Monday, October 26, 2009

Mentor Monday - Horror: How Much is Too Much

Everybody likes to be scared. Even the littlest kids. Think about playing peek-a-boo with a baby. You cover your face with your hands, cutting off all eye-contact with your child, and you virtually disappear. If you peek through your fingers, you can see the worried look on the baby’s face. Keep your face covered too long, and the baby is overwhelmed with fear and cries. But if you time it right, you part your hands and shout ‘peek-a-boo,’ the baby gives a bit of a start then smiles or laughs, and you do it over and over, flipping him from fear to joy and back again.

Sounds sadistic, doesn’t it? Yet both adults and babies seem to like the game. Why? My guess is because scaring others, and being scared, is fun. There’s something in us that makes us enjoy that frightened, scary feeling, as long as we know we’re not really going to be hurt.

Unfortunately, once you pass a certain age, peek-a-boo just doesn’t do it for you any more. A good horror story can. But in the world of children’s writing, how do you know how much is enough? At what point does scary become too scary?

Early Readers - Make Them Imagine

Psychological terror is probably the scariest and most sophisticated type of terror there is. The things we imagine are always much worse than reality. Forcing readers to use their imaginations can create multi-layers of terror in a story. And if you’re writing for the youngest readers, it can be just the tool you need to keep things from getting too scary.

The Spooky Old Tree, by Stan and Jan Berenstein, is basically a haunted house story for the youngest readers. Three little bears crawl into an old, dark tree to explore. As they progress through the tree, they encounter a series of scary obstacles, (suits of armor with axes, a rickety stairway, a small chasm, a great sleeping bear.)

The text and illustrations are simple and straightforward, leaving readers lots of room to envision their own terrors. What is down in that dark pit? Is it bottomless? If the bears fall in, will they die?

If the Berensteins had answered those questions with text or illustrations, the story might have been too scary for some and not scary enough for others. In either case, a child might have put the book down. By leaving it up to the child’s imagination, each child may imagine something different, but the fright level for each is the same - just right - because we only imagine what we already know. The Berensteins have very skillfully allowed the readers to imagine their own worst fears, and what could be scarier than that?

Middle-Grade - Make Them Feel

Horror isn’t simply about fear. It’s also about making the reader feel uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s about making his stomach turn or his flesh crawl, making him gasp, go ‘eeeew,’ or turn away. One way to dredge up those feelings is to create clear, visual images.

This works particularly well in MG novels where the emphasis is generally on gross rather than terror, and the horrors are mostly monsters, the supernatural, or from the fantasy realm, rather than humans. Show your readers the blood oozing from the walls. Show them the headless corpse being eaten away by maggots at the bottom of the pit. Let them smell it decomposing. But be sure to use description carefully. Adding it gratuitously won’t do anything for a story, and may even turn some kids off. Like every other genre, a story should contain only the elements it needs to make it work.

Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell use description wonderfully in the dark fantasy, Beyond the Deepwoods. Their use of detail allows the reader to see a world of creepy creatures and gruesome deaths, and they do it without it being too much. The story is gory and gross and frightening, but it isn’t repulsive, and the horror is all kept a bit distant from the reader.

YA - Make Them Care

No matter how spooky or horrific your story is, none of it matters if your readers don’t care about your characters. The easiest way to create empathy is to put the reader into your character’s head. Let them understand not only what your character is thinking, but why. What makes him who he is? What makes him do what he does? And most important in horror, what is he afraid of, and why? Understanding people, and being able to empathize with them, is what brings people close. It’s not only the key to a great horror story, but to any story in any genre.

Creating empathy also gives your story more depth, which works well in YA. Teens can understand a more complicated story that isn’t simply about the scare. They can explore feelings and motivations, the darker fears and desires real people have, as well as why some people keep them in check and why others don’t.

A great example of this is Ray Bradbury’s, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury explores age in this story about kids who want to be older and adults who want to be younger, and what might happen if it were possible. He not only draws us into the lives of his main characters, but into the life of the town and the carnival as well. All his characters are unique with motivations of their own, and while we may not like some of the darker characters, he makes it possible to understand and empathize with all of them.

Writing horror for children can be a tricky thing, but as Australian Horror writer Robert Hood said -- How can we expect them (kids) to value the light if they never play in the dark.


Diane Mayr said...

When I used to do story hours, I pulled out The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree every Halloween. I normally despise BB books because of their hit-the-kid-over-the-head messages, but The Spooky Old Tree was pure fun, there was nothing ugly about it--no ghouls, witches, or messages. The unknown provided the chill and it allowed for listener interaction with it questions, "Do they dare go up the stairs?" The kids love to answer, "NO!"

I'm Jet . . . said...

I'm not sure why my previous comment didn't post, but here it goes again:

Very well written post, Barb. Good advice.


Andy said...

Excellent post, Barb! I'm so glad you made spooky books for young children part of your analysis. I'm going to link this post up to The Picture Book Project. It goes hand-in-hand with what I posted yesterday. (I think we Sisters were channeling each other!) (By the way, thanks for the comment, Barb. My stats show I'm getting tons of hits, but not any comments. It's getting lonely over there.)

Mur said...

Fabulous, fabulous post, Barb.