I have a clear memory of arguing with a school friend about which Stephen King novel was the most frightening. He was in firm favour of The Shining, while I believed that Salem’s Lot was about as close to pants-wettingly terrifying as one could get without requiring an actual change of underwear. In fact, the discussion became quite heated. A pencil might even have been flung. We were both 11.
Now current wisdom might suggest that 11 is a little young to be tackling a great deal, if not all, of the King oeuvre, but books such as Salem’s Lot were but one element of a pre-adolescent appetite for the uncanny that encompassed novelisations of old Hammer films, dodgy Pan anthologies of horror fiction edited by the delightfully named Herbert Van Thal, and classics of the genre from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the short stories of MR James. These were “adult” books, I suppose, but when I was a young reader there was no “young adult” genre to explore in fiction. Once the junior section of the library had been exhausted, the adult section beckoned: H.G. Wells to begin with, then John Wyndham, Alistair MacLean and Ian Fleming, before discovering Stephen King and a lifelong love of supernatural fiction.
Like a lot of boys, I was curious about the darkness and I quite liked being scared a little, as long as I was in control of the medium. I can’t ever remember closing a book because it frightened me, but there were a couple that I tended not to read when alone in the house, or when I was sitting up in bed at night. After all, I might have been adventurous when it came to my literary tastes, but I wasn’t stupid.
While parents have an urge to shield their children from the realities of existence for as long as possible, we have to remember that those same children are engaged in the first steps of a lifelong exploration of the meaning of the world, and an understanding of its true nature. Part of our responsibility as adults is to prepare them for what is to come. Children instinctively recognise that their existence is predicated upon the good will of the adults they encounter, and the protection of home and family. They worry that such protection may not always be there for them and wonder how they might cope in such an eventuality.
Therein lies the power of old folk tales, for they were never meant for very young children. Instead, they contained lessons to be learned about the world for those on the cusp of adolescence. Red Riding Hood warns young women of the predatory nature of men; Snow White speaks of the jealousies that may arise as one generation’s time passes, the coming of old age made more painful by the corresponding blooming of youth around it; and Hansel and Gretel shows that parents may not always be around to help and advise, and the greatest gifts that can be imparted to a child are those of self-sufficiency, an awareness of danger and the cleverness required to avoid or overcome it. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009