Monday, May 8, 2023

Mystery and Horror are Sisters: Guest Post by Christopher Huang

Perhaps it is summer as you are reading this, but it is the dead of winter as I write. The world outside is cold and grey, and darkness rules the greater part of the day. It is, in short, the perfect time for ghost stories: tales of creeping fear and dread, of “ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night.”

I consider myself a mystery writer, but the mystery genre -- at least, as it is understood today -- was born in the mind of Edgar Allan Poe, celebrated for his tales of macabre horror. Mystery and horror are sisters, and it should not be a great leap to get from one to the other. So when it was suggested that I try my hand at a horror story, I said yes.

But horror is frequently focused on the supernatural, and while the subgenre of supernatural mystery enjoys great popularity, my preferred subgenre is the fairplay whodunnit. That’s the one where the fun is in following the clues alongside the detective and trying to solve the mystery with them: the genre ideal of the Golden Age, for which Ronald Knox wrote the rule, “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”

It’s not that Knox had a personal beef with the supernatural, exactly, though he was a priest and probably knew the ins and outs of exorcism. It was that a big part of playing fair in the murder mystery game -- or any game at all, really -- is the level playing field: the reader must understand the rules of the story’s world, and that’s usually accomplished by setting the story in the reader’s own world. I mean, it would be a bit of a cheat to reveal in the denouement that the muddy footprints around the murder scene actually meant that the house was infested with gremlins, and not that the gardener did it.

Authors of supernatural mysteries know how to introduce the rules of their supernatural elements to the reader, but I’m loath to lay down the law about the unknown. I mean, it’s called “the unknown” for a reason. And this, of course, put a bit of a damper on any plans I might have had for a story in which a ghost commits murder by summoning an eldritch abomination from the far reaches of the cosmos into a locked room.

But look here: horror isn’t necessarily supernatural, is it? Stephen King’s Misery contained no real supernatural elements, and even Poe, that grand-daddy of fear and guilt, wrote several stories hinging on the psychological rather than the supernatural. Could I do the same? What in the real world would I consider a source of that creeping dread that so deliciously chills the spine on a dark winter’s night?

Well, that would be a spoiler, but I wrote it and rewrote it and edited it and submitted it to my publisher. And I must confess ... Unnatural Ends is solidly mystery, not horror. A couple of advance reviews have remarked on its gothic flavour, but that is perhaps the extent to which the horror elements have survived the process. The story is its own unnatural end, a thing that has deviated from the course to which it was directed ... which is not a bad thing, honestly. Many writers talk about their work taking on a life of its own, and if art is a reflection of the artist’s psyche, perhaps it’s better, to some extent, to let the story carry itself where it wants to go than to force it down (ahem) unnatural channels to unnatural ends.
Mystery and horror are sisters, and it can be easy to slip from one into the other. But where horror revels in the unknown, mystery dispels it. They are two very different beasts, and for this author at least and for now, the slip seems to tend in just one direction.


Christopher Huang is a Singaporean-born Canadian with a background in architecture. His first novel, A Gentleman’s Murder, was released to critical acclaim in 2018. His second novel, Unnatural Ends, publishes in June 2023.


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