Horror Stories Analysis

The Line Separating Horror and Mystery Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

There is a nearly continuous spectrum of fictional deviance, in which such melodramatically exaggerated antagonists as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter are not far removed from such prototypical horror fiction adversaries as Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf (1896), Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). However, one very significant difference between the two genres has resulted in the drawing of clear line between them in terms of their historical development and readership.

When a detective’s use of logic eventually leads to an unassailable conclusion as to the identity of a perpetrator, he or she usually has an established legal apparatus to bring to bear on the apprehension, conviction, and punishment of the offender. Should that fail—as it often does in tales of crime-fighting that take a cynical view of the law’s efficacy—the detective can fall back on some other practical means of retribution (usually a gun). By contrast, in a horror novel, the conclusion to which a protagonist’s logic leads is an arbitrary contrivance of the author, and so is any means of exorcism by which normality can be restored. The law cannot cope with the supernatural, and guns are impotent to dispel it.

This discrepancy is so considerable as to create awkward difficulties for any narrative that attempts to straddle the line separating the horror and mystery genres, in spite of the fact that much horror fiction is, structurally speaking, a subspecies of mystery fiction, and the fact that much naturalistic mystery fiction also finds opportunities to deploy an exploit an element of horror.

Mystery Elements of Ghost Stories

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The basic narrative affinity between horror and mystery fiction is elaborated and complicated in several significant ways. Many motifs that horror fiction adopted from folklore came with assumptions of deviance built in; the Devil is, quite literally, deviance personified. Other motifs were already coupled by traditional belief with assumptions regarding the means by which normality might be restored, such as the rule that vampires may be destroyed by wooden stakes driven through their hearts, or that werewolves can be killed with silver bullets. However, some images stubbornly resist this kind of artifice, especially ghosts.

Ghosts traditionally appear to demand reparation for some moral deficit, such as the failure of the living to live up to their ancestors’ ideals, or to demand vengeance against their own murderers, or simply to provide enduring reminders of past violations of the moral order. Whatever their reason for appearing, though, they cannot be banished by any cheap trick; if they are to be banished, their demands must be met.

In consequence of this, the mystery element of longer ghost stories typically extends far beyond the simple problem of exorcising apparitions, usually demanding further reparative action. Short ghost stories normally lack space for this kind of elaboration, often functioning as producers of mysteries whose investigation is abruptly cut short by the deaths or defections of potential investigators. However, even short stories of a sophisticated sort—those of M. R. James are archetypal in this respect—obtain their force by reference to a broader moral scheme. In most long ghost stories, ranging from such pioneering examples as Edward Bulwer Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1859) and Mrs. Oliphant’s A Beleaguered City (1879) to such modern extravaganzas as Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971) and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979), the central task facing the ghost-seer is to unravel the mystery of why the ghost manifests itself, and what demands it is making of the living.

Ghosts of this questing kind far outnumber straightforwardly malevolent apparitions that function as monsters, and even in novels of the latter sort, the motivations of ghosts are often rooted in past events requiring investigation. Curses and other magical impositions are similarly rooted in a broader moral scheme, which means that the actions required to lift them routinely involve some kind of reparation or expiation.

Psychological Affinities Between Horror and Mystery Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Complications of a different sort—although they are often entangled with the other—arise from the fact that horror is an excitation of the nervous system that is, to at least some extent, transmutable into other sorts of excitation. The Marquis de Sade earned himself an enduring notoriety by pointing out that when erotic excitation begins to lag it can often be renewed by an injection of horror—with the consequence that erotic stimulation becomes a significant, if quintessentially perverse, motivation for various kinds of crime, especially the most extreme. Sade’s observation is extensively celebrated by the hybrid horror/mystery subgenre of serial-killer fiction, which has always traded heavily in sadistic perversity, even when subject to restraints by censorship.

This complication lends an additional mystery element to much psychological horror fiction, over and above its narrative convenience—a complication that lends itself well to such highbrow literary analyses of deviant motivation as Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). In more typical middlebrow examples, the mystery element is foregrounded because the nasty behavior of antagonists requires explanation and revelation in terms of sexual psychopathology; the fact that sufferers from such pathological urges are bound to make every effort to keep them hidden is a readily...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Rationalization in Gothic Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Modern horror fiction was born in the pages of the German schauer-roman and its English equivalent, the gothic novel. The German tradition made exceedingly free with its supernatural materials but nevertheless played host to a number of mysteries that are among the earliest significant examples of crime fiction. It was, however, the most popular English writer of gothic novels, Ann Radcliffe—the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797)—who highlighted the mystery element of gothic fiction most forcefully.

Acutely conscious of living in an Age of Enlightenment, as well as being a dutiful Christian, Radcliffe apparently considered it a moral duty not to endorse the superstitious fears that she mobilized so skillfully to harass, pressure, and terrify her heroines. She always took her normalizing story arcs to the conscientious extreme of “rationalizing” all their seemingly supernatural manifestations, thus restoring the natural order of her fictional worlds as well as the personal situations of her favored characters. One side effect of this policy was to transform all such menacing manifestations into mysteries whose solutions would include explanations based on mundane causes and effects.

Radcliffe’s policy would have been widely imitated in any case, given that she was the best-selling and most highly paid author of her era. However, it really did catch the mood of her era, which...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Twentieth Century Rationalization of Neogothic Appearances

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The principal flaw in the Holmesian doctrine is that “eliminating the impossible” can only be achieved conclusively when one knows exactly where the limits of the possible actually lie. Ann Radcliffe had been in no doubt about that question, and many others agreed with her—although Sadducistic champions of the Enlightenment and doctrinaire Christians did not necessarily agree with one another.

Arthur Conan Doyle was by no means as sure as Sherlock Holmes of where possibility ended and impossibility began. However, he recognized that Holmes’s methods would be far less effective in a world in which the dead routinely spoke to the living through spiritualist mediums and children could photograph fairies in their gardens. This was one of the reasons why he developed such a strong antipathy to his own character. The occult revival of the late nineteenth century turned the tables on Holmes and Pinkerton alike, in both social and literary terms.

Twentieth century manifestations of stubbornly rationalized gothic fiction sometimes seem bizarre, if not perverse. This is partly because what are considered rational solutions are often far less psychologically plausible than interventions of the supernatural. It is also because their inherently anticlimactic quality easily extends to absurdly bathetic extremes—as it often did in the produce of the “weird menace” pulps of the 1930’s and even the late twentieth century’s children’s...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

The Horror of Unsolved Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Rationalized neogothic fiction obtains increased dramatic tension from its protagonists’ hesitation to choose between supernatural and rationalistic explanations of seemingly impossible events. This dilemma is frequently sharpened by the suspicion that the only rationalistic explanation that seems possible is that the protagonist is seriously deluded, and hence in the process of going mad.

French horror fiction trades heavily on this kind of hesitation, to the extent that the usual French label for horror/mystery fiction, le fantastique, was defined by Tzvetan Todorov in terms of a hesitation between rival explanations—which, if settled, removes the text into one of two bordering genres: either le merveilleux or l’inconnu. These terms shift their meaning considerably if they are transposed into English as “the fantastic,” “the marvelous,” and “the uncanny.” The last term is further confused by virtue of its being used as the standard English translation of the German unheimlich, a word used by Sigmund Freud in a classic essay on the psychological operation of horror fiction.

Even when the question of the potential intervention of the supernatural does not arise in borderlands where the genres of thriller and horror fiction come close—as in novels of suspenseful persecution like such as Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950), Stephen King’s Misery (1987), and Jack...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Detectives and the Occult

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

It is hardly surprising that the kind of mystery fiction in which freelance detectives neutralize threats by elaborating supernatural explanations, rather than by reducing menacing manifestations to mere banality, was attractive to would-be occultists. Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune, respectively, added their own candidates to the list of occult detectives in The Scrutinies of Simon Iff (written c. 1920; collected 1987) and The Secrets of Dr. Taverner (1926). The less flamboyant poseur Margery Lawrence added Miles Pennoyer in Number Seven Queer Street (1945). The tradition of occult detective stories lost some of its impetus as the occult revival waned, but it extended to the end of the...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Corollaries of the Medicalization of Madness

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The subgenre of psychopathological mystery stories descended from gothic accounts of insane villainy inevitably became the most important twentieth century horror/mystery hybrid. Social order depends on the predictability of behavior, which in turn depends on the assumed rationality of the individual. When the behavior of others becomes peculiar, the peculiarity generates unease long before the point at which it involves any manifest threat or danger.

As with all aberrations from the norm, madness has been a perennial preoccupation of literature, from classical representations of the madness of Orestes through such representations as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), William Shakespeare’s...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Narratives of Erotic Insanity

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The various fetishisms explored in minute detail in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 provided abundant fodder for the literary construction of narratives of erotic insanity over the next two decades, especially by French writers affiliated to the Decadent Movement. Numerous examples can be found in such samplers of translations as Rémy de Gourmont’s Angels of Perversity (1992) and Jean Lorrain’s Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker (2002). Although the development of such narratives in the English language was initially inhibited by Victorian moralism, the delay eventually caused something of a backlash in such conscientiously provocative English explorations as Edward...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Chimerical Combinations of Horror and Mystery

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The various affiliations between horror and mystery have generated several hybrid subgenres in which elements of horror and mystery are carefully fused. The readiness with which such hybridizations can be contrived and exploited should not, however, be allowed to obscure the logical incompatibility of the rival accounting schemes whose clash produces the tension fundamental to fantastique fiction. There remains a basic discrepancy between the expectations of readers who are fond of detective stories and those who are fond of horror stories.

Although they form a marginal subgenre, tales of occult detectives are not enjoyed equally by fans of mystery and horror fiction. They are conventionally seen as a subgenre...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Modern Experiments in Chimerization

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The increase in chimerical texts was mainly due to the fact that attempts to contrive generic crossovers for marketing reasons became much more common; as all genre sales figures waned, the possibility of producing books that would appeal to fans of more than one genre inevitably became more attractive. Notable groundbreaking examples of stories in which formal law-enforcement agencies are faced with supernatural adversaries include Leslie Whitten’s Progeny of the Adder (1965) and Moon of the Wolf (1967), Whitley Strieber’s The Wolfen (1978), Basil Copper’s Necropolis (1980), Thomas F. Monteleone’s Night Train (1984), Dean R. Koontz’s Darkfall (1984; initially...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

The New Zenith of Horror/Mystery Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

There are two ways in which the world within a literary text might be transformed in such a way as to make it hospitable to innovative horror/mystery combinations. One is to set stories in a Secondary World that resembles our own world in many respects but is crucially different in its entertainment of supernatural motifs. This is the strategy followed by Laurel K. Hamilton in the Anita Blake series launched by Guilty Pleasures (1994) and the Merry Gentry series launched by A Kiss of Shadows (2000). Both series are set in a world in which the acceptance of all manner of supernatural monsters is taken for granted. The first series features a vampire-hunter, while the second stars a mystery-solving “fey...

(The entire section is 678 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The successful establishment of so many new exercises in generic hybridization and chimerization in the final years of the twentieth century suggests that horror/mystery fiction not only had a bright future at the beginning of the twenty-first century but one in which the natural affiliations between the two genres would become more intimate and more intricate. In the final analysis, however, the protective wall that has always separated purist mystery fiction from supernatural fiction seemed bound to remain intact, despite the increased traffic across its various drawbridges.

Despite the various threats to which it has been subject, the Holmesian principle holds: the true solution to any mystery can only be...

(The entire section is 288 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Joshi, S. T., and Stefan Dziemianowicz, eds. Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia 3 vols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Best reference guide to horror fiction yet published. Includes discussions of many of the authors and works central to the horror fiction genre, as well as discussions of such subgenres as “Occult Detectives.”

Morrow, Bradford, and Patrick McGrath, eds. The New Gothic. New York: Random House, 1991. Showcase anthology of neogothic fiction, much of which fuses the horror and mystery fiction genres.

Palmer, Jerry. Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular...

(The entire section is 235 words.)