Going Through the Dungeons of My Mind*

Most crime fiction readers will tell you that they like suspense in their stories. That’s part of what keeps readers turning and swiping pages. That back-of-your-neck prickling and the sense of not knowing what’s coming next can really add to the appeal of a story. And what’s interesting (and, I think, important for writers to remember) is that it doesn’t require gore or a great deal of violence. There are plenty of stories and novels that are full of psychological suspense without there being a lot of violence or blood. Space only permits a few examples, but I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

Edgar Allan Poe was well known for his skill at building suspense. In his short story The Fall of the House of Usher, for instance, we are introduced to Roderick Usher and his sister, Madeleine. Neither is well; Usher suffers from anxiety disorder, and his sister sometimes has cataleptic seizers. Usher writes to his friend, the unknown narrator of the story, to ask for his help. When the narrator arrives, he’s struck right away by the grim, eerie house and surroundings. Usher claims that the house is sentient, but the narrator isn’t sure of that. Still, some strange things begin to happen, and in the end, tragedy strikes. Poe builds the suspense in this story without resorting to lots of violence and blood. Instead, the suspense is psychological. Poe explores what happens when the things we imagine seem to take on a life of their own.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger introduces Robert and Ellen Bunting, who are retired from domestic service. Their financial situation has gotten to the point where they are forced to take in lodgers. However, they are particular about the sort of person they want to rent to; Ellen, especially, feels that way. So they haven’t yet found the ‘right’ lodger. Then one day, a gentleman calling himself Mr. Sleuth comes to ask about the rooms. He talks, acts, and dresses ‘like a gentleman,’ and is willing to pay upfront. So, the Buntings take him in. At first, all goes well enough, although Mr. Sleuth is a little eccentric. Besides, the Buntings are preoccupied with a group of murders that have been committed by a killer who goes by the name of the Avenger. Then, Ellen Bunting slowly comes to believe that her lodger may be the Avenger. As time goes by, she becomes more and more convinced. But this puts her in a difficult position. If she goes to the police, and her lodger turns out to be innocent, that has serious consequences. If she doesn’t, and Mr. Sleuth is the killer, then a killer remains on the loose. The suspense builds here as the Buntings’ suspicions grow, and as they try to find out the truth. There’s very little in this story about the murders themselves, so there’s really no gore and very little violence.

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit takes place during a rural New England winter, as the Ogden family, plus some family friends, gather. Although it seems strange, they’re getting together for a séance, to contact Irene Ogden’s former husband, Grimaud Désanat, who died several years ago. He owned a piece of land that contains a species of tree that’s needed for the family business, and Irene Ogden (who is a self-styled medium) wants to get his permission to harvest those trees. The séance takes place, and it’s an eerie experience that unsettles several participants. As if that’s not enough, Irene is murdered later that night. There’s a great deal of psychological suspense as the house party tries to find out who the killer is. It’s heightened as some unusual things happen that might or might not be supernatural. Talbot doesn’t include lots of blood or violence in the novel. Instead, tension comes from the eeriness of the surroundings and the strange things that happen.

That’s also the case in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. In that novel, we meet New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn. He’s taking a walk late one night when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He convinces her not to jump, and then takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, daughter of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid. She’s distraught because her father’s imminent death has been predicted. It sounds too bizarre to be possible, but as Jean tells the story, it’s easier to see how she would believe it. The man who predicted Harlan Reid’s death is Jeremiah Tompins, who is, as he puts it, cursed with the ability to see the future. Every other prediction he’s made has come true, so both Reids think this one will, too. As the date and time for Reid’s death gets closer, there’s a buildup of fear, even though Shawn does his best to help the family. There’s also a buildup of suspense as the police try to find out more about Tompkins and what might be behind his predictions. It’s an eerie story, although it isn’t really gory or particularly violent.

Shirley Jackson was also skilled at building a lot psychological suspense without including a lot of gore and violence in her work. For instance, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian. Right away, we get the sense that something is very wrong with the family. For one thing, they’re social outcasts in the town where they live. For another, we slowly learn of a tragedy that took place in the family six years earlier. Three family members were poisoned, and a lot of people blame Constance for it. Still, life goes on for the Blackwoods – until a cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to town. His visit touches off a series of events that turn tragic. There’s a great deal of psychological suspense in this story as we learn more about the family, and as we see how they interact. There’s also plenty of suspense as they interact with others. Still, there’s not a lot of gore and violence, and no ‘thrilleresque’ elements. It’s really more a matter of psychological horror.

Margaret Millar, too, wrote novels where the focus was more on psychology than on violence, high ‘body counts,’ and so on. And she’s by no means the only one (right, fans of Patricia Highsmith?). I know you can think of many more authors who create that sort of suspense without a lot of gore and violence. After all, our minds can imagine some very horrible things…

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boombox’s Dungeons.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

9 thoughts on “Going Through the Dungeons of My Mind*

    1. Thanks, Sue! And I like the way you put that. The actual murder, especially the gore and blood involved, isn’t nearly as suspenseful and absorbing as the psychological elements are. I think it’s too easy to resort to a bloodbath, if I can put it that way. It takes skill to build suspense without the gore.

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  1. Jean Potts and Charlotte Armstrong both came to mind – both did short sharp books relying on growing tension, often in a domestic situation. I like both authors very much – you know what you’re in for when you start one of their books.

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    1. Yes, you do, Moira. I like Armstrong quite a lot on that score. I must admit to being less familiar with Potts’ work, but that domestic setup, where the tension builds slowly, and isn’t based on violence, can really work well. There’s just something about home life, whether it’s between partners, parents and children, siblings, or something else.

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