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9 Suspenseful Novels with Chilling Insights into the Darker Side of Human Nature

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Erica Ferencik is the award-winning author of the acclaimed thrillers The River at NightInto the Jungle, and Girl in Ice, which The New York Times Book Review declared “hauntingly beautiful.” Find out more on her website EricaFerencik.com and follow her on Twitter @EricaFerencik.

Compiling this list of suspenseful novels not only helped me identify what I look for in these sorts of books, but clarified some of the qualities I hope to include in my own work. The nonstop dread in Audrain’s The Push; the wildly unique voice of Messud’s The Woman Upstairs; the masterfully plotted A Reliable Wife; the truth about those we love—versus who we want them to be—in Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. All of these novels reveal some truth about human nature through the lens of suspense, and often touches of horror. 

I can only hope that my novels: The River at Night, Into the Jungle, and now, Girl in Ice, are a fraction as brave in their storytelling, and that they reveal—in their own way—the darker spectrum of human nature.

Carrie
by Stephen King

Stephen King’s debut was a primal scream that has etched itself into the collective consciousness of countless readers since its release nearly fifty years ago. This is the ultimate revenge story for anyone who has been bullied in some fashion—most of us, perhaps?—but it’s so much more than that. CARRIE creates profound empathy for its protagonist, then tortures her, so that when it’s payback time, however brutal, we are still rooting for the girl.

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Carrie
Stephen King

Carrie White may have been unfashionable and unpopular, but in the face of unbearable humiliation, her gift of telepathy is turned into a weapon of horror and destruction that her classmates would never forget. The terror of Stephen King's legendary debut novel makes for a timeless thriller.

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The Push
by Ashley Audrain

A brilliant update of the Bad Seed trope, THE PUSH is a riveting psychological drama pitting a mother against her daughter—who may or may not be a murderer. The novel is an in-your-face challenge to beliefs we hold dear about motherhood, our children, and who our kids really are, as opposed to who we hoped and dreamed they might be.

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The Push
Ashley Audrain

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Enduring Love
by Ian McEwan

A chance meeting between two men—science writer Joe Rose and drifter Jed Parry—sparks an obsession that threatens Rose’s marriage, sanity, and life. McEwan is not only a master stylist; he also has access to the deepest chambers of the human heart. This profoundly intelligent, finely constructed novel is taut with unrelenting suspense.

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Enduring Love
Ian McEwan

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The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud

This tour de force novel stars the furious Nora, a 42-year-old woman tired of being the quiet good girl, the self-sacrificing one. She wants to be an artist but lacks the will, and becomes obsessed with someone she perceives has everything she doesn’t. It’s a page-turner about longing, love, the paradox of art and being an artist, ambition, envy, and betrayal.

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The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs is a masterly portrait of Nora Eldridge, a thirty-seven-year-old elementary school teacher on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and tidy neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, The Woman Upstairs is an urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment that explores the thrill—and the devastating cost—of being a woman in America today.

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A Reliable Wife
by Robert Goolrick

Rural Wisconsin, 1907, a man waits on a train platform for the woman who’s answered his ad for “a reliable wife.” Her plans to kill him and live on as a wealthy widow are just the start of this murderous tale, full of twists and turns that just won’t quit, fascinating characters, and a Gothic feel reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier.

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A Reliable Wife
Robert Goolrick

In the bitter cold of Rural Wisconsin, 1909, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for "a reliable wife." But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the "simple, honest woman" that Ralph is expecting. Her plan is simple: she will win this man's devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow.

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Under the Skin
by Michel Faber

Impossible to convey the just plain eerie in this terrifying, original story (and the movie, with Scarlett Johansson, is superb). A female driver cruises the Scottish Highlands looking for male hitchhikers for reasons simply unguessable. Horror, thriller, science fiction abound in this engrossing genre mash-up, called "a reviewer's nightmare and a reader's dream" by Burhan Tufail. The story will send you spinning into territory you’ve simply never before encountered, leaving you shaken, edgy, and wanting more.

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Under the Skin
Michel Faber

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Lord of the Flies
by William Golding

A group of young boys marooned on an island quickly shed “civilized” behavior as another reality—that of savagery and death—takes over. A classic that has not lost an iota of its power during the nearly seventy years it has been in the world. I read it every couple of years to remind myself of what a truly powerful story feels like.

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Lord of the Flies
William Golding

William Golding's compelling story about a group of very ordinary small boys marooned on a coral island has become a modern classic. At first it seems as though it is all going to be great fun; but the fun before long becomes furious and life on the island turns into a nightmare of panic and death. As ordinary standards of behaviour collapse, the whole world the boys know collapses with them—the world of cricket and homework and adventure stories—and another world is revealed beneath, primitive and terrible.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lioniel Shriver

What would you do if your child was a psychopath? This is the unforgettable, staggering story of one mother’s attempt to understand her own ambivalence toward motherhood, her teenage son’s murderous nature, and the possible link between the two. I confess to not being the same person after I read this book than I was before. I have never read an ending that took me days to recover from. Perhaps I still haven’t.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lioniel Shriver

Now a major motion picture by Lynne Ramsay, starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Lionel Shriver’s resonant story of a mother’s unsettling quest to understand her teenage son’s deadly violence, her own ambivalence toward motherhood, and the explosive link between them reverberates with the haunting power of high hopes shattered by dark realities. Like Shriver’s charged and incisive later novels, including So Much for That and The Post-Birthday World, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a piercing, unforgettable, and penetrating exploration of violence, family ties, and responsibility, a book that the Boston Globe describes as “sometimes searing . . . [and] impossible to put down.”

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Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes

A heartbreaking story about a mentally challenged young man who, along with a mouse, Algernon, takes part in an experiment meant to increase IQ. The medical trial works for a while, until it doesn’t. This book broke my heart, but then I realized this: you don’t read this masterpiece to feel happy afterward. You read it to feel every dark emotion, then step out into the light imbued with a deeper appreciation for your own life, as well as the struggles of your fellow human beings.

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Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes

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Girl in Ice
by Erica Ferencik

GIRL IN ICE is out now!

From the author of THE RIVER AT NIGHT and INTO THE JUNGLE comes a harrowing new thriller set in the unforgiving landscape of the Arctic Circle, as a brilliant linguist struggling to understand the apparent suicide of her twin brother ventures hundreds of miles north to try to communicate with a young girl who has been thawed from the ice alive.

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Girl in Ice
Erica Ferencik

From the author of The River at Night and Into the Jungle comes a harrowing new thriller set in the unforgiving landscape of the Arctic Circle, as a brilliant linguist struggling to understand the apparent suicide of her twin brother ventures hundreds of miles north to try to communicate with a young girl who has been thawed from the ice alive.

Valerie “Val” Chesterfield is a linguist trained in the most esoteric of disciplines: dead Nordic languages. Despite her successful career, she leads a sheltered life and languishes in the shadow of her twin brother, Andy, an accomplished climate scientist stationed on a remote island off Greenland’s barren coast. But Andy is gone: a victim of suicide, having willfully ventured unprotected into 50 degree below zero weather. Val is inconsolable—and disbelieving. She suspects foul play.

When Wyatt, Andy’s fellow researcher in the Arctic, discovers a scientific impossibility­—a young girl frozen in the ice who thaws out alive, speaking a language no one understands—Val is his first call. Will she travel to the frozen North to meet this girl, and try to comprehend what she is so passionately trying to communicate? Under the auspices of helping Wyatt interpret the girl’s speech, Val musters every ounce of her courage and journeys to the Artic to solve the mystery of her brother’s death.

The moment she steps off the plane, her fear threatens to overwhelm her. The landscape is fierce, and Wyatt, brilliant but difficult, is an enigma. But the girl is special, and Val’s connection with her is profound. Only something is terribly wrong; the child is sick, maybe dying, and the key to saving her lies in discovering the truth about Wyatt’s research. Can his data be trusted? And does it have anything to do with how and why Val’s brother died? With time running out, Val embarks on an incredible frozen odyssey—led by the unlikeliest of guides—to rescue the new family she has found in the most unexpected of places.

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Photo credit: iStock / Esther Derksen

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