Tea, toast and techno-terror

`Independent' reviewers select the best books and tapes for tots- to-teens this Christmas; Christina Hardyment on thrilling reading for the 8 to 12s

Horror is hot" says the librarian of our local middle school. "The kids can't get enough of it." So should we be indulging their desire for Goosebumps, Point Horror and all the other ghoulie ghosty titles? The answer is yes. Fear is an important instinct, but today most of us live such safe lives that we rarely experience it. When we do, it can be disproportionately devastating. Children's urge to practice in the shallow-end with fictional danger makes very good sense.

But is any stretch of the imagination better than none? There is not much harm in teenagers reading R L Stine, Diane Hoh and Caroline B Cooney, the unholy American trinity of horror, smartly omnibused this year into "triple doses of terror" (Point Horror, pounds 6.99). Pacy, racy reads, their moral sense is as sound as that of Enid Blyton, and their prose as easily assimilable by those who would make heavy weather of ritzier writers for the age group. Although there are enough gruesome red herrings to fill a crate of Mallaig kippers, there's always a tall tousled blue-eyed chap in the background to bail out the terrified heroine.

There are, however, more fertile literary pastures for children in search of shivers. Cold Shoulder Road (Red Fox, pounds 3.50), the most recent in the thrilling alternative historical world of Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, is now out in paperback. Look out too for her riotously imaginative new horror story The Cockatrice Boys (Gollancz, pounds 10.99). It opens with impatient airline passengers grumbling at the wait for their luggage ("A one-legged rheumatic snail with athlete's foot could have fetched it faster than those handlers are doing it"). What eventually appears is a horrific cargo of griffins, cocodrills, mandragores and other bestiary horrors who rapidly lay the British Isles to waste. Can a little girl with unusual powers, a resolute boy drummer and a colourful gallery of martial volunteers on a Heath Robinson train defeat them?

Dick "Babe The Sheep-pig" King-Smith takes on an altogether meatier and more macabre theme in Godhanger (Doubleday, pounds 9.99), a nail-bitingly exciting story of how a sadistically cruel game-keeper is worsted by the godlike eagle Skymaster. There is an enormous amount of natural lore in the book, observed both lyrically and humorously, but this is nature red in tooth and claw, not Farthing Wood. Flies nuzzle the guts of a shot rabbit in chapter one, and things don't get more cheerful. But children prefer the truth about the natural world to cosy euphemisms and can take this sort of thing in their stride. Andrew Davidson's vibrant full-page wood engravings are a magnificent embellishment of a wise, moral and implicitly Christian book which will surely become a classic.

Gillian Cross has also moved on from the cheerful horrors of her brilliant Demon Headmaster books. Pictures in the Dark (Oxford, pounds 5.99) is dramatically kitted out in deep purple with a staring eye on the front cover. The contents are no less uncanny. Is Peter Luttrell profoundly evil, or merely an oppressed little boy who may or may not be a shape-shifter? Are there really otters in the river, or are altogether darker forces at work? This is a peculiarly haunting story which works on several levels.

Stephen Elboz is an exciting new literary talent who is rapidly establishing a reputation for unsettlingly supernatural stories. Even the radio "cowers in a corner like a small brow-beaten creature that knows when to be quiet" in the time-warp household of Dr Malthus, the setting of Ghostlands (Oxford, pounds 5.99). Ewan finds a strange but enchanting companion in the ghost of his host's dead son, but soon finds that he is going to have to save Ziggy from a sinister coven of ghostnappers who operate from the nearby horror theme park. A shudder a page, scintillatingly written.

Younger children whose parents quail at the strong meat mentioned so far will relish the sharp wit, graceful phrasing and playful fantasies of W J Corbett's The Dragon's Egg and Other Stories (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 10.99), a loosely linked collection of tales of dragons large and small which are both delightfully original and rich in reference to English folklore. It is enriched by Wayne Anderson's winningly winsome illustrations.

The fun is also more fast and furious than spooky in Peter James's Getting Wired (Gollancz, pounds 9.99), the first in what promises to be an informative as well as amusing series of junior thrillers called TechnoTerrors. Written with gusto and deftly plotted, it focuses on a highly computer-literate group of friends in the top form of a financially-pressured primary school. School bully Jason Glick threatens to ruin all their efforts to raise the cash to join the Internet and establish a web site, but intelligence and ingenuity triumph.

Finally a gentle, wise gem of a book: Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery (Phoenix House, pounds 14.99) handsomely published and enchantingly illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Buy it now and give it straight away, as it's an advent calendar in itself, with an episode for each day of December. It is the story of a journey of a Norwegian child across land and time, with an ever-growing company of sheep, angels, shepherds and wise men, to reach Bethlehem. But, as you would expect from the author of Sophie's World, it builds up into much more. In each story there is an aside or an observation which lodges in the mind like a mantra and will make parents as well as children think.

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