A Rant About the “Surprise Paranormal” Trope

Aka mis-marketed thrillers that left me feeling tricked…and not in a good way

If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you might have seen some reviews where the book was marketed as a thriller, but turned out to be something else. You probably already know that I HATE this trend–and I know I’m not the only one.

When I read thrillers, all the fun for me lies in trying to figure out the twist. The author needs to leave enough clues so that I don’t feel blindsided by the reveal, but confuse me enough that I don’t figure it out too early. I need to feel challenge but not duped.

Lately, though, I’ve read a handful of books (marketed as thrillers!) where the “twist” is that the book has some sort of paranormal, supernatural, or science-fiction element to it. I spend the whole book looking for a real-world explanation only to feel cheated at the end!

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about these books without spoiling them, so I do have to consider this a spoiler post. If you’ve read a few of these books and hate them too, read on to be warned of other similar books. If you like these “twists” and like to be surprised, I’ll see you on my review page after you’ve read them!

Reading further may spoil books you didn’t know use this cop-out.

Surprise paranormal is my SINGLE biggest pet peeve when reading thrillers. Worse than loose ends, worse than the pill-popping crazy female, and almost worse than the one bizarre surprise incest book I read. (Hovering over that link will spoil the book, but like I’ve said, this is a spoiler post.)

“Thrillers” with paranormal “twists”:

Behind Her Eyes

It all started for me with Behind Her Eyes. I do believe I legitimately threw the book in anger when I realized it was paranormal. The plot hooked me, and I was flying through the pages waiting to see how Sarah Pinborough possibly could explain all the strange goings-on. I said it in that review and I’ll say it again: It’s a complete cop-out to make the twist something completely impossible! It’s in the same vein as the “just kidding, it was all a dream” trope. 

I went into this book with a thriller mindset–figure out the clues and try to guess the ending. I know lucid dreaming is a thing, and I figured out that Louise was astral projecting when she first went into Adam’s room while sleeping. But since this was a thriller, not a paranormal novel, I kept trying to figure out how they would explain the astral projection in a realistic way. 

I think Riley Sager did this well in Home Before Dark–it was a paranormal book on the surface and made you think ghosts were banging in the night, but everything had a real-world explanation in the end. As I read I kept searching for a real-world explanation for Behind Her Eyes and was disappointed not to find one.

The House Across The Lake

Then came The House Across The Lake. Everything that Sager did right in Home Before Dark, he did completely wrong in The House Across The Lake. The first half of this book was another Woman In The Window repeat. Drunk widow spies on her neighbors, sees something fishy, and no one believes her because she’s a notorious drunk. Add in a splash of fame–the MC is a former actor, and the victim across the lake is a former supermodel.

Now, because this is Riley Sager, I knew there would be a twist I didn’t see coming. I was so disappointed for the twist to be paranormal. Similar to Behind Her Eyes, Sager relied on pulling a supernatural twist out of nowhere to surprise the reader. Was this billed as supernatural? No. Could it have been done without the bizarre supernatural aspect? Yes. Would I have liked it way more without the paranormal cop-out? Also yes.

I go into a thriller under the mindset of trying to figure out the clues and guess the ending. When there’s no realistic ending to guess, I get frustrated that all my efforts were in vain. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a paranormal book in the right setting. But when I pick up a book that I know is paranormal or magical realism, I suspend all belief and just enjoy the story. I’m much more critical of thrillers, and need them to have a realistic explanation.

I was especially annoyed by The House Across The Lake because it would have been so easy to give it a realistic explanation. For example, maybe Casey drunkenly came across a confession from Len, admitting where the bodies were hidden, and then Eli told the ghost stories about the lake, and then she drank Tom’s drugged wine so she hallucinated Len being in Katherine’s body? I don’t know, I’m not the author. I just feel like the story could’ve been told without the paranormal cop-out.

A Riley Sager note: If you’re on this post wondering if Middle of the Night falls into this category, you’re safe! That one has all real-world explanations, and I highly recommend it.

The House in the Pines

I didn’t hate this one nearly as much as the previous two listed, and it isn’t quite “paranormal”, but the book still falls into the category of explaining away the twist with an impossible event. The author tried so hard to convince the reader that it could really happen, and it felt like more effort was being put into that than into the storyline itself.

Daisy Darker

Okay, I actually loved Daisy Darker, even though it fits into this surprise paranormal trope. The reveal didn’t anger me in this case, and it felt like the author cleverly averted my expectations instead of fooling me with impossible actions. I think the difference for me was that all of the thriller aspects were still explained by something happening in real life, and Daisy was basically just the narrator. This was a clever application of a trope I hate, so I was impressed with the outcome. If all of these authors did what Alice Feeney did, I wouldn’t hate the trope this much!

“Thrillers” with science fiction “twists”:

The Other Side of Night:

Similar to the surprise paranormal trope, The Other Side of Night used a surprise time travel “twist” to explain the thriller aspect. It was not marketed as science fiction at all, and once again left me feeling tricked.

My biggest issue with books like these is that they essentially fool the reader with the marketing, instead of with clever writing. A good author doesn’t need to mismarket their books in order to keep the reader from figuring out the twist too early. It’s lazy writing and leaves the reader feeling like they were tricked into wasting their time.

What other books belong on this list?

No, I haven’t read Verity. I don’t know for sure, but from what I’ve seen online, I get the feeling it’s going to fall into the surprise paranormal category and that I’ll hate it just as much as the rest of these. I often see it compared to Behind Her Eyes, and I didn’t love the other Colleen Hoover books I’ve read, so it’s a big fat nope from me. It’s been sitting on my unread shelf for years now!

Have you read any other thrillers that try to fool you with the marketing instead of with the writing? If so, drop them in the comments for me to avoid.

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