M.R. Carey's new novel The Girl With All The Gifts comes to the United States in June — but it's already gotten massive acclaim in the U.K., and it's one of our favorite books this year. In a special essay, Carey explains why there are so many creepy dead children in horror, and what they mean.

Deadkidsongs

By M.R. Carey

Deadkidsongs is the title of a Toby Litt novel – translating the German Kindertotenlieder. To be honest, although it's a very cool and clever book it doesn't really deliver on that title. It hardly has any dead kids in it at all. But the horror genre as a whole seems to subsist on a steady diet of dead kids these days, and it's way past time somebody worked up a full taxonomic survey.

There's been a lot of blood under the bridge since Henry James observed that dropping a child into the middle of a scary story "gives the effect another turn of the screw." Nobody has strenuously disagreed, as far as I know, and if they ever did the triumphant arrival of Ringu in 1998 (the 100th anniversary of the publication of James's novella) ended the debate for good and all.

Not all creepy kids are equal, though, and – in the words of the old Japanese proverb – one Sadako doesn't make a Summer.

The narrator in The Turn of the Screw starts off as a listener, part of the audience for a spine-tingling tale in which a ghost appears to a little boy and terrifies him when his mother is sleeping in the same bed. Not a creepy kid at all, in other words; just a threatened one, with the elements arranged to provide maximum terror. The child is young, innocent, helpless; the adult who ought to protect him is close at hand but unavailable. Enter ghost, stage left, and action.

James's narrator, Douglas, counters in a way that we can all recognize and maybe relate to. "I'll see your little boy and raise you a little girl." It's that blunt and basic: my story will beat yours by doubling down.

Which it does. Or maybe doesn't, depending on how you feel about The Turn of the Screw. But Douglas's story doesn't just raise the stakes numerically – it raises them existentially too, by making the children, Miles and Flora, be vectors of evil as well as victims of it. The ghosts prey on the kids, but also possess them and enlist them in some dark and corrupt enterprise that's never entirely specified.

So the kids have an ambivalent status in the story. The governess fights to free them from the clutches of the evil dead, but at key points she seems to treat them as enemies in that fight, or at least as being co-opted by the enemy and not to be trusted. And (spoiler alert) her final solution to the dilemma is kind of reminiscent of that Peter Arnett quote from the Vietnam War: "In order to save the village, we had to destroy it."

It seems to me that this ambivalence has been the cornerstone of the creepy kid sub-genre of horror ever since. A child is the perfect signifier for imperilled innocence. So perfect that adding a big helping of evil intent doesn't change a thing. The child who wants to eat your brains or rip your heart out or drag you down to Hell is still a victim as well as a monster. Sadako in Ringu is murdered by her father. Okay, maybe she was already evil before that, and the murder is just a belated attempt to assert some parental discipline. But Toshio in Ju-On/The Grudge is a complete innocent until he's killed, and the dark magic that swallows him and transforms him comes from somebody else's vengeful rage. Pity and terror are meant to be the core emotions inspired by tragedy. The monster-child arouses both.

Of course, once that template exists you can play variations on it until the cows come home. The cute little dead girls in The Shining are conceptually very close to Toshio – innocent victims swallowed up and transformed by the same evil that killed them. But Tomas in The Orphanage is ambivalent in a different way – tragically misinterpreted by the adults who see him, and only lethal because of the actions he prompts in others. And Eli in Lindqvist's sublime Let the Right One In steers a relentlessly autonomous course between the adult characters, whose cruelties and failings put the curse of vampirism into a very different perspective.

One of my favorite recent iterations of the scary child trope is Joe Hill's NOS4A2 (or NOS4R2 in my UK edition). The ontological status of Charlie Manx's child victims remains a mystery throughout the book, and is only resolved when Vic McQueen finally gets to visit Manx's nightmare theme park, Christmasland, for herself. Vampirised by Manx's Rolls Royce, which is somewhere between a feeding appendage and an evil twin, the kids have become amoral monsters – but is there anything human left of them to save, and if there is how do you access it? It's a wonderful book, as terrifying and emotionally intelligent as all Hill's work, and it starts where most creepy kid narratives leave off.

Justin Cronin's The Passage also tilts the clichés on their axes. His protagonist, Amy, makes the transition from human to vampire very early on in the narrative, but the subset of vampire traits she takes on allows her to remain a sympathetic and relatable character – while also allowing us as readers to peer into the greater depths of alienation experienced by the vampire hive-minds of the Twelve.

I've been working my way around to my own novel, The Girl With All the Gifts, for which I'd like to give a subtle plug while we're in the neighbourhood. My scary child protagonist, Melanie, is in some ways a lot like Eli and Amy. Like Eli and Amy she looks at us across a sort of great divide – clearly and definably no longer human. And as with Eli and Amy our reaction to her monstrousness is tempered by the various kinds of human evil she encounters. She's unlike them in other respects, though. When we first meet her she has far less autonomy, less freedom of choice and action. Confined on an army base and almost completely ignorant of what's outside it, she relies on old stories and superannuated textbooks to build up a sense of the world.

When the base is destroyed, she has to learn for herself how the world works – and what her own place in it is. The novel dramatises that coming of age process, while also retelling the myth of Pandora in a post-apocalyptic landscape. But it's Melanie's experience that drives it, and Melanie's realisation of her own differentness that pushes it to its final crisis.

I was aware as I was writing it that every monster worth meeting ultimately shows us our own reflection. Through the creepy child, specifically, we can explore notions of innocence and experience, power and powerlessness, parental and social responsibility. And of course, as in all good horror, what it means to be human.