Nicole Lesperance On Why Scary Books Are Good for Teens (And Adults Too)
"If there’s one thing we’ve all had to learn during the pandemic, it’s how to live with fear and uncertainty."
This post was written by Nicole Lesperance, author of The Depths.
Horror has always been an essential part of YA literature. I was a teenager back in the 1990s, and my sister was a huge fan of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine. She was what people called a “reluctant reader” (later diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD), and those were the only novels she’d read. My mom, a librarian who desperately wanted her to love reading, brought home as many of those authors’ books as she could find — and I’d usually read them too, after my sister was done.
We were lucky. My mom didn’t judge our genre preferences, but a lot of other parents wrote off teen horror as “not serious literature.” They said the books were too formulaic, they didn’t challenge readers, they didn’t teach good life lessons, etc. Grown-ups are always criticizing books written for young people. Especially teenagers.
These days there’s no shortage of horror for young adults. There are thriving subgenres: botanical/nature-driven horror like Erica Waters’ Ghost Wood Song and Rory Power’s Wilder Girls, horror/thriller crossover like Ryan Douglass’ The Taking of Jake Livingston and Tiffany D. Jackson’s White Smoke, and gothic horror like Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls and Alison Saft’s Down Comes the Night. My upcoming YA novel, The Depths, is a mash-up of botanical and gothic horror. It’s set on a haunted island instead of a haunted house and features ghosts, bloodthirsty flowers, and a teen protagonist who dives in dangerous underground caves at night.
With so many scary books for teens to choose from, parents might still question their value, even though attitudes have changed a lot over the past thirty years. They might wonder why, with all the terrible news we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, teens would choose to consume horror, of all genres.
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In 2018 Ruthanna Emrys wrote, “Horror as a genre is built around one truth: that the world is full of fearful things. But the best horror tells us more. It tells us how to live with being afraid.” If there’s one thing we’ve all had to learn during the pandemic, it’s how to live with fear and uncertainty. Horror gives us a way to process those emotions and — importantly — it gives us an ending, unlike the endless news cycle. Horror books finish with some kind of resolution, a safe place to stop, and even though we’ve gone to hell and back with the characters, we can breathe again, knowing it’s over.
Horror stories also let teens experience fear and uncertainty on their own terms. If a book gets too overwhelming, they can put it down, walk away, even throw the whole thing in the trash. Nowadays, everyone is connected to everything all the time via their smartphones, but a book provides a much more solid boundary. Horror is an experience that plays out under the reader’s control, and that’s essential for young people who are learning about limits and boundaries. Books are essential safe spaces, whether or not the stories feel “safe.”
For me, writing a gothic horror novel in the middle of a pandemic was incredibly cathartic. I channeled all my fear and anxiety into the story — into writhing vines and gruesome ghosts and tragic backstories. While I was stuck in my house in early 2020, I identified strongly with my main character, Addie, who is trapped on a tiny island full of horrors. But Addie figures out how to solve her problems, as nightmarish as they are, and going on that journey with her made me feel like maybe everything wasn’t going to be terrible forever. I hope readers, both teen and adult, feel the same way after reading The Depths and other YA horror books.
Get your copy of The Depths by Nicole Lesperance here.