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Horror for Kids

One of the stories I'm writing this year is a horror/adventure that I'm hoping to aim toward the Young Adult market.  Or, to be more accurate, I'm writing a story like usual, but I'm making it a little bit shorter and I'm trying to keep it clean.  YA be damned - it's a book for anyone.

My goal is to put something together that hopefully captures the spirit of all the movies and stories that got me in the right mood for Halloween when I was a kid.  So, not "mortal terror," but definitely spooky.

The thing I remember best from my favorite kid-friendly stories - or at least kid-appealing, since some of that stuff wasn't actually kid-friendly (I'm looking at you, Monster Squad) - is that they all used horror as flavor rather than substance.  That's basically my definition of "Halloween Horror," anyway - there's a whole genre that's more in love with the idea of being scared than in actually scaring you.

So, obviously, I'm not trying to frighten kids so badly that they can't sleep ever again.  But on the other hand... if I can do something creepy, I don't want to miss the opportunity to scare the shit out of some unsuspecting ten year-old.  Which leads to my latest problem-that's-not-really-a-problem-but-I'll-pretend-it-is.  I'm not sure how much horror is going to be too much.

The main conceit of my story is nightmares.  As in, the protagonist can travel in and out of dreams, and in the process, a nightmare is unleashed that threatens her town.  Think Nightmare on Elm Street without the murder and gore.

There's a lot of fun to be had with this premise and I'm enjoying the brainstorming behind it so far.  I'm really digging the "one terrible weekend" vibe that goes with it, the rapid escalation and DIY quasi-kid-power response that the heroine and her friends have to come up with to save the day.  And I'm also not sure where to draw the boundary when she has to come face to face with the nightmare.

Part of me really wants to use that moment to punch as hard as I possibly can.  I want to throw in a nerve-shattering tonal shift that'll take the reader by surprise.  If this book became a hit at all with kids, I would absolutely love it if that sequence became one of those "holy shit" moments that scars the next generation.  The ghost librarian in Ghostbusters, the creepy boat ride from Willy Wonka, the carnivorous snakes from the Willy Wonka sequel, the illustrations from the Scary Stories trilogy... I'd be honored if my story joined that company.

But then I start second-guessing myself.  The thing about horror for kids, whether you're talking movies or books, high quality or low quality, is that it is expected on some level.  Ghostbusters is explicitly about ghosts.  Willy Wonka is a creep in general.  And Scary Stories tells you right on the cover that it's scary.

My book doesn't become a horror story for a long time.  And that's making it hard for me to tell where to draw the line.  To put it another way: this is a story that, for the first half or two-thirds, has the kind of energy and light-hearted sensibilities of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and then suddenly a shoggoth comes out and eats the pet ant.  Something tells me that's a bit much.

Thank goodness for first drafts.  I think I'm going to workshop this one a bit.  Maybe try my nieces as a focus group.