Reviews 2017

Reading in the Dark: Horror in Children's Literature and Culture

Reading in the Dark: Horror in Children's Literature and Culture. Ed. Jessica R. McCort. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2016. 256 pages. $60.00 (hardback).

While scholarly publications exploring horror in fiction for young readers oscillate primarily around Gothic elements, as in The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders edited by Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (2008); The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature: Essays on Stories from Grimm to Gaiman, edited by Joseph Abbruscato and Tanya Jones (2014) or Groza w literaturze dla dzieci: Od Grimmów do Gaimana [Horror in Children’s Literature: From Grimm to Gaiman] by Katarzyna Slany (2016), Reading in the Dark: Horror in Children's Literature and Culture, edited by Jessica R. McCort broadens this discussion with its extended focus on different aesthetic and narrative horror motifs in literature and film for young audiences.

Reading in the Dark addresses questions such as why scary stories enjoy such wide popularity among young readers, how they re-envision and readapt canonical horror texts and gothic tropes, and how they can be used as potent tools for sociocultural critique. The chapters written by authors coming from different backgrounds, that is literary, childhood, library, and media studies, provide diverse perspectives on horror elements in the texts for young audiences across the media. The analysed texts include both nineteenth-century literature and contemporary novels, picturebooks, films and television series.

The first contribution, by Justine Gieni, employs Kristeva’s theory to analyse Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter (1845) as an example of an abject text featuring abject child characters who subversively pursue self-assertion, rebelling against their parents’ refusal to acknowledge their autonomy. Gieni argues that although Struwwelpeter draws heavily on the elements of body horror, the primary source of terror in these stories is the authoritarian regime. Gieni suggests that the book can be read as a satire on rigid didacticism, criticising parental neglect and inadequate pedagogical methods.

In "A Wonderful Horrid Thing," A. Robin Hoffman focuses on the comparison of the scenes of childhood death in Edward Gorey’s and Charles Dickens’s works. She aptly shows how Gorey imitates certain techniques applied in Victorian illustrations, yet changing their mood completely. Hoffman claims that "[Gorey’s] iconotexts shift Dickensian death from sentimentality to horror" (70) and points out the differences in the social status of the child protagonists, the use of symbols and aesthetic details, and the sociopolitical and metaphysical implications of the death scenes in the works of these two authors.

The aim of Rebecca A. Brown’s chapter, "From Aggressive Wolf to Heteronormative Zombie," is to show how boy protagonists "utilize monsters...to expose conventional masculinity as a performance and to create fluid...identities" (91). Brown compares the depiction of monsters in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare in My Closet (1968), and in contemporary picturebooks, Richard Egielski’s The Sleepless Little Vampire (2011), Lola M Schaefer’s Frankie Stein (2007) and Kelly DiPucchio’s Zombie in Love (2011), demonstrating how a sociohistorical context influences representations of masculinity and monstrosity in these works. In "In the Darkest Zones,"" Jessica R. McCort focuses on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2002) and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (2010) and their use of gothic horror elements within the frame of a fairy tale. The author underlines the parallels with horror genre and fairy tales in their exposition of the external world as threatening, thus forcing the young protagonists to negotiate the boundaries between their selfhood and external reality, which eventually concludes in reinstating "some semblance of normality" (140). Revisionism is also the main theme of Peter E. Kunze’s exploration of how children’s cinema uses postmodern techniques to reappropriate the image of a monster. Kunze presents Shrek (2001) and Monsters Inc. (2001) as the most comprehensive examples of films that reimagine monsters, showing them as less discomforting and more relatable, to the extent that viewers identify with the monsters who are often positioned against the "monstrous humans" (159). Thus, children’s cinema challenges the (cleanly delineated in the horror genre) borders between the self and the Other.

In "Get It Together,"" Nick Levey and Holly Harper notice an interesting shift in horror novels for young adults, which tend to focus less on individuals and more on the collective responsibility of the protagonists. Using Charlie Higson’s The Enemy (2009) and Michael Grant’s Gone (2008-2013) as examples, the authors aptly demonstrate how the novels emphasise the importance of effective collaboration and negotiation between the protagonists, their constant readjustment of the group dynamics, and their responsibility to create and test new political and social systems in the world where all institutions have collapsed.

Janani Subramanian and Jorie Lagerwey examine how The Vampire Diaries (2009-2012) present two heroines, Caroline and Bonnie, as undergoing the symbolic transformation into postfeminist subjects, as they are forced to discipline their feral powers and changing bodies in order to enter adulthood. The authors demonstrate how this television series uses "the generic tensions between horror and melodrama...to intensify the raced and gendered fears of bodily excess and transformation" (181) and to enhance viewers’ affective responses.

The symbolical reading of monstrosity is also the focus of Emily L. Hiltz’s analysis of the metaphorical meaning of monsters in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games (2008-2010). She presents mutts as abject beings, collapsing the boundaries between human/beast and victim/enemy, and thus symbolising the external and internal monstrosity. Hiltz argues that Hunger Games depicts monstrosity, whether physical, mental, or ethical, as omnipresent and internalised, as evidenced in the protagonists’ constant struggle to protect their vulnerable selves from being hijacked and corrupted by the supporters of the tyrannical regime.

The final contribution, by Kristen Kowalewski, provides a librarian’s perspective on children’s horror readership, discussing historical prejudice against this genre, its present popularity, and its potential in promoting literacy among children. Kowalewski points to the non-linear way of young readers’ engagement with texts across media and the need for librarians to serve as guides among the wide net of interconnected narratives.

Since the scope of the book is so broad (including not only horror texts but also texts that utilise horror elements), this collection of essays does not have enough coherence to provide a comprehensive overview of horror fiction for young audiences and it lacks a clearly defined focus. Also, the book would benefit from additional minor revisions as some texts contain typos. Nonetheless, Reading in the Dark offers a variety of insightful perspectives that provide a relevant contribution to the discussion of the horror genre for young readers and its representation of contemporary sociocultural problems in metaphorical and yet distinctly direct and affective ways.

Katarzyna Wasylak
Independent Scholar, Poland