Article About Horror Writers For Kids
The upsurge in horror fiction produced specifically for children in the past four years is a phenomenon. In terms of sales, titles and sheer cultural penetration, the American Robert Lawrence Stine must be accounted one of the most successful authors in the entire horror genre. For the ‘Goosebumps’, ‘Hair-Raisers’ and ‘Creepers’, the ‘Spooksville’ and ‘Graveyard School’ books and their like are horror, openly, self-consciously and successfully. They identify with the genre, they use its icons; they use horror as a selling point and it is working. Throughout Australia and the United States, bookshops and libraries everywhere have a lurid, green and dripping section that never existed before.
The ‘Goosebumps’ series (Reader Beware! You’re in for a Scare!), which as of June 1996 included 43 titles, began with the publication of Welcome to Dead House by Scholastic in the United States in 1992. Each succeeding ‘Bump’ has averaged international sales of half a million, with titles regularly making it into the overall top ten sales lists of USA Today and the Publishers Weekly. This does not include the recent ‘Give Yourself Goosebumps’ choose-your-own-adventure titles (Reader Beware! You Choose the Scare!), now up to #5; or Goosebumps, the Fox Kids TV series. ‘Goosebumps’ must be admitted as the original. There were antecedents, but in the field of children’s horror, they were the first. Next on the shelf in 1994 were the Puffin ‘Chillers’, and the ‘Hair-Raisers’ series by ‘Lee Striker’ from Random House. These were followed by, among others, Christopher Pike’s ‘Spooksville'(Hodder Headline), ‘Graveyard School’ ( also Hodder Headline, by a ‘Tom. B. Stone’), ‘Spinetinglers’ (M.T. Coffin — Avon Books), ‘Strange Matter'(Scholastic) and ‘Doomsday Mall'(Bantam) in 1995. Also in 1995 came the first of the ‘After Dark’ series, edited by Gary Crew. ‘Hair-Raisers’ and ‘After Dark’s, published by Random House and Lothian respectively, represent the move of the Australian industry into the field, together with ‘Creepers’ by Bill Condon and Robert Hood, released May ’96 by (the prolific) Hodder Headline. And that’s just an off-the-shelf sample, there are more. Lots more, and more still to come.
And the children love them. The popularity of the previously-existing teenage horror ‘brands’ such as ‘Dark Forces’, the books of Christopher Pike, and even R.L. Stine’s own ‘Fear Street’ doesn’t begin to compare. Single novels and discrete series from authors counting both as for children and horror have always existed — I refer you to Steve Paulson’s excellent survey of the Australian scene in Bloodsongs #5 — and in some instances received deserved acclaim. But those are not the books that are being read in playgrounds, waited for like film releases and collected like trading cards.
When well-regarded Australian children’s author Margaret Clark was at a signing of her work in 1994, she kept hearing the phrase ‘Goosebumps’. She asked the shop assistant if there was anyone in Australia writing anything similar. When told no, she answered, ‘there is now.’ Thus, ‘Hair-Raisers’ came to be. She cheerfully admits the origins of her pseudonym. “I needed a name which started with ST — I did a bit of research, I went into a couple of bookshops, and saw if I was ST I’d be stuck near him, because there was no one else. So, Striker was a good name, I called myself Lee Striker. So when kids came in they’d go ‘oh, Goosebumps, read it, R.L Stine, read it’; then they’d find mine!”
Bill Condon is also known as a writer of humorous books, plays and poems for children. Or at least, was. ‘It’s done horrible things to my reputation,’ he moans, ‘I’ve been writing for kids for about fifteen years, and I’ve gained more prominence from this series than I have for all the other stuff combined. It’s all Rob’s fault.’ That pseudonyms and reputations have entered the discussion at all should signal that in the midst of all the marketing, and parents saying ‘but he never used to read anything!’, something unusual is happening; that delicate ground is being negotiated.
It’s not as though producing scary stories for children is a new idea. At this point it is traditional to invoke fairy-tales which I, however, will not, at least directly. Fairy tales were not designed for children. The collections made in the 1670s by Charles Perrault, and the 1830s by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were for adults, reflecting in each case an upsurge of interest in the national folklore. When fairy tales began to be considered childish, they were carefully reworked into what was considered suitable for children, by adults. By adults in upper-class Victorian society, what’s more; and there is a further degree between those versions and their eventual Disnefication. Which may very well feed into another phenomenon of the 1990s, the reclaiming of fairy tales as an adult form.
But looking at the books that were written specifically for children during this period, such as Hans Christian Anderson’s Eventyn fortalte for Born, (Tales Told For Children) in 1835, there is no lack of grue. The Red Shoes feature a pair of cursed slippers which condemn the protagonist to a perpetual dance, eventually leading to her condemnation for breaking the Sabbath. The executioner, a kindly and understanding type, cuts off her feet instead, and for the rest of the story she is haunted by them in the still animate shoes. About the mildest story amongst his works, The Little Mermaid included, is a description of a girl conducting a funeral in Autumn for her flowers, grieving but secure in her faith that they will rise again in the Spring. In fact, descriptions and metaphors of death are something of an idee fix in the classics; consider Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, (1863) where the protagonist drowns a third of the way through, and his ideal, Ellie, succumbs to a coma so they may be reunited at the end. Admittedly, the actual deaths are narrated very mildly as compared to, say, that of Anderson’s Little Match Girl.
Perhaps the clearest indication that these stories were deliberately aiming for a horrific effect — and that our sensibilities about what is horrible have not simply changed — are their morals. The situations are blatantly moralistic, the audience is meant to take the lesson to heart, or stomach as the case may be. The is that even today children are routinely scared by the most responsible of guardians in order to inculcate the principles of it’s bad to steal, or lie, etc. Alternatively, the principles are that of survival. The figures of the Stranger to whom we must not talk, and the Bad Place to which we must not go, loom large in all our memories. But does this make such books horror? In 1991, Let the Celebrations Begin by Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas was short-listed for the picture category of the Australian Children’s Book of the Year. It depicted the Jewish Holocaust, and didn’t spare the detail. It would seem that producing narratives for children concerning horrible things must be considered different to producing horror.
… Mum walked over to the video machine and held up two cassettes.”Aha. You were watching horror videos again, weren’t you.”
“Yes, but — ”
“Look, you know you’re not allowed to watch this stuff. No wonder you had a nightmare.”
Dead Kids Tell No Tales, ‘Hair-Raisers’ #4
Lee Striker, Random House, 1995.
In Margaret Clark’s own words, she writes ‘… funny books. But now, I think, with these, I’m going to have parents going bananas; I’m going to have some little kid innocently picking up one of these and hopping into bed for a nice, quiet, funny read in their pyjamas, and running out screaming into the road! So, that was the other reason for Lee Striker. But then we had a problem, because how was I supposed to be two people at once? Schools would say, ‘Can Lee Striker come and talk?’, and somebody else in some other part of the country was saying, ‘Can Margaret Clark come and talk?’, and the publishers said ‘This is all too hard.’ And I said ‘Yes it is!’ And they said ‘And also, we think we can probably sell more books because librarians know and trust that you are going to write good adventure stuff; you might scare the kids but you’re not going to write anything that’s unethical.’ And so, we let people know that I’m actually both!’ The campaign of display stands, featuring Margaret as a vampire in a coffin, removed any problem the children might have had finding her books. And as noted, by this stage, most bookshops have created specific horror sections.
The target audience of these books, the ‘children’, are both sexes between the ages of eight and twelve. Especial note has been made that boys who ‘don’t like reading’, have here cheerfully suspended their negative; that the horror ‘gets them in’. But sex representation seems pretty even, amongst both the readership and the protagonists of the stories. Beyond this, generalisations seem hard to make.
‘One thing I found very surprising,’ says Margaret Clark, ‘I wrote this to unashamedly compete with Goosebumps, but I found that you’ve got grades three to four, they’d be seven or eight years old, through to secondary school; these are in secondary school, they’re in years seven and eight. That’s a heck of an age range, that’s seven or eight year olds through to maybe fourteen year olds, reading this. And that is extremely interesting. I suspect a lot of the seven and eights can’t understand quite all the words, but they can get the gist of it; it’s also become a bit cultish, so it’s important to be seen reading one of these books. I suspect the thirteen and fourteens are people who don’t like reading, and the school has provided those even as text books, they’ve got them now as class texts!’
‘It’s really interesting to see kids ‘in the wild’,’ says Bill Condon. ‘At a certain age, between eight and eleven probably, they really love the yucky stuff — the boys more so than the girls. I mean, the girls like it, but they’ll screw up their noses and say, ‘Oh yuck!’ and the boys will say ‘Cool!’ But at a certain age, towards year nine, they become too sophisticated for it.’
At this point, the self-identified horror writer of the ‘Creepers’ team decides it’s time to crawl out of the abysmal ooze. Robert Hood says; ‘I think they are good stories, and what the kids get out of them is the same that anyone gets out of a good story. I mean, they’re written in a very straight-ahead manner, you get into it and it rushes along, the kids are in danger and there’s all the impetus of a good story. But there are other things, the reasons I found them fun to write. There’s the imaginative involvement, there’s lots of bizarre things, the exhilaration of using the imagination. But yes, they are yucky. They do push the boundaries, they’re naughty. Kids like to be naughty, and this is a fairly safe way to be naughty, I would have thought. But that’s the lure of the forbidden — adults are going to at least partially disapprove.’
An interesting strategy, perhaps, given that although the younger proportion of the community offers a huge market, its buying power must be considered as at least once removed. ‘Horror’ automatically comes with the potential of ‘scaring’, and not necessarily with any moral or educational purpose. In horror fiction, the purpose is to scare. The idea that deliberately scaring children is in some way immoral seems to run deep, as deep as the idea that children’s literature should be in some way ‘valuable’; should convey things that are good and useful. And in any case, how could the children actually enjoy being scared? Everyone knows that no one is subject to fear in quite the same way as a child. Children have nightmares. Children suffer phobias that cannot be reasoned with. Children can become obsessed with a single image, glimpsed perhaps once, and evince the most extraordinary terror for months afterwards. And then this same child says, ‘Can I get Revenge of the Vampire Librarian pleeease?’
The word ‘horror’ is one even its exponents seem to have trouble using positively. ‘At least they’re reading’ is lukewarm praise; as is ‘He’s reading at last, I don’t care what!’ And, ‘But the kids really do like them!’ doesn’t stand up too well against the accusations. It seems to be extremely difficult to say that horror fiction can be a good thing per sae, and that it is perfectly alright, let alone advisable, that they should be reading it.
In fact, the basic foundation of scaring the children can be built up into some quite elaborate structures. When Bill made his recent tour for ‘Creepers’ around schools in Orange and Bathurst, ‘… the first person who came up to me after I gave the talk was a librarian from Bathurst, who said that she’d banned the books from the library, she was going to tell every parent that she could find not to get them, she accused Rob and I of participating in the rape of the innocents. And she likened what we did to — she said it was the type of book which would cause people to do things like the Port Arthur massacre. And she said her twenty-two year old son was reading horror now, and that was bad enough, but to do this to children; she said, no one really knows what is happening in the mind of a child. Originally she had thought the ‘Goosebumps’ were bad for kids, but when she actually read them she realised they were good stories that didn’t delve too much into the horror, and didn’t have all the yucky stuff which we had, and we had just pushed it too far. Now, even if there is a remote possibility that we’re corrupting them, how could we do it? And she was very calm, and rational about it.’
This is readily identifiable as part of the old, old argument as to why horror at all, anywhere for any reason? It may be helpful to propose that in this case, the ‘child’ is in fact being used as a metonym, a single aspect of the subject operating as a symbol, or exemplar for the whole. The argument, in all its permutations, is sharpened by focusing on one of the few areas everyone will agree is important. ‘Child’ occupies a privileged place amongst our buzz words; once the focus is shifted to children, it is almost impossible to change it without incurring charges of ignoring ‘the real issue’, ‘what is really important’ and/or ‘the innocent victims of this affair’. A complaint made in the name of the Child automatically carries weight, and the onus lies upon the producer to prove that, in this case, that horror really is safe, even for children. The other advantage of using children as the exemplar, is that the consumer’s voice is not considered necessary to the argument.
But clearly, all the arguments are unsettled enough to allow what is happening to actually occur. In fact, it would appear that ‘children reading is a good thing’ is winning; or, just possibly, the ‘Pleeease — ‘
‘When I was away on this tour, the kids were getting them the night before and reading at least one book, in one go, sometimes the whole three books; and there were reserves put on them in the library up there, because the kids were loving them. They kept coming up to me and telling me bits, and it was always the most gruesome bits, (‘Like where the guy pulls his face off and all the maggots fall out’ — Rob), and the adults were absolutely horrified. But the kids absolutely loved it.’
Adam laughed.”Geez, you make stuff up. Half the time you say nothing, and when you do it’s all garbage. Do you think you’re scaring me, is that it? Like yesterday?”
The Well, ‘After Dark’ #3, Gary Crew and Norelle Oliver
So, what actually happens in ‘children’s horror’?
The look of the books is very important; it identifies them as part of the trend. They are bright, glossy and dramatic. On the covers, something is always happening, and that something is usually the monster, displayed and central. But then, with titles like Return of the Mummy, suspense was always going to be a bit of a moot point. The iconography is familiar; the mummy, a ghost, The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, an executioner with an axe, a giant spider, the Bat Attack. In fact, with each one carefully numbered, they look like trading cards; the ‘Goosebumps’ have started coming in boxed sets, numbers 1-4, 5-8 and so on. They have no internal illustrations; the exception is the series which in fact contradicts every statement made so far, the Gary Crew edited ‘After Dark’. These covers are dark and suggestive, like the titles, of places which conceal secrets; the Bad Places, The Bent-Back Bridge, The Barn, The Well.
As far as Gary Crew is concerned, he wanted ‘To set up an Australian series that would be collectable, which would be similar and children would enjoy reading, but different in mood and concept. ‘Goosebumps’ are very tongue in cheek, they’re full of silly horror. The actual books are also produced badly, they’re very cheaply printed and not illustrated; the ‘After Dark’s are much more sophisticated in content and presentation. We are involving artists such as Shaun Tan, and individual authors who have established themselves in other works, such as Gary Disher and Isobelle Carmody; authors who have no preconceived idea of childhood. We are aiming also, at perhaps an older reader, from eleven to fourteen.
‘How our product differs is in a kind of thematic continuity, it’s a thematic difference. You can talk about them later, whereas ‘Goosebumps’ are just a series of scary events. Some of our stories develop from things like relationships, and loneliness, which young adults can feel an empathy with. The different authors interpret the logo for themselves. The content of the books can deal with the macabre, and with things which are horrific, but we’re not interested in horror for its own sake.’
Which would appear to be matter of definition. Worms writhe in The Barn, slime drips, and in the ‘Creepers’, plenty of pus and mucus — but never any blood. Revenge of the Vampire Librarian goes as far as rusty-coloured stains on the carpet, which an irate parent denounces at the end as water marks. ‘Often the adults are idiots who can’t see what’s going on under their noses,’ laughs Margaret.
Whether or not something actually horrifies is, in the end, something only each reader can tell. But there are techniques which perhaps provide a more reliable indicator that horror is the aim, than the use of particular subjects. A child’s death, for instance, does not automatically make a horror story — in all the books read for this survey, only Gary Crew’s The Bent-Back Bridge ends with the protagonist being killed. And though the use of monsters would seem a dead give-away, at this point it may be constructive to remember Sesame Street. Hard to say there is any intention to scare when a vampire consumes milk and cookies in his pyjamas, before tucking himself into a bed. Of course, the young audience still recognise the Count as a vampire.
Margaret Clark suggests that all of the books share a very similar structure. ‘You go by a formula. You have to usually have a familiar situation turning into an unfamiliar situation, you have to have cliff-hangers all the time to lead the person along, and the victim never quite really escapes, there’s always a bit of a chill mixed in with the end.’ The familiar leads into the unfamiliar, and in the end, normalcy is not quite restored. This is a classic basis for creating narrative fear. And it is how these books proceed. In Monster Blood, ‘Goosebumps’ #3, a child is sent to stay with his elderly aunt while his parents arrange accommodation in a new city; of course, he doesn’t want to go. Or, the new girl, whom the popular kids have down as weird, invites the entire class to a Halloween party, in Lee Striker’s Night of the Living Dead. And then the aunt turns out to be enslaved by a witch in the form of her cat, (nice twist). And the girl turns out to be the last descendant of a long line of gothic archetypes, and Halloween is the night chosen for their resurrection — which will require twenty-four small, living bodies. This discovered, there comes another common motif, which perhaps succeeds in the context of child protagonists as nowhere else. No one believes them. The children are isolated. All the usual avenues of help are gone. Somehow, they must make it through on their own.
And then comes the ending, the irresolution. When the menace of the cat is defeated and the parents return, the child realises he can no longer find the catalytic ‘monster blood’. It has disappeared of its own accord, to resurface again in Monster Blood II and III. And, almost convinced that all she saw was a nightmare, Becky returns to school, only to realise that all her classmates have in fact been taken over by the Dead who are eagerly waiting for next Halloween…
The essential play of familiar — unfamiliar also comes out in another kind of imagery, that is strong in the books. This is the sequence where the child nearly drowns in a bath tub that has been infiltrated by the monster blood. The refreshments served at the party, the sandwiches and sausage rolls when examined later, have discoloured, and withered a pot-plant into which a glass of juice was tipped. The children who didn’t eat are the only ones who seem to be still in the house. And in The Bent-Back Bridge, an ugly little ‘troll’ doll becomes a talisman of horrible significance. This is not horror brought on by the presence of a vampire, this is the horror of the ordinary betraying you.
‘When you’re writing with good technique, using the macabre in context,” says Gary Crew, ‘There’s no need to ‘wake up’, and have it all a dream. That’s just cheap. There’s no excuse for that. I conduct the Masters creative writing course at Deakin university. If I was given something like that by a student, where the ending was it was all a dream, I’d tear it up.’
But it mustn’t go too far. And too far, of course, is about as inexact a measurement as recommended age. As said, there seem to be some utter taboos; actual ‘on-stage’ blood, the monster coming in the form of a parent or sibling, bodily mutilation. But even in this last case, what is to be made of ‘Creepers’, where bouncing bits of body and missing heads are part of the humour? ‘We go over the top,’ explains Bill, ‘Everything we do is funny. I read a quote from Steven King about horror; he said he likes to write good characters, and get the audience really understanding them, and caring about them, and then kill them. I don’t think you can do that with children. I don’t think you’d get away with it. You know, actually killing people and having real horror.’
‘In other words,” says Rob, “With the murder and grisly business — I’d have trouble justifying that in my own mind, and it’d scare the kids and make them paranoid about life, or alternatively, make them think that this was normal. Whereas, they read our books, and I don’t think they think it’s normal.’ (‘No, we just make them paranoid about maggots,’ — Bill. ‘They should be,’- Rob.)
‘I’ve done a lot of studying,’ says Margaret, ‘I actually did some work when I did my honours degree on violence and TV. I watched kindergarten children playing with bits of bark trying to shoot each other, and I would say that you can not have guns at kindergarten, and not allow violent games, but you’re still going to get them jumping off the top of the climbing frame screaming ‘Heroes of the Universe!’
‘So, if you can’t beat them you join them. You think to yourself, well, there’s got to be a better way of doing this, there’s got to be a way that you can scare them, but give them a safety net. My safety nets are that I still empower the victims. They’re the ones that are running around, they’re the ones who are solving the problem. With children I don’t want to scare them so they can’t sleep at night, I want to still put them in control of the story. I think this provides — I keep saying ‘safety net’, but there’s no other way I can describe it — for the horror.’
The creature spits out the driver. He lands in a terrified heap, but he’s alive. Tiny flames spurt out of the creature’s head. Its eyes spin. It wobbles towards the children, but they’re not scared any more. They think it’s a game. They’re laughing and squealing and trying to touch the creature.”
Freak Out! ‘Creepers’ #2, Bill Condon and Robert Hood
Hodder Headline, 1996.
But why would children want to be scared at all? How can the things be so damn popular? Unless, of course, they are catering to some perverse instinct which must be prevented from developing, and this explanation has been adopted by more people than just the librarian from Bathurst.
These days, the concerns of people that something may be not quite trustworthy tend to be expressed in terms of desensitising children, and indeed anyone else, to violence. As we have seen, the grue of the books comes under close scrutiny from educators and authors alike. The ‘Goosebumps’ may be considered alright compared to some, because they are not too ‘horrible’. However, children’s horror also attracts another specific kind of concern, expressed famously in a report made by the American Library Association in 1989. ‘Any title with the word ‘witch’ in it may be replacing abortion, evolution and secular humanism as the focal point of conflict.’ During that phase, the most notorious targets of the activists concerned were The Wizard of Oz, general collections of fairy tales, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, all in some way considered to be exposing children to the ‘occult’. Occult in this sense must be taken as referring to some actual canon of Satanic material, equivalent to the Christian biblical canon. Ghosts, inhuman entities and any form of magic all count as references. It was this view that was at the base, along with a specific Christian-affiliated lobby group, of the Australian attempts, in the state of New South Wales, to ban a group of ‘strange games’ for children in 1992. A young boy had suffered pattern nightmares for two months, seeing apparitions in his bedroom and saying that he couldn’t help drawing ‘evil things’, after playing Nightmare, the video boardgame (now known as Atmosphere — ‘A Couple of Cowboys’ & Village Roadshow). Heroquest and the ubiquitous Dungeons and Dragons were also associated. The then state member for Londonderry, Mr Paul Gibson, made a formal request for a Parliamentary inquiry after ‘receiving letters from concerned parents around Australia’, which was never taken up. So this concern pre-existed the present craze, but has fed into it, as demonstrated by the ‘top ten’ list for 1995, of ‘People For the American Way’, who are actually an anti-censorship watchdog group who keep annual tabs on which books come under the most pressure for their removal from the United States school system. In 1995, number one was an extremely popular anthology, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz. More Scary Stories, and Scary Stories III: Tales To Chill Your Bones also made the list, (outing ‘Goosebumps’ from somewhere at least). The reason given was their ‘supernatural’ content.
No matter its specialities, the claim is that children are being exposed to ‘unsuitable’ or ‘dangerous’ material, by nature both fantastic and horrific, and that this is having a measurable negative effect. What has been outlined is the case at its most extreme, but such incidents and theories, that pick up on generalised concerns, tend to form the groundwork for the debate when it occurs at the level of the local library or in the home. Part of this, returning to the overall theme, is that this material scares the children. Gives them nightmares. The other part is that it warps them, that the images get inside and come out in the form of drawings, strange stories and aberrant behaviour.
Of course children absorb what they read and view. When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the craze in ’90, children did draw turtles, ‘talk turtle’ (COWABUNGA!) and play ‘turtle’ games; variants on chasings, and Hide and Seek, where they took on the roles of the heroic turtles and their enemies. And as Margaret Clark observed, when it was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, they played that. So, if ‘Goosebumps’ are the trend, it is reasonable to anticipate that children will draw ghosts, witches and graveyards, acquire a vocabulary involving death, haunting and ‘evil’, and run around the playground screaming out they are monsters, coming to get you. The question is, is this bad?
I would like to look more closely at two particular phenomena that occur amongst this sort of behaviour; the ‘pact of fear’ and the ‘fear game.’ Both these are not restricted to the ‘Goosebumps’ trend, which only makes their application — by children — to their new ‘purpose’ more interesting. It is important to remember, however, that they are not any form of conscious strategy, and do not occur as such. They are both games.
The pact of fear is a very particular type of game. It is the basis of both group ghost story-telling sessions, some movie watching, and ‘daring’. Any particular group takes up the stance that here, now, they are going to go in close to the things that scare them; that being part of the group depends upon this. But equally, while the group is there, it is somehow okay. When ghost stories are being shared, there is an agreement that it is not antisocial, or mean, to try and scare a friend; it is in fact the point, and each participant is bound not only not to back out but to try and outdo all preceding efforts.
In the case of watching scary, and possibly forbidden videos, the action of the group is to ‘assist’ all members in going through with it; with ‘dares’, to assist one or an elite group. Whether or not this sort of dynamic is desirable, and the sorts of problems it can lead to is one thing; but what is happening is a group of children specifically ‘agreeing’ to engage with fear. It must be a group, to qualify as a ‘pact’; patterns of ganging up on and tormenting with cowardice, or terrorising, are a matter of a group being set against an individual. Both boys and girls make pacts of fear, in the same sorts of situations.
The ‘fear game’ is actually the designation for a very common and basic type of playground activity; the types of play that were mentioned earlier as having formed the basis of the ‘turtle’ games. Hide and Seek, Red Rover (or British Bulldog, or whatever you called that one with the two sides and the person in the centre); anything involving the stake of being captured. It is a rule of thumb that teachers and other supervisors don’t like these games, because the action is difficult to control. These games lend themselves wonderfully to characterisation, for there are roles for heroes or victims, and a ‘villain’. There has to be a villain or chief monster, someone has to typify the threat. The game enacts it, this approach of evil whether in the form of robots, vampires or ‘psychos’; what’s more, the usual penalty for being caught is becoming one of them.
In fact, the occurrence of such games within the books themselves is very common. In You Can’t Scare Me, ‘Goosebumps’ #15, the entire storyline is made up of fear games, escalating as the children try out different methods of scaring people, until finally they go over the edge and something real happens. And in Night of the Living Dead, the terror is revealed through a game of Hide and Seek which the children gradually realise is being played for real, and if they get caught…
What these observations would seem to indicate is that something more is happening than children absorbing antisocial behaviour. But even more complex things seem to happen when the children themselves become the story-tellers. Ghost Story Once I heard a spooks voice. It said, “Little boy go down the stairs.” Then it stopped for a while. It went again, “Little boy go down the stairs and out of the door.” But nothing was there. It stopped again. Then it went again, it said, “Little boy go down the stairs and go out of the door and to the lemon tree.” Then it said, “Go to the graveyard.” Then I got strangled.
One thing’s for sure; the kid is reproducing a good, basic ‘horror’ structure. Maybe he has read too many of those creepy stories, but he has clearly acquired something from them apart from an interest in strangulation. But then, in the story it is he himself, the narrator persona, that is murdered at the end. How could this be seen as healthy?
When children write ‘disturbing’ stories or produce pictures containing dark subject matter, it commonly considered to be abnormal, just as playing ‘nasty’ games is undesirable. The same occurs when children have nightmares, especially if they describe them, or seem to be fixated upon them. When a child is asked why they draw or write macabre things, the answer will generally be because they like it, ‘They’re cool.’ At the same time, it cannot be denied that genuinely disturbed children, the victims of abuse or other physical or mental trauma, will also draw dark, horrible things — will use exactly the same sorts of imagery as a ‘fan’ might. Encouraging them to do so often plays a part in therapy, in teaching them to deal with what has happened. The idea is that, by giving the child a ‘language’ in which to ‘talk’ about it, they can begin the necessary process of abstraction. Things can be experimented with through stories and pictures. A less extreme example is how young girls may be encouraged in schools to write stories in which ‘they’ perform active, even aggressive acts, and deal with complex situations.
The matter is enormously complex, and certainly a lot more so than the statement that exposure to these sorts of images and narratives corrupts normal, healthy children. It would be very comforting to be able to draw a definite line between what is ‘safe’ to give to children at various ages and what is not, but that is impossible. All the attempts that are made seem to come down to what the particular adult thinks is ‘bad’ and which children should not be thinking about, that there can be no value in them thinking about. Still, it is something that the author at least must deal with, and Rob Hood is willing to try.
‘I think what children get out of horror are the same things that anyone gets out of horror. I think there are a lot of things — saying it makes it very serious and too conscious, and I’m not sure it happens on a conscious level at all, but I think part of the appeal of horror is dealing with what is after all one of the basic emotional elements that define us, and that is fear of the unknown, fear of all sorts of things, not the least of which is fear of mortality, and what it all means. And in a way, in horror, you get to exorcise that fear in a safe manner. You can indulge it, and then come out of it when you close the book and go and do the dishes; I think that’s what you get to do. You get to play with fear. And kids get to do the same stuff; they wouldn’t rationalise it that way. But it’s part of the growing fascination, since the early 80s, with horror.
‘In a way, you’ve got to hold it at a distance. To me, that’s why the supernatural are acceptable elements; I’m not saying that certain elements of the supernatural can’t be presented in a realistic way, or that they can’t really exist in the world or anything; but I mean, zombies and whatever are not something that most people feel are part of their reality. And this goes for kids too. So by using these, in a way what we’re doing is holding them at a slight distance, using them perhaps as metaphors. And working on that literary level, whether they’re conscious of it or not, means that it is the sort of fear which is ghost train ride, roller coaster-type fear. It’s a fear which, on one level you know is not a real fear, but which allows you to, as I said before, play with the concept of fear.’
Of course, the kids may just like monsters.
Today, Mr Melvin was telling us how people had always believed in monsters, since very early times. “People have a need to create monsters,” he said, “It helps us believe that the real world isn’t quite as scary. The real world isn’t as scary as the monsters we can dream up.”
You Can’t Scare Me, ‘Goosebumps’ #15, R.L. Stine
In any case, the craze just keeps on growing. At least, the number of those attempting to cater for it does. When the highly popular girl’s series ‘The Babysitter’s Club’ brings out Babysitters Haunted House (Ann M. Martin, Scholastic, 1996), the situation is serious.
Four more ‘Hair-Raisers’ are being released in 1996, bringing the total to eight, and Margaret says she can’t write them fast enough. It is claimed that R.L. Stine writes two new books a month, and with 105 books (‘Fear Street’ and some sundries, as well as ‘Goosebumps’) in five years, it’s got to be something like that. Margaret concludes, “I’m going to keep writing the horror books because I think they’re important. If I’ve got kids reading, that’s my main objective, that’s why I write. We still need to be able to read to be able to get on the Internet — can you imagine trying to learn to read off the Internet? You still need to be able to read to access the information on the television, and to play the game. So let’s extend people reading, let’s get them enjoying reading and let’s get them not being able to put the book down. And this genre does that.”
The ‘After Dark’s presently number six books, with a planned twenty-four to be released over the next two years. Between six and ten titles will see the dark in ’97, ‘It depends on the illustrator and the author, and how they’re working together.’ Gary Crew includes in the line-up such writers as Carmel Bird (The White Garden, Queensland University Press, 1995) and Venero Armano (My Beautiful Friend, Random House, 1995). ‘At the end of that schedule we’ll review, but there is no sign of problems at the moment.’
The three initial ‘Creepers’ have, of course, only just hit the shelves, but already 6 more have been commissioned for release during ’97. Possibly, the first of the new titles will be out for Christmas ’96. And Bill and Robert are far from running dry on ideas, and as Rob says, the books are something they enjoy writing, and hope that kids enjoy reading. ‘As long as everyone rushes out and buys them, we’ll write lots.’
In regard to other media, the Goosebumps television show was initiated after an hour-long Halloween special, an adaption of The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, rated so well in 1995. The series is produced by Fox Kids TV, and is now available on video. The series are all adaptations, but there have been tentative negotiations for R.L. Stine to produce some original material for the show. Meanwhile, on the Nickelodeon channel, a rather nice little series titled Are You Afraid of the Dark? had been quietly proceeding since 199?. Produced in-house, it too is an anthology, cased by the appearance of a group of children who meet regularly around a camp-fire to take turns in telling stories, daring each other to stay and listen. It is a pact of fear in which the viewer is invited to participate.
And then there are other things. The slightly strange things, which in some way simply have to be connected to the trend. At the ’96 Australian Toys and Hobbies Trade Fair, Playmobile unveiled a new line of their little, moveable figurines that should be available by Christmas. Alongside the play firemen and play service stations and the old favourite, the play castle and garrison, there is now the play Dracula, the play Evil Priestess (with matching altar, serpent and ritual dagger), and the play Alchemist. I kid you not. Maybe this has more to do with closet D&D fanatics, but obviously someone thinks there is market. The same Expo featured the Korimco company’s Teddy Bats, furry things with wings that spread out realistically, but can velcro round the body in a neat furl. And of course, the ‘Goosebumps’ boardgames from Milton Bradley, the ‘Goosebumps’ jigsaw puzzles and yes, the actual ‘Goosebumps’ trading cards.
Where will it lead? As she said, Margaret Clark will be content if they keep reading, and Lee Striker will keep taking control of the word processor on stormy nights. But for everyone working in the adult fields of horror and fantasy, Rob Hood sums it up:
‘One would like to think that the audience, the kids, for these now, when they grow up will read the adult versions and contribute to the market there.’
And so many adults spontaneously began watching The X-Files in 1993, it would seem that most people do possess the basic capacity to appreciate these things. For that matter there are ‘Junior X-Files’ novelisations being put out by Harper Collins.
The project of recruitment would depend upon expanding the existing definition of ‘cool’. A definite effort in this direction are the ‘Dark Enchantments’ books, started this year by Puffin. This series are out and out gothic novels in 10,000 word glossy paperback form, and are another taking the wise precaution of using established genre authors such as Louise Cooper. The flag title, The Lost Brides, is credited to a ‘Theresa Radcliffe’. Draw your own conclusions, but Kiss of the Vampire is number 3. As said, R.L. Stine also has the teenage series ‘Fear Street’, and as perhaps the ultimate ‘Goosebumps’ spin-off, last year he published Superstitious, an adult novel complete with on-stage blood and sex, with Warner.
These books have not existed before. The children reading them are not the ones who will read the original Dracula and Frankenstein at age eleven, in secrecy if necessary, then discover Lovecraft or Stephen King and go on from there. Perhaps it is just a passing craze; it will die down, the readers will go onto other pastimes, now considering supernatural horror to be childish. And in the playground, something else will arise which will be questioned with total seriousness and the best of intentions.
In any case, it should not surprise us that some very fine writing is presently coming out of such a vibrant and complex cultural idea as scaring the children.