Horror— “an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Horror in literature— “a literary or film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Horror in YA—to be defined below.
In order to think about good literature in YA horror, we need to think about where the genre of horror first entered the picture. Horror in writing can be traced back as early as there have been novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and the like being written for entertainment. Why? Fear is fascinating, and no matter the time period, there has been always some type of narrative coming out that is designed to shock, frighten, and horrify.
When we think of horror in literature, certain images and ideas come to mind. We have famous horror archetypal figures to thank for that from authors whose works paved the way for the twists and turns that modern-day horror has taken today. We can think all the way back to the days of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Inferno (1307), which brought some of the first depictions of the horrors of hell to literature. Later comes the Gothic Megaliths like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818), whose creation is often attributed to the creator of the sci-fi genre; or Bram Stokers Dracula (1897), who while not being the first major novel written about vampires, can be especially thanked for spawning the lore which litters modern-day vampire novels. The genre of horror has always remained one of the most popular among people, of which Shakespeare’s raging successes Hamlet (1600) and Macbeth (1605) can attest. Every genre has its works of horror, such as poets and novelists like Lord Byron and Edgar Allen Poe, whose gruesome tales steeped the macabre and other dark tropes into the horror genre. This list could go on forever, with honorable mentions like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), or Thomas Prest’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber (1847), among many others.
These are all novels, poems, plays, and short stories done for adults, though. Where did horror come into the works of children’s literature, then? It’s been there a long, long time. Looking back, we of course think of the Grimm Brothers, Jakob and Willhelm Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen, Tales Told for Children (1835), whose short stories and fairy tales for children are the dark and grisly forefathers of today’s Disney Classics. In Andersen’s tale of “The Little Mermaid,” a certain well-known mermaid of the deep blue sea did indeed lose her voice—except not by magic. No, her tongue was ripped out of her mouth in visceral, gory detail. These and all the great classics mentioned above shaped the genre of horror in YA, which today, is one of horror’s best representations. Think of the greats, like William March’s The Bad Seed (1954), or George Orwell’s dystopian great, 1984 (1949). These may not have been published for YA, but it is in the genre of horror within YA that these past classics find a home in the present. Why? Because horror in YA is versatility at its best. Just look at the backs of nearly every paranormal romance, dystopic, or twisted high school tale of teen drama meets The Walking Dead. They say literacy rates are higher in teens and middle schools than they have ever been before, and a big part of that is for how teens and pre-teens are rocking the world of horror, whether they know it or not. Yes, there are novels like anything written by Stephen King ever, such as Carrie (1974), which is blatantly horrific, but then there are the other, more subtle hitters. Think of classics like Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (2011), which is classified as a contemporary fantasy, but within its pages we see the undertones of horror in the dark, gothic images. It’s in novels like these where horror is woven into the essence of a book.
Horror comes in different varieties, but some of the most popular in YA literature are gore and thriller. Gore, like any book about a zombie apocalypse or anything involving mass amounts of dismemberment of any kind; or thriller, which involves anything from jump scares of boogeymen in basements or closets to slasher style killers who hunt and kill unsuspecting teens on an isolated island for kicks. Whatever the sub-genre, horror in YA is some of the best, in which some of today’s best novelists are working. Yes, such as the great R.L. Stine, whose Fear Street saga (1989) remains one of best for anyone looking for a throwback to the days of the Salem Witch Trials or The Crucible (1953). Now though, we have authors like Darren Shan whose The Saga of Darren Shan series is an eternal crowd pleaser (who doesn’t love Cirque du Freak?). Authors like Jonathan Maberry are musts for anyone looking for a good gory zombie apocalypse tale, as few are better than Rot & Ruin (2010), or Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2009). One of the best in suspense is of course Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1940), which for anyone looking for a modern retelling, Gretchen McNeil’s Ten (2012) is the story of teens on an island looking for a weekend of boozy fun and instead find themselves being picked off one by one by a mysterious killer. Novels like these continue to appear today, and thankfully, diversity is finding its home in horror for YA as well.
More recently, a favorite in the world of gore horror is Not Even Bones (2018) by Rebecca Schaffer, where black market organ harvesting takes an even darker—who thought that was possible?—turn. This takes place in various countries in Latin America, and incorporates horror lore from many of those cultures. Other great YA horror novels that embrace diversity are the fantastic zombie apocalypse, female empowered, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (2018); and The Girl from the Well (2014) by Rin Chupeco, which intertwines ancient Japanese legends with ghosts, demons, and more.
So, horror in YA? Can be defined as such: arguably one of the best culminations of literature sub-genres crossing over to create some of the best writing to be found in young adult literature that is always evolving. No one is ever too old to be scared.
PRR Editor, Sierra Jackson