Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Psychological Thriller

A subgenre of crime fiction which lurks somewhere in the infrared or ultraviolet of the spectrum of Fantastic literature, the PT concentrates on the disturbed (and usually but not always criminal) psyches of otherwise normal human beings, and the events that occur because of that disturbance. Many PTs do cross the line to become either fantasy or Supernatural Fiction, in the form of what could be called the Parapsychological Thriller; many Rationalized Fantasies are PTs, as are many Ghost Stories and tales of Serial Killers; the distinction between some forms of Horror and the PT is difficult to make (an example is Stephen King's Misery [1987]); and the PT shares with the mainstream of Fantasy the urge to alter the reader's Perception, either because we see events and motivations via insanity or, if identifying with someone other than the mad person, find ourselves in a world of uncertain and shifting Realities because of the Wrongness of an environment in which there is, as it were, a wild card.

The PTs of most interest in the fantasy context are those which rest upon an ambiguity of perception. Wilkie Collins wrote several, though tended to provide a culminating rationalization which often destroyed the effect; but the classic example is "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) by Henry James – filmed as The Innocents (1961; vt The Turn of the Screw) – in which the truth of events is kept hidden from us. A fine 20th-century example is The Other (1971) by Thomas Tryon – filmed as The Other (1972) – in which we become only slowly aware that the narrating "good" twin may be guilty of the crimes he is blaming on his "bad", deceased brother, if that brother ever existed as other than an Invisible Companion. In William Goldman's Magic (1978) – filmed as Magic (1978) – it may be that a ventriloquist's dummy is Evil or that the ventriloquist himself is crazy. Mark McShane's Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1961; vt Séance 1962 US) – filmed as Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) – depicts the mental disintegration of a fraudulent medium: convinced she has contacted her dead son, she becomes sure that her powers are real ... as, for all we know, they may be. Even comedies can be strongly affected by PT themes, as in Topper Returns (1941; > Topper Movies) and the numerous rationalized Haunted-Dwelling movies epitomized by the various versions of The Cat and the Canary (1927, 1939, 1979, plus Haunted Honeymoon 1986). The list of primarily fantasy authors who have also published PTs is extensive. [JG]

see also: Virginia C Andrews; The Beast with Five Fingers (1946); Bewitched (1945); Ramsey Campbell; Candyman; The Curse of the Cat People (1944); The Hands of Orlac (1960); William F Harvey; David H Keller; Ira Levin; Edgar Allan Poe; The Wicker Man (1973).

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.