HOW TO SCARE CHILDREN
By Jeff Szpirglas
You know it’s coming time for Halloween when my mother-in-law shows up with one of those battery-operated skeletons that shakes and screams bloody murder. It’s ostensibly a gift for my twin 4-year old children, but really it’s for me – or rather, the shared joy that we have watching the twins scream (in both delight, and with some degree of pure terror). I love how the oncoming storm of October 31 gives us a brief window of opportunity to terrify the little ones.
I’ve been scaring young people for quite some time now, either through strange non-fiction books, horrific middle grade novels, and perhaps even in my day job as a grade 2 teacher.
The children’s market is an interesting one when it comes to selling scares. Tap it in just the right vein, and it can bleed gold – just ask R.L. Stine, who knows how to balance the laughs and scares to effectively have kids crawling back for more, but with enough restraint to make parents feel that their children aren’t going to wake up screaming from nightmares at 3 a.m.
The horror genre has always been my first love, and writing scary kids’ stories is something I seem to gravitate towards, despite my best efforts to stay commercially viable. This month sees the release of my second horror novel for middle grade readers, Sheldon Unger Vs. The Dentures of Doom (Star Crossed Press). It’s the story of 8th grade student Sheldon Unger, who unwittingly unleashes hellish forces locked up in his cranky grandmother’s wooden trunk. He begrudgingly takes up the mantle as a demon-hunting tooth fairy, while simultaneously trying to win the heart of his school crush and keep himself from getting pummeled by the grade 8 alpha male. Of course, he must also keep from getting pummeled by the Tenebrion, a shadow demon from another realm intent on destroying our own.
Writing horror for young readers has presented something of a branding challenge for me. I contribute regularly for Rue Morgue Magazine, based here in Toronto, which fulfills my 12 year-old self’s dream of working for a Fangoria-type magazine that I bought religiously back in the day. But I’m also a classroom teacher who writes books for 7-9 year-olds, as well as material for educational publishers. Finding the shared section of this Venn Diagram of “teacher,” “writer for young people,” and “guy who pens terrifying tales and writes about horror movies,” is a real gray area, and one I admittedly tread carefully across.
Needless to say, getting a book titled Dentures of Doom off the ground has been a long, twisty road festooned with rejection letters. The book made the rounds with a few publishers, but the mashup of comedy and legitimately scary horror had editors and marketing folk scratching their heads.
It’s the age-old question: where is the line in the sand that we draw when it comes to selling scary stories for kids? I continue to admire a writer like Roald Dahl, who managed to have his cake and eat it, too. Think about a story like The Witches, which seems almost unimaginable to pitch to a publisher today: It’s about a group of genocidal women who disguise themselves, blend into society, and plot to murder all of the world’s children. How? By turning them into mice so their own parents will trample them to death. And the main character? He stays as a mouse, and he’s happy because that means he’ll only live about as long as his ailing grandmother.
Misogyny aside, Dahl was full of these kinds of delightfully violent tales – from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The Twits to George’s Marvelous Medicine, which is essentially a story about a boy poisoning his grandmother. But they’re aided by Quentin Blake’s lively illustrations, and also by minimizing the violence against the kid protagonists, and embellishing the violence done to (and by) the antagonists.
Certainly, there’s a part of me that hopes Dentures of Doom will get embraced by the same kind of masses that accepted Dahl, find a home on library shelves (or better still, in high circulation), and even make a few dollars. But there’s another part of me that hopes its slightly subversive tone will find it on equal footing with the E.C. Comics of the 50s and 60s – the kinds of gruesome gruel that had kids screaming with delight, and churned the stomachs of conservative parents.
The cautionary fable – whether through Dahl, or his forebearers like the Brothers Grimm – recognized the truth that’s in the best, and most lasting of horror stories – that there are things out there that can hurt us, eat us, do us in – and not even the protective forces of our parents, teachers, or even the marketing department of a book publisher, can keep us safe.
About The Author
Jeff Szpirglas has reached that magical point in his career where he no longer can count the books he’s written on his fingers, but that’s okay. He still has toes. His work has ranged from television scripts to early reader chapter books to nonfiction titles such as FEAR THIS BOOK and GROSS UNIVERSE (Maple Tree Press). He’s a regular contributor to Toronto’s Rue Morgue Magazine, and is now working on a terrifying tale about an impossible skull. Jeff also works full time jobs as both classroom teacher and father of twins. Needless to say, if any reader here has a used time machine they can spare, Jeff is looking to buy one. Follow him at: twitter.com/jeffszpirglas
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