The 31 Best Thriller Books Of All Time (Good Luck Getting a Peaceful Night’s Sleep Again!)

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)
·11-min read

Do you salivate at the idea of a jump scare? Have you already binge-watched the entire Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix? Do you wish Halloween was the whole month of October, not just a single day? If you’re a horror fanatic, you’ve got to read these creepy tales—the 31 best thriller books you’ll ever pick up. (By best, we mean scariest and most spine-tingling, for the record.)

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1. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

More cheeky than creepy—but with plenty of heart-stopping suspense—this dark comedy about a Nigerian woman whose sister has a nasty habit of murdering her boyfriends kind of stole our hearts. The novel follows Korede, a woman who has always been an unwitting accomplice to her (sort of sociopathic) sister Ayoola’s crimes. But now, Korede is in love, and the guy in question is inching ever closer to Ayoola’s vicious spider web. How can Korede protect the man of her dreams from becoming her sister’s next victim? And ultimately, where will Korede’s loyalties lie?

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2. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

The book isn’t too far from the movie (projectile vomiting, anyone?), but you get more background information on some of the supporting characters that makes the whole thing just a little more unsettling—if that’s possible.

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3. A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena

Get ready for some serious twists and turns in this 2018 thriller about a woman who is making dinner and waiting for her husband to come home when she gets a disturbing phone call, then abruptly wakes up in the hospital, with no memory of what happened next. The police suspect she was up to something, her husband doesn't believe it and the rest of the people in her life aren't so sure. Lapena's smart and suspenseful novel will have you believing so many different points of view, you'll never see the ending coming.

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4. Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

The most famous story in du Maurier’s collection is probably “The Birds” (you know, the basis for Hitchcock’s film of the same name), but Don’t Look Now offers tales much scarier than that—namely one about a couple’s vacation from hell in Venice.

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5. Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Any number of King’s books deserve a spot on this list, but we’re partial to Pet Sematary, his 1983 novel about the Creed family, recent Maine transports who encounter endless horrors in their new neighborhood, not limited to freak accidents, murder and more than a few dead animals.

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6. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

A gothic novella about two young, possessed children. James wrote this spooky story in 1898 and it’s just as horrifying today. It’s sinister and weird and blurs the lines between sanity and insanity a little too well. Plus, once you finish reading, you can binge The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix.

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7. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

You know The Wire; you love The Wire. Which is why you owe it to yourself to read the book that became the basis for Simon’s incredible series. Set in Baltimore (duh), Homicide follows a veteran investigator, a black detective in a mostly white unit and an earnest rookie as they attempt to solve the brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.

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8. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Good evening, Clarice. Before it was a pee-your-pants scary movie with an all-star cast of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs was an equally terrifying novel. First published in 1988, it’s the sequel to Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon. Both novels feature the cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, though the latter sees him pitted against FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling.

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9. Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson

True crime alert. In the winter of 1952, London was struck by two killers: One, the Great Smog that killed thousands, and the other, John Reginald Christie, who murdered at least six women. Drawing on extensive interviews and archival research, Dawson recounts the intersection of these two brutal forces and their lasting impact on modern history.

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10. The Guest List by Lucy Foley

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate the wedding of a handsome and charming television star and a smart and ambitious magazine publisher. Everything is lovely, until the Champagne is popped and resentments and jealousies bubble to the surface. Then, someone turns up dead.

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11. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Before Bad Feminist and Hunger, Gay dabbled in horror with this story about a woman kidnapped for ransom, her captivity as her father refuses to pay and her husband fights for her release over thirteen days and her struggle to come to terms with the ordeal in its aftermath.

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12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The book that spawned a million ‘girl’-involved thrillers. Flynn’s smash-hit is about Amy Dunne, a woman who disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary to her picture-perfect husband Nick. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media, Nick, the town golden boy, begins to look increasingly suspicious. But even though he’s oddly evasive, is he really a killer?

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13. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Every morning when Christine wakes up, she has to start all over. She wakes up and a man patiently explains that he is Ben, her husband, that she is forty-seven-years-old and that an accident long ago damaged her ability to remember. Sad, but not exactly terrifying…until she finds a note that reads, “Don’t trust Ben.”

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14. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

When Myriam decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for a nanny for their son and daughter. They feel lucky to find Louise, a quiet, polite and devoted woman. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment and suspicions shatter the illusion of perfection. Slimani’s chilling novel explores power, class, race, motherhood and more.

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15. The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Locke is a writer and producer on Fox’s Empire, and her second novel (after Black Water Rising) is part murder mystery, part historical fiction. The Cutting Season is a heart-pounding thriller that interweaves two murder mysteries—one on Belle Vie, a historic landmark in the middle of Lousiana’s Sugar Cane country, and one involving a slave gone missing more than one hundred years earlier.

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16. Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell

In L.A. in 1947, real-life aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found brutally murdered. Her killer was never found, but Short’s death became like an actual film noir. The cold case has intrigued armchair detectives ever since. And now, Eatwell’s fascinating exploration of the murder gets us closer than ever to finding out who was behind it.

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17. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

If your favorite thing about The Girl on the Train is the train, you’re in luck. This classic murder mystery put trains on the map, and is the story of passengers on the same train who somehow agree to commit each other’s murders. (Read it, then invite your book club over to watch the Hitchcock film).

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18. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

There’s no whodunit in this perfectly plotted thriller. We know from the start that the killer is Alicia Berenson—a famous photographer who, one night, shoots her husband five times in the face in their posh London home. What we don’t know—what no one knows—is why. Since the shooting, Alicia hasn’t spoken another word. But as she sits silently in a psychiatric hospital, one therapist is determined to break through, even if it leads to his own demise.

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19. Final Girls by Riley Sager

In a classic horror movie, the "final girl" is the one young woman who makes it out alive--but barely, and usually not with all her clothes. In Sager's more subversive novel, Quincy, who survived a mass murder, refuses to play into the "final girl" trope. Instead, she creates a fulfilling life in New York City. Then, a woman like her dies of an apparent suicide, and Quincy's well-crafted facade begins to unravel. This one will keep you guessing until the very last page.

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20. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

This novel from a contemporary thriller expert follows a young journalist who witnesses a grisly murder while on a press trip for a new luxury cruise line. The only problem? Every passenger on the ship is accounted for.

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21. The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe

This one is super short, but super scary. Set in Italy during carnival season, this terrifying tale concerns revenge and being buried alive. Told from the perspective of the murderer, it’s cold and vengeful and will make you pray you never piss anyone off as much as the story’s victim did.

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22. presumed innocent by scott turow

Turow's debut, published in 1987, is about one man's all-consuming fatal attraction to a woman who isn't his wife, and the story of how his obsession puts everything he loves and values on trial—including his own life.

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23. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt won the Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, but her first novel—about a group of misfits at a New England college who fall under the spell of a charismatic, morally questionable professor—will always have our hearts. The narrator, Richard, is the newest member of the group, and finds himself suddenly burdened by some very dark secrets. Opening with a murder, The Secret History reads like a slow burn, with tension building gradually and an ending that will blow your mind.

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24. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Another true crime masterpiece, this one about a mysterious stranger, a secret love affair and a dead body—all set against Savannah, Georgia’s high-society in the early 1980s. All in all, a Southern Gothic epic that Berendt unravels with rich, obsessively researched detail.

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25. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Crime fiction has been popular in Scandinavia for years, but this is the book that got the rest of the world hooked. A searing family saga, a decades-old locked-room mystery (of sorts), a complicated financial web and an incredible revenge fantasy all rolled into one—there truly is something for everyone. (Plus, the film adaptation is so darkly great.)

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26. The Alienist by Caleb Carr

Set in the late 19th century in New York City, The Alienist is thrilling and almost impossible to put down. Concerning a crime reporter’s investigation of a series of gruesome murders with the help of the titular alienist (basically a criminal psychologist), it’s historical and creepy as hell.

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27. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

An epic anti-western, Blood Meridian is about a teenager’s experience with a horrific group of “scalp hunters” who murdered Native Americans between 1849 and 1850. McCarthy’s prose is aggressively violent and contains frequent religious references. Basically, it’s not for the faint of heart, but if you can get through it, it’ll stick with you.

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28. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

Books about the Manson murders are a dime a dozen, but this is the O.G. Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney in the trial, recounts his (and his team’s) tireless detective work and reconstructs Manson’s philosophy while examining how he was able to cultivate such fervent followers.

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29. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In the aftermath of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family, Capote and Harper Lee traveled to Holcomb, Kansas to research and write about the crime. Capote’s finished product is a chilling account of a real-life nightmare.

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30. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

H.H. Holmes, who turned a hotel into a murder weapon and targeted young women at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, has been called America's first serial killer. In The Devil in the White City, Larson takes a literary look at Holmes, intertwining his life with that the architect who built the titular White City. We dare you to read this one late at night.

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