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.