In his famous short essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King makes a crucial distinction—though he witholds the alienating clinical terminology–between neurosis and psychosis, and explains that horror texts keep most of us on the harmless side of that line. A parallel, critical definition of Gothics—such as Frankenstein— is that they explore the irrational impulses lurking beneath the calm surface of the rational mind.
Without delving into the why of it, King observes that horror has “always been the special province of the young.” One might theorize that, before and during puberty, the id has a clear dominance over the superego, while the ego spends all its time in formation, self-absorbed and aloof from the battle. Simply put, kids have more strongly expressed fears and desires than adults, because they haven’t learned yet to be ashamed of them. In fact, they embrace them, through thrill-seeking: climbing trees, riding roller coasters, skateboarding, flashlight-tag, Truth or Dare.
Laura Smith’s adventure novel for ‘tweens, Saving Hascal’s Horrors, is neither Horror nor Gothic. Yet its conflict does center around the culture of the Horror Shop (think comic-book store, leaning over a cliff’s edge). Hascal’s store has been closed to the public for years, following alleged complicity in the disappearance and death of a local teen.
This navigation around a genre, without indulging in its excesses, is a bit of a neat trick. Smith understands her audience (I‘d say 8-12 years old). Many young children, given the opportunity, revel in the scatology, “sick jokes,” profanity, sexual suggestiveness, and gore of the horror text. Smith leverages none of these cheap elements. Rather, the major conflict resolves around a common, relatable fear: getting lost in the woods. That’s not to say the book is sanitized: it does contain a dead body, for example. But we aren’t asked to witness an autopsy of descriptive (and gross!) detail.
Part Hamlet, part To Kill A Mockingbird, Smith creates a neighborhood of characters in “Salemstown, PA,” in which the real tragedy is one of folks laboring under irrational prejudices against one another: the freaky/geeky boy who can’t fit in, and lacks the social tools to disabuse his tormentors; the mean-seeming old man, who doesn’t care to justify himself. And stripped of the racial dimension of Harper Lee’s novel, Smith’s work might appeal to contemporary parents who would prefer their progeny focus on the more common forms of prejudice. As one of the characters realizes, “Maybe a villain was just a good guy who had something terrible happen to him.”
Supernatural elements do introduce themselves, through a video message by protagonist Mike’s father, from beyond the grave: a mission to reopen the store, in the face of continued financial decline. Further on, Mike discovers an inherited post-cognitive ability. In fact, the book eventually transforms into an actual ghost story. However, like Hamlet’s father, the spirit of the missing boy is not evil, only haunting the forest while it awaits release from purgatory. A preoccupation with death imagery, paraphenalia, verse, and text almost defines the teen audience, and the book thus weaves a sort of unique appeal for so young an audience. The YA bookshelves, of course, are filled with the stuff, but Smith offers a less intense, more fun experience for the neophyte crowd. I especially enjoyed the repartee among Mike, Corey, Jack, Lisa, and Freddy, even amidst imminent danger in the caves.
The extended conclusion is suspenseful, but not designed to frighten, and devoid of terror. In fact, it more often invokes nervous humor during the misadventures of the cohort of 9-11 year olds, in a Goonies-like manner. The book also contains Easter eggs, scattered throughout, for the watchful older reader–if one should happen to be a fan of the horror genre.
Finally, there’s a lot of book for the buck, here. In fact, the novel feels to me about two minor characters (several adults hover in the background,) and forty pages too heavy, with a few scenes that could have been harmlessly dropped, contributing to a tighter organic unity. But nothing so problematic as the “Director’s Cut” that King himself has released of The Stand, all but ruining a good epic with excess material, and proving why editors are needed—even in the labyrinth of the unconscious.
Author’s website, with links to her other works: