Young Adult Literature’s Darker Side Attracts More Readers
She woke up in the middle of the woods, unable to remember how she got there. The moonlight hid behind the thick foliage, darkness now overwhelming her psyche. Her head hurt, her surroundings a blur. But then, just when she was gaining the strength to lift herself up, she saw those familiar eyes – those red eyes that haunted her dreams. A sharp pain numbed her legs, immobilizing her. She had now come face-to-face with her nightmare…
And that is when thunder roared. You quickly shut your book and hid under your bed covers. But you had to find out what happens next. Does the heroine find her strength to fight her worst fear? What would the pages reveal? Although each chapter read would make it harder for you to fall asleep, you could not put the book down. Perhaps you wanted the escape, an escape from your reality. At that point in your life, maybe failing a math test was, in fact, scarier.
Children’s imaginations create vivid stories, either of the monster hiding under the bed or of something waiting for you to fall asleep and then emerge from the closet. As we get older, our fears change; teenagers may deal with their high school reality (that can be terrifying sometimes), or with a serious illness, or with their parents’ divorce. Later, we are constantly reminded that real life horror does exist, and how we still have more things to learn and understand about humanity. For some, getting lost in a scary fictional world feels like therapy. For others, the thrill of getting scared can be addicting. Numerous reasons, numerous theories abound. One thing is for sure, however, there is a certain allure in dark stories.
The Young Adult and New Adult sections in bookstores contain a myriad of dark fantasy and paranormal tales, of dystopian societies, of love stories between humans and monsters. YA and NA literature touches on death and chronic illness too. All year round, you will find pre-teens, teens, and even older adults browsing these sections looking for the best horror and dark fiction. Why are both readers and writers so attracted to this genre?
In Rick Chiantaretto’s “Death of the Body” (Book 1 of the “Crossing Death” series), we meet Edmund, a young boy who grew up in a different world, one full of magic. He can understand nature, even talk to the trees. One day, the “kingdom of men” conquers his town. The betrayer, the one they all trusted, murders him.
“I watched in disbelief as blood seeped through my fingers and dripped, thick as syrup, to the ground,” narrates Edmund. “As I lay sobbing on the ground, the thought that I was going to die became more and more real. Already my blood was soaking back into the earth that I loved so much,” he tells us in the book’s prologue. But our young hero does not stay dead. He later wakes up in Los Angeles (a strange city) without his memories of his hometown and his past life. We then join him in his adventure to find out who he really is, protect his friends, and get back to Orenda. This story does not have vampires or zombies, but it is definitely darker fiction.
Interested in the allure of the uncanny in YA and NA literature, we interviewed Rick Chiantaretto to find out about his literary influences and his take on darker fiction’s popularity.
Orlando Style: Who are your literary influences?
Rick Chiantaretto: I suppose I could call out the dark fiction greats here, people like Stephen King and Anne Rice, people who have proved that dark fiction can be wildly successful, but I would have to admit that while they are an inspiration, they are not my influences. I would have to say that LJ Smith’s “The Forbidden Game” series taught me to love to read, and how to craft surprising and fulfilling endings. Nancy Kilpatrick encouraged me when I was a young writer and taught me how to approach Gothic, religious, and spiritual themes with care and respect. Bram Stoker taught me how to scare a reader using intellect and psychology.
I take influence from everywhere, but particularly from things I don’t personally like. I can give you a specific example: “Twilight” was (and is) insanely popular while being highly criticized for its dependent relationships and weak female characters; but I have to admit that “Death of the Body” is written in the first person point-of-view as a direct result of Stephenie Meyer. She taught me how to hear that voice in my head, and how to craft a story from a single point-of-view. I loved the dual first person voice in “The Host,” and grew excited about the prospect of using the first person point-of-view in my own work. By the same token, you can bet my female characters are going to be strong and capable, and the romantic relationships equal.
Finally, I have to thank the ghosts that lived in my basement while I was growing up. They were terrifying.
OS: What inspired you to write NA fiction?
RC: I didn’t actually set out to write an NA book. I wanted to write a novel specifically for adults but that could relate to readers of all ages. I wanted to bridge the gap between “Young Adult” and “Adult,” and as it turns out, that’s exactly what “New Adult” does. I view NA the same way I view YA literature: I don’t believe it’s a genre or a reading level, but in its purest form, is solely based on the age of the main characters in the book.
For the majority of my story, my main character is 21. Because of his age, he is experiencing the transition into adulthood that allows me, as a writer, to approach subjects that typically wouldn’t be appropriate for YA readers. I wanted to write about the struggle of living alone for your first time, self acceptance and discovery, college life, alcohol and drug abuse, sexuality, religion, and politics (all those subjects we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company).
I wanted to write a book that didn’t force any of these subjects into the plot, but that wasn’t afraid to discuss them either.
OS: What was your inspiration for writing the “Crossing Death” series? Do you share any personality traits with your main characters?
RC: The entire “Crossing Death” series was inspired by two very vivid dreams I had. In those dreams, I played Edmund (the main character). As an interesting side note, “Death of the Body” actually ends exactly where the first of my dreams ended, complete with the very last line of the book.
Of course, there were plot holes to fill in, and things that made sense in the dream that I had to work around when re-imagining the story, but many of the details in the book (including Max the dog, Mother Tree, and the test on the hillside in Part 1 that was meant to weed out magical people), all happened in the dream exactly as they are described in the book. So, in a way, I feel like this series was given to me by some higher power. I just hope I can do it justice.
Since I played Edmund in the dream, […] there are many characteristics that, I hope, we share. Edmund is very loyal, but he is flawed, and those are two characteristics that I see in myself. I also write myself into all of my characters a little bit, or, at least, characteristics that I would like to have. Nicholas’s confidence, for example, or Linda Rose’s cunning (maybe that isn’t evident in book one. Teasers are included in this interview, ha!). I relate to each of the characters in some way … but I suppose that could be said of any author. Our characters become family.
OS: Why are young adults fascinated with darker fiction?
RC: One of my favorite quotes about horror fiction is (paraphrased), “Horror explicates the darkness at the reader’s soul.” I believe that dark literature is popular because we learn something about ourselves not only by becoming involved with the protagonist, but also specifically by becoming involved with the antagonist.
Take vampires for instance. They are immortal, powerful, sexy, alluring, unafraid, and even predatory versions of human beings. Vampires overcome our universal fears of death, of isolation, of being powerless, and most importantly, of not being sexy enough!
When we examine the antagonist in a dark story, we find little pieces of our fears and ourselves. I believe this is what allows me, as a dark author, to show you something about yourself that you don’t want others to know. I get to tantalize the dark side that is in your very own heart. And expressing that is exactly why dark fiction is fascinating.
OS: Why do older adults read YA and NA fiction?
RC: I’ll reiterate that I do not believe that YA and NA classifications are a representation of the reading level of the book. It all has to do with the age of the main characters in the book. You can see the success that [both] YA and NA [literature] have with adult readers by looking at some of the most popular YAL books today: “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.”
I think a piece of the darkness that every adult carries is the regret of missed opportunities in childhood and teenage years. Some of these aren’t big regrets, but more like, “I should have stood up for myself,” or “Why did I care what that person thought of me in school.”
YA and NA fiction allows us to immerse into the life of a character who understands those regrets and who is living them right now. We can watch these characters struggle, sometimes stumbling and sometimes overcoming. YA books have a way of validating our regrets. In a way, I believe these stories give us a second chance. As an author, I know that’s why I write them.
For additional information on Rick Chiantaretto and his stories, please visit rickchiantaretto.com
Two More Creepy Recommendations for Young Adults (and Adults who Prefer Milder Horror Stories)
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 2013)
When Tana wakes up, she finds herself surrounded by death. The only other survivors in this house are her ex-boyfriend, who is now infected, and a mysterious guy with a horrible secret. Although scared, Tana races to save the three of them by going straight to the heart of Coldtown. In Tana’s world, walled cities called Coldtowns were built to quarantine the monsters and the infected humans. But there’s a problem, if you pass through a Coldtown’s gates, you are stuck there forever.
“The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” takes you to a world of love and loathing, guilt and horror, rage and revenge.
Through Glass by Rebecca Ethington (Imdalind Press; 2013)
“This wasn’t a nightmare. It was real. Monsters and onyx skies the color of ink. The emptiness of my house, the forever missing screams of my brothers. This was my new reality, it was all real.”
The first volume of the “Through Glass” novella series includes Books 1-3 and tells the story of 17-year old Alexis. The teen is the only survivor in her family after the world goes black, after the darkness ate the people. Now trapped alone in her house, after the monsters took everything away, she sees the boy she loves only through the glass.