Monday, August 8, 2016

GUEST POST: "The Horrors of Writing Middle Grade Horror or Why Books Aimed at Children Can’t Be Awash in Blood" by David Neilsen

Hello. My name is David and I write Middle Grade Horror. My first successful foray into this realm, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, will be available on August 9, 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin/Random House. As you can imagine, I’m a little excited. But I’m not here to shamelessly promote my novel, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (available for pre-order on right now!  Get the audio book, read by me!), but rather to describe to everyone reading this post--yes, both of you--the horrors of writing Middle Grade Horror.

I didn’t always write Middle Grade Horror (which I’m just going to keep on capitalizing, so you can stop your whining right now). In the months and years before I began writing Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, I wrote adult horror. Short stories, mostly, but also screenplays. I spent many years honing my skill for describing ridiculously-disturbing things in as few words as possible. I was introduced to the insanity of H.P. Lovecraft and tripped over myself in an attempt to write something suitably ‘Lovecraftian.’ I have written stories of gore and violence and evil and corruption and once of man-eating unicorns. I have explored dark, foreboding passageways, ancient tombs, eerie graveyards in the dead of night, and the surface of a giant eyeball.

So when it came time to write Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, I felt I was more than up to the challenge. After all, I was a veteran of adult horror; Middle Grade Horror was just adult horror with the main characters a few years younger, right?


There is a scene in Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom in which a child breaks his leg. It took me many, many drafts to find a way of writing that scene without including the phrases ‘sickening shard of bone ripping through the skin’, ‘font of blood gushing like a geyser’, or ‘disfigured lump from the very depths of Hell.’

That’s when I realized this was going to be harder than I thought.

It seems that two concepts that really don’t go together well are ‘Middle Grade’ and ‘Horror’. It makes sense when you think about it. What comes to your mind when you think of horror? A vampire biting someone’s throat--and not in a good, sparkly way? A werewolf clawing someone to pieces on the moors? An abomination from beyond time and space whose mere existence is enough to doom mankind to an epoch of madness?

And what comes to your mind when you think of Middle Grade? School lockers? Algebra? Zits?

You begin to see the issues we’re facing here, don’t you?

The trick to Middle Grade Horror books is to be frightening without being scary. It’s a fine line. My son is ten, the perfect age for my books. He is currently obsessed with Five Nights At Freddy’s. But it took him a long time to actually play the game himself. First, he wanted his big sister to play it. And his mother. He wanted to witness their fear without experiencing it himself. Only after laughing at his big sister a couple of time was he able to give the game a shot. By that time he knew what he was doing, and what he was getting into. He knew where the scares were, and what they looked like. So he was able to handle Golden Chika or whoever leaping out at him when he opened the door.

That’s my audience.

Oh sure, there are plenty of middle-grade-aged readers (not to be confused with middle-aged readers or readers of the Middle Ages) who have no problem toying with the dark side of literature and pop culture. My daughter saw her first R-rated horror movie when she was 11 (it was directed by her uncle, so we’re not totally-degenerate parents--only partially-degenerate). She has been gobbling up Middle Grade Horror since she was six or seven, Young Adult Horror by nine, and Stephen King’s The Shining at 12.

She’s not the audience. No, my audience, the audience of Middle Grade Horror is between the ages of 8 and 12 and they still harbor the slightest belief that there may, in fact, be monsters living under their beds. Not that there aren’t, mind you, but the older kids are armed with much heavier and thicker books and can take out a seven-tentacled-horror at fifteen paces without even bothering to stop and Tweet about it.

So to write Middle Grade Horror, to truly write the genre, you need to give the little whippersnappers a chance to become comfortable with their terror. You need to treat them like the they are the proverbial frog in a blender and ease them into it, one step at a time. An example of this might be:

1.    A kid the Main Character barely knows walks into the house, screams, never comes out.
2.    A kid the Main Character is friends with walks into the house, screams “It’s a horrible monster!”, never comes out.
3.    The Main Character’s older brother walks into the house, screams “It’s a horrible monster and it’s eating people!”, never comes out.
4.    The Main Character walks into the house, sees a horrible monster eating people, screams.

Call it the Horror Progression Theory. Or call it the Monster Eating People theory, if you like. Whatever. The point is, if you start at Step Four and spring a person-chomping monster on your reader without warning, you get nightmares and bad reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Ease into it, and you’re a master of suspense with a multi-book deal. Right?


Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is a dark tale wrapped in a pretty, shiny, colorful paper bag about a demented and strange old man who moves into a neighborhood, builds a playground, and gleefully and miraculously heals everyone as the injuries pile up. Children get hurt (which is generally a huge no-no in Middle Grade books but something which I managed to get away with surprisingly easily). A quiet, happy neighborhood is turned upside down. Parents march menacingly down the street armed with turkey basters. True darkness is revealed. There’s even a rather large homage to all things Lovecraftian.

I may not have been able to include my precious spigot of gore spouting from a dying child’s veins, but there’s enough ‘ick’ in there to satiate the true aficionado. I even got to keep one very, very creepy and disturbing element that I was absolutely positive they’d make me remove. When I was allowed to keep it, I danced a little jig.

We hope you’re enjoying the blog tour for David Neilsen’s Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom! In case you missed yesterday’s post, head over to The Book Monsters to check it out. The tour continues tomorrow on Project Middle GradeMayhem.

David Neilsen is an actor/storyteller and author of the Middle Grade Horror novel, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom. Learn all you could ever hope to learn about David and his work by visiting his website at He is not a ninja.

“Such deliciously creepy fun! I fell in love with Dr. Fell! So will urchins and whippersnappers everywhere.” —Chris Grabenstein, author of the New York Times bestsellers Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and The Island of Dr. Libris
When the mysterious Dr. Fell moves into the abandoned house that had once been the neighborhood kids’ hangout, he immediately builds a playground to win them over. But as the ever-changing play space becomes bigger and more elaborate, the children and their parents fall deeper under the doctor’s spell.
Only Jerry, Nancy, and Gail are immune to the lure of his extravagant wonderland. And they alone notice that when the injuries begin to pile up on the jungle gym, somehow Dr. Fell is able to heal each one with miraculous speed. Now the three children must find a way to uncover the doctor’s secret power without being captivated by his trickery.


  1. I haven't tried my hand at MG horror, but it looks tempting. Kids love to be scared and see a bit of gore when it's well managed. Sounds as if you did that!

  2. I just found this blog and have high hopes for it to continue. Keep up the great work, its hard to find good ones. I have added to my favorites. Thank You. หนัง


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