This is a chilling coming of age story that works primarily because of the believable characters. The main protagonist is a teenage boy struggling with raising his little sister with no help from their drug addicted mother. Will is a gifted baseball player who happens to be from a poor and broken family. He is best friends with kids from a much higher SES than his, and madly in love with a girl just out of his reach. This teenage drama within the context of a rich vs. poor small town world is well drawn. Janz is a horror writer, though, and two parallel stories involving hideous creatures in the woods and a serial killer who eats his child victims are soon introduced. The author ramps up the scares and the excitement involving his adolescent characters, and the reader is caught in the onslaught. The last 20-25% of the book is non-stop action and the story falters a little as the mayhem becomes redundant. A heavy editing hand might’ve helped here. Still, Children of the Dark is a blast and I loved it.
Anyhow, I digressed slightly in the previous blog. (Notice how I am continuing as if there wasn't a day and a half between posts?) What has the origins of Collection got to do with my thought not another kid?
Well, I started considering my next work, and damn if it doesn’t look like another kid will be a main character.
If I can “blame” anybody, and I really can’t, it would be my doctoral students in my Psychotherapy Interventions class.
This spring 2015 semester has been an examination of different interventions from around 10 different theoretical orientations. I set up the class so that textbooks reflecting these ten orientations were potential reads. The students had to choose two as their readings for the class (in addition to two other texts that everyone read).
There are multiple assignments in a variety of formats (believe me, they are complex – and I have to grade them all). One assignment involves selecting a subgroup of 5-6 students to serve as an expert panel to describe how they would work with a particular client. There is no preparation for the client, the panel will be informed about the client and then they had to start providing a case conceptualization and a treatment plan based on the theory in one of their selected texts.
Now, here is where the kid idea came in…
Their clients were to be YouTube bloggers. Many people suffering from mental illness will make multiple presentations about their symptoms and related personal issues. Most of the YouTube bloggers are young in their twenties. I spent a lot of time searching for clients who would be diverse. With much effort, I found some ethnic diversity, but not much age diversity. I only recently found a male who was in his fifties, but too late to be used in the class. The only age “diversity” I could find was downward – and I found a handful of teenagers who were articulate enough to serve the needs of the class. One was a young guy, somewhere in the 12-14 range who was exceptionally eloquent for his age and who professed to have a rather unique disorder.
This particular kid mentioned that he has Depersonalization Disorder – a condition where the individual has a persistent sense that he is observing himself or herself from outside his/her body. These feelings of unreality are quite disturbing, and the person wonders whether they are even alive.
As this kid described his experiences in a graphic manner, I began to think there’s a novel in this. Nearly simultaneously, someone in the class yelled out, “Hey Dr. Hains, this sounds like a plot from one of your books.”
The student was right of course (after all, I was thinking that very thing at the same time). So, I started plotting and organizing. Nothing is written yet other than a short outline. But, if I pull this off, I think the narrative will be exciting.
Only thing, though, is that it will involve another kid.
When I finish a piece, I usually put it away for at three months before I look at it again. So, with a solid draft of Sweet Aswang tucked away out of sight, I began Dead Works. As I indicated in a previous blog, Dead Works was not supposed to be about kids. I wanted to think like an adult for long periods of time, and I had a working mental outline for Dead Works. The story revolved around a psychologist and ghost hunting. I just couldn’t get it moving, however. The big reason, I think, is that I had become consumed by a minor subplot involving one of the psychologist’s cases – a boy who is in therapy because he thinks he sees ghosts. Push came to shove and I jettisoned the original plot and focused on this aspect of the narrative. I realized up front that at first glance this sounded like the movie The Sixth Sense. My plot, though, was considerably different, so I wasn’t worried about pursuing something that would sound really familiar to potential readers.
Once again, my professional life contributed source material. The psychologist character became a graduate student in counseling psychology who was working on his PhD. The young therapist is doing his practicum placement at the university counseling center and he is assigned a teenage client who is seeing ‘things’. Since I teach practicum classes at both the Master’s level and the PhD level, I have a pretty good idea what the process feels like for trainees. I decided early in the process that the entire context for the novel would take place within the counseling relationship between the teen and the student. I found I couldn’t hold myself to this given the complexity of the plot, but I managed to keep all points of view outside of the therapy to the graduate student.
As life tends to be unpredictable, my third effort, Dead Works, was published after Birth Offering. I was still messing with Sweet Aswang, and was pleased when Damnation Books accepted Dead Works. Anyway, with Sweet Aswang still in the wings, my first three books were shaping up to have teenage protagonists.
So, I was sick of kids.
Then I started work on my next piece, tentatively titled Collection. This took nearly two years to finish, but I am pleased to announce that the first complete draft was saved to multiple files last week. This will remain untouched for three or four months before I go back to begin the revision process. I am excited to say that the point of view is entirely from a 60-year old female sheriff. Quite a departure from the usual stuff, but a refreshing challenge. I had to put myself into a mindset of the character, and I started by engaging her inner dialog without swearing. Now, I realize that 60-year old women these days do not restrict themselves to the king’s English (I know plenty of women around that age and many curse like sailors), but I felt that Lacey would not do this. So, that was my initial effort for that point of view. Teenagers have more range when it comes to naughty words, but a more limited vocabulary. However, my 60 year old sheriff was ended up being a refined thinker. We’ll see how she holds up after my three or four month hiatus from the manuscript.
My only (thus far) hesitant thought about the plot of my next fiction effort was, “Not another kid POV”.
The POV stands for “point of view”. And yes, as a potential plotline for my next novel was developing, it kept leaning towards another child character. Not just any child either, another young teenager.
But honestly, I kept going back to this scenario, no matter how hard I tried to shift the focus. The narrative just wouldn’t work without such a character.
Maybe I should explain.
I have written before about the roots of horror in my life. I have traced it back to a number of potential sources, the two most important being catching a TV trailer/commercial for the Village of the Damned in 1960 and becoming infatuated with dinosaurs around the same time. While the fascination with monster movies grew from these origins, my interest in horror fiction received a real jolt with the reading of The Other and The Exorcist in the early 1970s. One commonality about these two novels was having a youth protagonist at the center of the story (something also shared with the Village of the Damned from 1960). I realized early on that having an evil child or a defenseless child at the mercy of something monstrous intensified exponentially the sense of fear and danger. These were cheap thrills, granted, but chilling nonetheless. I knew that if I ever wrote a horror novel, I would follow with a similar theme. Go for the jugular, and do it with a teen character.
Birth Offering was written with this goal. I knew the type of character Ryan would be…a typical fourteen year old with some added strengths to allow him to survive a series of harrowing events. This boy had to confront ghostly apparitions and literally wrestle with demonic creatures and an evil adult bent on his destruction. I am pleased with the way Ryan turned out.
During the two-plus years I was peddling Birth Offering, I wrote two other pieces. The first of the two, Sweet Aswang, had close connections to my professional endeavors. I’m a university professor in the area of counseling psychology, and my research focus is in pediatric psychology. That is, my interests are related to issues of chronic illness in kids. Specifically, my research agenda involves the problems that teenagers have with adhering to their medical regimens. In my research the focus has primarily been with kids who have Type 1 diabetes. What originally started as a short story, Sweet Aswang evolved into a forty-four thousand word novella. In the story, two teenagers who have Type 1 diabetes find themselves coming face to face with an unusual monster (the title gives it away). As far as I can tell, this is the first diabetes-related monster/horror story.
This blog will continue...
“I’m not going to watch it. I heard it sucks and I don’t want to contaminate one of my fondest childhood stories.”
That may not be an exact quote, but it is pretty close. My twenty-two year old daughter was commenting on the movie adaptation of the YA novel The Giver by Lois Lowry. She was at home for three days over Thanksgiving, taking a break from her doctoral work at the University of Chicago.
I thought I had a good idea arranging my Netflix queue so that the movie version of The Giver would be at our house over the holiday so that we could watch the movie together. It so happens that the December selection for the men’s book club to which I belong is The Giver – a definite departure from our usual fare. For instance, our January selection is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Anyway, I was reading the book (now long finished) and watching the movie sounded like a good idea.
Not to my daughter’s way of thinking.
The Giver is one of her all-time favorites. With the exception of Harry Potter, The Giver holds a special place in her heart. I was surprised, though, about her unwillingness to watch the movie. She stood her ground, and only my wife and I watched it. For the record I thought the film version was pretty good – it certainly didn’t “suck” like her peers reported to her. She had no qualms about watching all of the Harry Potter movies, or seeing other films based on childhood readings (The Thief Lord, Hunger Games). But there is something about The Giver that struck her differently. This work represents something iconic to her and to many people who read the book in middle school.
I think I know why.
The fan base is evidently quite huge mostly because it is a frequently assigned reading for middle school kids. They love it for two reasons, I think. First, the book is accessible to a range of readers. Second, and most importantly, author Lois Lowry has masterfully connected with the developmental stage of pre- and early adolescence. This is the stage of life when the consideration of Big Ideas and Big Thoughts become possible. Abstract and hypothetical reason is growing by leaps and bounds at this age. The content of The Giver involves love, grief, the arbitrary nature of rules, the expression of feelings, and the struggle with the limits of vocabulary to describe deep emotions and cognitions. All of these are weaved into a dystopian tale that is simultaneously safe, heartbreaking, disturbing, and downright creepy. I think for many kids like my daughter, the themes of this work meshed triumphantly with the very struggles of the target age group. I think Ms. Lowry tapped marvelously into the mindset of kids at this age, and every word of her story resonates with them. That alone makes Lois Lowry a genius. And to have her fans hold their memories of the book close to their hearts a decade later has got to be incredibly rewarding.
Another shooting in an American school. I won’t mention the kid’s name in order to avoid giving any attention to such misguided acts. And, sadly enough, not mentioning the name will enable me to use this blog if I want next time, and the time after that, and the time after that…
I cannot begin to empathize with devastation of the parents who lost kids (although at this time, there are only two – one victim and the shooter). You send your kid to school, which should be – and still is statistically – the safest place for a child to be. I also feel sad for the parents of the shooter, and their huge sense of loss and responsibility for the unthinkable.
There will be the usual handwringing about causes and how we can prevent this in the future. But this will fade quickly, another case of Ebola, the upcoming election, some other tragedy, a great football game, a celebrity arrest; something will push it off the front page.
Nothing will be done until we address the culture of guns and gun violence. Nothing will happen until we address health disparities, safety nets for families, adequate childcare…
Some will insist on better means of predicting or profiling the potential shooters. But you can’t, there are no good models. Some shooters have been bullied, some have been bullies, some have been loners, some have been popular, some have had friends, some have struggled in school, some have been good students, some have dated, some of been on medication while others haven’t, some have been traumatized while others haven’t, some come from intact homes while others come from broken homes… All have been troubled kids, that part seems to be accurate. But in our wisdom to cut spending in schools, many resources have gone – including school counselors and school psychologists who could have caught this early. And maybe intervened in time.
Yep. Another shooting in an American school. And everyone’s heart aches.
A few more final thoughts (for now at least) on the creepy-kid genre.
While I focus on fictional accounts, there are unfortunately numerous examples of real-life prominent cases of violence and terror perpetrated by children and adolescents. One of the Boston Marathon bombers was merely nineteen. Vicious crimes are committed by teenage males (usually), sometimes individually and sometimes in packs. School shootings are now a fairly regular event, and their occurrence leaves us shaking out heads in confusion looking for reasons why these things happen.
We are destined to be confused after each and every occurrence because there are multiple reasons for each one, and these reasons differ across events. In addition, there will always be unknowns in each occurrence which we simply cannot identify. This missing data is frustrating because we cannot fill the gaps and we want to know – we want to be assured that this situation cannot happen to us. We want to think, well it’s no wonder this terrible thing happened, look at how he lived…or look at his parents – their lives are a mess, or it’s drugs, I tell ya…
Chances are, many of these variables or other related factors play a role in the disturbing acts of youth - or none of them do. More likely, though, the etiology is an unpredictable combination of genetics, biology, parenting skills, family dysfunction, abuse, alcoholism, mentally ill parents, individual child factors like poor social skills or coping skills or reasoning skills, neurological issues, violent TV preferences, living in a violent neighborhood, an absent father, the proliferation of automatic weapons… we can go on and on. And, this interacting combination of factors will vary from kid to kid. The same risk factors might produce drug abuse in one teenager and an eating disorder in another. Likewise, there can be multiple risk factors that vary across kids which promote the same problem.
For many parents, you don’t need supernatural events to watch your beloved child struggle on a day to day basis. The emotional distress in a child is enough to ravage parental hopes and dreams. The sense of panic doesn’t relent as parents watch their children grow despondent or become fearful or descend into a nightmare of self-destructive behavior.
When I went to college, I had it in my head that I would major in something like political science and then go to law school and become a lawyer. My freshman year I took an Introduction to Psychology class as an elective. I fell in love with the topic. I found myself really interested in developmental issues – the stages that kids go through as they mature, the skills they learn to navigate their world, how they mature in their cognitive or reasoning abilities – you name it, I found it fascinating. This class changed my life trajectory. I was intrigued with how kids develop and became drawn to examine factors that might play a role when things go wrong. I started studying and researching the moral and social reasoning in delinquent adolescents. This lead to working with adolescents to improve self-control skills and anger-management skills. Somewhere along the way, my professional interests shifted to kids who seemed to function okay on the outside but who struggle internally with anxiety and stress. From there, it was only a short jump to focusing on youth with chronic health conditions and any related adjustment problems or adherence problems. While some of this work was conducted in a clinical setting, the vast majority of my work occurred in academic settings. That is, as a university professor, most of my professional work emphasized the training of graduate students and conducting research on these very topics.
You’re probably wondering, what’s the point of all this?
Well, here goes.
There is one thing I can say about my life with absolute certainty: I am sure glad I didn’t become a lawyer.
This career has been very fulfilling. It has been an honor to work with graduate students in order to train them as counselors and psychologists. My work with teenagers and their families has also been very rewarding. I’ve seen kids learn new skills and make sense of their experiences. Sometimes, I’ve seen the impact of therapy through the eyes of my students – when they are excited in their reports of client improvement. These are truly remarkable moments.
Since I have been writing horror novels on the side, so to speak, I have tried very much to incorporate these observations. In Birth Offering, I wanted Ryan to experience a lack of certainty about what is going on with him. I wanted his mother’s concern that he is developing a mental illness to feel palpable to the reader. My incorporation of these notions into a horror story worked pretty well, I think. Incidentally, I will have a novella published next year by Damnation Books, entitled Dead Works (this is the first unofficial/official announcement, I guess), and the story line addresses this topic more directly. The entire novel takes place within the context of a therapy session between a doctoral psychology student and his 13-year old client. The focal point of the story is essentially this: is the client being haunted or is he developing a mental illness?
Well, I apologize for a certain lack of cohesion in this entry. There is a certain connection with the topic of the past two posts, mainly in terms of how “it all fits”. Now, if I can just figure out what it all means…
As I’ve written about in an earlier blog, I can trace my enjoyment of the creepy kid sub-genre back to around 1960 where my six-year old self was terrified, yet simultaneously fascinated, by the movie trailer (or coming attractions as they were called then) of the Village of the Damned. The thought that kids could be monsters (not a surprise to my mom and dad, I’m sure) both scared me and thrilled me.
So, as I decided to start writing horror fiction, I guess it was no surprise that a kid would be the main protagonist in my first (and subsequent) efforts. Not to be outdone by other writers, I ended up with multiple kid characters in my debut novel, Birth Offering. The main character is Ryan Perry, my hero and, if you take a look, the kid who is in frequent peril. So, he satisfies the youth as hero character – well actually he more than satisfies the youthful hero description (I ended up really liking this kid). On the other end of the divide – the creepy kid character – Birth Offering has not one but three creepy kids. These fit the supernatural end of the creepy-kid spectrum. One ghostly apparition and two “feral” kids who are a lot more than just feral. These two kids, Hugo and Max, are my favorite creations. While they do not have a tremendous amount of “page-time”, their presence is hinted at frequently, and their actions are downright ghastly. A review on Amazon called Max a “thoroughly unsettling portrait”. I am really pleased with this description – I really wanted to aim for something like this.
I really focused on trying to create credible youth characters in Birth Offering. In the case of my hero, Ryan Perry, this meant making him seem like a typical kid despite the fact that he constantly faced extraordinary circumstances. He had to be smart and brave enough to consider and engage in dangerous courses of action and be in great physical shape to endure some excruciating consequences of those actions. He had to be impulsive enough and, there is no kind way of saying it, immature enough to engage in some stupid courses of action and also whine about the consequences. He had to be inexperienced enough to be flustered by the presence of a pretty girl – enough so that he could completely lose sight of the fact that something supernatural is intent on killing him.
My task for creating Hugo and Max was not that much different. These kids were monsters, but their actions and their behaviors had to be tempered with those that made them look very much like 12 and 9 year old boys. There was the selfishness and sullenness that comes with a 12 year old that was incorporated into Hugo’s character, and the cuteness that defined Max. The grounded characteristics really provided an extreme contrast to the horrifying nature of their actions when the deeds become evident.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”
That was my initial thought as I started typing this blog on my laptop. The content of this piece, and maybe a few pieces in a row if things go according to plan, is the impact of having children and adolescents as characters in novels – especially horror novels. I know I’ve addressed this in some capacity before (hence the question), but I keep coming around to it because of one influence or another.
There are two ways, at least, where youth as character influence horror fiction. The first is child or teen as hero - or what quickly becomes child or teen in peril as the action progresses. I think this is a throwback to our youthful days when we read children’s books or YA books in which we had this kind of character. They’re still around in significant numbers in today’s youth fiction (e.g., the Harry Potter series capitalizes on this approach very successfully). Stephen King also makes fair use of kids in his novels. They stand bravely head to head with monsters, aliens, demons, or ghosts with aplomb that adults can’t begin to muster. King even ups the ante of terror for his regular readers because he has managed to kill off an underage character on multiple occasions. With king, you never really know if a kid is going to survive – or escape unscathed. All by way of saying, youth-as-hero or youth-in-peril strikes a chord – adventures we’ve come to enjoy and expect based at least in part on our reminiscences from youthful reading pastimes. Let’s face it, though, the youth in peril motif is a cheap terror. Most adults will feel a slightly heightened sense of anxiety if a well-drawn young character is in jeopardy as compared to that of an adult character.
The second “youthful” influence in horror is when the kid is the source of the horror - the “creepy kid” sub-genre of horror. They are the serial killers, the demonically possessed, the sources of the haunting, the dead, the vampires (as in Salem’s Lot, not those tiring paranormal romance stories), and so on. These characters “work” in horror fiction precisely because this behavior is so counter to our expectations of how young people should act.
There are numerous fictional accounts of these kids, and some are as old as the hills. My favorite “early” example is Turn of the Screw. The main focus, of course, of this work is whether the young governess is mentally ill and hallucinating when she encounters the evil presence of Quint and Miss Jessel. The alternative is that the ghosts are indeed real. I’ve always been intrigued by the behavior of Miles and Flora – the two kids. Are they complicit in the activity of the ghosts or unwittingly (or maybe purposely) gaslighting the governess? I may be reading way too much into this, but I always had my suspicions about those two kids. Miles, after all, had just been expelled from school because of something unspeakable.
Okay, I’m rambling way too much here. I’ll continue with the creepy kid sub-genre in my next blog.
The Shiftling by Steven Savile alternates between two time periods. The first is during the youth of the main character, Drew, and his friends and the second is present day when the main character is middle aged and returns to his home town after being away for decades. Similar to novels like It by Stephen King which championed this type of plotline, something terrifying happened to the kids in 1985 which has haunted them ever since. In The Shiftling, Drew is returning home to visit his childhood friend Scotty who has been hospitalized in a psychiatric facility because of a mental health crisis. Of course, Drew – and the reader – knows that his illness is related somehow to the events that occurred in a fateful summer when they were 15 years-old. The story explores this series of supernatural events which forever altered the lives of the kids.
The novel is an engaging read. When we are in 1985, the perspective from a teenager is spot-on. The dialogue is believable; the brush strokes that created the characters are specific enough for the kids to have an identity of their own. Some of the action takes place at a traveling carnival at night, and those settings are naturally freakish. The atmosphere helps propel the story. As an aside, there are a number of references to British pop singers and groups which the author uses to anchor his story in 1985. None of them were familiar to me, so I could have lived without these references. There are a number of unsettling set pieces – something odd is happening in the house of an unsavory character, something horrible lives in the tunnels below the town, and there is the carnival itself. There is a scene involving a Ferris wheel which is quite imaginative which Mr. Savile uses to good effect.
Where the novel falters, I think, is in the present day narrative. I found this section more distracting and less absorbing. Minor characters play larger roles, and their presence doesn’t add much except distract the reader. There are a series of sections that involve a police interrogation. These aren’t convincing and the police officer’s demeanor changes unpredictably. By far, the passages involving the kids were considerably more interesting and gripping than the adult sections. The loss of focus on the teen experiences came with a cost to the narrative. I think the author should have maintained the storyline entirely in 1985 – even concluding the story within that time period. For me, that would have held the work together.
Altogether, I found The Shiftling to be a good read (about a 3.5) but not among the best from DarkFuse.
Anthony Hains is a horror & speculative fiction writer.