There’s no doubt in my mind that the title of this post is true. Sure, the Harry Potter books get more angst-ridden as the kids get older, and sure, the stakes get higher when Voldemort is trying to take over the world and generally deploy his Evil Schemes. But you can keep your graveyard incantations and Departments of Mysteries, your snakes and corpses and lakes full of zombies. Harry Potter is never as scary before Prisoner of Azkaban, and it never gets quite that scary again.
Because the scare quotient (if I can use that phrase) of Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t depend on gross images or Gothic idioms, it doesn’t depend on dark magic or evil ideologies. The story does more than just startle or alarm us. It unsettles. It gnaws away at us with a, creeping, oozing fear that pricks under your fingernails and round your eye sockets. And it’s the only book with scary not just as decoration or set design; the fear is embedded in the story itself.
Stop and think about the premise of the narrative for a minute. You’re thirteen years old, you’ve got a great school that you love, with close friends and inspiring teachers. Term starts, and you’re hearing on the news about a convict that’s escaped from a maximum security prison—a crazed murderer, believed to be armed and extremely dangerous.
Then a trusted adult—one of the most important adults in your life, the father of your best friend—pulls you aside and tells you—that crazy murderer? He’s coming for you. He broke out of jail just so he could kill you. And he knows where you go to school.
That’s the story. That’s what makes this the scariest book of the lot. All the rest is just details.
But the details don’t fail to rally to the occasion. At every turn, the safety and security of Hogwarts is torn apart. It starts with a dementor (first we’ve seen) on the Hogwarts Express, and Harry’s vision of his mother’s death. By the time it’s over Harry’s favourite teacher has turned into a werewolf and tried to kill him. In the middle, there’s a savage knife-attack on the Pink Lady portrait—the entryway into what was till now the safest place at Hogwarts. And Ron wakes up to find the Wizarding World’s Most Wanted leaning over him with a knife. This is the cold, enduring fear of seeing a strange face at the window when you’ve thought yourself wholly alone. The Basilisk and Bagshot Row may make for great Goosebumps covers, but this is the stuff of nightmares.
Prisoner of Azkaban is a book about fear, and learning to deal with it: thus the prolonged sequence about fighting boggarts and dementors, and boggarts shaped like dementors. Rowling crams the book full of people trying to deal with fear. Sirius Black and Remus Lupin both cope with fear, admirably in some ways but, in the end, ineffectively. Black deals with Azkaban by holding on to unhappy, vengeful thoughts—a tactic that nearly drives him mad in Order of the Phoenix, with no dementors about. Lupin copes with his fear of the physical aspect of his metamorphosis, but never deals with his psychological fear of the change, and of society’s response to him.
In Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling writes a story with fear embedded in the narrative. She ruptures the safe haven of Hogwarts so that Harry has no physical escape from what is, ultimately, a psychological and pervading fear. There is no warning like the sound of the basilisk in the walls, and really no fixed object of fear like an approaching army of Death Eaters. It’s just—there. In the fabric of the school, in his day to day, and in his own mind. The way it was for Black in Azkaban, the way it is for Lupin every month. And the solution isn’t all chocolate frogs and invisibility cloaks and Patronuses. It’s up to Harry to learn how to handle fear well.
As Lupin notes, Harry fears fear itself. It’s the deep, primordial fear—the ancient, quivering fear of a weak, wily species fighting for survival—not the fear of the dark, but the fear that the dark needs to be feared—that controls the narrative, and makes Prisoner of Azkaban the scariest of the seven.
Now, if you enjoy the sort of fright you get from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and you haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Coraline yet, then you need to. You need to read it right now. Buy yourself a copy for Halloween. It’s the story of how Coraline meets her smiling, button-eyed Other Mother—everybody has one, you know. It’s one of the best children’s books since The Mouse and His Child, it’s Gaiman’s single best work, and it really very scary in that creeping, lingering, under-your-fingernails sort of way.
But chances are, if you’re here reading about scary kids’ books, you’ve already read Coraline. Fair enough. Have you read The Lion Tamer’s Daughter, by the astonishingly talented Peter Dickinson? If not, the do. It’s about two girls who are twins—but not exactly twins—and there’s a magician, and a detective, and part of it happens in Edinburgh, and—well, if I tell you more of the plot that’ll ruin the surprise. So I’ll just tell you this: I can’t think of more than one really scary thing that happens in the book. But the story crawls with a growing sense of danger, of strange and powerful things seeping through the thin walls of safe everyday lives. It’s not horror, it’s not a thriller, I’m not entirely sure it’s a fantasy. It’s a Peter Dickinson story, plain and simple, and a jolly good fright it is, too.