As a young reader, I went through a phase during which all I wanted to read were scary stories. I wasn’t alone. Plenty of my friends and peers would pull out books about ghosts and goblins, haunted houses and Halloween parties gone awry as soon as our teacher declared it “free-reading time.” And all you have to do is recall the astounding popularity of the Goosebumps series in order to grasp how widespread a phenomenon this scary-story phase is.
Occasionally, I’ll still see a kid toting around a copy of Say Cheese and Die! or The Haunted Mask, and bent and battered, weak-spined Goosebumps novels are a common sight at book sales of all kinds. Take a quick look at the kids’ section in the nearest bookstore, and you’ll see plenty of eerie-titled, creepy-covered books, many of which also occupy bestsellers lists and win top honors from various prize-giving organizations and associations.
My question is why. Why are so many kids hungry for books that will shock, terrify, and disgust them? It’s more than just an interest in or love for the horror genre. I still read horror fiction today, but I know plenty of people who devoured Goosebumps and similar books as kids who now, for one reason or another, won’t go anywhere near, say, a Stephen King novel.
I think the answer to my question has to do with a key – perhaps the key – strength and feature of fiction. Not horror fiction, mind you. Not scary stories. Just stories. Period.
Novels and short stories offer readers a space and series of situations into which they can imaginatively and empathetically enter. Books, in other words, give you the opportunity to walk around in somebody else’s shoes. They allow you to have experiences that you might not ever be able to – and might not ever even want to – have.
Most kids, of course, have less worldly experience than the typical adult. To young eyes and minds, the world can seem like an incomprehensibly enormous place. It contains countless wonders that have yet to be uncovered – but it has many terrors, too. A child’s universe is full of dark corners and shadowy corridors, unanswered questions and irrational ideas. Someday, for better or worse, experience will answer these questions and shine its bright light into many of those dark spots. But until then, the curious, frightened child has stories.
Scary stories in particular give children a chance to confront their fears from a remove. And while it’s common for kid’s stories to end happily, they certainly don’t need to (and, I’d argue, often shouldn’t). It’s the experience that matters, the close – but not too close – encounter with the strange, frightening, and unknown. Done from a safe distance, these encounters don’t traumatize, but instead leave young readers feeling braver, wiser, and more prepared for the everyday terrors of the real world.
This may sound overly lofty and hyperbolic, but this is the unique power of a great story, of an exceptional book. Fiction gets a good deal of its magic from its omissions, from what an author chooses to leave unsaid. A clever writer will carefully insert all kinds of crevices and nooks into their prose, and will then use the language surrounding these empty spaces to lure their readers inside of them. Once there, it’s up to the readers to put their imaginations to work, to finish what the writer has very purposefully left undone.
Perhaps the task is something as small as deciding a bit character’s hair color, or maybe something larger, like designing and decorating a sparsely described house or, even, figuring out the potential motives behind a person’s behavior. But by inviting readers to thus engage with the story, the author is, in a way, making each one of them a co-author.
This is why book-lovers can sometimes be possessive of certain novels, a feeling which often manifests itself as the jealous guarding of a particular physical copy of a book. When you think about the fact that they, too, have expended considerable time and effort not just reading, but also imagining – also creating – the story that is bound between those covers, this sense of ownership is more understandable.
Giving children ownership of stories – especially the long, sprawling story that is each one of their lives – is as good a way as any to ensure that they grow up into strong, confident adults. It may seem strange that you can help a kid by giving them a book that might frighten them. But it’s true. Because while they may worry, they’ll also wonder, and by rehearsing for fear, they’ll be better able to face it when it arrives.
So let – and even encourage – kids to read the great scary books that we’ve been gifted, those of Maurice Sendak and Neil Gaiman, of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King (these last two have written some great, kid-friendly stories and novels). Scary as it may be – for them and you – you may just be doing them a favor.
. . .
Throughout this post, I’ve inserted the covers of some of my favorite scary books, ones plucked from all different genres and shelves. Young or old, easily frightened or tough as nails, every one of them is worth a read (or two, or three, or thirty). Below are a couple more – two of my all-time favorite books, period – which aren’t so commonly thought of as scary, but certainly pack their frights (in addition, of course, to a world’s worth of other things).