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Literary Serial Killer Fiction: The Evolution of a Genre

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posted on 2021-11-22, 21:42 authored by Cook, Grant

This study examines the dynamics of post-war American serial killer fiction as it relates to social and literary contexts. In the context of history and development, this study considers the impact and origins of particular works and how they have influenced the stylistic and thematic evolution of a particular subgenre I have called literary serial killer fiction. Emphasis is placed on select narratives that directly (or indirectly) transform, challenge and critique the genre conventions in which they are written. Of interest is the evolution of general serial killer fiction as a postmodern phenomenon, in terms of its popularity with the reading public, and in line with the growth of media interest in representations of serial killers. I draw on literary theory (in particular, ‘new historicism’) to demonstrate that the appeal and tropes of serial killer fiction reflect socio-political interests indicative of the era from where they were produced, and to show how the subgenre of literary serial killer fiction can be categorized using its own particular set of defining features.  I examine these aspects in detail in relation to the following selection of fictional serial-killer narratives: Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, James Ellroy’s Killer on the Road, and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. For brevity’s sake, I have selected American narrative works that employ first-person narration and are transgressive in the way they focus on characters who defy convention and push boundaries, as do the narratives within larger genre traditions and protocols. In my view, these works are the purest examples of literary serial killer fiction in that they are characteristically unlike other examples that can easily be categorised under other literary genres.  The appeal and popularity of the genre, alongside the functional aspects of the trope, leads me to conclude that it is an ideal form to interact with popular cultural narratives, while also allowing subversive interplay between both real and fictional concerns. The appeal of the genre to those authors who usually write outside of it, particularly in regard to its transgressive and allegorical qualities, is also of particular interest to this study. Because of the hybrid nature of the genre and the ease with which the central trope of the fictional serial killer transcends genres, the resulting possibilities provide a transgressive outlet for authors who wish to test boundaries, in both a literary and an ontological sense, in regard to the commentary serial killer fiction allows on the state of contemporary American literature and society.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Meffan, James