Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about some of the differences between thriller and horror fiction. This is mostly because I tried to read a thriller novel called “The Storm” by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown a few days after re-reading a horror novel called “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson.
Surprisingly, I ended up abandoning “The Storm” (despite really enjoying Cussler & Brown’s “Zero Hour“) after about forty pages and started to read a gothic vampire novel instead. One reason for this was probably that my expectations had changed after I’d got back into reading horror novels occasionally.
This then made me think about the differences between thriller fiction and horror fiction. Since, on the surface, these two genres have a lot in common with each other – they revolve around creating suspense and evoking strong emotions. They rely on clever pacing and good plotting. They rely on being a little bit “larger than life” in different ways. Plus, thriller stories will often contain horror elements and vice versa. Yet, there are differences.
1) Characterisation: Simply put, horror fiction will often devote more time to characterisation than thriller fiction will. This allows the horrific events of a horror story to have more of an impact on the reader because they “know” the characters and can empathise with them more.
Even splatterpunk horror fiction, which will often feature lots of grisly background character deaths, will still give those background characters a moderate amount of characterisation because their fate is more shocking when the audience can empathise with them.
On the other hand, traditional-style thriller fiction will often sacrifice characterisation in order to place more emphasis on fast pacing, gripping events and thrilling action. Although this may sound bad, it is one of the things that gives thriller novels their characteristic speed and energy.
Because the main characters in thriller stories are often a variation on the traditional “action hero” character, the audience knows what to expect – so the writer can spend more time on describing their thrilling exploits. This focus on events rather than characters also means that the violent events of a thriller novel will often come across as “thrilling fast-paced action” rather than “horrific brutality“. So, there are good practical reasons for the slightly less detailed and more stylised characterisation in thriller novels.
2) Mystery: Although “solving a mystery” is the engine that drives many thriller and horror novels, this is used in subtly different ways in each genre.
In thriller fiction, it is used to propel the characters into action and, in horror fiction, it is used to create a sense of unease and dread. In thriller fiction, the mystery is a puzzle to be solved and, in horror fiction, the mystery is an unknown threat to the characters.
The difference between these two things can be seen perfectly when comparing the early parts of Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “The Storm”. In both stories, the solution to the mystery is made obvious to the reader (either directly or indirectly) fairly early on. But the effects that this has on the story couldn’t be more different.
In “Erebus”, it’s obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie that the story’s mysterious chemical company probably has something to do with the horrific events that are happening in the local village. Yet, this doesn’t really lessen the horror elements of the story. After all, the focus of the story is on the effects that the chemical company’s actions have and the chilling fact that they can do things like this. The only real mystery is “could it be worse than I imagine it might be?“.
On the other hand, almost directly after a rather mysterious horror movie-style scene during the third (?) chapter of “The Storm”, there’s a chapter where the novel’s villains gather together and explain exactly what happened and why it happened. This completely sabotages any sense of thrilling suspense that the story has.
After all, the main attraction of a story like this is watching a highly-skilled protagonist uncover and prevent a nefarious plot. Since the novel is part of a series, we know that the protagonist will prevail. So, the only remaining attraction is watching him find the solution to the mystery. And this only works if the audience doesn’t already know the solution…
3) Narrative style: Although I’ve talked about this before, it’s worth repeating. The narration in horror stories, even “low-brow” splatterpunk stories, vampire novels etc.. has a surprising amount in common with the more complex narration found in more “high-brow” literary fiction.
Both will often use vivid descriptions, emotional descriptions and pithy observations. They will also use a reasonably varied and complex vocabulary too. This also usually means that the pace of the story will be slightly slower.
Thriller novels, especially streamlined ultra-thrilling modern ones, don’t do this. Their approach to narration is much more “matter of fact” and has more in common with the classic hardboiled pulp detective fiction of the 1920s-50s. This isn’t “better” or “worse” than horror fiction, it’s just different.
But, why are they so different? Simply put, it’s because they need to achieve different things.
For a horror story to work properly, it needs to build atmosphere and suspense. It needs to create vivid, disturbing images in the minds of the audience. It needs to immerse the audience in the story, so that they feel like the horror is happening to them. In a splatterpunk novel, the writer also has to contrast beautiful narration with ugly events for dramatic effect. To be able to do all of this well, you need to use fairly “high definition” writing that may be slower to read, but has a lot more depth to it.
On the other hand, a good thriller novel needs to focus on speed. It needs to be something where the reader is furiously turning the page to see what happens next. It needs to be something where the writing doesn’t get in the way of the action. It needs to be something that the reader can’t put down because it’s really easy to read another chapter. It’s kind of like an older computer game running on a more modern computer – yes, the “graphics” might not look as good, but the game will run ridiculously quickly and smoothly! And, in a thriller novel, this is what you want to achieve.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂