Spooky Stories in Young Adult
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Jade Hemming: Welcome, you are listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. My name is Jade and I’m part of the WriteOnCon team. And I’m absolutely thrilled to chat today with author Amelinda Berube all about spooky stories in YA. Thank you so much for joining me today, Amelinda.
Amelinda Berube: Oh, it’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Jade: Oh, it’s my pleasure, too For those of you who may not know, Amelinda is the author of The Dark Beneath the Ice, which is out now, and Here There Are Monsters, coming out in August this year, which I am also super excited for. Amelinda, what was the first thing that really drew you to write about spooky subjects?
Amelinda: You know that’s not a question that I had actually really analyzed
before because I think I’ve always been drawn to spooky stories, going right back to Dr. Seuss. You know that there’s a story about pale green pants with nobody inside them.
Which is my very favorite.
Jade: That’s a spooky one.
Amelinda: oh yeah, for sure. I think what it comes down to is that whenever you’re reading a book you want to be moved in some way, right? And the books that I most admire are the books that make me laugh or the books that make me cry, and I think the books that
scare the hell out of me are you know, that’s another way for a book to move you
It’s another way for a book to affect your feelings and make you I don’t know, I guess maybe make you interact with the world with things that you’re afraid of without them being right in your face. So a book that makes you cry, you can feel all the feels without having to be in that place It’s the same thing with scary books that you can explore those feelings without real danger
Jade: Yeah, so you’re not exactly in the situation, but you get secondhand spooky feelings from reading it
Amelinda: Yeah, exactly. It’s a way to explore those dark and scary things without
the danger that comes with them. You know, you can go diving with sharks and be in a cage, right? You know, so then you’re protected a little bit, but you still get a way to think about those things and a way to sort of come sideways at some of those things without having to face them face on in your life in front of you. That’s gonna eat you.
Jade: Yeah, not that diving with sharks is number one on my list. But yeah, I absolutely get what you mean. Yeah, so as far as we go forward to the question, then, that what is your definition of spooky? Is there a difference between Spooky literature and scary literature?
Amelinda: I think maybe the reason that I tend to use spooky is maybe scary feels a little presumptuous because it’s like saying that “my book will make you cry.” You can’t really assume that. Like a book that makes you cry or a book that makes you laugh, it’s a really personal kind of effect. Everybody’s got their scary buttons, they’re really affected by different things, and a book that is terrifying to one person will leave another completely unmoved. So I think that’s part of it, and also may be that I think spooky might be a little broader than scary because you can have a book that’s dripping with atmosphere but isn’t actively frightening necessarily, that it has that sort of aesthetic sense of a really haunted or gothic feel to it without actively trying to be frightening. And I think those are part of the same family and you can appreciate a spooky book even if you’re kind of a wimp when it comes to scary things, right?
Jade: Yeah, like me
Amelinda: I think that’s the distinction for me.
Jade: Yeah, because for instance going to the more maybe hardcore sort of thing, Walking Dead for me is terrifying
Amelinda: Oh, I nope right out of the Walking Dead
Jade: Oh yeah, same same same. But it’s kind of like for the other people, they can handle it. They’re fine with it. They enjoy that, but for me, it’s just a little bit too much.
So I suppose yeah, it’s a kind of a difference within that I suppose.
How does the genre of “spooky” change in tone for different age ranges? Does it necessarily
change from middle grade books and YA? Do they have the same sort of feel?
Amelinda: I think what really changes is the questions that they’re tackling with the spooky feeling. Like in middle grade—so it’s really interesting, I’ve read articles talking about this, and I think there’s a lot of people, maybe especially girls, who go through the stage around the age of 12 where they’re really interested in ghosts and the supernatural
And seances and that kind of thing, and a lot of spooky middle-grade actually covers surprisingly heavy emotional territory that has to do with that first—you know, I guess maybe you’re first becoming aware of mortality, of death.
So when you look at books like THE LAND OF YESTERDAY, or THE IN-BETWEEN,
WAIT TIL HELEN COMES, those books are scary the way they are because there’s this live wire of real feeling about a real and very scary subject.
And I think when you take that to YA, it’s sort of gone a little further to maybe a more concrete awareness that there can be people out there who want to hurt you. And it sort of becomes a more social dynamic rather than this general question. And this is maybe why you get more graphic, and you get more violence, this is where you see more of the slashers or whatever, as opposed to the supernatural horror. Which maybe lends itself more to those big questions. Not that there’s not supernatural horror in YA, but it seems like the questions become more about like, where are you in relation to other people and
you know, what are the horrifying things that can happen between people.
Jade: hmm. Yeah, it’s interesting actually because you mentioned in the middle grade 8-12 and you get the girls mainly, I suppose, going into the supernatural. I was one of those. Definitely was going into all those spooky stories around my age and I suppose yes
it does change in that sort of social awareness cuz it might be different in America, I’m in England if you can’t tell. There may be different in the way that the school or the social
structure is as to how or what we perceive as spooky in YA.
But what in your opinion makes for a good spooky story? Is there anything that you can attribute to tropes or themes what the elements that kind of attribute a really good sense of spookiness to a story?
Amelinda: Well, I think this gets super personal so my opinions here may not extend to everybody. But for myself what makes a real story really spooky and really effective for me is first of all that it’s dripping with atmosphere. That there’s a feeling that just permeates the book and that stays with you after you put it down. That to me is sort of the most
And also that it doesn’t explain too much, that there’s some room
to connect the dots yourself, for your imagination to become involved. Because once you explain something it’s a known quantity. You can you can wrap your head around it, and it’s not as scary anymore. So, I have no trouble with books that leave things quite free-floating and don’t pin things down. Which some people get really frustrated with because they find it confusing but I love that. That to me is what lets it be scary to me.
And that it strikes the right balance between following the rules and breaking them. Because if you get super rule-bound in a story—like when you think about a traditional ghost story, a traditional ghost story has certain forms and maybe here’s where we get into tropes, right? A ghost story has certain conventions that it follows. There’s something left undone, there’s something that has to be set right, the ghost is trying to communicate or
that there is a thing that you have to do to make this right and to make it stop right?
But if you if you hue too closely to that, like you read a lot of classic ghost stories, and they’re not really that scary because you know that they follow that rhythm that you know in your head and they’re not threatening because in some sense they’re a known quantity.
So to really be scary I think a story has to find a way to break some of those conventions or to turn them on their heads so that that threat is unleashed. So that there’s a certain extent to which you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Like I always think here about the Blair Witch Project. You can think about all the classic fairy tale rules, what you could do in this situation, but it didn’t follow any of them. It had its own internal logic, but you had no access to it, and there was nothing. Like what are you gonna do?
So I think in terms of what would make a bad spooky story, I think the big one for me is
when it uses tropes without really questioning them or thinking about them and I think the big one there is using mental illness in a cavalier sort of way. Because it’s really easy to
sort of be throwing that question around, or to be talking about an insane asylum or
that kind of thing, or using the threat of like “What if I’m crazy? I’m gonna be hospitalized.”
To be using that as sort of the worst possible thing without really giving it any thought.
And that sort of reinforces these stereotypical fears without exploring them, without examining them.
And I’m also not a fan of you know sort of grossness for the sake of being gross. I think there’s other people who react differently to gore. But personally I tend to react to it kind of like well, what’s your point?
There are some books like NOT EVEN BONES that use it beautifully, because they’re using it to a purpose. But if you’re just kind of splashing blood around it kind of ceases to be scary because you get hardened to it, you know. Again this is this is strictly my opinion so, you know, I’m sure there are other people who can weigh in about the uses of gore, but that’s my feeling anyway.
Jade: Yeah, and I suppose there’s a fine line in a lot of literature that would be between spooky and horror.
Jade: So it’s kind of treading a fine line between them if you include a lot of horror elements. But maybe it’s a genre mesh, but I do get that I think there is a particular
flavor of spooky and I agree the overuse of gore for me personally is a little bit excessive.
But when done it can create a lot of atmosphere, I do agree and I suppose speaking of
horror as well, what larger genres do spooky stories fit into, would you say?
Amelinda: I’d say pretty much any of them, I think like it’s so much a question of atmosphere and that really reaches across genre lines. I think anything that brings that feeling really, and that I guess addresses those kinds of questions would fit that type.
I’m trying to think of sort of the more upbeat genres, I’m not sure. I’m trying to think of how you would have like a spooky romance. For example. But you can certainly mash up. I’m thinking funny and spooky like Derek Milman’s SCREAM ALL NIGHT.
Amelinda: Which is completely delightful, but which I would also call a spooky book.
Jade: Would you say that a story, this wanting to create atmosphere, wanting to be very spooky, does it necessarily have to have fantasy elements? What might an author do if they want to set a spooky story in space, for example? Atmosphere is so important, but how would they be able to change that and still retain the spookiness that we all love?
Amelinda: See, I think personally I talk a lot about supernatural elements, because I love them so much
I really see people falling into sort of one of two categories with their with their scary books either
it’s supernatural or it’s realistic.
There’s people, like I was talking to another 2018 debut, Shawn Sarles. His book CAMPFIRE also came out this summer, and he was saying that for him, he finds a real person with a knife who’s after you a lot scarier than anything supernatural because it’s real. Right? And I’m completely the opposite. I tend to feel like you know the person after you with a knife like, well, that’s the news. Right? It depends on what your buttons are, what gets to you. I certainly think that depending on what it is that you want to do, you can absolutely have a scary story that’s based around real life bad guys. Real life people who mean you harm.
And I’m glad you use the example of space because you know, you think of a movie like
Event Horizon, for example. I’m trying to think of a book that does this like and there’s not one that springs to mind, but where space is incredibly hostile, you know, or indifferent, it’s inimical to life right? And it’s completely unknown right? So you can really trade on that feeling of being—like that almost becomes that really gothic feeling of being in this haunted landscape that is out to get you, that means you harm.
Jade: Very desolate.
Amelinda: yeah, exactly, and you could turn it into desolate isolation, you could turn it into a very claustrophobic kind of, you know, like you’re trapped in this little tin can in the middle of space, you could really bring that atmosphere to all kinds of different scenarios. And I mean, you think about it, even Star Trek had spooky episodes, right?
Jade: Oh, yeah some of the best ones
Amelinda: Yeah, exactly.
Jade: So I suppose one of the books that I immediately thought of if I was to think of something spooky in space is ILLUMINAE.
Amelinda: Oh, OK, I haven’t read that one yet I’ll have to bump it up my list.
Jade: It is, I mean some people may argue it’s slightly got some horror elements because it’s sort of custom zombies type things in there, which is something that I cannot handle anyway. But yeah, it is. I think what it does well is atmosphere and the build-up of tension and the build-up of oh something’s gonna go down here. And I think that’s you know, maybe what you were speaking before about atmosphere.
That is something that I think can really lend itself to tension and less edge-of-your-seat, but gripping the pages and going “I need to figure out what comes next.”
Jade: This may be a good one in space, but I think different things that you can do with anything in spooky genre. I think it’s wide open really, like you say difficult to do in romance, but not impossible.
Amelinda: Yeah, it’s all about the feeling of the story. If you create that, I don’t know that—what would you even call it? Like that thrill, that oppressive feeling, the isolation and
the danger, that’s what sort of drives the engine.
Jade: Yeah, and I just thought of CRIMSON PEAK as a possible for romantic tension and spookiness.
Amelinda: Oh, that’s true. I was reading an article a little while ago that was going around Twitter about like there’s a whole genre of Gothic romance right?
Jade: Which I have yet to read a lot of, but it certainly intrigues me.
Amelinda: Yeah, same here. But it’s out there.
Jade: Why do you think that readers enjoy spooky stories in the first place? What do you think draws people to it? I know we said before that there was like a safety element of it,
but people still really seem to resonate with spookiness. I mean Halloween is still very popular. So what do you feel gives it that longevity?
Amelinda: I think it’s that exact thing about like balancing on that edge, you know
everybody puts that edge in a different place. It’s the line between—I think I’ve said this elsewhere—but it’s the line between the nightmare that you wake up from, and your heart is beating faster, but you’re sort of going “cool!” and then there’s the nightmare that you wake up from screaming. And everybody draws that line in different places. You can enjoy it up to a certain point in safety and everybody has a line where past that point, you’re out there swimming with the sharks without the cage and it’s too real and you know nope out. Right?
Amelinda: You know and for me like watching Walking Dead, you know as soon as I found out that was going to be a baby on that show. I was like, nope. Nope. That’s the end. That is the point at which I noped out. I really enjoy zombies, you know, which is kind of surprising because generally they’re a lot grosser than the stuff that usually catches my attention that way but yeah no, threats to babies is where I nope out. Like cannot cope with that, and
everybody puts that line in a different place.
So I think what people are looking for in a spooky book is that cage so that you can swim around with the sharks, right? You know, that thing that keeps you safe. Because if it doesn’t keep you safe, you won’t read it. If you don’t feel safe enough reading it, you nope out. And lots of people do that with scary books in general. It’s just too intense.
Jade: Yeah, it’s interesting that you said it about the everybody’s line is, they’re in a different place. I think yeah again going with Walking Dead for an example, at the end of the first episode—SPOILER if you haven’t seen it—as soon as they attack the horse, I was done. I thought I can’t do this. I didn’t even know that there was a baby coming into it, but that’s still icky for me. But alright, no horses in danger. I can’t watch this, in no way can I watch this horse at the mercy of zombies. So yeah, it’s always about what you’re comfortable with and maybe on the edge of being comfortable sometimes.
I know that you’ve mentioned THE IN-BETWEEN and SCREAM ALL NIGHT as books that do spooky well. Are there any more examples of good stories to check out that you personally have been spooked by?
Amelinda: Oh, I have such a list. To name a couple that just came out this year, the couple that I really enjoyed were THE WICKED DEEP by Shea Ernshaw, which is deliciously spooky, and THE HAZEL WOOD, which also has like this, you know—it’s spooky in the way that fairytales are spooky, and it feels like it has so much to do with fairy tales and it really feels like it understands them in a really visceral and unapologetic way that I really enjoyed.
I also recently read a book called THE NOVEMBER GIRL by Lydia Kang that was absolutely stunning. And it really does that gothic haunted landscape really beautifully. It’s set on an island in the middle of Lake Superior. And the way it takes the changing season and the landscape and just makes it something so alive and so sinister is really breathtaking.
And pick up anything basically by Nova Ren Suma. My favorites of hers are IMAGINARY GIRLS and THE WALLS AROUND US. Her prose is so stunning and so atmospheric all the way through and she writes you know, sort of reality with a twist, so that it’s super literary
and then there’s just this one thing that’s a little weird, and you have to keep reading and put together for yourself what’s going on.
And the other author that I will read anything she writes is Frances Hardinge. After reading CUCKOO SONG, that was the most breathtakingly terrifying fantasy. It was wonderful.
And there’s a point about 40 pages in where—I can’t really describe it because I don’t want to spoil it for people, but there’s a detail that she drops at the end of this one scene that just
made me sink down in my chair. Just leaking teakettle noises like… [Amelinda teakettle-like squeaking noise] Oh my god, it was fantastic.
Jade: That is the reaction you want if you’re writing something spooky. That’s like the ultimate reaction.
Amelinda: Exactly, it was just that one little detail that just oh my god. It was so beautiful.
And to pick a couple of Canadian authors, THE NIGHT GARDENER by Jonathan Auxier. It’s bizarre and completely original I guess it was based on a nightmare he had at some point. And it’s completely terrifying and delicious. And there’s also one by Kenneth Oppel called THE NEST. Which technically is middle grade but like oh man, it has to do with wasps.
Amelinda: and like yeah, right as soon as you say that it’s like you sort of get the feeling that comes with this book. It was magnificent, involved like finding wasp nests built
basically all the way through a house that it was. Oh my god. It was really scary.
So I could go on and on but those are some standout titles.
Jade: Yeah, I’m gonna add some of those to my Goodreads. I’ve had THE WICKED DEEP on my radar for a while now. So it’s good to know that it delivers as well.
So a lot of our listeners will be writers themselves. Do you have any other advice for authors on how to approach maybe their first spooky book, or just putting in some additional spooky elements to something to make it more atmospheric?
Amelinda: I think my biggest advice is to I guess in a sense to reiterate that old saw like “write what you know,” but in sense of like, pick a place that you find spooky and write about it. Or pick tropes that you find spooky and write about those, write about what scares you. You know?
Like you know they say no tears in the author, no tears in the reader, and it’s the same thing with spookiness. If this isn’t what harrows up your soul, you’re not gonna get to your readers.
And I would say too that if you can, and this is the hard part, also write about what genuinely scares you. And I don’t even mean in a spooky way, like what frightens you?
Like what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? What are you afraid is true, or what are you afraid to talk about?
It’s a really great tool to work on those things, to work through those things and that fear really comes through the execution. You can feel it. Those stories that have that live wire
at the heart, that’s what it is. There’s a core of genuine feeling in the best spooky stories and if you can harness that you will really speak to people.
Amelinda: And don’t be afraid to get a little emo, you know, don’t be afraid to be dramatic, like getting your feels. These are the big questions, you know, like these are the big—it IS dramatic, so like go for it, don’t feel like you have to hold back and sort of be ironic and second-guess yourself, just go for broke.
People will tell me whether or not they felt like they got that live wire feeling from my debut, right? Like I can’t judge that, but like I can say that, you know—it’s not a coincidence that that story involves so much anxiety. And particularly anxiety about owning your sexuality, anxiety about losing control, those were things that I was really struggling to talk about and that found a way through to that story. I hope that comes across. It’s an effect on a reader right, so I cannot say myself whether it does, but I felt like the reason I finally had success with that story was because I managed in some way a little bit to tap into those things.
Jade: Yeah, yeah, I absolutely agree
If you don’t feel anything as you’re writing as an author your audience probably won’t feel it either.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s hard to get into that place. You know, because we’re trained so much to keep our distance from the big feels, and when you get into your big feels that you know, it’s melodramatic. It’s embarrassing. People kind of move away from that, they’re a little uncomfortable about it. So it’s hard. It’s hard to give yourself permission to go there.
But it can be really effective if you do and it can be really cathartic, too. I feel like I work through things writing spooky stories.
Jade: Yeah. I think you’ve brought some really good points throughout every single question asked so far and you know, I could literally talk about spookiness and compare notes and everything all day but I think we’re out of time at the moment and I just want to say thank you so much for joining me. I will definitely check out some of the books that you have recommended because I like being a little bit scared. You know, that middle grade reader that I was when I was 12. She definitely gravitated toward spooky
So thank you so much. For all our listeners who maybe want to follow you or see what you’re up to, where can they find you online?
Amelinda: I am mostly on Twitter @metuiteme. I’m on both Twitter and Instagram
under that handle and my website is also www.metuiteme.com
Jade: Well, okay cool. And obviously your books will be available from all good bookstores and online to pre-order now
Amelinda: As far as I know. Yep, I don’t think the second one is up for pre-order yet, but it should be soon
Jade: Brilliant. Well, thank you ever so much again for joining me and spending the time talking to me about spookiness and the wonder of the genre and to everyone listening at WriteOnCon 2019, thank you so much for joining us as well.
If you’d like to take part in the discussion, we would love for you to do so in the comments of the podcast page. So enjoy the rest of the conference and happy writing.
Thank you again, Amelinda.
Amelinda: Thank you