Bloody And Blurred Borders Between Crime And Horror Fiction
From the right angle, crime fiction and horror fiction have a lot in common: alienated protagonists, transgressive thrills, and a penchant for the sordid all come to mind. But certain works straddle the two genres in unexpected ways. Consider Peter Straub’s “Blue Rose” trilogy of Koko, Mystery, and The Throat. Each book ratchets up levels of suspense in unexpected ways; each one offers bleak fates for several characters. (There’s even a bit of metafiction thrown into the mix.)
Straub has written stories that are realistic and fantastical, but here he finds the border between the two, setting a terrifying and decades-spanning series of events into motion, and creating a fictional space where little steady ground exists.
Brian Evenson’s novel Last Days occupies another corner of this overlap between genres. Evenson, too, is more than capable of moving full-on into horror or psychological thriller mode. Last Days, about a detective who infiltrates a cult dedicated to body modification, takes a familiar noir trope and gradually submerges it into the realm of body horror.
The result is dizzying: as the novel’s protagonist becomes more and more enmeshed in his terrifying existence, so too does the reader feel cut off from genre tropes and suspended out of the reassuring grasp of the familiar.
Endeavoring to classify T.E. Grau’s novel I Am The River is the sort of byzantine errand that might drive someone out of their mind — perhaps in the way that protagonist Israel Broussard loses his grip on reality over the course of the novel. In some ways, this Bram Stoker Award-nominated book falls into the realm of horror: its protagonist sees strange visions, is haunted by demons both figurative and literal, and may well be unstuck in time in a very different way from Billy Pilgrim.
The horrors that Broussard experiences, however, are also deeply rooted in history. As the novel begins, Broussard is in a self-imposed exile in Bangkok following a mission during the Vietnam War that went wrong. Just what this mission is, and how exactly it fell apart, remains to be told. And while Broussard is the pained heart of this novel, his superior officer, a man known as Chapel, proves to something else: the devil on his shoulder, perhaps, or angel and devil both.
Chapel’s methodology, which includes heavy doses of surreal behavior and sinister rituals, which contrast boldly with Broussard’s unraveling psyche.
Were this novel simply a tale of wartime memories and exile, it would have been searing on its own. Had Grau magnified the uncanny elements, it would have been equally effective. But that ambiguity comes with its own power. If you encounter one type of narrative or another, you understand the turf you’re on. But if you’re somewhere between the two, it’s far more hazardous to cross.
Consider the stories in Maryse Meijer’s collection Rag, for instance. Meijer’s earlier collection Heartbreaker masterfully evoked the jitters and shudders that come from narrative ambiguity, and she continues in that haunting tradition here. Meijer taps into a well of tension, both character-based and narrative-based.
Opener “Her Blood” begins with a pizzeria employee encountering a young woman who’s just had a miscarriage in the restaurant’s bathroom. The presence of blood in the opening moments lends this story tension from the outset, and the tenuous connection between two characters who have shared a harrowing experience yet hardly know one another is the stuff from which thrilling narratives are born.
Meijer’s fiction rarely falls into predictable categories, and the stories in this collection are no exception. That’s a kind of tension as well: seeing just what fates are in store for these characters. Are we venturing into horror, into crime stories, or into quieter character studies? Meijer’s work has elements of all three in shifting proportions.
The protagonist of “Jury,” for example, is a juror on a murder trial whose life begins to head in unexpected directions due to the personal connections he meets in his temporary situation. The story is laced with scenes of violence, but the structure of the trial holds them at a remove, and the slow-burning narrative heightens the protagonist’s dislocation from the familiar.
The space between crime fiction and horror offers writers numerous narrative pathways down which they can lead readers. The end result might be thrilling, or it might be outright terrifying. It might even arrive at a wholly unexpected destination entirely outside of the familiar. That might be the most unnerving space of all.
To view the collection of articles by Tobias Carroll, please go here.