Supernatural suspense. Just the name of this sub-genre is enough to send spooky fingers of dread tapping up your spine. Supernatural suspense books, also called, supernatural thriller, paranormal suspense, and paranormal thrillers, along with horror, can be varied in their plots. But key elements tie them together.
At the time of this writing, the following five books are in the Top 10 Amazon List for supernatural thrillers:
- Devoted, by Dean Koontz
- In the Heart of the Fire, by Dean Koontz
- Layla, by Colleen Hoover
- Photographing the Dead, by Dean Koontz
- The Wife Upstairs, by Rachel Hawkins
Notice anything in this list?
Many readers would define the work of Dean Koontz as horror, yet his books dominate the supernatural thriller category. Let’s look at some of the overarching themes in supernatural suspense or supernatural thrillers and how these differ from horror fiction.
What Defines a Supernatural Thriller?
Savannah Gilbo, an editor and the podcast host of Fiction Writing Made Easy, defines thrillers in this way:
“A thriller centers around a crime that’s about to happen… unless the protagonist can stop it, of course. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is from the beginning, sometimes watching over the villain’s shoulders as he or she prepares to carry out the crime…thrillers are driven forward by the antagonist.”
A supernatural thriller then is a story where a crime is about to take place but with a supernatural twist. Perhaps a ghost, ghoul, or demon is involved in the crime, or the protagonist is able to see and/or interact with these beings from another dimension.
This differs from the horror genre because of the stakes. In horror, the protagonist is fighting against something catastrophic. They are often placed in a life or death situation, Gilbo explains, and, “In order to escape with his or her life, they need to defeat the monster or evil force that’s intent on death and destruction.”
I’d also add that there is seemingly no way that the hero can take care of the problem on their own. In fact, much of the novel is spent with the lead character being defeated regularly in smaller skirmishes that culminate in a big battle at the end of the book.
When I was a kid, Frank Peretti’s supernatural suspense novels, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, set the Christian fiction world on fire. These two books are excellent examples of supernatural thrillers, chronicling the lives of common, everyday people and the angels and demons who are warring alongside them on earth.
But getting back to our definitions…
Here’s another important distinction that Gilbo makes:
…a terrifying monster does not a horror novel make…
The beating heart of the horror genre is the knowledge that bad things can happen to good people.
Generally speaking, the power gap between the monster and the protagonist is wide and deep. Because of that, the protagonist has to work extra hard to muster up the courage needed to confront the monster with everything they’ve got. Sometimes that means fighting to their very last breath, if necessary.
Do you see the difference? Supernatural suspense or supernatural thrillers are like traditional thrillers in that the protagonist is pitted against an antagonist…with supernatural elements (angels, demons, ghosts, goblins) thrown into the mix.
How Horror Differs from Supernatural Thrillers
In horror novels though, the supernatural element IS the antagonist, or at the least, the overarching “bad guy” that the protagonist fights against. It’s also much more powerful (being supernatural and all) than our puny little human hero. In fact, much of the novel is spent in dread-another key horror element-because we see how poorly equipped the protagonist is to fight the “dark power”.
In a previous post on Gothic horror, I explained the basic types of horror and five key elements to every great Gothic horror storyline. And as Gilbo noted, the knowledge that bad things happen to good people is one of the most important elements in horror literature.
Thoughts? What distinctions would you include that I missed? Please share a comment and let me know. Looking for a supernatural thriller with Gothic undertones? Check out my novels.