Paranormal Mysteries & Thrillers
Paranormal thrillers and mysteries involve some element of the supernatural—whether it’s ghosts, zombies, or aliens—in a way that could someday, theoretically, be explained away by science.
There are common misconceptions of every genre, whether it’s the more frequently bashed romance and horror genres to the less understood subgenres, including paranormal thrillers. There is a widespread stigma associated with supernatural elements in mystery and thriller books. Many say that they don’t want to read books that have these elements. It’s just not something that they enjoy reading. But the odds are, they haven’t given the subgenre a fair shot. And even if they have, there’s a good chance that they picked the wrong book(s) for them.
Many who are heavily involved in the book business understand that what people like and don’t like isn’t quite as simple as “genre”. Nancy Pearl, a librarian superhero, is well known for her theory of the four doorways to reading. In essence, there are four reasons why people enjoy the books that they prefer. And guess what? Genre only plays a miniscule part in this.
The four doorways are Story, Characters, Language, and Setting. Many books have appeal in more than one of the four doorways, though the weighting of each of these elements can be vastly different from book to book.
Have you ever had a friend recommend a favorite book to you, and you read it, only to be embarrassed to admit that you hated it? Friendships have been decimated over less, but it all comes down to the fact that they enjoyed something about the book that just didn’t appeal to you.
The following sections will outline the four doorways and provide paranormal thriller/mystery reading recommendations that fit each type of reader.
This, just narrowly beating out Characters, is the most popular of the four elements. This doorway is for those who enjoy reading fast-paced, plot-driven books. If you read for story, the plot is what intrigues you the most. You don’t want to read a novel bogged down with unnecessary description or flashbacks that have the sole purpose of fleshing out characters’ backstory. You want a book that has twists and turns on every page, a story that is ripe with tension and subplots that keep you turning the pages long past your bedtime.
In the fast-paced paranormal romantic suspense Mind Game by Iris Johansen, Jane MacGuire is searching for an elusive treasure in Scotland, but she’s haunted by dreams of a girl in danger, one that she will go to lengths to save.
The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton features a Groundhog Day-style murder mystery that’s been described as action-packed and masterfully written.
Those who read for Characters are drawn to character-driven yarns. They’re interested in the unique protagonists—ones with secretive pasts or surly personalities. The characters leap off the page and into the hearts of these readers. The character is what drives the story and compels these readers to keep turning the pages.
When you’re watching a procedural TV show, do you find yourself zoning out during the case of the week, but perking up whenever the overarching plotline that involves the protagonist’s career or personal life crops up? That might mean that you’re more inclined to read for characters than for story.
For instance, in Fellside by MR Carey, the protagonist is a drug addict who is sent to prison for the accidental murder of a child. But when the child’s ghost appears to inform her she’s innocent, she must try to solve the murder—from behind bars. This book features countless morally gray characters, and if the concept of a drug addict heroine doesn’t intrigue you, then this is not the book for you.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is another example of a genre-mash up involving a time traveling serial killer in historical Chicago, with a firmly character-driven storyline.
Language is the element that those who are drawn to literary works enjoy. Both this doorway and setting are closely intertwined. With this doorway, writing style is what engages these readers the most. They are intrigued by the metaphors employed, the style and syntax, and the descriptions. Do you find that when you’re reading a book that you slow your pace when lines jump out to you? Do you reread passages, remarking on the poignant observations that the author is making?
Everyone reads for language to a certain degree. Being aware of your preferences will help when dipping your toes into a new genre. For instance, if you despise books written in the present tense, why would you try reading a paranormal thriller that’s written in that tense? If you dislike the stilted language prevalent in historical fiction, don’t start yourself off with a historical paranormal mystery, regardless of how compelling you find the plot.
If you read for language, don’t explore a fast-paced, plot-driven paranormal thriller on your first try. The writing might still appeal to you, but you might not get the full effect as if you were focusing on a book that pulls no punches when it comes to literary merit.
My Grave Ritual by G. S. Denning is a Victorian era supernatural mystery featuring “Warlock Holmes” and his sidekick Dr. John Watson in a story that is both witty and chilling.
In Devolution: A firsthand account of the Rainier sasquatch massacre by Max Brooks, the reader is taken through a shocking, yet compelling series of fictional events that are presented in epistolary style—through diary entries, interviews, and other forms of documentation.
And last but not least, we have setting. This is the most uncommon preference of all four doorways. While everyone reads for setting to at least a small degree, for some, the setting is what makes the book truly memorable. For example, fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will acclaim how when you read her books, you get the feeling that you’re really there, in rural Quebec.
A classic example would be The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a psychological supernatural thriller/horror in which the house is a character in and of itself. This book is written for those who read for language and setting, (and a little bit for character), but those who prefer plot-driven stories will be sorely disappointed.
Charlaine Harris’s Harper Connelly paranormal cozy mystery series involves a heroine who has a very specific ability—she can sense the last moment of a recently deceased person and detect where their body is located. As with Harris’s other books, this series is set in a small town, and these stories are slow paced, with a strong sense of place interwoven throughout the narrative.
Books that top the bestseller charts will usually have heavy appeal in more than one of the four areas, and there are some books that have equal appeal in all four areas, though this is far from common. For instance, the Harry Potter book series has stood the test of time because of its intriguing characters, compelling plots, immersive language, and fantastic worldbuilding.
Take a look back at your last three five-star reads. What did they all have in common? Developing an understanding of what doorways you read for will help you, not just with selecting your first paranormal thriller to read, but also with picking books you’ll love in any genre.
About the Author
Helen Power is a librarian living in Saskatoon, Canada. In her spare time, she haunts deserted cemeteries, loses her heart to dashing thieves, and cracks tough cases, all from the comfort of her writing nook. She has over ten short story publications, including ones in Suspense Magazine and Dark Helix Press’s Canada 150 anthology “Futuristic Canada”. Her debut novel, a paranormal thriller, The Ghosts of Thorwald Place, was published October 2021 by CamCat Books.