The Best Places To Set A Suspense Story

Reading & Writing, The Arts


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;

1. Backstreets

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.

4. Cars

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.

5. Trains

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.

14 comments on “The Best Places To Set A Suspense Story”

  1. Bob Low says:

    A lot of pleasing reminders of some great films and books-I was particularly happy with the Randy Quaid reference-who else remembers the great film ”Parents” from the late eighties, which was a bit unfairly over-shadowed by ”Blue Velvet”? I haven’t seen it since it came out, but it made an impression.
    Happy New Year to all, when it comes.

  2. snowy says:

    Were the husbands menaced by Denis Leary? Having jammed their camper van in an alley way?

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Caves, tunnels, mines, elevator shafts, attics, roofs, basements in any structure, etc. are excellent. The dark, the closeness, the uncertainty ahead and what’s coming up behind, distant and close sounds, narrowing walls, a near fall, animal eyes glinting, scrambling, slipping, falling rock are all excellent. Best of luck.

  4. Mike Brough says:

    I like the 2 demon-shadows on the security blind to the left. Deliberate?

  5. Alan G says:

    Sorry – Virgin train from Glasgow to London. The Horror. The Horror.

  6. Bob Low says:

    Snowy-”Parents” is a film set in the US in the fifties, and centres on a seemingly normal suburban family, with the father played by Randy Quaid, whose young son is troubled by recurring nightmares, and a reluctance to eat….to say more about it would give too much away. If it’s not too late, I’d avoid IMDBing it either, as the ”trivia” section gives away one of the main twists, by telling you what the film’s title was on its release in Germany!

  7. Jon Masters says:

    Like the old Who maxim says, things are scarier when the extra-ordinary happens in places we think of as being very ordinary. So schools, hospitals, service stations, railway stations, libraries, office blocks. Anywhere weher we unconsciously think we know the rules of how a place works, and so can repeatedly have the rug pulled away from under us. Even better if it’s a ‘base under seige’ – where we know help from the outside wourld can’t or won’t get to us in time……

  8. Bob Low says:

    Jon-Base Under Seige never fails.

  9. keith page says:

    The late Nigel Kneale was a master at creating really sinister stuff in everyday settings.I don’t know if anyone remembers his tv series ‘creatures’; one of the episodes was set in a supermarket.Also, some memorable short stories like the one about the scarecrow, ‘Jeremy in the Wind’

  10. Empty office buildings, closed malls, derelict factories…anyplace that should be crowded with people but are not, for whatever reason.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Shadows on the window blind of the back door. The front door where the glass distorts the shape is bad (Arsenic & Old Lace) but the back door is scarier. Arsenic & Old Lace is a lot scarier than it is given credit for. As soon as the “doctor” arrives you know the difference between casual madness and the real clear minded evil madness incarnate. It’s the awareness of inevitability that stirs up terror. Of course there are also showers.

  12. Alan G says:

    I loved “Vodka with Chocolate Chasers” by Dan Trelfer. An account of his trip on the trans-siberian. What tickled me was that he aimed to end the trip at my local pub – but when he ended up in London got hopelessly lost and, when he finally got to the right station, the right platform, he found the train was cancelled. One of those tales I wish I’d been in… “See that bus stop over there?”.

  13. glasgow1975 says:

    what looked like scary demon shadows now resolves into a pretty girl’s face on the shutter. . .nicely illustrating the last entry perfectly!

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Things can travel either way, Glasgow, into relief or horror.

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