Neil Gaiman is my hero. (For today. I go through heroes like someone who goes through a lot of things very quickly.) He wrote a scary short story called “Click-clack the Rattlebag” which Audible.com put on their website, and they made a donation every time someone downloaded it. (I have no idea what the donation is for. I could go research it, but I don’t have the time.) As soon as I heard about this I had to check it out. Many of my students know Gaiman’s name. They’ve read The Graveyard Book, Odd and the Ice Giants, and one has even read Good Omens. Talk about a win-win-win situation.
I am not a fan of scary literature — I’m still scarred from reading Cujo for one of my students (due next week.) But this really is a wonderful little story. Not too frightening for the younger ones (or me), only about 12 minutes long, and it really illustrates what is best in scary stories. Once I heard it, I knew I had a lesson plan in the making.
When students arrived in the classroom, they were asked to brainstorm the attributes of the scary story, as a genre. I didn’t want to lose time, and so we didn’t go over what they had written, yet. Instead they listened to a story I had written a few years ago. It’s nowhere near the caliber of Neil Gaiman’s story, but it does the job. When I was finished, students added, subtracted, or just continued to think about the traits of a scary story.
Again, I allowed them to stew while I played for them Gaiman’s offering. They were entranced. When the story was over, like all good stories, they wanted to talk about it. I never, ever, let them do this. I always make them write down whatever it is they want to say. They were so electrified that a few remarks were blurted out anyway, but they settled down to the command, “You have one minute — write.” You see, authentic literary analysis comes from that need to share. That need to see if others shared your experience. And they wrote. And then they shared what they wrote. I tweeted Neil Gaiman (he asks you to before he reads the story) and told him what they thought. “Very well written,” was the consensus.
After that I directed them back to their bellwork and asked them if there was anything they wished to add to the their list of things a scary story needs. Then we put it on the board: It needs to build suspense. It needs to have an atmosphere where it is hard to see (gloomy), it needs to have a real or hidden threat, it needs to have a sense of hopelessness or foreboding. It needs to have a surprise ending. Stories are often (but not always) written in first person for that sense of immediacy. (Notice the dearth of sparkly vampires.)
Once we all agreed on these traits, I asked students to write their own stories. I’ve never seen heads go down so fast. All writing implements were coursing across the paper. Some students finished early and asked to write a second story. Mostly, they wanted to read their stories aloud. When just about everybody had finished, we did start reading them.
At one point, one of the students raised her hand and pointed at the clock. We had three minutes until the day was over. I told students to put away their work. There was a wail of, “Noooo!!!” that I’ve never heard before. I told them that the day was over and they had to go home. It was Halloween. The response? “Noooo!!!” Amazing.
Here are two of their pieces:
I was sitting on the couch when John came over and sat next to me. He said the story around the dinner table was a pretty scary one. The one about Old Man Jenkins.
“Yeah, but it’s all junk,” I said.
“Well,” said John, “We’re leaving tomorrow.”
When I woke up, John had packed up for me. He said, “Come on, let’s go!”
We got into the car. About 5 minutes in I said, “Since we are going to the barn, I’ll tell a scary story about Harold the Scarecrow.” We loved to tell scary stories. I told him that Harold would be used as a target for shot gun practice, and he wanted revenge for being so badly treated.
When we got to the barn, I said to John, go in and check it out. It was all dark. I teased him and said, “Harold will get you!” but he was already gone. Nailed to the door was a flap of skin waving in the breeze.
He is sticking closely to the pattern set up by Gaiman, but it is clearly his own story. Mimicry is no bad thing.
Pant, pant, pant. “Why did I ever do such a thing?” thought the girl. “Mom specifically told me not to do it.” They were coming closer every second.
“We will get you Cherry! Mwa, ha, ha, ha, ha!” said the monster behind.
Earlier that night…
Cherry went out to trick-or-treat with her other teenage girly-friends. Before Cherry left the house her mom told her something very important. “Cherry, please don’t go to the graveyard. It is haunted!”
“Sorry mom, we already made plans.”
“If you go the vampires will come alive.”
“Seriously mom? Vampires.”
“They are real. I went to the graveyard when I was your age and I got bitten. It was so bad, I thought they defeated me.”
“That is so lame, and plus, how did you get better?”
“Your father killed every single one and the venom disintegrated out of my body.”
“Let’s go, Cherry!” said May, one of Cherry’s friends.
“Bye, Mom! I love you,” Cherry said just before leaving.
“Oh, please keep her safe, you wonderful spirits,” said her mother, worriedly.
They went to the graveyard, but Cherry didn’t go in.
“What’s wrong, Cherry? Too scared?” said May.
“No,” Cherry said with anger.
“Then come on in. It’s fine!” said her other friends.
Cherry went in for two minutes, but to her it felt like two hours. She turned around and saw them.
NB: We didn’t discuss the prohibitive nature of scary stories, but it is clearly bouncing around in their heads.
Just like how the kids wanted to discuss the bellwork, I think the fact that students wanted to talk about the writing they heard, and then write and read their own work, speaks to the communicative nature of writing and reading. It’s absolutely primal.