Cathy Lister took this collection of ‘horrors’ into two schools to get some first-hand reactions from potential customers.
‘Got anything about ghosts?’ `I’d like a really scary book – vampires or something.’ Familiar requests, both in the school bookshop and the library. Many children seem to think that these sorts of books cannot possibly be either boring or difficult – even though sadly they frequently prove to be both. Consequently many eyes opened wide in anticipation when this collection was offered. We tested the books with groups of pupils from nine to fifteen, both setted and mixed ability, in two schools.
Five of the books were non-fiction.
If vampires and other dreaded creatures are true, should telling about them add to or detract from the horror? The cover of Peter Haining’s The Vampire Terror and Other True Mysteries promises terrifying truth to chill the blood and raise the hair. However most readers found that the promise was not kept. The authorial presence at the beginning of each story leads into an informative, at times even chatty, narrative rather than a spine-chiller. If this is the author’s intention then the front cover picture and the back cover synopsis are misleading. The response of the older testers, in particular, include `uninspiring’, `not very convincing’, `any feeling of mystery is dispelled’; a pity for the stories have considerable interest and potential for discussion and as voluntary reading. Presented like this they attract would-be readers and then disappoint.
The two Granada texts, A Young Person’s Guide to Witchcraft and A Young Person’s Guide to Ghosts, are illustrated by the author, with sketches which convey a sense of reality and which match the cover designs, more orthodox than the cinematic design on Peter Haining’s volume but also more convincing. Each chapter refers to several witches or ghosts of a particular era or influence and Bernard Brett’s style, backed by historical fact, is fluent and interesting and was generally approved.
Beaver’s An A-Z of Monsters by Ian Woodward is described in the blurb as `essential reading for all monster lovers’ and if a vote was taken it would win hands down among the non-fiction books. Some testers felt that the cover might have depicted a more grotesque monster but even those (few) who admitted no real interest in the subject enjoyed the potted information on monsters across the centuries and around the world. The text was very tightly written and I found myself having to read an item more than once to understand it fully. However the attraction of being able to dip into the pages and discover briefly set out facts rather than reading through a lengthy dissertation was undeniable. It is a book which should sell well and be used by a wide range of children; even the less able readers were prepared to struggle with each short section.
A less challenging read for the younger group, and for them perhaps the most popular choice, was The Tiswas Book of Ghastly Ghosts. Those over eleven scorned the large print and easy reading style but for those in lower middle school the dazzling cover, associations with Tiswas and the brief but true stories were a hit. Helen Piddock’s compilation blends the ingredients for tingling spines with the exuberance of the associated TV programme. The result, a book that won much spontaneous acclaim.
Six of the books were collections f stories.
The three Beaver books – Horror Stories. Creepy Creatures and Fantasy Tales – were all received favourably by older testers. The cover of Horror Stories, a luminous green, fanged face, caused giggles rather than shivers but the stories were very much enjoyed. The linguistic level is generally high and the content frequently gory. ‘It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy,’ for example. Print in all three is small and tightly packed, there are no illustrations and few children under twelve were tempted after an initial scanning. However response from our consumers indicated that for reasonably competent readers they could be an answer to `Why haven’t you anything more adult?’ in the bookshop and the library. A variety of themes by well-known names appear in each list, among them John Christopher, Leon Garfield, Joan Aiken and T.H. White. The price of Fantasy Tales, £1.10, brought scathing comments from some.
The 13th Armada Ghost Book has a most enticing cover, suitably chilling and without the stereotyped ghoulishness of the other Armada covers. Mary Danby’s selections are often popular with middle school readers and this one was no exception. High school comment was a little disparaging about the reading level, around ten years. but the testers acknowledged that they would probably have enjoyed the stories at an earlier stage. It’s a careful selection with sufficient variety and suspense to capture the imagination of children older than ten years who are less capable readers or less widely experienced in this genre.
The other Armada collection, the sixth in the Monster series, caused less excitement. The reading level is higher but the selection less stimulating and the general response by the children to this one was `I might borrow this book, but not buy it.’
‘It is the absolute and very comforting rule of the fairy tale that the good and brave shall be rewarded and that the bad people shall come to a bad end,’ says Ruth Manning-Sanders in her introduction to A Book of Witches. And her traditionally structured, delightful re-tellings do not break it. The fantasy world she introduces is a very different one from the bizarre and frightening one of all the above books. There were some entertainingly paternalistic reviews by the High school group, approving the lack of frightening material and recommending this collection to all ‘little’ children. It is indeed well up to the standard of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ very pleasurable and satisfying anthologies. Recommended for all teachers for reading aloud to junior school classes and an ideal reading book for able junior and lower middle school children.
Watching children peruse these books there is one certain lesson for publishers. Covers must stand up to their promise. The goriest cover may tempt those looking for excitement but brings forth the most damning comments if it fails to provide the anticipated thrills and chills. In causing such disappointment it may cause also a backward step to be taken by the less eager to read.
13th Armada Ghost Book
Ed. Mary Danby, Armada. 0 00 691913 8, 85p
6th Armada Monster Book
Ed. R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Armada, 0 00 691744 5, 85p
Ed. Barbara Ireson, Beaver, 0 600 32064 2, 95p
Ed. Barbara Ireson, Beaver. 0 600 20056 6, £1.10
The Beaver Book of Horror Stories
Ed. Mark Ronson, Beaver, 0 600 20383 2, 95p
A Book of Witches
Ruth Manning-Sanders, Magnet, 0 416 21910 1,95p
The Vampire Terror and Other True Mysteries
Peter Haining, Armada, 0 00 691954 5, 85p
An A-Z of Monsters
Ian Woodward, Beaver, 0 600 20325 5, 95p
A Young Person’s Guide to Witchcraft
Bernard Brett, Granada, 0 583 30465 6, 85p
A Young Person’s Guide to Ghosts
Bernard Brett. Granada, 0 583 31466 4, 85p
The Tiswas Book of Ghastly Ghosts
Comp. Helen Piddock, Carousel, 0 552 54186 9, 85p