I’ve been thinking about horror fiction lately. What are the secrets of its appeal? Why are teens so drawn to it? How can we know which adult horror novels will appeal to teens and which won’t?
One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this lately is because I enjoyed The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper (review below). And hot on its heels I received an ARC of Joe Hill’s new novel, NOS4A2, which is coming out on April 30th. I am a fan of Hill’s novels, and think they are terrific recommendations for teens, especially Horns. (I wrote a bit about horror back in November 2010 when I reviewed Horns here on AB4T.) I will write more about NOS4A2 at a later time, but let me just add that it includes a kick-ass librarian. (Pardon my language, but let’s just say she would approve.)
In my experience, teens have widely varying tolerances for horror, which is certainly true of adults too. And it can be challenging to find horror that is published for adults that will appeal to teens, or that is appropriate for teens. Stephen King is an obvious favorite with teens, and has been for decades. I have mentioned before that The Stand was one of my favorite books in 7th grade, how my friends and I passed around the paperback – I can still see that cover. I also loved Firestarter, The Dead Zone, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot and especially the short stories in The Night Shift. Part of the fun was sharing these books with my brother, who has kept hardcover copies of all of King’s books even up to the present. Part of the appeal for us was the complete escape they provided. Once I started one of his books, I did not want to do anything else until I was finished. (I’m sure it drove our parents nuts.) There was terrific humor in the dialogue, great characters, and they were just sexy enough, too.
Humor and sex are two things found in many horror novels. It is the dark and twisted combinations of sex & violence which can make some of today’s adult horror novels too much for teen readers. YA horror novels do a good job of leavening some of the horror with humor – I’m thinking of The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray’s The Diviners. Both have strong strains of horror, but emphasize teen friendships and humor to keep the dread at bay. Christopher Moore is the best example of an adult novelist who combines humor and horror much to teen delight.
I have to tell the truth – since I work primarily with girls, I don’t talk to many teen horror readers. I know fans of DuMaurier’s Rebecca and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. There is a large group of readers in my library that leaps on each new novel by Cassandra Clare. But Stephen King? Not so much.
And, these days, it is the rare teen who considers a monster book a good bet for horror. Vampires & werewolves are more likely to be romantic partners than terrifying predators. Did Twilight & Shiver ruin it for today’s teens? Zombies are still considered scary, I think. World War Z is gaining a second wind ahead of this summer’s movie release. The novels of Jonathan Maberry and Carrie Ryan have their readers.
Perhaps novels about disease, natural disasters, and dark dystopian futures are today’s horror? I would love to hear from you about what your teens are reading in this genre.
And then there are demons.
Adult/High School–Angels and demons have fascinated readers throughout history, and today’s teens are far from immune. David Ullman is an English professor at Columbia University, “an atheist biblical scholar; a demon expert who believes evil to be a manmade invention,” whose specialty is Milton’s Paradise Lost. One afternoon, a woman comes to his office and offers him a trip to Venice and a large sum of money to observe a “phenomenon” for her employer. He decides to take his young teenage daughter Tess along and enjoy the change of scene. In Venice he goes to the address he has been given where he observes a fellow scholar, in chains, who appears to be possessed. After he returns, deeply disturbed, to the hotel, Tess throws herself off the roof and disappears into the canals. David knows that she has been taken in order to manipulate him into…what? He launches a search for his daughter and the creature who holds her. He follows clues from his own tragic family history, quotes from Paradise Lost shared by the demon or its victims, and some from his daughter’s diary, which reveals her interpretation of the melancholy and loneliness that has plagued them both as a stalking evil presence. Now that presence wants the world’s attention, and believes an academic “demonologist” would make the perfect ambassador. This horror novel is recommended for teens who enjoy intelligent, literary puzzles. Although the suspense peters out before the end, David’s encounters with the demon are genuinely scary and unexpected. Those looking for a thriller with the pace of a Dan Brown novel should look elsewhere.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City