Ginger Nuts of Horror
Over the last few years the phenomenon of YA literature has dominated the book shops, charts and many novels been turned into highly successful films, franchises and have even become popular reads with adults. These novels usually feature teenagers with mature intellects and deal with issues such as death and relationships. Genres such as fantasy and science fiction are incredibly well represented in the ever expanding YA world, however, horror in comparison has been left behind. Sure there are isolated example of great teen horror reads, but often I struggle to find a decent range of quality horror for teens or younger kids. However, last year I came across a new series of unconnected horror novels packaged under the label of “Red Eye”, published by Little Tiger in the UK which promised this on their website: “Featuring award-winning authors and rising stars, Red Eye is the killer new YA series from Stripes Publishing. A fusion of pop culture, violence and technology, Red Eye gives horror a frighteningly contemporary makeover that teen readers will love. For fans of all things gruesome and ghastly – prepare to be scared out of your wits….”
Potentially this series could be a great addition to the younger teen horror market, filling the gap that most definitely exists. Of course, for us horror addicts more advanced in years, flipping back to the days of our youth, the 1990s, 1980s or earlier, is a lovely time of nostalgia as we had stacks of horror to choose from. Most of us simply jumped from reading junior stuff like “Goosebumps” or “Point Horror” onto full adult horror. I know I did, and the many horror fans I have spoken to trod a similar path. One day we were reading the new R L Stine or Christopher Pike and then BANG! We discovered Stephen King, James Herbert, Shaun Hudson, John Saul, Guy N Smith and many other horror writers. Indeed, I found out more about sex by reading James Herbert novels, than I ever did during sex education lessons at school! In the 2016 “Goosebumps” film you have to laugh at the sly references to Stephen King. I took my ten year old to see it in the cinema and we laughed at completely different bits. That’s because many of the jokes were aimed at the parents looking for some 80s and 1990s horror nostalgia.
When I started reading these “Red Eye” books I suppose I was trying to rediscover my inner ‘horror’ child in some way. And also note that this series contains a warning on the back which states: “WARNING! NOT SUITABLE FOR YOUNGER READERS” and generally this is their biggest weakness and my major gripe, these books SHOULD be aimed at younger kids, roughly those aged 10-13 at the oldest. They’re just not dark, twisty, or meaty enough to be pegged as serious YA reads. The bottom line is that they are just not scary enough, although some definitely have a higher fear factor than others. Well established authors such as Graham Marks and Tom Becker are involved in the series, as is British Fantasy Nominee Lou Morgan and up and coming author Alex Bell.
I didn’t really feel that any of the six books currently in print advanced teen horror much beyond the 1980s heyday of Christopher Pike and RL Stine with their dodgy babysitters and demons living under the basement next door. For teenagers the fear factor just wasn’t there. Compared to the multi-layered and complex YA novels out these books needed more whack than curses, dodgy neighbours and rather undemanding thrillers about serial killers with a supernatural riff. There were a couple of exceptions in the serious though and “Sleepless” was an unsettling treat. A pill which helps you revise for exams, with obviously creepy consequences and side-effects was very effective. Another great one was “Frozen Charlotte” a very clever and murky mix of horror and thriller set on the atmospheric and isolated Isle of Skye. Pitched at the right level, these were great for 10-13 age range. But if you’re a teen already experimenting with adult horror I reckon you’ll get bored.
There are many so good YA writers who successfully flirt with horror, mixing it up with thrillers, dystopia and fantasy, I’m surprised they haven’t come up with more challenging reads to beef up this series. A great example of a YA writer who really pushes the boundaries is Sara Pinsborough, few authors merge genres and the crossover into adult literature as her. When I read her novel “The Death House” I really struggled to decide whether that novel was YA or an adult novel, and for me that’s a great dilemma to have. We studied this in a book group at school and had a fantastic discussion on why we thought this was YA. Either way, it’s streets ahead of anything published by ‘Red Eye’ purely because of the emotional impact it has. Interestingly the novel has failed to appear on any teen book prize shortlists, something I find staggering, so perhaps the book trade see this incredibly beautiful and sad novel as an adult read after all? It is after all on the Short List of the recently announced British Fantasy Society. Others who I recommend who more around the genres include Rick Yancey, Cliff McNish, Daniel Kraus, Chris Wooding, Lisa McMann and of course modern master Jonathan Maberry. Before long I will write a follow up article on YA horror writers I enjoy.
Many of you will know American horror master Jonathan Maberry who expertly moves between the genres of horror, science fiction and hi-tech violent adventure with his Joe Ledger series. However, Maberry has achieved what few other adult horror writers have managed: he’s written a really successful YA horror series in “Rot and Ruin” which is seriously good. This tremendous sequence started out as a rewrite of his adult novella called “The Family Business” and has been a tremendously successful YA hit in many counties. There is a big difference in depth between what Maberry writes and some of the underwhelmed content in the stuff being released under the “Red Eye” banner. Most teenagers who are 14 or 15 are going to be seriously underwhelmed with most of these titles and I believe they would be better categorised as children’s books. A connected gripe is the fact that in the majority of the reads it’s very easy to see where the plot is heading, who the murderer is and as a result they lack suspense. The bottom line is that children always read books which they’re not supposed to. I work in a school and I’ve enjoyed promoting ‘Red Eye’ to kids aged 10-12 and when they come back and tell me “Frozen Charlotte” scared them witless I know I’ve given them a decent recommendation. This series has been popular with our younger kids so they have a lot going for them if pitched at the correct age. An older teen asked me for a horror recommendation last week and I gave him Joshua Gaylord’s “When We Were Animals” (I’ve reviewed it elsewhere on the site) and he loved it. That’s a great example of a fabulous YA/adult crossover. “Red Eye” would have been too undemanding for this type of reader.
For the record these are the books and how I rate them. The captions are from their website:
Alex Bell: The Haunting – “Like all old Cornish pubs, the Waterwitch has its ghosts. And, as Emma soon discovers, some curses grow stronger with time.” Newest in the series which is a fairly standard ghost story about a seventeen year old girl who returns to her childhood home to visit her very ill grandmother. Although the leading character is wheelchair bound, and it also deals with mental health issues, for me it was just too juvenile to rank as serious YA. But a decent read for 11-13 tops.
Tom Becker: Dark Room – “The Miss Saffron pageant is fast-approaching in Saffron Hills, and Darla wants no part of it. But gruesome visions – that come as quickly as a camera flash – hint at terrible fates for some of the beautiful teens involved. And then come the real deaths. Can Darla find the killer before it's too late?” This is another serial killer read straight out of the Point Horror stable, with the new girl in town getting sucked into a serial killer story with a camera fixation. Becker has written other teen novels way better than this.
Graham Marks: Bad Bones – “Broke and desperate, Gabe thinks his fortunes have finally changed when he stumbles across a treasure-filled grave in the desert. But the valuable gold turns out to be anything but a lucky find…” This was another perfectly enjoyable read for the undemanding horror fan, about a sixteen year old boy who finds an old bracelet in a hidden grave. Thinking he can turn the luck of his hard-up family, things turn from bad to worse in this supernatural yarn. Marks has written much better books than this.
Simon Cheshire: Flesh and Blood – “When Sam sets out to investigate what's going on at Bierce Priory, he has no idea of what he's getting himself into. Uncovering the horror is one thing, escaping is another…” This was a slightly more gory and I enjoyed the pretty dark ending. Sam’s family come into money and they move to the swisher part of town and in his first day at school he almost witnesses a murder. The plot then embarks on a Scoobie Doo routine as Sam suspects his seemingly perfect neighbours of being involved in some sinister plot. And there isn’t really much more than that to it, so it’s another decent, but undemanding read for kids aged 11-13.
Lou Morgan: Sleepless – “The pressure of exams leads Izzy and her friends to take a new study drug they find online. But one by one they succumb to hallucinations, nightmares and psychosis. The only way to survive is to stay awake…” This one was slightly more challenging and the suggestion that a pill that allows you to study better has nasty side effects was a clever one. An enjoyable read.
Alex Bell: Frozen Charlotte – “Following the sudden death of her best friend, Sophie hopes that spending the summer with family on a remote Scottish island will be just what she needs. But the old schoolhouse, with its tragic history, is anything but an escape. History is about to repeat itself. And Sophie is in terrible danger.” I think this is the best of the bunch so far and I know lots of kids who have really enjoyed and been scared by it. A job well done.
I’ve stated that these books are decent reads for the younger end of YA, or children’s fiction. For the reader who likes to be challenged I will return again to this subject with some YA/accessible horror recommendations in a future artile. ‘Red Eye’ would be well advised in rebranding these as children’s horror as these days YA is being read by those well into their teens or older and these books aren’t challenging enough for that market.