By Brittney Reed-Saltz
So, I love horror. But what made me this way?
Despite what people who don’t like horror novels might assume, it wasn’t a traumatic childhood event, or at least, not exactly. I did begin reading horror at a young age, and each title I picked up drew me farther down the road to becoming the reader I am today.
(As for what set off that initial spark of interest that made me pick up my first scary book, who knows for sure? I’m tempted to blame a mixture of genetics, great trick-or-treating experiences, and exposure to Tim Burton.)
In honor of that journey, here are the authors who had the biggest influence on my discovery of my favorite genre. I also identify what made me love their work, so if you’re struggling to understand a burgeoning young monster kid in your life, maybe this will help.
Where would I be without Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Not reading horror, that’s for sure. As a child, I didn’t realize that these were urban legends and folklore, and to be honest, I didn’t really care where the stories came from. They were terrifying and timeless, and accompanied by absolutely perfect illustrations by Stephen Gammell, and they scared me out of my wits. This series left an indelible mark on me, and looking at them even now gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I even have a pair of earrings featuring two iconic images from the series.
R. L. Stine
I grew up in the ’90s, a time when R. L. Stine was everywhere. I adored the Goosebumps series and lived for the times when my mom would take me to the bookstore that used to be in the Stones River Mall. I would sit on the floor and make the agonizing decision of which book I would pick to take home. When I aged out of Goosebumps, Fear Street was there waiting for me. Meant for teens, I read them when I was much younger, and I loved the covers as much as the stories. It seems silly and quaint now, but the Fear Street novel Goodnight Kiss is actually the only book I have ever stopped reading because it was too scary for me. I loved R. L. Stine because his books really scared me, featuring monsters and ghosts that felt actually dangerous, and adrenaline-fueled situations. But he also has a sense of humor, using lawn gnomes and ventriloquist dummies as villains. The mixture of laughs and thrills is still greatly appealing to me, as in movies like What We Do in the Shadows and books like My Best Friend’s Exorcism. And of course, I’m excited that he has continued the Fear Street series with You May Now Kill the Bride.
Edgar Allan Poe
I discovered Poe around fifth grade, thanks to “The Raven.” I already knew that I liked poetry thanks to Shel Silverstein, but I had not yet realized that you could write scary poetry, so Poe was a revelation. I also loved his short stories, especially “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” I don’t know if I even realized that I was reading classics; I just loved the dark twists and hypnotic language. A couple of years later I would go on to portray the Red Death in a school production of “The Masque of the Red Death,” which I greatly enjoyed because I got to wear a black cloak and be utterly dramatic.
Anne Rice is one of the adult authors that I read at a young age. I discovered her through the film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, which I rented from the local video store obsessively. Years later, I started reading the Vampire Chronicles books. My teachers were scandalized. I was in love with Rice’s flowery writing, dripping in angst and innuendo, and with her unforgettable characters. Lestat de Lioncourt is still my favorite fictional vampire. I mean, who wouldn’t admire the bravado and panache of a vampire who decides to break vampiric law and reveal his identity in the grandest possible way: Becoming a rock star?
My teachers also weren’t exactly thrilled about my budding love of Stephen King, either. I remember needing to obtain a special permission letter from my mom allowing me to order On Writing from the Scholastic book catalog (remember those?). In middle school I also read my way through Misery, Carrie, and other King classics. I even attempted IT, but stopped because at the time I thought that it was too adult and boring. (That’s the great thing about precocious kids: We test boundaries, but we also know how to set them for ourselves.) King is a consummate storyteller, and I loved his tangents and backstories that he wove into a colorful tapestry of story. He appealed to me as a kid because I saw him as the real deal, a writer who knew his stuff. When I realized that I wanted to become a writer, too, he was the writer I aspired to be.
I discovered Christopher Pike in junior high, and I responded really well to his more sophisticated but still accessible level of horror. One of my most vivid reading memories centers around silent reading time in eighth grade, on a late Spring day. The door was open to let in warm breezes, I was wearing my beloved Ramones T-shirt, and I was totally lost in Whisper of Death. Around that same time, I read all of the Last Vampire series, which is now available in omnibus editions under the title Thirst. They’re sort of like a light version of Anne Rice, featuring an ancient immortal and weird Christopher Pike touches. I’m remembering them as being sort of like Queen of the Damned for kids.
Billy Martin (who published under the name Poppy Z. Brite)
By the time high school rolled around, I was an established horror fan, and so I’ll end this list with the author who expanded my horizons and catapulted me firmly and irrevocably into the realm of adult fears. I found the books like Lost Souls, Drawing Blood, Wormwood, and Exquisite Corpse by researching books with goth characters when I was about fourteen. I wanted to read about people who were like me… Or at least, like older and more exciting versions of me, who spent their weekends doing things much more dangerous than writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction. Martin’s books are like if an Anne Rice novel and a Cure album had a baby. I adored their glamorous atmosphere, their characters, and the fact that they were set in the South.