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The recent publication of a horror anthology for young adults called "Slasher Girls and Monster Boys" attests to the widespread popularity of the genre. With stories by some of the best and best-known writers in the field Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu and Carrie Ryan, to name a few the book provides plenty of honestly earned chills.
It also raises a question: Why is the genre so popular? Two YA horror writers with Utah connections offer their insights, as well as talk about their own books. Courtney Alameda's novel "Shutter" features a teenage heroine named Micheline who, as a descendant of famed vampire hunter Van Helsing, is in the family business of slaying monsters. Set in the Bay Area, "Shutter" is an emotionally engaging, high-octane trip.
"This Monstrous Thing" by Mackenzi Lee is a stunning riff on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Part alternate history, part steampunk, part thriller and gothic horror, the novel invites readers to take another look at the classic story of a man-made man.
Why are readers attracted to the horror genre?
Alameda • Readers come to horror for myriad reasons, but I think, almost universally, the genre has the ability to remind us that we are alive in the most primal sense of the word. Though most people in the U.S. have little interaction with the wild, our primordial fight/flight responses still exist. The horror genre helps those responses to, if you will, get a little exercise in our modern, well-organized, comparatively safe society.
More personally, I came to horror partially because I found more women in the genre than in, say, high fantasy or contemporary thriller fiction. Women are integral to the horror genre: Think of Mary Shelley, who penned one of the earliest gothic horror novels, "Frankenstein," or Bram Stoker's inclusion of Mina Harker (née Murrray) as a main character in "Dracula"; trace that lineage all the way through Stephen King's "Carrie," Warrant Officer Ripley in Ridley Scott's "Alien" or the overwhelming presence of female-led survival horror video games, starting with "Resident Evil" in the late '90s.
In horror, women aren't damsels in distress; they're damsels armed with wits, grit and guts. And they have to betheir white knights usually die in the first act!
Lee • I think people enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from being scared but in a controlled way. Scared with no real danger attached to that fear being freaked out but knowing you aren't actually in any real danger is a lot of fun. I think literature is also an important way to explore the dark side of life without actually experiencing it. We live all things dark and light by proxy through the books we read.
Are there any differences between a horror novel written for a young-adult audience and the adult audience?
Alameda • There are, but differences are more structural and less contextual. I once heard a far wiser author, Mette Ivie Harrison, say (and I paraphrase here), "You have one chapter to introduce the main problem in a young-adult novel, and five in an adult."
Lee • I think the main differences come from the fact that you are writing about characters in different places in their lives, so fear is going to be elicited by different things. While there are a lot of things that are universally frightening for all ages, the experiences with fear and horror are going to be different for a teenage character than an adult one.
Who have your readers been? Any surprises on that front?
Alameda • I've been surprised by how young some of my readers have been! But perhaps I shouldn't be I was reading Michael Crichton at age 8 and Stephen King by 10, after all. In my experience, I've found that teens handle horror better than most adults do.
Lee • My favorite readers are the teens they're who I wrote the book for, and I love talking to them about the book and hearing their reactions to it. So much of YA is no longer read by teenagers, which is super cool, and I love that it's a genre that is transcending the age group because there are so many good books within it that can be enjoyed by any age. But I wrote the book for and about young adults, so they're always the readers I'm most delighted to hear from. The most surprising readers have been mom-and-daughter partnerships who read the book together. It delights me to no end, but I never really saw this book as a mother-daughter book club pick!
What inspired you to write your particular novel?
Alameda • All my ideas spring directly from the main characters themselves and grow as I follow the characters through their trials and terrors. For "Shutter," I saw a girl fighting a great luminescent ghost with a Nikon camera. The more I watched her in my head and the more I wrote of her on the page the clearer her story became.
Lee • My books never have a single "aha!" inception moment. Rather, they are most often comprised of many small things piling up over the years. In the case of "This Monstrous Thing," those things were:
1. Seeing a stage production of "Frankenstein" at the National Theater that changed my perspective on the novel (as well as dispelled a lot of the incorrect assumptions about it that pop culture had given me).
2. Hearing "Frankenstein" incorrectly categorized as a steampunk novel, which I knew was incorrect but got me thinking.
3. A trip I took to Switzerland, France and Germany at Christmastime.
4. A lifetime of being the older half of a pair of tight-knit siblings.
Writing a novel takes a long time. Did it ever become difficult to inhabit the dark world you created? If so, what did you do to counteract that?
Alameda • No. Writing horror helps me exorcise a lot of my own demons, especially anxiety. Horror has been a refuge and comfort since I was young. If that statement sounds contrary, think of this: As a genre, horror is famous for giving power to the powerless. Protagonists are usually quite ordinary they aren't disenfranchised royals, boy wizards or great warriors. Horror places ordinary people into extraordinary situations, teaching us life's terrors are survivable … usually.
Lee • The world of my book is an alternate history, but it's very much rooted in real history, and for me that's an exciting place to be. I majored in history in college, and it's been a lifelong passion for me. Researching a book is my Christmas it's like time traveling, except you still have antibiotics and Internet and all the things that would make actual time traveling the worst. For "This Monstrous Thing" I loved reading about Mary Shelley and the Romantics in Geneva and her astounding life, and I loved adding my own alternate-history tweaks to it. Living in the world of this book was so exciting to me I never saw it as a dark or scary place to be, though I definitely counteracted some of the heavy themes of the novel with multiple viewings of "Young Frankenstein."
What titles do you think readers of all ages would enjoy reading during the month of October?
Alameda • Children should read Neil Gaiman. I adore his "The Graveyard Book" but would recommend one read Kipling's "The Jungle Book" first. For teens, try Barry Lyga's "I Hunt Killers" or Rick Yancey's "The Monstrumologist" both of which explore the fine line between humanity and monstrosity in fascinating ways. Adults wishing to dip a toe into horror's waters can read Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" or a gothic novel like Bram Stoker's "Dracula." But adults wanting to cannonball into the genre should read Lauren Beukes' "Shining Girls" or Joe Hill's "Heart-Shaped Box," both of which are explosively creative, unapologetically frightening and compulsively readable books.
Lee • I love "Bones and All" by Camille DeAngelis, a very creepy, very feminist novel about cannibals in love. "Into the Grey" by Celine Kiernan is one of my favorite ghost stories, and "Girl From the Well" by Rin Chupeco is a great "Ring"-esque novel rooted in Japanese folklore that kept me up all night. And I would be amiss if I didn't recommend "Frankenstein" if you've never read the original novel, you need to re-evaluate your life choices. Also, "The Lady and Her Monsters" by Rosanne Montillo, which is a book about Mary Shelley and real-life Dr. Frankensteins through history, and "Devil in the White City" by Eric Larson, about Americas first serial killer. Both are very spooky nonfiction titles.