A Review of the Best Psychological Thriller Books
Psychological thrillers are a unique genre of literature that effectively combine the fear-provoking elements of horror and the intense suspense of thrillers. By leveraging themes such as mental illness, psychosis, and other psychological disorders, the best psychological thrillers are able to captivate and horrify readers. In this essay, we will analyze this genre in detail, exploring its characteristics, and providing a critical analysis of five classic psychological thriller books to demonstrate how each stands apart from the competition.
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And now onto the history of psychological thrillers.
The History of Psychological Thrillers
The landmark novel in the category is “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris, but you may be surprised to learn the genre is over a century old. We can trace the origins of the psychological thriller back to the early 1900s, when Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne du Maurier utilized mystery, suspense, and psychological horror to take readers into the darkest depths of humanity. These pioneers were among the first to explore the inner workings of the human mind and create complex, unreliable narrators that left readers with an atypical trepidation that all might not turn out well at the end of the book. Their stories included dark, unpredictable twists and chilling climaxes that kept readers on the edge of their seats.
Psychological thrillers only gained in popularity in forthcoming decades, with authors such as Stephen King, Patricia Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell pushing the boundaries of the genre and exploring the depths of the human psyche. King’s “Misery,” Highsmith’s “Strangers On A Train,” and Rendell’s “A Judgement In Stone” explore the broken soul of humanity, with King’s “The Shining” leveraging alcoholism and addiction to blur the line between the human struggle and supernatural horror.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in the genre’s popularity, with Thomas Harris and Dean Koontz advancing thrillers down even blacker corridors. Harris’s “Silence of the Lambs,” “Hannibal,” and “Red Dragon” are the most iconic and influential psychological thrillers, and Koontz’s “Watchers” and “The Bad Place” pushed genre boundaries and gave birth to a new era of psychological thriller authors.
The 2000s saw additional genre growth, with Gillian Flynn, Dan Brown, and Stieg Larsson leading the charge. Flynn’s “Gone Girl” influenced almost as many current thriller authors as the Harris Hannibal Lecter series, while Larsson’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” trilogy became a rousing success on paper and Hollywood’s silver screen.
More recently, the psychological thriller genre has benefitted from a resurgence. Dan Padavona’s “Her Last Breath” weaves an intricate plot around a sheriff’s deputy with Asperger’s syndrome and the violent serial killer he’s tracking. J.D. Barker, Sarah Pinborough, and Ruth Ware are producing innovative thrillers that sit proudly beside Harris, Koontz, and King on store shelves. Barker’s “The Fourth Monkey” and Pinborough’s “Behind Her Eyes” are examples of modern psychological thrillers which combine suspense and horror with complex plot arcs. Ware’s “The Lying Game” and “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” explore the pathos of human behavior.
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris – a classic psychological thriller
Thomas Harris is the architect of the modern psychological thriller, and his greatest achievement is “Red Dragon“, a terrifying tale of an FBI profiler tracking a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. “Red Dragon” is a genre classic, praised for its intense suspense and vivid imagery.
Thomas Harris builds tension in “Red Dragon” by immersing readers in an everyday setting, with believable, damaged characters, and employing a unique narrative structure, narrating the story with two distinct voices: Will Graham, the FBI profiler, and Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer. This dual-viewpoint approach allows readers to journey into each character’s mind, gradually introducing their backstories and how fate brought them to this point. Harris prefers a slow burn, revealing information in bits and pieces, and employs foreshadowing to hint at eventual plot twists.
Close inspection reveals Harris drew heavily on mythology in “Red Dragon”, using it to add depth to the characters and their motivations. In particular, the Tooth Fairy is linked to the ancient Norse myth of the dragon Fafnir. In the myth, Fafnir is an evil dragon who guards a hoard of valuable treasure and kills anyone who attempts to steal it. Through the Tooth Fairy, Harris explores themes of greed and envy, while also highlighting the dangers of unchecked ambition.
Like the great detectives of literature, Will Graham is a brilliant yet flawed individual dedicated to finding justice, combining Sherlock Holmes’ intellect and Sam Spade’s gruffness. By using Graham as a vehicle for exploring the psychological implications of detective work, Harris is able to create a more realistic depiction of the psychological toll of criminal profiling. One may also argue Hannibal Lecter, who first appears in “Red Dragon,” is inspired by Alfred Hitchock’s Norman Bates in “Psycho.” Both Lecter and Bates are murderers living double lives.
“Red Dragon” remains a thought-provoking novel with a lasting influence on the crime and thriller genres. Harris combines elements of classic literature, mythology, horror, and suspense to create a compelling world. Through his characters, Harris explores complex psychological issues, while providing a suspenseful story. “Red Dragon” is a timeless work that will influence thriller authors for years to come.
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The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides – Question Your Own Reality
“The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides tells the tale of renowned artist Alicia Berenson, who inexplicably shoots her husband Gabriel and refuses to speak again. After she is institutionalized, criminal psychotherapist Theo Faber digs to find the truth behind the tragedy. Through his investigation, discovers the Alicia’s hidden horrors.
Exploring themes of love, loss, trauma, and identity, “The Silent Patient” examines the damages that arise from a person’s refusal to confront the past. Michaelides’ writing is intense and poetic, and the need to uncover the reasons behind Alicia’s silence keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
Due to its dark tone, psychological depth, and exploration of themes like obsession, memory, and identity, Michaelides’ psychological thriller is often compared to “Gone Girl” and “Psycho.” Read between the lines, and you will discover influence from Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train,” Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” and even Shakespeare’s “Othello”.
Michaelides’ examination of Alicia’s traumatic past drives the narrative that the only way to break out of a cycle of suffering is to confront one’s past and learn to accept it, instead of pushing the past away. “The Silent Patient” includes references to psychological studies and treatments, including Exposure Therapy, an effective treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Alex Michaelides’ “The Silent Patient” offers a multilayered analysis of the human psyche and its consequences. This psychological exploration of human nature dives deep into the nuances of love and silence, and brings forth a thought-provoking story that will leave readers contemplating their own perceptions of reality. Through the artistry of his writing, Michaelides crafts an engaging and compelling novel that will remain in the minds of readers long after they complete the book.
In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware – Psychological Terror in the Woods
Released in 2015, “In a Dark, Dark Wood” by Ruth Ware combines psychological thrillers, mystery and the cold touch of horror to create a modern classic. Nora Shaw, a reclusive writer, attends a hen party in an isolated cabin deep in the English countryside. As the night progresses, secrets are revealed that make Nora question her life choices as well and the cabin.
Ware’s novel draws influence from a variety of sources, from the gothic novels of the late 18th century to contemporary psychological thrillers. Her description of the cabin, with its “veneer of benign neglect”, sets a somber tone and establishes a sense of unease in the reader. Similarly, Ware’s use of oppressive weather is evocative of the gothic genre, with thunderous rain pounding on the windows while the woods become a source of dread.
Readers may also recognize references to horror films such as “The Shining,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and “Friday the 13th.” Throughout the novel, Ware builds tension by introducing small hints and clues that something sinister is lurking in the woods, allowing the reader’s imagination to run wild and fill in the blanks with disturbing clarity. These clues become more frequent, building suspense as the reader deciphers the hidden horror, a common narrative device found in psychological thrillers.
Interestingly, Ware revealed “In a Dark, Dark Wood” is based on a real-life experience. The author’s first-hand experience of staying in an isolated cabin remains evident in her vivid description of the surroundings. Moreover, Nora’s journey to the cabin follows a similar route to the one Ware took when she visited the cabin. This adds a personal element to the novel, which makes it more relatable to the reader.
Ware’s skillful manipulation of suspense creates an atmosphere of apprehension, making “In a Dark, Dark Wood” a must-read for fans of dark psychological thrillers.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris – Crime Fiction’s Greatest Moment
Widely regarded as the thriller genre’s greatest work of crime fiction, “Silence of the Lambs” debuted in 1988 as Thomas Harris’ sequel to “Red Dragon.” This classic psychological thriller follows FBI Agent Clarice Starling as she attempts to apprehend serial killer Buffalo Bill. Along the way, she receives help from imprisoned psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who provides insight into the criminal mind. The novel introduced a new type of villain, the educated serial killer. Lecter is highly intelligent and well-read, and to many quite likable, providing a unique twist on the traditional villain. His psychological depth and complexity are unmatched by other villains in the genre.
“Silence of the Lambs” weaves psychological horror, crime fiction, and gothic literature into a suspenseful narrative. Like “Red Dragon”, the book’s uses of the forensic sciences and criminal profiling were revolutionary for its time. “Silence of the Lambs” blurs the line between the traditional hero and villain. While Clarice Starling is portrayed as a capable and competent agent, Harris isn’t shy about showing all the warts and imperfections of the FBI. In fact, it is a grievous mistake by the FBI that lands Starling in Buffalo Bill’s hands during the thrilling climax. Contrastingly, Lecter is a monster, yet he is an intelligent and respected figure whose opinions are sought by the criminal justice system. This idea of a gray area between hero and villain is a recurring theme in the novel, and is a trait that has grown in popularity in the crime thriller genre.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn – Modern Psychological Horror at its Finest
Among the most powerful and haunting works in modern thriller fiction, Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” centers on Camille Preaker, a troubled journalist who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the murders of two young girls. Through Camille’s journey of self-discovery, Flynn explores the trauma of childhood abuse, the secrets of small-town life, and the power of female rage.
Flynn draws on her personal experience with abuse to create a complex, nuanced depiction of a woman reclaiming her sense of identity after experiencing deep trauma. Whereas Greek mythology inspired Thomas Harris’ Tooth Fairy, Gothic literature shapes the characters of “Sharp Objects.” Camille’s mother Adora reminds one of the villainous matriarchs found in classic Gothic literature. Adora is a classic “evil mother” figure, whose oppressive, manipulative nature has a lasting impact on Camille’s life.
Flynn uses powerful imagery to convey the trauma of Camille’s past. Throughout the novel, Camille’s body is used as a metaphor for her psychological wounds. Her mother’s words are “written on her skin” in the form of self-harm scars, while her stepfather’s abuse is a “gash” on her soul. The imagery is unsettling and serves as a powerful reminder of the psychological impact of child abuse.
As a journalist, Camille must uncover evidence about the murders as she struggles to unravel the truth of own past. Camille’s investigations intertwine with her psychological journey, making her a complex and fascinating protagonist.
“Sharp Objects” is a disturbing gem among modern psychological thrillers that is both haunting and profound.
Psychological horror and thriller stories have a long-standing cultural presence, as evidenced by the ubiquitous popularity of cinematic adaptations. Nonetheless, literary works have a unique capacity to cultivate fear and trepidation in readers through their narrative form. For those looking to explore the world of psychological horror and thrillers, these four books provide an excellent starting point.
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