Gory books are in their glory. Middle schoolers can't seem to get enough of gruesome tales that give their parents the creeps.
"It's like Halloween all year long," said Debbie Taylor, coordinator of services for children and youth at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Ms. Taylor is on an American Library Association committee that is compiling a list of popular horror genre books. She sees two reasons for their appeal.
"First, they're written almost like a movie script; they're full of action," she said. "And they're also responding to insecurities you feel at the middle school level. They help you deal with the powerlessness. . . . Kids like the idea that all the bad guys get theirs in the end, usually in the most grisly, gruesome way imaginable."
One of the most popular horror writers for kids and young adults is R. L. Stine. His "Fear Street" series (Archway paperbacks, $3.75, ages 12 and up) is fairly typical of the young adult horror genre. There are gory details -- gratuitous ones, if you ask me -- but the violence doesn't quite cross the line.
In Mr. Stine's "Cheerleaders: The Third Evil," Corky is a cheerleader who has been possessed by an evil spirit. A passer-by interrupts her as she's about to murder her best friend, and Corky is furious:
I'm going to explode! she thought. Then I'm going to twist that guy's head around until I hear his neck crack. Then I'll rip his head off and pull the brains out through the neck.
But it's just a thought. She doesn't actually decapitate the guy, so it's OK.
"I don't think they're harmful," Ms. Taylor said. "The horror genre has always been with us -- look at Edgar Allan Poe.
"And I think publishers are careful; they don't want to do anything that will get them kicked out of schools," she said. "In editing these books, they know how to get just to the point where they keep kids' interest, without crossing over into something that parents and teachers will object to."
A couple of other authors popular with teen-age horror fans are Christopher Pike and Richie Cusick, Ms. Taylor said.
Mr. Stine has also crossed over to a younger audience with his "Goosebumps" series for ages 8 to 12 (Scholastic, $2.95). There are 13 titles in the series, which tones down the gore and cuts out most of the blood and guts.
In "Monster Blood," two kids buy a can of green goo labeled Monster Blood at a toy store. Once the can is opened, the goo comes alive. It grows into an enormous glob that gobbles up twin brothers who have been bullying all the neighborhood kids:
The green gunk oozed over them, covering them completely. Then it pulled them inside with a loud, sucking pop. . . . A wave of nausea swept over Evan as he saw the Beymer twins, still visible within the quivering glob, faceless prisoners bouncing inside it.
Horror stories are especially popular among boys at an age "when you tend to lose boys as fiction readers," Ms. Taylor said. And the "Goosebumps" series is a boon to teachers trying to entice so-called reluctant readers. The action is nonstop and the vocabulary is accessible. Teen-agers who have trouble reading don't have to feel they're stuck with a book written for little kids.
Here are a few other Halloween recommendations for readers who prefer thrillers over chillers:
* "The Boggart" by Susan Cooper (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $14.95, 196 pages, ages 8 to 12). Ms. Cooper, who won the Newbery Award for "The Grey King" in her "The Dark Is Rising" series, writes for a younger audience this time, with wonderful results.
Emily and Jessup Volnik are two regular, middle-class kids in Toronto whose lives are thrown out of whack after their father inherits a crumbling castle in Scotland. The family visits the ancestral home before deciding to sell it. In locking up a desk that will be shipped back home to Toronto, Emily unknowingly traps the Boggart, an ancient, impish spirit who lives in the
castle. He arrives in Toronto and quickly causes all kinds of mayhem and mischief, just as a Boggart should.
There are hilarious scenes mixed in with the suspense, and Ms. Cooper gives us a classic bad guy -- the psychiatrist who tries to convince Emily's parents that all the crazy stuff happening around their house is the result of a poltergeist.
Jessup, 10, is a computer whiz, and it is modern technology that helps the homesick Boggart in the end.
* "Vampires," edited by Jane Yolen and Martin H. Greenberg (HarperTrophy paperback, $3.95, 228 pages, ages 10 and up). This is a collection of 13 short stories by some fine writers, including Ms. Yolen, Charles de Lint and Delia Sherman. They're scary but not bloody, fast-moving but not filled with nonstop dialogue.
* "Love Me, Love My Werewolf," by Stephen Roos, illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers (Dell Yearling, $3.50, 115 pages, ages 8 to 11). This is one of "The Pet Lovers Club" series, which I think is geared more to ages 7 to 9, despite what the publisher says. The kids are third-graders, and this story centers on Bernie, who has just had to give away his faithful dog because his parents are afraid it will hurt Bernie's baby sister, Peaches.
The climax occurs at the Pet Lovers Club's Halloween party, where Elton the mutt finally proves his mettle, helping Bernie stand up to the class bully. This is like so many of the other popular series, from "The Hardy Boys" to "Sweet Valley High," where the best thing to be said is: At least the kids are reading.
* Signing sightings: Local author/illustrator Kevin O'Malley's latest work is a masterful picture book mystery, "Who Killed Cock Robin?" He'll be signing books at the Book Bash fund-raiser Sunday at Borders Book Shop in Towson, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets are $25, and for more information on the event, which benefits Baltimore County Literacy Works, call (410) 887-2001 or (410) 296-0791. O'Malley will also appear Sunday, Oct. 31 at the Mystery Loves Company bookstore, 1730 Fleet St. in Fells Point. Call (410) 276-6708.
Another fine local author/illustrator, Nancy Patz, also will be at the Book Bash at Borders.
One of the most stunning picture books to come along in some time is "Old Turtle," written by Douglas Wood and illustrated by Cheng-Khee Chee. It was named 1993 Book of the Year by the American Booksellers Association, two years after 7,000 copies were first printed by Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers of Duluth, Minn. Mr. Wood will read the book and sign copies at Stepping Stone's bookstore, 24 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Bel Air, 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 3.
On Nov. 12, Emily Arnold McCully will be at the Children's Bookstore, 737 Deepdene Road in Roland Park, from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Ms. McCully, who won the 1993 Caldecott Medal for "Mirette on the High Wire," has two new books out: "The Amazing Felix" and "Amzat," a book of Italian folk tales.