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In a sense, all fiction contains at least an element of suspense. Readers are drawn into a story because they are pursuing some kind of answer that resolves the narrative tension. Suspense fiction, however, infuses readers with a sense of anticipation, foreboding, and fear that is heightened to an almost unbearable pitch as the story progresses.
There are a number of types of suspenseful fiction. Certain subgenres have been immensely popular at different points in history, no doubt because they are cultural reflections of the times. Detective fiction contains many elements of suspense, as do stories of serial killers and thrillers about international high crime.
Mysteries, a subgenre of suspense literature, tuck a handful of clues hidden in plain sight by which an astute reader can untangle and plot before the mystery is unveiled. While many mysteries involve murder, kidnap, and other high crimes, some have quieter natures, such as those that solve the riddle of a lost treasure or a case of mistaken identity. Variety abounds when it comes to types of mysteries; some feature romance, others focus on the FBI or a police department, and still others root themselves firmly in a historical time period.
Thrillers can find their material in the natural world, as well as in the supernatural one. A fictional tale about a group of travelers who become lost in the Amazon can keep readers on the edge of their seats. On the other hand, some authors reach for the stars; extraterrestrial beings with otherworldly abilities, wormholes, and other dimensions can create settings and situations that inspire true terror.
An increasingly popular subgenre is represented by stories based upon true crime. Readers are horrified but fascinated at the psychology that sets serial killers and mass murders into action. Every real-life story of irrational, insane murder is fodder for a fictional counterpart that gives the reader insight not only into how a killer thinks but the steps he or she takes to be sure not to be caught.
Suspense fiction is considered to be a "low" literary form in some intellectual circles. This is most likely attributable to its immense popularity and the fact that many works of suspense fiction depend upon relatively formulaic plots. In fact, many successful novels are quickly translated to the screen, and some become runaway blockbuster films.
It behooves critics of the form, however, to remember that some of the most enduring stories fall into the category of suspense fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become both a classic and a cult classic, with new movie versions spawned for each new generation. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw supplies lasting terror to centuries of readers. Edgar Allen Poe’s terrifying catalog of stories is perhaps the epitome of the genre.