“Stories are the wildest things of all” as “they chase and bite and hunt.”
I admire her energy and her commitment to teaching is fantastic. Much of her scholarship focuses on a topic that terrifies many of us—Zombies, Monsters, Werewolves, and all things horrible. She often teaches classes that explore the horror genre and has authored two books. The first is Monstrous Bodies: Feminine Power in Young Adult Horror Fiction and the second is co-authored with Anthony Fonseca Encyclopedia of the Zombie: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture and Myth. In addition, she is also the editor of Dead Reckonings: A Review Magazine for the Horror Field. I know that you will enjoy her comments and I hope you check out her scholarly work.
Stories Are the Wildest Things of All
In Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls[i], the monster who visits Connor O’Malley tells him three stories, because “stories are the wildest things of all” as “they chase and bite and hunt.” This monster calls on thirteen- year-old Connor, whose divorced mother is constantly ill due to her cancer treatments, leaving only Connor to care for her. The monster, a giant yew from the graveyard next to Connor’s home, promises that once he finishes his three stories, Connor will tell a story of his own, one that will be true--this story, the most painful one of Connor’s young life, will help him deal with his mother’s impending death. A Monster Calls, which has been described as a darker version of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, also demonstrates how YA horror fiction is uniquely able to help teens make sense of a world where they have difficulty defending themselves against the complex forces that act upon them.
Horror can be loosely defined as any text containing a monster, something that is wholly “Other” and represents our darkest fears. The horror genre’s fantastic tropes are uniquely able to describe the complex subject position of adolescence. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment and Magic, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim sees the unrealistic nature of fairy tales as an important literary device to convey the inner processes that take place within an individual rather than information about the external world (25). In this way, the fairy tale permits the reader to find her own solutions within the story. Bettelheim’s observation about the value of fairy tales also applies to horror fiction, a genre that employs unrealistic tropes to explore that which the reader has no words to reference. Or in other words, horror fiction reveals the monsters among us who walk in plain sight, and who can only be dealt with when they are seen for what they really are. Young Adult horror fiction, then, is particularly helpful to teens, since it shows them the monsters in their everyday lives and suggests strategies for dealing with them.
So, this Halloween, I would like to take the opportunity to share with you some of my favorite works of YA horror fiction. Each uniquely articulates the experience of adolescence, where teens lack the ability to fully comprehend overwhelming situations, let alone have the power to change them. I am particularly fond of these works in how each emphasizes how storytelling gives people the ability to comprehend and control their situations.
Andrew A. Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle highlights how narrative is a fundamental component of developing a coherent sense of self that allows the individual to be more than someone who is acted upon by external forces. Austin Szerba is at the epicenter of the apocalypse, brought about after a highly-infectious plague strain is accidentally released in his small home town of Ealing, Iowa. As the people around Austin are turned into giant praying mantises who eat other humans, he struggles to record the final moments of the human race while he races to bring his friends and family to a shelter where they will wait out events indefinitely. Austin’s attempts to both document this event for posterity and construct an adult sense of self that has agency are emphasized through how his narrative keeps stopping and starting, as he edits the story to include a broader perspective of the disaster, signifying that he is coming to understand how larger events are connected to this moment in history. Austin’s account is related through a teen perspective characteristic of most YA fiction in how he initially views himself as the center of the universe. However, in this case, Austin IS the center of the universe: he must repopulate the world with his girlfriend Shannon if the human race is to survive, and his history of the world could very well be the only account of the event. Grasshopper Jungle is unique for its absurdist sense of humor that is typical of some other YA novels such as Pete Hautman’s Godless < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godless_(novel)>, where the protagonist rebels against his father’s Catholicism by inventing a religion where acolytes worship the town water tower.
While many monsters in Young Adult horror fiction are supernatural, others are completely of our world. In Laura Whitcomb’s A Certain Slant of Light, these monsters hide in plain sight. During the six days that the novel takes place, Helen, a ghost, inhabits the body of Jenny, a teen girl whose fundamentalist Christian family has repressed her so intensely that her spirit has fled her flesh and so now she is quite literally robbed of her voice. Before Helen arrives, Jennifer’s parents haven’t noticed that there is something different about their daughter, as the soul-less Jennifer is also an ideal daughter who speaks when spoken to and obeys her parents’ commands without question. Helen, in Jennifer’s body, helps both Jennifer and herself to reclaim agency in their lives. To do this, Helen must uncover the story of Jennifer’s life. As Helen pieces together the story of Jenny’s expurgated life, which includes “rewriting” Jennifer’s story that was in her diary before her father tore out the pages after reading of a sexual dream that she had, she helps Jenny fight back against her father, the novel’s real monster, whose fundamentalist Christianity requires that the women in his family completely subordinate themselves to him. After Helen pieces together a coherent narrative of Jenny’s life, Jenny’s spirit is finally enticed to return to her own body and speak up for herself to prevent her father from robbing her of her identity.
A Certain Slant of Light is typical of ghost stories written by women, where they consider issues that affect women’s lives such as such as domestic violence, women being dispossessed of their property, the need to know women’s history, and bonds between women in this life and even beyond the grave that help ensure their survival lives.[ii] While spirits in ghost stories authored by women can be considered as monstrous because they are not of this world, they also help the women they haunt.
A Certain Slant of Light is an atypical work of YA fiction because it lacks a teen protagonist. Instead, it is related through the perspective of a woman who died when she was 27, sometime before the American Civil war, and who has been dead for 130 years. Still, the much older Helen in Jenny’s body represents the subject position of adolescence, where teens are more “adult” in that they know more than their elders give them credit for. Also, the older Helen is nevertheless similar to a teen. When Helen died, women had far less agency than they do in the first world in the twenty-first century, and so, while in Jenny’s body, Helen seems to be discovering her sexuality for the very first time as if she herself were a teenager.
Assisting Jenny also enables Helen to complete the story of her own life when she finally recalls the details of her own final moments. Helen is a wandering spirit because she cannot make peace with what happened before her death. In fact, the memory is so painful that she has repressed nearly all details of it. Only when Helen can remember her last moments can she stop wandering and go to the other side, where spirits exist in joyful communion with everyone that they loved in life.
Like A Certain Slant of Light, My Friend Dahmer is similarly unusual in that it is not related through a teen protagonist, but instead, told in flashbacks by the now adult writer, who went to high school with serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. Derf Backderf’s graphic novel uses storytelling to help the author come to grips with how he once knew the isolated and troubled teen who would grow up to rape and murder 17 men and boys before he was caught. Backderf expresses both helplessness and guilt at being unequipped as an adolescent himself to help the disturbed teen, who came to school blind drunk for every day of his senior year, and who frightened his acquaintances by his fascination with dead animals. This graphic novel is Backderf’s way of coming to terms with what he might have done had he realized the depth of his former high school classmate’s mental illness. Throughout My Friend Dahmer, Backderf constantly asks “where were the adults,” such as the teachers who failed to notice Dahmer’s chronic inebriation, or the parents, who were so wrapped up in their own bitter divorce that they left their son to survive alone in the familial home during his last year of high school while each began a new life elsewhere.
Backderf’s graphic novel, in black and white, starkly renders Dahmer’s sense of isolation and helplessness in the confusing world of high school, where teachers, counselors and peers would not and could not help him come to grips with the teen’s confusing feelings. The teenage Dahmer was just realizing that he was gay in a time when homosexuality was still thought of as a pathological condition. Backderf’s illustrations also show what words cannot about how Dahmer must have felt when realized that he was so different from his peers when he started having fantasies of killing men and having sex with their corpses.
Young Adult horror fiction differs from horror written for an adult audience in that it tends to be less graphic, perhaps because publishers know that they will meet with resistance from adults if they market works filled with gore and violence to a teen audience. As a result, some subgenres of horror are very under-represented in YA horror fiction, such as serial killer narratives. Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer is an exception, because while the writer does pen a story of the mass murderer as a young man, he pointedly does not go into detail about Dahmer’s career as a killer. This is because Backderf does not want to paint Jeff Dahmer as a monster, something that has already been done, ad nauseam, in the various accounts of his crimes. Rather, Backderf represents Dahmer as a weird and lonely teen. My Friend Dahmer is a 2013 ALA/YSALA Alex Award Winner.
These four novels are among some of the best YA horror being written today, and also demonstrate how stories are the wildest things of all. Read these books and let their stories chase and hunt and bite you this Halloween.
Thanks June. We all seem to be both attracted and repulsed by the things that terrify us. For example, my grandson in kindergarten wanted to be a Zombie for Halloween until his mother showed him pictures of Zombie costumes on Pinterest that scared him. He decided to try being a ghost this time around. Oh well, maybe next year. As you can see, June clearly has a handle on what scary material we should be reading and worrying about for the rest week.
Until Next Week,
Steven T. Bickmore
 A Certain Slant of Light was an ALA book pick of 2006.
[i] A Monster Calls has won both the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals in 2012 (the British version of the Newbery Award) for outstanding contributions to children’s literature.
[ii] Lundie, Katherine A. Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872-1926. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Print, p. 1, Carpenter, Lynette and Wendy K. Kolmar, editors. Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Print., p. 10