Fantasy is a worthy genre of literature for all children. It challenges the intellect, reveals, insights, stimulates the imagination, and nurtures the affective domain.
Donna E. Norton
Through the eyes of a child
Through the eyes of a child
Fantasy, science fiction and horror
Most children enjoy fantasy as a change from the here and now, or as a breathing space in the serious process of growing up.
Children and books
Children and books
This module discusses three closely related genres: fantasy, science fiction and horror.
Fantasy stories are tales of pure imagination. Instead of being rooted in the here and now, fantasy is clearly rooted in the imagination. Hillman explains the differences between fantasy and realistic fiction:
By definition, fantasy is more abstract than fiction. All fiction requires a suspension of disbelief to enter the time, place and circumstances that a author creates. However, fantasy pushes the boundaries of realism, as it invents and constructs metaphors for the real world. Fantasy demands more from readers – more attention, more suspension of disbelief, and more imagination. (130)Modern fantasy for children began with the ground-breaking book, Alice in Wonderland (Carroll, 1865). It was followed by several other noteworthy fantasy books including At the back of the north wind (MacDonald, 1871) and Peter Pan; or the boy who would not grow up (Barrie, 1903). The first American fantasy book written for children was The Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1900). The first Canadian children’s fantasy book was The Golden pine cone (Clark, 1950).
Authors create fantasy by altering one or more characteristics of everyday reality. When creating fantasy authors work with three key literary elements: setting, time and characters. How authors manipulate those elements is what distinguishes fantasy from realistic fiction:
- Setting: Settings vary widely in fantasy stories. They may be grounded in reality as is the setting for The Borrowers (Norton, 1953) is, or they may consist of parallel worlds, accessible to a chosen few, such as the lands of Narnia, in The Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis, 1950). Sometimes the setting is totally imaginary as in The Hobbit and The Lord of the ring (Tolkien, 1938). The richness of detail included in the descriptions of the setting are what set fantasy books apart from traditional folktales. Some authors, such as Tolkien, include maps to further extend the readers’ experience.
- Time: Time and setting are closely related. Characters in fantasy may go back in time, they may go ahead in time, or the story may take place in current time. Often protagonists are surprised to find out how little time has elapsed when they return to the real world.
- Characters: Characters in fantasy may include miniature humans (The Borrowers), humanized animals (The Wind in the willows, Graham, 1908), hobbits, dwarfs and wizards (The Hobbit, Lord of the rings) or totally fantastical such as the grinning Cheshire cat and the hookah smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. (For more information about the stereotyping of characters in fantasy, see Issue in Fantasy discussed at the end of this module.)
Fantasy is often divided into two main categories: low fantasy and high fantasy. The key difference between these two types of fantasy is the setting. In low fantasy, the setting is not fantastic. For example, the setting of The Wind in the willows is typical English countryside, including a river, meadows and even a mansion. What makes the story a fantasy is that the characters, who are all animals – Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger – all wear human clothing, live in human-like surroundings and have very human-like adventures.
High fantasy, on the other hand, is set in an imaginary world created by the author. The Hobbit, and The Lord of the rings, for instance, are set in Middle Earth, the imaginative creation of their author, J. R. R. Tolkien. Modern high fantasy evolved from the medieval romances of the 11th and 12th centuries. In high fantasy the created worlds forms the core of the story. Hillman explains –
They are close enough to the primary world to allow identification, yet far enough away to allow the creation of fantastic creatures and unlikely occurrences. (135)One other difference between the two types of fantasy centres around their themes. While works of high fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings, tend to deal with eternal issues such as the conflict between good and evil, works of low fantasy, such as The Wind in the Willows, discuss more “homely” issues, such as how to control an impulsive friend.
Beyond these two basic categories for fantasy, commentators on children’s literature have divided this genre into several subcategories. Here are the categories that appeal to intermediate and young adult readers:
- Articulate animals: Characters are animals who display a balance between animal and human characteristics. Readers may strongly identify with the animal characters. Stories that feature articulate animals include The Jungle book (Kipling, 1894) and Catwings and its sequel, Catwings return (LeGuin, 1988, 1989), and Silverwing (1997) by Canadian author, Kenneth Oppell.
- Strange and curious worlds: Imagine a fantasy world peopled with talking white rabbits and playing cards or boys who never grow old and spend their time fighting a pirate with a hook for a hand. Examples of strange and curious worlds include Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
- Little people: Building upon our age-old fascination with “wee folk”, these stories feature creatures such as trolls, gnomes and fairies. Sometimes, the characters are humans – but in miniature. Examples of little people stories include The Borrowers series, and The Secret world of Ogg (Berton, 1961).
- Peculiar characters: Imagine a nanny who uses her umbrella to fly, or a mouse who can ride a motorcycle. Books that feature peculiar characters include Mary Poppins (Travers, 1934) and The Mouse and the motorcycle (Cleary, 1965).
The appeal of fantasy for both intermediate and young adult readers is two fold. First, the lure of a good story, well told, is strong. Most fantasies contain an ample dose of action and suspense. Because the stories are frequently set in imaginary worlds, they don’t become dated as realistic fiction does.
Second, are the deeper qualities to fantasy – qualities that children may not even notice. In order to enjoy fantasy, children don’t need to know that they may be reading a story that is as old as humankind – the struggle between good and evil. As adults we need to let them simply enjoy the story and the characters.
Themes in fantasy
Themes in fantasy are as varied as the literature itself. As noted previously, high fantasy often revolves around the fight between good and evil. Authors of high fantasy often draw upon older sources for their inspiration. For example, The Prydian chronicles (Alexander, 1964) contain many references to Welsh mythology; The Chronicles of Narnia are a Christian allegory, and The Dark is rising (Cooper, 1966) series contain many references to the legends surrounding King Arthur.
Low fantasy may explore themes found in other types of literature for children. Silverwing, the story of two bats and their quest, explores the theme of survival.
More information about the motifs found in fantasy literature is contained in Appendix B, “Six Basic Fantasy Motifs”.
Even though they may take their readers into wild and imaginative lands, or introduce them to weird and wonderful characters, fantasy authors are not exempt from following the standards of good writing. As with all types of fiction, well written fantasy will contain believable and interesting characters, authentic settings and well developed plots. But fantasy has special evaluation criteria as well: centering on the elements of fantasy and how the author uses them. The fantastic elements, be they characters or setting, must be believable and central to the core of the story.
The key to a well written fantasy is the author’s use of logic, consistency and believability. Authors of fantasy may ask readers to suspend their disbelief and enter into a world of make-believe. Therefore, it is critical that the reader believes in the fantasy and can understand and enjoy it. Logic, consistency and believability runs through the major elements of a fantasy story, setting, plot and characters:
- Logic, consistency and believability in setting: In high fantasy, the author presents the reader with a created world. Even a created world must have rules and the author must ensure that those rules are followed consistently throughout the entire story. In low fantasy, which takes place in the real world, enough details must be provided to make the story seem believable.
- Logic, consistency and believability in plot: High fantasy is often centred around a difficult and dangerous quest. Readers are often encouraged to cheer for the hero, even when the quest seems doomed. In both high and low fantasy, characters’ actions must always be consistent with their personalities and lead to further developments in the plot.
- Logic, consistency and believability in characters: Fantasy is full of many wonderful characters: dragons, wizards, and little people, to name a few. All characters, no matter how fantastic, must be believable and behave in a consistent and logic fashion. Glazer notes –
The best characters in fantasy remain humanlike, even when cloaked in animal identities, flung into weird lands, or placed under magical spells. They are fearful when readers would be afraid. They are unpredictable up to a point, just like real people. (382)More tips on evaluating modern fantasy may be found in Appendix A, “Evaluating Modern Fantasy”.
The Value of fantasy
Reading fantasy literature gives children new ways to look at old problems and help children deal with their lives. Fantasy encourages the use of imagination: by daring to imagine and dream along with the story, children are empowered to solve their own problems.
Sutherland sums up the value of fantasy:
Fantasy helps children understand reality even as it provides them with a flight into other worlds that are incredible, exciting and satisfying. (259)The best of fantasy literature for children explains how things are, but it also lets readers explore how things might be.
Issues in fantasy
Modern fantasy is not without controversy. The portrayal of minority groups within this genre is sometimes problematic.
A case in point is the very popular book, The Indian in the cupboard, and its sequels (Banks, 1980). The first in the series, The Indian in the cupboard, focuses on a young boy, Omri, who puts a small plastic Indian inside a magic cupboard. The Indian, Little Bear, is magically brought to life and is portrayed as savage and naive. He speaks in a sort of pidgin English.
“Little Bear not lie. Great hunter. Great fighter.”Throughout the book, Little Bear contains to speak in subhuman grunts and partial sentences. In addition, many of the details used to describe Little Bear are inaccurate and perpetuate stereotypes about Indian people. For example, Little Bear is described as an Iroquois fighter, but he is dressed more like a movie version of a generic Plains Indian chief. He is given detailed knowledge of Plains tipi decoration although the Iroquois lived in long houses.
“Any white scalps?” Omri ventured to ask.
“Some. French. Not take English scalps. Englishmen friend to Iroquois. Help Indian fight Algonquin enemy.” (Banks, 33)
A further problem with the novel is Omri’s treatment of Little Bear throughout the story:
Omri may be learning to respect Little Bear as a human being; he himself is learning how to behave as adults do toward children. Unfortunately, his nascent paternalism is directed at an adult from another culture whom he perceives as parents often perceive their children. (Stott, 17)Stott also points out that although Omri behaves in a benevolent fashion towards Little Bear – he provides him with food, shelter, a wife and medical aid – the boy is clearly in control. His behaviour vividly demonstrates the characteristics of an imperialistic control of a subject people:
At a time when Native peoples are rediscovering their traditions, developing a pride in their cultural beliefs and achievements, and struggling to achieve the dignity of self-government and economic independence The Indian in the cupboard transmits unacceptable viewpoints and messages to young and Native readers alike. (18)All of this is not to say that The Indian in the cupboard and its sequels should be removed from the library’s shelves. Understanding that this series reinforces many negative stereotypes about native people and also contains many factual errors gives those who work with children the tools to discuss the books in a more informed way.
More information about how to deal with controversial books may be found in the Censorship module.
Defining science fiction
This is a genre that is changeable, multilayered, rich in variety, frequently represented by works that are intellectually challenging to read.
To boldly go ... science fiction a personal odyssey
Mosaics of Meaning
To boldly go ... science fiction a personal odyssey
Mosaics of Meaning
Originally, works of science fiction were based on scientific fact. However, not everyone agrees about a clear cut distinction between modern science fiction and fantasy. Authors may write in both genres and the lines between the two types of fiction have become increasingly blurred.
Jacobs and Tunnel offer this explanation:
Jacobs and Tunnel offer this explanation:
The magic of fantasy is unexplainable; it is just there, without source or reason. But the magic of science fiction is an extrapolation of science fact, rooted in scientific possibilities and how those possibilities may affect societies of human or alien beings, or both. (83)Frankenstein (Shelley, 1817) is considered to be the first science fiction novel. Written to entertain a group of friends who included the poets Lord Byron and Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley, the book explores the nature of the creation of life, as a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, creates a human being. Although the book is still read today, it has been superseded by the famous Universal movie (1931). The image of Boris Karloff playing the monster is truly part of our popular culture.
Other early writers of science fiction included Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea (1870) is clearly a classic: readers can follow the journeys of the demented Captain Nemo as he pilots his submarine through the ocean. H. G. Wells’ War of the worlds (1898) was the basis for the famous broadcast by Orson Welles on October 30, 1938, that panicked much of the eastern United States.
These books were intended for an adult audience although children did read them. They were not considered science fiction; the term was not coined until 1926 when it appeared in the first issue of Amazing stories (Egoff, 274).
Science fiction continued to appear mostly in magazines until the 1960’s. During this decade an increasing number of authors began to write both novels and short stories in this genre: some specifically for young readers. Science fiction truly became part of popular culture with the success of the movie 2001: a space odyssey (1968) based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke. The continuing popularity of the television series, Star Trek, attests to science fiction’s influence in popular culture. Paper back novelizations or series books that extend movies such as Star wars and Jurassic Park continue to be popular with young people.
Appeal of science fiction
Science fiction allows the reader to see other worlds, their inhabitants and to ponder challenging questions:
Which is superior, human or machine? Does it matter how one is created? Are sophisticated robots truly alive? Might the computer, the thinking machine, pose serious threats to human beings and their lives? (Lukens, 22)But on an even more basic level, science fiction appeals because “it is exciting.” (Donelson and Nilsen, 171) Although Buck Rogers has been left behind, the appeal of modern science fiction still centres on the thrill of the adventure. Furthermore, according to Donelson and Nilsen, science fiction writers don’t write down to their audiences:
Science fiction allows anyone to read imaginative fiction without feeling that the material is kid stuff. (170)The characters in science fiction appeal as well; true heroes can still be found in this genre:
Science fiction presents real heroes to readers who find their own world often devoid of anyone worth admiring, of heroes doing something brave, going to the ultimate frontiers, even pushing these frontiers further back, all important at a time when many young people wonder if any new frontiers exist. (170)Science fiction holds a special appeal for teens:
At a time when teenagers are questioning who they are, what life is about, what their place in it is, and what the future will be like, they are presented with a body of work that assures them of a future completely different from present experience. (Kunzel, 384)Furthermore, even if the teen reader encounters familiar themes such as coming of age, fitting in, being accepted, the “trappings will be different, far-flung and fanciful as the minds of the author and receptive reader can make them.” (384) And many teens enjoy the encounters with the strange, the weird and the truly bizarre that they find in science fiction.
Kunzel, a devoted science fiction fan, explains its appeal:
I read initially for the “Wow” effect, but I kept on reading and enjoying science fiction because I loved having reality shaken up, opening a door and stepping into an entirely new universe, going for a spaceship ride and investigating new worlds ... that became more real than what we experience while awake. (398)
Themes in science fiction
Science fiction poses possibilities. And while those possibilities may not always be positive, the reader of science fiction is encouraged to speculate, to answer the question: “What if...?”
Actual themes in science fiction vary widely. Many moral questions and social issues are explored in this literature. The nature of human relationships is an often repeated theme. Conflict – with other humans, aliens or the environment – frequently forms the basis for the plots.
There are many categories for science fiction: in Teen genreflecting, Herald lists books for 14 different categories. Much of contemporary science fiction has lost its true scientific bent, since most of the writers, especially those who write for young readers are not scientists. (Egoff, 273)
Here is a summary of the characteristics of five major science fiction categories that appeal to both intermediate and teen readers:
- Adventure: As noted above, adventure forms the basic appeal of most science fiction. Adventures may be wild and wooly; heroes zip across galaxies and battle strange alien creatures, sometimes even finding romance along the way. Adventure based science fiction will keep the reader turning the pages of the story, but there is often a deeper sociological or environmental theme found in these stories. Adventure science fiction may be cautionary: warning the reader about some predicted disaster, or it may be a survival tale: pitting the protagonist against an alien antagonist.
- Time travel: Travelling backward or forward in time has been a recurring theme in science fiction since H. G. Wells wrote The Time machine (1895). As human beings we are fascinated with the thought of traveling backwards in time and the resulting consequences: will the protagonist’s actions change the future course of events? We also all speculate about what the future holds for humanity and the small planet we inhabit.
- Space travel: Although now a reality, the idea of space travel continues to fascinate. Space travel offers the reader stories with “the right stuff” who still push the boundaries of our imaginations as they travel through universes, known and unknown.
- Cyberpunk: As computer technology continues to dominate our lives, some wonder where it will all end. Cyberpunk first appeared in the novel, Neuromancer, written by Canadian William Gibson (1984). The book explores a dark future with a society devoted to getting high on alcohol and drugs, except for “Cowboys” who get their high from linking themselves to computers.
- Utopias and dystopias: One of the oldest forms of literature in the Western World, utopian literature combines elements of both fantasy and science fiction. Utopian literature often reflects authors’ personal beliefs about their own society. The first utopian novel, The Republic, was written by Plato in the 5th century B.C. Another work important to the development of utopian literature was Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). In the late 1800s peoples’ real-life attempts to form utopian societies were reflected in a number of popular utopian novels: Erewhon (Butler, 1872), Looking backward (Bellamy, 1888) are two key examples.
Dystopias are more dramatic and exaggerated than their counterparts and for that reason are more successful in attracting young adults. Dystopias warn us of society’s drift toward a particularly horrifying or sick world lying just over the horizon. (181)Brave new world (Huxley, 1932), Animal farm (Orwell, 1954) and Nineteen eighty-four (Orwell, 1940) are early examples of dystopian literature. Still read today, these books are “part prophecy, part warning.” (181) Two modern classics are The Giver (Lowry, 1993) which presents a future society which appears perfect, but only on the surface, and Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s tale (1985) which shows the reader a sexually repressed society that appears after a holocaust in North America.
Donelson and Nilsen point out that dystopian literature will not appeal to every teen: it requires “more thoughtful and intellectual” (180) readers to fully appreciate all the subtleties.
Evaluating science fiction
When evaluating science fiction look for the same literary elements as fantasy. Characters should be well defined and believable, settings must seem plausible and plots need to be fast paced and interesting. Where science fiction differs from fantasy, however, is in the details and the plotting: “the details contain many scientific truths and possibilities, while the conflict and solution rely on scientific content.” (Rothlein and Meinbach, 47) In order to achieve credibility in science fiction, the author must create a world where science underlies every aspect of society.The Value of science fiction
Science fiction opens the readers’ minds to many different possibilities. Readers can speculate about the future by imagining, along with the author, that certain events or conditions actually exist. Science fiction readers are exposed to both more questions and social issues:
Science fiction challenges children to believe and confirm that they can achieve anything their minds conceive. It enables them to evaluate how they might live their lives and what types of changes would have to be made and helps them come to terms with moral and ethical issues.
(Rothlein and Meinbach, 48)
In short, the reading of science fiction stretches the imagination.
Issues in science fiction
As with other forms of genre fiction, there is some hack writing in science fiction. And while a few ill-written books never hurt any reader, try to guide younger readers towards the better authors in this genre. Both Teen genreflecting and Genreflecting (1995) offer lists of suggested books. It’s also useful to keep an eye on award winners when looking for well written science fiction.
A second consideration is that science fiction readers do not always choose “age appropriate” books. Teen readers may move back and forth between science fiction written for young adults and that intended for an older audience. In reading contemporary adult science fiction they may find strong language, and explicit sexual references. “Sex in science fiction – be aware – it may be there” says Kunzel (416). Although most science fiction written for younger readers does not contain mature themes, there is a growing trend to include this sort of material in books for young adults.
Furthermore, some adults may be uncomfortable with some of the themes discussed in science fiction. But as Kunzel points out these issues are handled differently in science fiction:
One of the truly remarkable things about science fiction is the fact that there is such universal and wide-ranging acceptance of issues that might be controversial in another format. In novels written both for an adult and a young adult audience, the complexity of thought and the unique vision an unusual ideas are in the forefront, with controversial issues relegate to a position that is subservient to the progress of the story. (416)Science fiction is highly valued for its ability to discuss thought provoking issues in an interesting way.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
H. P. Lovecraft
Horror fiction is the most controversial form of genre fiction written for intermediate and young adult readers. Filled with vampires, psychopathic killers and incestuous families, horror fiction continues to fascinate young readers and appal many adults.
Horror fiction has one purpose: to scare the reader. Horror author Graham Materson says, “Fear is the prime ingredient of all successful horror novels.” He continues, “If you succeed in making your readers sleep with their bedside lights on, then you’ve achieved something special.” (15)
Defining horror: shock vs terror
Those who come to horror fiction for the first time need to distinguish between shock and terror. Shock is a visceral experience. It comes from sensory overload. For example, we scream in terror at the first sight of the shark in the movie, Jaws. But we also recover quickly from the shock and then look for more.
Terror, on the other hand, is a more lasting emotion. It is that creepy feeling that gets under our skin and stays with us. Terror scares us, but it also disturbs us. Terror is the memory of a book or movie that stays with us for a very long time.
Great fiction is rarely about shock, but rather more lasting emotions; it digs beneath our skin and stays with us. (Williamson, 160)For those adults who don’t read horror, its appeal to younger readers can be hard to understand. Furthermore, horror is often read by those younger readers who wouldn’t dream of reading any other fiction. The most common reason given for reading horror is the plot: “You can’t put a horror book down,” is heard over and over again.
Another reason for horror’s appeal is that many teen readers delight in being scared:
Horror scares us, and the relief following the realization that the horror is not real brings pleasure. Horror is fun because it is scary and shocking. Not only does it scare and shock those of us who re ad horror, but it has the added value of scaring and shocking those who wonder how anyone could read the stuff in the first place. It is especially fun, of course, to shock those in authority, such as parents, teachers and librarians. (Kies 1-2)Klause also points out that sometimes teens identify with the monster in the horror story they are reading, but sometimes they also identify with the victim. Both represent roles that teens play in our contemporary society.
As a writer of vampire stories, Klause understands their particular appeal. Boys find the stories to be a source of power while girls find that the stories allow them to safely indulge in an otherwise taboo activity. (Klause’s article, “Why Vampires?” is included as Appendix C at the end of this module.)
Themes in horror fiction
Teen Genreflecting lists ten different subgenres for horror: everything from the occult and supernatural to werewolves, vampires, medical horror and splatter punk.
The most prevalent theme in horror fiction is a story that is as old as the human race: the fundamental struggle between good and evil. The most common reaction to that struggle is fear and horror fiction plays upon readers’ fear of the dark, monsters, ghosts, witches or whatever horror the writer can create.
The challenge faced by modern horror writers lies in creating new fears or taking the old ones and presenting them in a new way. Many of the old monsters, such as werewolves and vampires, have lost their ability to scare us. A good horror villain is one that “evoke[s] pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy, as well as terror.” (Williamson, 63) A quick survey of contemporary horror shows some new late twentieth century fears such as incest and child abuse (V.C. Andrews). Terror can even be found in such everyday objects as cars and dogs (Stephen King).
The criteria that is used to evaluate other kinds of fiction may also be applied to horror. Four literary elements are especially important in this genre: plot, characters, setting, and theme.
- Plot: Horror writers, like other storytellers, need to tell a good tale. Attention should be paid to beginnings: characters are introduced, the setting is described and the conflict is set in motion. The heart of horror lies in the explanation – or lack of it – given by the author for the horror contained within the story. Traditionally, authors have had several choices: they can explain away their story by saying it was all a dream, perhaps induced by over indulgence in alcohol or drugs. They can attribute the story to the ravings of a madman. They can tell us it was all a prearranged trick. Or, by providing no explanation, authors of horror fiction can convince the reader that the story really happen.Douglas E. Winter supports the latter way of telling a story:
...today, explanation, whether supernatural or rational, is simply not the business of horror fiction. One source of horror’s popularity is that its questions are unanswerable.
- Characters: An equally important premise in horror fiction is that the reader must identify with the characters in the story. As noted above, some readers will identify with the monster, some will identify with the victim. That identification is key: good horror involves the reader in the story. Human characters need to be believable and their motivation must also make sense. The monster or the threat contained within the story must also be believable. Writers may choose to break some of the conventions surrounding a monster. For examples, the vampires created by Anne Rice, do not succumb to usual vampire threats such as garlic. Making her vampires immune to the usual dangers allows Rice to explore the idea of immortality in her books.
- Settings: As with other types of fiction, setting in horror fiction contributes to the mood of the story. Often horror has a contemporary setting, making terror seem even more real. Do vampires really walk among us? Sometimes the setting may be a remote or unusual location: back country woods and small, isolated rural communities are popular. Placing characters in this type of setting means that they are removed from easy access for help. However, the author must take care not to overdo the Gothic aspects of the setting as that will take away from the credibility of the story.
- Themes: Horror is all about the struggle between good and evil and the emotions that conflict calls up in the reader. As noted above, contemporary horror writers face a particular challenge as the old monsters don’t scare us any more. But the heart of horror fiction hasn’t changed –
[the horror] author exerts the power of maker and creator to produce new fears (or old fears in startling new forms) on the page. The writer is able to discover fears in characters which are almost unrecognizable in their shape and color, yet they still have the power to move to terrify us.
The Value of horror fiction
The value of horror fiction lies in its ability to hook non readers. Young people who would never dream of opening a book will eagerly consume horror. Alert library staff can gently suggest other genres – such as mystery and suspense or adventure, that a young horror reader might enjoy. To combat the seemingly endless tide of R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike books a few years ago, many different organizations produced lists of alternatives (see Appendix D).
In addition, horror fiction may act as a safety valve for some of its readers. By confronting their own fears – within the confines of a book – the readers of horror fiction are better able to deal with them. Horror fiction encourages experimentation – but in a safe way.
Finally, well written horror touches its readers:
[horror] thrusts below the surface to touch the subterranean depths that lie within us all. It strives to bypass the representational, the mundane, the “reality” of the four senses. Instead, its quest is to awaken that which was hidden and secret: wonder, passion, astonishment, primeval dread.
Issues in horror fiction
Bad taste is the complaint most often levelled at horror fiction. Again, we turn to the definitions of shock and terror discussed at the beginning of this module. For horror writers, shock is easy to achieve. The difficulty is that readers demand more – authors have to “up the ante” each time to get the same reaction from their readers. Terror, however, is not that easily achieved. It depends on building a relationship between the author and the reader. The writer who spells it all out – to every last gruesome detail – simply ends up boring his/her readers. Horror writer, Graham Materson, advises those interested in writing horror to
Choose your words carefully when describing scenes of horror. The more matter-of-fact you are in your language and your treatment, the more goosebumps you can raise on your readers’ skin with being tasteless. (18)
Skilled horror writers understand the difference between shock and terror and focus on achieving the latter in their stories.
Many critics of horror fiction are also genuinely concerned about the lack of moral values in much contemporary horror. Traditionally, in horror the “good side” has won. Evil is vanquished for another day. But, as we near the end of the 20th century, it seems that evil is winning more than it is losing. Combine that theme with lots of blood and gore and you have a subgenre of horror called splatterpunk.
Difficult to describe precisely, splatterpunk emerged in the 1980’s. Fuelled by Vietnam, rock and roll, and the horror movies of the 70’s, splatterpunk was a direct reaction to the conventions of traditional horror. Splatterpunk is noted for its portrayals of contemporary society:
It is a harsh, gritty, urban scene full of weird punk people involved in unsavoury activities. Music, drink, and drugs are often found in splatterpunk, and sexual morality of any sort is missing. The protagonists are usually young – some are teenagers – groping for sense in a modern world gone mad. Even the most sheltered reader cannot deny that the world has changed and that splatterpunk may well be no worse than a reality we may not want to fear. (Kies, 139)Splatterpunk continues to attract attention: while some older, established horror writers decrie its excesses, others see it as a healthy trend within an established genre. By pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable within horror fiction, writers of splatterpunk continue to attract new readers to horror fiction.
Splatterpunk is a target for one common criticism of horror fiction: its lack of humanity:
The best of horror fiction contains chills and frights, but it’s not constructed around a scream but rather around a solid core of human experience. (Williamson, 69)Horror fiction continues to be about the human experience. The best of horror fiction encourages the reader to identify with the characters, to believe in their world, and to experience their hopes and fears.
Banks, Lynne Reid. The Indian in the cupboard. New York: Avon Books, 1980.
Donelson, Kenneth L. And Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for today’s young adults. 5th edition. New York: Longman, 1997.
Egoff, Shelia and Judith Saltman. The New republic of childhood. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Glazer, Joan I. Introduction to children’s literature. Upper Saddle River: Merrill, 1997.
Herald, Diana Trixier. Teen genreflecting. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1997.
Hillman, Judith. Discovering children’s literature. Englewood Cliffs: Merrill, 1995.
Jacobs, James S. And Michael O. Tunnell. Children’s literature briefly. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1996.
Kies, Cosette. Presenting young adult horror fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Lukens, Rebecca. A Critical handbook of children’s literature. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Masterson, Graham. “Horror of horrors,” The Writer. August 1987, 15 – 18, 45.
Rothlein, Liz and Anita Meyer Meinbach. Legacies using children’s literature in the classroom. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Stott, John C. Native Americans in children’s literature. Arizona: Onyx Press, 1995.
Sutherland, Zena. Children and books. 9th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.
Vandergrift, Kay E. Mosaics of meaning: enhancing the intellectual life of young adults through story. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 1996.
Williamson, J. N. ed. How to write tales of horror, fantasy & science fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1987.
Appendix A: Evaluating modern fantasy
This excerpt from Discovering children’s literature provides criteria for developing a personal response to modern fantasy.
|Subgenre||My personal response|
|Animal fantasy||How believable are the anthropomorphic animals? |
Which animal characteristics do they retain while adding human ones?
|High fantasy||Is the main character heroic enough? |
How believable is the secondary world?
Is the quest dramatic and purposeful?
What philosophical truths underline the heroic quest?
|Time fantasy||Is the passage between times convincing?If two time periods are shown (e.g. historical and modern), are they both authentic? |
Are characters compelling and the plot well paced?
|Science-fiction fantasy||Does the technology seem contrived? |
What does the human dimension add?
in what way does the story raise questions about the future?
|Extraordinary characters and inventions||Are characters stereotypical? |
How plausible is the relationship between extraordinary and ordinary?
Appendix B: The Six basic motifs of fantasy
This excerpt from Children’s literature briefly discusses the six basic motifs that are found in fantasy literature.
Even though all modern fantasy stories contain some sort of magical element, some stories will have a higher fantasy quotient than others. Madsen (1976) determined that there are six basic fantasy motifs, and if a story contains all six it is either a classic fairy tale or an example of modern high fantasy. However, if a story contains but one of the following motifs, it certainly is still classified as fantasy literature:
- Magic. Magic is fantasy literature’s most basic element and is often a part of the setting, thus explaining otherwise unexplainable events. In Lloyd Alexander’s The High King, magic is evident in the very fabric of the mythical land of Prydain. Powerful wizards are able to harness the magic in Prydain’s atmosphere, an oracular pig can foretell the future, and people try to use magical objects to manipulate their destinies. However, in White’s Charlotte’s web the only hint of magic is the ability of the barnyard animals to think and speak like humans. In fact, this is the only of the six motifs that appears in the book.
- Other worlds (secondary worlds). In much of fantasy a special geography or universe is established, a place wherein magic may freely operate. Sometimes these worlds are, as in the fairy tales, simply long, long ago. Of course, Alexander’s Prydain is just this sort of “other world,” almost recognizable as the world we know but with a difference set of governing rules. Other well-known fantasy worlds include the land of Oz (The Wonderful wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum), Middle Earth (The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien), Narnia (The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe by C. S. Lewis), and Neverland (Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie).
- Good versus evil. The age-old theme of good versus evil is what myth is all about, and modern fantasy stories have a strong mythological base. “Fantasies are concerned with how good and evil manifest themselves in individuals” (Madsen 1976, p. 49). This basic theme, of course, gives rise to the conflict in a story, and, once again, without conflict, there is no story. Fantasy readers usually have no trouble aligning characters on the sides of light and dark, as fantasy characters are typically not fence sitters.
- Heroism. Natalie Babbit (1987), drawing upon the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell, explains that the hero’s quest will always follow an age-old pattern that is the backbone of today’s fantasy stories. This “hero’s round” is a circular journey, ending where it began, and is a time-honored template for fantasy stories. These six elements, drawn from Babbit (1987), most commonly structure the hero’s quest:
- The hero is called to adventure by some sort of herald. Taran in Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles is lured to adventure by Hen Wen, a magical pig whom he follows on a wild chase much the same way Alice follows the white rabbit (Alice’s adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll). Heralds from other stories include Gandalf (The Hobbit), Toto (The Wonderful wizard of Oz), and Mr. Tumnus (The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe).
- The hero crosses the threshold into the “other world” or into a place that is no longer safe and secure. The hero leaves a place of relative safety and enters a world of danger. Sometimes he or she will pass from the familiar modern world into a forbidding secondary world, as when the children pass through the magical wardrobe into the land of Narnia (The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe) or Dorothy is whisked from Kansas to Oz (The Wonderful wizard of Oz). In some stories, the hero already lives in an imaginary kingdom, as Bilbo Baggins does in The Hobbit, and is compelled to leave hearth and home to undertake a perilous journey.
- The hero must survive various trials in his new environment. Heroes often face both physical hardship and emotional setbacks. They may suffer the pain of long treks through bitter winter weather or the pain of having dear friends relinquish their lives for a noble cause. They will likely be driven to examine their own hearts. The quest becomes the hero’s refining fire.
- The hero is assisted by a protective figure. Protective figures provide a sense of security in a tension-filled world. Older, wiser, and sometimes more powerful, the protective figure may serve as the hero’s mentor. Readers will identify Dallben (The Prydain Chronicles), Gandalf (The Hobbit), Glinda the good witch of the North (The Wonderful wizard of Oz), and Aslan (The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe) as protective figures.
- The hero matures, becoming a “whole” person. Did Edmund change in The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe? How about Dorothy in The Wonderful wizard of Oz? Both of these characters matured significantly during the course of their quests. Taran from the Prydain books grows from a foolish boy to a man worthy of ascending to the High Kingship of Prydain. The hero motif involves the age-old rites of passage theme wherein the young are initiated into the ranks of adulthood.
- The hero returns home. This step completes the “hero’s round”. In each Prydain book, Taran returns to his home on Dallben’s farm, and then symbolically finds “home” when he discovers his true destiny in the final book, The High king. In the high fantasy novels discussed in this section, all the young heroes return home as their quests draw to an end.
- Special character types. Fantasies may include characters who either come from our legendary past or from an author’s vivid imagination. These characters are rarely typical humans. Characters from our legendary past come from traditional tales: fairies, pixies, giants, wicked witches, ogres, vampires, wizards, dwarves, elves, and so on. Some special character types created in recent years by fantasy authors have become almost as well-known, such as Tolkien’s hobbits and orcs, which appear in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Some books operate strongly in only one of these six motifs, like The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and White’s Charlotte’s web where talking animals qualify as “magic”. On the other hand, Baum’s The Wonderful wizard of Oz operates in all six of the motifs and is thus classified as a high fantasy.
- Fantastic objects. Characters in fantasy stories often employ magical props in accomplishing their heroic or evil deeds. These objects are imbued with power, such as magic cloaks, swords, staffs, cauldrons, and mirrors. Some well-known props are Dorothy’s pearl slippers (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), the White Witch’s wand (The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe), and the dreadful ring that falls into Bilbo’s hands (The Hobbit).