Are Words Scary?

It’s Halloween pretty soon, or maybe it was Halloween last week depending on when you read this. Whatever the case, Halloween is in your future. The arrival always gets people thinking of horror in art, whether it’s films, TV, or books; and it got me thinking – how scary are books, really?

I’m a big fan of Stephen King. I’ve read over half of his output, and I’m just about to start wading through the final Dark Tower book. But you know what? I have never found any of his work scary. Scenes and characters, and even passages of writing from him have stuck in my mind, but they’ve never made it into my nightmares.

Joe Hill, his son, another big commercial horror writer doesn’t fare all that well either to be honest. Horns (this year’s much promoted horror movie, with Daniel Radcliffe) is far too over the top to be freaky; and NO54R2 (get it?) is a wonderfully told tale, but its lead villain, Charlie Manx is a caricature from the annals of horror fiction, a pantomime dame in a top hat. His debut novel, Heart Shaped Box, does manage one particularly effective scene in which Ozzy Osbourne knockoff, Judas Coyne, first comes across a ghost in his house. Genuine frights ensue as he spies a figure sitting in his hallway, and proceeds to attempt to just walk past it.

Where fiction truly manages to be frightening, to me at least, is in the unsettling and the uncanny. Nicholas Royle describes the uncanny as, “…not a literary genre. But nor is it a non-literary genre. It overflows the very institution of literature. It inhabits, haunts, parasitises the allegedly non-literary. It makes ‘genre’ blink.” I like that description, and it certainly fits with the things I find scary. His namesake’s small press, Nightjar Press, rather appropriately, has been publishing some of the finest uncanny fiction around (I would particularly recommend Tom Fletcher and Claire Dean’s stories – all of which left me with a chill).

Aickman Faber

One author whom I’ve found particularly haunting is Robert Aickman. I was lucky enough to see League of Gentlemen members Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson reading from his work in the illustrious Freud Museum in London a few months ago, and, having never heard of the author before, found myself reading one of his collections (Cold Hand in Mine) and really feeling as though I had delved into the unknown. The standout story in the collection is The Hospice. In an article for The Guardian two years ago, Xan Brooks introduced the story, saying, “The Hospice is told simply, almost flatly, with a minimum of jolts and rattles, as its humdrum hero – a travelling businessman called Maybury – finds himself lost on the road somewhere in the west Midlands, drifting through what appears to be an affluent 19th-century housing estate of tall trees and solitary houses. The Hospice promises “good food, some accommodation” and Maybury is almost out of petrol. He pulls up and steps inside.”

He goes on to explain why the story endures. “Does anything actively awful happen in The Hospice? In the middle of the night there is a death that may well be a murder – conceivably perpetrated by one supporting character against another supporting character. Again, however, Maybury doesn’t know and doesn’t ask, which naturally leaves us none the wiser. The whole thing amounts to a dazzling feat of misdirection. “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was,” writes the author Neil Gaiman. “All I know is that he did it beautifully. Yes, the key vanished – but I don’t know if he was holding a key in his hand to begin with.””

The collection is filled with tales that have this power over you. There are unexplained events. Strangeness oozes into the pores of the world. A travelling salesman (isn’t it always?) stays in a hotel in the opening story, The Swords. He finds himself in a tent at a carnival, bearing witness to an horrific event. But the conclusion is ambiguous. His stories don’t tend to end and they stay with you.

That’s where the fear comes from. Books are easy to put down. To escape from. That’s why, for me at least Stephen King and general horror fiction doesn’t stick with me (although King does have one excellently unsettling story – Crouch End – in an anthology of Lovecraft tales). Aickman’s work doesn’t allow you to escape.

So, what words have scared you? Are there any books that you have had to put down, never to pick back up for fear of what comes next? Or have books never scared you?

Let me know in the comments!

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One thought on “Are Words Scary?

  1. What an interesting post, and I agree with you that what’s most unsettling often comes from unexpected places (although I must admit I find ‘Misery’ pretty scary, maybe because it’s not supernatural?). The nursery chapter in Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ gave me a sleepless night, but the only book I can remember being really bothered by is Jonathan Aycliffe’s ‘Naomi’s Room’. Seriously unpleasant and disturbing. Never read Aickman, but inspired to check him out thanks to your post.

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