Talking Story

Remember Friday Night Frights? My cousins and I would stay up late sprawled out on the living room pune’e and watch all the B (and C and D) horror and Samurai movies, blankets and pillows over our heads most of the time. I think those classic 5-4-4 your pants monsters are  to blame for all the emo wimpy YA/MG fantasy books on the market today. We’re all trying to convince ourselves that the things that left us sleeping with the lights on are no big deal. Jolly Fish Press graciously asked me to guest blog on this topic. The following is a repost.

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It’s all Dracula’s fault.

I bet I wasn’t the only kid who read Bram Stoker’s Dracula or saw one of the million film adaptations in a gloomy movie theater and then went home to sleep with the covers tucked tightly around my neck. Sweat poured down my face in the tropical heat, but there was no way I’d chance a vampire bite by sleeping with my neck exposed or a window open.

Fast forward a few decades and you’d discover that some of us who’d snarfed garlicky snacks before bed and slept with crucifixes under our pillows grew up to be authors, the kind of storytellers who reimagined and repackaged our make-sure-the-closet-door-is-closed and check-under-the-bed childhood fears into books and movies that fuel a thriving multi-million dollar Young Adult and Middle Grade fantasy market. Vampires, shape-shifters, ghosts, witches, zombies—pick one and you’ll find it on the current bestsellers’ list—are all deeply rooted in our cultural subconscious because of folklore.

The reasons folklore themes are so popular with YA/MG readers are obvious. One of the main purposes of folklore is to transmit cultural values and morals, directly speaking to a maturing adolescent’s desire to understand himself and the society around him. Our truest folktales wend their themes of good versus evil through all cultures, eventually becoming familiar archetypes that caution, entertain, teach, and ignite the imagination. It’s not surprising that the same kinds of stories that enthralled adolescents 500 years ago still enchant authors and readers today—in a modern upside-down-through- the-cracked-looking-glass kind of way.

Traditionally, folklore, myths, legends, and fairytales aren’t concerned with understanding the bad guy. Things go bump, bite, and burp in the night simply because they can. Virtuous characters survive by embodying the traits that a culture most reveres while villains are hoist with their own petards. The moral lessons these stories impart are simple; good engenders good, bad gets what it deserves.

My, how times—and cultures—have changed.

It’s no longer acceptable to simply fear and defeat the monster in the closet; we insist our heroes unlock the door, invite him in, and serve him a sugar-free organic macrobiotic snack. We want to understand him, save him, and show the world that it was all a misunderstanding. Popular modern vampire characters like Edward Cullen, Angel, Stefan Salvatore, and Eric Northman differ from the folkloric vampire in ways that make them less pee your pants terrifying and more like the odd vegan neighbor down the street who doesn’t like cats and wears sunglasses at night. For YA and MG readers, that’s key. Adolescents easily identify with the outsider; modern stories that take an archetypical irredeemable monster and turn him into a big misunderstood galoot are especially appealing because if the heroine can overlook the fact that the love of her life sees her wedding bouquet as garnish, there’s a good chance that the cute girl on the bus will overlook a slight overbite. Or propensity to snort instead of laugh. Or a closeted obsession with anime cos-play. The possibilities are as endless as the hope it propagates.

Which brings me full circle: if many of today’s YA/MG authors are reimagining the folklore monsters that made us sleep with the lights on and covers over our heads in ways that allow the protagonist to vanquish evil social prejudices and cuddle up with the claws, I wonder what kinds of stories we’ll be reading in twenty years or so when the kids who grew up leaving the windows and closet doors open and eating garlic-free midnight snacks get around to activating their voice recognition storyware and reimagining things that go bump, snuggle, and kiss in the night. Will they look back and say it’s all Edward’s fault?

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