You’ll Feel Your Mind Slipping Away*

poe-horror-and-crimeAs this is posted, it would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 208th birthday. Whether you’re a fan of Poe’s writing or not, it’s hard to deny his impact on literature and culture. Personally, I like it that the Baltimore (US) professional football team is called the Ravens.

Certainly, Poe had a tremendous influence on crime fiction. In fact, he is often regarded as the creator of modern detective fiction. His C. Auguste Dupin stories featured a detective in ways that hadn’t been done before. And fans can tell you that that he also created memorable horror stories.

What’s interesting about those horror stories is that they rely much more on psychological suspense and tension than on gore and violence. And, for many people, that psychological approach can build more tension, and is more frightening, than outright violence is.

Poe is by no means the only author to create stories with that element of psychological suspense, even horror. We see it quite a lot in crime fiction. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service and opened their home to lodgers. They’re quite particular about the people they accept, so they haven’t had many lodgers. But one day, a stranger comes to ask about a room, and seems to be exactly the sort of lodger they want. Calling himself Mr. Sleuth, this new roomer pays his rent fully and promptly. He has quiet habits, too, and ‘speaks like a gentleman.’ The Buntings need the money, so they agree quickly to an arrangement. In the meantime, London is caught up in the news of a series of murders of young women, committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Robert Bunting, in particular, is as taken with this news as anyone is, and follows the details with interest. At first, his wife doesn’t want anything to do with stories of the murders. But slowly, and with growing horror, she begins to suspect that her new lodger may actually be the murderer. That creeping fear, and the hints (rather than actual scenes) of violence add a great deal of suspense to this story.

Shirley Jackson was noted for her ability to create eerie, frightening stories without gore. Fans can tell you that The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are both quite creepy novels. And then there’s her short story, The Lottery, which you can read right here. Do these stories count as crime fiction? Perhaps The Haunting of Hill House would be counted more as horror than as crime fiction. But We Have Always Lived in the Castle features arsenic poisoning and its consequences. And The Lottery….  I don’t want to spoil it in case you’ve not read it. But as far as I’m concerned, it includes a crime.

Daphne du Maurier also combined elements of horror and crime in her work, and much of the tension is psychological, rather than dependent on violence. In Jamaica Inn, for instance, Mary Yellan goes to live with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. Their home is a lonely inn on the moor in Cornwall, and it’s far from a warm, friendly place. The inn itself is eerie enough, and the more Mary finds out about the inn and some of its secrets, the eerier the story gets. There’s a real sense of horror as Mary discovers the truth about the inn. And there is some violence. But du Maurier relies much more on psychological suspense to build the tension and move the plot along.

Many people regard Stephen King as one of the masters of the modern horror story. But he has also used his skill at building eeriness and horror in the crime stories he writes. For instance, Delores Claiborne and Mr. Mercedes are certainly crime novels. But they also have elements of the horror story in them, too. There’s arguably an eerie sort of atmosphere, and the tension that builds is as much psychological as it is anything else. The same might be said of Misery. In all of those stories (and others King has written), there is violence – more than there is in some of the other examples I’ve mentioned here. But the violence isn’t the focus of the stories. Rather, it’s the psychological tension.

And I don’t think I could discuss that mix of crime and horror in fiction without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s film work. Several of his films are based on crime fiction, but even those that aren’t have that element of psychological suspense that really carries the plot along. And in some of those films, there really is very little violence. But they’re still suspenseful and eerie.

There are a lot of other authors (right, fans of, Hake Talbot, Patricia Highsmith and Pascal Garnier?) who have combined elements of horror with elements of the crime story to create eerie stories. It’s not easy to do that, especially if one doesn’t focus on gory violence. But when it’s done well, a dose of horror can add genuine suspense and creepiness to a crime story.

So, if you think about it, Poe didn’t just leave a legacy in terms of detective fiction (although he certainly did do that). He didn’t just leave a legacy of horror stories, either (although, of course, he did that, too). He showed how one might write a truly frightening, eerie story with a solid plot, but without resorting to a lot of gore.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Don’t tell me it never rains in Southern California.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. This track comes from their release Tales of Mystery and Imagination. All of the songs are Poe titles, and the songs themselves inspired by Poe’s stories.


Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Hake Talbot, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Pascal Garnier, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King

25 responses to “You’ll Feel Your Mind Slipping Away*

  1. R. T.

    No crime in The Lottery but blind faith in tradition and community coherence at any cost to individuals.

  2. Tea

    Yes, I prefer exploring the psychological side of murder.

  3. Some great examples here, Margot – I much prefer the psychological stuff to the gore, in both crime and horror writing. While I bow to Poe as the master of horror and grudgingly admit his influence on crime, I can’t say I truly enjoyed his Dupin stories – Holmes may have been influenced by him, but Conan Doyle’s style was vastly superior for that kind of story – in my opinion, of course.

    • Thanks for the kind words, FictionFan. And I know precisely what you mean about preferring psychological suspense to violence. I’m the same way, and really, allowing readers to use their imaginations is much more effective, anyway. As to Dupin, well, no sleuth is for everyone. And I agree with you that Conan Doyle had an approachable (is that the word?) style that really worked for his Sherlock Holmes adventures.

  4. I agree completely with the idea that the most frightening kind of horror is where the details are left to the imagination. I’m a fan of the great horror writer M. R. James, whose horror came from things you never quite saw, except, perhaps, for a glimpse out of the corner of an eye. Great crime fiction writers, including John Dickson Carr and Edmund Crispin, have books where that kind of Jamesian horror sets the mood for major events.

    • The sort of horror you describe, Les – that comes as much from imagination as it does from anything we actually see – is a lot more effective than brutality. In my opinion, it’s more frightening because we use our imaginations, and people can create truly terrible things in their imaginations. Tap into that, and you have the opportunity to frighten readers. I think you’re right about Carr and Crispin, too. Both used suggestion, rather than explicitness, to convey the sense of growing fear. And thanks for mentioning James’ work. You filled in an important gap.

  5. tracybham

    I am not a fan of horror and haven’t read much by any of these authors. I have read The Lottery, and I would like to read the stories you mentioned by Shirley Jackson.

    • Shirley Jackson was so talented, wasn’t she, Tracy? Even for people like yourself, who aren’t that much for horror stories, there’s some Shirley Jackson to like. I’ll be interested to know what you think if you get to some of her other work.

  6. Margot, great examples noted here. Psychological tension and suspense in the narrative has always much preferred ..

    • Thanks, Picardykatt. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I agree completely: psychological tension is always more successful and more effective than gore. And it keeps the pace of the plot moving along.

  7. Great post, Margot. I don’t think you can beat Poe – he’s responsible for so much we read today!

  8. I’m not a fan of horror as I don’t like being scared but I really enjoyed this post. Like other people who’ve commented, I much prefer the psychological angle in crime/thrillers than the gore. It’s interesting to read about the influence Poe has had.

    • Thanks very much, Hayley :-). I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I do think you’re absolutely right. The psychological angle is much more effective when it comes to suspense than gore and violence are. And yes, Poe had quite an impact!

  9. I love a lot of suspense mixed into mysteries and thrillers, even dark suspense when it’s well done (and not too horribly graphic).

  10. Les, above, said the same things I would have (not for the first time!) – MR James and John Dickson Carr both exemplify the kind of scariness I enjoy…

  11. I love Poe’s work. What I wouldn’t give to wander through the dark recesses of his mind. Funny (meaning, strange, not humorous) thing happened to me recently. I wrote a 10K word story for an anthology that was Poe-esque and dedicated to my love his work. The killer I dubbed The Poet and he left Poe quotes at the crime scenes. Two days AFTER I submitted the final version, my husband started reading a 2014 Connelley book entitled The Narrows (a book I’ve never read or heard about), and he says, “Uh oh. You’re not gonna like this.”

    Sure enough, the killer in Connelley’s book left Poe quotes at each crime scene and was dubbed The Poet. I couldn’t believe it. What are the chances? As you can imagine, I was devastated, because I’d been so excited about creating such a unique story to honor the master of macabre. Ah, well. My only saving grace is that my story is nowhere near the same as his, other than the obvious. Still…

    • Oh, yes, The Narrows! That is interesting that, without having read the book, you’d have come up with such a similar plot, etc., Sue. Great minds… And, as you say, your story is uniquely you. All stories, I think, reflect the minds of their authors. And, speaking of minds, I know what you mean about Poe’s.

  12. Margot, while I have not read “The Lottery,” I liked Shirley Jackson’s “Charles” and “The Witch.” She conveys intensity and suspense without really saying much or being too descriptive, and you can feel the heat as you read.

    • You put that very well, Prashant. I think that’s exactly what sets Jackson’s writing apart. If you get a bit of time, I do recommend The Lottery. It’s a powerful story, I think.

  13. Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    Mystery author/blogger Margot Kinberg delves into the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe on what would have been his 208th birthday. She goes on to compare some of the elements used by Daphne DuMaurier, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and others. If you’re a mystery lover, you won’t want to stop where her post ends on this page but will click to read more of this extremely fascinating article. Enjoy my Sunday Reblog!

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