I was thinking recently about suspense and the fact that many people these days seem to use the terms "suspense fiction" and "mystery fiction" interchangeably. There is an overlap, but they are not identical.
I think we can all take a swing at defining mystery, but what is suspense fiction, exactly?
Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, famously differentiated between surprise and suspense. If two men are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off under it, we are surprised. But if we see the bomb beforehand and hear it ticking as the men sit casually talking about the weather -- that's suspense.
Worldcat defines suspense fiction as "works whose prime purpose is to produce a feeling of frightened anticipation." While any author of stories or novels wants the reader to feel impelled to keep reading, with suspense fiction that nervous urge is the main - or at least a main - goal.
As I said, though, not all crime fiction is focused on suspense. But does all suspense fiction involve crime?
few years ago I asked on Facebook and again on the Short Mystery
Fiction Society e-list for suggestions of great suspense short stories
that do not involve crime. It led to some interesting discussions.
First of all, I received a lot of suggestions that were not short
stories: novels, plays, and even a poem. ("Casey at the Bat" certainly
is suspenseful, although it doesn't have that "frightened" aspect
But about half of the actual stories that were suggested were subject to arguments. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is great suspense fiction, but is it crime fiction? Apparently what happens in it is legal in that community.
Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a story of a man sentenced to die for sabotage during a war, but since he is a civilian, does that make it a crime rather than a war story?
Someone argued that Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" qualifies and I scoffed that at first. But I'm damned if the nominator didn't have a point. By most definitions what occurs in the story is not a crime.* However, since it unquestionably a detective story I am leaving it off my list.
The biggest category of non-crime suspense story I could find is people-versus-nature, which makes sense. See, for example, Jack London's "To Build A Fire."
Another tale in that category is "The Drover's Wife," by the great Australian writer Henry Lawson. His simple tale involves a ranch woman left alone with her young son, a dog... and, as it turns out, a very large snake. An Australian actress named Leah Purcell has recently adapted it into a feminist novel, play, and movie, none of which I have yet encountered.
What you see below is my personal compilation of Great Suspense Stories Without Crimes. Please add your own suggestions.
Bierce, Ambrose - "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."
DuMaurier, Daphne - "The Birds."
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins - "The Yellow Wallpaper."
Jackson, Shirley - "The Lottery."
Kinsella, W.P. - "Pius Blindman is Coming Home."
London, Jack - "To Build A Fire."
Lawson, Henry - "The Drover's Wife."
Saki - "The Open Window."
* Although I argue otherwise in my short story "The Street of the Dead House."