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Jenni Spangler on her Favourite Gothic Children's Books

Posted on 24th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

Utterly absorbing and boasting delightfully creepy artwork from the great Chris Mould, The Vanishing Trick  - Waterstones Children's Book of the Month for May - follows a manipulative medium and the disturbing ways she binds orphan children to her will. In this exclusive essay, the author Jenni Spangler reveals her favourite glorious, gruesome and grotesque gothic fiction for children. 

As a child I was always drawn to spooky stories. I graduated from Goosebumps onto Point Horror and ‘true’ hauntings, and as a teenager I chose to write my English coursework on gothic classics Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations.

That word – gothic – is an interesting one. For a long time, children’s fiction was the opposite of gothic. Early children’s books were intended to be wholesome and morally improving, in contrast to the gothic adult books which dealt with the secretive, the forbidden, the supernatural.

Luckily for me, and other spooky kids like me, there’s now a wealth of children’s books with a splash of the gothic. Here are some of my favourite stories while allow us to explore the creepy and mysterious from the comfort and safety of a good book.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is a master of rich prose and dark tales – and they don’t get much darker than the opening of this book which sees a toddler narrowly escape a murderer by wandering into a graveyard. The idea of a child being raised in a graveyard is incredible and I could happily read this again and again.

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Elegantly structured and written with crepuscular relish, the master of the macabre brings his singular gothic vision to the tale of Bod, raised by the ghouls of the graveyard and kept safe from a ruthless killer who has offed the rest of Bod’s family.
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A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

I have read every single one of these multiple times. The narrator’s voice is funny and the strange, larger-than-life characters and settings are so memorable. The author lives up to his promise to make things continually worse for his characters, going to some pretty dark places, but always in a fun and exciting way.

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The first grisly, gruesome and gothic instalment in A Series of Unfortunate Events introduces the tragic Baudelaire orphans and the despicable Count Olaf, not to mention a host of miserable moments and descriptions of despair that you couldn’t possibly want to read about – could you?
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The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

An ABC book with a difference, this shows twenty six children meet various sticky ends. The humour is dark, and the illustrations are both beautiful and bleak. There’s nothing quite like this.

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A clear inspiration on the work of Tim Burton, Edward Gorey was a master of the macabre and the melancholy and The Gashlycrumb Tinies is arguably his most emblematic work. An A-Z litany of unfortunate, bizarre and blackly hilarious infant deaths, this is a gruesomely gothic illustrated masterpiece.
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The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Lockwood and Co books imagine a world where hauntings are an ever-present threat and only child operatives are able to detect and deal with them. I was already an adult when this book came out but it had me genuinely scared at points – I can only imagine how terrified and delighted I would’ve been to read this as a child.

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Genuinely unsettling and dripping with otherworldly atmosphere, the first instalment of the Lockwood and Co. series sees a motley collection of ghost-hunters on a terrifying mission to save their reputation in one of the scariest haunted houses in fiction. Expertly plotted by a master of children’s literature, The Screaming Staircase is definitely best read with the lights off.
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The House of Hidden Wonders by Sharon Gosling

Edinburgh is a city of ghost stories and Sharon Gosling brings it to life in all it’s gothic squalor and glory. The bond between these three adopted sisters had me hooked throughout, and I adore the inclusion of real historical figures which makes this story all the more vivid and enchanting.

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Stunningly evocative of the murk and mystery of Victorian Edinburgh, Gosling’s subterranean thriller is a gothic rollercoaster ride featuring Arthur Conan Doyle and supernatural happenings in the tunnels that run below the city. Perfect for fans of Jennifer Bell and Katherine Woodfine, The House of Hidden Wonders tantalises and enthralls.
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