Literary Monsters & The Psychological Thriller Phenomenon
There are so many stories featuring monsters in literature that have been adapted into films as I explored in my previous post. These range from the times of ancient mythology, to the ‘person as monster’ phenomenon that has been increasingly popular in the twentieth century and into the present day in the genre of the psychological thriller. Monsters in ancient mythology such as Greek mythology served a purpose in that they existed for various reasons one was to highlight a narrative of ‘heroism’ such as Theseus slaying the Minotaur or Perseus slaying Medusa. The other was perhaps to use the narratives of the story as a warning, such as to not to indulge in various sins such as vanity or greed else you might be turned into a hideous monster.
As I have already examined different kinds of monsters in my film post, for this literature post I am going to examine the extraordinary phenomenon of the psychological thriller genre that although has existed since at least the nineteenth century in published form, has enjoyed a tremendous rise of popularity in recent years.
This recent phenomenon is due in part to Gone Girl from the US and The Girl on the Train from the UK. I have read both of these titles (like many others) and seen the excellent film adaptation of Gone Girl and anticipate the upcoming film adaptation of The Girl on the Train (though the location has changed from the UK to the US, so we’ll see how this translates). Why was Gone Girl so successful? Gone Girl is a strong narrative driven tale with an unreliable narrator and has an excellent twist in the tale that many could not anticipate. It also fit the zeitgeist of the time focusing on the period of economic uncertainty in the recent recession where traditionally people were meant to focus on the things that matter such as the security of the family unit, but what if this unit was dysfunctional and could not be trusted? Gillian Flynn examined all of these themes and topped them with a main character who could also be a dangerous psychopath. For these reasons and the word of mouth phenomenon that this generated I believe this explains why Gone Girl was so successful.
Ever since the success of Gone Girl, publishers have been searching for the next psychological thriller to replicate the success of this story. The Girl on the Train had a huge publicity and marketing push here in the UK. It was advertised everywhere here and obviously had a great visual appeal that could be easily translated into film. I do like the story of The Girl on the Train but I feel that it is not quite as strong story as that of Gone Girl as the main character is unreliable (an alcoholic) and has more moments of weakness and I perhaps not very likeable.
I have read several psychological thriller novels recently, and they keep on coming and will do so for the rest of this year. I have read some that I certainly believe could be as successful as Gone Girl and contain all the essential elements of a psychological thriller. So what are the key components of the successful psychological thriller?
Key Elements of Psychological Thrillers:
Unreliable Narrators (sometimes this is because the narrator is a child or it could be due to substance impairment, or they may be a psychopath).
The Psychopath (person as a monster) – sometimes this is the narrator themselves, other times this is the threat to the main character such as the husband or wife or mother or father of the narrator.
The Unsafe Home and Domestic Environment (occasionally this may be a school, workplace or the virtual world) – what was once considered safe is no longer and causes uncertainty. Often the protagonist is trapped in some way.
A Twist in the Tale – This is something that should not be anticipated beforehand to work successfully.
A Criminal Element – A murder or threat of murder or kidnapping is usually present.
Recent Recommended Psychological Thrillers
Here are some of my recent favourite psychological thrillers that have been published:
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. A man convicted for a murder he may not have committed (is he a psychopath or completely innocent?). A heroine who can’t remember the crime? (unreliable narrator). A miscarriage of justice? If so, then is the killer still out there and a threat? Read this book to find out…
When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen. Everything is turned upside down in this workplace-set psychological thriller. The familiar becomes unfamiliar and a close knit office unit is blasted open into an environment of severe distrust all due to a new employee. A Lord of the Flies atmosphere abounds and tension reigns…
The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly: The first Paula Daly book I read was on a train journey and I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want the journey to end! The Mistake I Made is a psychological thriller with an economic focus. Single mother Roz is financially struggling and accepts an indecent proposal style arrangement with the rich Scott Elias. Instead of making her life easier she begins to wonder if she has made a deal with the devil?
Behind Closed Doors by B A Parris. An important story about domestic violence, especially psychological abuse. Jack is such a controlling and manipulative character (the psychopath) and their home is a virtual prison to his wife Grace. A strong novel and compelling read.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Already optioned for a film this book explores the story of Ani FaNelli, who is now living a successful life in New York. She is forced to examine a notorious incident that occurred when she was a teenager at Bradley School. This novel fits the psychological thriller genre perfectly, it takes an environment which is meant to be safe (in this case a school) and turns it on its head. It examines sexism and bullying and the negative outcomes that can occur when a toxic environment of “athletic popularity” is allowed to flourish in a school.
The Missing by C. L. Taylor – A missing child and an amnesiac mother? Unreliable narration and threat abound in this novel as mother Claire feels intense guilt that she did not pay enough attention to her son Billy. As the novel progresses Claire’s uncertainty increases and she is not sure who to trust, even those closest to her…
Upcoming Psychological Thrillers
Here are some upcoming psychological thrillers that are soon to be published and represent the best of the genre to come. Time to get your pre-order in!
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
The Silent Dead (Reiko Himekawa #1) by Tetsuya Honda
All Things Cease to Appear by Elisabeth Brundage
Twisted River by Siobhan McDonald
Do you think that this genre will run and run? What psychological thrillers have impressed you recently? Let us know on Twitter and Facebook.