Psychological Suspense – genre orphans


“Imagine any Alfred Hitchcock film that you have enjoyed,” Joyce Saricks writes, “and you understand the attraction of Psychological Suspense. These are books that play with our minds, that create a frisson of unease, that blend the creepiness generated by the Horror genre with the tension inherent in Suspense. These are stories that appeal to a range of readers – and filmmakers – and don’t fit easily in any related genre into which we try to slot them.” (p.229)

Defining Psychological Suspense

Defining the genre, Saricks writes:

“If ever there were a group of books that is neither fish nor fowl, this is surely it. Called Suspense, Thrillers, Horror, Mystery, and sometimes just Psychological Fiction, these titles are genre orphans. I have arbitrarily chosen suspense as the operative noun, because that term implies the building excitement these books generate, even though they are not fast-paced in the same way that Suspense genre titles are.

Much fiction, especially Literary fiction, draws on psychological theories and motivations to propel the story and define the characters. In Psychological Suspense that tradition is clearly evident, but these stories center on the psychological impact. Although not truly Suspense, that [-p230] term emphasizes the impact of these books, with their building tension and claustrophobic feel. Novels of Psychological Suspense create worlds of unease and potential disaster in which characters explore their options and their obsessions, while the reader observes from the outside. In this way they fit firmly in the genres that appeal to the intellect. Masters of the genre create disturbing tales of unbalanced minds, and as we readers observe in morbid fascination, we are pulled into their nightmare worlds. These are puzzles that explore the mind and its inner workings in troubling tales of heart-racing suspense.

These are novels that produce a chill.” (pp.229-230)

“These books are not clinical studies of particular psychoses. Diagnosis is not the issue in these stories, nor is treatment.” 9p.230)

“As in Literary Fiction, the endings of Psychological Suspense may be unresolved. This adds to the unease generated by the story: Authors raise troubling issues, create disturbed and disturbing characers, and then leave the reader to wonder at the outcome. In her neo-Gothic novel The Keep Jennifer Egan not only spins a story within a story, but leaves the reader unsure of the outcome of both plotlines.” (p.232)

“Protagonists in this genre are not the well-rounded, likeable heroes of other fiction, but misfits, sometimes as much antiheroes as heroes, and they may not be particularly sympathetic. Writers, however, pull us into their lives and their dilemmas. We stay on the fringes of the action, observing their efforts rather than participating in their plights. The appeal of the characters is intellectual, focusing on the question of whay they might do next, rather than an emotional connection.” (p.233)

“The writing style employed in Psychological Suspense is often elegant and seldom pedestrian. …Every word is important, and they [authors] carefully choose how sentences are framed. In many cases, these are shorter books; the sense of menace is encased in a spare, often poetic prose style. The style effectively sets the tone of these books and draws readers in. Authors often differentiate characters and mood by typeface, and diaries, journals, or e-mail and instant messages may be used to underline the menace. In Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie, the protagonist, a convicted child molester, offers crude drawings and random capitalization that reflect his unbalanced mind. Oates often writes with a psychological twist, but this novel in particular is a compelling example of the unstable character and edgy style that typify the genre. Zombie feels like Diane Arbus’s photography, although more violent. Like Arbus, Oates builds on the banal and ordinary; resulting depictions are slightly askew but others, like this, are clearly disturbing.” (p.234)

“Pacing in this genre is measured. Mental activity, rather than physical action, drives these stories, and as a result the plot may move slowly, but the books remain compelling, engrossing reading.” (p.234)

“The tone created by the author is almost as important as story in driving the action. Authors create mental nightmares, with much of the action in the mind, and that haunted feeling keeps both protagonists and readers off balance. Words such as moody, claustrophobic, bleak, edgy, evocative, ominous, and foreboding describe the menacing atmosphere.” (p.232)

“Since these novels explore the inner workings of the often unstable protagonist’s mind, madness often frames the stories. The protagonist may start out in the normal world of everyday, but something goes awry, and we watch as he is trapped, mentally at least, in a nightmare world that [-p.233] may be inescapable.” (pp.232-233)

Characteristics of Psychological Suspense

“1. Elaborately constructed plots are the hallmark of these stories, which are characterized by frequent twists (both mental and plot), surprises, and layers of meaning. Endings may be unresolved.

2. These books create a world of mental nightmares, and that chilling, disturbing tone drives the stories and keeps the readers off balance.

3. The interior workings of the mind – even madness – frame these stories, and leave readers on edge, straddling the line between sanity and unreason.

4. Protagonists are often misfits, who may or may not be sympathetic characters. Readers observe the characters rather than participate in their predicaments.

5. Writing style is important in creating this disturbing mood, and these novels are often elegantly written.

6. The pacing is more measured and the physical action less intense than in Suspense novels. These are often densely written novels with more description than dialogue.” (p.231)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago

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