Can Books Be Effective Horror? (Let’s Talk Bookish)

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme, hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books & Dani @ Literary Lion, where we discuss certain topics, share our opinions, and spread the love by visiting each other’s posts.

The Prompt: Some people love to be scared – others not so much. When it comes to reading do you think books can be scary? Are you less scared because there are no pictures? Do you feel other mediums such as film are more effective for horror? Have you ever been kept up at night by a book? (Question from Dani)

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This is an interesting question because I tend to not read a lot of horror, and the reason is a weird combination of the fact that 1) I hate being scared, so I avoid adult horror books because I assume they are scary and I would hate them, and 2) I generally don’t find YA horror that horrifying, which makes it boring.

So I do think think that books, of course, can be scary, but they often aren’t. (Again, speaking of YA horror here, since I avoid adult horror like the plague.) And while, sure, I would assume YA is supposed to be slightly less scary than adult books in this genre, I’m sure it’s supposed to at least give readers a little shiver, make them afraid to turn off the lights when they’re reading at night. So why do half the YA horror books I’ve read fail at this?

I don’t think it has anything to do with a lack of pictures, as the prompt suggests. I’m sure if horror books were illustrated, they would come with some gruesome or creepy art that would make me cringe and avert my eyes, but the pictures wouldn’t scare me either. The things that make art scary are more the themes and the feelings that the art evokes, not really the visuals. Horror films can create a mood with music, for instance, instantly ramping up tension regardless of what is actually visually on the screen. Books don’t have anything besides words, however, so those works have to work extra hard to create a scary mood, to make me think a monster is under my bed or my soul is going to be sucked out of my body by a ghost or whatever.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on “how to make a book scary” because I’ve never even tried to write anything scary, but I think a lot has to go on with the voice and tone of the work, the pacing, and what the “scary” aspect of the book actually is. Personally, I think evoking some sort of existential dread about death or the afterlife or eternity or whatever might make something scarier than spending three paragraphs trying to explain why a monster looks scary with its big fangs and claws. Things are scary when I can imaging them happening to me, even in a very loose sense. I can see why a character would be scared of a green monster living in their sock drawer, but I have no fear of something similar happening in my life. Something else has to make it more relatable, or make me drawn into the story, so I’m in the place of the character instead of feeling like an outside observer.

That said . . . horror is still not my genre. You might see some slightly scary reads reviewed by me, and fun non-scary Halloween reads, but that’s about it.


Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces


Goodreads: Small Spaces
Series: Small Spaces #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018


When Ollie finds a woman trying to throw a book into the local swimming hole, she can’t help herself–she grabs the book and runs. It tells the story of a farm where, long ago, a woman’s husband disappeared, taken by the smiling man. Then Ollie finds herself on the same farm for a school field trip–and something is not right. The bus driver gives an eerie warning, leading Ollie to flee the bus. Can she survive through the night? Or will the smiling man come for her, too?

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Small Spaces is a deliciously creepy middle grade tale about a man who grants one’s heart’s desire, but always for a price. When Ollie’s sixth grade class goes on a field trip to the smiling man’s roaming grounds, she fears that her classmates and herself may be trapped in a bargain gone wrong. Desperate, she sets off through the woods, hoping she can find a way to stay alive until morning. Thus begins a thrilling story full of mystery, danger, and suspense.

Small Spaces hits all the right notes for a middle grade horror story, introducing readers to a terrifying villain and his unnatural servants, but never becoming so scary it is overwhelming. The villain, you see, has his limitations and, if Ollie and her friends can figure them out, they will have a sporting chance at winning his game. This lends a bit of hope to the story, even when the darkness threatens to become too much.

What makes the story really enchanting, however, is the feeling that it is rooted in a bit of folklore. The demonic figure who offers bargains too good to be true is a recurring type, and Katherine Arden uses it here to great effect. The audience knows that the smiling man can never be trusted–but will Ollie and her friends be able to resist? How does one outwit a master bargainer, without getting the short end of the deal?

Readers looking for a creepy middle grade read in the vein of Victoria Scwab’s City of Ghosts will delight in finding a new series full of supernatural thrills. Small Spaces is only the first book of what is projected to be a four-book series, so there are plenty chilling adventures to come!

3 Stars

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Melanie R. Anderson and Lisa Kroger


Goodreads: Monster, She Wrote
Series: None
Source: Quirk Books for Review
Published: September 17, 2019

Official Summary

Meet the women writers who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales, from Frankenstein to The Haunting of Hill House and beyond.

Frankenstein was just the beginning: horror stories and other weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. From Gothic ghost stories to psychological horror to science fiction, women have been primary architects of speculative literature of all sorts. And their own life stories are as intriguing as their fiction. Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, who was rumored to keep her late husband’s heart in her desk drawer. But have you heard of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier (and liked to wear topless gowns to the theater)? If you know the astounding work of Shirley Jackson, whose novel The Haunting of Hill House was reinvented as a Netflix series, then try the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V. C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Colter, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). Curated reading lists point you to their most spine-chilling tales.

Part biography, part reader’s guide, the engaging write-ups and detailed reading lists will introduce you to more than a hundred authors and over two hundred of their mysterious and spooky novels, novellas, and stories. 

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Monster, She Wrote gives readers a captivating overview of the history of women writing horror and speculative fiction, referencing big names like Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison while acknowledging a large body of writers who have generally been overlooked by academia and general readers alike.  Written in a chatty voice with fun illustrations and short sections addressing biographical information and recommended reads, the book is accessible and welcoming.

Despite the approachable tone, one can clearly tell the amount of research and personal knowledge that went into Murder, She Wrote. Both authors have PhDs in literature, and while the book might seem superficially casual, it is clear it can only have been written by someone with a deep knowledge of the field of horror fiction.  Picking the most influential and interesting women writers from each time period is its own large task, while references to essays and nonfictions works reveal the authors’ knowledge of scholarship surround these women.

The one downfall of the book is that, personally, I find it difficult to read a few hundred pages of short biographies, no matter how interesting the subjects, yet this is a book I think is best looked at as an overview of the field.  That is, it makes sense to read the whole thing, rather than to read only a section or otherwise use it as a reference book.  I’m not sure there’s a solution to this; changing it would have resulted in an entirely different book.

That said, I enjoyed it immensely, from the anecdotes about the authors’ lives to the glimpses into the evolution of horror writing to the summaries of books I might read in the future.  I certainly got some ideas of novels to add to my TBR list from this, which is always a win.

4 stars

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Halloween Books 2017


Goodreads: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Series: Serafina #1
Source: Library
Published: 2015


Serafina lives hidden in the basement of the Biltmore Estate along with her pa.  He says the rich folk who live above must never know she exists.  But then one night Serafina witnesses the Man in the Black Cloak kidnap a child.  And soon the children of Biltmore are disappearing one by one.  Along with her new friend Braeden, Serafina must find a way to stop a deadly evil before it’s too late.


Serafina and the Black Cloak is a deliciously creepy middle-grade adventure.  Set at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, it follows the adventures of a girl who can run faster, walk more quietly, and see farther in the dark than any regular human.  And so she hides herself in the basement, afraid lest her strangeness make others shun her.  Until the day she witnesses the Man in the Black Cloak engulf a child.

Admittedly, books where children mysteriously disappear in the night are not terribly uncommon.  And older readers will likely understand Serafina’s past fairly quickly and uncover the identity of the villain as soon as he appears.  Still, Serafina and the Black Cloak proves an engrossing read.  Perhaps it is because Serafina and her friend Braeden are so likable.  Perhaps because the story is just so delightfully scary.  Either way, its predictable plot does nothing to harm it.  Nor do the parts of the book that, quite frankly, just do not make any sense.

I read the book at a fast pace, so I was willing to overlook the fact that Serafina starts out talking like her father and then suddenly seems to possess a more educated diction than he does. I  was willing to overlook the fact that Serafina somehow wants everyone to believe that she found a bunch of people who had “wandered off” and “gotten lost” eleven miles away.  I was willing to overlook that the ending was full of too many happy coincidences to be believable.  For me, the book was entertaining.  Why destroy the fun by wanting it to make sense?

4 stars

“The Vampyre” by John Polidori

The VampyreSummary:  Aubrey is excited to begin his Grand Tour with the mysterious and charming Lord Ruthven, until he learns his travelling companion is responsible for the seduction and ruin of several respectable young women.   He parts company with him in disgust, but soon discovers the situation is worse than he thought; Lord Ruthven matches perfectly the Greek folkloric descriptions of a vampire.

Written as part of the ghost-story contest during which Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein.

Review: Although technically a horror story, John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” does not frighten readers with sudden plot twists or unexpected revelations.  Instead, readers experience dread by watching a series of terrible events unfold that they already know must happen but which they can do nothing to stop.  This experience mirrors that of the young protagonist Aubrey, who suffers watching as a vampire destroys those he holds dear, thereby allowing a certain degree of sympathy for Aubrey.

Polidori’s version of the vampire—a man who is simultaneously charming yet irrevocably outcast from society, who can calmly calculate and execute cruelties in order to further his self-interests—is in fact a terrible creature.  Polidori’s presentation within “The Vampyre” will not raise fear; his story does not sound “real” enough to give any readers nightmares, even in spite of attempts to put them partially in Aubrey’s place.  Yet Polidori’s ideas are horrifying and worth some consideration.  One might conclude, for instance, that monstrosity is not something that comes with one’s nature, but is instead the choices one makes in reaction to one’s nature.  There is certainly no indication within the story that the vampire must seduce and execute young women, only that he must do so if he would like to continue his abnormally long life.

“The Vampyre,” then, is not particularly good entertainment, not if one is in search of a deliciously creepy tale.  It is, however, interesting in its portrayal of vampires, both within the work itself and because the story exercised a significant influence over later depictions of vampires.  Best read by those looking to learn more about the Gothic genre or the origins of vampires, and not by those seeking thrills.

Published: 1819