Well, not just any teen. Teens with a taste for... for the unusual, let's say. Teens who are not satisfied with sports novels and vampire boarding school melodramas. Teens who have read Janne Teller's Nothing, who enjoy truly odd stuff like The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs and Madapple and then wonder why there aren't more books like those.
There are, of course - there are plenty of challenging novels in the YA section, but there's no shame in walking a kid through the adult section, and there's nothing immoral in handing a book about a serial killer to that kid.
Even if that kid is John Wayne Cleaver - a fifteen-year-old bedwetting pyromaniac who never realized it was a bad thing to vivisect gophers until he read it on a list of Jeffrey Dahmer's personality traits. John is reasonably convinced that he is a serial killer inside, and really, it's hard to argue with him. He feels compelled to learn everything he can about John Wayne Gacy, the Son of Sam, Ed Gein, et al - he does all his school projects about them, which has led to therapy, which has led to a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder.
Now, lots of teen readers are attracted to the extreme. I'm no psych major, but I've always figured it was a case of looking for input to rival the internal frictions and tumult of their rapidly-evolving consciousness. And there's certainly grist for that whirring, grinding mill - hell, I read nothing but Stephen King during my teenage years.
But where I am Not a Serial Killer stops being just another slasher novel (it's not) is when John outlines for us the rules that he has established for himself in order to keep his inner monster in check. He does not want to be a killer, although he wants to kill. If he finds himself wanting to hurt a person, he tries to defuse himself by quickly complimenting that person. If he realizes that he has been following someone, he makes himself not even look at that person for a week. John's self-awareness and his discipline, the distinction that he is able to make between what he is and what he wants to be, and above all his awareness of what he, as a sociopath, is missing, make this a great teen novel.
And when bodies start piling up in his small town, John needs to let his monster out just enough to catch the killer - does he have the self control to back down once the job is done?
If John Wayne Cleaver puts you in mind of everyone's favorite high-functioning murderous sociopath, Dexter Morgan, you're not far off. John even lives above the family business, the town mortuary, so it's kind of as if Michael C. Hall's character from Six Feet Under actually grew up to be Dexter.
There's a new Dexter novel just out, in fact. And while the Dexter novels do in many ways fit neatly into the detective mystery genre - instead of an elderly writer or a telepathic waitress, the detective is a blood spatter specialist/serial killer - and are certainly just plain fun to read, it's Dexter's existential side that makes these books right for teens, especially teens feeling isolated and disaffected.
Dexter's childhood trauma and subsequent rigorous training by his father have left him with a set of rules just as strict as John Wayne Cleaver's, and the absolute certainty that he is not really human. All that self-deluded "If I had a heart, it would be breaking right now" internal monologue. Oh please, Tin Man. It's a gratifying process to watch as Dexter gradually connects with his cobbled-together family, and begins to acknowledge what the rest of us have always known about him - as different and special as he is, he has much in common with his fellow man.
Then there's full-on genre horror and merry weirdness. For kids who read Living Dead Girl without batting an eye, I will point them at Joe Hill's short stories without hesitation. Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, named for the martyred labor activist and union password. I'll also suggest China Miéville. China inserts fancy, fun-to-look up erudition into his weird lit, but no ooky relationship stuff that you really have to be an adult to understand. Not like Chelsea Cain or David Peace, whose characters react in ways that only make sense - if they make sense - to people who have weathered decades of human behavior. I don't recommend the Gretchen and Archie books or the Red Riding Hood books to teens.
But here's a few more from the adult section for the teen who doesn't scare easy:
- Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
- The Extra by Michael Shea
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
- Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan Howard
- and what the hell: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Show 'em that ugly and brutal can have its own beauty.