Fear Is Not Enough
I wrote a YA book recently, my first, and it is full of monsters. On page after page, demons of various size and shapes – but with a single predatory instinct – chase people through the streets of a vast city. Sometimes they catch them. The results are horrifying.
Why would I write this? There are two possible answers. One: I’m a truly terrible person, or, two: I know my audience. For obvious reasons, I’m going with the second explanation. Besides, everybody knows YA readers like to be scared. Demons, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and anything else an author can dream up jump off the covers of YA books. Ignore the supernatural novels, and you replace the monsters with bullies, illness, and even (natural) death.
So YA is all about the fear factor. Why?
The simple answer might be that we love the adrenaline rush we get from a fright, and teens and tweens love it even more, but I think there is more to this than a simple answer. I think the YA audience wants the same thing Shakespeare’s audience wanted, the same thing Euripides’ audience demanded: courage in the face of fear.
Think about it, even if the only thing young people want is the experience of fear, they don’t have to open a book (or switch on an e-reader) to get it. They can just, well, live. What is more consistently terrifying than being young? Forget the vampires, you’ve got tests and team tryouts, bullies and fickle friends, and looming over the horizon is the adult world that your parents don’t seem to like very much. What a YA novel provides is the characters’ response to terror. The audience already knows fear; they want to know if fear can be faced.
This is something I wanted to explore in my novel, City of Demons. The creatures in it use fear as a weapon, projecting it into the thoughts of their prey to paralyze them. A familiar concept for my readers, since I know they will have a paralyzing fear or two of their own. The book’s protagonist and his companions can fight the demons, but only if they are willing to stand up to this transmitted terror. If they succeed, they will become Demonbanes, if not they will become demon dinners. An interesting consequence of this fight is that conquering an artificial panic means they can also defeat more natural horrors.
And that’s what our readers want to know, “can I face my everyday fears?” Can they? From The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit, through The Hunger Games and to whatever comes next, we have been answering, “yes, yes you can, and this is how you do it.”
Kevin Harkness is a Vancouver writer who has just finished a third career as a high-school teacher. His first two careers: industrial 911 operator and late-blooming university student, were nowhere near as dangerous and exciting as teaching Grade 10s the mysteries of grammar and the joys of To Kill a Mockingbird. He also taught Mandarin Chinese – but that’s another story. Outside of family and friends, he has three passions: a guitar he can’t really play, martial arts of any kind from karate to fencing, and reading really good stories. In this fourth career, as a writer, he attempts young adult fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.