Macabre Skull

The Macabre in Children’s Literature

It’s autumn. The nights are drawing in. Halloween is coming.

These three recurring events bring to mind all things gruesome and creepy. The morbid. The macabre. The grim. And, of course, their place in kids’ lit.

Believe it or not, they do have a place.

Not all children’s stories have a happy ending. Not all kids love Disney. Life is messy and can sometimes be cruel so, I ask you: at what age do or did you start reading morbid stories to your children?

I’m not a child psychologist and I’m not going to preach to you about what you should or shouldn’t read to your children. That’s for you to decide. Some children are more mature than others. Some are more sensitive. You know your child better than anyone.

There are plenty of examples of threats, neglect and death in mainstream children’s literature: the Harry Potter series and most Roald Dahl books, for instance.

But I wanted to delve a little further. Take a look at less-well-known authors and books that push the boundaries a bit further. Books with horrifying themes that would be considered grim in an adult book.

When I read Edward Gorey’s wonderfully grim The Gashlycrumb Tinies to my son (who is ten) he was puzzled by it and didn’t find it as delightful as I do. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s an alphabet poem about the cruel and unfortunate ways that a group of children parish. The violence and death isn’t a necessary evil to help move the plot along; it’s the entire purpose of the poem.

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.
B is for Basil assaulted by bears. *

You get the idea.

I look at Gorey’s illustrations of wide-eyed, helpless and distressed little ones at the final moments of their short lives and see dark humour and art at its finest. Children dying isn’t funny, but I have the sense to know it’s just a poem. If those stories were written in the local newspaper, I’d be horrified.

Q is for Quentin who sank in a mire.
R is for Rhoda consumed by a fire.*

Dear God what’s the world coming to?

It can all appear real to young readers, so that’s why I haven’t introduced my seven-year-old daughter to The Gashlycrumb Tinies. She’s not ready yet. She has nightmares. She’s already too obsessed with beheadings and death.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a sombre account of the misfortunes of three children who lose their parents in a house fire. A relative (the eccentric Count Olaf) takes them in to care for them but it soon transpires that his intention is to steal their fortune. That may appear relatively harmless on the surface but the story takes some dark turns and delves into murkier depths – neglect and suggestions of murder, incest (we don’t know how closely related he is to the children – he’s described as a “distant relative”) and paedophilia. Hardly suitable topics for any children’s story but because it’s written for children, from the point of view of children, it’s seen as acceptable.

Adults read between the lines. Thankfully, children generally don’t.

Dennis Lee is a popular Canadian children’s poet who, in 1974, published a collection called Alligator Pie. There’s one poem in particular that I still remember to this day. It’s titled In Kamloops and goes like this.

In Kamloops
I'll eat your boots.

In the Gatineaus
I'll eat your toes.

In Napanee
I'll eat your knee.

In Winnipeg
I'll eat your leg.

In Charlottetown
I'll eat your gown.

In Crysler's Farm
I'll eat your arm. **

Isn’t cannibalism fun? The poem has the added benefit of providing an informative lesson in Canadian geography.

Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, which was first published in 1907, includes the comic poems Jim, Who Ran Away from his Nurse, and was Eaten by a Lion and Matilda, Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death. Admittedly, the titles don’t leave much to the imagination. They’re meant as a lesson to children on how to behave. The poem about Jim doesn’t end with him being eaten. It goes into great detail about how he is eaten and the fact that his parents aren’t surprised by his terrible fate because he wouldn’t do what he was told. And the tragic Matilda is simply a variation on The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Anthony Horowitz is one my son’s favourite authors. His children’s books are well written and so so funny. Proper laugh-out-loud funny. But his stories involve cruelty to children, murder, death and even substance abuse. One character, a child, in fact, has a penchant for sniffing glue. The villainy in these stories often comes from close family. Loved ones. The people the child trusts the most. That’s the stuff of nightmares. Seriously, have you ever seen The Shining?

These stories aren’t new. Folk lore tales that have been passed down through the generations are filled with cruelty and violence. It was the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm) who had the forethought to write many of them down.

The story of Hansel and Gretel is still well known to this day – the poor children who are kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch living in a gingerbread house. In original versions it’s the children’s father and mother who conspire to abandon the children in the woods. In later versions it’s the children’s stepmother who wants them gone while their father opposes the scheme.

The story originates from Europe’s Great Famine of 1315-1317. A time when people were so desperate some had to abandon their children to survive or, worse, resort to cannibalism. Unthinkable to our cultural attitudes today but it sure makes for one creepy children’s story.

And there are many more. Rapunzel’s prince goes blind when his eyes are punctured by thorns and spends many lonely years wandering the world looking for his lost love. Two of the Three Little Pigs get devoured by the wolf. Little Red Riding Hood is especially tragic. In some older versions she gets eaten by the wolf. In others she unwittingly eats some of her grandmother’s flesh.

It’s important to remember context here. These folk tales were dreamed up at a time when families (children and all) went to see executions for an afternoon’s entertainment. Children had to grow up more quickly back then and our sensibilities have become much more delicate over the years.

I partially blame Disney for the latter. There’s a whole generation of people who think the Little Mermaid woos her prince and achieves her dream of becoming human. The actual Hans Christian Andersen story is much more thought-provoking. She’s willing to give everything up to become a human soul but, in the end, doesn’t succeed in getting her man and instead becomes part of the atmosphere, a daughter of the sky. A heart-breaking ending that made me sad as a child.

A grim and gruesome ending can often give a story depth. Life would be dull if everything ended happily ever after.

“For some reason, my mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible because that’s what the world’s like.” ***

– Edward Gorey

Whether or not your child reads these stories is entirely up to you and your child. Be warned, though; should you decide to allow it be prepared for some awkward questions.


* Gorey, Edward, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, first published in The Vinegar Works: Three Volumes of Moral Instruction, 1963, New York, Simon and Schuster.
** Lee, Dennis, Alligator Pie, In Kamloops, 2012, Toronto, Ontario, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., hardcover edition, pg 17.
*** Wilkin, Karen, Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, 2009, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Brandywine River Museum, Brandywine Conservancy,
pg 9.