The Rise of Horror: YA Readers and Dark Fiction
There is a revolution happening in reading.
No, I’m not talking about the e-book revolution, although it does play a part in this. The revolution I’m referring to is being led by our children, and it’s one we should all be getting behind. For years, people – experts and laymen alike – have been bemoaning that today’s youth is reading fewer books than ever, and that the levels of literacy among our children and teens is in a dangerous decline. Over the past couple of years, new studies have shown that this information is, in fact, decidedly wrong. Since 2009, young adult readership has actually been increasing in double digits every year.
I am proud to say that horror and dark fiction have played a major role in that rise. I am a member of the Horror Writers Association and serve as their current library liaison. One of the HWA’s goals is to promote reading in schools and libraries, and a key part of that is focusing on the YA readers. After all, the more young adults we get reading, the more adult readers we’ll have later on, and that benefits everyone.
It is no secret that young readers love horror, even if they don’t realize it. Young adult literature continues to be the fastest-growing genre, and horror/dark fiction is a key component of that. Of course, today there is a bias against cataloging books as “horror,” so it ends up getting packaged within and under various sub-genres. A little detective work is all it takes, however, to find the dark lurking below the surface.
Novel Novice, a website dedicated to showcasing young adult literature, encouraging reading, and promoting education, recently polled readers to find out their favorite genres. Here is what they came up with, in no particular order:
Apocalyptic/Post-apocalyptic. Some might call this sci-fi, but there is plenty of horror in this category. Zombies, vampires, demons, aliens – anything dealing with the apocalypse is going to have some horror element in it. A classic example is Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry, which deals with life following a zombie apocalypse.
Paranormal Romance: This is the dominant genre for today’s YA readers. Vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, witches, and pretty much any other supernatural being you can think of, fall in love, get in trouble, and have to escape danger while interacting with humankind. Although it might not seem like it when you look at the shelves or go to the movies, there is more to paranormal romance than Twilight. Nancy Holder and John Passarella are two writers who have contributed several books and series in this category.
Gothic: Ghosts, haunted houses, curses, and mysteries. Gothic horror has been around since humans sat around in caves telling stories around a fire, and it continues to be a powerful sub-genre today. Some examples include the Darkest Powers books by Kelley Armstrong, or my own Ghosts of Coronado Bay. This sub-genre frequently overlaps with the previous category.
Cyberpunk: Dystopian plots that often include murder, genetically-bred monsters, and bio-warfare – how could anyone say this doesn’t have terrifying aspects? Is The Hunger Games horror or science fiction or fantasy? In truth, it’s all three.
Graphic Novels/Manga/Anime: Not a genre, but a format, we called them comic books when we were kids. Today they are so much more. Whether they are written in the U.S. or come from overseas, the comic novel has evolved into one of the most popular forms of media for teens. The stories range from cute supernatural to downright terrifying horror and cover sci-fi, fantasy, traditional horror, dystopian and apocalyptic alternate realities, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. The popularity of this medium has grown so much that even best-selling writers, such as Stephen King, Jonathan Maberry, and David Morrell (First Blood), have gotten into the act.
In addition to the above, Action/Adventure, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy all rated very high. Although these categories are usually separate from horror, there is a lot of overlap (Harry Potter, for example) and together with horror they can all be categorized as speculative fiction.
So where does the HWA fit in to all of this? Many of today’s popular YA writers are also HWA members; however, the organization is more than just individual writers. As a group, the HWA is actively involved in promoting YA literacy by working with the American Library Association and individual libraries to encourage new activities and programs geared towards YA readers. Authors are available to visit schools and libraries and not only read from their latest works, but also discuss books, literature, and language arts. Halloween is a great time for this, because schools and libraries often put on special events, and writers can come in and read classic ghost stories and discuss local history as it relates to hauntings and horror.
Each year, the HWA honors books in several categories, including YA novel and graphic novel, with its iconic Bram Stoker Awards®, and provides libraries with catalogs of recommended reading lists and new releases. HWA members are also regular panelists at youth-focused events such as Comic Con and the World Horror Convention.
In a 2010 survey by Scholastic, 43 percent of children questioned stated that the most important part of reading fiction is to open up the imagination. Sixty-two percent said they read books to be “inspired by storylines and characters.” I feel safe in saying that very few things open the imagination and provide memorable storylines and characters the way horror/dark fiction can. It can transport you to new worlds, open doors to places that could only exist in the imagination, and have you falling in love or wishing you were the hero who saves the world.
The best way to get young people to read is to give them books they want to read, and speculative fiction – horror, sci-fi, fantasy – writers are doing just that.
Maberry, Jonathan. Rot & Ruin. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 464p. $17.99. 978-1-4424-0232-4. $9.99 Trade pb. 978-1-4424-0233-1.
Faherty, J G. Ghosts of Coronado Bay. JournalStone, 2011. 162p. $9.99 Trade pb. 978-1-936564-09-5.
Armstrong, Kelley. Darkest Powers series. HarperCollins.