Why is location so important in psychological thrillers?
Who can forget the wild, windy moors in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or the rugged Cornish cliffs and rough seas in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca? For me, as a reader and a writer, location is just as important as the plot and the characters in a novel, particularly a psychological thriller.
The setting should be more than just a backdrop to the story. It should succeed in providing atmosphere and tension and fear as well as helping to mirror the emotions of the protagonists, and the reader.
The first thing I do when I start to plan a new thriller is to think about where it should be set and at what time of year. My favourite locations for books I want to write – and read – are either big, old gothic houses like the one in The Haunting of Hill House or Jane Eyre, seaside towns out of season like Broadchurch, or rural, remote villages or islands that make the reader feel trapped as in C L Taylor’s Sleep. My aim is to conjure a sense of unease using the location by stoking at our fears as readers; claustrophobia, suffocation, oppressiveness, or conversely, feeling isolated, alone, secluded.
The locations don’t have to be real to be impactful either. In two of my thrillers my secluded seaside towns have been fictional, although based on real places. But a seaside town, wherever it is, is instantly recognisable and so easy to imagine. Most of us can relate to an out-of-season coastal town with its empty beaches and promenades.
However, I also like the juxtaposition of a thriller set in scorching heat, as in Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and Tangerine by Christine Mangan. The azure skies, jade seas and tropical heat lures the reader into a false sense of security; we, the reader, start to feel relaxed, like we too are on holiday, and then, wham, out of nowhere, the story takes a sinister turn. The Talented Mr Ripley uses this to perfection. We are with Tom as he embarks on his journey to Italy to seek out Dickie Greenleaf. We are happy for him when he meets Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge, becoming mesmerised, and then obsessed by Dickie and his lifestyle. We bask in the stunning scenery, until everything takes a dark twist and we are as shocked by the situation that the character finds himself in as he is.
In a psychological suspense or thriller in particular, the location can help with that sense of danger and isolation to create tension. One great example of this is Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood. A secluded house in the countryside during winter. A snow storm, meaning that there is no phone reception, and blocked roads, so no means to escape. We know that something bad is going to happen, and it creates a sense of unease before we even realise there has been a crime. Likewise with The Guest List by Lucy Foley, who uses an island that is only accessible by boat as the setting for her gripping thriller. And Agatha’s Christie in her classic, And Then There Were None. A secluded island, the stormy seas, the old house, that sense of being trapped. It has everything. I think it plays on our deep seated fears of being alone, unable to escape.
Even back in the 19th century with writers like Sir Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, they made sure their novels had a strong sense of place in order to evoke atmosphere and fear. Victorian London was their settings of choice, with its narrow, sinister alleyways and cobbled rain-slicked streets, with oil lamps haloed in fog. Dark shadows that loom around every corner. It creates a creeping sense of dread before we even really know what we are supposed to be scared of.
One of my favourite thrillers is The Dry by Jane Harper, which uses location in a brilliant way to create that claustrophobic, suffocating feeling. Set in Australia during a drought it starts off with three members of the same family being brutally murdered. The husband is found dead too and everyone thinks he killed his family and then shot himself. The backdrop is dramatic and so tangible you can almost feel the oppressive heat and hear the flies buzzing.
The books above might have varied settings but they share one common theme – to unsettle the reader and to make us identify with the plight of the protagonist. If done well, the seaside town or the old crumbling mansion or the secluded island becomes a character in its own right and therefore, instantly memorable.
Claire Douglas has worked as a journalist for fifteen years writing features for women’s magazines and national newspapers, but she’s dreamed of being a novelist since the age of seven. She finally got her wish after winning the Marie Claire Debut Novel Award, with her first novel, The Sisters. She lives in Bath with her husband and two children.
About the Book: After a traumatic and life-altering event in London, Kirsty Woodhouse moves her family to her native Wales to open a guesthouse in the Becon Beacons. Unable to open the guesthouse alone, Kirsty goes into business with her difficult mother whom she’s had a tense relationship with for years. The tension is palpable from the very beginning, hooking reader into needing to know why. When the guesthouse is finally ready to open, Kirsty encounters the last person she ever expected to see: her estranged cousin Selena. It has been seventeen years since they last talked—when Selena destroyed their relationship. Now, after too many years have passed, Selena arrives with her sick daughter, Ruby, running from her violent husband. Yet Kirsty can’t help but have her guard up. Selena is a notorious liar and has been since they were children.
Even when the two women make amends, Kirsty is suspicious. There are too many unanswered questions and whispers behind her back. On top of that, strange things start to happen the moment Selena shows up. Dead flowers are left on Kirsty’s door step every morning. A noose is left in the attic. Things begin to disappear and randomly show up in different places. Kirsty thinks someone is playing a cruel joke on her family but can’t help but think Selena is to blame. After all, her cousin does have a tendency to bring drama wherever she goes. Kirsty quickly begins to wonder why Selena has chosen to walk back into her life now. Is Selena running from something more than her husband? Or is there an even darker reason for her visit? As Kirsty becomes increasingly concerned for the safety of her daughters, her dream home begins to feel like her worst nightmare. Kirsty knows that once you invite trouble into your home, it can be murder getting rid of it.
One violent night changes everything and the dream Kirsty has of starting fresh with her family is shattered. Family secrets are revealed, leaving haunting truths in their wake. Will this family ever be able to reconcile the past? Will the lies ever stop?