Friday, April 23, 2010

The horror, the horror

By Russel D McLean

“The advice I got was don’t put supernatural in a crime story. It won’t work. Readers won’t buy it.”

That’s a paraphrase of a friend of mine talking about the advice he got for his first novel. Apparently supernatural and crime don’t work together. At least for readers.

I’ve thought about this a lot because the advice came from a source I respect, but the more I think about the more I think that in this case the source of wrong.

Two cases in point.

The first is the most recent. Sarah Pinborough has been hanging around the horror genre for a few years now, but her first “big” novel (at least in the UK) has just broken free. A MATTER OF BLOOD combines near future dystopia, crime fiction and, yes, the supernatural to thrilling effect. What’s particularly impressive – at least to me – is the build up to the “unnatural” events. By first combining two more “natural” genres (the near future stuff, set after an organisation called The Bank came in to save us from our monetary woes, and of course the crime fiction element which spins very naturally from her created society, being as it is set amongst coppers for “hire” and organised crime bosses) and then gently layering the supernatural elements on top until you suddenly realise they were there all along and you just weren’t paying attention, Pinborough effectively mashes genre styles to captivating effect. It’s a gamble that pays off wonderfully, and by mixing genres in this way, the story arc becomes more unpredictable, and the reader is drawn into a world with which they are unfamiliar. Putting readers off balance is a brilliant trick, and mixing genre traits – something that has become de-rigeur in the world of movies, so why is it quite so sneered upon in the world of prose? – is a perfect way to achieve that.

Of course, Pinborough isn’t the first person to mix the supernatural and crime genres to grand effect. One author who has been doing this since almost the beginning of his career is the sublimely talented John Connolly* whose latest novel, THE WHISPERERS** is one of the most chilling and artfully written thrillers I’ve read in a long time.

While I came to Connolly through an ostensibly “straight” horror novel, BAD MEN, it is his Charlie Parker series that fascinates me. EVERY DEAD THING, Connolly’s debut was, on the surface, a very well written serial killer novel set in the US. Charlie Parker’s family were killed by a stranger who called himself The Travelling Man, so our protagonist sets out across the country for revenge on this serial killer. By the end of the novel, however, something happened that made us question the nature of its events. We were left with the uneasy feeling that The Travelling Man may have been part of deeper, more unexplained events. This feeling again occurred in DARK HOLLOW, the second Parker novel and by the time of THE KILLING KIND, we were sure that all was not as it seemed in the world of Charlie Parker.

But the stroke of genius on the part of Connolly, was that, until THE LOVERS, we were never sure what was going on, how much was in the damaged head of Charlie Parker and how much was real. There were hints here and there, but the interpretation was left to the reader, and there were ways in which you could read events to suit either interpretation.

I won’t tell you which way he jumped. But it is a beautiful surprise, and changes the nature of the series in a way Connolly has followed up masterfully in THE WHISPERERS.

So this week’s reading advice (if you hadn’t figured already)?

Pinborough and Connolly.

Go on, you won’t be disappointed.

*Disclaimer, blah-blah, yes I know JC has said very very nice things about my debut, THE GOOD SON, but I was a fan of his for many years before he even knew my name never mind said such ego-swelling things.

**An early edition fell into me lap thanks to the wonderful folks at Hodder & Stoughton


Declan Burke said...

Stuart Neville's THE TWELVE (aka THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST) does a terrific job of mashing-up crime and supernatural ... very clever stuff.

Cheers, Dec

Dana King said...

I discovered Connolly with THE BLACK ANGEL, which I think is a masterpiece. I was put off at first when I saw the supernatural elements, but he weaves them so seamless into the PI story that it just raises everything to another plane. I've since read all the Charlie Parker novels, as well as THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS, which is completely different, but also wonderful.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Nice post--added to my reading list.

Scott Nicholson