“Coming-of-age” is generally perceived as taking place over the period when an adolescent makes the mental and emotional leap to adulthood. But very often that is not the case, especially in certain genres, such as horror, when the emotionally stunted individual can just as easily be an adult. In literature, like a summer’s end, youth is over after one great adventure that comes too quickly, and the adults that emerge from that traumatic season are many times filled with their own emotional trauma that will never go away. That’s good for the reader but bad for the character. If handled incorrectly Coming-of-Age can be soapy and boring. But in the hands of a skilled ink slinger, it is an exciting and breathtaking journey filled with emotional intensity. Even a misspent youth has a learning curve, and these stories take you through it. I’m going to mention a few of my favorites that I hope you will read if you haven’t already.
This is no definitive list but only scraping ice off the windshield. A list of every Coming-of-Age novel would fill books of their own. These are some that affected me upon reading, not necessarily my favorites, but my most unforgettable. While certainly nostalgic, most are bittersweet, almost wistful. Certainly they are frightening. Most of us don’t want to relive our adolescence and a good Coming-of-Age story reminds us why. Gertrude Stein said that we are always the same inside and that certainly carries an element of truth, for I was either an emotionally mature kid or I’m still dumb as a rock now, but these tales punch me in the gut.
Summer of Night by Dan Simmons may be an example of the quintessential Coming-of-Age book. A group of five Illinois boys live out their summer vacation in a golden Bradburyesque land of fields, golden sunshine, and make-believe. But as boys are wont to do they explore, and their discoveries become very real. The void looks back at them. The evils they uncover are life changing and rock their world out of its childhood compliancy. They may also be fighting for the salvation of mankind itself. There is also a historic element that creates a sense of reality that is not ours to control. So fun and so well written. A book not to be overlooked.
Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon is the perfect companion piece to Summer of Night. We move from Illinois to Alabama and the 11-year boy is alone to face growing up in a world suddenly revealing its evil. He tries to deal with the pain he sees inside of his father after a grievous encounter with death. Once that door to the dark side is opened it becomes a Pandora’s box of revelations revealing that childhood is not something to which you can ever return, nor do we necessarily want to. This was a World Fantasy Award winner in 1992 and continues to hold its power to this day.
The Other by Thomas Tryon is about internal horror that lives inside of two identical brothers. They are the antithesis of each other, with the good brother trying to cover for the actions of his evil sibling until it is no longer feasible. As with all great Coming-of-Age stories dead and dread surround the main players and a reading of this emotionally packed book leaves the reader puzzled as each little clue is handed out by Mr. Tryon until the horrific reveal at the end. Unforgettable. For surely the worm turns within your brain as you take the dark trek down the hallway of family terror. Fans of Shirley Jackson will eat this up.
The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale is an example of the type of Gothic-toned Coming-of-Age stories that are some of my favorite immersive reading experiences. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Lady by Thomas Tryon and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers are definitely leaders in the pack and suck the reader right into their rich, brooding worlds. I love them. This type of Coming-of-Age storytelling can range from sloppy and mundane to oppressive and damn-near heartwarming. In the right hands they can suck your soul and I never want them to end. But for my money I’ll take The Bottoms by Joe R Lansdale any time as my favorite choice of the Southern secret gothic mystery of youth.
Good Times, Bad Times by James Kirkwood When it comes to school (especially boarding school) Coming-of-Age is a sometimes-confusing mix of stymied sex, young angst and the feverish discovery of frustration for the characters in the book. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and A Separate Peace by John Knowles are among the most famous pieces in this sub-genre. Although these books can leave some readers wondering what they had just consumed. My personal preference is the lesser-known Good Times, Bad Times by James (A Chorus Line) Kirkwood. For me it packs more tension and honesty than most when the world wakes up youth to adulthood.
Ghost Story by Peter Straub This is my favorite book. It fits in many genres but especially Coming-of-Age. The old men of the self-named Chowder Society have had their lives emotionally jailed by what happened to each of them individually as young men. Their therapy is to tell the stories of their remembrances and reflections of days past and lives lost. This simple premise comes off as a very detailed cross-hatching of destroyed lives and demons unleashed. There is so much bloodshed, so much psychological terror, so much spent youth that it torments them to this day. They will in fact never come of age. The old men can’t grow out of it and the horror will torment them to their graves. This may be the single best horror novel of the twentieth century.
Del Howison is an author, journalist, and the Bram Stoker Award-winning
editor of the anthology Dark Delicacies: Original Tales of Terror and
the Macabre by the World’s Greatest Horror Writers. His dark western
novel The Survival of Margaret Thomas was a finalist for the Peacemaker
Award given out by the Western Fictioneers. He has been nominated for
over half a dozen awards including the Shirley Jackson Award and the