Evolution of a Horror Fan by Christa Carmen

Top Five Middle Grade/Young Adult Series that Turned Me into a Horror Fan

by Christa Carmen

Join me as I count down the top five middle grade and young adult series I credit with turning me into a horror fan—series penned by authors many horror lovers still cherish today—having rated their works using the following:

Nightmares & Nostalgia Meter:

  • Series was a solid induction to the horror genre
  • Dark humor proliferated throughout
  • Books prompted the need to check under the bed
  • Introduced young readers to tried-and-true horror tropes
  • Storylines stayed with readers into adulthood

Be warned…like diabolical cameras, drained vegetables, bumps in the night, and demon cheerleaders, spoilers abound, and all the views expressed within this post, including subjective analyses of the series, and the explorations of the themes within, are my own.

Runners-up: The Boxcar Children, The Babysitter’s Club Mystery series, the literary canons of Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan, and early Stephen King titles…

5) Nancy Drew series, Carolyn Keene

The Nancy Drew books may not have been shelved in the same section as the other series on this list, but these ‘Girl Detective’ thrillers appealed to the part of me that would ultimately relish in featuring elements of mystery and suspense in my horror fiction, as well as incorporating badass whodunit-solving heroines into the pages of my work.

Looking back, it is not surprising that of the fifty-six novels in the original series, my favorites were those which showcased the greatest number of potential ghosts, hints of the supernatural, and other horror tropes or haunted elements, like The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, The Witch Tree Symbol, and The Phantom of Pine Hill.

Many of the spookier Nancy Drew books contained those staples of Gothic fiction I enjoyed then, and worship now, and I can still see every last detail of the cover of The Invisible Intruder— in which Nancy and her friends are invited on a ghost-hunting tour, visiting various locations that are reputed to be haunted—in my mind’s eye: the two human skulls on an old wood mantel, the stone fireplace looming up from behind Nancy and Nancy’s friend Helen’s husband, Jim Archer, a ghostly figure superimposed across it.

Overall, however, when it came to reading the Nancy Drew series, I certainly did not discriminate; I read the entirety of the original series more than once before circling back and rereading my preferred installments three, four, sometimes half a dozen times.

Nancy was such a singular character in my development as a woman, as a reader, and most importantly, as a writer, that it came as quite a shock when I discovered, years later, that she was not the creation of a single, dedicated lady named Carolyn Keene, but the result of numerous authors—not a one who could be called Ms. Keene, as an actual person named Carolyn Keene never existed—and that oftentimes, the author who penned a particular manuscript was different even from the one who drafted the outline.

With all these different writers having contributed to the character, and at the insistence of publishers Grosset & Dunlap, it was decided that Nancy would be rewritten as less ‘unruly’ in the sixties and seventies than she’d been over the course of her adventures in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Nancy may have grown up a bit from the confident, competent, and cop-sassing girl she’d been in her youth, but I’m still right there with several Supreme Court justices and former First Ladies in that, regardless of the extensive rewrites, I credit Ms. Drew with being a worthy archetype of a feminist heroine. I also credit her with being a smart, spirited, and outspoken muse for my own writing, and that’s an honor that no haunted bridge or hidden staircase could ever obscure.

Nightmares & Nostalgia Meter:

  • Series was a true induction to the horror genre: 6
  • Dark humor proliferated throughout: 3
  • Books prompted the need to check under the bed: 8
  • Introduced young readers to tried-and-true horror tropes: 7
  • Storylines stayed with readers into adulthood: 6

Total: 30

4) The Goosebumps books, R.L. Stine

When I recall those moments of my youth spent with an R.L. Stine Goosebumps book in hand, I seem always to have been reading one of the jauntily titled volumes in the backseat of my parents’ car, on the way to visit my grandparents on Cape Cod or to my aunt and uncles’ farmhouse in upstate New York. Equally oblivious to both the passing landmarks and the passing of time, I silently screamed my way through HorrorLand, trekked across Fever Swamp, explored the haunted cave on Ghost Beach, and navigated my way around the strange campers and even stranger counselors at Camp Nightmare. Subsequently, the classic Goosebumps series— those sixty-two books published over a five year period from 1992 to 1997—produces in me nostalgia for the days when I longed to find a camera that took pictures of the future, as well as for when I had the capacity to read an entire book over the course of a single road trip.

Indeed those were the good old days, when wishing for a magic camera or for a fortune teller to make you the strongest player on your high school basketball team didn’t seem like more trouble than it was worth. The days when you didn’t have a driver’s license, and could read books in the backseat while your parents drove you around (and you weren’t so old that reading in the car gave you horrible motion sickness symptoms). The days when life was simple.

And there was something simple, so intrinsically appealing about each and every book in Stine’s original series, from Welcome to Dead House to Monster Blood IV. Something that spoke to your ten-or eleven-year old self like nothing else on bookshelves at that time. Sure, the plots of the Goosebumps books played into your greatest fears, but they also appealed to the part of you that craved a little excitement, the part of you that—though you may not have admitted in in a thousand years—wanted the stories you read to come true. Yes, the prospect of being stuck at a haunted amusement park was terrifying, but it was also pretty cool, it also whispered, ‘you-very-well-would-be-the-most-interesting-kid-in-school-if-this-happened-to-you,’ and, ‘next-time-you-go-to-Six-Flags-see-if-you-don’t-find-a-Coffin-Cruise-ride-to-try.’ You couldn’t help but listen to those whispers… and wonder.

The Goosebumps books jumpstarted my imagination; that very, ‘what if this happened to you?’ thought process instigating my now-longstanding habit of treating the world like the blank pages of a notebook. A lifeguard drill at sleepaway camp could be spurred by zombie-shark-infested waters. That porcelain doll your aunt gifted you for your birthday could be harboring a demon ready to steal your soul.

In R.L. Stine’s world, these ‘what ifs’ were always ‘what nows?’ Ten-year old me really enjoyed that aspect of the series, and enjoyed thinking that real life could be similarly explosive and unpredictable, even moderately so. I think deep down, thirty-three-year old me feels the same.

Nightmares & Nostalgia Meter:

  • Series was a true induction to the horror genre: 7
  • Dark humor proliferated throughout: 7
  • Books prompted the need to check under the bed: 7
  • Introduced young readers to tried-and-true horror tropes: 8
  • Storylines stayed with readers into adulthood: 6

Total: 35

3) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy, Alvin Schwartz

It is a rare horror fan indeed that doesn’t find themselves influenced by that instantly-recognizable trilogy of folklore-inspired campfire tales compiled by Alvin Schwartz, and masterfully illustrated by Stephen Gammell: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones.

I recently wrote about what I thought to be a close-to-perfectly-crafted short story by Carmen Maria Machado, included in Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, “Descent,” and at the end of my analysis of the story (in a guest post for Kendall Reviews), mentioned that I passed the story along to my mother upon finishing it, whom I felt would enjoy Machado’s visceral and vibrant prose and suspenseful storytelling style. In our resulting discussion of the terrifying tale, I realized something extraordinary, but not particularly surprising: whether purposefully or not (although Machado is such a masterful storyteller, I can’t imagine it wasn’t purposeful), Machado structured “Descent” in exactly the same way as several of the tales included in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark!

“Descent” starts with the characters meeting for book club, a plot device that establishes our ‘round-the-campfire setting. The book club discussion is displaced by another, impromptu story, a relaying of a frightening event that occurred in the life of one of the women in the book club circle, Luna, and then we are shepherded into a story within a story, in which we are made privy to events that happened to students of Luna’s, successfully achieving that grand folkloric tactic of being told a story several degrees removed from the source (you know, the, ‘my sister’s boss’s husband’s best friend had this happen to her…’ phenomenon).

The action then progresses quickly, so quickly that the reader feels as if they’ve somehow stumbled onto a rollercoaster for which they did not realize they were waiting in line, a rollercoaster with a long, steep drop, and then, that moment that brings everything home, the equivalent of the storyteller turning to the person beside them, shining the flashlight beneath their chin, and yelling, “You’ve got it!” or “AAAAAAAAAAAH!” (see, “The Big Toe,” and, “Old Woman All Skin and Bone” for the Schwartz stories that encompass these climactic jump scares).

So why did I spend the majority of my write-up on the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books discussing the merits of a modern-day story, even if that modern-day story’s structure pulls directly from that trilogy of terror? Because, in my opinion, Carmen Maria Machado is one of the greatest authors writing dark fiction today, and I, for one, look to her when I aspire to write moving, macabre, nightmarish tales. Alvin Schwartz’s compilations informed a great many of us how to love well-crafted horror stories, and more than that, how to write them.

If you don’t agree with me, then I’ll walk out my front door, abandon the luxuries of modern-day living, and head into the woods to run with the wolves. I hear there’s already a young woman who’s taken up residence with the local pack…

Nightmares & Nostalgia Meter:

  • Series was a true induction to the horror genre: 10
  • Dark humor proliferated throughout: 9
  • Books prompted the need to check under the bed: 8
  • Introduced young readers to tried-and-true horror tropes: 10
  • Storylines stayed with readers into adulthood: 7

Total: 44

2) Fear Street, R.L. Stine

I’m sort of cheating a little by including two entries by the same author, but the Fear Street series bridged the gap between the more lighthearted horror of my middle grade days and the first Stephen King books I would get my hands on at the start of my adolescence. I didn’t know it then, but Fear Street would prove itself indispensable to my development as both a reader and a writer, creating in me a voracious appetite for new, fun, frolicking horror stories, and teaching me that how you tell a story is just as important, if not more so, than what that story is.

Continuing the tradition begun with the Goosebumps books in that Stine blended ghastly horror stories with plots you kinda-sorta-a-little-bit-wanted-to-come-true (such as the those of Lights Out, The Thrill Club, or any of the Fear Street Super Chillers, like Bad Moonlight, the cover of which is still etched into my brain,), Fear Street stories were relatable, fast-paced, and the best part of all? Seemingly never-ending!

I was as thrilled as the next nostalgia-ridden horror fan at the announcement of a Goosebumps movie (and equally as disappointed by the devolution of the main female character to mere love interest and surrogate daughter for protagonist/hero Zach and the lonely ‘Mr. Shivers,’ respectively, but even this travesty couldn’t completely quell my excitement for a film that was such a long time coming). My question then, is why, oh why, has no one in Hollywood jumped at the idea of a Fear Street film or anthology series? Were the books the nineties equivalent of the Penny Dreadfuls of nineteenth century Victorian times? Yes. Would a Fear Street film be on par with the cheesiness of I Know What You Did Last Summer, or the tongue-in-cheek metafiction of Scream? Absolutely! But therein lies the fun!

The events that took place on Fear Street undoubtedly introduced young readers to both tried-and-true tropes of the genre and high horror concepts of the whacky and out-of-this-world variety. While I may not have written any evil cheerleaders or werewolf rock musicians into my novels or short stories to date, I certainly have the tools to explore whatever horror trope strikes my fancy going forward, thanks to ever-imaginative and utterly prolific R.L. Stine.

Nightmares & Nostalgia Meter:

  • Series was a true induction to the horror genre: 10
  • Dark humor proliferated throughout: 8
  • Books prompted the need to check under the bed: 10
  • Introduced young readers to tried-and-true horror tropes: 10
  • Storylines stayed with me into adulthood: 9

Total: 47

1) Bunnicula series, James and Deborah Howe

It may seem strange to go back in time from Fear Street to the Howliday Inn, since I definitely devoured James and Deborah Howe’s Bunnicula books at an earlier age than I did Stine’s YA series, but who am I to offer up a rational explanation as to why a vampire bunny that bleeds vegetables dry and is a mere celery stalk away from world domination had more of an impact on me as a reader and writer than dead lifeguards and Valentine’s Day murderers?

Rational explanation? Not likely. Shot-in-the-dark hypothesis? Why the hell not? First, the age at which I read middle grade novels was an age at which pretty much anything having to do with animals pulled me in immediately. The novelty of a vampire novel with household pets at its center did not escape me, even at the age of ten. Harold, Chester, and Howie displayed a comradery on par with any seen in the popular books of the time period, whether those books were the Boxcar Children, the Babysitter’s Club, or the sugary-sweet installments of Sweet Valley High. That their comradery eventually extends to include one red-eyed, mysteriously silent undead bunny is one-hundred percent a better love (and vampire!) story than Twilight.

Second, the whole, Harold-drops-his-manuscript-off-and-subsequently-gets-an-agent-who-does-his-bidding-for-the-next-three-books plot point was a great, albeit subtle, way, to interest a young reader in the enigmatic world of writing and publishing. Perhaps the idea of writing as something that even a dog could do charmingly and successfully wormed its way into my brain, and contributed to my determination to finish that first novel a handful of years ago.

Have I had Harold’s luck in the publishing department? In some instances, yes, but in others, the chocolate cupcake is still being held over my nose on a stick. But is my passion to continue pursuing that dream on par with Chester’s love of literature? Howie’s penchant for barking? Harold’s affection for his people? You better believe it…

Nightmares & Nostalgia Meter:

 

  • Series was a true induction to the horror genre: 10
  • Dark humor proliferated throughout: 10
  • Books prompted the need to check under the bed: 10
  • Introduced young readers to tried-and-true horror tropes: 10
  • Storylines stayed with readers into adulthood: 10

Total: 50

Thank you for coming along with me on this countdown of the top five middle grade and young adult series that turned me into a horror fan, and seek me out on social media if you’d like to discuss any of the Nightmares & Nostalgia Meter ratings, or the series featured here in general.


About Christa Carmen:

Christa Carmen is a writer of dark fiction, and her short stories have appeared in places like Fireside Fiction Company, Unnerving Magazine, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Outpost 28, DarkFuse Magazine, and Tales to Terrify, to name a few. She has additional work forthcoming from Lycan Valley Press Publications’ all-female horror anthology, Dark Voices, and her debut fiction collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, will be released in August 2018 by Unnerving.

Christa lives in Westerly, Rhode Island with her husband and their ten-year-old bluetick beagle, Maya. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, and a master’s degree from Boston College in counseling psychology, and she’s currently pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing & Literature from Harvard Extension School. Christa works at a pharmaceutical company as a Research & Development Packaging Coordinator, and at a local hospital as a mental health clinician. When she’s not writing, she is volunteering with one of several organizations that aim to maximize public awareness and seek solutions to the ever-growing opioid crisis in southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut.

Author Website: www.christacarmen.com

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15179583.Christa_Carmen

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/christacarmen

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/christaqua

Twitter: https://twitter.com/christaqua

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/christaqua/  

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