Disability is one way that monsters are created in the horror genre. Monstrosity is usually expressed visually, though, especially in the classic texts– think The Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Hyde of Jekyll and Hyde fame. Or if we don’t actually see the disfigurement, many monsters, from the Phantom of the Opera to Michael Myers, are masked. Physically marking a character is a way of representing that person as the “other”; abnormal in some way, which is disturbing to those who see themselves as “normal”. It is a problematic representation of disability in literature, and I think we see it more strongly in the horror genre because for so many people it is disturbing and scary to face anyone who isn’t like them. Mary Shelley’s description of Frankenstein’s monster and his friendship with the little blind girl is a perfect example of how dependent we are on sight as a cue to decide who is a monster and who is not.
What about the disabilities that aren’t immediately visible? Yes, those do very much exist, and shape personality. Putting aside the curse of paranormal abilities, like the”Typhoid Mary” powers Jenny Morton displays in Jenny Pox, disabilities and disorders that can’t be seen do appear in horror, especially as victims. What’s really neat to see is when a character with an invisible disability flips that trope over. But honestly, as someone who has epilepsy, I can tell you that ANY recognition of my disability that appears in fiction, no matter how problematic, has always been welcome (even when I hate the depiction) because it means I’ve been seen. And it meant even more to me when I was a teen, because there really was absolutely nothing at all. Here are five books you could hand to a teen dealing with an invisible disability.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
This is not technically a YA novel, but it is told from the point of view of a young woman, with extensive flashbacks to her childhood, and the central character is a teen dealing with… we don’t know exactly what. Teenaged Marjorie might be possessed, or she might be developing schizophrenia. It is actually possible to meet someone with schizophrenia and not know that’s the case. And as far as I remember, schizophrenia is not mentioned outright, even though Marjorie is under the care of a psychiatrist at the beginning of the story. This is actually one of the more visual depictions of an invisible disability, as Marjorie’s actions also suggest that she might be possessed, which lands her family on a reality television show.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
This is the first book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy. It’s almost an trope for a British girl who grows up in India in the late 1800s to be sent to England for further education after her mother dies, usually at a boarding school, and that’s what happens to Gemma, who is also clairvoyant. She and her friends discover an entrace to magical realms where they can have their hearts’ desires– darker than it sounds. One of Gemma’s friends, Pippa, has epilepsy, and during a seizure travels to the magical realms. Pippa must keep her epilepsy a secret, so she won’t be discovered to be “damaged goods” before she can be married. Gemma follows her, but Pippa has found true love there and refuses to return to a life of illness. Pippa’s story brought tears to my eyes. I found Bray’s straightforward descriptions of Pippa’s seizures to be accurate, although you should never put a wooden spoon in anyone’s mouth.
The Dark Between by Sonia Gensler
I’ve just finished this one, and I really recommend it. It also takes place near the turn of the 20th century, when spiritualism was in vogue. Three teenagers brought together by coincidence turn out to have more in common than they expected come across some mysterious murders that might have something to do with electrical experiments to enhance the brain with psychic powers. Kate, the youngest, is an impoverished orphan who loses her job as a “spirit guide” for a medium when the medium is exposed by a skeptic. Asher is an American teen at loose ends, traveling alone, who is considering attending Cambridge. Elsie is a dreamy, beautiful girl who has been sent away by her parents, whose mind is clouded by drugs she takes to control her epilepsy. Elsie’s seizures began after she was struck by lightning, and she can see visions of the dead during them. The attitudes Elsie has faced and expects to face after the secret of her epilepsy is exposed, and her drugged feelings, make her a more sympathetic character than you would expect, as she is not especially thoughtful or rational. Elsie is no Beth March, shy and pure; she’s drawn as a complex character, a real girl with burgeoning sexuality and intense emotions who makes bad decisions that make you want to smack her. Score one for Sonia Gensler in her development of a character with epilepsy who has more than one dimension.
Dark Muse by David Simms
Muddy, Poe, Otis, and Corey are The Accidentals, a band of misfits. All four love music, and all four have problems they have to face. Muddy is dyslexic, Poe is legally blind and has a difficult home situation, Otis has brittle bones, and Corey has a checkered past and is a year behind in school. When Muddy’s older brother Zack, a troubled and gifted guitarist, disappears at “the crossroads”, Muddy and the rest of The Accidentals decide to cross over to an alternate reality where music has real power, and find him. Author David Simms has worked with many special education students, and draws realistic, sympathetic portraits of his characters. It’s cool to see ordinary, music-loving kids with disabilities as the heroes of the story.
Cryer’s Cross by Lisa McMann
Sixteen year old Kendall has obsessive compulsive disorder. She’s been able to function in a carefully constructed world, and that begins to disintegrate when a girl disappears, and then, shortly after that, her boyfriend. Did Kendall have something to do with the disappearances? Or will her obsessiveness lead her to become a victim? Kendall is a very sympathetic character struggling with a difficult situation that is complicated by her obsessive compulsive disorder.