Today we have an awesome guest post by The Flame in the Mist author, Kit Grindstaff!
Take it away, Kit!
Once upon a time, it was believed that Halloween was the night when evil spirits could wander freely between their world and ours. Wreaking havoc. Carrying souls off to the underworld. Or worse. To the primitive part of the human brain, that’s pretty scary stuff. And yet even the youngest of us celebrates it with ghoulish gusto, parading as skeletons, zombies, ghosts, and other otherwordly horrors.
As the recent first-time author of The Flame in the Mist, a creepy, magical upper middle grade, I’ve been struck by how many young readers at book signings ask me, with looks of trepidation on their faces, “Is it scary?”, only to light up when I tell them, Well, yes, there are scary bits in it. More than ever, it’s made me wonder why so many of us relish quivering on the edge of our seats, hearts in our throats, wanting to be shocked out of our skins.
What an curious lot we are! Surely animals have the right idea: fear sends them running for cover, for their very lives. Yet we humans go in droves to horror movies. We flock to buy books that will send shivers up our spines—and they exist for all ages. From picture books like Maurice Sendak’s wonderful Where the Wild Things Are, with its sharp-fanged, earth-stomping monsters, through middle grade chill-inducers like Mary Downing Hahn’s ghost stories, or Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, or Claire Legrand’s fabulous Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls and her latest, the lovely Year of Shadows, and way too many more to mention, spooky reads fly off the shelves.
Scariness is nothing new in literature. In Victorian times, Dickens drenched his books with misty scenes and nasty characters who slunk through London’s back streets, or lurked in marshes terrifying small boys like Pip in Great Expectations. (And how spooky is that Miss Havisham in her shabby, cobweb-strewn mansion?) Then there’s A Christmas Carol with its Yuletide, chain-clanging ghosts. Many young students these days don’t know the book’s title or author, but ask them who Scrooge is, and they all know. One of my personal favorite ghost stories as a teenager was Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Haunted children…how deliciously, terrifyingly creepy! Clearly, scare has been delighting readers for eons.
The Victorians were masters of scare for little innocents. One that I cut my milk teeth on was called Strewelpeter, full of cautionary tales in which Little Suck-a-thumb has his thumbs cut off and left as bleeding stumps, and little Harriet, who will play with matches, sets herself on fire and ends up as a sorry pile of ash next to her shoes (which mysteriously survive). Striking fear into tender hearts was the idea. And I lapped up these tales—yes, even me, who wouldn’t have said Boo to a goose, let alone a ghost.
Would I like to see a real ghost, though? One that clanged chains and threatened me with gloom and doom, like Marley does? Um, no. Nor would I like to meet a real zombie, or walking skeleton, or any of the monsters that my I throw at my own heroine, Jemma. I’ve often thought that I make her face my fears for me, and maybe the same is true of any brave protagonist. Stories are the stuff of the subconscious mind—its primitive centers as well as the creative source—and somehow, when a beloved character succeeds, their courage and success links into our fearful lizard brains and makes us feel as though we’ve overcome something as well.
Another way to temper primitive fears and give us a sense of mastery over dreadful situations is with humor, as Lemony Snicket does, or Amie and Bethanie Borst’s just-released Cinderskella. If we can laugh at what scares us, the fear is diminished. We’re in control. No shivering under the table like a dog during a thunderstorm.
So is it because they help us rise above our primitive selves that spooky books are so popular? It’s been said by psychologists that the capacity to enjoy fear makes sense for our evolution – we need to constantly explore new possibilities, push new frontiers, find better places to live. Maybe, then, a good tale of terror can help the human race to survive. Yay for spooky books!
Meanwhile, though, as I bury my nose in the next hackle-raising read, I won’t be thinking about evolution, or survival, or lizard brains, or the whys and wherefores of my baited breath. I’ll just be lost in a great story, thrilling at the wonderful world created by its author, while the shadow part of my mind is busy churning up my own next pen-to-paper creepfest.
Kit Grindstaff is the author of The Flame in the Mist (Delacorte Press, 2013). You can find her on her website at www.kitgrindstaff.com
You can win a copy of Kit’s book by entering below! One signed hardcover copy (US/Canada only); one e-book (international).