For our weekly guest post, we have Michael F. Stewart, author of Keep in a Cold, Dark Place joining us. Michael is an old hat at this writing thing, with eleven distinct works on his CV, including 4 graphic novels. After I read and reviewed Keep in a Cold, Dark Place, I asked the author if he would be interested in writing a post on writing kids’s horror. He was more than happy to contribute a few hundred words to us on the topic!
On Writing Kid’s Horror
by Michael F. Stewart
Thank you for allowing me to take over your awesome blog! I want to talk about something near to the dark recesses of my heart. Horror. More specifically, kid’s horror, and writing kid’s horror.
I will admit. Whenever I set out to write a book, I don’t start with genre. I start with premise (generally a sort of what if question). In the latest case, it started with reading on a bag of potatoes to ‘Keep in a Cold, Dark Place.’ That became the writing prompt. And with that as a title, genre was really chosen for me.
But what does it mean when something fits in the horror genre?
A genre is a series of conventions that set certain expectations in the reader. Keep in a Cold, Dark Place, has the theme of overcoming fear. To flesh the theme out more fully, it could be stated as the following: By bringing our fears into the light, we diminish them (and by leaving them in the dark, they grow . . .). The book has monsters. It’s set on an isolated, impoverished potato farm. This checks a lot of ‘horror’ genre check boxes, right? But does that make it a horror novel?
Nope. These are some conventions that fall within the genre, but they do not a horror make.
Horror is something you feel. For a book to be a horror, the reader must feel horror. Horror should be horrifying.
This may sound obvious but it’s not always. The horror genre is tricky. It is for me. This book isn’t pure horror. I love to cross genres. Fantasy, horror/dark fiction, set in contemporary world, seems to be what I gravitate to. But I’ve even had readers call my hacker mystery series, science fiction—it isn’t. Not even close, but obviously I’ve drifted into a science fiction tone from some readers’ perspectives.
This stuff is important. I had an adult book that came close with a major publisher but didn’t sell because it wasn’t horror enough, but not quite thriller enough either. They worried that no one would be satisfied. That’s THE TERMINALS.
So genre is a marketing term. Horror is something you feel.
So, what about horror for kids?
My most recent book’s classified as middle grade horror, and I’d say that, for an average adult, it might be creepy and tense at times, but not horrifying. For kids, it IS scary. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold back a ton; kids can handle more than we think; after all, they’re seeing much of the same news as we are. But kids are kids, and although they love to be terrified as much as anyone, they also don’t want to be traumatized!
Horror in children’s lit seems to fall into two main camps. If you read any RL Stine, you’ll wonder if it’s more comedy than horror. And whether it’s Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket or movies like Gremlins, laughter and horror seem to go hand in hand. After the scream in a good horror movie, what’s the usual second reaction? Laughter. Consider these movies: ParaNorman, Frankenweenie, Hocus Pocus, Gremlins, ET?, Goonies? Ghostbusters? They all use humor to balance the horror elements. In middle grade, this balance is even more important. Keep in a Cold, Dark Place falls into this camp for the most part, although I went for more of the second camp when it comes to atmosphere.
This second camp includes books that adults might wonder if they should be really giving them to their kids (but should!). Coraline, which I loved, is a deeply creepy tale without much in the way of comedic relief. The Night Gardener. A Path Begins. Twelve Minutes to Midnight. Doll Bones. All of these, often Victorian horror, bridge fantasy and horror genres with low laughs. These books are often longer as well. Sometimes I wonder if these books are actually targeting the young adult, or adult crossover market, rather than the middle grade market directly. It also makes me think that the more solely horror a book, the more laughter required. The more the novel crosses into fantasy, the less comedy required.
It’s both funny and horrifying to me that writing can sometimes come down to math.
What’s your favorite horror for kids? Is it a blend of genres, or squarely horror?
Keep in a Cold, Dark Place by Michael F. Stewart
Reaching for her dream, Limpy unleashes a cute, fluffy, NIGHTMARE …
Keep in a cold, dark place. That’s what’s written like some ancient law on every bag of potatoes the family farms. And it’s where Limpy fears she will always remain.
It’s also carved on a box of spheres she discovers in the cellar. Spheres that hatch.
Cute at first, the creatures begin to grow. Then the chickens disappear. The cat is hunted. And something sets the barn ablaze. To survive, Limpy will need to face her greatest fear. The whole family will. Or they may end up in a cold, dark place indeed.
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11 thoughts on “On Writing Kid’s Horror by Michael F. Stewart”
I’d like to join that group too!
Such an interesting post, Michael. I’ve been a fan of horror from a very young age. And I always considered something a horror story if it scared me enough to make me afraid to poke my toes out from under the covers at night. Being scared wasn’t like been horrified either. I don’t think graphic gore and explicit violence belong in children’s horror. Kids have their own powerful imagination to take things where they want. Love the clever title and creepy cover for your book. I wish I had your imagination.
Dude, I protect my toes every night, regardless! Too many years of scary books.
Thanks, Laura, there’s actually an older version of the cover where our friend there doesn’t have any fur–much creepier. I thought the kids would love it, but I didn’t think a parent would pick it up!
I really enjoyed this book and my review will be up on my blog in July but it’s already on Goodreads. It was really cute and a new take on Gremlins and I thought it was a great book about family and fears. Great job! Can’t wait to check something else out that you have written.
Thanks, Stormi, I appreciate your great review and sharing it in July. If you’re on Netgalley, I’ve my next book already available for request. It’s a YA contemporary. 🙂
Thanks, Jemima, I think writers and publishers need to take responsibility for content. The suitability of something like suicide (13 Reasons Why), is a good example of this. The challenge with horror (and comedy) is that what’s horrifying (or funny) to one, isn’t to another. So drawing the line isn’t always straight forward. (Says the dad who took his 9 year old to see Wonder Woman. When she got out she told me she wasn’t really ready for that!)
Funny you mention Wonder Woman and suitability varying Michael. I took my eight year old to see Wonder Woman and she was in heaven. It was “just awesome!!!”
Right, totally kid dependant. (I think the evil Drs face through her 🙂 )
‘Threw’ her, 🙄
I’m really glad to read your take on this. I’m a member (and moderator) at Goodreads’ Great Middle Grade Reads group and we discuss suitability of books for MG readers often. It’s really worrying some of the horrific things that seem to be pushed into this genre by publishers. Consequently authors think they should be keeping up with the gory bits without any thought of whether it’s really suitable.
I read two ostensibly MG books which I questioned in my blog on Saturday. I think your point about the laughter needed to offset the scary bits is spot on. Thanks for your comments, and I’ll share them widely!
MG or not MG? on Jemima’s blog
I think I need to join this Middle Grade Group if I haven’t already!
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