I remember a hilarious story my grandmother once told me. About the time her friends came over for an evening of ghostly tales. Mavis, Angie, Chrystal and Anne loved telling spooky stories and dredging up the creepiest anecdotes to while away the dreary winter nights.
It was great fun, my grandmother recounted, as they sat around the fireplace. On this particular night, it seemed that Chrystal had a few hair-raising stories up her sleeve. She had everyone scared by the time the evening came to an end.
As usual, grandma offered to walk her friends halfway home, especially since they dreaded the thought of passing through the graveyard, alone. Halfway through the graveyard, Mavis suddenly shrieked and pointed, white-faced, in the direction of what looked like a pale ghostly figure, floating in mid-air amidst some funny-freaky sounds. Since everyone was already jumpy they immediately assumed that it had to be a ghost for sure. Each one turned around and ran in all directions to hide behind the bushes. An eerie silence filled the air for some time as each one hid away; scared of what was out there.
Then the laughter came!
It was grandma, who had bravely peeked out from behind her little bush, to have a better look at the pale creature. Only then she realised that it was no ghost. The wind had picked up a white sheet and draped it perfectly over one of the taller tombstones. The flapping of the cloth made it seem like a floating object and the freaky sounds was only the wind sneaking through the highest trees and surrounding buildings.
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… stories, all the good ones, all the effective ones, are supposed to grip you. To charm you. Transport you.
And, yes, terrify you.
These are the words of critically acclaimed author Francois Bloemhof in an essay in Horror 101: The Way Forward on writing scary stories for children.
Horror 101 is edited by Joe Mynhardt and Emma Audsley and contains writing advice from seasoned authors in the horror genre. Described the Crystal Lake Publishing as “not your average On Writing guide”, Horror 101 contains career advice and tricks of the trade for aspiring authors, from writing for movies and comics to blogging and self-publishing.
Read Bloemhof’s essay entitled “Horror for Kids: not Child’s Play” in which he shares essential principles for writing scary stories for children. The author believes that a good story doesn’t need blood, death and violence to terrify the reader.
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There are a few principles I adhere to. Most of them are common sense and may have been clear at the outset if I had ever made a study of the sort of horror books that had already been written for children in other countries. I made up my own set of rules as I went along, but am pretty sure they have a much wider bearing.
The rules, then:
Little or no blood.
Blood flying all over the place does not heighten the tension, but dissipates it. So curtailing the blood-flow was no sacrifice for me. Being subtle often gets you a lot further anyway; the atmosphere can be much more disturbing if the central issue is not resolved so spectacularly. Besides, when it comes to movies, why are the torture porn and slasher genres even classified as horror? Those are violent suspense films that feature no monster, but often merely a main character with a penchant for cutting off limbs. Quite understandably, parents will not rush out to buy their children books in which kids get hacked to pieces. Again, that quite a few young readers might like to read stories in which that happens is beside the point!
Children don’t die.
Or in any event they don’t in my youth horror books. One or two adults may come to a sticky end, but then mostly offstage. The threat of death may be there, and in fact in many a story should be there, but killing off a child character, especially one the reader has come to like and identify with, is betraying the reader’s trust. You are also betraying the trust of the adult who placed that book in a child’s hands. Alfred Hitchcock always regretted having a child character get killed in a bomb blast in Sabotage, and even though it remains one of my favourite films of his and that scene has a devastating impact, I see his point.
Children don’t kill.
If a child protagonist does kill a monster or villain, it should be by accident and the event must be brought on by the antagonist. It seems to me better from a moral point of view that an evil force brings about its own destruction. The main character can’t be a murderer; he or she can’t remain a young representative of goodness once they become guilty of the same level of violence as the antagonist—not even if they are defending themselves. Evil must be destroyed by its own evilness.
Monsters are not safe villains …
Some of my youth horror books do have monsters in them, but this is risky in terms of sales. Many adults may just decide that their child won’t read about such things—forgetting that once upon their own childhood they might have wanted to read entertaining stuff like that themselves, and not the mellow type of book they now want to buy their child. If I do make use of monsters I try to work in a playful tone. If these creatures bleed (see the first rule), green or yellow blood is preferable to red.
… but ghosts are.
While many adults may object to monsters putting in an appearance in a children’s book, they accept ghost stories more easily. Perhaps the reason is simply that most people enjoy a good ghostly tale? The frisson of fear it may produce is more genteel than the shudder that waits within the pages of a monster story. That the threat seems less overt is rather a contradiction because for many people ghosts are easier to believe in than monsters. My ghost stories have sold in greater numbers than those starring monsters.
The Harry Potter books have been translated into Afrikaans after their tremendous success overseas and indeed over here, but had they originally been written in Afrikaans or otherwise in English by a South African author, I am not so sure they would ever have been published. They would certainly not have sold as well as the Afrikaans translations did, since those had the weight of “overseas acceptance” behind them. Though Harry Potter and his foes are certainly no horror icons, the element of witchery appears to be taboo in South African youth literature; otherwise it must be a great coincidence that books containing that element almost never see the light of day around here. In the rare cases where witches and wizards do pop up in South African youth literature, they are comic, eccentric characters that can’t do any real harm and whose supposed talents usually work against them.
I would suggest that anyone who wants to write horror stories for young readers should first take a good look at what has been done in that field in his or her own country, since no two countries’ banks of literature and criteria will be the same. What already exists and what is selling? That knowledge should help you determine the broad boundaries, as well as avoid blind repetition.
One of the greatest compliments on my writing I have ever received was when I was speaking to a reading circle about an adult novel, and one of the women mentioned that her son had wet his bed recently. He’d been reading a book of mine before bedtime and when he woke up in the middle of the night didn’t want to get up and go to the bathroom … She laughed about this unfortunate event – because she understood. Being an avid reader, she realised that a wet mattress, though certainly an inconvenience, was in this case also testament to a vivid imagination, one that had been activated and was being enforced by the power of fiction. She knew that stories, all the good ones, all the effective ones, are supposed to grip you. To charm you. Transport you.
And, yes, terrify you.