BOOK REVIEW / Children's Books: The grisly corpse rises every month: Dina Rabinovitch considers the new fashion for teenage horror fiction

Three years ago, if you went into your local branch of W H Smith in search of a book for a teenager, the sales assistant probably shrugged and pointed you to the CDs or videos instead. There were no books that teenagers were interested in reading. The nation's bookseller knows above all, which books sell, and to whom. The teenage market was dead.

But then in 1991, in broad daylight, the coffin lid creaked and close observers watched it heave open. The corpse rose again, mightily, and now, every single month, a book written and marketed for teenagers will automatically go straight into the W H Smith list of Top Ten Bestsellers - outselling, therefore, not just Enid Blyton but Sidney Sheldon too.

That fabulously popular title will be the latest grisly 'murderer-meets-girl' story from Point Horror: the series of horror novels that, according to some, is keeping Britain literate - and, according to others, is symptomatic of everything that's wrong with us today.

Point Horror came to Britain from the States. In 1991 a bright editor at Scholastic Books spotted the potential of the horror stories, featuring clean-cut American youth facing assorted terrors at dead of night on campus. Back then the sexy, violent books were marketed as, simply, Thrillers.

Scholastic made a subtle change: a shiny new corporate identity. The Point Horror name and logo is now emblazoned on cover and spine. The covers are dark, with one scary feature - claws, teeth, blood - brilliant against the night. Instantly recognizable, once you've read one, it is now easy to find the next. The W H Smith central ordering system, feeding off reader demand like vampires on blood, ensures the five foot displays of the pounds 2.99 Point Horror novels now to be found in so many shops.

David Fickling, Editorial Director of the children's list at Scholastic, father of three and also - he points out - a Cambridge graduate, howls like a werewolf at accusations that Point Horror novels could damage the young teenagers who gobble them down.

'These books are like the penny dreadfuls of the last century,' he yelped. 'People who criticise simply don't understand - this sort of thing is the foundation of a literary nation. Like Biggles and Enid Blyton - Point Horror will make children into readers for life. So many children these days haven't learnt ever to love a book. These books are well-written with a strong moral tone.'

Well-written is debatable; Edgar Allan Poe this isn't. 'We have to provide a reading stepping-stone,' said Fickling. 'Any beginners' books could be criticised for their literary standard. So what if they're not deeply intellectual? Kids need stuff to read on the beach same as we do.'

What about the moral tone? Graham Masterton is one of the first English writers to be asked to produce a short story for a Point Horror collection. For a fee of about pounds 600, Masterton has written a tale of a long-dead batsman reincarnated in a school quite like Harrow, where his own sons were educated. 'In horror fiction there's a fine tradition of good overcoming evil - it gives people a sense of satisfaction, and I think that's helpful for young people coming to terms with moral issues. Teenagers have always been ghoulish - I certainly don't think reading about horror encourages violent acts.'

Dora Black is a psychiatrist specialising in adolescents. 'It's like everything,' said Dr Black. 'The well-adjusted child is going to take it with a pinch of salt. The vulnerable child will be affected. I certainly don't accept the argument that children need horror; I grew up without it. People in my profession are all becoming increasingly worried at how available horror material is becoming. However, books are obviously preferable to videos. Videos leave nothing to the imagination - readers, at least, can construct what they can cope with in their heads.'

David Fickling says it's a knee-jerk reaction to condemn Point Horror, from the kind of people who would give children books that 'are good for them, but will turn them off reading for life'.

Fickling told me a true story (he gave me the name and phone number of the people involved) to illustrate this point. 'Last Christmas,' he said, 'a 13-year-old girl and her mother came up to me, bubbling with excitment. 'Are you the man who brings out Point Horror,' they said. 'We can't thank you enough.' And the 13-year-old said, 'The Point Horror novel I read this year was the first book I ever read.'

Dora Black is a psychiatrist specialising in adolescents. 'It's like everything,' said Dr Black. 'The well-adjusted child is going to take it with a pinch of salt. The vulnerable child will be affected. I certainly don't accept the argument that children need horror; I grew up without it. People in my profession are all becoming increasingly worried at how available horror material is becoming. However, books are obviously preferable to videos. Videos leave nothing to the imagination - readers, at least, can construct what they can cope with in their heads.'

David Fickling says it's a knee-jerk reaction to condemn Point Horror, from the kind of people who would give children books that 'are good for them, but will turn them off reading for life'.

Fickling told me a true story (he gave me the name and phone number of the people involved) to illustrate this point. 'Last Christmas,' he said, 'a 13-year-old girl and her

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