As this is posted, it’s the birthday of Stephen King. Even if you don’t care for his work, it’s hard to deny the impact it’s had. Even his debut novel, Carrie, is still very popular 44 years after its first publication (Did you know he threw that work into the trash originally? Goes to show the value of perseverance.) King has also done much to support other writers and the writing craft/process itself.
One of the factors that sets King’s work apart is arguably that he taps into our own deepest fears. Yes, there’s violence in his work, some of it brutal. But the real source of tension and suspense in the stories he writes is more psychological than anything else. And that can have a way of keeping a reader engaged in a story. Many of King’s stories are about ordinary people – people readers can identify with – who are drawn into horrifying circumstances.
King’s a master of that sort of context. Other authors, too, have used the premise of an ordinary sort of person who’s drawn into horror. We see it all through the crime fiction genre, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out.
In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to ten people, all of whom have been invited to stay at a house on Indian Island. None of these people is perfect – by any means – but they are all what’d you’d call ‘normal’ people (if there is such a thing). After dinner on the night of their arrival, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Then another. Now, the other guests see that they’ve been lured to the island by someone who is not as ‘normal’ as it seems. That someone is trying to kill them all, and they’ll have to work to find out who that person is if they’re going to stay alive. In this novel, it’s the growing psychological horror as much as anything else that really builds the tension and invites the reader to stay engaged.
Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is a bit like that, too. In it, we meet Eunice Parchman, who’s hired as a professional housekeeper by George and Jacqueline Coverdale. The Coverdales are well-off and well-educated; they’re ‘normal’ upper-middle class people. At first, the arrangement works well enough. But what the Coverdales don’t know is that Eunice Parchman has a secret – one she’s determined they won’t discover. Then, one day, she’s accidentally found out. That seals the fate of the entire family, and leads to tragedy. The tension in the novel starts building right away, as we’re told exactly what happens and why. Rendell continues to build the suspense as the Coverdales get closer and closer to disaster without really being aware of it.
Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit takes place in rural New England mostly on a property called Cabrioun, and the lodge associated with it. It used to be owned by French émigré Grimaud Désanat, but he died during a hunting trip some years earlier. Now, his widow, Irene, owns the property, together with her new husband, Frank Ogden. Along with family friend Luke Latham, the Ogdens own a business making specialty wood products. The kind of wood they need, though, is hard to find, and currently only available in a place called Onawa. That property was owned by Désanat, who didn’t want the place logged for twenty years. The business can’t wait that long, so the Ogdens and Latham have decided to hold a séance to contact the dead man and ask his permission to open the land to logging. The séance is duly held, and is creepy as it is. But the suspense builds even more when Irene is later murdered. There’s a real growing sense of horror as it appears that the death either has a supernatural cause, or the murderer is one of the people who attended the séance.
Pascal Garnier has also written several stories in which ordinary, ‘normal’ people have been drawn into situations that ended in horror. There’s the aimless young man who becomes a driver for a hit man in How’s the Pain?, and the widower who becomes obsessed with the widow of his dead wife’s lover in The Front Seat Passenger. There are other examples, too, in Garnier’s work. Although there is certainly violence in these stories, the real suspense, and even horror, comes from psychological tension, rather than the ‘shock value’ of violence.
That buildup of psychological tension, and tapping into very human fears is characteristic of several other authors, such as Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. It’s also quite present in the film work of Alfred Hitchcock, among others. In their work, we also see the case of the ‘ordinary’ person inexorably caught up in a web of horror. Those premises and plot points can make for stories that really resonate with readers, in part because we can often identify with the characters. They’re frighteningly close to who we are, if I may put it that way.
I’ve only mentioned a few examples of this sort of story. I know you can think of many more than I can, anyway. Happy Birthday, Mr. King, and may you keep scaring the wits out of us for many more years.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. King fans will know why I chose this one…