A friend was shocked when I said I wrote children's horror stories. Did children need horror? Should they be reading it? I pointed out how many kids play Fortnite, Call of Duty or worse. Offhanded, more for the soundbite, I said, "12 year olds are tough these days."
I didn't believe it, not really. But as an audience they are tough. How do you pitch a story at a child who wants to kill zombies on-screen? What can I do to compare with the bloody knowledge owned by many children younger than 12 of what it is like to kill someone, virtually and with endless repetition? How can any written word compete with that?
Well, it can't, and it shouldn't. Why would I want to compete with video games in the first place? Is a child's imagination and time so constrained that I have to lure them away from the screen with the promise of more of the same inside my book?
What can I do to take them from the visual gluttony and voyeuristic thrill of shooting a pretend gun at a pretend zombie, which, for all the pretence, looks more real with every year passing?
Why would that particular child want to read in the first place?
There we have the conundrum. Shall I now complain about the youth of today and their inability to either put down the controller or maintain concentration long enough to read a book? Actually, I don't like complaining about the youth of today; they have enough to worry about without adults always putting more blame and responsibility on their shoulders.
Does no one realise how much fun it is to play a video game? Does no one know how much better it can be to fall right into that world and be safe there, surrounded by death and gore and your friends playing alongside you, than to exist more literally in your real world? Can you not see past the lumbering creatures on the screen to the childish heart that accepts them as fantasy and loves the immediate thrill of feeling part of that make-believe?
Before I was 12 I had already read H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, R. Chetwynd Hayes and all manner of forgotten Victorian ghost stories and horror. By the time I was 12, I was reading Graham Masterton in peace and happiness as no one in my life realised what was in his books. It was my life: manitous existing in the world around me, imagining the rage of an evil one coming to life in the everyday. This seemed far preferable to the ordinariness and assumed safety of going to a rough, bullying school every week.
At the end of my day, my hard-won freedom was celebrated before I even got home by bringing out my latest Masterton and reading as I waited for my bus - the bus I caught in town because I dare not use the school bus. A little later, I discovered Stephen King and Peter Straub. I was a deeply unsupervised reader, thank goodness.
We see the games on screen, we see the blood, the screams, the bullets, the re-spawning to fight another minute-long day and we make a judgement. This child is deficient, or will become so; it is not natural for a child this age to revel in depravity aimed at 15 year olds, 18 year olds. How dare this child so soon enter the violent world we pretend does not exist until they are an adult?
This child is in full view, living in a fantasy world where their friends can speak to them as if they are in the same room. The fantasy world is full of monsters - not Grimm monsters with speaking trees and beheaded queens, but monsters which are every bit based on real-life danger. As in a storybook, the video game monsters can be closed down and put away. Controllers set aside as a book is set aside. Stories shelved and waiting for the next time this toughened 12 year old wants to sidestep every small thing expected and demanded of them in a world pretending it is not lost.
Our monsters look different from theirs. I was the only 12 year old I knew reading Victorian horror, I was the only person I knew reading Graham Masterton. When my stepfather looked over my shoulder one day to see what I read, his eyebrows vanished up his face. And then he recommended an adult crime spy book to me that he thought I would like. I didn't but I appreciated the effort, and the fact he didn't shop me to my mother.
Many children do not read books, many children do play video games. These children are not always the same people. A 12 year old zombie killer might go to bed with a book or wolf down a story in class when they're meant to be studying. A voracious reader might go online with friends and momentarily forget the waiting story.
It is the children who have no fantasy I worry about. The ones who know life is real, every day, without freedom of thought or feelings of safety. Let's worry about the kids who do nothing to fuel their imagination, even if that fuel comes in the form of shouts from another room and the tinny voices of their cheering friends.
I am not in competition with video games, I am in league with them. In league with the whole family of imaginary, fantastical pursuits which draw a child, teen, adult out of the Should and into the Maybe.
Let real life settle itself and wait til later. Pick up the controller, the book, the thought that helps you stare at something only you can see, and leave the rest. There is time enough for reality, but for a limited time only we are 12 years old, finding our best adventure.