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Agatha Christie: Horror Writer?

27th September 2018

(WARNING: This feature contains spoilers)

Several of Christie’s short stories contain a genuine (or at least a possible) supernatural element. Most of these stories (though not all) appear together in the British collection The Hound of Death, though they are spread across multiple anthologies in the United States. The short story ‘The Hound of Death’ centres around a nun who may have fantastic powers of premonition and destruction. ‘The Fourth Man’ is a tale of infatuation, jealousy, and death; centred around a woman who might have clung to life after death by inhabiting another woman’s body. ‘The Gypsy’ blends premonitions of sudden death and portents of doom with rumours of ghosts that haunt ancient sacred stones. ‘The Lamp’ centres around Mrs. Lancaster (who may or may not be the same character as the “crazy-old-lady-with-a-glass-of-milk” who is a major character in By the Pricking of My Thumbs, has a cameo appearance in Sleeping Murder, and is referenced in The Pale Horse), a woman whose family may be sharing a house with a young ghost. ‘The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael’ focuses on a man who appears to have switched bodies with a cat. ‘The Last Séance’ is a chilling tale focusing on a grieving mother’s attempts to regain contact with her deceased daughter. The story ‘In A Glass Darkly,’ revolves around a man who witnesses the spectre of a future murder in his mirror. Finally, ‘The Dressmaker’s Doll’ is a creepy story about an inanimate object that appears to be moving about of its own free will.

A number of Christie’s short stories contain a fleeting reference to something that might be something supernatural. ‘The Red Signal’ and ‘S.O.S.’ both hint that some force beyond the known laws of science might have intervened to save a life. The short story collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin and the two additional Harley Quin/Mr. Satterthwaite stories outside that anthology feature hints of supernatural activity, but nothing definite. Inspired by the commedia dell’arte character often depicted with the ability to appear and disappear at will, Harley Quin may be an ordinary man who simply inspires Mr. Satterthwaite to act as a detective, brings together couples, and solves crimes. However, some critics think that Christie implies that Harley Quin often works as a conduit between the worlds of the living and the dead, righting wrongs that the dead left behind and making sure that lovers are happy. At the ending of ‘The Man from the Sea,’ for example, Mr. Quin speaks as if he has actually learned the deepest, darkest secrets and desires of a deceased man. Readers can decide to view the Harley Quin stories as regular mysteries or mysteries that are tinged with a beneficent supernatural element.

Other Christie stories feature a supposed supernatural element that turns out to be more mundane. In ‘Wireless,’ an elderly woman believes that her late husband is trying to contact her. In ‘The Mystery of the Blue Jar’ psychic phenomena are thought to be connected to the titular antique. ‘The Flock of Geryon’ features a cult leader who claims to be able to induce spiritual visions. ‘The Dream’ centres around a man who claims to have seen his own suicide in a nightmare. ‘The Idol House of Astarte’ is about a case where a man may have been stabbed through black magic. ‘The Blue Geranium’ features a medium predicting doom and flowers that change colour in a spooky manner. In all of these stories, however, the crime is entirely the work of human criminals who deliberately invoke thoughts of the supernatural in order to distract from their own very clever plots.

Some of Christie’s supernatural works are not really horror stories, but instead are religiously-themed morality tales. ‘The Call of Wings,’ for example, only has a brief hint of the supernatural, particularly at the end, as a wealthy man forsakes all material things in order to follow a more heavenly path. The short anthology Star Over Bethlehem contains multiple short stories with Christian themes and supernatural elements such as angels and miracles.

Other Christie horror stories involve no trace of a supernatural theme. Instead, the horror comes from people being in a perfectly natural, albeit horrifying position. The evil in these stories comes from purely human means, and everyone involved is completely certain that their terror comes from entirely mortal sources. In this type of horror story, sympathetic (or at least interesting) characters are placed in a horrible but completely natural position that fills them with terror. Examples of these stories include Stephen King’s novel Misery or Edward Chodorov’s classic play Kind Lady, where an injured novelist is held hostage by his biggest fan and an elderly woman is trapped in her own house by an evil gang that convinces her would-be saviours that the perfectly capable old woman is actually senile, respectively. Christie’s short story ‘Philomel Cottage’ can be viewed as a horror story, as a woman is trapped in a house along with the realisation that she may have married a serial killer. Her one-act play The Rats centres around two people who slowly, terrifyingly realise that they are inexorably caught (like rats in a trap), in a plot to frame them for murder.

Christie’s horror and supernatural writing can be found, mainly, in her short stories, but these themes occasionally crop up in her novels. The Sittaford Mystery features a séance that leads to the discovery of a murder, Hallowe’en Party contains a few magical parlour tricks, and Murder is Easy contains a sub-sub-sub-plot connected to witchcraft. The supernatural features prominently in only two novels. In Endless Night, the curse of Gipsy’s Acre appears to be shockingly real as the bodies pile up, and in The Pale Horse three witches claim to possess the power to curse people to death.

Christie will always be celebrated for her work writing crime stories, but it is important to remember that she worked outside of her trademark genre. Most of her horror short stories were written before the mid-1930s, although her two novels with strong supernatural themes, The Pale Horse and Endless Night, were both published in the 1960s. Agatha Christie may be the Queen of Crime, but her kingdom extends far beyond the bounds of mystery fiction.

This article was written by Chris Chan, an Agatha Christie expert.

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