Writing Horror for Children

“I wrote a few children’s books…not on purpose.” – Stephen Wright

So I wrote a story and a half over the weekend.

That’s not bad going – it was, in a sense, another attempt at speed writing, with a reason for the deadline…

I have my two young nephews, Bartholomew and Theodore down for a couple of days. Now that’s not their real names, but I would never use these posts to embarrass a young child in any way (Yeah, right – I have a bad history with that…) but I’ll call them that anyway because for some reason that amuses me, and on the subject of horror and young children I think if my brother-in-law and sister-in-law had named them such, then nothing I could write would scar them as much as that…’Bartholomew’ is 10. ‘Theodore’ is 8. Some months ago, when they saw the front cover of Basement Tales with my name on it, they got really interested – the fact that someone they knew actually had a book out, and they started asking me to write a story for them. I said I would, and left them, came back down home (we live two hundred miles apart) and promptly forgot about it.

They did not, and when I saw them a couple of weeks ago they asked how their stories were coming along, and when would they get to see them? And then their mother decided to bring them down to stay with us for a couple of days during the half-term school holiday (Something about our house screams ‘Halloween’ – go figure…)

I looked back to the list I had got them to write; ten things they would want their stories to be about. Here’s what they put:

‘Bartholomew’ said he wanted a story which included: Horror, Zombies, Murder, Creepy hotel and a family of four: 2 boys aged 12 and 15, a Father aged 40, and a Mother aged 39. (Technically, I didn’t think this was a list of a full ten, but the kid seemed very specific about the family dynamics.)

‘Theodore’ wanted: Clown, Horror, Forest, Teenager, Winter, Scary & Funny, Set Today, a Twist, and Halloween. (Winter & Halloween? – You know kid, technically…) Theo, as I would call him if that really was his name, also said that on a scale of 1-10 he wanted it to be an ‘8’ – now that scale was in his own mind, I didn’t set it out like Enid Blyton is a 1, James Herbert is a 10…

So, an interesting list to work with.

I got writing at the weekend, and it flowed pretty well. But I have no idea if they’re ‘children’s’ stories or not. It’s got me thinking, as I revise them today (and finish Bart’s tale – again, not his real name, but again, I’d shorten it if it was…), as to what even makes something a ‘children’s’ story. And a few things come to mind..

Length: 

How long should it be? As can be seen from my ‘adult’ (heh, heh) fiction and indeed, some of these posts, I do have a tendency to go on some…Their attention span is interesting: they’ll sit and watch a two hour Marvel film without stirring, but try and engage them in conversation between their bouts of ‘Fortnite’ and it can be a tough task. I’ve also learned from experience that a lot more planning can go into what turns out to be a pretty short experience – the stories this year will take the place of the annual ‘treasure hunt’ – where I’d spend hours coming up with tricky, but not too tricky, cryptic clues, all written in Iambic Pentameter (yeah, right – they did rhyme, at least), which they would tear through and find all ten surprises in a few minutes flat.

Similarly when #1 son was around 5 or 6 I wrote him a Halloween story – even illustrated it myself while I sat on a EuroStar train heading to Paris to deliver a presentation on effective use of CRM in the workplace (yeah, I got some strange looks from the business people sitting around me in First Class as I got my crayons out and tried to stay within the lines). It took me hours to make – most of the time spent on the very poor drawings, true, but he read it in about two minutes (my son had a freakishly advanced reading age from a very, very small child – and an obsession with industrial warning signs – but that’s a whole other story…)

So, length is important – although it doesn’t seem to affect those millions of kids around the world who have struggled not a jot getting through the Harry Potter books.

The first story I’ve written is around 6k words, the other is currently at 4.5 but is likely to end up at a similar finishing point. 6k works out to about 20 pages of an adult type set book. That’s going to be about twenty to twenty five minutes to read: and my intention is to read them out loud tonight – but more of that shortly. I want them to be long enough that it’s something they’ll go back to and read themselves, but not too long that it has to be read in nightly installments over a week. Is it too long? We’ll see.

Pacing: 

Linked in with length, I guess. There aren’t shocks from page 1 in either story…they’re both something of a slow build – but, I’ve always preferred the building tension rather than the jump start. I don’t think, just because it’s a ‘children’s story’ it needs to sacrifice scene setting and character introduction. But I could be wrong.

Language:

Two things here – I wrote an article for Oxford University Press recently about using the novella for English Language Learners. So, yes – I know it’s important to consider Lexical Frameworks and abide by them to some degree. But I also think it’s important to stretch a little bit, and if not every single word in a sentence is understood, I’m happy to give a brief explanation as we go along (except for the final denouement –  no stopping or breaking of tension there, little buddies…), and hopefully the context will give them enough of an idea to work out the gist if not the exact definition.

The second aspect is of course, coarse language – in my ‘adult’ fiction I do have the tendency to use the occasional curse word (hence the request in the dedication of Basement Tales for my parents to ignore the ‘naughty words’.) So obviously, there’ll be no out-and-out profanity. But…kids, in my experience at least, love a naughty word – even if it’s a graded one to their age. (Last night we watched the quite great Paranorman together, and they couldn’t stop laughing when they thought the character trying to get attention from behind a statue kept saying ‘pssssst’ because they thought he’d said ‘pissed’. And these kids love to insult each other. They get ‘gross joke’ books for Christmas, and memorize them obsessively – this isn’t a new thing, my son did it, and probably back in Medieval times there was some little brat shouting at his brother that ‘verily, thou does smell of an oxen’s rear’ (I have no idea how they spoke in Medieval times – I don’t do history…). So, no swearing, but a hint of ‘naughtiness’.

Subject Matter: 

And here’s the biggie I guess. How scary is too scary? How does scary work  in the written word compared to the screen? (Or, more accurately I guess, the aural tradition here…). What does an ‘8’ mean for Bart or Theo? (I can’t remember which one was which now…) He described it as ‘Goosebumps+’…now, I haven’t read R.L. Stine‘s books (although I did watch his Masterclass presentations), so I’m working a little bit blind here, but I’m pretty sure my first draft has gone too far.

The way I’ve approached this? I think of the ‘children’s’ writings I’ve enjoyed over the years reading to my son (not now – that doesn’t tend to go down too well when he’s at university). The stories and authors he has always enjoyed and gone back to time and again over the years have been the Anthony Horowitz Horrors, the Roald Dahl stories – and not the children’s stuff – very quickly the tales of the unexpected, and in a non-horror genre, although certainly with some scary situations, the Colin Bateman teen stuff. And to be honest, I still go back to them now: I think that’s my criteria – a good children/ Young Adult book shouldn’t be a good children/ Young Adult book: it should be a good book full stop.

The Stories

So, what have I done? Well, I think I managed to incorporate all the requested factors into the two stories. (Even that pesky Halloween/ Winter issue…I’m pedantic with my writing even if the young listener might not be so much…)

The first story – The Winter Circus, has a debt to “>Something Wicked This Way Comes – no doubt. What I didn’t think about, until I started writing this post is that it also owes quite a bit to Todd Browning’s Freaks – not something I’ll be suggesting for the Halloween movie we watch with them. I need to redraft some parts of it today: on reflection there are parts of it which are still way too nasty for an eight year old. It might be that even with the rewrite it’s still a bit too much…I’m really not sure.

The second story, ‘A Visit to Uncle Jack’s’ is even clearer in its’ influence. Growing up, even as young as a 10 year old I used to love the old American comics – the Tales from the Crypt, the Eerie, the Creepy – they weren’t easy to find as a young lad in North East England – no internet in those days. A few stories stay in my memory even to this day, even though I haven’t read them in forty years or so…and this is one of them. I don’t know how similar it is: as I say it’s been a long time since I read it – when it’s done and dusted I might try and look it out online to see if I can find it. I’m guessing the search words would include several of whatever I said the second one’s name is: although not the detailed family tree. It will be quite interesting to see. I’ve only consciously borrowed/ stolen from printed comic matter once before – that was in the short story ‘Flying Solo‘ which is in Basement Tales: which I clearly acknowledged in the author notes. Here, my acknowledgement is peppered throughout the story – calling the kids Eric and Connor, and having them wise-cracking insult hurling siblings allowed me to be as in-your-face with it as having the mother refer to them as the ‘E.C. Comics’ – yeah, subtlety was never my strong point.

So, the stories are just about written. How different are they from my ‘grown-up’ efforts? We’ll see tonight, in front of a roaring fire with chestnuts and some popcorn to hand whether, like Stephen Wright I can manage the difference between writing a ‘children’s book’ and a ‘real’ one…certainly, I don’t think there’s a big gap between these stories and the stuff that appear in Basement Tales or You Could Make a Killing in terms of tone…or writing: but maybe that says more about me than the genre…

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