Post-Mortem: Can 80s YA Horror Stand the Test of Time?
It's 1989. I'm ten-years-old and nerdy, with long blonde hair and massive blue glasses. I'm tall for my age, and super-skinny. In my more romantic moments, I'd describe myself as "coltish." It's a pretty word often used to describe the lanky, awkward girls in the books I love. It makes me feel better about myself. Yes. I'm coltish. Darn it.
I walk into Waldenbooks for, like, the bazillionth time. I'm in Woodbridge Mall in New Jersey, and I've got a pocketful of gummy worms to gnaw on while I browse. I'm here with my mother and brother, both of whom are even more bookish than I, but I surely don't mind stopping in the bookstore. It's my favorite place in the whole mall...besides the candy store.
The shelves of Classic Literature and Travel Books are alluring and beautiful, though I speed through them. It smells good there, like glossy paper and glue, but I don't have time to pause. Instead I run my fingers along the spines of the Stephen King novels I'm not quite old enough to read, touching words like Carrie and Salem's Lot. We have these books at home, though. I don't waste my time here.
No. I head straight to the back, to the children's section, although I hate that it's called that. I'm no child, of course. Not in my own mind. But despite that fact, the children's section's brightly colored paperbacks are calling my name. Even more, a specific section is shouting, yelling, screaming for my attention. For my money. I pass Judy Blume. Tiger Eyes has no interest for me. I slip by The Babysitters Club, though I secretly still love to read about Kristy and Maryanne, Stacey and Claudia. That's not what I want today.
No. I'm headed for the long rows of mass market paperbacks, decked out with black-and-neon spines. Their titles are more unsettling than Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or Ramona Quimby, Age 8. These titles are closer to those Stephen Kings that I'm dying to read.
Bury Me Deep.
Hit and Run.
Don't Look Behind You.
I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Dun dun dun dun dun....
The horror section. 1980s Young Adult Horror Novels. I pick up a book — it doesn't matter which one. I crack it open and bring it to my nose. I inhale the scent of cheap, pulpy paper and ink.
I am home.
The Books I Loved
The 1980s were a boon time for young adult literature, although it was before the "YA" tag became a real thing. The books my generation read when we were kids were all simply "children's books," separated into picture books and paperbacks. The paperbacks were subdivided like the adult books: literature, classics, fantasy, and horror. My favorite.
Authors like Lois Duncan, who'd been writing scary stories for kids since the 1950s, were still publishing. R.L. Stine was just coming into his own, in the pre-Goosebumps days. Christopher Pike was terrifying a whole generation of kids with tales of ghosts and monsters.
They were prolific, this group of horror writers, often putting out multiple books per year, packing shelves with their horrific yarns. Though my family didn't have a huge budget, I always, somehow, had money for more and more books. Most of them were less than $5 a pop, anyway. They were cheap. Attainable. I packed my room full of them, reading them over and over until their spines were cracked and broken and their pages were torn and tattered.
To me, these books offered a glimpse of something horrible, yes. Goblins and cursed things, haunted houses and evil creatures. They offered me a glimpse of paradise, too, though. A place away from the drudgery of late elementary school and early middle school, where I was often lonely and always bored. The books almost always featured female main characters, not much older than me, often in similar life circumstances. They were usually the poorer kids, struggling to keep up with those who had more than they. I understood that.
The girls were often pretty, which I wasn't, but wanted to be someday. And they were BRAVE. All of them, these girls who found themselves facing monsters, were able to step up to face devastating circumstances, and they were able to SURVIVE.
Perhaps they were an early indicator of the true stories I'd spend my life studying: people (mostly women) finding themselves in unbelievable situations, facing untenable odds, working and hoping and praying for LIFE.
More likely, it was just fun to imagine myself a bad-ass, staring down evil and triumphing in the end.
The YA horror stories of the 80s had happy endings, for the most part, at least for the main characters. Like the slasher movies of the same era, if you were a good girl, you lived. A sweet girl. A virgin. I saw myself in the good girls, or saw what I hoped to become. (Not that I understood what a virgin was at age ten, mind you. I glossed over the vaguely-sexy stuff.) And thus, I would have a happy ending, sometime in that fuzzy future "the end."
The stories of R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, Lael Littke, Lois Duncan: they were my source of inspiration.
Re-reading In My Thirties
When I first conceived this column, my plan was to do a bunch of research into the authors of those books I loved. I planned to write about their lives, their stories, the future authors they inspired.
Then I thought: why don't I just re-read a couple? Wouldn't that be far more fun (for me, at least...I confess, I wasn't thinking of you, dear reader, when I made my decision)?
This was easily accomplished. Though most of the books are currently out of print, their ilk long since set aside for the likes of Harry Potter, Divergent, and The Hunger Games, there's a fantastic used book store here called Mr. K's. I knew for a fact they had a stash of 1980s YA horror just waiting for me to find me. Calling to me. Sort of like...well, more on this in a minute.
Shopping was a joy. Weeding through piles of tattered paperbacks, searching for familiar titles, squealing like a little kid when I found a few I'd loved. Each was $1 or less. This was the smallest financial investment in research I've made in ages. Beautiful.
The first book I tried was an early favorite. I hadn't thought of it since I was (probably) thirteen years old, but as soon as I saw it, I remembered. Prom Dress was written by Lael Littke, and the cover alone took me back decades. On it, a demurely dressed young woman (with perfectly feathered bangs, the likes of which I always desired) reaches out for an old-fashioned, glowing, clearly-haunted dress. As soon as I saw the picture, I remembered the story: a girl steals a cursed dress from a crotchety old-lady-neighbor, bad things happen to the girl. I remembered the imagery of the whispering folds of satin, the soft and sweet scallops of lace. I remembered the words as clearly as if I'd read the book last week. The dress called to the girls, whispering to them, begging them to take it out dancing. Just like the books I read called to me.
How was it possible to remember something so well, something I never remembered...remembering? How could those words have stayed with me all those years?
I loved reading Prom Dress for the nostalgia of it.
What I didn't love, though, was its outdated view of girls...or maybe I didn't love the fact that its perspective wasn't outdated when it was written. In Prom Dress, every single girl is motivated by a singular desire: they want look good for a boy. It's a desire that certainly resonated with gawky, stick-figured, coltish young Leah, but it's not the kind of motivation I'd like to see perpetuated in my own daughter. I want her motivations (even for bad stuff) to be more complicated than "doing it for a boy." Give me a Hermione Granger or a Katniss Everdeen any day. I want my daughter to want to save the world! Can you blame me?
So I next turned to my old favorite author, Christopher Pike. I wished I'd been able to get my hands on his Spellbound, which I must have read twenty times in middle school. That was the book that made me want to be a runner, as one of the heroes was a cross-country track star. Don't drink milk before a race, Christopher Pike taught me in Spellbound. It's mucus-forming.
But alas. Mr. K's only had Bury Me Deep, a book I wasn't even sure I'd read...until I opened to the first page.
In Bury Me Deep, a high school senior has saved her pennies for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii. A trip involving boys, beaches, and scuba diving. It still, today, sounds like a trip I'd like to take. Only one problem: the main character's journey starts with a ghostly encounter on the airplane, and things only get weirder from there.
It was Bury Me Deep that interested me in scuba diving when I was a kid. Pike describes it like it's the most amazing thing on the planet. The weightlessness of neutral buoyancy; the beauty of deep waters. I read and re-read the pages about scuba dozens of times when I was young; I've always wanted to try it. Maybe someday I finally will.
Of the two books, it was definitely the Christopher Pike that I still loved. His writing is, perhaps, outdated, the language a little old-fashioned, but still! There are twists! There are turns! There are characters facing impossible odds! And the girl? She's not just in it for the boy.
Both books I read in a single sitting, devoting hours I did not have to reading. There's an innocence in the stories that I wouldn't have recognized as a child, nor would adults have seen, back then. They seemed dark, back then. Seductive at times. Potentially dangerous. But this was before dystopian children's lit became pervasive. Before Katniss killed other kids, and before Tris stirred up the factions and changed the world. 1980s horror was localized. Simpler. Not because times were simpler; they weren't. But back then, we were afraid of Son of Sam. We weren't afraid that a new president could blow up the world.
The Authors: What Happened Next?
The authors of 1980s YA horror novels were, in some cases, among the most prolific writers of our time. Look at R.L. Stine: his Goosebumps series is unrivaled in scope and adoration. When he came to Charleston last year, on the heels of the release of the Goosebumps movie, his event sold out immediately. My eight-year-old devours his books, and she was born a generation after they were written. Just this week she carried one into the doctor's office; everyone who saw her stopped to talk about how much they (or their children) love Stine's books.
It's similar for Christopher Pike, though not as widespread. Anecdotally, I can say: people still love his books. Most of my writer friends brighten at the mention of his name. "I love his books," they exclaim, and I squeal my agreement. It's a bonding experience, those of us who fell in love with horror stories in the 1980s, back when we were all kids. It's a common element, a shared passion.
I bought four books, that day at Mr. K's. I plan to set them on my daughter's bookshelf, tucked away beside her Percy Jacksons and her Spirit Animals. Maybe one day they'll call to her like that prom dress; maybe they won't. But if they do, and if they inspire her the way they inspired me, then I'll know: she is one of us, and I will be thrilled about that.
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