When a crime is committed a balance is upset and with that comes a sense of unease and perhaps even dread, especially if the perpetrator of the crime renains at large. It’s like a monster has been set loose into society and sometimes that’s exactly what’s happened… because the crime and horror genres go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Writers have been combining elements of these genres together for years to create stories that maximize the strengths of both genres.
These crime-horror hybrids all take a detail-oriented and often gritty approach to the actions of the criminals and the people trying to stop them, but where they usually differ from traditional procedurals is in the role otherworldly elements play in the narrative. In this piece we’ll take a look at the types of horror commonly found in some recent and popular crime series.
Psychological horror is the most common type of horror/crime fiction blend. These stories deal with monsters, but the monster is usually a human who has become detached from his fellow man and ends up preying upon them in gruesome and fetishistic ways. So the serial killer is a common element in crime/psychological horror hybrids.
Perhaps the best known example of this can be found in Thomas Harris’ novels Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal which featured pop culture’s favorite cannibal, Hannibal Lector. Another popular and effective example is Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” series, which inspired the Showtime series of the same name.
John Connolly’s series of novels featuring private detective Charlie Parker combine elements of both psychological and supernatural horror. In the early novels Parker sees visions of his dead wife and daughter and they often help him in his pursuit of vicious and demented serial killers, but as the novels progress Connolly takes Parker and his two best friends—Louis, a hitman, and Louis’ lover, a thief named Angel—deeper into the world of the supernatural.
In his 2009 novel The Lovers, Connolly offered up some concrete and intriguing hints that the ghosts and demons Charlie Parker deals with are both literal and metaphorical. The end of his latest novel, The Burning Soul seemed to suggest that a big supernatural clash is coming soon. So I’m very eager to see where Connolly takes his horror-crime series next.
In 2005 Charlie Huston kicked off another series starring a private eye in a horrific world with the release of Already Dead, the first novel featuring vampire detective Joe Pitt. Pitt lives in a New York City that’s been secretly divided up by warring factions of vampires with different ideas on how they should interact with humans. He tries to maintain his independence by not belonging to any of the factions, but his need for cash and personal moral code leads to him taking detective style jobs that embroil him in the politics of the vampire world.
In the five Joe Pitt casebooks the supernatural plays a small role. Vampirism and the fantastic physical abilities it endows are primarily viewed as a virus. So those fantastic physical abilities and the depravity of the series’ villains are the primary horror elements in the series. These villains are often incredibly powerful physically and politically, which means Pitt endures a lot over the course of the series’ five books. He’s a charismatic guy though. So you’re constantly rooting for him.
In Jonathan Maberry’s novels Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, and Bad Moon Rising, which make up the “Pine Deep Trilogy,” the supernatural plays a huge role. In fact the “Pine Deep” trilogy is an epic horror tale that involves werewolves, zombies, ghosts, and vampires, which incorporates and is informed by elements of crime fiction. For instance, during the main characters’ childhoods a vicious serial killer preyed upon the town’s children. Then years later, the spirit of that killer calls a psychopathic hitman to town and uses him as a pawn to gain revenge. The end result is a harrowing story where a former cop, his girlfriend, a teenage boy, and several other prominent characters must join forces with two police detectives to stop an apocalyptic supernatural event from destroying the town on Halloween.
Harry Dresden, the titular character of Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series, deals with the apocalypse on a regular basis. That’s because Dresden is Chicago’s only wizard for hire. Over the course of 13 books Harry has investigated bizarre murders and crimes involving characters and elements from horror and fantasy fiction. So the books read like a blend of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser Novels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a fun and exciting combination that’s won Butcher many fans.
Another reason the Dresden Files series is so popular is its characters. Like the best P.I. tales, The Dresden Books are told first person from the perspective of Harry himself, who’s a very human, heroic, and engaging character. Plus Butcher has surrounded Harry with a huge cast of intriguing supporting characters like Karrin Murphy; Dresden’s tough as nails friend and contact in the Chicago Police Department’s Special Investigations division, or Johnny Marcone Chicago’s top crime boss who is well aware of the horrors that stalk Chicago’s streets and tries to profit from them.
As you can see from the examples I offered the crime-horror genre combination has something to offer every type of crime fan. So don’t be afraid of the unknown or the dark! Take the plunge and explore some of these fun, frightening, and exhilarating reads. You’ll be glad you did.
*editor’s note: If you love this kind of mashup, or if you’re just curious about trying it, we’re going to be giving away books, movies, artwork…you name it! It’s Undead April here at Criminal Element, so be sure to check back and see what’s new!
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