Saturday, September 7, 2013

Where are the Children?: The Decline of the Coming-of-Age Novel

When my novel Hell Hollow was published in 2009, more than one reviewer (several in fact) said something to this effect: “Kelly’s newest novel, which has a group of four children as the story’s protagonists, is clearly heavily influenced by Stephen King’s It.”
Sorry, but I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that. Sure, King has always been an influential author in my eyes, along with Poe, Bradbury, McCammon, and Lansdale. But, despite their assumptions, Hell Hollow was not influenced by It. In fact, quite honestly, It has never been in my top ten list of favorite King books (I found the whole “cosmic turtle” sub-plot to be confusing and the sex-sharing scene between Beverly and the boys in Pennywise’s catacombs to be unnecessary and a bit embarrassing).  It was probably the furthest book from my mind when I was writing about the children of Harmony’s encounter – and subsequent battle – with the reincarnated evil of Doctor Augustus Leech, a magic-wielding bounty hunter of souls for Satan and his otherworldly kingdom.
This comparison would have never been made back in 1996, when the book was originally scheduled to see publication. That’s because the classic “coming-of-age” novel was alive and well back then. Almost every author in the genre in the horror hey-day of the 80s and 90s had done at least one. My favorites during that period were King’s “The Body” (brought to film as “Stand By Me), Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Dan Simmon’s Summer of Night, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes. Even before then, I had my mainstream favorites; To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Lord of the Flies.
 For those of you out there who are a little hazy about exactly what a "coming-of-age" story is, it is a tale of one (or several) youths taking a bold step toward adulthood due to adventurous or devestating circumstances, as well as a loss of innocence or naivity in the face of conflict or seemingly unsurmountable odds of survival. Once, a horror author naturally gravitated toward the writing of such a novel, simply to explore their own childhood trials and tribulations and, in some cases, to exorcise demons from years past. I, myself, had written two other coming-of-age novels before Hell Hollow. One had been my first novel, Hindsight, in which Cindy Ann Biggs, a nine-year-old girl during the Great Depression uses her gift of second sight (gained after a long bout of Typhoid Fever) to solve a brutal triple-murder that had taken place in an abandoned tobacco barn and, in turn, protect herself and her family from the wrath of the perpetrators. The second one was Fear, which most fans believe my best work to date. In Fear, a young farm boy named Jeb Sweeny discovers that a ravenous snake-critter is on the rampage in his community, slaughtering livestock and abducting small children. His only chance in conquering it is to journey to the neighboring providence of Fear County, a place full of evil and deadly dangers... a place where every childhood nightmare exists as dark reality.

As a reader, I love a good coming-of-age novel. I enjoy reading about children facing a greater, adult evil and eventually conquering it. It wasn't until I returned to the horror genre in 2006, that I discovered that coming-of-age novels weren't as popular as they had been during the first leg of my writing career in the late 80s to mid-90s. In fact, it seemed that my peers had stopped writing them completely. Oh, I was fortunate enough to find a few gems here and there; Joe Lansdale's The Bottoms, James Newman's Midnight Rain, and much of John R. Little's excellent altered-time fiction, including The Memory Tree, Miranda, and his upcoming offering, Secrets. But for the most part, today's horror writer seems to prefer to deal solely with adult situations and characters. Many believe the use of children as protagonists is passe'. I don't happen to be one of those who hold that opinion, which puts me in the minority these days. More than anything else, that was why Hell Hollow was so unfairly compared to It; today's new breed of horror reader/critic/reviewer didn't grow up in the Golden Age of horror fiction and, so, does not hold the same appreciation for the coming-of-age story as some of my past contemporaries and I do. It is probably also the reason why HH was viewed as a "throwback to the days of 90's pulp paperback horror", which essentially it is, since it was written during that time and contains that same flavor of fun, adventure, and fantastical horror.

Will the coming-of-age novel enjoy a resurgence... or will its popularity wane to the point of no return and readers will have nothing but adult-based fiction to enjoy? I very much doubt that the latter will occur. The coming-of-age story has been popular for centuries, from the Bible (the tales of Joseph and his coat of many colors and David and Goliath) to young adult classics like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Yearling, and Treasure Island. Childhood and its joys and triumphs, as well as its trials and tragedies, should be a part of one's intellectual and emotional make-up; a part to be cherished and revisited from time to time. It shouldn't be set on a shelf to gather dust, buried in the back yard, or traded in for the no-nonsense life of an adult, never to be enjoyed or remembered again.  That is the great thing about the coming-of-age novel; it returns you to a time when you didn't have to worry about bills, failing health, war, or income taxes. It was a time when a 64-count box of Crayolas opened a world of creativity, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were as flesh-and-blood real as your mother and father, and playing cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers transported you to a realm of the imagination that was a child's equivalent of living those lives through novels and motion pictures.

 If we are lucky, it won't be long until a new generation of writers look past the hard-core aspects of horror fiction and decide that the coming-of-age novel is, indeed, a viable and worthwhile addition to their collective body of literary works. As for me, I'll certainly do my part to keep that particular sub-genre of child-versus-evil fiction alive and kicking.

1 comment:

Ed Myers said...

Hey Ron: I thought "Hell Hollow" was the best of your novels -- very good story line and very good developed characters.
Stephen King's "It" is a key component of his Dark Tower magnum opus -- which is very good. But, can be very confusing at times. In "Hell Hollow" -- the coming of age youths come face-to-face with traditional evil.