Using the supernatural in mystery fiction has long been thought a cheat or a boundary violation. The “10 Commandments of Detective Fiction,” an influential list of no-no’s laid down by Ronald Knox, a mystery writer himself and a member of the Detection Club (alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and scores of other authors) explicitly states “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” There were of course reasons other than genre-segregation for this taboo: one of the core tenets of mystery fiction has usually been that the reader should be able to solve the story’s puzzle herself, and the addition of supernatural elements drastically reduces that possibility, particularly if the “rules” that govern that unnatural phenomenon are not spelled out for the reader in advance.
I think this, as well as a general societal antipathy towards the horror genre that has only recently begun to ease up, are the primary reasons this subgenre has seen so little work. In fact, many of the books on this list aren’t commonly thought of as mystery novels at all because their paranormal elements are seen as the dominant factor. I think, though, that even the books on this list that don’t explicitly follow the trail of a crime still involve an investigative protagonist as well as a sense that there is a deep, often terrifying, puzzle to solve.
With the success of Stephen King’s The Outsider, as well as several other prominent movies, TV series, and novels, all of which happily combine the tropes and aims of both genres, I think we’ll be seeing more and more of this special subgenre. I, for one, can’t wait.
The Complete John Silence Stories (1908-47)
Algernon Blackwood, the perfectly named early horror writer and strong influence on H. P. Lovecraft, wrote several stories about John Silence, paranormal doctor extraordinaire. Along with William Hope Hodgson‘s Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, Blackwood’s Silence is one of the first instances of the occult investigator as a hero. Silence is an independently wealthy and psychic doctor who specializes in strange cases. In these stories, he looks into situations involving shape-shifters, fire elementals, haunted houses, and extradimensional spaces. While Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales played an obvious role in Blackwood’s inspiration, he brings a seriousness about the supernatural to his fiction informed by his own magickal dabblings.
Blackwood’s work is some of the best-written during his time, featuring prose less purple (and less racist) than Lovecraft’s, while also breaking free of Gothic conventions in order to explore more than just ghosts and medieval superstitions. Something I also appreciate about these stories are the ways in which he varied their structures: sometimes Silence is the primary character, while in others he appears only briefly.
Our Lady of Darkness (1977)
Known just as well for his science-fiction and fantasy stories, Leiber’s horror fiction has had a massive impact on the genre and, I suspect, will continue to do so in the future. He is chiefly responsible for bringing supernatural horror into urban settings, showing that the genre could interact disturbingly with the modern era and paving the way for everyone from Ramsey Campbell to Neil Gaiman to Haruki Murakami.
In this short novel/novella, we follow Franz Westen, a writer, recovering alcoholic, and recent widower who lives in San Francisco. After finding a journal he believes may have belonged to early genre-writer Clark Ashton Smith, Westen gets sucked into a mystery involving an eccentric occultist, disturbing figures happy to manifest in broad daylight, and a magical science involving the structures of large cities. It’s this last concept that really grabbed my attention, as well as Westen’s glimpses of the forces underlying San Francisco.
Floating Dragon (1983)
Many of Peter Straub’s novels, particularly the first four of his genre works, easily fit into the category of horror/mystery. This one, though, hit me hard the first time I read it for the way it combines the elements of both genres into an explosive new combination. I also have a feeling Floating Dragon helped inspire Straub’s friend Stephen King to write It, as the basic situations in both novels resemble one another.
This novel is set in the bucolic Connecticut suburb of Hampstead. This wealthy townlet is about to be hit by not one but two horrors, one manmade and one deeply unnatural. At the same time as a new and particularly vicious nerve gas is accidentally released from a local chemical plant, a series of serial killings starts up. Nor is this the first time Hampstead has been plagued by senseless and mysterious murders: there’s a pattern that stretches back decades, if not centuries. This time, though, the town’s curse will meet and interact with this industrial accident, creating something far worse than either threat on their own. Straub’s novel is from that era in which plenty of if not most horror novels were big fat monsters, jam-packed with characters, intricate plots, and detailed explorations of the settings. In this one, Straub set out to essentially write the horror novel to end all horror novels, and the book builds to an explosive and phantasmagoric climax.
The Ceremonies (1984)
T. E. D. Klein
This is another doorstop of a novel, coming in at over 500 pages. T. E. D. Klein is an odd case in the horror genre, in that he has published only a handful of books that have proven more influential than those of many bestselling authors with dozens of titles to their names. The Ceremonies is actually his only novel, which is a damn shame. After a being from beyond crash-lands on Earth, it bides its time for millennia until finding a young boy it can coerce into being its disciple. Fast-forward some time into the future and we meet Jeremy Freirs, an adjunct professor and student of the Gothic who rents a house in rural New Jersey with the intention of shaping his studies into a book. This little place is owned by the Poroths, a couple who belong to the grim, ascetic sect that dominates this countryside.
Jeremy’s budding relationship with Carol, a librarian from the city, isn’t just marred by his own ham-fisted attempts at seduction: it is also being slyly guided by someone else, someone who has a dark plan for all these characters as well, perhaps, as for the world. Klein beautifully lays out the novel’s setting, and delves deep into the psychologies of his characters. Well, at least his male characters, as the novel suffers from gender portrayal problems fairly typical of the time. That aspect aside, this is a big, mysterious, slow-burn of a novel.
John Constantine: Hellblazer (1988-2019)
Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette
Building on a tradition of detectives specializing in the supernatural beginning with John Silence and only slowly added to until fairly recently, the John Constantine series of graphic novels take the concept and open it up into an entire world of unnatural mysteries. Starting as a spin-off of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing series, these books star John Constantine, a tough, streetwise private detective who is also steeped in knowledge of the occult and supernatural. Constantine is caught somewhere between Heaven and Hell, serving as a pawn, an enemy, and a manipulator of both infernal and divine powers.
As with any series that runs this long and is presided over by so many writers, the Constantine stories vary wildly in terms of quality, but they all share a complex morality as well as a tendency to combine horror, fantasy, and mystery tropes in unique and often surprising stories. Film and TV have tried to convincingly and successfully portray Constantine, but until they really pull it off (and even afterwards), go back to the source and check out these graphic novels, particularly the early ones.
The Long Lost (1993)
Ramsey Campbell’s supernatural horror novels almost always involve a healthy dose of mystery. He doesn’t often spell out the nature of the unnatural menace his characters face until late in the game and sometimes not even then. For my money, though, The Long Lost is the book that comes closest to a perfect blend of the genres. It’s a bit like a Ruth Rendell novel, in that it features a largish cast of characters whose lives intersect but don’t fully overlap and involves a series of horrific deaths. Unlike Rendell’s excellent novels, however, which primarily rely on misunderstandings, malevolent coincidences, and abnormal psychology in their build to crime and death, The Long Lost runs on a supernatural menace, one whose nature is only slowly revealed.
David and Joelle Owain are a young couple vacationing in a small village in Wales where David’s family originates. On an island near the village, they meet an old and seemingly kind woman named Gwendolyn who appears to be a long-lost relative of David’s. When they bring the frail woman home with them, random tragedies begin striking friends of theirs. Not often name-checked as one of Campbell’s more famous books, this is one of my favorites, particularly because of the character Gwendolyn, an enigmatic figure who speaks in ambiguous dialogue almost all of which is made up of double entendres and subtle hints.
Almost Blue (1997)
Almost Blue is set in Bologna, where rookie detective Grazia Negro is certain a serial killer is stalking and violently dispatching college students. Grazia, though, faces skepticism and worse from her superiors due in part to her being one of the few women on the force and them being misogynistic idiots. But she finds a potential “witness” in Simone, a young blind man struck with a preternatural case of synesthesia who spends his time listening obsessively to jazz and the radio and who may just have heard the killer speak. The big problem with catching this psychopath? They seem able to shed their identity and at least temporarily adopt those of their victims.
Now, Grazia and Simone are intent on solving these killings before their chameleonic foe closes in on them. I’ll admit that classifying this short Italian neo-noir mystery as being “supernatural” is up to debate, as Lucarelli moves between unreliable and unknowing perspectives and leaves some details unresolved. Whatever your final opinion on the metaphysics of the novel, though, if you enjoy a fast, somewhat brutal ride through the mind and deeds of a human monster, check this one out.
Every Dead Thing (1999)
John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, now 20+ books strong, revolve around Parker, a former cop turned private investigator, as well as his friends and associates, especially Louis and Angel, a gay couple made up of a hit man and a burglar. Connolly is an Irish former-reporter who sets most of his novels in New England, rather successfully portraying American characters and settings. These novels began as primarily psychological thriller/mysteries with touches of the paranormal, but the supernatural elements have only grown stronger with every successive novel.
In Every Dead Thing, the first in the series, the supernatural is largely restrained to psychic visions, but that in combination with a grim and bloody plot makes it an excellent entry in this subgenre. In the beginning, Parker is a cop with a serious drinking problem. One night after getting wasted out on the town, he comes home and finds his wife and daughter brutally murdered and posed as artwork. Parker leaves the force and devotes himself to finding their killer, the Travelling Man, until he is asked to look into a missing-woman case. This disappearance will take him into New Orleans and a web of mysteries, all of which may have some connection to the psychopath who destroyed his family. If you are looking for a series that combines the twisted mysteries of Thomas Harris with the supernatural, you cannot go wrong with these books.
The Cabinet of Curiosities (2002)
Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston
Child and Preston wrote the novel The Relic, on which a 90’s monster movie was based. Oddly, that adaptation left out the main character of their longest series, the brilliant and eccentric FBI agent, Aloysius Pendergast. Pendergast’s cases tend to take him into deeply strange, even paranormal territory, involving him with genetically mutated human beings, unnatural viruses, and other X-Files sorts of material. I started reading about Pendergast here, with The Cabinet of Curiosities, and although I’m sure I missed a few references because I hadn’t read the previous two books, it can serve as a fine entry point to the series.
When construction workers in Manhattan uncover a tunnel filled with the corpses of 19th century victims of an unknown killer, Pendergast gets involved with the case, taking up with an archeologist, her journalist boyfriend, and a sympathetic cop. As they dig into this old story, another series of killings starts up, and they realize they must be dealing with a copycat determined to rival a century-dead serial killer. But something much stranger is happening… The Pendergast series is a lot of fun, very pulpy but written well, and you never know where one of these books is going to take you, accept that the witty Agent Pendergast will fight his way through to a solution.
Broken Monsters (2014)
South African author Lauren Beukes is carving out a name for herself with fast-paced, intellectually meaty horror/mystery novels. Her The Shining Girls is being turned into a series, and while I’m saving a review of that book for a list on historical horror novels, I encourage you to get a copy. Broken Monsters starts off with Gabriella Versado, a Detroit cop faced with a dead teenager sawn in half and recombined with the hind legs of a fawn. Beukes alternates her investigation with chapters that follow a freelance journalist, a homeless man with a violent history now trying to make good, a nerdy teenage girl, and a manual laborer with some significant mental issues.
Beukes doesn’t just use Detroit as a backdrop here: it’s obvious she cares about and is interested in the forces that have left that city in dire straits. There’s a serious Twin Peaks vibe to this novel, and some readers are unhappy to find that deep into it, things get weirder than corpses posed as art-pieces. I, though, loved it for its inventive, creepy, and thought-provoking blend of horror and mystery, as well as the depth of the characters Beukes drops into this nightmare.