A Murder? The Horror!

Horror Themes in the Murder Mystery

A delicate thread weaves together the spirit of horror and murder mysteries, even the quaintest of cozies. Daily life in the village turns upside down when the vicar is found bludgeoned in the belfry. The dread of the dead body—the finality of it all—pulls the characters and the reader out of their routine. The author sets them on a white-knuckle ride of life, death, and narrow escapes.

When the horror turns up to an eleven, the murder transcends to the paranormal. No human alive could have done this, the players claim. It must have been a ghost, a demon, or worse. Until the detective can piece together the clues, a supernatural solution is the only one that makes sense.

Think of the earliest mystery stories. Edgar Allan Poe, known for his tales of madness and the paranormal, penned The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. The scenes of death are so graphic and so unexplainable the French police can only assume that the culprit is something far more (or less) than human. Coming from the Penny Dreadful tradition (think Sweeney Todd and Springheel Jack), tales like Rue Morgue fed the Victorian-era public’s thirst for brutal death and sensational crimes. Real life murders, like the spree of Jack the Ripper, only fueled this fire. Later tales, such as Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, suggests that the macabre and unreal may have a more flesh and blood explanation.

To the modern reader, the horror crafted by a murder mystery author provides an escape. No matter how fantastic the deaths or inexplicable the crimes, we can rest assured. A perfectly good explanation awaits once all the clues are set in a line. Think of it as the Scooby Doo solution. There are no real ghost pirates or vengeful Tiki gods or phantom alien pilots, just cranky old men in rubber masks doing their best to scare off the locals.

In modern lit, this trend continues to thrill. For every bizarre, unspeakable horror, there likely exists an appropriate (if wildly complicated) human solution. If talented, the author moves us from Stephen King to Ellery Queen during the grand reveal. The killer’s means, methods, and motives remain all too human. This shines in contemporary titles, like John Connolly’s brilliant Charlie Parker novels or Showtime’s Yellowjackets. An undeniable element of the supernatural drives these narrative. For others, like Kenneth Branagh’s A Haunting in Venice, the macabre themes give way to a well-grounded solution.

As Fall chills the air, leaves fall, and the sky grows dark, lean into the season. Sfter you put away the Halloween decorations, grab a bloody good murder mystery and lose yourself in the horror.

Love a good murder? Be sure to take a stab at Thou Shalt Not Kilt, a traditional Southern whodunnit with Scottish flavor. For my latest news and updates, follow me on Instagram and TikTok. Sign up for Fatal Fiction, my monthly mystery newsletter, and you’ll get a free download of Masters of Murder, my concise guide to the authors of mystery’s Golden Age.

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Masters of Murder by Liam Ashe