Exploring kidlit subgenres: Supernatural horror

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Middle grade and YA fiction comes in *almost* every genre and subgenre. A couple of years ago I published an overview of the most common subgenres with kidlit references and examples and now I’m diving deeper into each of those one by one with advice on writing, reading and finding these types of books for children and teenagers.

Back in 2020 I wrote a blog post called ‘A guide to middle grade and YA genres and subgenres‘ and to this day it remains my most popular blog post of all time! I wrote it because I know sometimes it can be really difficult to navigate literary genres and subgenres in general but especially in the kidlit space, partly because a lot of people tend to think ‘middle grade’ and ‘YA’ are genres in their own right (they’re not – they’re audiences) and partly because the uninitiated often assume children’s books are a monolith: they might think only of the ‘classics’ of their youth like Peter Rabbit and Treasure Island or expect all children’s authors to write like David Walliams and don’t realise that there’s an absolutely enormous, endless range of books for young readers that span almost every genre and subgenre imaginable, from slasher horror to space opera.

I’m delighted that blog post resonated with so many authors, so I want to make it even more useful by digging deeper into each of those subgenres and looking at how you can learn more about the conventions, expectations and tropes associated with each one by reading more methodically. I already posted a deep dive into writing middle grade and YA space opera and that article was a big hit, too, so luckily there’s plenty more where that came from! Today I’m going to move onto one of my favourite subgenres: supernatural horror.

This subgenre comes under the umbrella term ‘speculative fiction’ because it features things that we can speculate on but can’t physically happen in our world (yet, anyway!). Here’s the explanation I gave in my overview post:

Horror as a genre isn’t inherently speculative, because a lot of horror stories take place in the natural world with n’er a ghost or zombie to be found. Think Stephen King’s Misery, Paul Tremblay’s Cabin at the End of the World or Richard Laymon’s The Travelling Vampire Show, in which perfectly ordinary humans – sans superpowers – are the monsters.
Or read a Point Horror – the majority are realistic horror stories about unhinged stalkers and revenge seekers. These don’t count as speculative fiction because they could – and do – happen in our world. It’s the paranormal novels that come under the spec-fic heading, like Coraline, Doll Bones or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. If your monster is a ghost or unknown being that can’t be explained by the laws of science, you’ve got a paranormal or supernatural horror.

When it comes to middle grade, the majority of horror is supernatural because reading about ghosts and witches is typically less harrowing for young children than home invasions and axe murderers. R.L. Stine once pointed out that all his Goosebumps stories feature fantastical horror – monsters, zombies, living dolls: things that couldn’t possibly come true. In other words, supernatural.

That’s because he wants readers to switch off the light at bedtime knowing those stories aren’t reality. A monster isn’t really going to climb out of their wardrobe at night. A sentient ventriloquist dummy isn’t really going to come after them. Point Horror, on the other hand, which is written for teenagers, is exclusively realistic: murderous boyfriends, babysitter killers, vengeful lovers. YA readers tend to be more equipped to deal with and process those real-world threats.

Is there a difference between paranormal and supernatural?

I generally use the terms ‘supernatural’ and ‘paranormal’ interchangeably and the Cambridge Dictionary definitions are pretty identical in meaning:

  • Supernatural: caused by forces that cannot be explained by science
  • Paranormal: impossible to explain by known natural forces or by science

Here’s what Masterclass has to say:

Paranormal and supernatural fiction are closely related literary genres that are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences between the two. “Paranormal” refers to the idea that there are certain phenomena that are outside the realm of scientific understanding but could potentially be explained by science one day, even if the chances are slim.

The paranormal genre includes creatures like zombies, werewolves, aliens, and ghosts, as well as phenomena like telepathy and time travel. “Supernatural” refers to phenomena that are forever outside the realm of scientific explanation, such as god, the afterlife, and the soul.

I think this is an interesting distinction but I’d argue that most people in publishing don’t distinguish between the two terms in this way. Certainly when it comes to kidlit, most younger readers won’t be as familiar with horror subgenres as adults and the difference between the terms ‘paranormal’ and ‘supernatural’ won’t matter to them.

So stick with the word you prefer but remember: just because a story is supernatural or paranormal doesn’t mean it’s horror! If the story isn’t written with the intention of scaring or disgusting the reader, it probably belongs to another genre like fantasy, historical, science fiction or even erotica (don’t write erotica for children, please. If you take nothing else away from this post, remember that bit).

Want to read more supernatural horror for children and teenagers? Looking for comp titles that are similar to your own work in progress? Struggling with a particularly tricky passage or device in your story and want to see how other authors handle it? Here are a few ways to identify supernatural horror when you’re browsing libraries, book shops or online reviews.

Characteristics and tropes to look for

Ghosts, haunted houses, possession, creepy dolls, demons, vampires, witches, zombies, legends, magic, atmospheric writing, spooky settings.

Generally you’ll find the same tropes in books and movies so watching lots of horror films (my favourite hobby) will help you get a feel for this subgenre, too. This is an incredibly thorough, fascinating article on the history and theory of supernatural horror films and this article about the common tropes in supernatural horror movies is useful as well (you’ll find loads of similar articles online with a quick Google search). Obviously bear in mind that the level of scares and mature content will vary between 15- and 18-rated horror movies and spooky books for children and teenagers! How far can you go with kidlit horror? I’ve written lots on the blog about reader expectations and conventions associated with middle grade and YA in general and in horror in particular. Here are a few posts to help you explore the topic:

Terms to spot in titles, blurbs and reviews

Spooky, eerie, haunting, ghostly, creepy, chilling, magical, atmospheric, occult, alchemy, uncanny, mystical, other-worldly, ghost story.

Recently published middle grade novels in this subgenre

  1. Scare Me by K.R. Alexander
  2. Dead Voices by Katherine Arden
  3. The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown
  4. Deadman’s Castle by Iain Lawrence
  5. The Haunting of Hounds Hollow by Jeffrey Salane
  6. The Ash House by Angharad Walker
  7. The Clackity by Lora Senf
  8. Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker
  9. The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner

Recently published YA novels in this subgenre

  1. The Taking of Jake Livingstone by Ryan Douglass
  2. Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall
  3. Horrid by Katrina Leno
  4. The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould
  5. Small Town Monsters by Diana Rodriguez Wallach
  6. Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare
  7. The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh
  8. Category Five by Anna Davíla Cardinal
  9. Mina and the Undead by Amy McCaw

Where to find more recommendations

Thanks so much for reading, lovely writer! Want empowering, feel-good writing chat and fairy dust in your inbox? Plus receive a PDF of my recommended writing craft books for children’s and YA writers (including go-to genre guides and Children’s Lit MA reading list) AND £20 Wolf Credit to spend with me! Sign up today!

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