Blog – Posted on Friday, Dec 21
23 Psychological Thrillers That Will Mess With Your Head
Here’s an experiment: pick the name of a New York Times bestseller, HBO limited series, or Ben Affleck-starring blockbuster out of a hat. Chances are, it’ll be a psychological thriller. If there’s one genre having its moment in 2018, it’s this one. And aside from capturing the attention of the cultural zeitgeist, this genre is affectionately called “horror lite” (or “grip lit,” or “horror except it’s too good for the genre”) for a reason.
Be it a backwoods murder mystery, a gothic period piece, or a prestigious drama that just happens to be about an arsonist, these are the best psychological thrillers that dive into the brain of the bad guy… and make you question your own brain along the way.
1. I Know Where She Is by S.B. Caves
A lot of people here are probably just looking for the next Gone Girl. Well, look no further. Ten years after her daughter's disappearance, Francine receives a mysterious note bearing just five words: I know where she is. With her life once again turned upside down, she goes back on the hunt for the truth behind the abduction. Things get dark, and you might find yourself calling in sick just so you can stay home and finish this heart-stopping debut novel from British author S.B. Caves.
2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Or, you might simply be looking for the next title from Gone Girl’s author, Gillian Flynn. Whether that’s the case or not, Sharp Objects is a must-read for any fan of the tightly-structured thriller. It was recently adapted into an HBO Limited Series, but if you haven’t yet caught Amy Adams’ award-worthy performance as a traumatized investigative journalist hunting down a murderer in her hometown, do yourself a favor: hold off until you’ve read the book first.
3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Speaking of HBO adaptations, Liane Moriarty’s story of a group of Monterey housewives banding together made waves when Reese Witherspoon turned it into a rousing feminist miniseries. Five women in a picturesque coastal town realize that their Instagram-perfect lives are not all they appear to be as they uncover the undercurrents of domestic abuse and assault running through their community. Given Moriarty’s knack for believable characters and compelling prose, this thrill-filled take on First Wives Club is a must-read.
4. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
If Netflix is more your speed, this book has spurred a TV adaptation, too. But with an author like Margaret Atwood at the helm, refusing to read the book first is inexcusable. Alias Grace tells the true story of mild-mannered servant Grace Marks and the double murder she’s been accused of. It’s told through the eyes of a doctor struggling to understand criminal behavior — and to reconcile Grace’s nature with the nature of her crime. In other words, it's like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in a meticulous period setting that will delight fans of historical fiction.
5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Just like Alias Grace, this is another thrilling period piece by an all-time great female author that's resurfaced thanks to Netflix. But that's where the similarities end. Aspiring ghostbuster Dr Montague rents an infamous haunted house for the summer, along with three other guests who’ve experienced the supernatural. Predictably, things get scary.
Published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece harks back to the gothic horror of the nineteenth century, but ultimately settles into psychological thriller territory as Jackson creates ghosts that mirror the trauma of her troubled protagonists.
6. The Snowman by Jo Nesbø
Norway’s first serial killer has a very specific modus operandi: he only hunts married mothers, and he always leaves a snowman at the scene of the crime. Fans of Thomas Harris will be eager to join Nesbø’s Detective Harry Hole as he unravels this bizarre mystery to stop the killer in his tracks.
The Snowman was recently adapted into a critical and commercial flop starring Michael Fassbender but don’t let that put you off. There’s a good reason why Nesbø has sold over 33 million copies worldwide.
7. Misery by Stephen King
Thanks to this hit novel (and its film adaptation), “I’m your number-one fan” is now officially the creepiest thing you can say to any author. Blame Annie Wilkes, the nurse who tends her favorite author Paul Sheldon back to health after a car crash in rural Colorado. She’s obsessed with his character Misery Chastain — so how will she react when she realizes that he’s killed Chastain off in his latest novel?
King is undoubtedly best known for his horror novels, and let’s be clear — this seminal work about the dark side of fandom, is pretty darn horrifying. But at its core, Misery is a tale of obsession, madness, and isolation: the perfect mix for a good dose of thrills.
8. Into The Water by Paula Hawkins
Psych thriller buffs might already be familiar with The Girl On The Train, but Paula Hawkins’ sophomore effort (and highly anticipated follow-up to her first New York Times bestseller) weaves a mind-warping tale told by 11 (yes, 11) different characters. Jules Abbott returns to her hometown after the mysterious death of her sister to care for her newly orphaned niece.
Fans of Hawkins’ cinematic prose and Hitchcock-esque influences will find this novel just as gripping as her smash-hit debut.
9. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
When your novel’s been out for only a year and is already being optioned for a motion picture, you know you’re doing something right.
Anna Fox is an agoraphobe woman living alone in Manhattan. She has two best friends: her wine and her window. As she gets to know (i.e. starts spying on) her neighbors, she witnesses a violent undercurrent to their happy facade… but who will believe a homebody wino? Both a riveting spin on the psych thriller craze and a meditation on mental illness and agoraphobia, there’s no question that the time is right for this contemporary take on Rear Window.
10. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
A genre that deals exclusively in themes of murder and mental illness can get pretty heavy, but it doesn’t get much heavier than this.
When her son is arrested for killing nine classmates, Eva Khatchadourian looks back on his childhood for warning signs she might have missed. Published in 2003, this story about a fictional school shooting has taken on a new poignancy as these tragedies become increasingly commonplace. There’s nothing common, however, about this vivid portrait of the psyche of a sociopath and a shattered mother trying to come to terms with it.
11. Room by Emma Donoghue
In fact, like Lionel Shriver’s book, many great psychological thrillers find traction in pulling their plots straight from headlines. This is certainly the case with Room, a mind-blowing take on the Fritzl abduction case. Trapped for seven years in her captor's basement, life has been hell for the character we know as 'Ma'. But for her son, Jack (from whose perspective the story is told), the room is all he's ever known. This thriller doubles as a heartbreaking coming-of-age saga about learning to see the world in a different way (and is now an Academy Award-winning movie to boot).
12. The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine
Amber Patterson’s plain upbringing renders her invisible in the upscale community of Bishops Harbor, Connecticut. She watches her neighbor, Daphne Parrish, with her perfect marriage and life of luxury — and decides that she wants in on it. Did you ever wish to read The Talented Mr. Ripley, only newer, timelier, and scarier? If so, this posh, feminist homage to the 1955 classic is the thriller for you.
13. Sin by Josephine Hart
Psych thrillers are certainly having a moment today, but they were inescapable in the ‘90s. While the late Josephine Hart might be best known for the 1992 film adaptation of her debut novel Damage, her Sin is the quintessential ‘90s thriller: when her family dies in a car accident, Elizabeth is adopted by her aunt and uncle — but her cousin Ruth has other plans.
Lust, envy, and just about every other sin take the forefront in this novel that’s perfect for fans of… well, any movie Sharon Stone ever starred in.
14. Sunburn by Laura Lippman
Sentenced (and then pardoned) for the murder of her husband, Polly abandons her family for a waitressing job in small-town Delaware. There, she meets the charming traveling salesman Adam, who also decides to take a job at the restaurant with her. But why did he decide to hang up his hat in the middle of nowhere?
A modern east coast spin on the private detective genre, this 2018 pageturner is one part psychological thriller, one part classic noir, and the perfect read for the flight back to your parents’ place this Thanksgiving.
15. The Elizas by Sara Shepard
This novel by Sara Shepard (Pretty Little Liars) doesn’t have a long-running TV show on Freeform, but maybe it should.
Eliza Fontaine nearly drowns for the fifth time. The first four were suicide attempts, so who could blame her parent for not believing her when she tells them she was pushed. Not to mention that Eliza is a novelist who's working on her debut novel, which gives this alluring tale of memory loss and attempted murder a wickedly meta layer. For any aspiring psych thriller writer, this is the place to start.
16. Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill
Jean Mason leads a pretty normal life right up to the point when she's alerted to a doppelgänger roaming about the city park. And to make things worse, the two strangers who inform her then turn up dead. This 2017 release sticks to the “grip lit” script at first before flipping the audience’s expectations upside down and turning into a beast all unto its own.
Saying any more would spoil it, but this is a must-read for fans of mistaken identity, murder writers, and (okay, fine) the supernatural.
17. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Family buys home. Home lights on fire. Family blames daughter? When the Richardson family’s house burns down, the people of Shaker Heights suspect an inside job, and all eyes are on Izzy, the black sheep of the family. But the next door neighbors are so close they might as well be family, too…
This is the aforementioned arson-mystery-meets-family-drama, and you’d be hard-pressed these days to find a library without a copy of Little Fires Everywhere on the hold shelf. But its popularity is anything but unearned, and if you’re a thriller lover who hasn’t yet plunged into Celeste Ng’s fiery novel, it’s high time you did.
18. The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison
This is not your mother’s Secret Garden. In the courtyard of a remote mansion, a man known as “The Gardener” keeps flowers, trees, and a group of kidnapped women he calls his “butterflies.” This one comes with ample social proof: at the time of writing, it is the #1 bestselling psychological thriller on Amazon. This is for a good reason: it’s simply original. In a market oversaturated with cookie cutter thrillers, there’s just nothing else out there about a man who treats his imprisoned women like specimens in a bug collection.
19. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Spinning a true story into a captivating thriller is easier said than done… especially when that story occurred in Protestant New England in the late 19th century.
Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother were murdered in Massachusetts in 1892, in what was eventually dubbed The Fall River Axe Murders. Lizzie was the primary suspect but was eventually acquitted. Since then, the murders have been the subject of countless books but none strike quite so chilling a tone as Sarah Schmidt’s powerful work of historical fiction.
20. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Perhaps the most surreal (in the true sense of the word) psychological thriller on the market, Fever Dream distances itself from the pack in almost every way. It’s a slim, play-like novel with magical realist undertones, crisply translated from the Argentinian original.
Still, at its heart it is a thriller, and an excellent one: a woman wakes up in a hospital bed, and a mysterious boy (not hers) kneeling beside her unravels how she got there. This mind-bending novel is perfect for fans of Gillian Flynn and Gabriel Garcia Marquez alike.
21. The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch
Science fiction and thrillers don’t always go hand-in-hand, but when synthesized correctly, the results are stunning. Such is the case with The Gone World, in which Shannon Moss, a time travelling NCIS agent, uncovers a conspiracy across multiple decades. Think Michael Crichton meets Stieg Larsson in this fusion of classic noir, dystopian fiction, and pure psychological thrills.
22. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho is another decade-spanning thriller, though this one is much more grounded in reality. Because of her savior complex, Ann is drawn to a shattered and broken man named Ward, who she quickly marries. But Ward’s trauma stemming from his first marriage runs deeper than usual — his first wife Jenny murdered their 6-year-old daughter.
It’s more literary than your average thriller, but check this one out if you want an unapologetic look at a family crumbling under the weight of dementia, distance, and, of course, murder. It is a thriller, after all.
23. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie is known for popularizing the murder mystery, but there’s an argument to be made that she invented the psychological thriller, too — and with her best selling novel, no less.
Ten people, all guilty of crimes they were never punished for, find themselves on an island under mysterious circumstances… and then start to die one by one. Though its structure resembles a classic whodunnit, the meat of And Then There Were None is pure psychology: a collection of criminals grappling with the guilt of their crimes, the motivations behind them, and the knowledge that their pasts are about to catch up to them.
Hungry for more? Check out the 43 best true crime books of all time to discover how truth really can be stranger than fiction.