Spirited Inquiry: Where Mystery and Horror Meet
By Scott Nicholson

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The connection between the genres of mystery and horror has always been strong, appealing to the inquisitive and the thrill seeker alike. The genres are closely linked in virtually every aspect except the actual marketing and bookstore shelving. While the spectrum is broad, with Rita Mae Brown and Agatha Christie on one end, and Skipp and Spector and Edward Lee on the other, the emotional territory is often similar. Even the coziest mystery usually involves a death, and sometimes a haunting supernatural novel contains no more bloodshed than your average Tupperware party.

Two of the hallmarks of mystery are the puzzle and its subsequent solution. Usually, the reader and writer need a sleuth as a viewpoint character, someone to assemble the different clues and filter the actions and behavior of the other characters. In the good stuff, there is a rise in tension as the story progresses, until the perpetrator is revealed in a surprising and satisfactory manner. And, unless the author has pulled off a miracle in cliché-busting deception, it had better not be the butler.

The hallmarks of horror are the emotional and psychological overtones. Many readers, those who don’t believe in ghosts, read a supernatural work as a psychological allegory. A haunted house is a symbol for the troubled human mind. A spirit is a living reflection and projection of the one who is witnessing the phenomena. A demon or devil is the personification of despair or lost faith.

The genres would probably be joined in their proper union if not for the publishing practices of the last century. Indeed, ghost and detective fiction were often lumped together in the pulp magazines under labels such as “suspense” and “terror.” As publishing became a big business, and the mass market reached a critical mass, marketing experts moved in and decided that the products would be simpler to match with the intended consumer if a set of stereotypes could be imposed. It was cheaper and easier to sell an entire category of books than it was to promote a single book or single author.

Most authors defy the labels but get stuck with them anyway. As proof, one need look no further than the venerable personage of Edgar Allan Poe. He is widely regarded as one of America’s finest horror writers, on the strength of stories of claustrophobic terror like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He embraced the supernatural in such work as “Annabel Lee” and “The Black Cat.” Alternately, he is credited with the invention of the modern detective story by penning “Murders in The Rue Morgue” and “Mystery of Marie Roget,” the latter apparently inspired by an actual case.

The Mystery Writers of America adopted Edgar as the namesake of its annual awards and uses his trademark forehead, curly hair, and mustache in its logo, and the Horror Writers of America would almost certainly have named its own awards for the absinthe-swilling genius if that claim hadn’t already been staked.

Above all else, Poe took advantage of the psychology of terror and mystery. And that psychology, the frailty of the human mind and strength of the human heart, the wonder of language and the shortcomings of communication, the miracle of thought and the fallibility of emotion, is a dark cavern mined by the best explorers in both fields.

Numerous works have crossed the lines or walked the gray shadow land between the two genres: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Ed McBain’s “Ghosts,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” William Goldman’s “Magic,” even titles in the Nancy Drew, Hardee Boys, Scooby Doo, and Goosebumps series. Authors such as Ira Levin, Barbara Michaels, Rudyard Kipling, Sharyn McCrumb, Ed Gorman, Michael Slade, Edo van Belkom, Douglas Clegg, and Tom Piccirilli have worn the skins of both beasts. Phil Rickman coined the term “spiritual procedural” to describe his series featuring a Diocesan Deliverance Consultant. Most notably, Dean Koontz has blended many of the elements of mystery and horror (and a few other genres as well) into a compelling and best-selling mix.

My twenty-pound dictionary lists as the first definition of mystery, “Something that has not been, or cannot be, explained; hence, something beyond human comprehension; a mysterious sacred thing.” Sounds like a pretty good definition of supernatural horror fiction to me. The dictionary was published in 1934, so its definition for “horror” fails miserably, as least in the way horror is now regarded as a genre. After some archaic references to “horror” as a corporeal medical state between rigor and algor, the final definition comes close: “Awe; fear mingled with reverence.”


Horror isn’t about scaring readers any more than mystery is about solving crimes. It’s all about the people. It’s about the emotional stakes, the spiritual implications, the bizarre antics of the human race. It’s about us.

At the scene of every real crime is a motive that is often beyond belief to the average person. Every haunted structure has a mystery surrounding the dead people who allegedly pay those afterlife visits, as well as the living people who “see” them. Fiction is one way we face these unexplainable sacred things, and the written word provides a safe place in which to vent our awe and fear. Fiction is the lie that speaks a greater truth.

The real mystery resides in the human soul.

The real horror resides in the human soul.

Open your soul and read on.

(Scott Nicholson is the author of seven books, including the recently released The Farm and They Hunger in April, 2007. He is a freelance editor as well as a published writer. Email him at harvestbook AT yahoo.com to inquire about his editing services. His web site is http://www.hauntedcomputer.com) Sandra Brown David Morrell Mary Higgins Clark Stephen King Peter Straub Edgar Allan Poe Robert McCammon Ira Levin Ed McBain Lawrence Block Bentley Little

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