Features of a Psychological Suspense Story

hands clawing up a cliff

What makes a horror or thriller story ‘psychological’? Aren’t the entire suspense genre psychological, to some degree? I set out to investigate.

A label to say: This Is More Than Just Gore!

With a few notable exceptions, the label “psychological horror” is most often used to describe what something doesn’t have rather than what it does. A lack of exploding eyeballs or sloshing eviscerations must mean that the scare is psychological, right? Saying that a story is “psychological horror” seems like it should mean it gives the reader a true creeping sense of fear, but all too often it just means the [story] doesn’t feature violent organ failure.

Electric Literature

So, story makers will slap that label on if they want to signal hidden depths to their story. With that established, let’s get a bit deeper. How deep can we get?

Raison d’être of a Psychological Thriller

Psychological suspense stories encourage us to ask questions about our own lives.

  • Can you really trust your husband? (Gone Girl)
  • Can your partner’s good points outweigh their terrible points? (Big Little Lies)
  • Can you really trust your nanny? (Girl On The Train)
  • How far would you go to achieve your dream? (You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott)
  • We think we know people, but how much do we really know? (Most of them)
  • What is a perfect life? Does a life that looks perfect from the inside feel perfect from the inside? (The Couple Next Door, Big Little Lies)

A Brief History Of A Psychological Suspense Story

The origins of the modern psychological thriller stretch all the way back to 1938, when Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier was published and became popular. But the genre goes back further than that and can be found in fairytale — Rebecca happens to be based on the Bluebeard story. 

A common early trope of popular psychological suspense involved what is now called ‘the woman in peril’.

I write psychological thrillers. In this genre, the female experience has so often been portrayed as damaged—obsessive, delusional—that I fear readers have come to expect emotionally unstable women. In the psychological thriller genre, men are often antagonists, but rarely are they shown to be emotionally vulnerable. Given that I know as many men who can be ruled by their emotions as women, it’s curious that we don’t see more of them on the page. Surely it’s not doing either gender any favours to ignore the emotions of one and exaggerate the emotions of another?

The Silenced Woman and the Psychological Thriller by Araminta Hall

The ‘woman in peril’ has been replaced by something just as insidious: Film, book and tv shows rotate around darker and darker crimes committed against women. Sexy mad women fill our consciousness and stalk our air waves. The idea of the ‘crazy woman’ who either did it or deserved it has taken hold.’

We have yet to enter the age of suspense stories in which men are allowed the full range of emotions, and in which the emotional expression of women becomes part of their strength.

Common Features Of A Psychological Suspense Story

CHARACTER

  • The threat is still diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and/or his family. The hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman or child.
  • Character is more important than pacing, but pacing can’t be neglected.

PLOT

  • The pacing is a bit more deliberate than in non-suspense genres, to reflect the ordinary person’s difficulty understanding the exact nature of the threat—and the enemy—and then struggling to respond. The third act, however, moves briskly.
  • Twists are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another.
  • Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational.
  • The psychological subgenre of thriller demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases. The psychological subgenre of horror demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without gore.
  • In fact, see my post on Thrillers. The psychological thriller is of course a subset of Thriller, so everything in that post applies. See also my post on Horror.

NARRATION

Alternating points of view are popular. Gone Girl and Girl On The Train both employ this technique.

In young adult fiction, Robert Cormier used alternating points of view a number of times, for example In The Middle Of The Night, After The First Death.

Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia is another example.

Hattie Hoffman has spent her entire life up to this point playing different parts — the straight-A student, the dutiful daughter, the civically-minded teenager. So when she’s found stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, her small town is torn apart by the tragedy, as well as the idea that Hattie’s killer might be hidden in their midst. But things aren’t always as they seem, and as the local sheriff seeks out the murderer, he finds out that Hattie had some dark secrets, unseeable from the surface. Told from alternating perspectives — Hattie’s, the sheriff’s, and a high school english teacher who has secrets of his own — Everything You Want To Be is a chilling and mesmerizing look at the final year of a young woman’s life.

An unreliable narrator — or a potential unreliable narrator — is almost compulsory. Part of the reader’s fun work is picking out bullshit when we hear it. This is of course the same reason why multiple points of view are so popular. Of the storytellers presented to us, whose do we trust?

More Common Tropes In Psychological Suspense

MEMORY PROBLEMS 

  • Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson — After a car crash, Chrissie develops a form of amnesia in which her short-term memory is wiped every morning upon waking. She’s unable to form new memories. And so, every morning, she must relearn who the man sleeping next to her is — her husband, Ben. One day, she finds a notebook that she’d been hiding. Within, she finds a foreboding message: “Do not trust Ben.” And it’s written in her own handwriting.
  • The Girl On The Train — the protagonist has memory black outs because of her heavy drinking.
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch — “Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before being knocked unconscious by his unknown abductor — and wakes up to a new life as someone else. His wife has been swapped out for another woman, and he doesn’t have a son anymore. In this new version of existence, he’s not just a college physics professor, but a genius who has achieved a truly remarkable, game-changing feat. But which version of Jason Dessen’s life is real, and which one is the dream? That question is at the heart of this suspenseful thriller, which also asks how far we’ll go to get what we want — and what we are willing to sacrifice to get it.
  • The Girl Before by Rena Olsen — Claire Lawson’s life with her husband and daughters is running along smoothly — until one day, a squad of armed men break into her house and tear her away from her family. The last thing she hears is her husband commanding her to say nothing. From there, the book spirals back to Claire’s past: a tumultuous youth, escaping her family, falling in love with the son of her adoptive parents. But Claire’s history is full of dark secrets, some of which she doesn’t even remember herself. The more she finds out about herself, the more it becomes possible that the past could ruin her life as she knows it.

CONVALESCING

Related to periods of memory loss are periods spent away, convalescing, while the rest of the world moves on without you. I have heard former inmates say in interviews that coming out of prison feels like this. Technology in particular moves far more quickly than anyone can anticipate.

  • After The First Death by Robert Cormier
  • Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer — Bella’s vampiric pregnancy

PARANOIA

  • The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer — As Alex, or Casey, or Juliana, or whatever her name is at the moment, can tell you, it’s not easy to be on the lam. A while ago, this secret agent learned a bit too much about her employers, and now they’re hell-bent on killing her. She lives in a state of paranoia, running from location to location and name to name. Soon, she gets a call from her boss, calling her in for one last mission. She’s not sure who to believe, but still, she goes along with the kidnapping of a schoolteacher, Daniel Beach, who’s supposedly involved with the design of a virus intended to wipe out the human race. Only problem with Mr. Beach? He’s irresistibly attractive, and doesn’t seem to be much of a villain at all.

MONSTERS IN OUR MIDST

Complicated and terrible (but passionate) marriages have made a big comeback since Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is similar to the hired-nanny stories — the person we should be most afraid of in the whole world is also the person we’ve let into our homes (and hearts).

  • The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison — A picture of a relationship through alternating accounts from a husband and wife. Similar to Gone Girl.
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff — As with Gone Girl, the marriage at the heart of Fates and Furies is a multi-faceted beast. The first half of the novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s whirlwind romance and ensuing 20 years of marriage from the perspective of the exuberant, positive, and naive Lotto. Then, halfway through, Mathilde’s voice is heard — and what she has to say will shock you.

Neighbours can also be dangerous.

  • The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena — Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all: the gorgeous home, the loving relationship, the beautiful baby girl. But one night, while they’re at a dinner party next door, a horrifying crime is committed. Investigators pounce on the case, but the more they delve into the details of the Conti’s lives, the clearer it becomes that the couple has a trove of skeletons in the closet, and secrets that they’ve been keeping — from the world, and from one another.
  • Rosemary’s Baby is the classic film version of this trope — neighbours take a young pregnant woman under their wing with the aim of turning her unborn baby into the devil.

Psychological Novel And Children’s Literature

psychological novel

Modern young adult literature bears many similarities to what has previously been called ‘the psychological novel’.

psychological novel is a work of prose-fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior characterisation, and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which springs from, and develops, external action.

Wikipedia

The psychological novel is also called “psychological realism”.

A Brief History Of The Psychological Novel

  • Psychological novels co-evolved with psychoanalysis (Freud et al) in the first half of the 1900s.
  • Henry James was one of the first to focus on the motives and psychology of his characters rather than on their actions.
  • Readers take on more work. We don’t just read what happens, we are expected to analyse the characters.
  • English novels were influenced by French and Russian novels. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were especially influential.
  • Stream of consciousness is one of the distinguishing features of a Psychological Novel.

Dostoevsky was the great analyst — in a sense, almost the inventor — of the psychological category that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

(Ressentiment is the French word for resentment.)

Ways In Which Modern Children’s Literature Resembles The Psychological Novel

1. Abandonment of overt and controlling narrative voices in favour of single and multiple focalisations

In other words, the didactic unseen omniscient voice died.

2. Changes of perspective

The ‘camera’ of the narrator zooms in and out, sometimes right inside the head of a character, oftentimes further away, commenting on an entire scene. Chapters can alternate first person narrators, or switch between first and third. We see characters from both the inside and from the outside. This is known as free indirect style.

3. Montage effects

Montage novels are a type of modernist novel which is ‘cinematic’, but we shouldn’t conclude that cinema was influencing the novel. It’s just as likely the other way around — the word ‘montage’ was not invented for cinema.

In the 1920s and 30s a lot of development was going on in the arts. The word ‘montage’ started to be applied to other kinds of art.

Montage ‘involves juxtaposing two fragments and combining them into a new representation whose sense is equal neither to the sense of each fragment nor to their sum.’ (Ėjzenštejn)

  • contrasting ways of expression (collage)
  • different points of view or hyper-fragmentation of the text (cubist montage)
  • joining elements from heterogeneous cultures, citations, various subtexts or sources
  • ‘contaminations’ of motifs or genres

While montage in the cinema is the basic means of connecting fragments, montage in literature serves to show dissociation. (Unless we’re talking about dialectical montage, a film editing technique that emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one shot and another.)

Critics have always had trouble defining the montage novel and you could argue the term is basically meaningless now.

However, the modernist novel — which includes the montage novel — is different from the pre-WW 1 era in that it emphasises the irrationality of life and lost faith in traditional values. (Katherine Mansfield was a modernist short story writer.)

4. Internal/interior monologues

We are shown what the characters are thinking. The opposite of this is what we see on a Shakespearian stage, for example, in which the only way we can possibly tell what a character is thinking is via a monologue or a murmur to the side.

5. Stream-of-consciousness and similar techniques

The opposite of stream-of-consciousness is dramatic monologue and soliloquy.

FURTHER READING

What is psychological suspense?

The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar

Hear “The People Across The Canyon” read by Douglass Greene at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

This is my favourite story from the excellent collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, partly due to how much I relate to the characters. When our daughter was 5 some new neighbours moved in next door. The adults were super unfriendly, but had two sons who were overly friendly. They would invite our daughter next door, but oftentimes she came back subdued, and once, crying. I never knew what happened next door, but I did learn more and more about the family, and had to stop my daughter from going over there. When you’re the parent of a child between around 4-8, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction; children so often live in their own worlds. “The People Across The Canyon” encapsulates that confusion most beautifully.



WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE PEOPLE ACROSS THE CANYON”

A family of two parents and their 8-year-old daughter live in a house on the edge of a Canyon. The parents enjoy solitude. But one day, it appears a new family has moved into the house right across the canyon.

The 8-year-old starts talking about them, and has obviously been to visit them. She even points them out in town, driving in a cream sports car.

When the 8-year-old tells her parents that the Smiths would like to keep her for their own, the father thinks enough is enough, and they go to the house to confront the newcomers.

We learn at this point, though it has been foreshadowed all along, that Cathy has made these people up completely. What they thought was a television set glowing is actually a mirror, reflecting light.

SETTING

You won’t be surprised to hear that Margaret Millar was born and bred in Ontario, given the proximity of The Canyon in this story. I imagine a vista  little bit like this:

Ontario Canyon Falls

Though with its ‘scratchy clumps of chaparral and the creepers of poison oak that looked like loganberry vines’ I doubt it’s as picturesque.

The canyon is symbolic, of course. There is a gap the size of a canyon between the world view of the little girl and that of her parents. As it turns out, though, Cathy is very much like her parents.

CHARACTERS

Marion Borton

Mrs Borton’s desire, set up at the very beginning, is for peace and quiet.

“There goes our privacy.” Marion went over and snapped off the television set, a sign to Paul that she had something on her mind which she wanted to transfer to his. The transference, intended to halve the problem, often doubled it.

Marion had her house, her garden, her television sets; she didn’t seem to want any more of the world than these, and she resented anyimplication that they were not enough. 

Paul Borton 

Paul Borton shares his wife’s desire for peace and quiet, but his main problem is marital harmony. We get the sense that he will be happy simply watching the TV, so long as his wife doesn’t turn it off mid-sentence. He is depicted as more worldly and reasonable than his wife.

Cathy Borton

8 years old, ‘gets along with everyone at school and never causes any trouble’, in the words of her parents, via the teacher.

Cathy responded to the sound [of the frog croaking] as if she was more intimate with nature than adults were, and more alert to its subtle communication of danger.

THEME

It’s significant that Mr and Mrs Borton are watching a drama on TV:

Paul went over and turned the television set back on. As he had suspected, it was the doorman who’d killed the nightclub owner with a baseball bat, not the blonde dancer or her young husband or the jealous singer.

While the parents get their fiction from melodrama on the evening television, while concocting stories about who may have moved in next door, their daughter is just the same as them, concocting her own stories with a mirror, while all the time it looks to her parents that someone is watching a TV. Though there is a canyon between Cathy and her parents, they are really just the same.

The television makes more than one appearance. Notice how we’re told the backstory of the television set. In this way, Millar attracts exactly the right amount of attention to it:

It was the following Monday that Cathy started to run away. Marion, ironing in the kitchen and watching a quiz program on the portable set Paul had given her for Christmas, heard the school bus groan to a stop at the top of the driveway.

This feels like a very modern story. These days it’s not TV that gets blamed when parents are criticised for neglecting their children — it tends to be phones and ‘gadgets’. But this feels like — if not a criticism — then a comment on how we immerse ourselves in screens and fail to see the problems our children are having, right in front of our own eyes.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Foreshadowing

Millar often delivers “surprise endings,” but the details that would allow the solution of the surprise have usually been subtly included, in the best genre tradition. Her books focus on subtleties of human interaction and rich psychological detail of individual characters as much as on plot.

Wikipedia

Indeed, every good story with a surprising ending reveals subtle foreshadowing upon second reading:

“You know how sounds carry across the canyon.”

“I don’t hear any sounds.”

Why don’t they hear any sounds, if noise travels so well?

Of Cathy, the parents ostensibly discuss the prospect of new neighbours, but the reader is really being fed information about young Cathy, who we are to believe is lonely, and therefore prompted to make imaginary friends:

“It would be nice if she had more interests, more children of her own age around.”

We’re told numerous times that Cathy is shy, that she is ‘imitative’, and we’re shown that when Cathy prefers to play with ‘real people’ over watching television, she goes off to play with her dolls. She knows ‘every inch of the way’ across the Canyon.

Symbolism

Apart from the canyon, the mirror in this story is symbolic, reflecting back to Mrs Borton in particular everything she is not. The mirroring is two-fold: She watches Cathy looking at the mirror as a pretend television screen. She herself watches a lot of television; Cathy’s school teacher has expressed concern at the amount. In these ways, our children mirror our behaviour.

When she looks into the mirror, Mrs Borton starts to see her own image morph into the Mrs Smith of her daughter’s imagination. This image rapidly disappears, and she is left with nothing. The mirror has highlighted her deficiencies.

STORY SPECS

First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1962.

Can now be found in the following anthology:

Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives Cover

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

There are numerous picture books for children about the power of imagination, and these are told from a child’s point of view. In a sense, this short story for adults is the inverse of that — a picture book story of imagination but told from the parents’ point of view.

WRITE YOUR OWN

Using the same storyline, what would the picture book version look like?

In what ways are children more in touch with realities than the adults in their lives?

In what ways to children make glaringly obvious any deficiencies in their parents?