Can Supernatural Mysteries Ever Play Fair?

Reading & Writing


In real life, crimes are frightening; they upset and disorient and rob you of faith in your fellow humans. There’s an element of fatality and strangeness and ‘Why me?’-ism that encourages superstitious thinking. We don’t tell ourselves that in say, London, which is nudging 9 million, it’s statistically amazing that there are 90 gun crimes a year and fewer fatalities. We fall back on myths and anecdotal evidence and tales of good and bad luck.

So it’s no surprise that crime combines easily with the supernatural. Yet crime stories abide by rigid rules, and supernatural stories set out to break them. When we venture into the world of the uncanny, we find ourselves faced with the inexplicable. Crime novels usually seek to explain all.

But there are clear and constant crossovers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories are drenched in an atmosphere of supernatural dread (none more so than ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’).  Victims go mad, footprints appear and locked rooms are breached. Sherlock thrives on the seemingly impossible, and even though explanations are ultimately provided, we readers never quite buy into the solutions. We remember the hound of the Baskervilles as a supernatural creature, no matter how much we are told otherwise.

The opening circumstances of a crime are always remembered better than the solution. Why else would the Marie Celeste, the Bermuda Triangle and the crimes of serial killers fascinate so? We ask ourselves ‘How could this happen?’ Surely some greater evil hangs over the players?

If we look to writers like HG Wells and Rudyard Kipling, we find tales that combine both elements in perfect balance. In particular I recall a Kipling tale of a man who grinds a cigarette stub out on a statue of Hanuman. He’s attacked by a leprous beggar and contracts an illness, but this simple cause-and-effect story is complicated by leper’s supernatural power to remove what is effectively a curse.

The first truly occult detective was Dr Martin Hesselius, who appeared in Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection ‘In A Glass Darkly’, but William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder is probably the best-known Golden Age dark detective, and he was quickly followed by occult crime fiction from Sax Rohmer, Dennis Wheatley, Robert E Howard and many others. Excellent, underrated authors like Steve Rasnic Tem and Kim Newman keep the spirit of the ghost ‘tecs alive in the present day.

Thomas Tryon combined murder and spiritual carnage in his first novel, ‘The Other’, which concerned a Russian grandmother teaching a dangerous game to two brothers, one gifted, one harmful. The narrative contains a mid-tale twist that organically introduces the supernatural. His next novel, ‘Harvest Home’, used supernatural tropes to occupy ‘Wicker Man’ territory. A family relocates to a perfect American town, but the idyllic setting proves deceptive. They have come to enjoy the nation’s old ways, and get exactly what they wish for – at a price. Their dilemma is presented so appealingly that the reader cannot help but empathise, and is lured into the same nightmarish trap. A recurring theme of the supernatural crime story is ‘Be careful what you wish for’. You’ll soon want to give the gift back.

If we want to believe that criminals have almost supernatural powers, we can turn to many examples on film. ‘Halloween’ is virtually a straightforward crime thriller, operating as a standard serial killer flick for most of its length, until the murderer proves increasingly unstoppable.

But there’s another important element required that was added by both the book and film of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. Here we have an unusual mystery with a strong psychological angle; what exactly is wrong with Rosemary’s pregnancy, and who has caused this to happen? Even though our worst suspicions are confirmed, author Ira Levin provided surprises worthy of the best whodunits – in particular, it’s the flawed humans who provide the evil. No wonder ‘The Exorcist’ took this approach to the ultimate conclusion and went fully supernatural. It still has a lot of page-time devoted to a detective.

In the last few years there have been some wonderful films that have puzzled and frightened in equal measure. In ‘The Others’ we, the viewers, are given strict rules by the lady of the house, Nicole Kidman; do not open one door without the other being closed, never allow daylight in, and so on – but the solution to the mystery is a twist that makes a supernatural explanation not only fair and reasonable but inevitable. ‘The Orphanage’ takes the reverse approach, presenting us with inexplicable images that turn out to have been caused by a terrible moment of human tragedy. The supernatural is used here to elevate what appears to be a straightforward murder mystery to the level of Greek tragedy. In ‘Darkness’ a family move into a haunted house, but the cause of the haunting has its roots in the actions of criminally-minded men. One of my favourites is ‘Skeleton Key’, a deep-South overheated gothic with wonderful atmosphere and a great punchline.

Film seems particularly suited to combining these key ingredients. Murderers like the one in ‘Seven’ appear to have supernatural powers – they see the world for what it is and have a deep psychological understanding of their victims that goes beyond normal perception

Crime and the supernatural can aid each other beautifully if used with care. The tricky part for writers is keeping belief alive in the mind of the reader. A great many images of the supernatural infiltrate murder mysteries – isolated locations, shadowy houses, unseen enemies, strange behaviour and sweat-inducing nightmares are all pressed into service, putting pressure on the protagonists to get to the basis of their worst fears. In ‘Nyctophobia’ I deliberately arranged for the supernatural element to be interpreted as purely psychological.

After writing a number of supernaturally-tinged novels, I also began using the darker shadings from my early writing to colour my crime fiction. A hint of the inexplicable helps to deepen the tale – after all, life is unknowable, and crimes are rarely as neat and tidy as Agatha Christie would have us believe. The fully explained novel can often be airless. Ryan David Jahn’s thriller ‘Low Life’ was a good example of how we could harness seemingly disparate tones to make something new.

Lately, crime and the supernatural have been combining in TV shows.  To my mind, the show most undeserving of being cancelled was ‘Dead Like Me’, which worked an unusual premise to great effect. In this, a young girl dies and returns as a grim reaper, only to find that her afterlife as a kind of spiritual gumshoe is even less rewarding than her former life.

There’s a key ingredient ghost stories share with crime stories; what is causing this? Lately, the answers to formerly simple questions have been getting subtler and trickier. Crime novels often try to dig beneath the skin of the villain – what makes someone behave so badly? The supernatural adds a new twist; suppose the reason for their actions is unthinkable, impossible – and yet believable?

For many years the supernatural had a bad reputation; it was seen as a get-out-of-jail card, a quick fix to weak storytelling. But the reverse can sometimes be true. The storytelling maxim ‘Less Is More’ allows readers to add their imagination, and lets the unexplained in – and suddenly a prosaic tale gains an extra dimension. Crime and the supernatural can be a marriage made in heaven – and hell.

All other suggestions for future reading here please!

5 comments on “Can Supernatural Mysteries Ever Play Fair?”

  1. cherry says:

    James Oswalds Inspector Mclean novels combine modern day sleuthing with an occult twist quite successfully

  2. Jan says:

    I really got into Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watson novels. They are clearly set up as supernatural stories Merrily being a C of E exorcist. But there’s lots of elements involved. Different themes being brought in by amongst others Merrily’s friend Gomer Parry and her daughter Jane. Apart from the supernatural there’s lots of information about Hereford and Herefordshire the Welsh marches. Satisfyingly plotted straightforward crime novels with lots of other themes built in.

  3. JILL Q says:

    Wasn’t his usual style, but the 87th precinct book, “Ghosts” by Ed McBain always struck me as a good example of this. This is one of his later books, where he’d take a theme word (“ghosts” “ice”) and really play with it from every angle.
    I suppose that could come off as contrived, butt I always found it interesting from a technical stand point.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    The Marie Celeste. My Mother and I were fascinated by that mystery, and I don’t know whether it took away or deepened the mystery when she learned from a neighbour that his father had been on the boat that found the Celeste. The father had taken the sextant away with him and our neighbour and his brother had played with it for ages with no knowledge of the part it played. I have no proof, of course, but the man was truthful, Mother felt. If that is true does it change anyone else’s feeling about that mystery? They didn’t find anything that would explain what had happened so it is still unknown what happened, but the missing sextant would not be part of it.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I’m a fan of the Carnacki stories, though some do creak like an old rocking chair. The illustration you show is for the story ‘The Thing Invisible’, and the lethal cursed dagger. Of course it is nothing of the sort, and on first reading it, I rather uncharitably thought: ‘Scooby Doo’. Other stories, like ‘The Hog’, and ‘The Whistling Room’, really are frightening, and one has to wonder where he got his ideas from. ‘The Nemesis Of Fire’, by Algernon Blackwood was a story I read at quite a young age, and it gave me several sleepless nights. It is told in an increasingly agitated manner, which puts one on edge from the start. The descriptions of ligts in the woods near the house are creepy enough, but the feeling of terror as our heroes chase an invisible, but scorching hot something through the woods, is palpable. Blackwood’s materpiece, though, has to be ‘Ancient Sorceries’, which, if I had my way, the BBC would do a lush version of, adapted by Mark Gatiss, and starring Simon Russell Beale.

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