The Art Of Suspense

Christopher Fowler
What's the art of suspense? I'll tell you later. In the 1950s, suspense novels and suspense cinema, largely driven by Hitchcock, became very fashionable. Nowadays we rarely find it in films because it requires an unusually slow trajectory, with a long build-up before the slingshot of a defining event which must perforce break the spell of suspense. Suspense relies on uncertainty, and once you know for certain suspense dies. This is the theory I used for 'Nyctophobia', in which the first third of the book is trajectory (the most eventful moment involves a cotton reel). Hitchcock nurtured some superb American suspense writers. Celia Fremlin's
'The Hours Before Dawn' won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best new novel, about a stressed-out young housewife with three small children heading for a breakdown, whose sinister new lodger is seemingly hatching a plot against her. It has a wonderfully suspenseful build. Naomi Hintze wrote 'You'll Like My Mother', in which the pregnant heroine realises she's become a prisoner and is subjected to mental torture by her religious fanatic mother-in-law. Ursula Curtiss wrote 1962's 'The Forbidden Garden', in which a destitute widow finds a way of supplementing her dwindling income by murdering housekeepers and burying them beneath trees in her garden, until one candidate grows suspicious and begins fighting back. It was filmed, rather well, as 'Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice?' and starred Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page.
Robert Bloch, Thomas Tryon, Constance Strong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar, Hilda Lawrence and Shirley Jackson all produced superb suspense. Brian De Palma often aped Hitchcock's suspense set-ups. At the start of 'Obsession' we see a posh party in progress, and catch a glimpse of something we shouldn't see - one of the waiters has a gun under his jacket. Some of the finest suspense films are 'Penumbra', 'La Comunidad' and 'The Hidden Face', all reviewed on this site. Here's another - 'Darkness In Tallin' has a hero who's an electrician. He reluctantly agrees to become involved in a robbery that will black out the entire city, not realising that across town his child is being kept alive in a hospital incubator. I've just delivered a suspense thriller to my agent that I've been quietly working on for four years. One of the peculiar tricks involving suspense is that it doesn't always correspond to the traditional shape of a story, where the defining event is meant to occur at the exact centre of the plot. The suspense often breaks into action at the two-thirds point. One of the best examples of suspense that I can think of (and have written about a couple of times here before) is Christian Marclay's astonishing video installation 'The Clock', the twenty four hour long film divided into minutes, so that each minute has clips from films that only show that sequential minute. There are scenes from the entire history of world cinema that show clock towers, wrist watches, mantelpiece clocks, alarm clocks, and all of the various situations around them, with the sound rebuilt and bleeding across so that you feel as if you're actually watching a single long film.
The times in the film correspond to the time that you're watching it, so the whole stitched-together movie becomes a timepiece in itself.   Good examples of unusual or lesser known suspense films or novels will be very much welcomed!


snowy (not verified) Thu, 13/11/2014 - 01:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm struggling a bit to come up with a functional definition of 'suspense'.

If the strict defenition is;

Opening, nothing,nothing, might be a hint! no, confused, um, it's..... oh no it's not, more confused, callback, callback dissproved as red herring....... or is it? very confused, starts drawing diagrams on a napkin, gets even more confused, screws up napkin, gives up guessing, waits, waits, waits, waits, oh! He's dead/She's a robot/It's a sledge/It was all a dream. End.... Then frankly I'm a bit stuck.

Excluding Hitchcock, the well known ones are 'Cat People' and 'Les Diaboliques', but current mainstream films don't seem to do suspense for a whole film very often, if at all. I'm guessing it doesn't test well in pre-release screenings. Too slow, too boring.

Christopher Fowler Thu, 13/11/2014 - 05:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How about the indefinite suspension that causes tension?

snowy (not verified) Thu, 13/11/2014 - 12:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's certainly shorter than:

" a. A state of mental uncertainty, with expectation of or desire for decision, and usually some apprehension or anxiety; the condition of waiting, esp. of being kept waiting, for an expected decision, assurance, or issue; less commonly, a state of uncertainty what to do, indecision: esp. in to keep (or hold) in (†great or †a great) suspense ."

But I am a bit [read that as 'very'] literal minded.

A 'pure' suspense story would, by my [rather odd definition] would be one that keeps the reader/viewer off-balance while always suggesting that the solution is only just out of reach. It'll be on the next page, in the next scene, it's behind <i>that</i> curtain. But as you draw near it just edges a little further away.

The only lesser known, recent-ish film I could drag up from memory that keeps the viewer wrong footed for ages, was 'FreezeFrame', medium budget British made affair. Not stellar by any means, good enough for a wet Wendnesday night. But it has an interesting premise that has become more rather than less possible. I'll explain later..........

Ken Mann (not verified) Thu, 13/11/2014 - 16:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It occurs to me that if you had a tablet with lots of memory you could use "The Clock" as a clock.