When I was little, my parents never told me “no” when I asked for a book, and I think that’s what started most of my problems. I have a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and I work full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm. I have a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying, and I take enormous pleasure in creeping out my coworkers. When I’m not spending every waking hour at the library, I’m at home with my cats and my cardigan collection, and when I’m not at home, I’m spending too much money on concert tickets. My hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing my boyfriend that I can, in fact, fit more books onto my shelves. Also, go Cubs!
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At this point, I think it’s safe to credit Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl with ushering in the golden age of female-driven psychological suspense, and Paula Hawkins has only continued that trend with her runaway Hitchcock-esque bestseller The Girl on the Train. But as much as I worship both of these authors, there’s a huge and surprisingly uncharted world of deliciously disturbing fiction from some delightfully twisted women. Let’s explore, shall we?
Now You See Me – Sharon Bolton
Take a British police procedural, inject it with some dark personal secrets, and add in a gory recreation of Jack the Ripper’s murders, and you’ll get something close to Now You See Me, which is the first book in Bolton’s Lacey Flint series. Be forewarned – Sharon Bolton does not spare any gruesome details in this story, and each killing gets more and more disturbing. If you’re an amateur Ripper scholar, you’ll definitely want to add this one to the list. It’s worth mentioning that the rest of the Lacey Flint series isn’t tied to Jack the Ripper, but each book is bleak and progressively more disturbing.
Heartsick – Chelsea Cain
You don’t find many female serial killers in fiction, and part of that, I think, is that the author would have to get the character exactly right to keep the story from feeling like a gimmick. Well, Chelsea Cain got her character exactly right with Gretchen Lowell. Gretchen is like a female version of Hannibal Lecter, minus the whole cannibalism thing, and for over a year she has maintained a terrifying psychological grip on Archie Sheridan, the detective she abducted, tortured, and then released before turning herself into the police. Heartsick is the first book in the Gretchen & Archie saga, and it is a brutal, graphic roller coaster ride meant best suited to those with strong wills and strong stomachs.
Okay, this is a little bit of a cheat because I’m not naming any novel of hers specifically, but Tana French is a literary goddess and her Dublin Murder Squad series is sheer brilliance. Each novel combines page-turning police procedural investigation, characters so compelling and flawed that you forget you’re reading fiction, and lyrical writing that makes you want to annotate every sentence in the book. But deep at the core of every novel is something so bleak, and yet so beautiful, that you’ll finish each book wanting to weep over everything that was lost. Do not expect happy endings with these stories, but do expect to walk away from them a changed reader.
Mo Hayder – Mo Hayder
Five women have been ritualistically murdered and dumped on the south side of London, but it isn’t until the post mortems that the police realize that they are dealing with a deranged sexual serial killer. Mo Hayder delivers a top notch mystery, but she also uncovers a dark, perverted side of human nature that will make you want to scrub yourself clean after you finish the book. And just like many of the entries on this list, Birdman is the first in a series, so there’s more twisted psychological depravity to follow.
Reconstructing Amelia – Kimberly McCreight
This book is probably the least disturbing entry on this list, but it’s so utterly compelling I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t mention it. The main storyline follows Kate Baron, whose teenage daughter Amelia has recently committed suicide by jumping off the roof of her school building. Then one day, Kate receives a text from an unknown number that reads “Amelia didn’t jump.” As Kate investigates Amelia’s life at school, she uncovers startling and troubling facts that make her question just how well she actually knew her daughter. It’s an unsettling and heartbreaking read about being a teenager and the lengths that people can go to in order to punish and humiliate.
Mother, Mother – Koren Zailckas
If I had to pick a novel that was just as disturbing and relentlessly compelling as Gone Girl, this would have to be it. The story centers around Josephine Hurst, mother to three children and wife to a brilliant tech guru. On the outside, they look perfect. But on the inside, they are falling apart as Josephine manipulates each member of the family to suit her needs and present a flawless face to the outside world. This is a chilling psychological portrait of a poisonous, narcissistic mother and the lengths she will go to in order to get what she wants.