I released a collection of horror stories for children back in October last year entitled Cellar Stories (a riff on my first story collection of horror and dark tales for adults Basement Tales which, two years after publication, is still doing pretty well).
I’ve written about why I did it in detail elsewhere on this site but now four months after publication I thought I’d write a little about the process and the experience.
The Target Audience
I had no clear idea about exactly what I was going to write when I started the collection – it wasn’t even intended to be a collection: I don’t consider myself a ‘children’/ ‘YA’/ ‘Teenage’ writer, and as a reader at that age I wasn’t ‘typical’: reading James Herbert and Stephen King at 11 and 12 would probably be frowned upon these days.
Add to this that as a father my ‘censor’ senors were lax to say the least (looking back on this here site I look at the video film reviews from 2011 when Joe was around 13 and see his favourite films of the year included The Last Boy Scout, Fight Club, Leon and Withnail and I… Hmm. No wonder he turned out the way he has…
Joe isn’t, and never was, a big horror fan – either in print or on screen (It’s one of the only ways he differs from me in his entertainment likes/ dislikes). And my ‘test audience’ – my nephews aged 8 and 11 at the time of my writing a number of the stories, are perhaps more hardy than a lot of children their age.
But in reality, is there a ‘typical’ young reader? And you can strike the ‘young’ from that sentence as well…
I positioned the collection as suitable for 12+ as I was writing. My test readers, carefully selected (read – had forced upon them my parent friends), read Harry Potter, Alex Ryder, Goosebumps, Horowitz Horror…and from the feedback, none were traumatized by the experience – if anything they rated the stories less scary than I did. The teachers I got to look at the tales though? A different story (no pun intended)- whether from a professional safeguarding point of view or based on pedagogic thought, a number of them declared the stories ‘too much’ for their pupils in terms of style and content…although to be fair, I remember my teachers saying the same thing about my own creative writing at that age…
And then there were some adults who prefer their horror on the mild not the wild side who really enjoyed the stories – preferring them to the slightly more purple prose of some of the Basement Tales stuff.
So how much is too much?
There were some obvious no-nos. No swearing, no sex, no racism, no graphic violence, no animal cruelty. Not that I don’t think many of these things can be considered in YA fiction – this just wasn’t the book to do it.
After that, I was pretty open minded.
I wanted to use some old tropes and classic stories and play with them a bit for a younger audience. So the story Lunch at Seluban’s is a sci-fi nod to Stanley Ellin’s classic Specialty of the House – as detailed elsewhere on this site – my favourite horror short of all time. Kurisutin is a non-horror take on a car with special powers that Stephen King readers may guess from the title, and The Winter Circus won’t be a million miles from the mind of anyone who has read Ray Bradbury’s brilliant Something Wicked This Way Comes. Other stories in the collection are more of a generic borrow from the sort of stories I loved as a young adult…so the post Apocalypse, the twist-in-the-tale, a couple of monster stories (one actually homaged from a memory of an EC comic strip), and an attempt at a ‘tricked you as you read’ tale.
The original intention was to introduce each story with a comic splash, in the tradition of a Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow, and my wife produced some fun and wonderful pictures which she’s written about on her own site
Ultimately we decided against it, but the pictures remain…
Originally, I was intending to rank the stories from least to most scary…playing in with the idea of descending steps into the darkness of a Cellar. This too, did not come to pass, as some of the less scary stories were a little too close in theme to follow on from one another. So, you’re left with a fairly random ordering: my test readers rated them from 1-10 in terms of ‘scariness’. I think in the end it emerged that Best Days of Your Life and Kurisutin were a lowly 1 or 2, and My Brother Bobby and The Winter Circus hovered around the 8 mark with the rest falling somewhere in between. That was pretty much what I wanted.
The critical reaction was good – from the desired response of feeling ‘a bit creeped out’ but not overly stressed from the nephews via Halloween read-aloud sessions, to the comments and questions parents passed on from their children (and a couple of the stories are definitely intended to provoke a ‘what happened next’ response…even if my nephew’s suggestion was remarkably similar to Vern’s reaction to Gordy’s tale about Lard Ass Logan in Stand By Me…)
Of course, a challenge for any author with any book is getting positive reactions down in print. Your average under-14 doesn’t tend to have an Amazon account they can go to to leave a positive review and, as I found in at least two cases where households had two children who wanted to leave their thoughts, Amazon will delete both reviews from the same household (and believe me when I say they ain’t putting them back up there no matter how much you beg – ‘for fear of manufactured reviews’ my PG censored butt.)
The Sales? Well, JK Rowling isn’t trembling in her shoes at the competition. The collection briefly broke into the top 100 Kindle rankings when I first released it, but it was gone quicker than a sausage falling from a table with a Labrador around…Was that because of the quality or the promotion? Well, Cellar Stories has been the epitome of what we in publishing marketing call a ‘soft launch’ (also known as ‘niche product promotion’, ‘specialized title’, ‘select launch’ or ‘Shit, we’d better stick a social media post out about this at least or the author will start moaning…’) It’s been low key. I don’t frequent or know YA sites to push the book and I don’t know a huge number of YA authors to help.
But that’s all good. Baby steps and all that. (Which gives me a Pet Semetary homage idea right there…bwah hah hah.)
At the end of the day it was fun to write and at least a few people got a kick out of it as well as me and that’s pretty much what it’s all about really, isn’t it? (Although proceeds for a long holiday wouldn’t go amiss either…)
Cellar Stories is available now in Paperback at £6.99, Kindle for £1.99 and on Kindle Unlimited if you go in for that sort of thing at £0.00 – and really, for that much you’re getting your money’s worth.
And that is, of course, true for all my writing – adult and YA alike which you can find on Amazon here.
You can even get a sneak peak by clicking here