Everyone has a guilty book pleasure. Maybe yours is Harlequin romances about Greek tycoons and Regency fops making all the bosoms quiver. Maybe it’s chick-lit books with pink glittery covers or doorstop fantasy series about psychic dragons. Maybe it’s Jeffrey Archer (but I really hope not).
My guilty pleasure is children’s horror stories. I seriously love them. I can’t get enough. I’ve read the classic ghost stories: Joan Aiken, Charles Dickens, Algernon Blackwood. I’ve read Goosebumps and Fear Street and probably every Point Horror ever published (my personal favourite being Diane Hoh). I have a series of paperbacks called True Horror Stories, True Ghost Stories, True Monster Stories etc. that I have read approximately twelve million times (they have illustrations and fact-files after the stories, and you can’t argue with fact-files).
I like adult horror stories too: Susan Hill, Stephen King, even Richard Laymon (this is the only one I am genuinely ashamed about). But I don’t like them as much as I like the children’s stories.
My latest joy is the Tales of Terror series by Chris Priestley. So far in the series we’ve had Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, Tales of Terror From the Black Ship, and Tales of Terror From The Tunnel’s Mouth. Each book is structured in a classic story-within-a-story style, like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. In each, a young person is stuck in the stasis of a stalled train, a storm-isolated inn or the woods behind an uncle’s creepy old house. The child is told stories as a way to distract them from the inevitable conclusion that all is not as it seems in their situation, and the tension mounts with each story. The ending is predictable, of course, but that doesn’t lesson the thumping of your heart. We know the monster will be horrible, but we still need to peep out from behind the cushion.
One of the creepiest stories in the series is about a nun being tied to a pillar and having her teeth removed with pliers by her class of girl-pupils. This being a children’s story the violence isn’t graphically described; instead the nun realises what’s going to happen when she remembers telling her pupils about a saint canonised by having her teeth pulled out. The story ends after this realistion: the girls approach, armed with the pliers, and the imagination is left to fill in the horrible visuals.
Sometimes the stories do describe horrific things, but the narrative distance from the events makes the skin crawl:
When Benjamin got to the stairwell, a new calm seemed to come over him. Â He sat on the bannister, put first one leg and then the other over it, and took one last look at Philip before falling forward, head first, on to the marble floor below.
The illustrations are also fantastic, in the form of David Roberts’ gorgeously creepy Gorey-esque line drawings. I find them more disturbing than any amount of adult horror covers, with their blood-smeared knives and letters dripping red.
Children’s horror stories are scarier than adult horror stories because they are all about the unsaid. They hint and they suggest and they bring your face right up close to that creepy thing and then leave you to decide what exactly it is. And that is absolutely fucking terrifying.
I think any contemporary horror writer (or any writer who wants to create tension) can learn much from children’s horror stories. I’ve lost more sleep over vague shapes under wallpaper and quiet tapping on windows than I ever did about intricately-described body horror. These stories have taught me that terror is all about letting us think that yes, something really is out there; but no, you can’t see it yet. Those noises outside aren’t stray cats after all — it’s a Bad Thing, and it really is coming for you, any moment now it’ll be breaking through the windows and then you’ll really know how horrible things can be. But not yet, not yet. Just wait.