Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Tale of the Thriller

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word thriller as…One that thrills; especially a work of fiction designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure and/or suspense.

The thriller genre centers around a few very simple, yet necessary criteria that must be met in order to separate it from other genres. Basically, if you have suspense, tension and excitement as the main element of a book or film, chances are it is a thriller.
So, who was the very first man or women to pick up that quill and create a world that kept the reader on the edge of their seat while turning the pages? The thriller genre is another where facts, arguments and speculation play a huge part in deciphering its origins. Let’s see if we can narrow it down just a bit and give some credit where credit is do.
It is widely believed in the Western world that the earliest version of the thriller was penned by Homer. Odyssey, one of two Greek poems written by Homer in the latter part of the 8th century BC, contains all the needed elements of a thriller and a plot dripping with suspense, tension and excitement.
In Homer’s Odyssey, or ‘epic voyage’ as it translates in English, the hero Odysseus battles for 10 long years in the Trojan War only to spend another 10 years adrift at sea as he makes his way back home to his wife & son. What makes Odyssey a thriller is the magnitude of the foes Odysseus must face, battle & conquer on his journey and the constant barrage of nail biting scenes that unfold along the way.
Some scholars agree that Odyssey was never meant to be enjoyed as a great book but rather was written as a poetic song and therefore meant to be performed and sung rather that read.
Next stop we have, yet again, 1001 Arabian Nights. With the oldest Arabic pieces of this manuscript dating back as far as 9th century BC, 1001 Arabian Nights contains a tale that’s origins could easily slip into the thriller genre. However, the story of a chopped up body inside a mysterious chest and the hunt to find answers falls, more fittingly I think, into the mystery genre.
Other thriller tales can be found in a most unlikely place, with harrowing tales of suspense and intrigue. I could easily tell you of paranormal thrillers as well as revenge thrillers that can be found right inside the pages of The Holy Bible…yes, thrillers can be found in the bible, and lots of them!
The thriller genre dates back so far that it is unlikely its’ precise debut in the literary world will ever be known for certain. We can however, get some pretty clear beginnings for some of the sub-genres that sprung from thrillers, and pin down the books and films that have made the thriller genre one of the most followed in the world today.
The 1800’s saw fantastic thrillers emerge and a ton of great writers would leave their mark on the thriller genre and from their works dozens of sub genres would spring forth.
Sometime between 1844-1846 Alexandre Dumas published The Count of Monte Cristo, in it he highlighted the very thing that defines the genre today…the thrill. In a swashbuckling tale of jealousy, deceit and revenge, Dumas put together what most now consider the very first ‘Revenge Thriller’.
In 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula hit the scenes and with it came a generous sprinkling of some new twists to the thriller genre. Billed today by many as horror, Dracula gave us our first taste of gothic, supernatural thrills. This one novel would ultimately spawn sub-genres that even today set the pace for some of our most loved, modern day horror and thriller tales.
In 1915 Scottish author John Buchan wrote and published his thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps. Making huge waves in the thriller genre, The Thirty Nine Steps has been seen or heard on many different mediums from radio, theatre to film.
As the thriller genre continued to make impressive strides in the literary world so too did the sub genres that came from it. We were introduced to the modern action thriller which consisted of non-stop, fast paced, action packed thrill rides with an unlikely hero. First Blood is thought to be the catalyst upon which the action thriller genre would slingshot into the forefront of not only books but film as well.
Conspiracy thrillers emerged as sub genres and introduced us to the likes of Robert Lundlum, James Grady and David Baldacci.
Crime Thrillers became all the rage and authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Harris and of course James Patterson left and continue to leave their indelible mark on the thriller genre.
Two of my personal favorites, sub genres loaded with big talent, are mystery thrillers and psychological thrillers. Just mentioning names like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven King, Dennis Lehane and M. Night Shyamalan should be enough incentive to get lovers of the thrill looking to these sub genres for their next nail biter.
But if you think these few sub genres are all there are to choose from…think again. Disaster, Erotic, Legal, Medical, Religious, Supernatural and even Techno thrillers all contain one central connection…they are designed to hold your interest and keep you on the edge of your seat. They are all able to do this by writing fast paced, high octane suspense stories that keep readers coming back again and again.
From books and movies to television, thrillers have become one of the largest and most followed genres world wide. Thrillers also rank among the highest grossing in sales of all the genres out there.
2010 has been quite a year for thrillers and authors such as Stephen King, Justin Cronin, Gregg Olsen and Joe Hill are just a few who have given us a taste of their unique voices and exciting style.
Everyday new authors are emerging (raises hand) and attempting to make their mark on this ever growing and evolving literary staple.
Like daring trips we take to amusement parks in order to brave giant, twisting, turning, heart stopping roller coasters, thrillers draw us in and keep us coming back over and over. We simply cannot get enough of living on the edge. As long as authors are willing to step up their game and push the limits of the genre, thrillers will continue to do exactly what we clamor for…Thrill.
Though the beginnings of the thriller are a bit cloudy one fact remains undeniable, the tale of the thriller is one that is written in history and that will continue to expand and be with us, no doubt, for many years to come.

CK Webb for Suspense Magazine


  1. CK, you are one of the most proficient writers I know. You consistantly write wonderful, well researched articles that are always a pleasure to read and that makes you a writer to closely follow.

  2. I really appreciate that Thomas. I spend a good deal of time researching with the greatest hope it shines through in the writing. You are a fantastic writer and you take horror to a new place with each piece you write. I am honored to have you on my team!! I am a fan of yours!!!