As summer draws to a close, my young friends are passing the time (and in some instances, getting ready for September) by doing some reading. Many, if not most schools now give their students summer reading lists. I find that admirable, because as a reader myself I understand that, as much as you may enjoy books, there are so many things in this world to distract you, and reading, like any other pastime, can require dedication and practice. It's much easier to come home from working all day and slump in front of the television, becoming a passive receptor. Anything that keeps reading at the forefront of people's minds, pushing out thoughts of IPhones and Xboxes, is a worthy endeavor.
Naturally, being an admirer of the Dark Fantastic and our rich genre, I'm particularly heartened when young people turn their interests in that direction. Recently a dear companion posted a wonderful update online concerning her son's recent activities:
Words cannot express the joy in my heart at coming downstairs this morning to find my 5-year old reading Frankenstein to himself. Love for the classics has begun!... I asked Ryan what he thought of Frankenstein and what part he liked best, and he said (with a big grin), "Awesome! I liked the part when Victor created Frankenstein!" I didn't bother to tell him that the monster isn't actually named Frankenstein, since most of the adults I know don't really know that, either.
My admiration for this young man's tastes are amplified when you consider that, as a novel, “Frankenstein” is quite subtle and philosophical, lacking the upfront Horror that you'll find in the films. It's filled with a great deal of dialogue, and much of it is of a spiritual nature. Granted, there are some moments of genuine shock and terror – the creation of both creatures come immediately to mind – but on the whole, the novel is of a much quieter, more cerebral terror than, say, “Dracula” or “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” .
In Bram Stoker's sure hands , “Dracula” contains many scenes of visceral action and bloodshed – Dracula's crawl down his castle wall, the destruction of Lucy, the confrontation with the Count in Mina's bedroom – that hammer the reader with pure adrenaline. “Dracula” is, in both length and style, huge and operatic, with its fears displayed openly.
“Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” is almost a police procedural, lean, stark and fascinating. It draws you in deeper to the mystery of Jekyll's strange companion and their blood connection, and the tension tightens as the narrative works its way to the grim conclusion. It also contains moments of blatant fear, most notably the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, but its stylishness carries much of it. Stephen King compares the narrative to the ticking of a fine Swiss watch, and believes “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” the best of the three novels. (I myself still have great affection and admiration for the larger and, yes, gaudier “Dracula” .)
So when I mention my admiration and pride at young Ryan's choice of material, I speak sincerely. It's not an easy book to read, but perhaps that challenge makes it more rewarding; certainly the mythic elements are there from the films, captured and displayed imaginatively in its shades of guilt, accusations and vengeance.
Not long after I saw that posting I read another by my friend Mark Redfield, a superb painter, actor, writer and director of both stage and screen. (Ironically, one of his favorite movies of mine, and in my opinion one of the best adaptations of the novel ever filmed, was his version of DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE .)
Mr. Redfield's niece had developed an interest in the work of Stephen King, and asked her uncle which books she should start with. Being twelve and at an impressionable age, Mr. Redfield wanted suggestions on which of Mr. King's work would be age appropriate, without being too horrifying or adult in nature and language.
Many made very good suggestions, from “Carrie” to the short story collection “Night Shift” as well as the more monumental-lengthed “'Salem's Lot” . My own suggestion, along with agreeing that the “Night Shift” stories would be wonderful, was the short novel “Cycle of the Werewolf” , a somewhat atypical book from Mr. King.
The novel's history is as unique as the finished work. It was originally planned as a calendar, with artist Berni Wrightson doing the illustrations and Mr. King writing a few short paragraphs of “story” for each month. This proved to be unsatisfying for Mr. King, so he simply wrote the story as a (very) short novel which Mr. Wrightson then illustrated.
Because Mr. King isn't necessarily known for his brevity (consider the lengths of “The Stand”, “'Salem's Lot”, “It” and “Insomnia” ) many consider “Cycle of the Werewolf” almost an afterthought. Yet the book contains many of Mr. King's trademarks: a small town beset by a terrible supernatural force, secrets hidden among the residents of the town that prove as devastating and threatening (alcoholism, family brutality) as any outside force, two young children that discover the source of the menace and find themselves disbelieved, and the almost random violence that comes without reason or sense.
The opening sentence sets the tone perfectly: "Something inhuman has come to Tarker's Mills, as unseen as the full moon riding the night sky high above. It is the Werewolf, and there is no more reason for its coming now than there would be for the arrival of cancer, or a psychotic with murder on his mind, or a killer tornado." With short, sharp characterizations and scenes, “Cycle of the Werewolf” almost seems to me like a Stephen King Young Adult novel, and I think it's a great place to begin a young person's relationship with the Master of the Macabre.
(I also recommend “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” , another novel that reminds me of a YA book with its youthful protagonist and its mounting suspense of naturalistic Horror. I urge you to find it and enjoy!)
Naturally, it fills my ectoplasmic heart with happiness and excitement when someone decides to explore the rich history and variety of our beloved field. After all, the genre is wide enough to include authors, filmmakers and dramatists of every style; Hitchcock, Kubrick, Dickens, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Albee, Genet, and many, many others have found the Dark Fantastic ripe material for their inspiration, and an appreciation of Horror and Terror as a narrative device or theme widens one's perspective's.
So the question for many of us more mature in years is, how do we go about introducing our children to, as authors John Skipp and Craig Spector referred to it, Death's Rich Pagent?
First, let's begin by admitting that it's perfectly fine to frighten young ones.
Many parents, all well-meaning to some degree, take a firm stand against Horror and the Dark Fantastic. “I don't want my children frightened”, they proclaim, and their reasons are usually the following: “the world around them is frightening enough and I don't want to add to it”, “Dark Fantasy is an emphasis on the morbid and horrific, and I want them to be well-rounded”, and, most telling, “I want my children to grow up feeling safe and secure.” As I said, all good reasons, at least on the surface. But let's explore a bit deeper.
Let's tale the second argument first. That one can be perplexing. After all, the parents that disdain some of the more visceral mayhem found in films like HALLOWEEN and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE see nothing wrong with reading the classic fairy tales to their youngsters, with the Witch prepared to eat Hansel and Gretel as she's done many times before, or the Wicked Queen sending the Huntsman out into the woods to kill Snow White, cut out her heart and return with it in a box.
Make no mistake here: I am not suggesting that we arrange screenings of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for elementary schools. There is always the question of what is age-appropriate. What I am saying is that there are equally horrific things in most children's literature in general as you'd find in Dark Fantasy. (Of course, some parents object to many classic fairy tales as well; that's more an argument for another time, but I hope I'll touch on some of those fears below)
Children's imaginations are unfettered, free-wheeling and limitless. They also have a strong sense of right and wrong, and justice being done on a cosmic level. After all, they're not really in control of this much larger world around them, so it's important that they believe the clockwork of the universe turns with compassion and righteousness. The outlands of the Dark Fantastic feed that imagination, hone it as on a lathe, and give it direction that they can explore at their leisure later in life when their imaginations are battered down somewhat by the day-to-day routine of living.
This also takes care of arguments one and three. Those that feel that exposing them to Horror will make them fearful and less secure overlook the fact that in a child's world, everything is frightening, whether it's the lined, creased faces of old relatives or the loud booming noises and voices of the world around them. Santa Claus and clowns have equally potential for terror as do monsters under the bed and shadows flicking from back-and-white movies.
At some point in time children are afraid of their own shadows, literally, not figuratively. Stephen King tells the wonderful story of a boy caught up for several nights in bad dreams and sleeplessness because of a horrible monster he overheard his father and uncle discussing; they were quite excited about seeing this terrible creature, the dreaded “twi-night doubleheader”! And author John MacDonald spent several evenings trying to calm his son's fears in another monster he'd overhead discussed among adults. Apparently at a party, someone had mentioned the Grim Reaper in conversation, and young Mr. MacDonald had translated that into “the Green Ripper” , and that fiend overwhelmed his young thoughts. (The elder Mr. MacDonald was so taken by this that he later titled one of his Travis McGee novels “The Green Ripper” .)
You can never be certain what connections images or phrases will click inside the circuits of a child's mind, and trying to ascertain what is scary and what isn't is a Mad Caucus Race. My human companion Bob clearly remembers, so many years later, seeing a short musical piece on the CAPTAIN KANGEROO show that featured floating, disembodied hands dancing around in the darkness (a simple effect, with white gloves and black clothing against a black background.) I'm sure the producers meant this as a magical, whimsical interlude, but Bob remembers some nights of bad dreams as these hands chased him about his house, running on the ground on their palms and making terrible sounds as they came for him.
If Dark Fantasy serves a purpose for young imaginations, it's that it names and gives shape to a child's fears, and once a fear is named and identified, it actually becomes much less terrifying. After all, once that dark shape is drawn into the light and seen for what it is, it becomes familiar, and even, in its own way, friendly: witness the Count on SESAME STREET, or the breakfast cereals Frankenberry, Count Chocula and Booberry . Combining this with, in the best stories, is the idea that evil will be beaten and good prevail (Hansel and Gretel cook the Witch in her own over, and Snow White is rescued from the Queen's machinations). Good Dark Fantasy gives little ones control over their fears; yes, the monsters are real, but they can be seen and defeated, and that's a powerful lesson for ones so usually helpless.
And, let us be completely honest: many children do long for the morbid and horrific. They are incessantly curious about the world and things about them, and this includes what many adults might consider very dark subjects, like death and violence. Dark Fantasy translates these complex ides into symbols that their young minds can comprehend, giving them a firmer grasp on things that will concern them more deeply in adulthood, making the transition a bit easier, in my opinion.
In short, one of the most famous articles in the old “Famous Monsters” magazine came from a mother who was raising her children with much of the values I've presented above. The title of the article was “Monsters Are Good For Children!”
I'd be hard-pressed to disagree.
There was a time, years ago, when it was very easy to introduce young minds to the joys of the Dark Fantastic.
During the 1960s and 70s schools would often sponsor book fairs, where youngsters could come and purchase age-appropriate volumes for their reading pleasure. The principal sponsor of these fairs was Scholastic Books, a company that released paperbacks specifically aimed at schools and children. Many of the books had educational themes, and as such there were new versions of classic literature always being published. (Scholastic is by no means gone; one of their triumphs of the new millennium was discovering an unknown and unpublished author and turning her books about a young wizard and his friends at his school into a world-wide phenomenon – I speak of course of J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter.)
I know of many people who began their love of Horror with purchases of Scholastic books. Indeed, many of my human companions who grew up in that time still keep their books in a treasured place on their shelves, passing them along to their children and grandchildren to enjoy. Among the classic novels that Scholastic published were Bram Stoker's “Dracula” , Mary Shelly's “Frankenstein” , Robert Louis Stevenson's “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” and Victor Hugo's “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” . They also published collections of the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. These were not edited versions, or ‘adaptations' for young readers; these were the complete and unabridged volumes that held adult readers in thrall.
(My human companion Bob has several other Scholastic collections on his shelf – their publishing was quite eclectic – including a slim volume named “The Haunted House and Other Stories & Poems” , another similar book “Stories of Ghosts, Witches & Demons” , and a volume titled “Stories of the Supernatural” , which contains the classics “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, “Sir Dominick's Bargain” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and “The Fly” by George Langelaan – yes, the story that inspired the films – and an absolutely horrifying tale “The Cocoon” by John B. L. Goodwin.)
In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, many of these sort of books disappeared, due to the protests of no doubt well-meaning parents concerned with the “upsetting” stories and images, or complaints from more conservative communities of promotion of magic, sorcery and the occult. The result was either the elimination of these books or watered-down or edited ‘adaptations' the bowdlerized the heart of the tales. Lately that trend seems to have been reversed with the success of the Harry Potter books, but the drought was long and damaging, with almost 20 years of little in good Dark Fantasy literature and a plethora of Harry Potter look-and-sound likes currently filling shelf space.
There were other avenues, fortunately; the local book store always seemed to have a section stock full of children's stories of the Fantastique. For beginning readers there were The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew , whose mysteries sometimes touched on the unnatural and eerie, and the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, which featured mysteries with supernatural overtones – whispering mummies, shrieking green ghosts – that, like the SCOOBY DOO cartoons, always ended with very natural solutions and villains. Speaking of Mr. Hitchcock, he commissioned a series of books filled with classic Horror stories for young readers and wrote introductions for them, much as he did for his adult readers and fans of his mystery magazine.
Whitman, a company that did book tie-ins to popular television series (I SPY, THE MONKEES, LASSIE, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) also did two wonderful collections of the macabre, “Tale to Tremble By” and “More Tales to Tremble By” , featuring short stories by Charles Dickens, Ambrose Bierce, F. Marion Crawford and Bram Stoker, as well as two collections of original SF and Horror tales. And for very young readers, Norman Bridwell, the creator of Clifford, the Big Red Dog , brought his deadpan sense of humor to a series of books that kindled a sense of wonder in the uncanny, most notably in his Witch Next Door books (“The Witch Next Door”, “The Witch's Christmas”, “The Witch's Vacation” ) and his Monster books (“How to Care for your Monster”, “Monster Holidays” ).
Children's television on Saturday mornings were filled with adventures that concerned ghosts, monsters and other supernatural creations. The most popular was probably the aforementioned SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? This show created and set in stone the template of a group of teen friends investigate mysteries that initially seemed ghostly but in the end turned out to be quite explainable. Although I normally frown on such cheats, SCOOBY DOO was very entertaining, and it captured the imaginations of countless young people that made the program iconic. (The less said about future versions, including that interminable puppy Scrappy Doo, the better.)
But for those who wanted real monsters and ghosts, you could do no better than JOHNNY QUEST, a cartoon presented in prime time (which gave it its adult slant) and probably was responsible for more than a few nightmares of impressionable viewers. The mummies, dinosaurs, dragons, sea monsters, energy beings, spider robots and other terrors that endangered Johnny, his scientist father, mentor and special agent Race Bannon and best friend Hadji were genuine, not villains in papier-mâché trying to frighten people away from their schemes.
Prime time television was also fertile ground for budding imaginations. In the time being discussed there were programs that ranged from the suspense of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and the pulp horror of THRILLER to the Gothic SF of THE OUTER LIMITS and the Urban Fantasy of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Although these shows were not designed for children, many watched with their families and excitedly discussed the episodes the next day in school. For older youngsters there was NIGHT GALLERY and KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. None of this included the outright comedy of THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS FAMILY, nor the straight SF of STAR TREK or the Irwin Allen productions (although Mr. Allen's efforts, woefully short of actual science fiction, leaned more towards Horror.)
The odd dichotomy of television in the 1950s through the 1990s was that the Production Code (for that read ‘censorship') was strictly enforced; there was to be no graphic violence or sex, and many scripts were rewritten to avoid any visual or dialogue reference to ‘shocking' or ‘disturbing' elements. While this tied the hands of writers of Dark Fantasy, many of the best of them ( THE TWILIGHT ZONE 's Rod Serling, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, THRILLER ' s Robert Bloch and THE OUTER LIMIT 's Joseph Stefano) were able to work around this with suggestion and style, leaving the battles with the networks for the big shocks for when they'd be most effective.
Ironically, this censorship, which made it difficult to present more adult variations of Horror, perfectly suited the budding young minds being exposed; the episodes were scary, but not graphically or gratuitously so, as many of the emerging theatrical films of the 1960s and 70s were. ( NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, along with Herschell Gordon Lewis's films, come immediately to mind.) Both Rod Serling and Joseph Stefano in interviews expressed astonishment that they received letters from youngsters praising their efforts, but this isn't so surprising when we consider, as I mentioned above, that young minds have a fascination of the Dark Fantastic, and watching these in the safety of their homes with their families beside them presented an opportunity for safe exploration of this unknown country.
Now, sadly, that time seems to be past; when even police procedurals like CSI contain very graphic violence and carnage, and the Dark Fantasy series – THE WALKING DEAD, HANNIBAL, PENNY DREADFUL among others – are much less censored and contain moments equal to theatrical presentations – there's very little safe haven for young viewers. This is a fine thing for adults, who are receiving genuinely mature programming, but the chance to share a taste of the Dark Fantastic with a child who might become an aficionado is much more limited.
In an interesting footnote, while much television had watered down or discarded the Dark Fantastic during the late 1970s and 1980s, Saturday morning programming upheld the standards with shows as diverse as BEETLEJUICE, DRAK PACK, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, and an animated version of TALES FROM THE CRYPT named TALES FROM THE CRYPTKEEPER. These kept interest alive in the Fantastique during the drought of prime time.
(Please forgive me for repeating myself, but this subject requires that I repeat what I wrote a few months ago about local East Coast television. I hope you'll understand…
Among the many local personalities on Philadelphia television during the 1960s and 70s was a young entertainer, artist and storyteller named Gene London. His program, called variously CARTOON CORNERS, THE GENE LONDON SHOW and GENE LONDON'S CARTOONS & STUFF, would feature Mr. London with young people gathered in his studio set, which resembled a general store. He would tell stories, often illustrating them on a huge sketchpad while he spoke, bring on guests of local interest to education children on a variety of subjects, or show cartoons, mostly Disney or Mr. Magoo. He was a soft-spoken gentleman, in some ways a precursor to Mr. Rogers.
But Mr. London also had a love of the macabre, and one of the most astounding features of his series were times when he would dramatize, with him in the leading role, various classic Horror tales. Among the many stories presented were “Frankenstein”, “Dracula” (with Mr. London in a dual role as himself and the legendary vampire count), “The Phantom of the Opera”, and “She”. Mr. London also used a magical Golden Fleece that he'd found to send him off on other fantastic and magical adventures, and towards the conclusion of the series' run he adapted a version of the SF film ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, complete with performers in (at the time) the ground-breaking ape makeup from the films.
It was a fantastic program, for, with the gentle and courageous Mr. London as the fulcrum, the stories were frightening without being overtly terrifying. I'm certain more than one child in the Tri-State area can probably trace back his love of Horror, SF and the Dark Fantastic to Mr. London's gentle administrations, and I thank him for that greatly and gratefully.)
So what can we offer young minds who profess an interest in the Dark Fantastic?
Well, let's start with what's listed above? Many of those shows – THE TWILIGHT ZONE (both the original and the wonderful 1980s revival), THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER and NIGHT GALLERY are available on DVD, both to buy and rent to watch. Some might dig in their heels a bit at watching some “old” program (I had a young companion refuse to watch any of the old Universal films because they were in black & white) but curiosity should carry the day.
I gladly endorse two special DVD series that I've witnessed personally attract a voracious interest in reading classic literature. The first is the marvelous show WISHBONE originally broadcast on PBS. Wishbone is a smart, literate Jack Russell terrier living in a small suburban neighborhood and sharing adventures with his young human companions. Every so often a situation will remind Wishbone of a famous book or story, and the dog is carried into a flashback dramatizing scenes from the tale, with Wishbone as the star. (Oddly enough, the other characters in the dramatization react to our hero as another person instead of a canine…)
Among the many stories and books featured are “Robin Hood”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, “The Purloined Letter”, “Oliver Twist” and “Ivanhoe”. But what will appeal to fans of the Dark Fantastic are the number of works associated with the macabre that inspired Wishbone's daydreamings. These include “Frankenstein”, “Faust”, “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”, “The Time Machine” and “The Phantom of the Opera”.
One of the best aspects of WISHBONE was the fact that the creators never took the easy way out in adapting the classic stories; if there was sadness, tragedy or an unhappy ending, the producers remained faithful to the source material. The same went for any fantastic or frightening moments: “Frankenstein” follows the novel completely, moreso than most of the adult film versions. Of course the material is handled in an age-appropriate way, but it respects the original works, and more than a few of my young friends became fascinated with both Frankenstein's Creature and the Phantom of the Opera after experiencing their presence on WISHBONE. (You can view the "Frankenstein" episode on YouTube by clicking on the image below.)
The other DVD collection is similar, but predates WISHBONE by a few decades. In 1962 the classic cartoon character Mr. Magoo was featured in the holiday special MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL. Unlike the short cartoons, this was a serious adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel as a musical. It proved instantly popular and has indeed become a perennial Yuletide event.
The network, impressed by the ratings of the special, commissioned producers to create a similar series of television episodes featuring Mr. Magoo as the main character in classic novels, each episode a serious adaptation of the work. The program was broadcast as THE FAMOUS ADVENTURES OF MR. MAGOO, and ran for two seasons of 19 episodes. (I mentioned them fondly in an essay several months ago, wondering when they'd be released on DVD; as it happens, the series has been released as part of the DVD Boxed Set MR. MAGOO: THE TELEVISION COLLECTION 1960 – 1977 from Shout! Factory.)
Like his Jack Russell counterpart, Mr. Magoo appeared as famous characters from literature, one of the best being Long John Silver from “Treasure Island”. In keeping with the theme of actors putting on a show from MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, several characters in each episode were drawn as different individuals in each story, as though it were a repertory company of performers putting on each production. Also in keeping with WISHBONE, the show featured some fine examples of the Dark fantastic, including its own version of “Frankenstein” as well as “Sherlock Holmes” “Moby Dick”, Rip Van Winkle” and “A Midsummer Night's Dream”. Be warned: as entertaining as the series is (and it is very well done) the adaptations do take liberties with the original stories, unlike WISHBONE.
Much of theatrical children's entertainment still chooses the macabre and uncanny as their source of inspiration. The past several years has seen films such as CORALINE, MONSTERS INC, SPIRITED AWAY, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE CORPSE BRIDE, MONSTER HOUSE, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, PARANORMAN, and the HARRY POTTER movies.
For many generations the Disney movies such as PINNOCHIO and SNOW WHITE were the first encounters with dark forces and fear; for all his sweetness and light, Walt Disney and a sure hand as to what could truly terrify, and practitioners in the Dark Fantastic as diverse as ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Stephen King recall Disney films as a source of inspiration and revelation.
On the written page, there are still some excellent books for young people to spur their interest in the Dark Fantastic. In addition to the aforementioned Harry Potter series, there's the Hunger Games books, the Divergent series, and countless others. For the very young who want short, eerie tales there's the marvelous Stories to Tell in the Dark series (you can learn more about these on my RECOMMENDATIONS Page) which have raised their share of goosebumps, and the comical How to Banish Fears series (“How to Outwit Witches”, “How to Get Rid of Ghosts”, “”How to Mash Monsters”).
There are also fine paperbacks of the classics – “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” and the rest – available at your local bookstore. Many of these are also available for free online through the Project Gutenberg Horror Bookshelf of collected public domain works. (You can click HERE or use the connection on my LINKS Page.) Many of these printed editions are put out in volumes designed to attract young readers with larger print and eye-catching artwork. Some are abridged, and you can decide for yourself what might be age-appropriate; my rule of thumb is, if they can read the words and understand them, they're welcome to, but I leave that in your capable hands.
(I also want to point out that many of the books mentioned above from the 1960s and 70s are still available on Ebay and in some second-hand and specialty stores. Mint condition volumes are worth quite a bit, but even those in lesser condition are sought by collectors, and still contain the wonderful stories that chilled the previous generations.)
Which brings us to one series in particular: “Goosebumps”.
For those who've lived without any contact with human culture for the past thirty years, the “Goosebumps” books were the product of author R. L. Stine. Published as paperback originals with eye-catching and garish covers, the books were short novels that ran the gamut of well-traveled Horror and supernatural themes: the ventriloquist dummy with a life and mind of its own, the sinister babysitter, the mysterious, stalking clown, vampires, werewolves and other things that slithered and creeped and crawled. As familiar as these may be to veteran and adult fans of the genre, they were a revelation to young readers, with adventures featuring kids their own ages.
I must confess: I had little use for the “Goosebumps” books when they were first published. I read several of them to see what my young friends were enjoying and found them predictable, thuddingly written and not terribly imaginative. They seemed rushed into print with little distinction. I thought there were much better books for young readers, and mourned the fact that they weren't enjoying classic tales by more distinguished writers.
(In fact, the rumor at one time was that R. L. Stine was actually a house pen name and several authors were contributing to the series, much like “Franklin W. Dixon”, the author of the Hardy Boys books. How else could the books be released so quickly? I disagreed; having read them I had no trouble believing one individual was pushing them out every month like clockwork. But I digress…)
All right: mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa , to all “Goosebump” fans and Mr. Stine himself.
I've watched my young companions reading one of the series, or hearing them read aloud, and seen the rapt attention on their faces as they're completely enthralled, hearts in their throats in a comfortable and safe sphere of terror, caught up in the adventures and frights. My stance has softened, and I believe they may indeed be the right books at the right time for these impressionable readers. Although predictable to adults, the tales are wildcards filled with suspense to the little ones, and I conclude that Mr. Stine did indeed know his audience.
Both Stephen King and Harlan Ellison were asked at different times about the books, with the criticisms I mentioned above as a preface. For each the answer was the same: “At least children are reading.” And that indeed is the bottom line. The books are certainly no worse in their own way than the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries, and those readers undoubtedly moved on in their adult lives into the more rewarding mysteries of Agatha Christie, Harry Kemelman, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, P. D. James, and Nora Roberts.
Those who enjoyed whiling their time away with “Goosebumps” hopefully went on to discover the magic, mystery and macabre pleasure of Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Matheson, M. R. James, and of course Misters Poe and Lovecraft. That was my hope, in any case, and my belief today.
Of course, I'd be neglectful to not point out one very assured way of enjoining the very young into a lifetime of pleasure with the Dark Fantastic – reading and telling ghostly stories aloud. Sleepovers provide a marvelous opportunity for some giggling mayhem in semidarkness, and who hasn't enjoyed a night camping around a roaring fire without sharing an eerie tale or two?
One of my great pleasures each year is to host a series of storytelling events at Patrick Points State Park in Trinidad, CA. Once each month I appear beside a campfire in a beautiful amphitheater surrounds by towering trees and with the sound of the ocean against the cliffs in the background. I've entertained families who've crowded about me afterwards, telling me they've never heard or seen anything like it, and thanking me for the show.
It's a joy to meet my new fans and friends, and I'm not alone in these endeavors. Patrick's Point provides a variety of storytellers, musicians and other entertainers throughout the summer months, and indeed, many campgrounds across the country provide similar entertainment, with storytellers waiting to share a shivery bit of scary silliness or spookiness with their audiences. I urge you to take advantage of them wherever and whenever you may find them.
The Dark Fantastic is a rich tradition that dates back to the earliest of man huddled around a blazing fire to keep back the darkness, sharing tales of terror and, in doing so, mastering their fears. I believe we should encourage young ones to explore this lush genre, and that their first experiences must be enjoyable, satisfying ones; frightening without being too scary, and instilling a respect and anticipation of where the darkened pathways of imagination can lead.
To all my friends of all ages: I welcome you into the cemetery, beckon you behind the stones and offer a comfortable spot on the rustling leaves and soft moss at your feet.
Make yourselves comfortable. Lean in closely.
Do I have a story for you!
Next month, this page will be for adults only. I'm inviting my very young friends to move along until October, for I have a few things to say, many of them uncomplimentary, about the new practice of extreme haunted attractions. I was going to speak on it this month, but I wanted to prepare more fully. I'll see you then.