Something Nasty in the Nursery: Gothic Children’s Fiction

The books we loved and cherished as kids say a lot about us as adults.  Any grown woman who remembers Ramona Quimby or Katie John fondly probably has an independent streak.  The boys who grew up reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Science Fiction for kids grew up to be men with an interest in science.  But what do you say to the kids who fell for The Graveyard Book, Lemony Snicket’s series and The Mysterious Benedict Society?  Welcome to the World of Gothic Literature, kiddies; your crypt is right this way?

I hope not because Gothic doesn’t always equate to horror or an obsession with death.  What it promises is a spooky atmosphere where anything could happen.  The decrepit old cottage may turn out to be as wholesome as milk, the confining hills may be nothing but hills, but at first glance, every setting borders on the extreme.  The castle isn’t a castle, but a ruin, the land isn’t boggy and cold, it’s a moor where you might get stuck and sink to your doom.  Doom is a big concept in Gothic Lit. as is the idea of all things extreme.  The heroes are usually resourceful and brave, their adventures are perilous and great and the villains….oh, the villains are the best in the world.  They’re smart and evil and deliciously mean…Voldemort and Hannibal Lecter level mean.
Okay, so why do kids and former kids enjoy these quirky stories so much?  First, because they seem (to us) so old fashioned.  The genre is about 250 years old, not as decrepit as other categories of literature, but to us, it seems downright quaint. A gothic story can kick up shades of the past without a bustle or hairpin in sight.  And because these are old-fashioned stories, we half-way know what to expect.

These are the stories from our old nursery rhymes where girls with curls can be very, very good or they might be completely horrid. Gone is the modern preoccupation with ennui and moral ambiguity. Whether characters in Gothic tales are “good” or “bad”, they are who they are with a vengeance.  And we appreciate that, especially when we are young.

So we love the extremes, we love the fantastic atmosphere and we love the clarity in the characters.  Does that make it a good choice for bedtime reading?  I’d say that depends on the kid.  Like every other literary genre, this one has its fans and its foes.  Give it to the child with too little interest and you’ll end up with a bored, angry kid.  If you give it to the one with too much imagination, be prepared for a few nightmares.  But don’t be surprised if even the nightmare sufferer clamours for more of these thrilling, atmospheric books.  Whatever else you can say about “Goth”, the stories are fun to read.

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