Kid’s Stuff: Australian Children’s Horror Fiction

Much fine horror has been written under the guise of children’s fiction in this country and it would be foolish to disregard it all as “kids stuff”. There are some truly thought provoking and chilling tales worthy of attention by children and adults alike. Australian children’s publishers, it would seem, have been more willing to break new ground than their adult counterparts.

“Horror” tales written for younger readers (7-13 age group) are usually strange or unusual rather than truly frightening. Spooky is a good term to use for these stories. The popular Australian children’s writer Paul Jennings believes that up until about the age of twelve children can’t really cope with horror. He doesn’t want them to think that there is something horrible outside the window when they finish one of his stories. This benign view of horror seems to hold true for this younger age group.

Teenage fiction is quite a different story. Teenagers, of course, have access through television to a wide variety of horrors. Not only the likes of “Freddie” from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, but also the real life horrors they see on the nightly news. A lot of teenagers also read adult horror fiction such as Stephen King or Virginia Andrews. As a consequence much of the horror fiction written for older readers is quite sophisticated and can often be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

When it comes to classifying horror fiction children’s publishers seem to use considerable poetic licence. A lot of the stories published as children’s horror in Australian are ghost stories. These range from the downright frightening and creepy to the humorous. Many other stories are probably more correctly termed weird or fantastic tales. But it doesn’t stop there. In children’s books the genre even gets extended freely into SF, crime, mystery and suspense. This broad-brush approach, however, includes many tales which will probably be of interest to readers of horror and the macabre which may well otherwise have been overlooked.

The first horror book published in Australia for children is Shudders and Shakes, Ghostly Tales from Australia, (William Collins, 1972) edited by Anne Ingram. As a bookseller, reviewer and editor of children’s books, Ingram recognised that although children love stories about ghosts and eerie happenings, the only books available to Australian kids at that time were imported. Ingram embarked on a considerable piece of research to rectify the situation. The result was this collection of bush yarns, folk tales and anecdotal stories of strange happenings across the length and breadth of Australia.

The actual fiction content of this book is minimal, confined in the main to excerpts of unexplained or ghostly happenings from novels which are otherwise unrelated to the horror genre. Writers such as Patricia Wrightson, Nan Chauncey, Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele are represented. However these pieces hold little scare value, even for children, and are probably best categorised as strange or unusual. Surprisingly it is the non-fiction tales which present the most chills in this volume.

Ingram’s book was followed a few years later by A Handful of Ghosts (Hodder and Stoughton, 1976), edited by Barbara Ker Wilson. This is an all fiction volume which is subtitled “thirteen eerie tales by thirteen Australian writers”. Colin Thiele is again represented with an excerpt from one of his novels, this time Uncle Gustav’s Ghosts (Rigby, 1974). Ivan Southall’s contribution here is based on a real life seance experience and is uncanny rather than frightening. Hesba Brinsmead has published a number of ghost stories elsewhere under the name H. Brinsmead-Hungerford and Sally Odgers has gone on to produce a considerable body of work which includes a number of pieces of fantasy and science fiction.

The third volume of Australian ghost stories to appear was Spooks and Spirits “eight eerie tales” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1978) edited by Margaret Hamilton. The stories in this volume are “softer”, intended for a younger audience, I think, than the previous volumes. Indeed, the piece by Michael Dugan, although it is a good story, contains no ghosts or supernatural elements at all. Most of the other writers are better known for general children’s fiction than for their work in the genre, though Ruth Park has produced some notable fantasy work.

The 1970s was a time of change in the western world, so it is interesting that this was the decade that Australian children saw their first home grown horror fiction, albeit soft horror in the form of traditional ghost stories. This, however, was a start. Local publishers had dipped their toe in the water and found it not unpleasant. At least two of these volumes were reprinted and publishers continued to experiment with the genre into the 1980s.

The decade opened with The Moving Skull and Other Awesome Australian Verse (Hodder and Stoughton, 1981) edited by Michael Dugan. As the title indicates it is a collection of spooky poetry about monsters, witches, ghosts and bunyips, penned by a variety of contributors most of whom I do not recognise apart from Dugan himself and a young Sarah Endacott with a piece called “The Onfalong”.

Three years later, Australia saw its first children’s horror novel, although it was not marketed as such. This was The Green Piper (Penguin, 1984) by Victor Kelleher. Ostensibly written and published for adolescents, it is a mysterious, sinister tale loosely based on a contemporary “Pied Piper” theme. It is interesting to note, even though this book is a well told, gripping story in the same class as Kelleher’s other books, it was the only Kelleher book of that decade not to win or be nominated for a major children’s literature/writing prize. One can only assume that the dark/supernatural subject matter was before its time.

The middle Eighties saw the first work published by the now famous Paul Jennings. The Naked Ghost (Longman Cheshire, 1985), as the title suggests, is a ghost story, perhaps more serious than a lot of his later work, but still with a touch of Jennings humour. Penguin also published their first Jennings book, Unreal! – Eight Surprising Stories (Puffin, 1985), which became an almost immediate bestseller and Jennings was set to become an Australian publishing phenomenon.

Jennings’ stories are quirky, fantastic, spooky, bizarre tales usually with a dollop of humour and a twist in the tail. He makes free use of science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural, generally with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. In this early period of his work all his books contained at least one or two ghost or spooky stories.

Unreal contains “Skeleton on the Dunny”, “Lighthouse Blues” and “Without a Shirt”. Unbelievable! – More Surprising Stories (Puffin, 1986) includes “Inside Out”. Quirky Tales – More Oddball Stories (Puffin, 1987) has “Spooks Incorporated”, “Sneeze ‘n Coffin” and “Unhappily Ever After”. Uncanny! – Even More Surprising Stories (Puffin, 1988) has “A Good Tip for Ghosts”.

Victor Kelleher ventured into horror again in 1988 after publishing two SF novels. This was Baily’s Bones (Viking Kestrel, 1988), a frightening contemporary story of possession with links to Australia’s aboriginal and convict past, a past full of violence and death. Baily’s Bones was the first work of children’s horror to come close to winning a major literary award, in this case it was the joint runner-up for the South Australian Festival Award.

The decade of the 1980s closed with a dead heat for the first ever single author collection of “horror” stories by an Australian children’s author. One was The Boy on the Lake – Stories of the Supernatural for “young adults” (UQP, 1989) by Judith Clarke. The other was Things in Corners (1989) by Ruth Park.

Clarke’s tales are stories of ghosts, possessions and monsters. These tales are more menacing and mature than those previously published for younger readers. Here we find supernatural creatures wishing to “possess” the human form of unwitting victims, not so benign hauntings and sinister beings. But not all the stories are horror. A few of the stories are poignant and sentimental or just simply weird tales.

Park’s collection contains five stores that are described as deliciously horrifying stories that will make your hair stand on end and keep you turning the pages.

The growing popularity of Australian horror fiction for children and “young adults” in the 1980s continued into the 1990s. Indeed, it could be said that Australian children’s horror has come of age in the ’90s.

Omnibus Books straddled the decades with three horror related anthologies edited by Penny Matthews: Amazing (1989), Bizarre (1989) and Weird (1990). Again, these are “soft” stories, more strange or unusual than horrific.

Paul Jennings returned in the early 1990s with three more books of his distinctive short stories. These were, Round the Twist (Puffin, 1990), Unbearable! More Bizarre Stories (Puffin, 1990) and Unmentionable! – More Amazing Stories (Puffin, 1991). These books, however, contain fewer “spooky” stories than his earlier work.

With his horror novel, Strange Objects (William Heinemann, 1990), Gary Crew broke new ground in teenage fiction. It was the first horror novel of any kind to win major literary recognition in this country. Prizes including the Premier’s Literary Award, a NSW State Literary Award, and the prestigious Children’s Book of the Year for Older Readers.

The title, Strange Objects, is from a quote taken from H. P. Lovecraft’s Dagon and other Macabre Tales: “For there are strange objects in the great abyss, and the seeker of dreams must take care not to stir up, or meet, the wrong ones . . .”

The story begins when a present-day teenager, Steven Messenger, finds some gruesome relics, an iron pot, a leather bound journal and a mummified human hand, from the wrecked Dutch vessel Batavia which struck uncharted rocks of the coast of Western Australia on 4 June 1629. The Batavia’s tale is drenched in blood, because before help could arrive, over 120 of the ship-wreck victims were murdered by two fellow survivors.

Four months after finding the relics Steven Messenger mysteriously disappears without a trace from outside an isolated roadhouse on the central Western Australian coast. The mystery deepens when Messenger’s personal journal is mailed to the Institute of Maritime Archaeology in Perth. The tale of the Batavia’s shipwreck victims unfold alongside Messenger’s own tale in a gripping story of intrigue, horror and mystery.

Strange Objects is arguably the best Australian horror novel yet published. While it was originally published for children, following its enormous critical and popular success, it has now also been published in an adult imprint (Mandarin, 1994).

Crew followed Strange Objects with a borderline horror novel called No Such Country (William Heinemann, 1991). It is set in a small town called New Canaan which is cut off from the world by sea and swamp. The story is described as a “tale of old guilt, superstition and ghastly secrets” and begins when a series of peculiar events happen which become known to the town-folk as “signs”. As you would expect from Crew, this is a well told tale that I think will interest many horror readers.

A first glance at Mandragora (Mammoth, 1991) by David McRobbie might also make one think of Crew. Here is another novel based around a historical ship wreck on the Australian coast. Not only that, but here, too, an evil from the past is brought into the present via an artefact from the shipwreck.

But despite this superficial plot likeness to Strange Objects, and the fact they are both fine novels (Mandragora was short-listed for the Children’s Book of the Year Award), there the similarities end. McRobbie’s book is based on the wreck of the “Loch Ard” off the Victorian coast from which there were only two survivors. A young couple who left something behind in a cave which is found a hundred years later by another young couple. Something best left undisturbed.

The same year, Victor Kelleher published his third horror novel, Del-Del (Random House 1991). Del-Del, also achieved literary recognition. It was short-listed in Australia for the Children’s Book of Year Award for Older Readers and in the UK it was short-listed for the prestigious Carnegie Medal. Del-Del, is a kind of mystery/suspense, terror/horror novel. Kelleher describes it as a novel which “employs psychological terror and also plays with a deep sense of mystery.”

Also that year, New Zealand born writer Caroline MacDonald published a book of short stories, Hostilities (Omnibus, 1991), which will be of marginal interest to horror readers. They are tales of day to day life, some which verge chillingly on fantasy or the inexplicably bizarre.

In 1992, following the success of the her earlier volumes, Penny Matthews edited two more anthologies for teenagers, Spine-Chilling: Ten Horror Stories and Hair-Raising: Ten Horror Stories (both Omnibus Books, 1992). Again, the definition of horror is open to interpretation and we find a mixed bag: horror, SF, ghost, crime, and just plain strange stories. The strongest contributions in Hair-Raising come from Victor Kelleher, Lucy Sussex and Garry Disher, while Gary Crew and Ursula Dubosarsky provide the best stories in Spine-Chilling. These are the first children’s anthologies to include writers with a background in genre fiction and it is interesting to note that theirs are among the best stories.

Isobelle Carmody’s novel The Gathering (Puffin, 1993) is another landmark of Australian children’s horror. It won the 1994 Children’s Book of the Year for Older Readers and was joint winner of the 1993 Children’s Peace Literature Award. It is one of the few books to rival the supremacy of Gary Crew’s Strange Objects and, like Crew’s book, The Gathering deserves a wider readership than the niche “young adult” market.

Without a doubt The Gathering is Carmody’s best work to date, a novel of dark fantasy with a contemporary setting. Somewhat of a departure from her previous futuristic post-apocalypse worlds. With this book she has selected a modern-day industrial town as a backdrop for her multi-layered themes which include power and corruption, institutionalised evil, peer pressure and friendship.

The Gathering tells the gripping tale of a teenage boy, Nathanial, who comes to live in the town of Cheshunt with his mother, only to find, despite an outward appearance of normalcy, that something about the place is terribly wrong.

Nathanial discovers society is undermined by an ancient, malignant evil which threatens to grow outward from this seemingly normal town unless Nathanial and his newfound friends can discover its source and defeat it. It is a battle they must fight alone because the truth sounds so unbelievable that no adult will believe them. Indeed, the most sinister thing about this corruption is that it is cloaked by a guise of respectability.

Carmody herself says of the book: “Evil does exist in our systems and society, and children observe this. Adults, on the other hand, don’t see the evil, or more to the point, they don’t want to know about it. When challenged, adults will justify corruption in a system by arguing that ‘it’s just the way it is’.” The dangers that prevail in this sort of attitude are brought home in this compelling book. Its strengths are those of her previous books, Carmody’s worlds and characters are well-drawn and her tales intriguing.

David McRobbie returned to horror in 1993 with a collection of short stories, This Book is Haunted (Mammoth, 1993). As the titles suggests, these are primarily ghost stories but humour is balanced with horror here to provide an entertaining mix.

That same year, science fiction and fantasy writer Dirk Strasser (co-editor of Aurealis) also published his first children’s book, a horror story called Graffiti (Ashton Scholastic, 1993). Although this is only a slim volume, little more than a short story, it was nominated alongside adult SF works for the 1993 Ditmar Award.

In 1994 Random House Australia introduced the “Hair-Raisers” horror series by “Lee Striker” for younger readers. These are the first Australian attempt to tackle the likes of US based R.L. Stine type horror books. The interesting thing here is that “Lee Striker” is in fact a pseudonym for well known Australian Children’s writer Margaret Clark. The first two books in the series are Evil at Camp Star and House of the Living Dead. Planned to follow in July 1995 are Dead Kids Tell No Tales and Revenge of the Vampire Librarian.

Perth writer Glyn Parry toyed with horror with two very different books in 1994. In his story collection Radical Take-offs (Little Ark, 1994) Parry mixed science fiction, fantasy and horror to produce bizarre tales which include a scary parallel universe where nothing is as it should be, a slumber party curse, a werewolf father, demonic dream stealers and a suburban ghost train. In Monster Man (Random House, 1994) Parry explores real life horror. It is a taught, realistic book about child abduction and molestation.

1995 began with a collection of young adult stories of marginal horror interest, Nightmares in Paradise (UQP, 1995) edited by Robyn Sheahan. These are stories by Queensland writers which explore the down-side of “tropical paradise”. There is nothing supernatural here, more disturbing or uncomfortable realism. Predictably, Gary Crew has one of the strongest offerings.

Garry Disher followed with a collection of short stories called Restless (Angus and Robertson, 1995). It is a thin volume containing six stories of suspense and the supernatural, sub-titled “stories of flight and fear”. Disher is a writer of considerable talent and as you might expect these are fine stories. Some might argue they are not horror stories but it would be semantics. Dark fantasy and ghost stories, if you like, with an excellent crime story thrown in to boot. My favourites are “Blame the Wind”, a ghost story incorporating some of those urban myth type tales traditionally told around campfires, and “The Isle of Sighs”, a story of ghostly possession. The best story, however, is the crime/suspense story “Where the Bodies are Buried” (previously published in Lucy Sussex’s Shadow Alley).

The evidence is clear, Australian children’s horror fiction is going from strength to strength, building on a considerable body of work. Thankfully, the trend looks set to continue. There are rumours of more books in the pipeline and at least one new book is confirmed for publication later this year. This is new anthology called Dark House (Mammoth) edited by Gary Crew and I for one will be keen lay my eyes on it.