Note: This is in response to a member of a writing group asking, “Can a fictional story truly be ‘scary’?”
Scary is a broad term because fright comes in many forms, but fiction can be scary and much more. Fiction is limited only by the imagination and skill of the writer. Imagination is nothing less than one of the most powerful forces in the known universe, so powerful that Einstein declared imagination to be more important than knowledge.
There are countless examples of frightening fiction, but Stephen King still holds the title in the minds of most people. “The Shining” is gripping, disturbing, and provocative both on screen and in print. King is a cliché answer for good reason. Also read him for terrifying, revolting, intriguing, unsettling, and a host of other sensations. He has many great short stories that are remarkably suspenseful. You can find good information, reviews, and ratings on collections of his short stories and other works on Goodreads and other sites like that.
Watch “Requiem for Dream” for disturbing, but be prepared to have nightmares and unsettling visions even during the day if my experience is typical. Also, for scary and/or suspenseful, read Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Orwell’s “1984,” Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Ellroy’s “Killer on the Road,” Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” (or Kubrick’s film adaptation), Poe, Henry James, Shakespeare, et al, or watch some of the old Twilight Zone episodes—which remain classic and in some cases highly suspenseful/horrifying/chilling/disturbing/etc. due to exceptional writing (i.e, storytelling). There are, of course, many others and some of my choices might seem less scary than “The Omen” or “Hellraiser” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “The Devil’s Rejects” seem to other people. Our backgrounds and experiences make scary a subjective venture. Nonetheless, in general the written word in my experience can be far scarier than movies, although those movies I’ve listed have imposed indelible images of their own.
A great modern piece of fiction that isn’t scary as much as riveting is the short story “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” by William Gay. It’s easily one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read. Truth may be “stranger than fiction,” but fiction is often much more compelling (whether it be scary or something else) than truth (from the neutral observer’s perspective) to the degree (and depth) that the writer is willing to submerge himself in the madness (and the reader is willing to follow). Although outside of my supernatural novel I haven’t written lots of horror (more literary and scifi) some of the images I’ve conjured or described, such as “crispy critters” sticking to a harried CO’s boot as he sought to hide the horrific carnage from his advancing men on a desert battlefield and a bifurcated body—flattened from the waist up—littering blood-soaked asphalt near the ditch where a deputy remembered a little girl facing down while her toes pointed up toward imminent rain that couldn’t wash away the incongruity… have stuck with me and sometimes resurface unexpectedly, becoming a part of my broader memory in the way that certain details of other stories become blurred with the reality they were loosely based around. Sometimes the twisted body disturbs, but sometimes something like a teddy bear floating in a watery ditch may be the image that lingers and resonates—often for reasons we cannot fully comprehend but are tirelessly driven to explore. Regardless, good writers know with knowledge comes grief (as well as many other things) and that the common trait of all good writers is that everyday they read as much great writing as they can, often from a variety of genres (which can sometimes be easy accomplished through reading collections of prize-winning short stories). Happy writing (and reading)!