated Top-10 list of tortures! Man's inhumanity to man! A great (albeit nausea-inducing) read.
BBWOLF is Armor Monster
Lots of scary things out there.
"Anthros Versus Zombies"
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