Imagine your favourite character walking down a dark and musty corridor. A flicker of light shows
him a way out right at the far end of the hallway What is that? Is it a door? He can’t see too clearly,
there is only one naked bulb, swinging wildly and casting eerie shadows on the wall. There are bats
trapped in the ceiling, screeching, and flapping their wings, clearly agitated by something…someone.
A rancid smell tickles his nose and a wave of nausea rises from the pit of his stomach. After what
feels like an eternity, he reaches the door. He brushes the cobwebs from the doorknob to reveal
peeling paint and rotting wood. This is it, his way out. He pushes the door open with all his strength.
Suddenly flashes of red and black as he falls back and screams…

I am no Stephen King but if this was a movie, you would simply close your eyes. But a book
works differently. Even horror stories of the most sinister kind, require you to read on to get closure.
You must continue reading to know whether your hero made it out safely or a disfigured, mangled
zombie ate his face as he opened the door to his death. That is why cliffhangers in horror fiction
books work in your favour while trying to raise a reader.

A staple for young readers

Horror fiction is one of the most popular genres world over and I don’t just mean for adults. From A
to Z
mysteries by Ron Roy to the ever popular Goosebumps and Fear Street books by RL Stine –horror fiction is a staple of childhood reading.

True, they aren’t the stuff of bedtime stories but experts say reading horror can help children with
their emotional development. They allow for a certain level of thrill and adventure, an unmistakable
adrenaline rush, all while enabling the reader to feel fear, process its many facets, and overcome it
from the safe confines of their reading space.

So, how many horror fiction books can you remember reading or even name from the world of Indian children’s literature? Indian children’s literature has long suffered from a lack of books in the horror genre. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, parents were way too overprotective and would often regulate the books we read. Like the movies we watched, they wanted our books also to be all purring kittens and candyfloss and shielded us from the harshness of horror. Amar Chitra Katha and Enid Blyton passed the test and our life and libraries were stocked with them.

Which is strange considering our movies and television were beginning to tell a different tale. Back
then, the lilting, haunting tune of the Zee Horror Show snuck into every home with or without a
cable connection and settled comfortably as a background tune to our lives. Every child, from that
time, has a special memory related to that show.

Friends who loved the show thirsted for more, devoured books by RL Stine and moved up to
Stephen King and Neil Gaiman novels. But that, they quickly found out was a different kind of horror
– one that wasn’t Indian enough and characters they couldn’t relate to.

Horror books for the young Indian reader

Now, years later, there is hope.

Indian publishing houses have hitherto only given us a collection of ghost stories or short stories by
Ruskin Bond with a horror element. Not any more. The last two years has seen a sudden rise in the
number of Indian authors writing horror fiction exclusively for children. With titles like The Ghost of
and Playthings: Toys of Terror, you can be certain you are actually picking up a book of horror and all are aimed for children 10 and above. These are exciting times, but authors are playing it safe and not going crazy, just yet!

While creating the Ghost of Malabar, author Soumya Ayer knew she had certain parameters she had
to work within. Velu, though a disfigured ghost had to have certain redeeming qualities.
“I used a lot of humour because of the age group I was addressing. I did not want to terrify kids or
put off parents. Even though my ghost is terrifying to imagine – he doesn’t have hands and feet and
a nose, children have come back and told me the ghost was their favourite character. Even though
he looks grotesque, they end up connecting with him. I’ve used humour to evoke empathy in The
Ghost of Malabar.

Shabnam Minwalla, known for writing super-successful YA novels released Saira Zariwala is Afraid
towards the end of 2021. The book, a horror whodunit is terrifying. There are disfigured dolls, people ready to mangle and torture, strange, mysterious phone calls, and even the appearance of a child ghost or two. All this is set in a housing complex in Dadar with characters who are school-going children with middle-class lives. Much relatable and way too close for comfort. How does she define what is too scary to write?

“What I found scary when I was a teenager is different. Children these days are exposed to so much
on OTT. My kind of scary is more suggestive, rather than graphic. It (the book) had to be scarier than
I would have ideally liked it to be, so I had to keep introducing these little-little elements. The not-
nice people are really not-nice in the book. I aimed for keeping my kids awake for a day and giving
them the heebie-jeebies. That’s the perfect amount of scary.”

And then there is Playthings: Toys of Terror by author Neil D’Silva, who is the President of the India
Chapter of the Horror Writers Association. Playthings is his first horror book for children and he
makes it clear that the book is scary. The cover of the book has a maniacal clown looking down on four investigators and the story is about childhood toys coming alive to kill their owners. This one gave me the heebie-jeebies but kept me glued right to the very last page. My 10-year-old read the first
chapter, abandoned the book for a couple of days because it was too scary, and then came right
back to it because his curiosity got the better of him. He then read the book in one sitting, with all
the lights on.

“How was the book,” I ask him.

“Hair-raising and absolutely fantastic!” he replies.

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