Hardly a day goes buy without another controversy in a teacup being brewed in the wonderful of genre writing. Today it's the turn of children's books. Bestselling children's author GP Taylor believes that children's literature has become too frightening and should be marked with an age certification system. Author Charlie Higson didn't like this, check out the article from The Guardian
In response to this my good friend Johnny Mains, who I like to call "The UK's Horror Custodian" has kindly done a guest post in response to this new storm in a teacup.
I am 36. Just informing you, so the resulting rant is kept in context.
There is a children’s author called GP Taylor who has caused a little bit of kerfuffle recently, saying that he believes that children’s books should come with some sort of certification, because they have become too frightening. Understandably there has been puzzlement at his statement, and I believe it has been one that hasn’t really been thought through, or indeed has been said with any conviction.
Saying that, if you believe this article, there is supposedly a wider discussion at how children’s and teenage fiction have become more darker than stories of times past where children were free and happy and had no cares in the world to speak of.
Right, before I go on – a quote from a story called ‘Arbor Day’ by Mary Danby in a children’s anthology called Nightmares 2. It was published in by Fontana in 1984, and could easily be said to be aimed at children of around 8/9 years of age:
She shrieked, but the band was playing a noisy gallop, and no one heard her. She pulled away from him but his grip grew harder. Slowly she was being dragged along the path into Baxter's Copse...
...She screamed for the last time, and then damp leaves were in her mouth, and her legs and arms were held fast by wormlike tendrils that snaked around her body. She felt her feet being torn down into the earth and her skin began to dry up, to darken and crack. Agonizing pain took over her body. Sharp green shoots sprouted viciously from her face, her shoulders, out through her hair. Her sight began to fade. In her last moments of human existence she could clearly see the true nature of this handsome stranger...the man who stood so pitilessly before her was a terrifying figure of power and vengeance. This, then, was the Green Man.
Yup, this girl surely led a care-free life...
Mary Danby is a celebrated anthologist, known for The Armada Book of Ghost Stories which was aimed at children, the Nightmares trilogy, again for children, and then the renowned Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories which was aimed purely at an adult audience. The great-great grand-daughter of Charles Dickens and the niece of celebrated author Monica Dickens, Mary had a habit of writing stories for all of the anthologies she wrote for and this one from Armada Ghost 10 (Armada, 1978) certainly nails its colours to the mast:
“Excuse me.” He tugged at her cloak. “Can we go back, now? I have to go home.”
The Grey Lady turned, and he saw her face.
It wasn’t the strange, crooked mouth, bright ruby red in a pale face, nor the flat, round nose … It was the eyes, blurred and expressionless, which really terrified him. The dreadful, painted face of the Grey Lady had come to life, to torment him with its horror.
He screamed and clutched at the door of the carriage. “Let me out!” he shrieked. “Oh, for love of pity, let me out!”
They were quite close to the river, now, and there was a thick mist which muffled the sound of the horses’ hooves as they slowed to a walk. The door would not open. Billy pushed with all his meagre strength, but it would not move.
“Please!” he begged. But the Grey Lady only turned on him those smudgy eyes, with their horrible blankness.
“Please let me go home …” moaned Billy.
Then the red mouth smiled a crooked smile, and the sweet voice said: “But we are going home, Billy. That’s what I’ve come for. To take you home.”
Just a little selection of what we were reading back then. I think this is also a good time to post the table of contents from other anthologies aimed at children from the 70s and 80s.
GHOSTLY AND GHASTLY (BEAVER 1977)
The Emissary - Ray Bradbury
The Thing in the Cellar - David H Keller
A Pair of Hands - Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
The House of the Nightmare - Edward Lucas White
Miss Jemima - Walter de la Mare
The Haunted Dolls House - M R James
The Devil's Cure - Barbara Softly
The Earlier Service - Margaret Irwin
Linda - Joan Mahe
Billy Bates' Story - Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd
Remembering Lee - Eileen Bigland
Jack in the Box - Ray Bradbury
The Canterville Ghost - Oscar Wilde
DEADLY NIGHTSHADE (GOLLANCZ 1977)
M. R. James - Lost Hearts
F. Marion Crawford - The Doll's House
H. R. Wakefield - Nurses Tale
Algernon Blackwood - The Attic
David H. Keller - The Thing In The Cellar
W. F. Harvey - The Dabblers
Greye La Spina - The Tortoise-Shell Cat
Joan Aiken - The Looking Glass Tree
William Tenn - The Human Angle
Saki - Gabriel-Ernest
Robert Bloch - Sweets To The Sweet
Mark Van Doren - The Witch Of Ramoth
August Derleth - Twilight Play
Anthony Butcher - Mr. Lupescu
Conrad Aiken - Silent Snow, Secret Snow
Alfred Noyes - Midnight Express
Ray Bradbury - The October Game
BEAVER BOOK OF HORROR (1981)
Ray Bradbury - The Man Upstairs
William Hope Hodgson - The Voice In The Night
Joan Aiken - Who Goes Down This Dark Road?
John Buchan - The Wind In The Portico
R. E. Alexander - The Aerophobes
H. P. Lovecraft - Pickman’s Model
Paul Ernst - The Thing In The Pond
Fitz-James O’Brien - What Was It?
Clark Ashton Smith - The Seed From The Sepulchre
Mark Ronson - Changeling
THE GRUESOME BOOK (PICCOLO 1983)
Ramsey Campbell - Calling Card
Nigel Kneale - The Pond
August Derleth - The Extra Passenger
Robert Bloch - Hobo
Donald A. Wollheim - Bones
Brian Lumley - The Deep-Sea Conch
Richard Matheson - Long Distance Call
Henry Kuttner - The Graveyard Rats
David Langford - 3:47 AM
THE PUFFIN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES (1986)
Pete Johnson - Secret Terror
Stephen King - Battleground
Robert Westall - The Vacancy
Guy De Maupassant - The Twitch (trans Anthony Horowitz)
Laurence Staig - Freebies
Roald Dahl - Man From The South
Kenneth Ireland - The Werewolf Mask
Bram Stoker - Jonathan Harker's Journal (extract from Dracula)
John Gordon -Eels
Anthony Horowitz - Bath Night
Look at the names! Stephen King, H.P Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, Joan Aiken, M.R. James and Richard Matheson! This is who we were reading from a young age! If The Gruesome Book were to be published today there would be a true uproar! An anthology that’s one of the best of its kind, but one that certainly doesn’t hold back in any way shape or form. The stuff of true nightmares! GP Taylor, if you only knew what disgusting delights we were reading, with the full knowledge and consent of our parents. Look at what the publishers got away with.
And then when we had our fill of those books we were straight onto the infamous Pan Book of Horror Stories which were certainly not for children! We were reading stories from those books to each other in the playground, seeing who could out gross who. And then the works of James Herbert, Stephen King and Shaun Hutson carried us through our teens and onto adulthood.
So, children have always read the most gruesome stories they could get their hands on. Children like to be disgusted and creeped out and terrified. That’s just kids being kids. It’s certainly done no harm to many of the people I know who grew up with those books, many who have become noted authors in their own right. It certainly hasn’t done any harm to my nephews who devour all the anthologies I can throw at them – the very same ones I used to read as a child.
Sadly, with many of these shock statements, a large proportion of people will take GP’s comments seriously and then censor what their children will and will not be allowed to read. Which in a way, for him, is kind of self-defeating, unless you can see it for what it really is – get more sales of the books by inquisitive adults, or children clamouring at their parents to buy them the books to see if they really are as scary as they claim to be. I for one, shant be reading them to find out. I have a feeling they’ll lack the necessary ‘bite’...