Adding a Supernatural Element to Your Thriller
by Nicholas Kaufmann
Growing up, I was a Monster Kid through and through. One of my favorite memories from my youth is how every Sunday morning at 11 AM, WPIX-TV out of New York City would show an old, black-and-white Abbott and Costello movie. It seemed like they showed every film the comedy duo ever made, and week after week I watched and laughed along with their classic mix of physical comedy and wordplay. I enjoyed all the films, but my true, whole-hearted devotion was reserved for the movies in which Bud Abbott and Lou Costello encountered monsters, haunted houses, and mad scientists, movies like Hold That Ghost, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Abbott, and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, and of course their greatest film and one of my all-time favorite movies, the incomparable Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In a similar vein (haha), I enjoyed swashbuckling adventure films, but if you wanted to keep my attention you needed to add some monsters to the mix, which is why young me would happily flip right past an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks movie on TV to watch a Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie. (Flynn might have been a greatsword-wielding sailor in The Sea Hawk, but he never fought a giant cyclops!) And needless to say, if the gang on Scooby Doo, Where Are You! was just solving regular mysteries instead of investigating monster sightings and hauntings, it probably wouldn’t have become my favorite Saturday morning cartoon.
I’m still a Monster Kid at heart, even though my youth is long behind me. (Long, long behind me. Don’t ask me how long, I won’t tell you.) I still love monsters and ghosts—anything supernatural. I love writing about them too, and have been doing so ever since I was a daydreamer in grade school scrawling stories of aliens and zombies in my notebook instead of paying attention to the teacher. In truth, I don’t feel any different from that schoolboy now, even with six novels and two story collections under my belt. That childhood love of all things supernatural has followed me into adulthood and played an enormous role in my writing. In fact, I can’t seem to write anything without adding the supernatural in some form or other!
For example, my Bram Stoker Award-nominated novelette General Slocum’s Gold isn’t just a heist story about a crew looking for a missing treasure trove on New York City’s abandoned North Brother Island, it also features ghosts, curses, and a thief with the supernatural ability to see through walls and doors with just a touch of his hand. My Thriller Award-nominated and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated novel Chasing the Dragon isn’t just about a heroin addict trying to get her life together; she also happens to be the last living descendant of St. George and is tasked with the same mission as her famous ancestor—to kill a very real and very deadly dragon. My urban fantasy novels, Dying Is My Business and Die and Stay Dead, are crime thrillers that take place in a contemporary New York City where all manner of magic and supernatural creatures hide in the shadows. And now my latest novel, 100 Fathoms Below, co-written with Steven L. Kent, is a Cold War submarine thriller with a supernatural threat onboard.
Adding a supernatural element to a thriller can do more than simply fold a fun, new ingredient into a recipe. It can also keep things fresh. There are lots of thrillers out there in which our heroes are chasing after a thumb drive with important, world-changing information on it, or rushing to stop a super virus from being unleashed or to stop a terrorist organization from detonating a bomb. These are classic plots for a reason, of course—readers still respond to them and are eager to see how particular characters deal with these threats—but sometimes the formula can feel stale. For better or worse, there can be a feeling of “been there, done that.” Adding a supernatural element can be a great way to shake things up. What if the ghost of the terrorists’ previous victim is what brings their new, insidious plot to our heroes’ attention? What if it’s not a super virus that’s in danger of being released but something more ancient, more malevolent? What if it’s not a thumb drive everyone’s after, but a powerful, cursed object?
Granted, the supernatural isn’t for everyone. Some authors prefer to keep things as strictly realistic as possible. In writing 100 Fathoms Below, Steve and I found what I think is just the right balance between the supernatural and the realistic. In the novel, everything about life in US Navy and life aboard a nuclear submarine was meticulously researched and kept utterly realistic. Into this verisimilitude, we threw a supernatural threat that is stalking and killing the submariners one by one. And perhaps that’s the key to successfully adding the supernatural to a thriller: keeping everything else as realistic and grounded as possible. Otherwise, you risk straining the suspension of disbelief.
So if you’ve been considering adding a supernatural element to your latest thriller but have found yourself on the fence about it, I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try. As I mentioned, it’s a great way to shake things up and keep your readers on their toes. And who knows? You might even find yourself attracting a whole new audience of grown-up Monster Kids like me, who are always looking to discover new authors. Decades ago, it was those old Abbott and Costello movies that showed me how fun supernatural elements can be in an otherwise grounded story. Perhaps one day it will be a novel of yours that does the same for someone else.
Nicholas Kaufmann is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated, Thriller Award-nominated, and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated author of two collections and six novels, the most recent of which is the horror novel 100 Fathoms Below, co-written with Steven L. Kent. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Dark Discoveries, and others. In addition to his own original work, he has written for such properties as Zombies vs. Robots and The Rocketeer. He and his wife live in Brooklyn, New York.