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Creating Atmosphere in Psychological Thrillers by Liza Costello

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Liza Costello

Liza Costello

On the Pleasure of Dread

My second novel Crookedwood began on some level, years ago, when I passed a signpost for a place called Crookedwood. That may sound like a bad writing joke but it’s true. The real Crookedwood is a village north of Mullingar, but back then I’d never even passed through it. The name alone was enough to worm its way into me, with its evocation of a dark and knotted heart, until the only thing to do was write it back out.

It wasn’t the first time a piece of fiction began for me with a disquieting place. My ongoing short story collection set in Florence was borne out of an uneasy evening spent on an agitated piazza in that ancient city. And my first novel The Estate took root the day my late father and I, on an aimless midlands drive during the recession, found ourselves in an eerie ghost estate, the only sound the erratic chirping of birds.

But I suppose it’s no surprise that a writer of psychological thrillers should get their inspiration from unsettling places. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and this form’s forebear, the Gothic novel, was about nothing if not about creeping the reader out through atmosphere – summoning that delicious feeling of dread when something seems to be glimpsed in the shadows. In that deeply psychological form, place was never incidental but almost a character in itself, a symbol of the inner workings of the story’s protagonist, whose desires and motives lie in wait, hidden even from themselves. In The Mysteries of Udolpho and in Dracula, dread-inducing medieval castles do this work. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it’s the murky streets of night-time London. In the last chapter of Frankenstein – for me the most disturbing part of that novel – it’s a frighteningly vast Arctic sea, where the monster is finally ‘borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance’.

CrookedwoodIn a modern-day descendant, Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects exploits the small-town feeling of watchfulness, which she compounds through an emphasis on the stultifying southern heat, in her depiction of the fictional town of Wind Gap. In My Sister: The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s portrayal of the city of Lagos creates an equally oppressive and unsettling atmosphere, with its incessant traffic jams and rain. In Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island, the psychiatric hospital is like a medieval castle, with its web of corridors leading to locked doors – something used to full effect in Scorcese’s adaptation.

Ann Radcliffe really turned the screw on this effect with her suggestion of actual ghosts in the ghostly castle of Udolpho, before shamelessly providing a rational explanation right at the very end. Radcliffe, it seems, didn’t care how clunky this might have seemed. In suggesting a supernatural cause, she was ratcheting up the ‘shivery delights and pernicious unease’ as someone once nailed the pleasure we get from such stories, and that was all that mattered. As Hitchcock once said, the only thing he cared about was making the viewer feel uneasy, that he cared very little about the content of his films (as in, what’s written on the piece of paper the spies are so desperate to get their hands on, etc). ‘Give them pleasure,’ he said. ‘The same pleasure they have on waking from a nightmare’. Centuries might separate the two genres, but they are ultimately after the same effect. When Henry Tilsney in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s affectionate parody of the Gothic genre, remarks that ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again … my hair standing on end the whole time’, he might just as easily have been talking about any of the above novels or many of Hitchcock’s films.

It is Radcliffe’s Udolpho that provides the epigraph to Crookedwood. ‘She listened anxiously,’ the line reads. ‘The sounds were distant, and seemed to come from a remote part of the woods.’ Sarah, the protagonist, finds herself drawn back to the woods that border the family farm for reasons she doesn’t understand. And when that leads to trouble, instead of doing the sensible thing and giving home, not to mention the woods, a wide berth for a while, she keeps returning. It’s as though on some level she knows what she doesn’t yet understand – that not only has she stumbled upon the town’s rotten core, but her actions are also serving to loosen long-buried events of her past. And the more these memories are disturbed, the less control she has over her behaviour. Even as she realises her actions threaten her very survival, she keeps going back. The mind, she is learning, has a mind of its own, greater and deeper than the thin sliver we call consciousness.

Reading a psychological thriller/Gothic novel means following a character though her actions that lead her (and therefore us) closer and closer to an inexplicable source of dread. I can’t help feeling that in doing so, we are equipping ourselves with a kind of knowledge, shadowy and flitting, one that cannot be gained outside of fiction, and that is even to be found – or maybe especially – in those stories where the danger seems to be lurking right where she’s supposed to be safest. I won’t be the first to speculate that our need for such stories is a primordial one, as intrinsic to being human as breathing. That it comes from when we actually lived in woods, among wild creatures that really did flit half-glimpsed in the shadows, and our survival depended on perceiving them before we fully registered their presence. We may now have houses and laws and rights, but dangers are always lurking somewhere out there, unpredictable or brutal or both. As Stephen King once said, ‘We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones’.

(c) Liza Costello

About Crookedwood:

CrookedwoodCrookedwood, quiet Irish midlands town, place of secrets, past and present. Sarah left it behind years ago for life in the city, where she’s now a rising star of the Dublin culinary scene.

She’s home to help her mother sell the family farm. One evening, while out walking in the nearby woods, Sarah is chased by a man and his vicious dog, narrowly escaping injury. In the days to follow – as painful memories resurface of another dark night in the woods years before – further unsettling events unfold, and Sarah becomes convinced that she is under threat, despite the reassurances of those close to her.

What might she have stumbled upon on her walk? Who could be after her, and why? As Sarah closes in on hidden agendas at work in the town, dangerous forces close in on her.

It soon becomes clear that, in order to survive, Sarah must return to the dark place where it all began.

Crookedwood is a compulsive psychological thriller about buried trauma, small town vendettas and how, in the dark woods, the only person who can save you is yourself.

‘Liza Costello writes beautifully and there are echoes of Donal Ryan and Tana French in this intriguing slice of slow-burn rural noir.’ Catherine Kirwan, author of Cruel Deeds

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Liza Costello’s writing has been short-listed for the Seán Ó ‘Faoláin Short Story Competition, the Francis McManus Award and the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award. She won the Dromineer Literary Festival Poetry Award (2011)and her writing has also been broadcast on RTE Radio 1(The Francis McManus programme, Sunday Miscellany and A Living Word), as well as published in outlets such as The Irish Independent (New Irish Writing), The Stinging Fly, Southword, Crannóg, The Manchester Review, The Interpreter’s Hat, Kindle Singles and Mslexia. An earlier version of her debut novel, The Estate, was originally launched as an audiobook for Audible; narrated by Denise Gough, it was chosen as an Audible crime and thriller pick of the month and was also selected as an editor’s pick there. Liza lives in County Westmeath with her husband John and children Martha and Brendan.

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