Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Interview with Sean Keller, Author of Underneath the Bed & Other Nightmares

"Fade away, Sweet dreams,
I'll be listening for your screams." - Sleep Tight
As a fan of horror, you most likely have fond memories of being terrified by creepy stories as a child. You maybe weren’t so fond of feeling those sensations at the time, but looking back, it forms a sort of rites of passage many horror fans now reflect upon quite nostalgically. Children are drawn to scary stories; they possess the same morbid curiosity about such dark subject matter as adult fans of horror. Indeed, many children’s stories and fairytales unravel as dark morality tales in much the same way as horror films do. Fairytales, ghost stories and horror films work on a subconscious level to teach us about the dangers inherent in our world. They are saturated with cautionary morality; warning and preparing young listeners and readers for the trials and tribulations they will face, and ultimately strive to overcome.

By hearing about life-threatening problems and potential threats, such as those featured in fairytales and scary stories, children are given vital information that operates on a subconscious level, educating them about the struggles of life, and how these struggles are actually an intrinsic part of our existence. Like horror films they allow us to work out complicated, anxiety-ridden thoughts and emotions in the safety of our own home. They form a rites of passage for younger audiences.

Sean Keller, the co-writer of Dario Argento’s 2009 thriller Giallo, has recently written a collection of scary poems for children, which tap into the same collective childhood worries we had as children; and indeed generations before us did, too. Amongst the dark delights that lurk within the pages of Underneath the Bed & Other Nightmares - alongside morbidly beautiful illustrations by Daniel Thollin - are poems about a little boy who wakes up dead, a child-eating tree, creepy clowns, an adolescent werewolf, a thirsty little vampire, and a certain dreadful something that lurks beneath childrens' beds. I caught up with Sean to discuss his latest project and talk about what attracts young people to actively seek out the sensation of being scared.

"No one wants to see their boy the day he wakes up dead" - The Boy Who Woke Up Dead
What inspired you to write a book of spooky children’s poems? 

Sean Keller: I’m a horror writer and a father. Having two boys and raising them to love ghosts and monsters and all things creepy, like I did as a child, has allowed me the profound joy of re-discovering this world through their eyes. It inspired me to look back to what first drew me to the macabre and try to write poems that would have appealed to the boy I used to be. There are no fears like childhood fears. They are delicious and rich and unperturbed by logic. And even though they may be buried away under layers of adulthood and forgotten, they never really die. If you dig deep enough, you’ll hit them. So I dug.

Were there any particular stories or writers you turned to for inspiration throughout this project? 

Halloween is my obsession, my inspiration, the reason I do what I do. Sharing this celebration of fear and death with my boys and trying to capture the emotion of the season was what compelled me to dive into kids poems. Halloween is also when I build the annual Hesby Oaks Haunted House at my son’s school. The kids all know me as the one who makes things “too scary” for them. They howl and scream and some don’t make it through, some barely get through the front door before bursting into tears (children’s shrieks feed my soul), but the ones who make it through are thrilled and excited and want to do it ten times. When I started writing these poems I knew I would end up reading them in classrooms to these same kids. In the classroom, as in the haunted house, some of the kids think the poems are a little too scary and some beg for more and even others have been inspired to write their own poems. Reading the creepy poems to children is an annual tradition at the school. There are some parents and teachers who aren’t fond of the poems and that’s fine with me. I didn’t write a word of it for them.

"It beckoned me into the depths, and helpless, I obeyed
As water poured into my lungs and all my flesh decayed." - The Pond
Were there any real events or stories you recalled or researched? 

The poem “The Pond” was inspired by the real pond behind my grandmother’s house in Blackwater, Missouri. It was just as described in the poem and in recalling childhood fear, the image and memory jumped up from lost memory to terrorize me and fill me with a profound sense of dread all over again, which was wonderful.

What kind of stuff did you enjoy reading when you were younger? Was there any title or writer in particular that formed your introduction to horror literature? Any particular favourites? 

I was into “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and Mad Magazine and Shel Silverstein when I found a couple of my Uncle’s old EC Comics in a basement closet. The dripping-oozing horror in those panels set my brain on fire. When my older sister came home from school with an orange and black, bat-winged covered copy of “The Complete Works of E.A. Poe” I just had to know what lay inside. I searched for the shortest things and read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” when I was ten years old. I was hooked. The language was so authoritarian, which I loved, because I was at the age where I wanted my gothic sensibilities served by something more serious than The Munsters re-runs. I dove into the book and soon sought out others. Lovecraft followed as did Stephen King.

"She swore she heard the Banshee's wail earlier that day,
And, white with fear, she held me tight and then she passed away." - The Banshee's Wail
Some of the material in your volume of poetry is really quite dark. How difficult was it deciding what was too morbid and where to draw a line? 

I wrote these poems to tempt and tease and corrupt children with the love of horror. I don’t know where the line is or should be and I don’t give it much thought. I only know the material must be dark and sardonic to be tempting and fun. It must be familiar in order to lure you into unknown territories, which is where the real fear lies. And it must be one step past what your mother would want you to read in order to be something that really captures a child’s imagination.

The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim once said, in relation to scary stories and fairytales, that “As children we need monsters to instruct us in the ways of the world.” How do you see spooky stories and poetry, and indeed horror as a whole, forming a sort of rites of passage for younger audiences? 

Horror stories are a boot camp for the psyche. Experiencing safe, cathartic horror, specifically the metaphoric importance of facing monsters, prepares the young mind for the horrors the real world will surely show them. Rites of passage are, by definition, both traumatic and necessary for growth into adulthood. Horror stories help transition children into adulthood.

"There's something underneath the bed,
I swear I heard it breathing. Inside my troubled mind
All sorts of nasty things are seething." - Underneath the Bed
Why do you think kids are often drawn to spooky tales and ghost stories? 

When you first realize you are going to die, it is a powerful moment in a child’s life. It always comes “too early” and creates an existential angst that is best relieved through catharsis. Children seek out imitations of death in order to convince themselves that their fear is unfounded and all is okay. Parents hate this. They don’t want to talk about the death of their child in any way, so they tell kids “Don’t think about that kind of stuff. It’s bad.” Parents also hate rites of passage because they are by definition painful and a parent is supposed to protect a child from pain. This protective nature and a child’s need to assert independence from a parent often results in children not just enjoying horror, but developing a special attraction to it. There is no faster way to instill a desire than making an object or idea taboo.

If you could leave your young readers with one impression or thought, what would it be? 

Don’t be afraid to be afraid. It really is a good time …and you’re going to die anyway, so let’s have some fun first.

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