There's a reason suspense novels rule the best-seller list and are the subject of studio bidding wars: Done well, the genre burrows into the collective psyche, keeping us up at night with well-paced plot twists and perfectly wrought villains.
“Suspense is best understood as the space between the asking of a question and its eventual answer,” author Andrew Pyper told Van Winkle’s. Last year, Pyper took top honors from the International Thriller Writers at the Thriller Awards in New York City for his novel, The Demonologist.
“Good thrillers have to be good at all the things all novels must be good at: characterization, quality writing, theme, pace,” he said. “But in addition to these, thrillers must also pose problems that readers are deeply interested in seeing solved.”
Having an inscrutable villain helps, but not every thriller villain is the kind that can be hunted by the FBI. The monster in Pyper’s most recent book, The Damned, is protagonist Danny Orchard's soulless sister, Ashleigh, who torments her brother from beyond the grave.
Ashleigh is a terrifying creation who steals the show, just as Hannibal Lecter and legions of fictional bad-guys before her have done. They creep into our minds and lurk there after we close the book.
But when you think that the authors have these sick killers occupying their minds for months (sometimes years) as they write their novels, readers get off easy.
“I enjoyed spending time with Ash, actually,” said Pyper. “She brought a thrilling negative energy to the scenes in which she appears, and she really told me how they would go and what she would say.”
Danny Orchard doesn’t share his creator’s opinion of his undead sister. But what frightens Danny even more is losing his loving, much alive family.
So what scares someone who scares readers for a living?
Worrying about his family is something that the character and author share, admitted Pyper. “This is one of the few downsides or costs of love: You're vulnerable on more fronts than just your own.”
A good thriller tugs at the heart-strings -- sometimes those strings become a garrote in the hands of a killer.
“As for my personal fears, they tend to be the small things, the little, most common hauntings,” Pyper added. “The glimpse of a figure in the hallway as you doze off to sleep, the inexplicable scratching from the attic, the sense that you're being watched. The world of the uncanny is always waiting for you to open the door and step inside, and once you do, it’s hard as hell to get out again.”
Most of us aren’t demon-hunters or rogue CIA-trained assassins. But we’ve all tensed at the sound of running footsteps behind us at night or jumped at the sight of shadows in our own half-lit living rooms.
It’s not just about fear. A good thriller keeps you turning the pages long into the night, 8am meeting with your boss be damned. And the best will haunt you long after you’ve closed the page.
Visit Van Winkle's for Andrew Pyper's list of five books that kept him up at night.
-- Yutaka Dirks
Read more at Van Winkle's
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