Nothing is more haunting than an unreliable narrator or unsettling protagonist. Perhaps that's why psychological thriller novels are so darn hard to put down — you just don't feel okay until you reach the conclusion of the novel and figure out the fate (and motivations) of the main character.
In many psychological thriller and suspense novels, the "hero" of the story is just as unreliable and untrustworthy as the so-called villain. In these books, the tension builds and builds and builds until the only thing the reader can be sure about is that you can't be sure about anything. In these books, a single sentence can change everything, a twist can come at any time on any page, and a character can change before your eyes.
And even more frightening, these kinds of books suggest something that's harder to cope with: The dark potential for violence that possibly lies within every single person. They bring up the most painful question of all: can someone even trust themself?
So, here are 15 psychological thriller novels with protagonists as chilling as the villains. Be forewarned: once you crack these books open, you won't be able to stop reading until you've flipped to the very last page:
'Lying in Wait' by Liz Nugent
"My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it" — so begins Lying in Wait. The protagonist, Lydia, is the kind of woman who calmly bashes in a girl's head, then makes plans to do laundry and plant a flowerbed. Lydia's son, Lawrence, means the most to her in the world, but when he discovers a dark secret, Lydia's "perfect" life tumbles off the tracks.
'Baby Teeth' by Zoje Stage
Seemingly sweet seven-year-old Hanna doesn't talk. She loves her Daddy more than anything, but her Mommy? She wants to kill her Mommy. This book switches between the perspective of Hanna and the perspective of her mother, Suzette, as she attempts to get to the bottom of her daughter's strange behavior.
'Allegedly' by Tiffany D. Jackson
The protagonist of Allegedly, Mary B. Addison, has been convicted of killing a baby, but that doesn't mean she actually did it. Mary is a sympathetic character — but the question of whether or not she actually did it doesn't have an easy answer.
'Sometimes I Lie' by Alice Feeney
The main character of this novel, Amber, is trapped in a coma, listening to the people around her and trying to remember what really happened. "My name is Amber Reynolds," she says. "There are three things you should know about me: 1. I'm in a coma. 2. My husband doesn't love me anymore. 3. Sometimes I lie."
'Paper Ghosts' by Julia Heaberlin
This book is like a chess game in which you're holding your breath the whole time. Carl is a 61-year old photographer, tried for murder and acquitted because of his dementia. The story takes off when a young woman kidnaps him, believing him to be the murderer of her sister. She drives him through the Texas wilderness, following his alleged crimes in an attempt to get him to confess. But what can you really believe here? Is he guilty or innocent? Is she the liar?
'The Possessions' by Sara Flannery Murphy
In this eerie novel, the narrator's body is not entirely her own. Edie works as a body for the Elysian Society, where clients pay for their loved ones to possess her. But when she draws too close to a client, and the mysterious death of his wife, the lines are beginning to blur for Edie in dangerous ways.
'You' by Caroline Kepnes
When Guinevere Beck enters the bookstore where Joe works, he starts by Googling her name. Then he finds her Facebook account. Then he finds out which bar she'll be in that night. Slowly, he integrates himself into her life. Joe narrates this haunting novel about obsession masked behind the facade of a "good guy."
'The Good Son' by You-jeong Jeong
You-jeong Jeong has been called both the Gillian Flynn and the Stephen King of South Korea. In this psychological suspense novel, 26-year-old Yu-jin wakes up to find his mother murdered. But Yu-jin is troubled by seizures and chronic problems with his memory and can't remember what happened.
'You Will Know Me' by Megan Abbott
Katie's 15-year-old daughter is a gymnastics prodigy with hopes of the Olympics in her future. But when a violent death rocks the tight-knit gymnastics community, suddenly everything she's worked so hard for is at risk. As tensions rise, Katie is fighting to hold her family together... but she finds herself drawn irresistibly to crime.
'In a Dark, Dark Wood' by Ruth Ware
Nora hasn't seen Clare in a decade — not since a dramatic break-up tore them apart. Even so, when she gets invited to Clare's bachelorette party, she goes, shacking up with the other party-goers in a glass house in the middle of woods. But when Nora wakes up in the hospital and learns that something horrific has happened, she finds herself asking: What have I done?
'The Woman in the Window' by A.J. Finn
If you love Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, you need to pick up this book. Anna Fox is an agoraphobe, who spends her days holed up in her New York City apartment spying on her neighbors. But when she sees something she shouldn't through her window, suddenly everything she knows is called into question — especially her own mind.
'The Widow' by Fiona Barton
The police have been asking questions about Jean Taylor's husband for a while. Jean did what she had to do and became who she needed to be to protect her family. But now, Jean's husband is dead. So, can she reveal the secrets she's been keeping? Who is Jean really?
'Woman with a Secret' by Sophie Hannah
Nicki Clements is sitting in stopped traffic as the police search each car for something. But when she recognizes one of the police officers, she panics and makes a hasty flight. Suspicious of her strange behavior, and the police summon her in for questioning. But Nicki can't answer their questions truthfully without revealing her terrible secret.
'Before I Go To Sleep' by S. J. Watson
Though it was only published seven years ago, this book has become a classic of the genre, Christine wakes up every day not knowing who she is or where she is. The man sleeping next to her, Ben, explains that he is her husband and that an accident two decades ago destroyed her ability to form new memories. Every day she begins again, but when she finds a private journal she's been writing to herself, it seems that the truth is much more sinister.
'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn
Both Amy and Nick Dunne was fairly unreliable narrators, and neither could be objectively classified as "good" partners. In this riveting book (and movie), Amy goes missing and Nick is fingered by the press and authorities as the main suspect — but the truth might not be quite that simple.