I have been on a thrill ride for as long as I can remember. I've read wildly, across genre, never discriminating. I love a big, character-rich story with a dark heart, with a compelling mystery or some kind of ticking clock at its center. I want to be lured in by prose, captured by character, and bound by stellar plotting to keep turning the pages. In short, I want thrills. Of course, thrills can be found in any "genre." Here are some of my all-time favorites:
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
I read Rebecca when I was a teenager and was swept away by the powerful voice, the gut wrenching suspense and the dark, twisted love story at its center. A young girl meets a tragic and dashing man while she's on holiday in Italy, and they enter into a whirlwind romance. They quickly marry, and she returns with Maxim de Winter to Manderley, his home on the Cornish coast. It should be a fairy tale. But once there she finds herself "haunted," in a sense, by the memory of Maxim's first wife Rebecca.
Stalked by phantoms of Rebecca's memory in every room (preserved by the spooky and intimidating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers), the second Mrs. de Winter is determined to uncover the shocking truth of predecessor's life -- and her death. From page one, I was hooked, transported into the narrator's gothic world. For me, there was something gripping about an ordinary girl being drawn into a nightmare (a theme I find again and again in my own work.) I've been addicted to big stories like this ever since.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood is not a thriller at all, really. It is, however, the first work of its kind: a true crime book that reads like fiction. And that is certainly thrilling. It's an absolutely engrossing, gorgeously written account of the brutal murder of a Kansas family with a psychological profile of their killers.
Truman Capote was a magical, beautiful writer. I had already fallen in love with the colorful characters and stunning prose of his other work. But In Cold Blood was formative for me as a writer of crime fiction. It made me realize that one could write about the darkest and ugliest things and do so with great compassion and beauty. It took me deep into dark places and told me that it was okay to look.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The story behind the book is almost as fascinating as the tale itself. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley) was just 18 years old in 1816 when she and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron and spent a dreary summer trapped indoors by inclement weather. (Actually it was a volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora! Imagine!)
Because of the many film adaptations, most of us think we know the story: Dr. Frankenstein, obsessed with reanimation, creates a monster, which he then abandons. I picked it up wanting to be scared silly by a monster story. I held an image of a square-headed, neck-bolted monstrosity, his body patch-worked from corpses, his brain belonging to an executed criminal. He was hell-bent on destruction.
But instead of a monster story, in Frankenstein I found a sad, beautiful novel about the nature of the human heart. The gripping narrative and its large themes -- ambition, alienation, science, the origins of life, fear of technology -- mesmerized me. I had hoped to be frightened, thrilled, white-knuckled -- and I certainly got what I came for. But I hadn't expected to think, or to feel so deeply for the tortured creature and his wretched creator.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Don't tell me that this is not a thriller -- and a dark, twisty romance, a fascinating mystery, a coming of age novel. Jane Eyre, an orphan abused by the aunt who took her in and at the orphanage where she was finally sent, comes to Thornfield Hall as a French tutor to young Adele. But the owner of the estate and Adele's guardian Mr. Rochester is strangely absent. Out for a walk one evening she finally meets her gruff and mysterious employer. Eventually, a romance blossoms between Jane and Rochester. But, of course, Mr. Rochester has a dark and terrible secret. (How could he not? We are talking about thrillers here, people.)
Hmm ... here we are again. Ordinary girl caught in a huge gothic plot -- secrets, lies, a haunting past, a confounding mystery, drama, fire! It's one of those books that I can read again and again, because the story is simple but rich, the characters are deep and layered. And the thrills are endless.
Cujo by Stephen King
Stephen King is one of my all time favorite writers and I've read most of his novels. He never fails to make it onto my must lists, an absolute master of all the things that make novels compelling. I usually mention The Shining or Salem's Lot, but Cujo is definitely a book I never forgot, because it was the first book that really scared me. I was nine or maybe 10 when I read it -- which frankly is way too young. I wouldn't dream of letting my daughter read this gripping, terrifying, pulse-pound thriller. I was absolutely petrified but unable to stop reading this story about a woman and her young son trapped in their Pinto on a hot summer day being terrorized by a rabid St. Bernard named Cujo.
King claims to have written this in a drunken haze. I re-read the book recently, and it's certainly not his most accomplished outing. But there are scenes that have stayed with me my whole reading life. It's King's intense writing style (you can feel the heat in that car), and how he gets deep into character (even poor Cujo), that make it one of my favorite thrillers.
The Ruins by Scott Smith
In his 2008 novel The Ruins, Scott Smith created one of the most darkly frightening thrillers I have ever read. When two couples head to Mexico for a week of fun and sun, they can't resist a bus trip out to rural Yucatan (a.k.a., the middle of nowhere) to visit the site of an archaeological dig. In spite of numerous signs that the excursion is a bad idea (including a little boy who acts as a spooky sentinel, not to mention a group of armed adults warning them away), the foursome forges on.
It's not long before they find themselves trapped on the site that has been grown over by mysterious vines. The four are isolated from the rest of the world, trapped (those armed adults now won't let them leave), and starting to panic. As each character starts to unravel in his or her own unique way, a series of grisly incidents ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels.
This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith is probably best known for Strangers on a Train, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, which were each turned into popular films. But, this hypnotic and strange story is every bit as brilliantly suspenseful as her better known works.
A man named David Kelsey is deeply, passionately in love with his girlfriend Annabelle. There are just a couple of problems: She is not in love with him anymore -- at all. They haven't actually been a couple for a long time. She is, in fact, happily married to another man, and has just given birth to a baby. But David doesn't let this stop him -- he has a goal to be with Annabelle, and he is not going to let anything get in the way of that, not even reality.
Highsmith was an avid student of abnormal psychology, and it shows here. This Sweet Sickness is so perfectly written, so tightly plotted, and so utterly compelling that when Highsmith disturbingly, convincingly takes her readers down the dark spiral of madness, we never once think of trying to break free. This is a killer psycho-thriller of the first order.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
What thriller list would be complete without Silence of the Lambs? I debated between this and Red Dragon, Harris's earlier work featuring Hannibal Lecter, but in keeping with my predilection for the ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances, it had to be Silence.
Most people probably know the plot where newbie agent Clarice Starling is on her first big investigation, hunting a serial killer dubbed by the media as "Buffalo Bill." In doing so, she must visit a maximum-security facility for the criminally insane to consult with former psychiatrist and perennial psychopath Hannibal Lecter. The book is absolute perfection in plotting and procedure, but for me as a reader and writer, character is king. It's Harris's deep diving into Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, and his unspooling of their complicated and nuanced relationship, that really make this book a masterpiece.
The word "thriller" has, for some, a bad connotation. For these gentle readers, the word might indicate that a book will be too tense, too frightening, or too (gasp) lowbrow. They might demure, Oh I don't read that kind of book, but a great story takes us into another universe, makes us feel something big, and engrosses us for a time in a life not our own. They thrill us, and I have found on my long literary journey that all the best stories are precisely those kinds of books.
Lisa Unger is the author of the new book, In the Blood.