Reviews 2017

Groza w literaturze dla dzieci: Od Grimmów do Gaimana [Horror in Children’s Literature: From Grimm to Gaiman]

Groza w literaturze dla dzieci: Od Grimmów do Gaimana [Horror in Children’s Literature: From Grimm to Gaiman]. Katarzyna Slany. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Pedagogicznego, 2016. 331 pages. 32.00 zł (paperback).

Groza w literaturze dla dzieci [Horror in Children’s Literature] by Katarzyna Slany is the result of thorough research over many years. In her monograph, Slany examines the contemporary renaissance of horror fiction for children against the background of its literary origins. In so doing she gives attention to socio-cultural discourses on dread, fear, and cruelty in children’s literature and culture. As a literary trend that is popular among young readers, horror has not ceased to raise adults’ doubts. It is believed that children should be protected from everything that is considered scary or "inappropriate." However, Slany presents a persuasive polemic with that conviction. While several works on various aspects of horror in children’s literature have recently been published in English, Slany’s monograph is the first in Poland. Its primary goal is to analyse the diverse faces of horror and cruelty, the dark archetypes in children’s literature, the motifs of the hero’s transgression (i.e., initiation into the sphere of evil), and the constructions of puer horroris (see Abbruscato and Jones; Howarth; Jackson et al.).

Since Slany argues that literary works described as horror fiction are characterised by dynamic development and transformations, she is able to include in her analysis a range of examples from children’s literature from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Thus we encounter tales by the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Lewis Carroll, and J. M. Barrie, as well as contemporary works by Roald Dahl, Ian Ogilvy, Francesca Simon, Chris Priestley, and Neil Gaiman. Not only does Slany suggest intriguing ways to interpret the texts she examines, but also interestingly presents cultural phenomena that affected these works.

What makes this book stand out among the others in the field is its erudite and comprehensive approach to horror fiction for young readers. The monograph has an interdisciplinary character. Slany applies diverse concepts mainly from literary studies, but she also draws on cultural studies, psychoanalysis, pedagogy, and – although she herself does not use the term – childhood studies. However, the crucial approach here is that of archetypical criticism. Slany refers to works by such authors as Ernst Robert Curtius, Mircea Eliade, Carl Gustav Jung, Gaston Bachelard, Pierre Péju, and Alicja Baluch, relying on their concepts to work out her own original ways of interpretation.

The introduction provides several interesting theses. Slany begins with the statement that "[a]s a primeval and basic category of human experiences, fear has always been present both in people’s lives and in works of culture that have been created by them" (6).1 Being aware of both children’s fascination with horror as well as of adults’ attempts to regard this fascination and its object as taboo, she argues persuasively that texts for children that are deprived of elements of horror should not be created. According to Slany, young people seek horror in texts, movies, etc., directed at adults, while they should read works for children that present horror in a symbolic way. The best pieces of children’s literature, she points out, always include certain characteristics of horror: "Removing this element and creating artificial Arcadias […] not only stands in contradiction to children’s psychological needs, but also leads to the destruction of the original meanings of many tales" (199).

The monograph is divided into four chapters. Each of them includes a solid theoretical introduction and an original interpretation of selected works. The first part of Slany’s book deals with fairy tales (especially from the Grimms’ and Perrault’s collections) as an original store of motifs, plots, and characters that laid the foundations for contemporary horror fiction. The author emphasises the significance of the Jungian shadow archetype, which is reflected in the fairy-tale visions of characters’ transgressions. She also successfully argues that it was the fairy tale that initiated into literature the "ritual of transforming fear into phantasms of illusionary experiences" (40). The second chapter is focused on selected works by Andersen as "literary tales of horror" (112). Slany addresses the ways in which this writer anticipates a "demonic paradigm of childhood" (147): the child as a great rebel gives way to its destructive passions. In this context, the interpretation of "The Snow Queen" seems to be especially significant, as the author proves that Kay was the first puer horroris in children’s literature. In the third chapter Slany presents selected works from the 19th and 20th centuries in the context of a subversive paradigm of childhood in which children’s characters – influenced by their unconscious longing to temporarily escape to self-created locus horridus – lose their innocence. Slany’s analysis of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter Pan and Wendy (1911) seems to be of special importance, as her concepts heavily differ from classic interpretations. In the last chapter she devotes her attention to the "children’s horror novel" (195). She successfully identifies the plot schemes and constructions of the (anti)heroes of such texts (created in the last few decades) in reference, for example, to the cultural concept of carnival. Indeed, Slany focuses on the carnivalization of both childhood and horror.

In conclusion, it should be stressed that although the monograph provides its analysis with a rich cultural context, Slany does not lose sight of the main subject of her research. Her study is a combination of scholarly accuracy and daring concepts that are frequently polemical vis-à-vis traditional and fossilised interpretations of the texts examined. This bold monograph undoubtedly makes a good starting point for further discussion on horror in children’s literature.

Weronika Kostecka
University of Warsaw, Poland


1 All translations from Polish are mine.

Works Cited

Abbruscato, Joseph, and Tanya Jones, eds. The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature: Essays on Stories from Grimm to Gaiman. McFarland, 2014.

Howarth, Michael. Under the Bed, Creeping: Psychoanalyzing the Gothic in Children’s Literature. McFarland, 2014.

Jackson, Anna, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis, eds. The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge, 2008.