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Greg Buchanan on the Boundary Between Crime Fiction and Horror

Posted on 27th April 2021 by Anna Orhanen

A visceral literary thriller that at times transmutes into horror, Greg Buchanan's haunting debut Sixteen Horses follows a forensic veterinarian who travels to investigate of a series of heinous mutilations in a remote seaside town. In this exclusive piece, the author discusses the threshold between crime fiction and horror, and how the narrative space where the two meet allows us to explore the inexplicable and irredeemable sides of violence and trauma.

Fiction frequently takes one of the most abject sources of terror in our real lives – violence – and uses it as fuel for enjoyment and escapism. Crime stories are not usually horror stories precisely because they do not aim to scare the reader in any heightened, ongoing manner. Instead, they play with some of the same tropes, ultimately turning the evil things of the world upside down to show they aren’t as scary or as powerful as we might fear. The detective turns the unknown into the known.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles demonstrates the presence of this genre-relationship from the very start, almost literally in this case. The great detective’s clients believe a supernatural animal is responsible for murder; Holmes agrees to take on the case primarily because he cannot determine an immediate alternative explanation for the deaths, but, disposed to believe everything can be solved and that there are no demons walking England, feels compelled to prove the perpetrator is human. He ultimately does so, in the process directly mending a desolate land by ensuring its rightful heir is in place.  

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As acts of violence and an age-old tale of a cursed hound from the moor drives a community to the verge of hysteria, Sherlock Holmes is determined to prove that the terrors have fully human origins in this classic tale from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
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In my debut novel Sixteen Horses, a number of horse heads are found buried in circles on a farm near the sea. A local police officer and a forensic veterinarian investigate a chain of connected crimes. As with many crime novels, the initial events are described in a way that tries to evoke how unsettling and scary they are to the community. The investigators are, in a various ways, broken people, trying to do their best, working at figuring out details. 

In crime fiction, readers are encouraged to love details in this manner. We are led to want more than an explanation for terrible events: we begin to desire an unravelling, point by point, as the reason and logic of an investigator hacks at the unknown until it stands revealed in arrestable and sentence-able form. Poirot doesn’t just figure out “whodunnit” in Murder on the Orient Express, he establishes a network of cause and effect.

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One of the most famous stories from the Queen of Crime, Murder on the Orient Express presents Poirot with the mystery of a monstrous American tycoon, found dead in his cabin, stabbed a dozen times.
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The detectives of these stories may face opposition, but through their efforts previously hidden details and motives make themselves known, and the killer is prevented from being an ongoing threat to society. We might face an initial gory scene or witness the problems of a community, but we are rarely invited to feel fear on an ongoing basis. Why should we? The authorities – and the workings of the human mind, laid out step by step on the page – have it all in-hand. Many of these tales are anti-tragedies, taking a ruined, broken world and decoding why it is the way it is, ultimately rendering justice and resolution. They neutralise potential danger and show it is survivable, comprehensible after all, usually in such a clear-cut form that would rarely ever be found in reality. Even when authority fails and justice is left to otherwise ordinary people, the community itself rallies to mend the world and exile the killer in the same way. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train is as much about fighting back against gaslighting and the distortion of reality as it is about murder.

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Mastering the art of the unreliable narrator, Hawkins’s bestselling psychological thriller about a woman who witnesses an unspeakable act from a moving train delves deep into the darkest recesses of the human soul.
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To have the police or the community fail to contain the threat they face – to invite the reader and detectives alike to feel fear, unable to understand the cause of events or prevent the spread of violence – this is where the two genres of horror and crime most closely meet once more. The work of Tana French often plays with this boundary, giving answers to the crimes at hand while leaving broader almost quasi-supernatural events unexplained – how Cassie looks so much alike to the murder victim in The Likeness, what caused In The Woods foundational child disappearance all those years before the new case in the present day. These have the feeling of the supernatural without ever being confirmed as such; indeed, in the horror genre itself, the mere presence of the supernatural is not enough to earn a story the label of ‘horror’ – it is just a convenient shortcut to inexplicability, dread, and overwhelming obstacles. The slasher genre – particularly popular in film – shows how such ‘horror’ categorisation can be given even to the workings of an entirely human serial killer. The police try to prevent deaths but are most often defined in such stories as unable to understand or contain the threat at hand; only the ‘final girl’ survivor, often characterised by supposed moral purity rather than any training, can defeat evil. 

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One of the most chilling police procedurals of recent years and the first instalment of French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods weaves an ineffably creepy tale of buried secrets and childhood trauma into a sharply plotted mystery novel.
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Moving Cassie Maddox centre stage in a plot of dark complexity and deftly handled twists, Tana French’s follow-up to In the Woods mines a rich seam of latent violence and murky amorality.
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I believe the most interesting thing about the threshold between crime and horror is not to drive the tropes of one genre into the other, but to consider what an overlap would mean. The difference between the two genres is one of feeling and emotion – and what is the shadow of terror and horror but grief and sadness, at the eternity of loss that even an investigation can never heal? Both crime and horror can, and often do, have these counterpoints in common, often displaced onto the victim’s family in both genres, often only partially resolved when justice is achieved or the demon is exorcised. 

Two of the primary influences on Sixteen Horses – Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock – are compelling to me for how they grapple with loss and absence as the emotional animus of the story in the midst of events that might belong in either the crime or horror genres. The reader is invited to feel fear on an ongoing basis; the main characters struggle to understand what is going on; but the ultimate focus is a tragic, almost funereal universe in which people are made to go through such situations. They are about the ‘going through’ of awful events and their aftermath, about what it is like to be people caught in violence, rather than the violence itself. Whatever answers are gained – in Don’t Look Now and Sixteen Horses almost everything, in Picnic at Hanging Rock almost nothing – the very notion of an ‘answer’ fails in the face of a greater realisation. There is no justice here, either spiritual or earthly, whether a killer is apprehended or whether their face is never seen. On the threshold of horror and crime, the true violence is entropy, uncertainty, people trying to rearrange themselves into different forms, investigators trying to ‘solve’, to escape their worlds and their very selves.

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Featuring Venetian clairvoyants and a party of pilgrims who meet disaster in Jerusalem, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories curates five feverishly unsettling tales of deep-rooted fears and destructive desire.
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A masterpiece of eerie suspense, Lindsay’s cult classic tells the sinister and richly atmospheric story of the disappearance of three pupils of Appleyard College for Young Ladies during a school picnic.
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