The Moral Compass

Back in the day when children’s fiction first originated, moral lessons where what counted when it came down to writing for children. In my last blog, I talked about Hans Christian Anders, who is an excellent example in this case. His horrific fairytales were supposed to serve as lessons for children: “If you don’t behave, it won’t end well for you.” Now, I might have a slight problem. My manuscripts do not contain the slightest bit of moral lessons. It itself, that wouldn’t matter, if it weren’t for the fact that my characters steal, swear and basically appear very rude. It’s all for a cause, but here I’m left wondering if I shouldn’t get them punished one way or another.

As for the stealing, it happens twice in my first book. The first time, my main character finds a device in his friend’s shed that he believes may help him solve the mystery. She won’t give it to him because she doesn’t know how it works and is afraid he will break it. The main character steals it, uses it for his cause and then accidentally breaks a part of it. His friend ends up screaming she does not want to be him around him ever again, but ends up sticking around as she wants to help solve the problem that’s affecting everyone in town. In the second instance, the main character needs some bags of salt in order to build a trap. However, he does not realise there is more than enough left at home and breaks into a restaurant, ran by a nice, old lady. In both instances, he definitely feels bad for stealing, but it won’t have any lasting consequences: in the end, it all literally will be forgotten, thanks to the fact that the main character is fighting a magical monster with the ability to erase people’s minds.

As for the swearing, I am not sure how bad it is. My main characters do not go around cursing, but some name calling definitely happens. Most of it is taken from children’s cartoons, to make sure it is acceptable. However, I personally do not have a clue, as I am writing for an audience that I am not part of. What is offensive in The Netherlands is not necessarily offensive in Great Britain, and the other way around – at least, this is what my teachers explained to me. Not to insult anyone, but I’ve heard that the word “shit” is considered very offensive in Great Britain, while around here, people don’t even say it anymore because it is such a weak insult. I would not use the word in a children’s story, but I feel the cultural difference is important to the explanation. I’ve had my characters say “moron” and “crap”, however, mainly because television has taught me those are generally considered alright. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As for the rudeness, the story mostly entails a group of children running around, trying to catch a face-swapping monster before it is too late. They bump into people and often tell them to look in a mirror – not because they are ugly, but because they have become the monster’s victims. Other than that it angers some people, there are no repercussions for it.

My dilemma as a writer is if I should try to be a moral compass. I personally feel it is not necessary – adult intervention would ruin a story driven by children – but sometimes I wonder if the stealing should not be overlooked. I figured that the main character’s guilt would be enough… but is it? Should a writer be clear about morality?

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My Sources of Inspiration, Part II: The Masters of Horror

In every writer’s life, there are other writers who serve as his or her highly esteemed examples. In my case, these people are writers of the fantastic and the horrifying. Not all of them are technically specialised in horror as a genre, but the ones on this list certainly know how to give children the chills.

Hans Christian Anders is the first person on my list. This nineteenth-century author is mostly known for his terrifying fairy tales, that used to spook children all over Denmark and later the world. Fairy tales are tales with a moral, but the only way to impose a moral on children seems to be by frightening them – or that is at least what Anders’ work implies. In his The Red Shoes, a girl loses her soul when she decides to put on her red shoes for her communion. She has to dance until she dies. In The Little Mermaid – and by that, I mean the original tale – a young mermaid trades her voice for a pair of legs in order to charm a human prince. However, part of the trade was that she would die if she could not win the prince over. The mermaid dies. These moralistic tales contain very macabre concepts, as they all end with young girls dying due to pacts with what is most likely the devil. Sure, they had a function in the nineteenth-century society, but they were pretty horrific as well. I loved them.

R.L. Stine, writer of the famous Goosebumps series, is the second person on my list. Second because he was the second writer of horror I can recall because of the impact he had on my life. He was the one who caused me to hate ventriloquists – such a shame – , made me believe my neighbours were vampires – I didn’t even know who they were, how spooky! – and above all made me want to scare children the way he could. I still have some of his books standing in my bookcase. Especially The Ghost Next Door left an imprint on me. Not because of its surprise ending, but because structure. The reader should have seen the ending coming… But I didn’t. I loved the feeling I got when I finally connected all the pieces of the puzzle. I am not good at writing mystery, though.

J.K. Rowling – apparently pronounced like “rolling” – is not really a horror writer, but she definitely knew how to create some terrifying scenes. I absolutely hated her Dementors, long before I saw them on screen. Her description of those soul-sucking creatures gave me chills that lasted for a long time. In fact, I think the Dementors from the movie are not anywhere near the picture in my mind. Sure, they were scary, but the power of imagination sometimes is much stronger. I feared the cemetery scene of Voldemort’s resurrection, I always dreaded the moment where Sirius would fall through the portal – I think I read the books about seven times – and I wanted to throw out the book during the lake scene with the zombies. The books may not have been scary in the startling sense, but they sure filled me with dread.

Darren Shan is the last writer on this list, because he was the last one I discovered. I originally started out reading his The Saga of Darren Shan, the story about a boy who became a vampire. I later went on to read his The Demonata, a series about werewolves demons and magicians. Both series were awfully dark and detailed and haunted me in my nightmares, yet I read them over and over again. They kept luring me back into their strange worlds of daylight-loathing creatures. My target audience is slightly lower than that of these series, but they probably are the most terrifying books I can think of.

All in all, reading horror as a child turned me into the person I am nowadays. While I definitely love to be frightened by a nice horror movie or book, I prefer to be the one to scare others, no matter how impossible it may seem.