Children’s Literature and Genre

GENRE IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

Children’s literature is broken down into genres, just as adults’ stories are. But critics of children’s literature differ in how they prefer to categorise the main types of stories for children.

I’ve observed that children’s editors and similar often avoid talking about ‘genre’ when discussing children’s stories. ‘Genre’ is one of those words that needs quote marks around it. Instead, they use different terminology.

REALISM VS FANTASY

John Stephens has said that the distinction between fantasy and realism is ‘the single most important generic distinction in children’s fiction‘. On the other hand, children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva doesn’t make that particular distinction, treating ‘all children’s literature as essentiallymythicor at least non-mimetic‘. [Non-mimetic means not even trying to emulate reality.]

MATURATION PROCESS

Nikolajeva describes children’s stories as ‘a symbolic depiction of a maturation process (initiation, rite of passage) rather than a strictly mimetic reflection of a concrete “reality”.’

Arguably the most pervasive theme in children’s fiction is the transition within the individual from infantile solipsism to maturing social awareness’.

John Stephens

See my post on Coming-of-age Stories. (In which there are subcategories and related categories.)

MYTH VS ROMANCE, MIMETIC VS NON-MIMETIC

Northrop Frye writes in terms of ‘myth-to-romance—romance to high mimetic—low mimetic to ironic’.

Carl Jung wrote of ‘harmony-split-split toward wholeness’, part of what he called the individuation process.

Peter Hunt wrote of ‘closed—semi-closed—unresolved’ stories forming the backbone of children’s literature.

The QuesT OR MYTHIC Story

Maria Nikolajeva writes about children’s stories in terms of ‘utopiacarnival-collapse’. Nikolajeva is also careful to provide the disclaimer that whatever may be true for Western stories is not necessarily true when it comes to the structure of stories in other cultures.

Quest stories have a mythic structure. Nikolajeva writes of the Quest Story as a category of its own, if not a genre. Quest stories are stories of growth and maturation (and this is true whether the audience is adult or child).

Maria Nikolajeva notes that ‘a psychological quest for self can be found in many contemporary YA novels, for instance Gary Paulsen’s The Island, a modern Robinsonnade. Examples of a children’s Robinsonnade would be Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea and Sailor Dog.

The Island Gary Paulsen cover

When applied to children’s literature, Nikolajeva prefers the term ‘picnic‘ in place of ‘quest’ because in children’s stories there is often no character development once the children come back to the primary world. For instance, the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles live entire lives, then presumably live again as children when they arrive back in the real world.

GENRE OR CHRONOTOPE?

Academic Maria Nikolajeva does not make a distinction between:

what is normally described as ‘genres’ or ‘kinds’ of children’s fiction: historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, realistic everyday story, or “nonsense” (which I do not believe to be a generic category anyway, but rather a stylistic device). The difference is in setting, or more specifically in chronotope, the organisation of space and time. In my typology, all these texts belong to the same narrative pattern: “semiclosed” in Peter Hunt’s taxonomy, “Odyssean” in Lucy Waddey’s. In Frye’s mythical cycle, the closest description is romance.

(Chronotope is Bakhtin’s terminology.)

QUEST VS PICARESQUE

Rather than genre, Nikolajeva thinks of children’s literature in terms of ‘quest’ and ‘picaresque’.

Quest has a goal; picaresque is a goal in itself. The protagonist of a picaresque work is by definition not affected by his journey; the quest (or Bildungsroman) is supposed to initiate a change. There is, indeed, sometimes a very subtle boundary between ‘there-and-back’ and a definite, linear journey ‘there’, which is best seen in the last volume of the Narnia Chronicles.

Picaresque: relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero. An example of a modern picaresque film for adults is Thelma & Louise.

Nikolajeva further categorises children’s fiction into three general forms:

  1. Prelapsarian (when the main characters are unspoiled by ‘The Fall of Man’. The setting tends to be pastoral, secluded, autonomous. The main characters tend to be ensembles. The narrative voice tends to be didactic and omniscient. Time is circular, with much use made of the ‘iterative’ rather than the ‘singulative’. Utopian fiction introduces readers to the sacred e.g. The Secret Garden.)
  2. Carnivalesque (in which the characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. See: The Hobbit, Narnia Chronicles, Harry The Dirty Dog. Carnivalesque texts take children out of Arcadia but ensure a sense of security by bringing them back. They allow an introduction to death, which inevitably follows the insight about the linearity of time.)
  3. Postlapsarian (in which a pastoral setting tends to be replaced by an urban one, and collective protagonists are exchanged for individuals. First person point of view is common. Time is linear. The main character knows that time is linear, so death becomes a central theme. Harmony gives way to chaos. The social, moral, political, and sexual innocence of the child is interrogated. These texts exist to introduce children to adulthood and death, and encourages them to grow up, or helps them out with it. In these stories, there is no going back.)

GENRE BREAKDOWN IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

With all that terminology out of the way, I’d like to go back to ‘genre’. Some genres are especially popular with kids.

Crime

Crime is amazingly popular worldwide, for children and adults alike.

Enid Blyton wrote a lot of detective stories (The Famous Five, Secret Seven). Detective stories continue to be popular, and below the upper-MG age group, it’s the subgenre of ‘cosy crime‘, in which the stakes are low. (See Alexander McCall Smith’s The Great Cake Mystery). In the world of children’s books, Nate the Great is known for his:

unflinching resolve in the face of stolen goldfish, absconded cookies, and M.I.A. pets.

A combination of drama and cozy crime is common in children’s literature. Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis seems to have its main genre as drama, with a sub-genre of crime:

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to discover that Timmy has real problems: his grades are poor, he’s not very popular, and his single mother is struggling to pay the bills while her new, thuggish boyfriend is making Timmy’s home life unbearable. Investigating a case of a missing Segway with his (imaginary) polar bear business partner makes for a good diversion.

See: The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives from Huffington Post

Sammy Keyes is described likewise as a:

skillful mix of mystery with a traditional coming-of-age narrative

Like the trend in stories for adults, children’s books now are often described as a blend between one type of story and another in the marketing copy:

Like The DaVinci Code meets From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Chasing Vermeer is chockablock with mind bending puzzles and tantalizing twists that readers will gobble up along with Petra and Calder.

The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives

Daniel Handler’s series All The Wrong Questions is described as…

a pitch-perfect update of the pulp fiction crime novels from the 1930s meant for young audiences.

“Everything’s a mash-up”, or builds on what has come before, sometimes with an ironic knowingness, at least, for older readers who have read the originals:

Mac Barnett’s playful riff on The Hardy Boys makes good fun of skewering the boy-detective genre while still offering a mystery that’s quick-witted and engaging.

Is it true for children’s literature, as it is for Hollywood scripts, that stories must nowadays be a blend of more than one genre?

The Girl Who Could Fly is blurbed as follows:

It’s the oddest mix of Little House On The Prairie and X-Men.

…in acknowledgment of the observation that historical fiction mixed with superhero plotting (which is really a type of myth) is quite unusual.

I’m not convinced that children’s books need to be more than a single genre, for the simple reason that a younger audience has not  yet had the breadth of media exposure to have become sick of single genre stories. Picture books are often a single ‘genre’ most of the time, because they are so short.

It’s certainly true that in children’s literature, publishing goes through phases and evolutions. Everything builds upon what’s come before, and when a straight love story becomes so common that it’s hard to do something new with it, we get another spin.

The Middle Grade Buddy Story

The  ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular. The buddy movie is really a mixture of three genres (Action + Love + Comedy), or if it’s a buddy cop movie it’s Action + Love + Crime, and we’re seeing this first kind of genre mashup in series such as Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend.

The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent.

Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind.

Nowadays, the female buddy movie is starting to be made, perhaps because gender-swapping is one easy way to do something a bit different. For example, we have Bullock and McCarthy in It Takes Two. So it follows that we’ll start to see more buddy MG stories with female leads, though there are perhaps still too few stories about female friendship, especially when it comes to comedy. Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion.

Love

Picture books are often about the love between children and their families. In middle grade there is often the hint of a love subplot. In young adult stories, you get the entire range of love story, including sex.

We’re seeing more and more adult genre elements working their way into YA, perhaps because a large proportion of YA is read by adults:

This is not your parents’ Nancy Drew mystery. While there are elements of Nancy and her gang in all mysteries subsequent, the real inspiration I see in the current growing subgenre of what I have dubbed PG-13 Serial Killer Fiction, is the lead character of Veronica Mars, with a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and just a dash of the adult serial killer chaser fiction like James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. Truly, the hunt for mass-murdering sociopaths does not sound like traditional young adult literature, however, I have noted the trend growing in recent years of bringing these tales to the new generation of readers by featuring empowered teenage females with unusual gifts as the foil for the killer. [In true Thriller fashion.]

review of I CAN NOT TELL A LIE BY JOSH NEWHOUSE at Nerdy Book Club

Fantasy

England has produced some of the most outstanding fantasy over the last century or so, whereas America is known for  its realism. This is starting to change.

David Beagley talks about hero fantasy in Lecture 9 of Genres In Children’s Literature, available on iTunes U. He defines fantasy in lecture 10 . In lecture 11 he talks about Harry Potter and defines ‘high fantasy’. In lecture 12 he talks about how teachers and other gatekeepers might go about sorting out the wheat from the chaff.

Nonsense Stories

Maria Nikolajeva offers The 35th of May as an example of a story oft described as ‘nonsense’. ‘This funny, entertaining story has certainly been admired by many readers in many countries, but it has nothing to do with the idea of spiritual growth’. Is there an adult-analogue for the nonsense story? As explained above, nonsense is a stylistic device rather than a genre as such.

War Stories

War-time stories are sometimes treated as a separate genre, in British children’s fiction especially, but Nikolajeva does not consider them separate.

Dystopia

Is dystopia a genre?

Dystopian novels become a genre of their own, in which adults, politicians and leaders are consistently portrayed as deceitful, greedy, vainglorious and wicked. Occasionally, as in Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, the dystopia portrays an alternative history – a Fascist 1950s Britain along the lines of 1984. More usually, they are set in the future, against the cataclysms produced by current trends.

Dystopia isn’t new: in my own childhood there were superb writers such as John Christopher, whose Prince in Waiting trilogy should be much better-known. But these futures were the product of natural catastrophe or alien invasion. Now, the darkness and violence of contemporary dystopias is highly politicised. The most famous is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, in which teenagers are required to fight to death for the ultimate TV reality show. Or, you might say, the ultimate high-school show-down. Plenty of other terrific novels such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road depict our future as ravaged by science, racism, war, genetic mutation or most credibly, exams.

Amanda Craig, writing about the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature

Until recently dystopia has been popular in YA. (Editors are recently saying they don’t want to read any more of it.) In the year 2000, Maria Nikolajeva wrote:

Dystopia has been by definition an impossible genre in children’s fiction. However, a recent trend in children’s fiction shows tangible traits of dystopia. We can see forerunners of this trend in post-disaster science-fiction novels, for instance. The Prince in Waiting trilogy, which combines high technology with medieval mysticism. In the trend I am referring to, the dystopian idea is central, the kernel of the story itself, and the interrogation of modern—adult—civilisation in these books is as strong as in Huxley or Orwell. It has taken children’s fiction more than half a century to catch up with adult literature in developing this genre, which contradicts the view of childhood as a vision of a hopeful future. It is amazing that the genre has become so prominent, indeed one of the most prominent genres in British, American, and Australian children’s fiction of the 1990s. An early representative of this trend may be seen in Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, where a ruthless totalitarian society is reflected in a mentally disturbed boy’s mind. In Germany, Gudrun Puasewang has received much attention for her dystopian children’s novels, especially Fall-out, a gloomy post-Chernobyl depiction of a nuclear plant accident.

Dystopia might instead by considered a ‘category of ending‘ (grim rather than happy — the opposite of idyll) rather than a genre per se, with the most popular dystopian YA in 2015 being a blend of action, romance, myth and historical. For more on Dystopian fiction, see this post.

Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction and refers to a type of story with a genre blend of horror, death and romance. Characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural phenomena such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance and is a popular genre in young adult literature.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA boyfriends?

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

English author Horace Walpole is thought to have kicked the gothic genre off, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” This story originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. But it took until the late 1790s for “Gothic” to take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well-known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period closely aligns with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word “Gothic” also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Encoded in law, marriage meant a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is an unhelpful, outdated word for what is actually a collection of disparate conditions. Many women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But we still live in a patriarchal world. Classic Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location. Patricia Murphy has said that “a truism of critical commentary holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.” (Zombie stories are another example of this.)

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame to one character in a Manichean view of human nature. Even in children’s literature, with perhaps a slightly higher tolerance for ‘black and white’ morality, the opponent web is more complex than ever. Even if a story contains a Minotaur opponent (pure bad), there will be other more nuanced opponents. These characters are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. When writers create fictional characters, they usually hint at how they became that way, by giving them a ‘psychic wound‘ (sometimes called ‘fatal flaw’ or ‘ghost’).

The ‘innocent’ victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral shortcoming, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair. Though it may seem counterintuitive, characters with moral shortcomings are more likeable.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Everyday Usage of The Word ‘Gothic’

Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as any story that uses an elaborate, opulent setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent main character. We also associate Gothic with Goths, who are pale, wear a lot of black, and reject mainstream culture as default.

See my post: What’s a Goth?

Natalie Wynn succinctly describes the sensibility of gothic as ‘ruined opulence’, and speculates we may soon see the gothic in abandoned shopping malls.

Raison d’être Of Gothic Stories

Classically Gothic settings (falsely) reassure us that ‘monsters’ are inhuman, and can be recognised quite easily. In reality, monsters are not so easily recognised:

You don’t find [monsters] in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us. But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated, because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognised by the naked eye.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift Of Fear

The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in the 19th century. The word for this is ‘horripilation’.

The Gothic releases forces which are usually repressed. Anarchy is loosed and contained at the same time. In Gothic, we have the return of whatever’s been repressed. Our enjoyment is visceral. We enjoy the cracking of bone and the snapping of backs and the spilling of blood. The appeal has something to do with lack of restraint, transgression, the overturning of normalcy. Taboos are broken. In this respect, the Gothic is related to the carnivalesque.

The Gothic is also a form known to examine our fear of desire.

Common Features Of Gothic Stories

There is lots of parody within the gothic genre, including parodies of parodies. Authors send up other work by writing a supernatural gothic romance. Ironically, later audiences assume they were meant to take these old parodies seriously, and subsequent authors make parodies of that ‘original’ parody.

The Gothic is basically ‘paranoid‘. But only if you immerse yourself too much in it, succumbing to its fears. Modern mass media itself might be accused of being Gothic, with its emphasis on the macabre.

The Gothic is also often described as ‘sublime‘, which you may realise means something slightly different when it comes to literature. In everyday English, sublime might mean ‘really wonderful’ but in literature it refers to work which provokes terror and pain in the audience. Terror and pain are the two emotions considered most powerful. Unlike the terror and pain of the real world, however, when experienced via story the audience enjoys it very much. The sublime is a feature of romantic work.

Uncanny‘ is another word you’ll hear in reference to the Gothic. The uncanny is a psychological concept which refers to something that is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. The emotions evoked in a work of Gothic fiction will be familiar to you. You may not have seen an actual ghost, but you will have experienced horripilation — that feeling of hair standing on end.

Typical Character Archetypes

Here is the basic cast of characters for those original Gothic stories:

Virginal maiden

Young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. These heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. Modern stories such as Harry Potter borrow from the Gothic. We don’t think of the Grimm fairytales as Gothic, but a lot of them follow this exact plot.

Older, foolish woman

Or the Madwoman, or the Old Wife. Interestingly, British culture consistently associated ghosts and children with the oral tradition in storytelling. These stories were delivered by a greatly misunderstood figure: The Old Wife. The Old Wife was the woman in your community who dished out advice and help to do with childbirth, herbal remedies and so on. She lost a lot of respect, as well as her place in her community, with the emergence of modern day science.

This coincided with a growing distaste for people who believed in ghosts. Shakespeare himself poked fun at the Old Wife who believed in ghosts. You can see him doing that in Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Women, ghost stories and oral stories were connected. When one lost status, so did the others. Even in the gothic stories themselves, the Old Wife character (who told these very tales) was made fun of. 

Hero

Like the virginal maidens, the hero was innocent, plunged into a weird situation. Gothic stories are melodramatic stories, and in classic melodrama, the main character reacts to crises. The classic hero drives the action, deliberately setting out into the world. In those stories there’s no pull factor, but rather a push factor: to escape the feminine realm of mother and home.

Tyrant/villain

With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women. This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader’s pathos.

Even today, crime fiction focuses heavily on victims which are young, attractive, female (and white). We seem more interested in their deaths than in deaths of other demographics.

The modern antihero (or hero-villain if you prefer) comes from the Gothic tradition. However, in gothic stories morality is clear. Good is good, evil is evil, even if it is attractive. Evil is not simply misunderstood, it is inherent. Evil cannot be assimilated into everyday society and must be expelled. That’s not how modern stories about anti-heroes typically play out. Viewers were encouraged to understand Walter White and Tony Soprano. Thinking individuals are much more yin-yang about people these days. Less nature, more nurture — even if you’re a nature over nurture sort of person, you probably admit that Tony Soprano’s life would have panned out differently had he not grown up in the mafia.

Bandits/ruffians

These opponents add interesting complexity to the web of opposition. They are less powerful than the main tyrant/villain.

Clergy

Clergy in Gothic stories are always weak, usually evil.

In Medieval times, Monks often were pretty evil. They were rich and pampered. They sequestered funds for themselves (while amazingly often managing to bankrupt the abbey by doing stupid things with money), and sometimes even harboured criminals. They were supposed to live simple lives, but found ways around every rule, including the invention of a sort of sign language to get around the rule of no communication over mealtimes. It’s easy to see how the clergy became figures of fun. By early modern times, people had learned to put far more faith in nuns, more likely to behave properly according to the church.

John Piper, (English, 1903 – 1992), Valle Crucis Abbey, 1940, mixed media
John Piper, (English, 1903 – 1992), Valle Crucis Abbey, 1940, mixed media

Gothic Stories And Madness

American Gothic in particular tends to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters. An early example is the novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. Two characters slowly become more and more deranged.

  • Sunset Boulevard — Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. Sunset Boulevard subtextually warns that a woman’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfilment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing.
  • Fatal Attraction — While Norma of Sunset Boulevard is an artist, the madwoman of Fatal Attraction is a professional.
  • Black Swan
  • Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Shining by Stephen King — Isolation is used as a vehicle for madness. (Used again more recently in Shut In.) The main character is Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. With his family he looks after an empty hotel one winter, partly to concentrate on writing his novel. But he is haunted by visions and descends into murderous madness.
  • Carrie by Stephen King, which promotes anxiety and thereby encourages conformity. A good example of ‘suburban Gothic’, making use of Gothic features such as witch-hunting.
  • Misery by Stephen King
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself diagnosed with hysteria and commanded never to touch pencil and paper again.
  • Shut In — Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house.
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952

As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favourite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.

And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.

from Davey Davis writing at The Millions
Owls' Watch anthology of horror stories selected by George Brandon Saul
Owls’ Watch anthology of horror stories selected by George Brandon Saul

Davis is writing about the gendered nature of craziness:

  • Humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded
  • This ‘madwoman archetype’, or the idea that a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalised, silenced, or worse — is deep in the bedrock of our culture.
  • Even now, the two attributes of women most feared (by the dominant culture and by women ourselves) are ugliness and craziness. Infertility is linked to ugliness, which is linked to old age. Old age is linked to death, the most scary thing of all.

Settings Of Gothic Horror

The setting of the Gothic novel is a character in itself. The setting not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.

The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths. It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.

ThoughtCo

The building might be:

  • a castle
  • an abbey
  • a monastery
  • crumbling big strugglements
  • ruined dwellings
  • a prison
  • an abandoned hospital
  • or some other, usually religious, edifice

This building will have secrets of its own, and can therefore almost be considered a character in its own right (with psychological/moral needs and desires). 

Other settings may include caves or the wilderness.

scary house
The scary house on the cover of Spirit Hunters makes use of a tilt angle to increase the feeling that not all is right with this world.
Plot Structure Of A Straight-up Gothic Story

WEAKNESS: A female character is an innocent, unwitting victim with no particular moral shortcoming but she is weak in general owing to her position/station in life.

DESIRE: She (perhaps subconsciously) wants to be saved from her ordinary life. This is the same wish-fulfilment as modern dark, paranormal romances, and is easy to mock until you understand that this desire is borne of a need to escape, because adolescence is terrifying for a girl whose body is suddenly attracting the attention of much larger, stronger men, some of whom will not leave her alone.

OPPONENT: She is the victim of some sort of external malevolence.

ALLY: A rescuer arrives from outside.

BIG STRUGGLE: There is a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good.

NEW SITUATION: The evil is now expelled completely.

Symbol Web Of Gothic Horror

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people.

Evil characters are also seen in Gothic literature and especially American Gothic. Depending on the time period that the work is written about, the evil characters could be characters like Native Americans, trappers, gold miners etc.

Omens — or portents, visions, etc. — often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.

Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise.

An element of fear is another characteristic of American Gothic literature. This is typically connected to the unknown and is generally seen throughout the course of the entire novel. This can also be connected to the feeling of despair that characters within the novel are overcome by. This element can lead characters to commit heinous crimes. In the case of Brown’s character Edgar Huntly, he experiences this element when he contemplates eating himself, eats an uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat.

Psychological overlay is an element that is connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. An example of this would be if a character was in a maze-like area and a connection was made to the maze that their minds represented.

Revelation & Gothic’s Relationship To Mystery

Revelation is the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery—and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. Much gothic fiction is founded on a central mystery. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something that’s been true for some time, the story’s narrative drive comes from the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. More similar to a ‘whydunnit’ mystery than a ‘whodunnit’, in other words.

Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.

The Woman In The Attic Trope

The Mad Woman In The Attic is now a trope, though this real life story flips it — a woman kept her husband in the attic and made him live like a bat. 

Jane Eyre —Mr. Edward Rochester keeps his violently insane wife Bertha locked in the attic of Thornfield. All the while, Rochester is romancing Jane. The story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Except for the secret — the mystery — the story would be quite static.

Likewise, Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her. Rebecca is a more modern Bluebeard story

Stranger Things, the Netflix TV show, also features a ‘girl in the attic’ trope in Eleven. Stranger Things is indeed a gothic story:

One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.

interview with Dr Phillip Serrato
A Short List Of Well-known Classic Gothic Tales For Adult Readers
  • Bluebeard — the ur-Castle story
  • Kafka 
  • Gormenghast series— three novels by Mervyn Peake, originally published between 1946 and 1959. Follows the life of Titus Groan, left to fend for himself in a crumbling kingdom he will one day inherit. He is surrounded by bizarre family members. He survives his neglectful childhood, grows up, survives attempted murder. The ending is thought to be pretty poor. Peake never bothered finishing it himself — it’s supposedly finished off by his family, which explains a lot.
  • Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald — these stories influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The horror classic film Freaks
  • The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is probably the most famous example of pure gothic fiction. The combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre. This story was already a pastiche and self-consciously parodic send-up of the genre that it itself established.
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe — a good example of a paranormal scheme against a helpless young woman. Bourgeois heroine Emily St. Aubert endures all kinds of struggles. She loses her father to supernatural experiences in an old castle. Jane Austen was influenced by this book. The heroine continuously disavows her own foolish predisposition towards superstition by projecting it onto her servant girl, Annette.
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) is actually a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho. Jane Austen parodied the genre but also seemed to really enjoy reading it herself. She continued to read gothic romance for years, even after parodying it.
  • The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
  • The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis — Lewis was 19 when he wrote this novel of ecclesiastical debasement. It is stuffed full of love, murder and immorality.
  • Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley — Don’t forget that Frankenstein is the doctor (not the monster). Dr Frankenstein creates a creature from body parts culled from graves at the local cemetery.
  • Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
  • Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker — Vampires, haunted kingdoms, blood.
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — a philosophical work about getting old and indulgence. The main character becomes so obsessed with stayng beautiful that he sells his soul. He occasionally goes up to the attic to watch his portrait grow old.
  • The Woman In Black (1983) by Susan Hill — A best-seller from the 1980s. A spooky visitor haunts a small town in England, warning that children are going to die. It’s been adapted for stage and is a hit in West End.
  • Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice — Written as an interview between a reporter and a vampire called Louis de Pointe du Lac, who recounts the last 200 years of his life. He is full of regret.
  • The Tell Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe — the murderous main character is haunted by the sound of the beating heart of his victim, hidden in pieces under the floorboards.
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte — Set on the moors, this story is about class, survival, prejudice and is highly atmospheric.
  • The Tale Of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf
  • 10 Gothic historical stories and novels that interrogate history but aren’t subject to it

Gothic Children’s Literature

A Brief History Of Gothic Children’s Literature

Gothic children’s literature emerged in response to the adult Gothic romance. However, even children in the 18th century probably preferred the scary tales over the didactic ones they were supposed to read, which were heavily didactic. There was an effort by the gatekeepers of this time to keep Gothic stories away from children. This fear has never subsided. There are always cultural critics worried about the effect Gothic stories have on the tabula rasa of children. In earlier eras children were thought to be entirely innocent. Rousseau was partly responsible for that. These days stories tend to play with the idea that children are somewhat complicit in getting themselves into trouble. This is why children’s stories, too, quite often give a moral shortcoming to the main character. This affords children more agency, in fact.

Maryrose Wood uses this historical attitude in her gothic parody The Mysterious Howling when she writes:

[Penelope the governess] had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realised too late that the Inferno’s tale of sinners being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded “More, more!” each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop […]

Penelope had begun reading poetry to the children in the belief that it would improve their English faster than lists of spelling words ever could. Besides, she personally found poetry very interesting, and since her students [literally raised by wolves] were more or less blank slates when it came to literature, she felt she might as well do what she liked. (As you may already know, the Latin term for “blank slate” is tabula rasa, a phrase the Incorrigibles would no doubt be exposed to a little further on in their educations.)

The Mysterious Howling, book one of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place

Recently we have those fears directed towards the Twilight series, in which the passive heroine basically waits around to be saved by a creepy, much older male monster. The fear is that girls in real life will hope to emulate this as a script for their own romantic lives. (I admit, I have some sympathy for this view myself, if girls are reading dark, paranormal fiction widely but not critically. Then again, who’s to say they’re not critical of the very stories they enjoy?)

Children’s stories have always been gothic. In fact, gothic stories belonged to children all along. The Gothic romances for adults actually came out of fairytales told while these adult readers were still children.

There was a lot of playing with Gothic conventions in the latter half of the 19th century, especially by woman writers, who were presumably reading gothic romance/horror themselves for pleasure.

Another three 18th century woman writers started writing partly in order to combat what they considered worrying trends in contemporary children’s fiction. These women were Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. Bear in mind that each of these women used Gothic features in their writing for children but it wasn’t actually Gothic because they didn’t want to expose children to ghosts. Also, each and every one of them wrote Gothic stories for adults in a different part of her writing career, exposing a double standard. We love the Gothic and find it entertaining, but not for children, whose minds are easily corrupted.

Influential male writers have said they loved to read Gothic chapbooks as children. These men include: Boswell, Johnson, Carlyle, Goethe, Lamb, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet chapbooks were never culturally approved. (Chapbooks were magazine type products sold door-to-door — an important means of cultural dissemination before people could afford books.) Chap books were considered trash fiction.

Before the rise of the Gothic novel, faciliated by the development of cheap printing systems, the Chapbook and Bluebook were common forms of literature, particularly in the United Kingdom. For a penny or half-penny, members of the public of any class with the ability to read suddenly had access to a wealth of information (of varying degrees of accuracy) and stories of adventure and morality through these publications. Although looked down on by the higher classes of the time, and indeed by scholars of today, the Chapbooks and Bluebooks are a wonderful repository of folklore which can tell us much about the beliefs and traditions of the people of the time. In this edition of The Folklore Podcast, the first of Season 2, creator and host Mark Norman examines some of the folklore presented in the old Chapbooks and how it was used to teach lessons to others. 

The Folklore Podcast

A very easy definition of Gothic children’s literature: Gothic stories are everything ‘quality’ children’s literature is not, in any given era. When a literature emerged for the middle class white child, ghosts were firmly erased.

Fear (or the pretence of fear) is very popular right now in children’s literature. This is the modern take on ‘gothic’.

Examples Of Early Gothic Children’s Literature
  • Mary Louisa Molesworth (A Christmas Child, A Christmas Posy, An Enchanted Garden and so on)took the gothic tradition and domesticated it.
  • A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T. Meade is a vivid and detailed description of college life among a perfect bevy of young misses in the old English university town of Kingsdene. It follows the fortunes of a young Devonshire lass who goes away to college and finds herself among entirely different conditions of life and points of view than those that prevail in her own narrow village. L.T. Meade was perhaps the first to transform the school into a gothic place.
  • The Secret Garden has the madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a little boy, not a mad-woman. There’s also the haunted house and grounds. The Secret Garden is the most obvious example of Gothic children’s literature.
  • C.S. Lewis used The Woman In The Attic trope in his Narnia ChroniclesThe Magician’s Nephew to be exact. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe begins in a big old scary mansion and a scary, remote owner who is basically a hermit, probably with secrets of his own.
  • The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, who writes macabre rhymes. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”In response to being called gothic, [Gorey] stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.” Wikipedia entry on Edward Gorey
  • Emily series by L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables) — Montgomery plays with Gothic conventions, as well as in some of her stand-alone novels and short stories.

If you’re wondering about Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice is not Gothic literature. There are plenty of Gothic features without it adding up to actually Gothic. Alice is absurdist instead.

Features Of Gothic Children’s Literature

What does the Gothic look like in children’s literature? Gothic motifs in general are very well-suited to exploring adolescence, and the way identity seems to change from day to day. With the menarche, girls face blood — another Gothic motif (wayward fluids, murder). Elements include:

  • Hobgoblins, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves, vampires and other folkloric creatures
  • Bugaboos such as chimney sweeps, Wee Willy Winkies and other creatures from urban folklore. (Bugaboos come in the night.)
  • Ghouls — The ghoul is the classic Gothic monster. They frighten us and transform the familiar into the strange and threatening.
  • Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, apparitions and general hauntings
  • Schools are often the proxy for haunted mansions and castles. The schoolyard is the forest.
  • Irony and parody is very gothic, so anything meta in the style of Lemony Snicket borrows from the Gothic tradition. There’s a lot of parody of Victorian settings.
  • The Gothic is to do with transgression, lack of restraint and the overturning of normality. For example, Gothic villains break taboos, as do young children, by not doing as they’re told. See again The Carnivalesque, which is a tradition with a long history in children’s literature. No wonder Gothic features so heavily in stories for the young.
  • A lot of Gothic stories have a ‘jump’ ending. Take the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, in which the storyteller grabs the listener as if she is about to get eaten by the wolf. A number of modern stories for young children are also designed to be performed as much as read.
  • The Gothic warns readers of the dangers mysteriously close to even the most familiar places. The Gothic tells us that the world is not safe. How many children’s stories teach that? Quite a number. Pretty much any story that’s not pastoral is teaching children that same lesson: Be vigilant, be smart, stick with your friends, know friends from enemies.
  • Gothic children’s literature often takes the form of fantasy. If the Gothic is about fear of desire, fantasy is a great genre to explore that because fantasy teaches the reader to desire.
  • Many children’s stories use the trope of the Explained Ghost. Basically, there’s some sort of supernatural happenings in the world of the story which is later revealed to have been just the over-workings of a foolish mind. This trope is used to teach the reader that there is no such thing as ghosts and whatnot, and to always dig deeper for the truth behind our fancies. Nevertheless, even the Explained Ghost tropes themselves rely upon Gothic motifs and traditions. That’s not to say traditional Gothic stories themselves didn’t make use of the Explained Ghost. Ann Radcliffe herself used it, though perhaps to a different end (to show up rational thinking by later subverting it).
  • There are a lot of orphans in children’s literature. Absent maternity is a feature of the Gothic.
Tips For Writing Gothic Stories For Children

Unlike in Gothic romance for adults, child heroes are mostly given something to fight back with. They don’t wait around to be rescued, except in the odd parody. This is in line with the general advice when writing for children: heroes must be proactive and basically get themselves out of their own predicaments. They may ask for help from a mentor, but no one’s coming to save them.

The writer must be familiar with gothic motifs and tropes and settings — familiar enough to parody them, and to manage whether readers will find something scary or funny (or both).

Writers can take gothic motifs and transplant them to a new setting. This creates a kind of neo-Gothic (to borrow from the term neo-Western). For example, writers may take the labyrinthine qualities of a castle and reuse them in a dystopian city or in a setting inspired by cyberspace.

Gothic stories tend to do one of two things:

  1. They can either suggest subversive possibilities to readers
  2. They can scare children into submission and ensure conformity.

Be clear with yourself: Are you achieving the former? If not, you’re writing didactic, 19th century work.

Examples Of Modern Gothic Literature For Children
  • Flowers In The Attic was the Twilight of my generation (teenagers of the 1990s). It features children locked in the attic of a big, mean castle of a house and a wicked grandmother. Also incest.
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl — This is the first of The Caster Chronicles. It is young adult fiction about a main character called Ethan, who has lost his mother and feels trapped in a tiny town.
  • Roald Dahl — Dahl’s work is popular partly because stories preserve the innocence of the child and retains the level of evil of the villain, but gives the child the means to save themselves. Daniel Handler has continued this tradition.
  • Anything Gothic for children these days tends to be compared to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, even if there’s not much else really in common.
  • An example often compared to Lemony Snicket is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, set in the mid 1850s.
  • J.K. Rowling uses the madwoman in the attic trope in Harry Potter, more than once, and many other elements from Gothic fiction, being the master borrower and remixer of tropes.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — chronicles the life of Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. The story is a series of loosely connected stories about Bod’s life and what he learns about life/death.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another middle grade novel from the gothic tradition, with its large house, bizarre characters and supernatural goings-on.
  • Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman is a picture book, with a title reminiscent of The Rats In The Walls, and is similarly gothic in tone.
  • Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson — a picture book about a ghost called Leo who lives alone in a deserted house.
  • The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen — a picture book set in a big, scary, empty, dark house. In reality the house is probably an ordinary one, replete with a mother/father, but the representation of the house on the page is how the boy feels about it.
  • Ghostlight by Sonia Gensler — An American Gothic tale including an abandoned haunted mansion, spooky movies, imaginary games, film-making (a popular device in ghost stories).
  • Doll Bones by Holly Black — A coming-of-age novel about a boy called Zach who plays with dolls. His father throws his creepy porcelain dolls away but this isn’t the last we see of them.
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
  • The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
  • Gothic Hospital by Gary Crew
  • The Devil Latch by Sonya Hartnett
  • The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix
  • Thirsty by M.T. Anderson — the main character can’t join in his culture’s hatred of the monstrous because he has discovered it within himself. He has to find a way of living which is neither killing himself nor accepting his fate.
  • Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz — As Kate de Goldi said in her RNZ interview review, the author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy. This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.
  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz — The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.) This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts. Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor. While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London. Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.

Then there are books which are not obviously Gothic, but influenced by the tradition. The labyrinthine computer game stories set in cyberspace calling to mind the structures of Gothic castles, are one example, as mentioned above. Themes in common: double consciousness, metafiction, moral disintegration. In this way, 19th century Gothic fiction has a lot in common with ultra-contemporary speculative work.

Further Reading

With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30.

Dr Phillip Serrato
Home » genre

What is the horror genre for?

dracula horror poster

We like to be scared. Rather, fear sends a rush of adrenaline, and we like that. Scratch that. Maybe it’s the relief we feel once the rush of adrenaline is over.

For the same reason, social media can be addictive. That rush when we hear a reply coming back from a tweet? That rush is partly borne of fear.

Some people have wondered if horror stories are addictive.

Marina Warner argues that the extremes of participatory performances such as rock concerts, orgiastic jubilation such as experienced at raves, and spectator entertainments such as horror films can be viewed as rites of passage, testing endurance. They “define…the living, impervious, sovereign self” as well as providing the ecstatic “high” of surviving. The adrenalin high Warner refers to may account for the addictive quality of these activities and narratives.

Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Howard Suber also writes about horror and its special appeal with young adults:

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives.

Howard Suber

Is ‘fear’ the best word for the emotion horror evokes in its audience? An alternative is ‘horripilation’, which describes the feeling of hair rising on the back of your neck.

Disgust may also be necessary for the fun horror recipe. In children’s literature (designed for an audience too young for horror) there is a vast selection of ‘gross out’ stories, which are basically proto-horror stories.

Raison d’être of Horror

Can horror films add value to our ways of thinking? Can they challenge us to see the world in a slightly different way? Horror, along with Westerns and the entire speculative fiction category is highly metaphorical. Metaphor can be utilised to excellent effect. The best horror adds value.

Starting with Aristotle, the Greek philosopher introduced the concept of ‘catharsis’. The idea is that a scary story can release repressed scary feelings in its audience. (Debatable as to whether that actually works. It may not be the fear itself which is cathartic, but the increaseds sense of in-group intimacy which comes from watching a scary movie with other people.)

Let’s go next to Freud, who believed that horror taps into our collective subconscious. Horror stories can tell us what we’re afraid of. There are commonalities to what we all find reprehensible. Hansel and Gretel taps into the collective fear of an unnurturing mother. Almost all of us have a mother figure in our lives, making this a universally shared experience. We all fear food insecurity; we all fear getting lost. Freud used the word ‘uncanny’, and published a famous paper about that in 1919.

More recently, Noel Carroll (film scholar) has talked about the negative emotions of distress, displeasure and disquiet manipulated by horror films into something that feels like pleasure.

What are the big questions horror tends to deal with? All narratives are about our desire to know something we didn’t know before, but what is the knowledge that horror adds?

Why do monsters exist? What is a monster?

Horror is different from other types of story because horror monsters, by their supernatural, unassailable natures, are inherently unknowable to us.

Horror is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman.

Carolyn Daniel

The horror genre is about the fear of the inhuman entering the human community. It is about crossing the boundaries of a civilized life—between living and dead, rational and irrational, moral and immoral—with destruction the inevitable result. Because horror asks the most fundamental question—what is human and what is inhuman?—the form has taken on a religious mind-set. In American and European horror stories, that religious mind-set is Christian. As a result, the character web and symbol web in these stories are almost completely determined by Christian cosmology.

See also: Why is the Bible so much like a horror movie? from OUP Blog

In all horror stories, the opponent wants to belong. They want to enter the human community but we won’t let them.

Not all horror is from the West, of course. If you’ve ever watched Japanese horror, for example, you’ve probably noticed a distinct difference. Japanese horror does not make use of Christian symbolism because Japan has its own super creepy folklore from which to draw. Naturally, Japanese horror draws from western traditions and, increasingly, vice versa.

Japanese horror is Japanese horror fiction in popular culture, noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre in light of western treatments. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror and tension building (suspense), particularly involving ghosts and poltergeists, while many contain themes of folk religion such as: possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai.

Wikipedia

Chinese horror is similar to Japanese though often includes some comedy elements. Given that certain tricks — such as mechanical behaviour — are used in both horror and in comedy, the link is more natural than at first it seems. A comedic scene can also heighten the terror that follows, and give the audience a break before enduring more.

Bollywood also produces horror films, and they include lots of singing and dancing!

How The Horror Genre Is Evolving

The origin or horror can come from:

  • Whatever lies beyond death (Dracula)
  • Demonic forces (The Exorcist)
  • Fooling around with Mother Nature (Frankenstein)

Or the horror can be supernatural in a different sense, without religious connections at all but still not what we customarily think of as “natural”. It can, for example, be the super science of The Terminator or the biological horror that seems “unnatural” in Alien. Sometimes, what’s unnatural is merely a warped mind, as in Psycho and Friday the 13th.

Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Different people watch horror movies for different reasons

Here’s one taxonomy of reasons for watching horror. Marvin Zuckerman was all over this at the end of the 1970s.

Later, in the mid 1990s, Dr Deidre Johnston came up with four reasons adolescents watch graphic horror:

1. Gore-watching — low empathy, strong identification with the ‘baddie’

2. Thrill-watching — high empathy, high sensation seeking motivated by the suspense

3. Independent watching — high empathy for the victim and with positive feelings at the end of the story

4. Problem-watching — high empathy for the victim but negative feelings of helplessness at the end of the story.

In the mid 1980s we had Gender Socialization theory by Zillman, Weaver, Mundorf and Aust. They compared a group of 36 men with 36 women (using a now-outdated gender binary, of course) and concluded that the men found the horror films fun while the women were distressed. (Did the young men enjoy the movie more because the women were distressed? Is it possible to tell from someone’s outer reaction how scared they feel on the inside?) There’s a whole lot going on there.

The Target Audience Of Horror

Netflix is well aware of their target audience when it shows us three distinct categories of Horror:

Gory (Let The Right One In, Teeth, Let Me In, You’re Next) — believe it or not, Ten Little Indians was the play and 1965 film that started the Slasher genre. This film is itself not listed as horror on IMDb — it’s a blend of crime, mystery and thriller.

Supernatural (Splice, Insidious, End of Days, Mirrors)

Teen Screams (Troll Hunter, Hansel and Gretel, Playback, Hellraiser)

I haven’t yet come across the category for Middle-aged Woman Screams. However, as Howard Suber notes, some filmmakers have learnt how to harness the allure of horror and modify it for a different audience:

Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

Howard Suber

What Most Horror Stories Have In Common

TENSION

Horror requires tension. That’s such a broad spectrum word. How does a storyteller create tension?

  • Mystery (the identity/nature of the opponent is often kept from the audience)
  • Suspense
  • Gore (in some subgenres of horror)
  • Shock (e.g. with jump scares)
  • Reveals and reversals
  • Horror-like mise en scene in film (costume, incongruous SFX, high and low camera angles, tracking shots, variation in closeness of camera to subject).
  • Lighting: uplighting, silhouette, spotlighting, underexposure, chiascuro, emphasis of shadows
Common Symbols In The Horror Genre

Light and Dark is important in horror. We all know that light = good, dark = bad. (Compare to the white hat, black hat symbolism of Westerns.)

Since Christian symbols form the basis of horror stories from the West, we often have the cross, which has the power to turn back even Satan himself.

Before Christianity, though, there was horror in myth. In myth, animals were symbolic in a similarly binary way. Good animals:

  • horses
  • stags
  • bulls
  • rams
  • snakes (believe it or not)

In myth, if you came across these animals, they had the power to lead you to behave properly and become a better person. But this all changed once Christianity came along. The devil kind of ruined any sort of creature with horns.

a scene from Winnie The Witch, a picture book for young readers in which Christian symbols are inverted
a scene from Winnie The Witch, a picture book for young readers in which Christian horror symbols are inverted. Note also that Winnie is drawn in bright colours. Winnie = light = good.

Other picture books make use of horror symbolism but are designed, ultimately, to comfort. The Dark by Daniel Handler and Jon Klassen is one example.

Some picture books are genuinely horrific even though they are picture books. The Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean is one example.

Mechanical Behaviour

This is commonly used in horror, as it is also used in comedy (refer to The I.T. Crowd: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” and in Meet The Parents, with the airport woman who won’t let Gaylord Focker board the plane early even though there is no one else waiting).

Examples of horrific mechanical behaviour:

  • Whenever the sun sets the Wolf Man/vampire appears
  • Bates in Psycho ‘can’t help’ himself, and becomes the cog in a horrible psychic machine

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Audiences don’t scare as easily as they once did. Not only have they seen just about every conceivable brand of horror moviefrom torture porn to alt-history vampiresthey’ve seen real-life terrors that Alfred Hitchcock never had to compete against. Considering this desensitization through saturation, it’s a marvel that one of the biggest horror phenomena of the last decade comes in the historically tame format of a weekly anthology series.

Do you know which series they’re talking about?

I haven’t seen it myself. More here, on how to tell scary stories, from a creator who is doing just that.

With Hallowe’en just passed, here are some collections of the scariest stuff, curated by others.

Sci-Fi and Similar Genre Terms

sci-fi: an abbreviation of science fiction

cli-fi: a new subcategory of fiction set in a near future of catastrophic climate change events. Cli-fi is speculative and dystopian.

Further Suggestions

pie-fi: fiction featuring baked goods as characters

lie-fi: fiction which has been marketed as memoir

tie-fi: erotica featuring men who spend most of the time in suits

wi-fi: stories in which the main character spends much of the time wondering why the Internet is down

cry-fi: a derogatory term for misery memoir, which is also derogatory

sigh-fi: books which make you wish you’d stopped reading at page 30 or earlier

my-fi: books featuring a main character who is pretty much you, and makes you want to sue the author for defamation

chai-fi: stories featuring characters who love to drink at Starbucks and visit African countries during their annual leave

try-fi: fiction which tries not to sound exactly like autobiography (and fails)

rye-fi: fiction set in Germany, featuring a lot of cheese, ham and salami. The main character is often a baker or a butcher and makes artisanal products

thigh-fi: hilarious, thigh-slapping romps

fly-fi: stories set in the Australian outback

drip-dry-fi: short fiction set in women’s public toilets

glass-eye-fi: stories in which the protagonist loses, and goes in search of, a glass eye

good-bye-fi: typically features settings such as airports, train stations and other transport terminals

bonsai-fi: stars elderly Japanese men who devote their time to pruning little trees in retirement

apply-fi: the main character is also a job-seeker. The story ends when this hero finds a job.

deny-fi: literature written by remand prisoners, thinly veiled as fiction

french-fry-fi: literature set in and around McDonalds restaurants. This spawned an imitative subgenre set around Burger King restaurants.

hereby-fi: fiction written by semi-retired wedding celebrants and lawyers, rarely published

hairdye-fi: literature set in and around beauty salons

comply-fi: books written by an author under a series contract, who didn’t really want to write the last few but had to

mince-pie fi: features baked goods and a Christmas setting

tie-dye-fi: the main characters are hippies who live in caravans

Chick-Lit and Similar Genre Terms

chick-lit: a sometimes derogatory term for literature aimed at women, about single women in their twenties who are looking for love

trick-lit: “Trick Lit is the term [Seth Godin invented] for a chick lit novel that pretends to be something else, hoping to rope people in with an interesting premise. 30 pages later, you discover that you were deceived, that it’s just another piece of genre trash.” Interestingly, there’s no such word to describe a word for serious literature written by women which nevertheless gets covered in pastel covers (a la the dark and brilliant work of Lionel Shriver).

clit-lit: romance aimed at women but with more erotica than usual

dick-lit: chick-lit for men

quick-lit: Expression that encompasses both chick lit and dick lit. Essentially quick lit is light, contemporary fiction that is quickly and easily read and (most often) takes place in an urban environment.

sick-lit: a subgenre of YA which deals with characters who are in some way physically incapacitated, whether it’s from cancer (The Fault In Our Stars), mental illness, or recovering from an accident (If I Stay)

hick-lit: a specifically American genre featuring parochial characters without much money living in the country

brick-lit: that genre of travel literature in which a sophisticatedly jaded man, woman, or couple falls in love with a crumbling farmhouse in some exotic, rural locale and in the comic struggle to restore said farmhouse, and via encounters with the native populace, gleans profound lessons about life, love, and local color. —Jonathan Miles, Garden and Gun

flick-lit: books which have been adapted for the big screen

click-lit: one of the many words for ‘transmedia storytelling’. “”The idea is to make something inspired by the novel – where the book is the brief – rather than an obvious dramatisation, so that it has the potential to go beyond the book and to add something to the reading experience.” (The Guardian)

kick-lit: literature about football

thick-lit: a term used to describe the kind of literature that is not worthy of serious study, but which is nevertheless studied in schools.

s(c)tick-lit: A writing genre in which the author undertakes an odd or stuntlike project with the intention of writing about the experience.

mick-lit: A category of Popular, generally humorous, literature by Irish male writers, and about the Irish Male Condition. Includes authors such as John Banville, Ross O’Carroll Kelly, and even classic authors such James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.

Further Suggestions

broomstick-lit: a subgenre of fantasy featuring witches who ride broomsticks, keep black cats and brew potions in cauldrons

lipstick-lit: books you love so much you actually kiss them

tick-lit: canonical works you feel you should read, but you only read them so you can tick them off your bucket list

homesick-lit: books set in your hometown, or read when younger in a comfortable, homely spot, which you re-read when you’re away at college or on AFS

yardstick-lit: books writers read in their own genre, and can’t help comparing their own work to

toothpick-lit: meaty stories

picnic-lit: paperbacks about food that you slip into a picnic basket and read while lying under a tree

seasick-lit: books which are full of emotional ups-and-downs and leave you in a different place after you’ve put them down (with relief)

candlestick-lit: stories set in Gothic mansions

walking-stick-lit: stories enjoyed by your Nan and Pop

politic-lit: chick-lit written about politics e.g. Campaign Ruby by Jessica Rudd

arithmetic-lit: fiction featuring a magical world which works on maths. Includes heavy mathematical explanations.

dip-stick lit: stories about mechanics

slick-lit: stories about oil spills

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 20: Conclusions

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

Beagley summarises the key points of each of his lectures.

Here are links to my notes from these lectures. Errors are all mine.

  1. Introduction
  2. Traditional/Modernist Picturebooks
  3. Picturebooks For Older Readers
  4. Author And Illustrator Devices
  5. Postmodern Picturebooks
  6. Postmodern Picturebooks: Anthony Browne
  7. Caricatures, Cartoons and Comics
  8. Graphic Novels, Anime, Manga
  9. Hero Fantasy In Children’s Literature
  10. Defining Fantasy In Children’s Literature
  11. Harry Potter And High Fantasy
  12. Evaluation of Fantasy Literature for Children
  13. Realism In Fiction For Children
  14. Social Issues In Realistic Fiction
  15. Historical Realism
  16. More On Historical Realism
  17. What Makes A Classic Children’s Book?
  18. Children’s Poetry
  19. Traditional Literature