As all book-lovers know, authors will find inspiration for their work anywhere and everywhere — inventing stories from their own imaginations, basing their fiction on personal experiences, garnering inspiration from other great works of literature, and, sometimes, pulling the plot of their novels straight from the headlines of the nightly news. You never know what small detail might grab an author, leading them down a path of fiction, based on true events. And whether or not you believe that truth really is stranger than fiction, there’s no denying that fact and fiction often work hand-in-hand when it comes to writing a great novel. This list is filled with books that are based on true stories — all of them chronicling (or at least originating from) chilling, real-world incidents, and then using those facts as a jumping off point for diving into some equally-chilling (and sometimes even more chilling) fiction.
From haunting cult murders and violent shark attacks to extreme kidnappings and cold-blooded matricide, you might be surprised how many novels are based on real life crimes, tragedies, and other heart-stopping events. (Seriously, you may never look at the beach the same way again.) Check out these 10 chilling novels inspired by true stories.
1'The Girls' by Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s Manson Family-inspired debut novel, The Girls, introduces readers to Evie Boyd, a 14-year-old girl who joins a cult led by a disturbing and charismatic man named Russell. The novel moves back and forth between then-teenage Evie and the person she became later in life — a grown woman who has always lived beneath the cult-inspired shadows of danger, drama, and free love, and who is haunted by the fact that not only was she was one snap judgement away from becoming someone entirely different, but she might actually miss her cult days more than she’s comfortable admitting.
2'Room' by Emma Donoghue
The jury’s still out on how closely tied Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room, is to the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, a man who imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth in a basement for 24 years, raping her and leaving her with seven children. Though readers were quick to make the connection, Donoghue herself says the novel was “triggered” by Fritzl, but not closely based upon the story. Either way, both Fritzl’s case and Donoghue’s story of the imprisoned five-year-old Jack and his mother are both chilling and speak to the resilience of the human spirit.
3'The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America' by Erik Larson
Taking you into the heart of Chicago circa 1893, Erik Larson’s nearly-nonfiction The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America tells the story of one H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a doctor, who turned the Chicago World’s Fair into his killing field. Equal parts mesmerizing and disturbing, Larson’s book makes this true-to-history story come alive like it only happened yesterday.
4'Burial Rites' by Hannah Kent
Nominated for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction in 2014, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites tells the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic woman who, along with another man, was convicted of killing her boss and sentenced to death in 1829. While she awaits sentencing, she’s sent to live with a family on a remote farm — people who are none too happy to house a murderer, until they hear Agnes’s side of the story.
5'Chronicle of a Death Foretold' by Gabriel García Márquez
Written by the author of the literary classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold is inspired by the real-life events that occurred within a family whom writer García Márquez knew personally. The story takes readers through the murder of (fictional) Santiago Nasar by twin brothers, Pablo and Pedro Vicario, an act of vengeance for the affair that Nasar allegedly conducted with their soon-to-be-married sister, Angela — and a death that practically everyone in town, including Nasar’s fiancée, knew about and neglected to prevent.
6'Jaws' by Peter Benchley
Word to the wise: Jaws is not a beach bag-friendly read. Especially once you find out that Peter Benchley’s novel about a giant, man-eating shark terrorizing the New England tourist town of Amity Island is actually based on the real-life story of the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, which left behind four dead and one injured survivor.
7'Waking Lions' by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Set in the novelist’s native Israel, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions begins with a murder: the hit-and-run of an undocumented Eritrean immigrant by Israeli doctor Eitan Green. Though the rest of the novel is wholly Gundar-Goshen’s imagination, the hit-and-run is inspired by a story she was told in real-life: the author met a backpacker in the Himalayas who hit a beggar while riding his motorcycle and, afraid of Indian prison, left the man by the side of the road. Eitan, who left evidence behind at his own crime scene, doesn’t get off quite as scot-free.
8'American Girls' by Alison Umminger
Another Manson Family-inspired novel, Alison Umminger’s American Girls introduces readers to the 15-year-old Anna, who flees to Los Angeles in search of a different life. There, she finds herself growing obsessed with the girls of the Manson cult — lost girls, not unlike herself, looking for a place to belong — as well as the murders they committed, finding strange but not wholly-unexpected parallels between her own feelings of isolation and violence, and theirs.
9'Murder on the Orient Express' by Agatha Christie
As one of the most iconic and popular murder mysteries in literary history, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just the prolific authors most well-known book. What readers might not know is that the story is actually based on the real-life kidnapping and murder of the boy who became known as the Lindbergh Baby. Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month old son, Charles Jr., was abducted from his home in Highfields, New Jersey and his body was discovered soon after — all just two years before the publication of Murder on the Orient Express.
10'The Decision' by Britta Böhler
Britta Böhler’s novel, The Decision, imagines three pivotal days in the real life of German author Thomas Mann who, while living in Switzerland in 1936, published an open letter denouncing the Nazi regime in a Swiss newspaper, and fears arrest should he return to his home in Munich. Over three days Mann was forced to make a critical decision: choose exile in Switzerland for his political beliefs (at the risk of abandoning his readers and the outlet he has to express their own dissent), or return home to Germany (and risk persecution and possibly execution by the Nazis.) What’s so chilling about this one is how not-so-far-from-reality the assaults Mann risked are from current events taking place around the world today.