There’s a body in the hotel room—a murdered girl. She’s draped half off the bed with her head resting at a backwards angle. A Chantilly lace nightgown of mint green is pooled up around her shoulders. A creeping bloodstain soaks the carpet beneath her. She’s young but old enough. She’s pretty—but not so pretty that the hotel night manager has gone out of his way to keep it quiet. She isn’t the kind of girl someone wealthy and influential wants to keep out of the morning papers.
The Pinkerton man has been called in—the one who works graveyard. He scratches his head. It’s a dreadful end to a young life, a crime of passion or revenge. They turn the body over. A gasp. The pale girl is wide-eyed and grinning. The night manager bolts from the room. A flashbulb pops. The Pinkerton man rubs his gut. This one sickens him. He’ll watch the papers in the months to come, but there’ll be nothing more to the murder. But this isn’t the end of a crime story, you see. It’s the beginning of a ghost story.
Some say that if you give a murderous crime—a gruesome, unresolved bit of nastiness—enough time to fester and gestate, you’ll soon have yourself an angry spirit and a haunting on your hands. Writers of ghost stories have known this to be true since Edgar Allan Poe first set things in motion.
With The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), Poe is credited with having written the first murder mystery of the late modern era. Two years later, Poe penned The Tell-Tale Heart. For its day, the tale was a shocking ghost story with a vicious murder (and dismemberment) at its heart.
Given that the majority of ghost stories are concerned with unfinished business, it’s no surprise that the line between crime and horror is tenuous. Both are rooted in irrational violence fueled by an erosion of reason, emotional or physical desperation. Each is a morality tale of sorts. Ghastly things happen as a result of poor choices. And sometimes, long after all the blood has been mopped up, and those responsible have been sent to the chair, the creeps begin to come up through the cracks in the flooring with cold fingers that long to poke at our tender flesh.
After Poe found success and acclaim with his tales of crime and the supernatural, other writers of the genre followed step—mixing crime and murder and horrific hauntings that left readers with blood chills. Of those who followed Poe, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), M.R. James (1862-1936), and Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) made quite a name for themselves and set the table for hundreds of contemporary writers who enthusiastically mixed blood and spirits on their pages. What these writers of murder and terror may have known is that ghosts lend an eerie hand to the workings of the traditional murder mystery.
Ghosts add a spectral viewpoint that isn’t normally allowed in traditional storytelling. They may enlighten with wisdom beyond the grave, or confound with their own mysteries. And while the ghost story is frequently focused on aspects of the haunting itself, the solution to the supernatural problem often lies in solving the crime behind the haunting.
A Stir of Echoes (1958) by Richard Matheson is a prime example of a crime story turned haunting. In the book, the protagonist Tom Wallace awakens a psychic gift within himself and is subsequently haunted by visitations and messages from a murdered girl that culminates in a channeling of the spirit and a direct confrontation with her killer. Unfinished business, indeed!
Although there are many unique types of supernatural horror tales, a ghost story with a cruel criminal element is riveting fiction—in which the reader is given a glimpse of what the depths of human desperation can devise, as well as the havoc the resulting manifestations can create for those who conspired against their corporeal forms. The supernatural element in a murder mystery also adds drama and suspense not easily gained from a cast of strictly mortal characters. Ghosts, by their nature, make horrifying heralds—often hampering the solving of crimes and driving characters stark raving mad.
An excellent example is Peter Straub’s classic bestseller Ghost Story (1979). Straub weaves a masterful tale of five elderly men who are beset by the manifestations of a woman who—in one form or another—seeks to revenge her death. The spirit of the woman torments the old men day and night until only a few are left alive. In the unraveling of the mystery, it is revealed that the five men in their youth had drowned her after a night of vying for her charms. It was a murder fueled by arrogance, lust, alcohol, and poor choices. The survivors in the story walk away having endured a haunting as terrifying any ghost story ever told.
The moral of the story is this: Crime doesn’t pay. And sometimes, if you’re really unlucky, it comes back to haunt you.
Steven James Scearce is a writer, author, blogger, and ghost. His printed work appears in a number of horror and science fiction anthologies. He has just completed his first novel-length manuscript, a horror-crime story called Cottonwood. He can be found on Twitter @ShinkaiMaru5 or at his blog stevescearce.com.