The Best Places To Set A Suspense Story
Before I embark on the next Bryant & May novel, I’m submitting the outline of a supernatural suspense thriller which would be the first in a proposed series. As a consequence, I’ve been researching un/usual places to set such a story and have drawn up a shortlist of a few favourites. In no particular order, here they are;
Most cities have areas they’re anxious not to have displayed on Tripadvisor. I lived in LA for four years and the backstreets of my neighbourhood were the roughest I’ve seen anywhere in the world, including Africa. They’ve been used in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ and ‘Candyman’, but my favourite is a movie whose title I’ve forgotten that features three suburban husbands on their way to a game who take the wrong freeway exit and end up in urban hell. ‘While She Was Out’ unusually had a female director and added menace to suburban sidestreets as Kim Basinger was pursued through darkened public areas, while ‘Shuttle’ highlighted some seriously bad neighbourhoods around an airport. Authors from Deon Meyer to Ryan David Jahn have exploited the terror of streets with closed doors.
2. Old Houses
The popular choice for every ghost story from ‘The Woman In Black’ to ‘The Innocents’, a house grafts order and structure to the wibbliest of supernatural ideas. I loved ‘The Skeleton Key’, the MR James stories and Peter Medak’s brilliant ‘The Changeling’, but ‘The Innocents’ still tops them all. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ derives much of its power from the disconcerting apartment in which Guy and Rosemary live, and work by US suspense writers like Ethel Lina White, whose novel ‘Some Must Watch’ is almost unbearably tense, make great use of house structures.’Eden Lake’ twisted the climactic ‘safe refuge’ of a house into something darker. Recently some powerful home invasion novels and films have suggested that trouble only starts when you get home.
3. Apartment Buildings
There’s a reason why Spanish movies feature creepy apartment buildings; they’re always in semi-darkness. I live in one such building in Barcelona, and the lights are always going out. You can hear lives being lived behind those old peepholes in front doors, but you can’t see anything – no wonder they made ‘La Communidad’, ‘Penumbra’, the ‘Rec’ movies and ‘Sleep Tight’. Japanese apartment buildings feature in J-Horror (I’m fascinated by the way in which the front doors open outward, logical really) and directors like David Lynch have shown a long fascination with poorly lit corridors.
Why are they so underused as instruments of suspense? Stephen King trapped his victim in a car in ‘Cujo’, and featured a somewhat sillier demonic vehicle in ‘Christine’, while a car became a hilarious metaphor for hell for one family in ‘Dead End’. ‘Duel’ and ‘The Car’ explored demonic automotive possibilities. The short story collection ‘Car Sinister’ examined cars as an earthly evil, and the horrifically funny ‘Stuck’ was based on a true story in which a woman left a pedestrian stuck in her car windscreen for a week.
My own ‘Hell Train’ apart (hem hem), trains provide a perfect metaphor for life. Get on at the beginning, get off at the end, who knows what you’ll find on the way? ‘Dr Terror’s House of Horrors’ was rubbish but we love it, but ‘Horror Express’ was a work of cheesy genius. My favourite, though, is ‘Trans-Siberian’, in which a murder occurs in the snowbound wasteland through which the train passes – and let’s not forget Konchalovskiy’s superb existential ‘Runaway Train’.
6. The Wild
Geography shapes people. That’s why ‘Deliverance’, ‘The Grey’, ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘The Descent’ were great; they forced those out-of-towners to shape up fast in order to combat natural-born evil. Only ‘The Blair Witch Project’ denies us revenge. Nature has provided thousands of English strange tales about haunted woods, fields, tors and headlands. Now we all know that the undead live in Cornish tin mines (‘Plague of the Zombies’) and barge trips will strand you in limbo (‘Three Miles Up’). Masters of the genre include Daphne du Maurier and EF Benson.
7. The Mind
‘You know where the darkest place of all is?’ cheerful Randy Quaid asks his son, before slowly pointing to his own head. Yup, real suspense starts in the brain, whether it’s the anti-hero of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Hangover Square’ heading for a psychotic breakdown or Patrick Bateman cataloguing his music and comparing business cards in ‘American Psycho’. The problem with psychos is that they make for lousy audience identification, as Michael Powell found out after ‘Peeping Tom’ was released. But perhaps there’s nothing more disturbing than not knowing what someone else is thinking. I wish Stephen King had written ‘The Shining’ without any supernatural elements; it would have worked better with more ambiguity.
BTW, the photo was taken in the next street to me.