Nostalgic childhood horror

One of the smallest but most interesting literary genres I’ve read is what you might call the “nostalgic male childhood fantasy.”

These are novels about, well, being a boy, and they chronicle with heartbreaking nostalgia the inevitable but painful process of growing up (a process they usually define more by the loss of wonder than by the gaining of maturity). But they differ from standard childhood memoirs or nostalgic reminiscing in at least one important way: they invariably take place in fantastic, magical versions of the real world. Dragons, monsters, magic, and every other fantastic element you can imagine lurk beneath the surface of these ordinary-seeming worlds. The protagonists, almost always boys on the verge of adolescence, can see and interact with this fantasy world; adults are typically people who lost the ability to enter the fantasy world when they “grew up” (and in some stories, adult males are given the opportunity to recapture a bit of this boyhood belief).

Three novels stand out in my mind as covering this theme especially well. The first and best has to be Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which a boy battles the minions of an evil carnival that has moved into town. It’s a true classic and an amazing story, and it hits on all of the “boyhood nostalgic fantasy” themes. A second book that fits well into this genre is Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, also about a boy dealing with the magic creatures and people that lurk beneath the surface of his small all-American hometown, although the writing style is different than that of Bradbury’s novel. And a third book that exemplifies this theme is Stephen King’s It, perhaps the best novel he’s written and chock full of childhood wonder, fantasy, and horror.

The “fantasy boyhood” theme really grabs me. The “wonder of childhood” theme is fairly common in literature, and books written for children are full of monsters and magic, but these novels seem somehow different in style from the “childhood memoir” and “children’s lit” categories. For one, they often feature a fair amount of horror as a part of the protagonist’s fantasy world (and all three of the authors noted above write, or have at least dabbled, in the horror genre). And importantly, none of the books mentioned above are written for children–they’re written for adults, and they appeal to a very specific sense of nostalgia for lost innocence and gone-forever childhood. Notably, none of them feature girls as protagonists (It features a girl protagonist, but she’s not a central character; the main protagonist is the typical near-adolescent boy).

The last point in particular interests me. Is this type of story–boy sees wondrous and horrifying things beneath the surface of “real life,” has bizarre supernatural adventures, nobody else is aware–appealing mostly to males, or is it just coincidence that the best such stories feature boys as main characters? What about these stories makes them male fantasies–or do they appeal equally to both genders? Is there a female analog to this genre? If so, can you give me any examples? One of Michele’s favorite books about girlhood, Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona, deals with the general theme of a girl coming of age and shares a fair amount in common thematically with the above books, but makes no use of the fantasy/magic/horror element at all. Is the “magic childhood”–and the heartbreaking loss than comes from growing out of it–a specifically male fantasy? Why?

Or maybe I’m just overanalyzing things. At any rate, they’re wonderful stories–perfect summer reading, if you’re looking for something to dive into over the next few months.

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