Michael Jackson did a lot to muddy the waters between thrillers and horror. When you think thrill-ah! you probably think dancing zombies trotting around to a cool beat. If only he’d called the song “Horror”! That would have been a heck of a lot more accurate. If you’re an avid reader and thriller vs. horror distinctions have you bewildered, then you’re in the right place. Let’s zombie walk into a once-and-for-all breakdown of each of these distinct categories.
You chill, you thrill, you love that good, good suspense. The distinction between thriller vs. horror is often a matter of how slowly the killer creeps toward their unsuspecting victim. That’s what thrillers are all about: the mounting tension that builds to a crescendo. A good thriller will draw out the agony as long as possible, but what it probably won’t do is toss in a ghost. Not a real one, anyway. Thrillers tend to be rooted in reality, albeit a reality filled with psycho killers and murderous butlers. Plot is important in a thriller, as is a good, strong villain. Count on twists and duplicity galore, because the story can’t really be suspenseful if the reader knows everything up front.
Near Dark by Brad Thor
Almost everything Brad Thor writes counts as a thriller. One could say that he is, in fact, a professional thriller writer. Because it’s true! This book is very much in keeping with the rest of the Scot Harvath series. Here, he hunts his wife’s killers with the help of Norwegian intelligence.
And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall
Secrets! Violence! Two women locked in a deadly game of cat and mouse! When Isabel Lincoln disappears, Grayson Sykes commits to finding her. That may not be so easy. When you’re looking for a woman as complicated as Isabel—or a family as messed up—the truth is a dangerous companion.
The Other Mrs. by Mary Kubica
When her new neighbor turns up dead, Sadie decides to investigate. After all, how dangerous could a small, remote Maine island town be for an innocent newcomer? As the stakes rise, Sadie realizes that the truth may be closer to home than she could have possibly imagined.
The Missing American by Kwei Quartey
Accra is a booming internet powerhouse…and its underbelly seethes with scams and cons. Aspiring policewoman Emma Djan sees her career collapse around her just in time for a place to open up at a private detective agency. When an American disappears into the belly of an email scam gone very wrong, Emma may find herself in exactly the right position to find him…and save a life.
You want zombies? You’ve got zombies! When it comes to thriller vs. horror, a thriller builds toward a scream, but horror is all about the background moan. While it may also build to a climax, the aesthetic is critical here. The goal of horror is to evoke existential terror, disgust, or revulsion. If it’s eerie, it’s horror. Look for lots of supernatural goings-on and big metaphorical statements about society.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
This is one of my favorite pieces of horror. It’s based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who invented the famous Cthulhu mythos but peppered it with his gross racist ideas. LaValle fixes that in a deeply satisfying way that highlights the smarmy fake friendliness that white gentrifiers sometimes try to use on communities of color to achieve ends that are not in their best interests. In this case, a self-assured outsider decides to summon a tentacle monster in a minority-dominated section of his city, but underestimates his choice of a right-hand man.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
The creeping terror of vengeance meets cultural abandonment in this chilling tale of supernatural dread! Four Native American men find themselves pursued by something out of the lore of their ancestors…something that’s not happy that they’ve broken from tradition. Drawing from the shame and complex pain of enduring a culture loss, this book will shake you to your very bones.
The Deep by Alma Katsu
The Titanic is haunted. Weird events plague it from the moment it leaves on its cursed voyage to the minute it settles onto the Atlantic floor. But that’s not where it ends: years later, a survivor encounters a fellow passenger again on the Titanic‘s sister ship, the Brittanic. The problem is that she’s quite certain that he didn’t survive the first time…
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia*
Wealthy socialite Noemí Taboada is on a mission from her father: find her cousin and rescue her. Letters indicate that Catalina is becoming psychologically unhinged, but her cries for help may be very real. Moreover, her husband’s dour family and their looming, moldy estate may have more to do with her distress than any medical illness.
Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
This is the second book in a horror series about a Black woman in Civil War era America whose calling is to put down the restless dead…even when the living don’t have her back. Wrestling with racial injustice and LGBTQIA representation, this book is one for our present moment. Best of all, as one of a series, you can go back and read its predecessor, Dread Nation!
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
Motel horror is its own special category! Nothing’s creepier than a haunted, dingy old inn, as Viv Delaney is about to find out. Her aunt learned that lesson 35 years ago when she disappeared on shift. Obviously, Viv needs to take the exact same job and find out what’s going on.
*Editor’s Note: Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic was originally categorized as a thriller in error. The author has specified that it should be classified as a work of gothic horror.