Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Something Evil's Lurking in the Dark*

In a recent interview here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…, thriller author Leigh Russell made an interesting point about the appeal of crime fiction. Murder is a horrible thing and the thought of being mixed up in a murder in real life is frightening. When we read crime fiction, though, we can deal safely with those darkest fears. After all, it’s just a work of fiction. We can put the book aside when it’s done, and go back to our lives. Some books, though, are truly haunting books. They stay with us because they are really chilling novels. What is it about those books that makes them so very frightening? After all, crime fiction readers know that in a crime novel, somebody is probably going to die. So it’s not the fact that someone’s been murdered that’s frightening. It’s not gore, either. We might be sickened by too much gore, or we might be annoyed by a plot that features only “splatter.” But we’re not usually haunted just by the fact of gore.

There are several things that might make a novel especially scary. One of them is how close the novel comes to real life. After all, the point of fiction is that it is not real; we can remember that it’s make-believe. But that’s harder to do if a story comes too close to real life. That’s part of what makes Ruth Rendell’s The Bridesmaid a chilling read. In that novel, interior designer Philip Wardman is a fastidious and accomplished professional with a horror of any kind of violence. At the wedding of his sister Fee, Wardman meets Santa Pelham, one of Fee’s bridesmaids. Santa is beautiful and irresistible, and Philip is drawn to her immediately. Then, Santa tells him that, in order to prove their love for each other, each of them must commit a murder. Philip’s appalled by what she says, but he’s also too enamoured of her to put up a fight. So he makes up a story about having committed a murder. Santa then tells him her “murder story.” At first, Philip thinks she’s made up her story, just as he has. Too late, though, he discovers that he’s been drawn into a frightening web of mental illness and murder.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is chilling, too. Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’re hoping that the move will mean a better life for all of them, since there’s more space, lower taxes, good schools and welcoming neighbours. At first, all is well. Walter’s doing well in his law firm, the children are settling into school and making friends, and Joanna’s working on her photography and making friends, too. Then, slowly, Joanna begins to suspect that something dark may be going on in the too-perfect little town. At first, she doesn’t want to believe anything’s wrong, but soon enough, she begins to uncover what’s really happening in Stepford. The closer that Joanna Eberhart gets to the truth about Stepford, the more danger she finds for herself. This novel is haunting for several reasons; one of them is that the members of the family are ordinary people who could be us.

Some novels are particularly haunting because of the way that the author has built up suspense. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), a group of people receive invitations for a stay on Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each of them accepts the invitation. When the guests arrive, they’re somewhat surprised that their host isn’t there, but they settle in. On the first night, they’re all shocked when each is accused of having caused the death of at least one person. Then, shortly after that accusation, one of the guests dies. Another character is found dead the next morning. Now, the guests slowly realise that they’ve been lured to the island by a murderer. As the characters begin to die one by one, the survivors become increasingly paranoid as they struggle to stay alive and to catch the murderer before it’s too late.

Thomas Harris builds up suspense effectively, too, in The Silence of the Lambs. In that novel, FBI trainee Clarice Starling is sent to Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Her assignment is to get help on a case from Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist; he’s also a dangerous psychopathic murderer. The FBI believes that Lecter may be able to help the agency capture a serial killer they’ve nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.” It turns out that this killer is a former patient of Lecter’s so Starling is assigned to enlist Lecter’s co-operation. He agrees to help Starling and the FBI on one condition: for every piece of information he provides, Starling has to reveal a personal secret. The tension in this novel builds as Starling and Lecter match wits with each other at the same time as they are co-operating. There’s also, of course, the suspense involved in the frantic search for “Buffalo Bill.”

One of the other things that makes The Silence of the Lambs a haunting read is that the novel shows us ourselves. Lecter makes the point that everyone has dark fantasies; the only difference between him and everyone else is that he acts out his fantasies. This novel shows us the dark side of human nature, and that’s frightening. We see that same kind of reflection of ourselves in Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts). In that novel, new history teacher Samuel Szajkowski walks into a crowded assembly at his school one summer’s day and shoots three students and another teacher before turning the gun on himself. DI Lucia May is assigned to do the report on the case, and it’s assumed that her report will be a “rubber stamp” of a person with deep psychological problems who suddenly “snapped.” As she interviews the students and other teachers, though, May discovers that these murders are more than a case of one person who “snapped.” They are a reflection of the school’s culture, and the way that people treat one another at the school. In exploring this culture, May also sees frightening parallels between what happened at the school and what’s happening at her own police workplace. It’s that exploration of the dark side of the people in this novel that makes it chilling.

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye is chilling for a similar reason. Jack and Melissa McGuane are the happy adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Then, their world is shattered when Angelina’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, decides to assert his parental rights. He’s never shown an interest in the child, and he’s an unsavoury character anyway, so the McGuanes immediately suspect his motives. Moreland’s father, though, is a powerful judge and supports his son, so the court’s decision is to award custody of Angelina to Garrett Moreland. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days to relinquish custody. Jack, especially, decides to do everything he can to avoid this. As the days go by, and we watch the characters, we also see ourselves, in a way. We see the lengths that Jack McGuane goes to to keep Angelina, and it’s frightening. But it’s human nature. We find out why Angelina’s birth father is so determined to keep her. That’s frightening, too. But it shows us the dark side of human nature.

There are other reasons, too, that a book might be truly frightening; I’ve only had space here to mention a few. What’s the most frightening crime novel you’ve read? Why did it haunt you? If you’re a writer, have you ever been frightened by what you wrote?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Jackson's Thriller.


  1. Rendell is brilliant, and Bridesmaid is her in top form. Silence of the Lambs is also a favorite and due for a re-read.

  2. John - Both of those novels are truly classic scary novels, aren't they? They're just excellent books, and I agree, worth re-reading.

  3. You did mention Bridesmaid before too. Would love to read that book, but I am sure I would not be able to stomach it.

  4. Rayna - It's a very chilling book, actually. Still, it's well-written and compelling, at least in my opinion.

  5. I just commented on this subject on another blog. I told the other blogger that it's the true life crime stories that are the scariest for me. Ones based on real life. Like Cold Blood. I think when things are made up, I can say it will never happen.

    Great topic. Have a great night.

  6. I think, for me, any crime novel that involves the death of a child is particularly disturbing to me--and I usually can't finish reading the book.

  7. Clarissa - Thank you :-). You've got a point, too. When a story is based on something that really happened, it really is very much scarier. It's so much harder to put it aside as "make believe." That's when a story is really chilling.

    Elizabeth - I know just what you mean. For a parent, there is nothing scarier and more upsetting than imagining the death of a child. Those books really can be horrifying.

  8. I'm with Elizabeth; those type of books are difficult, if not impossible for me to read. It's a subject matter I know I could never write about.

  9. I think what scares me so much about The Bridesmaid it that Santa seems so deceptively sane.

    Now I don´t write books of that kind, but I have made myself cry once or twice when I have written sad scenes.

  10. One book that came to mind reading this was The Bride Collector by Ted Dekker. I'm not sure why that book stayed with me for awhile, but it did. I've read other books just as scary, but I guess it was how easy the murderer was able to see people inside their homes.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Elspeth - Oh, I could never write about a small child's death, either. Too distressing...

    Dorte - That's just it! Santa seems so, well, normal, for lack of a better term, doesn't she? I know what you mean, too about making oneself cry. I did that just a bit when I wrote the prologue to my work in progress.

    Mason - Oh that is scary, isn't it? Being able to get into people's personal lives is really creepy, isn't it? No wonder that stayed with you!

  12. I have to say Silence of the Lambs is the one that gave me the worst creeps (and still does if I let myself think about it).

  13. Patricia - Oh, that isa creepy book, isn't it? I think it's because it really explores that razor's edge between what we call "normal" and what we call "abnormal." No doubt about it, it's spooky...