Can a book be scary?

By Ian Simpson

Posted on October 17, 2013 in Books with tags Chase Novak, Stephen King

Ian Simpson asks a question at the heart of horror fiction.

There is a scene in Robert Wise’s 1963 film, The Haunting, where Nell, played beautifully by Julie Harris, is lying in bed, afraid of the dark. We hear her fearful thoughts and her relief that her friend Theo (Claire Bloom) is close by and holding her hand. The camera pulls back to reveal Theo is asleep in a bed on the other side of the room. Who has been holding her hand? One of the creepiest scenes in cinema and the reveal takes a few seconds.

In the book from which the film comes, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the scene is described on page 112 of the 2009 Penguin classics edition over the course of 175 words, where only the last 5 are ‘whose hand was I holding?” That’s quite a slow reveal for such a creepy moment. It doesn’t scare, although does provide a lasting memory of unease and horror.

isbn9781444737011-detailI recently read Breed by Chase Novak. This is a different kind of horror novel. It is about bad science and bad parents and it is an allegory concerning the horror of growing up, of hearing things from your parents’ room you don’t understand, of finding you are your own person and not only defined as a child of Mum and Dad. There are no scenes that are particularly frightening, but instead there is an overall sense of dread and nerviness.

Horror fiction is big business, and you can probably thank Stephen King and James Herbert for kicking it off. Many people find these books thrilling and scary. My favourite horror books include the aforementioned Jackson story, King’s The Stand and The Shining, the works of Clive Barker, George Orwell’s 1984, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land. Of these, we have 3 ghost stories, 2 dystopias and an apocalyptic tale. I find them horrific, and while The Silent Land creeps me out because of the tone and otherworldliness generated by Joyce’s beautiful prose, I don’t find them scary. Last year I read a collection of short stories by Arthur Machen, and I’ve been a fan of Poe and Lovecraft since I was young. I would describe them as atmospheric, unsettling and foreboding. I’ve never read a book at night, switched off the lights and been too scared to sleep. Watching a few ghost stories on film has had that effect on me. I think that the reason novels aren’t scary is because it takes too long to reveal what is happening in a scene. There is a chase scene in Novak’s Breed which takes place over a few pages. It is well written and effectively conveys what is happening to the characters, but because it takes a few minutes to read, it is hard to be shocked or frightened while reading it.


One book came close for me: The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. This is a twist on the haunted house theme which should be read by any fan of horror. While no individual scene or moment could be described as scary – the complexity of the novel actually hinders that – the overall sense of the book is so disturbing, it leaves you a tad fearful.

I would argue that novels which are meant to be scary have an impact only once the book has been finished by the reader and they have dwelt upon the scenes and themes. I think this is why Lovecraft used ideas such as unspeakable and unguessed horrors, and the madness of the narrator, and my favourite quote: the ‘inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents’.

So, whether you are reading Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or John Dies at the End by David Wong, be it The Books of Blood by Clive Barker or the latest teen vampire offering, are you really scared? Really?


For more from Ian, he can be found tweeting from @ianjsimpson as well as on


6 comments on “Can a book be scary?”

  • Anne says:

    Alvin Schwartz’s series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is, bar none, the scariest few books I have ever read – not for the stories, so much, but for the illustrations! The illustrations (google them!) were so gross, so haunting, so scary and netted so many complaints over the years that the publisher finally changed them out for less horrifying illustrations. (Boo.)

    More than two decades later, however, the original illustrations still creep me out.

  • Fleur Clarke says:

    Goosebumps needs an honourable mention!

  • Ian Simpson says:

    Just googled the images. Wow. Think I’ll have to get that book. But again, images have an instant impact as opposed to words.

  • Caleb Woodbridge says:

    Books can be scary, but the kind of fear they do best tends to be that of atmosphere, suspense and dread rather than shocks.

    I remember when I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was around 10, and being terrified of the Ringwraiths. I also found it hard to sleep after reading about the Balrog – Doom! Doom! Doom! Drums in the Deep. And Sam and Frodo’s journey into Mordor had that deep atmosphere of dread.

    But we become less easily scared through familiarity, so it’s harder to have a real fright reading as a cynical adult than when you’re growing up, of course.

  • […] post by Ian Simpson, asking ‘Can a book be scary?’, got us all talking about which books (if any) have […]

  • Zoe Markham says:

    Revival kept me up all night once I’d finished it. The fear comes once the cover has been closed and you lie back and the issues raised marinate in your mind and you think…”What if….”

    That’s plenty scary for me.

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