Have you ever been afraid of things that go bump in the night? Go on admit it, most of us have been alone in a house overnight and imagined creaky floorboards or squeaky hinges and thought more of ghouls and ghosts than the natural sounds of a house. What about walking through a dusky forest or overgrown garden at twilight, does that ever give you the creeps? Well if none of this has before it will do soon for it is exactly the type of setting that the novelist Susan Hill likes to use for her stories and having read them I can guarantee that you will never feel the same about any of these places ever again.
Susan was speaking to Mariella Frostup on Open Book this afternoon, essential Sunday listening for me, after the dramatised Sunday afternoon novel of course. She provided a fascinating insight into what makes a book into a spine tingler, but she was of course talking about books that are intended to be spine tinglers and I have to say that whilst I am not a fan of horror her stories do have a lure for they are less about horror and more about the power of the imagination.
Stories such as those written by Hill, Henry James and of course some of Dickens short stories are primarily aimed at an adult audience. Adults tend to be divided into those who like a little fear and those who like full-blown horror. Children on the other hand seem to prefer horror full stop. I am often asked for recommendations of good horror stories and constantly amazed by how much children love to be scared but there is in fact a safety in this fear for them it is not real - it is on the pages of a book. It is from the imagination of the writer. Do adults know differently? One day I may find a horror story that I enjoy and it will probably be a children's book though I have to say I am enthralled by Joseph Delaney's Wardstone Chronicles which to me do seem to be complete fantasy and a ghost rather than horror story though I have abided by the jackets warning of not reading after dark!
I have also found that there are stories out there which can instill in their reader a sense of fear without falling into the horror category at all - Carol Lynch Williams The Chosen One is one such book. I read it following a recommendation and whilst I found it very easy and accessible, she has a very pithy and punchy style of writing it also leaves so many questions unanswered and instills in its reader a sense of bewildered amazement and horror that it did actually leave me feeling scared, unable to put the book down for fear of what may happen to the characters if I was not there and also afraid of what was being described. This powerful story plays on the imagination, draws the reader in and is unforgiving in its bluntness.
Horror is a genre that casts a wide net and is open to definition. It is well worth exploring and learning more from some great writers such as Susan Hill and writers who show the promise of great things to come such as Carol Lynch Williams. We all need something in our lives, a way of explaining the unknown and for some it may be horror that does this, for children horror is a safe way of being scared - perhaps we all need to be more childlike!