The thriller and horror genres, although closely related and often intermingled, have distinct differences. While horror often incorporates gore, the uncanny, and supernatural creatures to evoke dread, thrillers utilize tools of suspense to generate anxiety and anticipation of an often-shocking climax.
Basically, a well-crafted thriller should have you on the edge of your seat, while a horror novel will have you questioning the very nature of human existence. Both good—but both doing very different things.
Because these genres have so many similarities and potential for overlapping themes and tropes, sometimes authors like to dip their toes into each genre and mix elements of both to create a compelling and horrifying reading experience. These scary thrillers are strikingly fast-paced, making us feel like zooming to the novel’s end to figure out the identity of the killers, while also frightening us to the core.
Enjoy this list of the best, most frightening thrillers that play with our fears of the unknown and our vulnerabilities while feeding off our desire to trust others as good-natured—even when we know our paranoia is completely warranted.
The young and beautiful Lavender Paulson was tragically killed in a car accident, leaving her fiancé Matt and family behind. Several years later, they are still grieving the loss but slowly moving on with their lives. Matt has found love again and shares that he is newly engaged with the Paulson family.
The Paulson family offers up their manor as a wedding venue for the couple, but strange occurrences begin to happen during the preparations. The scent of lavender lingers in the air, and a series of unexplainable mishaps lead to a mysterious death. Matt and the family start to wonder if Lavender’s jealous spirit is behind all this madness. And just how far would she go to stop the wedding?
The Collector continues Detective Etta Fitzroy’s hunt for the serial killer known as “The Bone Collector,” who goes by the name Brian Howley in everyday life. Fitzroy is also searching for a missing young girl named Clara Foyle, though most believe her to be dead. Meanwhile, the Bone Collector himself has found a potential student in a teenager named Saul, who he hopes will carry on the curation of his macabre museum. This thriller finds Fiona Cummins at her very best and most suspenseful, and readers looking for something familiar yet fresh will not be disappointed.
Cage of Bones
Get ready for some blood and guts in the latest entry in Tania Carver’s Brennan & Esposito series. The thriller begins with the discovery of a feral boy locked in a cage of bones deep in the basement of an abandoned house. Detective Brennan jumps right into the investigation, which soon leads him to a secret society that’s brewing all manner of sinister plots. If you’re a fan of books full of the grotesque, and more so those that involve conspiracies and secret agendas, Carver’s thriller is a perfect pairing.
When we think of monsters, classic creatures like vampires and werewolves might come to mind, but what if the more threatening monsters were those closest to you, people you call family, friends and neighbors? Newman explores this chilling thought in Animosity with the story of Andrew Holland, a horror writer who was once respected for his well-spun stories but is now ostracized and despised by his small-town community after the body of a murdered child is found near his front door.
Even after the police clear his name, his gruesome novels appear to be incriminating evidence of his crimes rather than merely innocent storytelling. What begins as judgmental glares turns to hostile anonymous accusations over the phone. This novel explores how far a community is willing to go to seek justice, especially after another child is murdered.
A human hand is found nine feet under water by Flea Marley, a police diver, with no accompanying body. A day later, the other hand is found freshly amputated. Without any motive or leads, the discovery of the discarded appendages leaves detectives mystified. Enter the emotionally damaged Jack Caffrey to figure things out and search for the rest of the victim. This thriller manages to get under your skin—then again, readers should expect nothing less from Mo Hayder.
Bear’s novel is all about that special place between nostalgia and the realization that your dreams have become just that—something fantastical and forever out of reach. Peter Russell is a softcore porn director and writer who hopes to one day publish novels and stories. It’s possible that he still has a chance, especially with his considerable charisma, which hasn’t diminished over the years. Add in sudden opportunities, double-crosses, and an interesting device that manages to “dial into” the space between worlds, and you have a thriller that’ll make your hair stand on end while also making you nostalgic for the golden age of cinema.
You can’t go wrong with suspense set in confined spaces, especially when the space is a claustrophobic plane where there’s nowhere to go but down. In Jack Lance’s breakneck novel, something supernatural takes over Oceans Airways flight 582. After the plane hits clear-air turbulence, communications and navigation systems malfunction. The passengers, including a new couple, are confronted with their own mortality, as well as a strange presence that seems to take hold of the entire plane.
Warning: Sara Gran’s novel will really mess with you. There’s something so alarming about this slim novel and how it can take the most ordinary of situations—a woman named Amanda leading an unremarkable life—only to lean in on mood swings and harmful thought patterns to create a truly believable and horrifying transformation by way of demonic possession. If you like your thrillers psychological, Come Closer will deliver the frights.
A Fatal Inversion
What was supposed to be a fun summer of unforgettable memories for a group of friends now haunts them into adulthood. Adam Verne-Smith is now a loving father and husband, but when he was 19 years old, he inherited Wyvis Hall, a rural estate in Suffolk, where he had a wild summer that he looks back on with far too many regrets. When the new owners find the remains of a woman and a small child, the group reunites and must finally face their past. They learn that buried secrets always have a way of resurfacing.
A Deadly Game
Gripping from beginning to end, this novel switches back and forth between various perspectives, allowing readers to get into the mind of a serial killer, the victim’s family members and the police. It begins with Kate Palmer, an undergraduate student whose life is thrown into disarray upon finding out she is unexpectedly pregnant, but before she can return home, she is discovered murdered in Aston Park, the first of many murdered women to come.
When a popular radio station host is contacted by the presumed killer, the search for the criminal becomes intense as police try to put this dangerous individual away before they can kill someone else. This chillingly intimate exploration of a serial killer’s home life is sure to leave you incredibly disturbed.
A Hollow Sky
The second book in The Alex Ripley Mystery series follows the Miracle Detective, Dr. Alex Ripley, who is called to investigate a family claiming their daughter is a faith healer. At first, husband Ian Hewitt believes he has witnessed a miracle—his terminally ill wife has risen from her wheelchair and walked without assistance, but days later she is dead. Now Ian wants answers and blames the faith healer for his wife’s sudden demise, except this faith healer is a young girl who has been in a coma for the past few years and is being used by her family without her consent. Ripley must figure out what this family’s intentions are and why those who express doubt end up dead.
All Fall Down
Men have been dying in weird accidents in Charlotte, North Carolina. But small-town cop Melanie May suspects foul play. There’s definitely a serial killer who has cleverly stayed under the police’s radar. She soon uncovers the Dark Angel, a dangerous killer who’s not too happy about the added attention from authorities due to Melanie’s investigation. Now she might be the killer’s next target. But Melanie quickly realizes that this might not be any deranged serial killer; the evidence and patterns she’s uncovering may lead to someone she already knows quite well.
The Silence of the Lambs
The one and only—this book is a must-read if you haven’t yet picked it up. Watching the movie simply isn’t enough. Hannibal Lector is even more vividly rendered in Harris’s novel, making most serial killers pale in comparison. Hannibal’s complex relationship with young detective Clarice Starling is well-rendered, complete with shifts between hero and villain, killer and victim, teacher and student. Truly a masterpiece, it holds up even today.
Stephen King’s The Outsider begins with a horrible crime against a young child, with all the evidence pointing to Terry Maitland, a man who was hours away when the crime occurred. It should have been an airtight case, except for his alibi. If it’s a Stephen King novel, you know you can expect a lot of supernatural twists and characters second-guessing their grasp on reality.
The Silent Patient
Michaelides’ debut novel became quite the surprise hit last year, and one can see why people ate it up. With readers looking for something new, yet still interested in unreliable narrators like those found in Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, The Silent Patient has a similar narrative.
Famous painter Alicia Berenson lives with her husband Gabriel in a big lovely house. One night when Gabriel returns home from work, Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word. A psychotherapist named Theo Faber has been obsessed with Alicia’s work for years and jumps at the opportunity to unravel this mystery. With each layer exposed, the mystery becomes that much more bizarre.
Man with No Name
I put Laird Barron up there with writers like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco in his ability to write some of the most bizarre stuff, while still mapping his machinations to a genre that so often demands rigid plot structures.
In Man with No Name, Barron introduces us to the enigmatic Nanashi, a master of the gun and knife and an enforcer that rose the ranks of the yakuza quickly. His latest job is to kidnap a retired world-renowned wrestler, Muzaki, who happens to be the property of a rival gang. Nothing about this goes well, and things become even more ruthless with every passing page. It’s Barron at his best, showcasing a vivid dark underworld full of disturbing imagery and immoral acts.
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