This post is adapted from an article that was originally published in Children's Writer. Publishing professionals' titles have been updated when possible.
For many people, Halloween is a favorite holiday. It’s a chance to get dressed up, taking on a different persona for a while (something writers do all the time). It’s a holiday that focuses on fun – candy, costumes, tricks – with any religious background largely lost to modern thought. And it’s a time to get scared, but in a safe, playful way.
From ghost stories around the campfire to summer slasher flicks, many people enjoy being scared. Children and teenagers are no exception. “Growing up is intrinsically horrific,” author Cynthia Leitich Smith says. “You’re a shape-shifter in your changing body. You’re a vampire in your thirst for life. Your emotions can turn you from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. Essentially, gothic fantasy is all about reflecting this reality through metaphor that asks the hard questions, tackles the classic themes, but in a fresh – sometimes bloody fresh – and sometimes funny way.”
Many authors are drawn to this genre because of their own childhood love of the macabre. “As a kid, I adored anything scary – ghosts, monsters, mummies, you name it,” Laura Ruby says. “So, when I sat down to write my own books, I wrote the ones I would have liked to read when I was a kid.”
Who could resist the chance to tell scary stories for enthusiastic fans? But it’s not enough to throw together a bunch of ghosts or monsters. Horror stories have been around since prehistoric people tried to explain the things that go bump in the night. For authors to catch a reader’s attention today, they have to do something different.
“Horror has its quintessential themes,” Leitich Smith adds. “The key is in your twist or twisted retelling. In crafting Tantalize, I drew my initial inspiration from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s classic includes a Texan, Quincy P. Morris, among its original vampire hunters. I brought the mythology ‘home’ to
Texas, offering my new
protagonist, Quincie P. Morris – an updated and gender-flipped nod to Stoker’s
Ideas can come from everywhere, including real-life facts or mysteries. Ruby wrote Lily’s Ghosts based on stories a friend told her about her family’s “haunted” house.
The Monsters Among Us
With so many human monsters in the real world (not to mention dangerous beasts, scary diseases, and the basic fear of death), readers may find it easy to believe in fictional monsters. Still, horror stories need a grounding in reality. Human characters should be realistically human, points out agent Ashley Grayson. “No juvenile novel today can omit cell phones, the Internet, and the new relationships kids have. As one teen told us: ‘No girl I know would go anywhere without her friends and certainly not into the woods. If she did have to go alone, she’d IM or SMS her friends the whole time.’ Ask yourself, would this story be scary if the protagonist could make a cell call to his/her best friends within moments?”
Fantastical elements should ring true as well. “Monsters, ghosts, supernatural creatures of any kind should be described in the same sort of physical detail that any human would,” Ruby says. “They should also have distinct personalities, personal tics, etc., to round them out.”
Andrew Karre, Executive editor at Dutton Books for Young Readers, says, “I think the impact of good horror/suspense writing is directly proportional to the author’s ability to describe scenes, situations, and characters in surprising yet evocative ways. How can you translate whatever gruesome thing you’ve conjured up in your imagination into words that seem simultaneously surprising and true?”
Susan Van Metre, Senior Vice President and Publisher at Abrams Books for Young Readers, concedes that, “Perhaps there’s more of an emphasis on fun and a little less concern about logic than for other sorts of books.” However, believability benefits “when the fear or concept has some basis in reality. Peni R. Griffin wrote The Ghost Sitter about a girl killed in a firework accident (didn’t we all worry about that growing up, after all our parents’ dire warnings) who haunts her suburban home until a family with a girl her age moves in, and the girl helps free her. So it became a wonderful novel about the power of friendship to reach across a seemingly impossible divide.”
Yet there’s no point in writing horror if you’re not going to make it spooky. “Mood and atmosphere appeal to me as a reader,” Candlewick Senior Editor Deborah Noyes Wayshak says. “I want to go where angels fear to tread, but you have to coax me there.”
The best horror also goes beyond the merely spooky or grotesque, and touches some deep truth. “The most engaging horror or ghost stories are psychologically complex,” Wayshak says. “The horror or ‘haunting’ reflects the protagonist’s psyche in some way, what she or he is hiding or suffering or grieving on the mundane plane.”
To find these deeper truths authors must be emotionally honest and willing to take risks. “The main challenge is writing into the heart of the horror – what’s on the page, what’s inside oneself – without protecting or skirting or offering apologies,” Leitich Smith says. “The challenge is in unleashing your own monster within.”
Growing Up Scared
Children of all ages might enjoy horror, but they don’t enjoy the same kinds of horror. Stories for younger children tend to balance fear with humor. Plots are spooky but not terrifying. Teen novels, on the other hand, can include more gore and death. Writers have to find the right balance for their books.
“The youngest readers are more likely to enjoy what you might call the ‘gotcha!’ scares,” says Joshua Gee, author of Encyclopedia Horrifica. “Middle-graders want to be surprised on every page, but not necessarily terrified. And finally, younger kids usually prefer a little humor with their horror. Goosebumps is a great example.”
Grayson points out that different age groups have different fears. “The scariest thing for a 12-year-old is the idea their parents might die. Typical YAs almost hope they would, so most YAs are fearful of loss of social capital or that their boy/girlfriend is a psycho or vampire.”
According to Van Metre, “YA novels are pretty limitless in the amount of gore; one would try to soften this or have it happen ‘off-stage’ for middle grade readers. Also, the occasional bleak ending is okay for teens; not so much for middle graders.”
Does the world really need more monsters? Maybe so, if scary books can help young people deal with real life. “One of my all-time favorite books is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak,” Gee says. “It introduced me to my first monsters – and taught me how to make friends with them. I think that’s the role of scary literature in a kid’s life. It provides a safe and neutral realm where kids may engage their fears without becoming consumed by them. From an early age, Mr. Sendak’s words and pictures taught me that, yes, the world is a scary place, but it’s also a magical, surprising place. It can’t be one without being the other.”
PS – Ghost stories can also be a fun way to teach history. Read about that here on the “Mad about Middle Grade History” blog.
Chris Eboch writes a variety of genres for all ages. Her Haunted series for ages 8-12 follows a brother and sister who travel with their parents’ ghost hunter TV show. They try to help the ghosts, while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups. In The Ghost on the Stairs, an1880s ghost bride haunts a Colorado hotel, waiting for her missing husband to return. The Riverboat Phantom features a steamboat pilot still trying to prevent a long-ago disaster. In The Knight in the Shadows, a Renaissance French squire protects a sword on display at a New York City museum. During The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, Jon and Tania help a dead man find his lost gold mine – but they’re not the only ones looking for it. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.