The Knife’s Edge: Thrilling Horror & Horrifying Thrillers

The Knife’s Edge Thrilling Horror & Horrifying ThrillersGenre labels are like a game of rock, paper, scissors. Take Neuromancer. William Gibson’s legendary novel defined cyberpunk by smashing together visionary worldbuilding and classic noir elements. A guy gets hired by a mysterious woman and is plunged into a shadowy world. Of course, nobody heads to the mystery section to find Neuromancer. The guy in question is a hacker, the woman’s got impossible augmentations, and the world is a dystopian future. Science fiction is the paper, mystery the rock.

For whatever reason, we automatically accept this genre hierarchy. Plenty of fantasy novels employ political machinations and espionage to drive their plot engines, but nobody’s looking for John le Carré and George R.R. Martin in the same bookstore section. Once again, fantastical setting trumps plots architecture.

These distinctions get more complicated when you consider the blurrier line between thriller and horror. When talking about something like The Silence of the Lambs, rock, paper, and scissors meld together. Is it a dark crime thriller? Does adding the word “psychological” mean that “horror” suddenly becomes a more fitting label? Why?

It could just be a great example of “I know it when I see it.” Buffalo Bill is creepy as hell and Hannibal Lecter is a nightmare creation, simple as that. On the other hand, there are a million horrific serial killer tales that seem to fall squarely under the thriller umbrella.

Maybe it’s because in Silence, psychology is a plot point, thanks to Lecter’s profession (I’m referring to forensic psychiatry, not cannibalism). But “psychological horror” has also become a catch-all to loosely mean “scary stories that don’t have ghosts.”

We could take a hardline stance in the horror vs. thriller debate. How about this: If the story features any kind of unreal element—the supernatural, monsters, haunted houses—it’s horror, full stop. Anything involving events that could happen in real life—even if they’re unbelievably horrific—is a thriller.

It seems like a nice, easy way of breaking it down, but I’d argue that the above split doesn’t quite work—not because it’s too rigid, necessarily, but because horror by its very nature doesn’t have to be defined as a genre at all. It might be useful to think of it as a free-floating, atmospheric, uncanny tension. A dark cloud that can drift over everything from suspense to literary fiction.

While I was writing The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess, I worked with horror as a malleable concept that, once pinned down, led to the most visceral and upsetting elements of the story. I treated horror like a skin, stretching it over the bones of what appears to be, on the surface, a thriller that springs from a home invasion. As the procedural elements recede, the skin stitches itself together over those bones, leaving readers with a (hopefully) unique and horrifying experience.

From a marketing perspective, these genre distinctions get a bit troubling. The last thing I wanted was to write some kind of bait-and-switch novel, where fans of either straightforward thrillers or “pure” horror would each feel shortchanged in different ways.

As I set out to strike a satisfying balance, I found that both defying and living up to certain genre expectations helped the story come together. From an opening chapter that’s steeped in modern thriller vibes, real-life terrors—including the existential dread of relapse and addiction—become transformative in ways that would be impossible to pull off in a novel too firmly grounded in thriller mechanics. However you choose to draw the line between thriller and horror—whether it’s fixed in your mind or a fuzzy borderland—the tension between the two gives us a fascinating breeding ground for fresh stories.

Anyway, you can find my psychological horror crime suspense thriller novel in the horror section.

Read More Andy Marino