One of the ways in which crime writers build suspense is by including creepy, tension-filled moments (you know – the creak on the stair kind of moment). It’s a bit harder to do that with words than it is in visual form (e.g. on film). And of course, too many such moments and they lose their power. And those moments have to fall out naturally or they seem contrived. But when they’re sprinkled into a story in just the right amount, they can raise the hair on the back of your neck – and without the need for the author to resort to gore or gratuitousness.
Arthur Conan Doyle used those kinds of moments in more than one of his stories. One of them occurs in The Adventure of the Empty House. In that story, Sherlock Holmes has snuck back into England after the events of The Adventure of the Final Problem. But members of his nemesis Professor Moriarty’s gang have gotten wind of his return. Holmes knows that he’s now a target, so he creates a waxwork bust of himself and places it in his parlour. He then adjusts the lighting and arranges for the bust to be moved periodically so that it looks as though he’s at home. Then he and Dr. Watson wait in the empty house across the way from his own lodgings. It’s a truly creepy moment when Holmes’ enemy Colonal Moran goes to the empty house hoping to target Holmes from there…
Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) has (at least in my opinion) several very creepy moments. Ten people are invited to Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts. When they arrive, they find that their host has not yet appeared. Still, dinner comes off as planned. Then, after dinner on that first night, each person is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. In the chaos that follows that accusation, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. There’s another death later that night. Soon it’s all too clear that someone has lured the guests to the island and is killing each one. Now the survivors have to stay alive while they try to figure out which of them is the murderer. My personal vote for ‘creepiest scene’ in that novel is a scene late in the book that involves a noose. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but if you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean.
In Fredric Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind Don’t Look Behind You, the narrator of the story addresses the reader directly:
‘Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’
Then the narrator goes on to tell the story of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when the two of them get mixed up with some nasty people. All along, the narrator speaks directly to the reader, the suspense builds and there’s a truly creepy moment at the end…
Another short story, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, also includes a very creepy moment – one of my personal ‘creepiest moments’ if I’m being honest. In that story, we visit a village where every year, the residents engage in a very unusual lottery. Everyone gathers and one member of each family is designated to pull a ticket from the same box – a box that’s been used for this purpose since anyone can remember. As the story evolves, the nature of the lottery becomes clearer and the ending is one of crime fiction’s eeriest moments. Want to find out for yourself, or remind yourself? Here is the story.
Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind introduces readers to Dunedin psychologist Stephanie Anderson. She’s working with a new patient Elizabeth Clark, who seems unreachable at first. Then, after a lot of effort, she and Elizabeth begin to communicate. Elizabeth tells her that years earlier, her younger sister Gracie was abducted and never found. Not even a body was discovered. This story eerily mirrors Anderson’s own experience; her younger sister Gemma was abducted seventeen years ago and was never found either. That story is part of what prompts Anderson to return to her home in Wanaka and track down the person who wreaked havoc in her family’s life and that of her patient. As she gets closer and closer to the truth, the suspense builds. I think I can say without spoiling the story that there’s an extremely creepy scene in the woods near Wanaka…
In William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev and his sergeant Nadezhda Slivka have been assigned a very delicate case: eminent scientist Boris Azarov has been murdered. What makes this case particularly difficult is that Azarov was working on a top-secret project and the NKVD wants the case handled quietly and very carefully. At first the detectives think they have a good suspect, but then that person is murdered too. Now the case takes on a completely different cast. There is a solution to the case, and the authorities want that solution to be recorded as the official explanation. But neither Korolev nor Slivka is satisfied with it. They continue to ask questions and find that the two deaths are connected to a well-hidden government project that holds a great deal of danger for them. But they’re highly motivated, so with the help of Slivka’s Uncle Kolya, who leads the Moscow Thieves, they close in on what really happened. As they do, there’s a really creepy scene at a particular government building.
Those creepy scenes have to written sparingly and fall out realistically from the story. Otherwise, they lose their ‘punch.’ But when they are done well, they can add much to a story. Which are your favourite creepy moments from crime fiction?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare.