When it comes to my own writing, I tend to gravitate toward urban fantasy or horror. Like most American women, though, I love a good psychological thriller. Over the years I’ve often wondered why I gravitate toward these stories with unreliable narrators, flawed-beyond-belief characters, and enough drama to fill an entire season of Real Housewives. There are five books that stick out for me in this genre, and I’ve listed them here.
Dark Places– Gillian Flynn
Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered. She testified against her brother, Ben, who was convicted and sent to prison for the massacre, which some believe was part of a Satanic ritual. Cut to present day — Libby is broke and alone. The donation money she survived off of has all but run out, so when she gets contacted by a group called the “Kill Club,” she takes a chance and meets with them. They are obsessed with crime and the murder of her family, and of proving Ben’s innocence. They make an offer – go back to the scene of the crime, meet with all the players that evening, and find out what really happened in exchange for a handsome payout. Libby agrees but as she starts to return to the darkest evening in her life, she realizes things aren’t all that they seem.
This is Gillian’s second book but in my mind, it’s far superior to Sharp Objects and Gone Girl (I know, I know). The prose drips with darkness, the scenery is painted perfectly, and the characters are totally messed up. This book is told through three different characters — Libby, Ben, and their mother, Patty. Each one reveals a little more about their lives leading up to the massacre, and the truth about what really happened will shock you.
Good Me, Bad Me – Ali Land
Milly’s mother is beautiful. She is charming. She is good with children. She is also a serial killer, and abuses Milly in ways that one cannot imagine. When Milly turns her mother in after she murders another victim, she’s put into witness protection and given a chance at a new life. But she feels the pressure of having to keep her old identity a secret while preparing to be the star witness at her mother’s trial. All the while, her surrogate family life begins to chafe — her surrogate mother is a ghost of a woman who’s barely comfortable with Milly in the home. Her surrogate sister and her school’s Queen Bee, bullies Milly relentlessly. And her surrogate father is also her psychologist, who may have ulterior motives for taking Milly in at all. As the tension escalates, Milly’s true nature shows, making you wonder how much of our makeup is nature and how much is nurture.
If you like twisted narratives and flawed, unlikeable characters, this book is for you. Not a single person in this book is good — each one is flawed, and it’s just a matter of to what degree. Additionally, it’s rare that we get content about female serial killers, so I found the way that Land writes about this character to be supremely compelling.
Good As Gone – Amy Gentry
Thirteen-year-old Julie is kidnapped from her own bedroom, with only her younger sister, Jane, as a witness. Her family stands strong amidst the terror of her disappearance and adjusts over the years to her absence. One day the doorbell rings, and Julie’s mother, Anna, is floored to see a woman on the other side claiming to be Julie herself. Anna is all at once thrilled and horrified —Julie says she was abudcted into a human trafficking ring. She’s got scars, she’s dehydrated, and she’s in need of therapy. As Anna and the rest of the family work to reintegrate Julie into their lives, she soon begins to question the woman called Julie’s legitimacy. And when she’s contacted by a private eye, the tension only escalates.
This book is split between first person and third person narratives. For some, this may make the book difficult to get through. However, each chapter reveals more and more about these women’s story — how Anna and her family dealt with Julie’s loss, and the twisted story of what happened to the woman calling herself Julie. The writing is swift and easy to get through, and the characters are well fleshed out.
The Favorite Sister – Jessica Knoll
Business owners. Best friends. Enemies. These words describe sisters Brett and Kelly, who co-own a series of Soul Cycle-esque gyms in New York. Kelly, the older sister, is a single mother. She’s the money-minded straight woman to younger sister Brett’s creative bravado. Their relationship is even more strained by the fact that Brett has been thrust into the spotlight on the reality TV show Goal Diggers. In this world, she is the brassy, queer, Rubenesque woman who’s plucky attitude has secured her place as fan favorite. In Kelly’s world, though, she’s a pain in the ass sister who told a lie so big it would ruin both their lives if discovered. When Kelly ends up on Goal Diggers as a new cast member, tensions flare between the sisters, the other cast members, and the show’s producers. Someone gets black out drunk. Someone gets beaten up. And someone ends up dead.
I devoured this book in a day and a half. Knoll’s writing is exquisite, as she delves into each individual character’s lives and through them makes keen observations about what it’s like to be a woman in this society. If you love Real Housewives-level drama, unreliable narrators, and a book full of mostly unlikeable characters, I highly suggest this.
Penpal – Dathan Auerbach
Told in first person by an anonymous narrator, Penpal recounts the narrator’s ordeal of being stalked from the time he was a young child. He recounts several events from his childhood, some of which were clarified by his mother after she finally revealed the truth about the ordeal. In Kindergarten, the narrator was given the assignment to write a letter and tie it to a balloon to send off. At first, he thinks no one has gotten his balloon, as all his classmates have received a letter back. At the end of the year, he receives Poloroid photos in response. Other strange events occur, culminating in the death of the narrator’s friend, Josh, and Josh’s sister. The final reveal of what really happened is enough to send shivers down your spine.
Penpal was originally written as a series of Reddit stories, then adapted for The NoSleep podcast. I first heard the podcast and was so captivated by the story that I had to get the book. The story at its core is simple, but effective. Who hasn’t been afraid at the thought of someone stalking you? Who hasn’t been surprised to find that some of your childhood memories didn’t unfold exactly the way you thought? If you like thrillers that border on horror, check out Penpal.
I know there are more juicy thrillers out there. Which ones are your favorites? Leave a comment below!