Sweet dreams! Should your middle grade horror have a happy ending?

1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

I’m often asked whether children’s horror novels should end on a cheerful note with the threat fully defused, giving young readers the closure they need to drift off happily to sleep.

In adult horror fiction and film, there’s no guarantee things will turn out well for the protagonist. And even if the final girl does skip off to tell the tale, or the traumatised family finally sells that haunted house and moves far away, their lives have undoubtedly changed for the worse. Think of famous scary stories with a relatively happy ending – The Amityville Horror, The Haunting of Hill House, The ShiningScream, The Exorcist. The protagonists all escape the threat and good wins out over evil, but could you really call those endings happy?

As adults, we don’t expect to walk away from a horror story feeling warm and fuzzy. Many of us love horror precisely because we want to remain unsettled and frightened beyond the last page (or end credits). That’s the definition of the genre: its purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread or repulsion. But is there room in middle grade for bleak, unnerving endings? Can the monster sometimes win or does the protagonist always have to get away safely?

What sets middle grade horror apart from the rest?

Let’s start by looking at the obvious differences between children’s and adult horror fiction:

    • Middle grade horror fiction typically shouldn’t feature mature content like sex, violence and swearing
    • The protagonist will usually be a child under 13
    • Adults, particularly parents, are unlikely to get too involved in the story, leaving the children to confront and overcome their fears alone

But the other difference is that middle grade stories will usually give the reader closure. Reading in the Dark (a wonderful book about children’s horror) explains how this works:

The true nature of the monster is discovered and its power dissipated. The threat is over. Adult horror usually leaves the door ajar so we don’t fully understand the monster and don’t get closure.

That’s a really important distinction! Horror gives young readers a safe space to face and explore their fears; however frightening or gruesome the story, the last page will usually leave them feeling secure and empowered. The child conquered the beast, the witch melted into a puddle, the talking doll got smashed to pieces. Kids expect that closure because there’s usually a predictable structure to their horror stories, just like they expect the puzzle to be solved at the end of a mystery book or for a fairytale to end happily ever after. In most children’s horror, the story ends with the protagonist confronting and defeating the villain.

A lurking threat

But sometimes that door is left slightly ajar, even in children’s books. Take A Most Peculiar Toy Factory by Alex Bell, a creepy tale (aimed at reluctant readers and children with dyslexia) of killer teddy bears in a defunct Wonka-style factory. The child protagonists battle against the teddies and ultimately destroy them, leaving the terrified dolls and rocking horses finally safe from the bears’ sharp claws and snapping teeth. But just when we think the horror is over, one of the rescued mermaid dolls gets a funny look in her eye. Has the teddies’ curse been transferred to her?

In an excellent post on The Horror Writers’ Association YA blog, children’s librarian Amanda Bressler argues that the best sort of kids’ horror ending isn’t happy or sad, it’s ambiguous.

However, to me, the best and most memorable endings for children’s books are the ones that are able to capture the uncertainty of the future—realism—while also providing some redemption for the main character—idealism. These ambiguous endings leave the reader wondering why bad (or at least not entirely good) things happen to the characters we like and what could come next for those characters. Unlike “happily ever after,” they are an ending that could also be a beginning. They are a chance for further engagement, questioning, and imagination.

This is a great point. Should we really be telling children the world is perfect and everything will turn out okay in the end, or should we prepare them for the scary and sad things they’ll inevitably face as they grow up? Like Amanda, I love an ambiguous ending in horror and it can work brilliantly for a young audience, particularly in YA, but I do think it needs to be handled delicately in middle grade fiction.

Children can cope with a lot more than we think they can and let’s face it, if they’re picking up a horror book they’re asking to be scared. But they’re not asking to be traumatised by hopelessly bleak endings so there needs to be a balance. The final revelation in A Most Peculiar Toy Factory that the mermaid dolls might be cursed is thrilling and spooky but it’s not hopeless, because we know the children can ultimately defeat them like they defeated the teddies. The ‘monster will rise again’ is a common trope in horror, but in middle grade we should at least feel like we’re in with a chance when it rises!

Balancing idealism with realism

The example Amanda offers in her blog post is the bittersweet ending of Dahl’s The Witches. I won’t go into detail because you can read the post over at HWA, but there is an uncertainty and sadness to the climax. The protagonist has defeated all the witches in the country (idealism!) but the threat remains because there are still millions left worldwide that he must destroy (realism). They’ve won the battle but not the war. What’s worse, the protagonist has been turned into a mouse and may only have a couple of years left to live. It’s a heartbreaking end to the story, but Amanda assures us she was thrilled, not traumatised, by this turn of events. As in Bell’s book, although the danger hasn’t been permanently eradicated, the reader doesn’t feel the villains have won, because there’s still hope that the heroes will win the day.

Ultimately, how you end your book is your decision. You can stick to convention or throw the rules out the window. But I would always recommend leaving your middle grade readers with at least a scrap of hope to cling to. They’ve got plenty of time to discover those harrowing horror endings later (Ketchum, Laymon and King, I’m looking at you).

Call to Adventure!

How to use these ideas in your own manuscript

As always, it’s vital to immerse yourself in your genre so be sure to read lots of middle grade horror and pay attention to those endings. Can you find any truly unhappy, hopeless final lines? Again, this is your story and you should tell it how you want to tell it, but if your manuscript ends on an unwavering downbeat key, ask yourself how you might inject some optimism or reassurance for young readers to cling to. Middle grade readers are learning, questioning and forming opinions every day, so consider how you want your book to make them feel about the world around them. You can’t control how they’ll interpret your story but you can give them some hope for the future!

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes