The Triumph of the Thriller…and other Scary Lit

By Rick Hall – originally posted to Flickr as Palace Thriller, CC BY 2.0,

A decade ago, The New York Times published the first chapter of Patrick Anderson’s book, The Triumph of the Thriller, which charted the change in American reading habits (as judged by bestseller lists) over the previous forty years. 

Wrote Anderson:

“The more I read, the more I was struck by the transformation in America’s reading habits. I grew up with the blockbuster novels of the 1950s and 1960s, written by people like James Michener, Harold Robbins, John O’Hara, Jacqueline Susann, Herman Wouk, and Irving Stone. They explored sex, money, movie stars, war, religion, and exotic foreign lands but rarely concerned themselves with crime. In those days, crime novels were trapped in the genre ghetto, often published as paperback originals, and rarely won a mass audience.

Today, those blockbuster novelists have been replaced on the best-seller lists by the crime-related fiction we loosely call thrillers, which includes hard-core noir, in the Hammett-Chandler private-eye tradition, as well as a bigger, broader universe of books that includes spy thrillers, legal thrillers, political thrillers, military thrillers, medical thrillers, and even literary thrillers.”

Anderson offered several possible reasons for this shift, but here’s the one I personally find most compelling:

“I think right from the caveman days, we had stories that involved danger and peril, and eventually safety and resolution. To me that is the story. And that’s what we’re still telling today, 100,000 years later. That’s what a page-turner is…. There are other social and cultural factors, of course. Decades of war, recession, and political and corporate corruption have made Americans more cynical- or realistic-and thus more open to novels that examine the dark side of our society. And yet most thrillers manage some sort of happy ending. They have it both ways, reminding us how ugly and dangerous our society can be and yet offering hope in the end. Thrillers provide the illusion of order and justice in a world that often seems to have none.”

On to something

Though I suspect reading habits over the last decade since the book was published have continued to shift, perhaps more toward science fiction, fantasy, and apocalyptic literature, I think the same principle holds, whatever the genre: in scary times, people read about what they’re scared about as a means to deal with it psychologically.

My family and I, for instance, have often noticed that our adult autistic son, who has more reason to feel vulnerable in this already scary world than the rest of us, often translates that fear, which must seem overwhelming at times, into what we’ve come to call his “catastrophic imagination.” He spends a significant portion of his waking life making up and illustrating stories of strange new planet-killing natural catastrophes, or of mass-murderers being bested by tall majestic heroines, because (I believe) it helps him deal with the terrors of everyday modern life–the stuff he hears and reads about every day, from the TV news to movies to what’s trending on Facebook and Twitter.

For my own part, I know full well that one of the reasons my first novel took on the thriller aspect it did was because few things in life scare me more than the thought of being in the power (or someone I love being in the power) of a conscienceless sociopath—almost the definition of the diabolic, in personality terms. Writing a story in which grace builds on nature to combat such a threat was, I think, a means of “working it out.”

But is scary bad for us?

Where I live, a sort of “bubble” of people who hold assorted “New Age” views, one frequently hears comments such as, “I don’t watch or read [insert scary TV show/movie/book here] because it’s all so negative and violent, and I don’t want to let that into my life.” As the theory goes, by imagining things we “manifest” them in reality. You know, The Secret.

I get that, I really do. At least in part. “Visualization,” for instance, can be a useful tool for accomplishing a goal. But that kind of purposeful meditation is not the same type of mental activity, in my view, as that which transpires in the reading of a story. God knows a predilection for Tolkien has never “manifested” by my bumping into an Elf in Lithia Park, more’s the pity.

Even so, I’ll admit there are times when even I, Geek that I am, need a break from All Things Dark and Dangerous. Though in my case, especially since November 8,, 2016, it’s more likely the Nightly News I’ll take a fast from than anything in story format. (The thought of the Tweeter-in-Chief having access to the nuclear codes is a good deal more terrifying to me than, say, White Walkers or the Red Wedding.)

But otherwise I’m with Anderson: The enjoyment of thrillers and other “violent” literature is not about “inviting” horror into our lives. These horrors are already in our lives. No, reading about murder and mayhem and monsters is, and has been since we told stories around campfires, about experiencing a cathartic overcoming of murder and mayhem and monsters..

G.K. Chesterton by John Murphy, copyright 2008

G.K. Chesterton by John Murphy, copyright 2008

An old conversation. 

Objections to “scary” literature, especially for children, goes back a very long way. And so does its defense. This is from the inimitable G.K. Chesterton, writing almost a century ago:

The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it—because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

—G.K. Chesterton, from “The Dragon’s Grandmother,” published in Tremendous Trifles.

Some of us adults still read, and love, fairy tales. But for those who don’t, there are thrillers.

Categories: Books and Publishing, Mystery, Detective, Thriller, and SFF: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

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