The Psychotronic Book Club: Adventures in getting older teens to read (horror)

Jun 27, 2023
The Psychotronic Book Club: Adventures in getting older teens to read (horror)

The Psychotronic Book Club: 

Adventures in getting older teens to read (horror)

I have been a school librarian for nearly thirty years, working in three very different schools and over that period have run many successful (with a few misfires along the way) book clubs. By far the most rewarding is the Psychotronic Book Club, which I have coordinated since around 2008 and is aimed at older teens, aged roughly 14+ to 18. I originally borrowed the term ‘Psychotronic’ from Michael Weldon’s wonderful cult Encyclopedia of Film (1989) guide and instead of looking at weird films, we read cult books, which encompasses horror, science fiction, fantasy, ultimately anything edgy which has lots to chew over and discuss. We have been known to read novels quite literally a few weeks off the press and balance this with a smattering of modern and older classics, with the most important factor being whatever we read must lead (love or hate it) to a good argument, discussion or lively disagreement. 

This type of book club turns teenagers into lifelong readers, I have kept in touch with many of my former members and was particularly touched when I bumped into an old familiar face at a Scott Sigler event in London a few years ago! I love hearing from alumni of the club, often looking for new reading tips or suggestions, and having chats about what they are currently reading. The last five years have been a particularly rewarding period for Psychotronic, which survived Covid, moved temporarily online for over a year and was severely impacted by the ‘bubble’ education system when only one year group could attend the club because of social distancing rules. But we survived. 

Strangely, over these last five years Psychotronic has morphed from a cult fiction group into a ‘horror’ book club, this was not a deliberate decision, rather it was dictated by the five most loyal attendees. As I write this Maddie, Freya, Emily, Esme, and Lucy are sitting their A-Level exams and sadly their time in the Psychotronic Book Club is over. I will miss them all, as they have rarely missed a discussion in five years and have been the ever steady backbone of the club. As they all loved horror, I was delighted to live and breathe the genre with the books we chose to read. Back in the early days of 2008, the first two novels studied were JG Ballard’s The Drowned World and Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And so now that my trusty horror freaks have left, perhaps it is time for the club to read more science fiction or non-horror fiction? We shall see. 

All five girls are heading to top universities, none of them have studied A-Level English, and are great examples in illustrating how reading for pleasure is fantastic for relaxation and taking a break from the more ‘serious’ business of studying for A-Levels. In fact, on the occasion we did read slightly more ‘academic’ title, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale I faced cries of “overrated” and “can we do another horror novel please?” I was always very happy to oblige. 

Throughout the Covid lockdowns and beyond we kept ourselves busy by a steady diet of unrelentingly bleak fiction and in our recent final meeting went out with a bang, in which we discussed Paul Tremblay’s superb A Head Full of Ghosts which everybody enjoyed as there was so much to unpack and argue over. In this final meeting, each of the girls also produced a mini list of their favourite Psychotronic choices from the last five years. Here are their individual selections and rough age guides:

Emily

EMILY The Psychotronic Book Club

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (14+)

Adam Nevill – Last Days (Year 14+)

Alison Rumfitt – Tell Me I’m Worthless (16+)

Esme

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (14+)

Gabriel Bergmoser – The Hunted (14+)

AM Shine – The Watchers (14+)

Esme The Psychotronic Book Club

Freya

The Psychotronic Book Club  FREYA

Jonathan Buckley AKA Andrew Michael Hurley – Starve Acre (14+)

James R Gapinski – Edge of the Known Bus Line (14+)

Stephen King AKA Richard Bachman – The Long Walk (14+)

Lucy

Jonathan Buckley AKA Andrew Michael Hurley – Starve Acre (14+)

Iain Reid – Foe (14+)

Toby T Luff – Ration (15+)

Maddie

The Psychotronic Book Club

James R Gapinski – Edge of the Known Bus Line (14+)

Stephen King AKA Richard Bachman – The Long Walk (13+)

Paul Tremblay – A Head Full of Ghosts (14+)

Other very popular novels studied but not featured in any of the personal top threes included This Thing Between Us (Gus Moreno), The Ritual (Adam Nevill), Bird Box (Josh Malerman), When We Were Animals (Joshua Gaylord), The Reapers are the Angels (Alden Bell AKA Joshua Gaylord), Pet Semarary (Stephen King), and The Running Man (also Stephen King). The most popular books were often those which made good use of ambiguity, tension, had controversial endings and featured sympathetic characters which were put through the wringer! 

These five teens debunked the myth that this older age group is disengaged from fiction and can still get considerable satisfaction from reading novels. It can provide both a terrific sense of relaxation and an opportunity to chat with like-minded individuals who you might not otherwise mix with at school. Satisfyingly, regular members of the club would regularly explore other novels written by authors the group introduced them to.

Here are some hints and tips on running a genre-based school based book club (including tips relevant for any type of book clubs):

  1. This type of club is not aimed at the masses, you should be targeting confident readers who are open to exploring new fiction. Use its ‘exclusivity’ as a selling point!
  2. Always read your selections in advance, no matter how exalted a reputation a book might have. I was caught seriously short by William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which everybody hated, and I had not pre-read because of its classic status. It was just not for my group. 
  3. One book every half-term is more than enough and regular members will quickly get into the routine of expecting the next book to be given out at the discussion.
  4. Treats and sweets are an important part of book clubs.
  5. Pupils must have read the book to attend, no hangers on. They are probably just after your treats.
  6. It is crucial that the first couple of books you choose are tried and tested winners to suck readers in. Some suggestions of books I have used on multiple occasions are below.
  7. Depending on your age group, you can sell your club as something slightly ‘forbidden’ by telling them you are giving them books nobody else has access to. When my group was Sixth Form (aged 16+) only I used this to explore very mature books and they loved the incredibly challenging Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt, a title you will never normally find in a school library. I would not normally go to that extreme with any other group except for the five girls I have already mentioned.
  8. Invite staff. At various time keen staff (who like weird books) have been happy to come along and support the group.
  9. Price plays a factor. I would love to do Tim McGregor’s Wasps in the Ice Cream, but the £13.75 Amazon price tag is too steep for buying multiple copies. Ultimately you want to stockpile titles which you can revisit every few years to save cash. 
  10. We usually study ‘accessible’ adult novels which strong teen readers might like, although the books have gotten more mature over the last few years. YA novels are also fine if your group are not yet ready for adult selections. Ultimately your books should be chosen to fit your group. Likewise, I would never have chosen Tender with the Flesh for a group other than the strong mature readers who just left. 
  11. Give out any rewards which make your pupils feel special, from early lunch passes to whatever commendation system your school might run. Also make sure it features in any school newsletters, official club lists, Twitter feeds and any other promotional avenues. I frequently tagged authors in Tweets of the kids holding their books (they love it) and in the case of Josh Malerman’s Bird Box discussed the book blindfolded, he thought it was very cool, and retweeted our photo.  
  12. Update your posters regularly to include photos of your club and its members. My group often liked to partially hide their faces with books (particularly when they were Middle School age, 14-16) but were much more open when in Sixth Form (post 16+). Come up with a weird name, I’m often asked (by parents too) “what do you read in Psychotronic Book Club?” 
  13. Make sure the teenagers have a say in the discussion in what you are reading next and give reasons why a book is or is not chosen. There might be lots of good reasons for being too long, or too mature depending on your group, or perhaps it is difficult to obtain cheaply.  
  14. Last and not least weird books should be celebrated, and you need to make it clear your club has nothing to do with GCSE or A-Level English. If you are lending a genre based club like Psychotronic, prepare to meet literary snobs you might be parents or even your own English Department. I pride myself in noting my club is “non-academic” and exists for kids who love weird books. 

Here is (hopefully) an exhaustive list of all the books we have read, with me revisiting my favourites whenever my group has had major makeover of customers:  

Books I’ve used on multiple occasions and are perfect for genre based book discussions:

Alden Bell AKA Joshua Gaylord – The Reapers are the Angels (14+)

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (14+)

MR Carey – The Girl with All the Gifts (14+)

Neil Gaiman – Ocean at the End of the Lane (14+)

Joshua Gaylord – When We Were Animals (14/15+)

Daniel Keyes – Flowers for Algernon (13+)

Stephen King – The Running Man (14+)

Stephen King – Pet Semarary (14/15+)

Stephen King AKA Richard Bachman – The Long Walk (14+)

Josh Malerman – Bird Box (14+)

Sarah Pinborough – The Death House (13/14+)

Books I’ve used I would only use with Sixth Form, but depends on ability (age 16+):

Agustine Bazterrica  – Tender is the Flesh (16+)

Nick Cutter – The Deep (15+)

Jonathan Buckley AKA Andrew Michael Hurley – Starve Acre (15+)

Thomas Olde Heuvelt – Hex (15+)

Toby T Luff – Ration (15+)

Gus Moreno – This Thing Between Us (15+)

Adam Nevill – Last Days (Year 15+) 

Adam Nevill – The Ritual (15+)

Iain Reid – Foe (14+)

Alison Rumfitt – Tell Me I’m Worthless (16+)

Accessible horror/thrillers/drama suitable for ages 14+, depending on maturity:

Gabriel Bergmoser – The Hunted (14+)

Susan Hill – The Beacon (13/14+)

Susan Hill – I’m the King of the Castle (13/14+)

Stephen King – Later (14+)

Adam Nevill – The House of Small Shadows (15+)

AM Shine – The Watchers (14+) 

Paul Tremblay – A Head Full of Ghosts (14+)

Paul Tremblay – Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (14+)

Paul Tremblay – Survivor’s Song (14+)

Science fiction/dystopian novels read: 

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (14+)

JG Ballard – The Drowned World (14+)

Chris Beckett – Dark Eden (14+)

David Brin – The Postman (14+)

Philip K Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (14+)

James R Gapinski – Edge of the Known Bus Line (14+)

William Gibson – Neuromancer (14+)

Frank Herbert – Dune (14+)

Fred Hoyle – The Black Cloud (14+)

Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go (14+)

Cormac McCarthy – The Road (14+)

Will McIntosh – Defenders (14+)

Scott Sigler – Ancestor (14+)

Adrian Walker – End of the World Running Club (14+)

Classics

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 (14+)

Anthony Burgess – A Clockwork Orange (14+)

John Christopher – The Death of Grass (14+)

Richard Matheson – I Am Legend (14+)

John Wyndham – The Chrysalids (14+)

Fantasy

Peter Brett – The Painted Man (13/14+)

George RR Martin – A Game of Thrones (14+)

I would like to give the final word to Maddie, Freya, Emily, Esme, and Lucy, three of whom have provided words on why they enjoy horror and what the Psychotronic Book Club has meant to them:

ESME:This club provides a nice break from work especially as I am no longer taking subjects that involve reading and means that I can keep a hobby going. I have always enjoyed reading and the Psychotronic Book Club is an opportunity to read different book that you may not always come across by yourself and discuss them. I also find that many books have overarching political or social messages, which makes the discussion part of the club interesting and eye opening.” 

FREYA:Horror is by far my favourite genre, in books, films and other media, for many reasons. Firstly, it is current. No genre has a better finger on the pulse of modern society and what preys most heavily on our minds, twisting economic recessions into bloodsucking vampires and pandemics into rotting zombies. It is also transgressive – horror does not shy away from what might disturb, shock, or offend common sensibilities. It dives into themes and ideas others might prefer to sweep under the rug or bury in their back gardens and brings them to the front of our minds. Finally, it is deeply human. Since the first humans walked the earth, we have told each other stories of what might lurk in the dark, just beyond our line of sight. Horror allows us to define what we fear and conquer it. This is why being part of Psychotronic Book Club and discovering such a wide range of diverse horror stories has been so enjoyable, and I hope the club continues to flourish.”

MADDIE: “When I joined the Psychotronic Book Club back in Year Nine, I hadn’t read that much horror, but did like Stephen King and horror movies. Over the five years I’ve been part of the club, I’ve really enjoyed coming to meetings (and not just because of the chocolate) and now think I’ve worked up a real appetite for horror. The description in horror books is always so much more detailed, in a way that makes you worry about the author’s mental state compared to other genres. What can I say, I like to be scared!”

Running clubs is a very rewarding part of a school librarian’s job, but running Psychotronic takes that to the next level as I am just passing on my lifelong passion for horror. Many books I have reviewed for Ginger Nuts of Horror and Horror DNA have ended up on the Psychotronic table for discussion, recent examples being Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless, Gus Moreno’s This Thing Between Us, AM Shine’s The Watchers and many more. The regular pupils also loved being on the ‘pulse’ of new horror and much preferred reading new titles than familiar old classics. Future ‘potentials’ for Psychotronic I have previously reviewed include AM Shine’s The Creeper and Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories, but without my five reliable Final Girls who knows…..

Every book club has peaks and troughs, I am not going to pretend that Psychotronic has always been well attended, at times we have struggled and will certainly have to go through another rebuilding phase in September. But it is important to keep going and be consistent and not give up, I have seen many young keen English teachers arrive with great ideas but throw the towel too quickly if numbers are low. Just in the last year my school has seen both a YA Book Club and a Graphic Novel Club disappear as quickly as they appeared.  It reality, it only takes a few kids to run a successful book club, the trick is finding the right audience and keeping them engaged. Of course, it does not have to be ‘weird’ fiction, apply some of my ideas to a more general YA Book Club and you never know what might happen.

Tony Jones

The Heart and Soul of YA and MG Horror Fiction Review Websites

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