I am a squeamish person. I can’t stand the sight of blood and can’t watch many horror movies that show a lot of gore. Yet I love the Walking Dead graphic novels and the TV series (boa intestines anyone?). I do have to cover my eyes at times, but I’m addicted. Doesn’t make sense, I know. I can’t explain it. I guess I can take it if there’s an actual plot with gore mixed in, rather than just senseless horror.
I know a lot of you, and in particular, you teen readers, like horror. In considering what books to present here I really wanted to highlight truly gruesome books — ones that genuinely make you sick to your stomach. I know what makes someone want to hurl is subjective, but I think I’ve identified some pretty icky books. Most of these books aren’t brand new. I can’t really describe why some are so horrific unless I describe some of the plot so…
Warning: there be spoilers ahead!
I listened to Daniel Kraus’s Rotters (the 2012 Odyssey Award winner) after I heard the narrator Kirby Heyborne read an excerpt from it at the Odyssey Awards at the ALA conference in June. I’d started it but hadn’t really had time to read much of it. Heyborne’s reading was so amazingly creepy I ditched the printed book and went for the audiobook instead.
Joey’s mom is tragically killed and he moves from Chicago to a small town in Iowa to live with a father he doesn’t know. His father, known by all as The Garbage Man, makes Joey the brunt of unmerciful bullying and ridicule. He’s horrified to realize his father’s no ordinary garbage man. He’s a Rotter, or modern day grave robber, and Joey’s about to learn the trade firsthand.
As gruesome as this is, it wasn’t until I listened to the part where Joey assists his father at his first grave robbing that I was really grossed out. The female body had putrefied and she was bloated and green with eye sockets writhing with maggots. It’s so much worse hearing the description of her appearance than reading the words! Based on what I learned about the different types of coffins and the various conditions that an exhumed body might be found in, I definitely don’t want to be buried! Cremation for me! Another aspect of grave robbing that really made me sick to my stomach was the description of the Rat Kings sometimes found in graves. They are dozens of rats connected to each other by their tails which become stuck from blood, dirt, ice, or excrement.
As far as creepy characters go, Boggs, their Rotter nemesis, is one of the most disturbing I’ve ever encountered. He’s abnormally short, with blue eyes in a baby face with a slight Southern accent and is completely crazy. By the end of the book, his addiction to drugs has destroyed him so much he keeps flopping around with a nearly severed foot without feeling a thing. He reminded me of Truman Capote. There are plenty of moments in this story that are hard to read or listen to, yet I couldn’t resist. It was like watching a car wreck: I just couldn’t turn away.
At the YA Coffee Klatch at the ALA Annual Conference, Kraus described his next book, Scowler, due out in March 2013, as one that is “inappropriate for everyone.” It has to do with teenaged Ry, a victim of his father’s physical and emotional abuse, trying to eke out a living on a farm with his mother and sister. When a meteorite falls from the sky, it brings with it not only a fragment from another world but also the arrival of a ruthless man intent on destroying Ry’s family. He’s forced to defend himself by resurrecting a trio of imaginary childhood protectors: kind Mr. Furrington, wise Jesus Christ, and the bloodthirsty Scowler. I can’t wait to read it!
Rat Kings and hordes of rats are also a big part of Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps. Don’t read this book while eating! This is a vampire book with a twist. Cal, the main character, is infected through a cat’s breath and becomes a carrier of a parasite that causes vampirism. At the beginning of each even-numbered chapter, Westerfeld includes icky facts about parasites found in the ecosystem and our bodies. The one I found most fascinating and stomach-churning describes the origin of the doctor symbol with two snakes climbing up a winged staff. The snakes are actually long guinea worms that can make their way into your body through infected drinking water and can grow as long as 2 feet. Doctors found the way to remove them was by pulling them out slowly and winding them on sticks. Yuck!
No discussion of gory books could leave out Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist (a 2010 Printz Honor Book). I started to read it when it first came out but couldn’t take it so I tried it when it came out on audio. In 1888 teenaged orphan Will Henry is apprenticed to a doctor who hunts real monsters. The monsters they try to kill are huge, clawed creatures that live on human flesh. The creatures are gruesome, as are their attempts to kill them using a live woman as bait. A particularly sickening part of the book explicitly details the rotting, maggot infested flesh of a hugely obese old man dying of neglect in an unclean sanatorium filled with flies. The story of how Will Henry’s parents died in a fire is also pretty grisly.
Lockdown, the first book in Alexander Gordon Smith’s Escape from Furnace series (among the 2010 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers) is a grim futuristic tale of British teens, and even younger boys, imprisoned in a penitentiary deep underground ruled by brutal guards with scary, skinless dogs and vicious teen gangs. At night, monstrously huge and deformed creatures attack and kill the kids in their cells. The mystery behind these misshapen monstrosities becomes clearer in the subsequent books in the series. The fifth book in the series is due out in November.
These are just a few of the many gory horror books out there for teens. I’d love to hear more suggestions if you have any.
— Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Radiate by Marley Gibson and listening to Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough
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