Why dark, Gothic stories are good for children

Published on: 06 June 2024

Author Lucy Strange explains how spooky tales can be beneficial to young readers.

Lucy Strange and the cover of Island at the Edge of NightLucy Strange and the cover of Island at the Edge of Night

The enduring appeal of creepy classics...

What is it that attracts readers to the Gothic genre? What exactly is the enduring appeal of creepy classics such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre or The Woman in Black? For me, the twists are a big part of it: the thrill of a mystery cloaked in darkness, and the surprises that await us at every turn of the plot. I am not a fan of proper horror (my imagination is much too susceptible to the disturbing suggestions and graphic terror of horror stories): no, I prefer the subtle, creeping uneasiness the Gothic genre offers us – that gorgeous romance of darkness. Like any fan of any genre, I relish the familiar tropes: the crumbling mansion, the mysterious stranger, the disturbing uncertainty of our protagonist, the shifting shadows of secrets, that shivery hint of the supernatural...

There is an argument of course that Gothic stories can actually be good for us. They give us the opportunity to explore and discuss universal fears – often to do with powerlessness, being trapped or tricked, being alone and vulnerable, or things not being quite what we thought they were.  We can build resilience through imagined experience: the thrill of fear with the comfort blanket of being able to close the book if we ever need to.

Illustration: Erika MezaIllustration: Erika Meza

And young readers are usually very good at knowing exactly how much fear they can deal with in a story, instinctively selecting books they feel ready to read – just one of the many reasons why choice is so important when it comes to reading for pleasure.  

My favourite gothic stories for children

The Gothic genre is alive and well in fiction for young people today. Jon Klassen’s brilliant gothic story The Skull pushes at the boundaries of what we might expect from picture books. My five-year-old loved it, and found it hugely reassuring that all the fear in the story is so effectively extinguished. Pádraig Kenny’s wonderful Stitch takes some of the deepest, darkest ideas from Frankenstein and weaves them into a gripping, uplifting tale for middle grade readers. Frances Hardinge’s Island of Whispers (beautifully illustrated by Emily Gravett) whisks us away into a gothic fairy tale world of restless ghosts, dark magicians and monstrous headless birds. The Witchstone Ghosts by Emily Randall-Jones is another spooky island story for middle-grade readers, rich in folklore and with enough warmth and humour to lighten the brooding gothic atmosphere.  

Illustration from Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia SardaIllustration from Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda

For teens, Angharad Walker’s dystopian fantasy Once Upon a Fever and its sequel A Cure Ever After have a deliciously gothic feel, with sinister hospitals concealing underground cells, locked-up laboratories and mysterious blood libraries. And lastly Nicholas Bowling’s brilliant new novel The Undying of Obedience Wellrest is a darkly sumptuous treat, with remarkably fresh, funny and engaging characters. This is a story of gravediggers, bodysnatchers, and dangerously ambitious scientists, and – yes – perhaps even a couple of those brilliantly set-up twists that fans of the Gothic genre will simply adore.  

My own love of Gothic literature seems to creep into every book I write. The Ghost of Gosswater is very much influenced by my love of the Brontës and Daphne du Maurier; Sisters of the Lost Marsh is a dark and twisty gothic fairy tale. And my most recent gothic adventure, The Island at the Edge of Night takes place in a sinister boarding school on a remote Scottish island. Here we find secret passages in the walls, eyes watching us through knot-holes in the wood panels of the library, and an empty coffin lying in the crypt...

The Island at the Edge of Night by Lucy Strange is out now.  

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