One of the functions fictions perform for us is broadening our understanding of other people. Novels that work as character studies are particularly adept at encouraging our sense of empathy. The following novels put us directly (or only a little indirectly) into the minds of broken, cruel, or psychopathic characters, all of whom have one thing in common: they have killed and will kill again. Some of these killers are wracked with remorse, while others revel in the breaking of this final taboo. According to Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (which would’ve been on this list had it not involved only a single actual killing), “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
While this isn’t strictly true of every title on this list, you can certainly trust these killers to take you to some of the darkest places a human being can go. A word of warning for the cautious: at least half of these novels contain scenes of extreme violence and general depravity. Please read the reviews in their entirety before grabbing a copy!
The Killer Inside Me (1952)
This is probably the classic of this sub-genre. Jim Thompson was a latecomer to the Noir sub-genre, his works following in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Cain. Thompson’s work built on these predecessors by upping the violence and sharpening the focus on the warped mindsets of his characters. This novel, easily his most well-known, follows Lou Ford, a young deputy sheriff who patrols a small town in Texas.
Lou comes off as harmless to his fellow citizens, what with his easy-going manner and penchant for hokey witticisms, but as we quickly learn in this first-person novel, Lou is far from alright. Lou has always enjoyed teasing people in a way just this side of sadistic, but recently, his cruelty has begun to blossom into something far worse. After he sets a fairly standard noirish blackmail plot into motion, the sheriff finds himself unable to control his bloodlust. A word of warning: while Lou is an equal-opportunity killer, his psychosis is informed by a malevolent case of misogyny, and his treatment of women is particularly brutal.
The Other (1971)
This one is good for readers who’d rather not read scenes of graphic violence or sexual assault. Instead, it’s a fairly quiet, creepy psychological thriller that still manages to feature some memorable murders. Thomas Tryon’s novel is set in the 1930’s on a family farm and concerns a set of twins, Holland and Niles Perry. They and their mother are still dealing with the recent tragic death of the boys’ father. The boys are mischievous and adventurous, but one of them is harboring a taste for cruelty that will soon break out in violence. This is the story, perhaps, of a budding serial killer as well as his concerned and helpless brother. There’s a bucolic, even nostalgic flavor to this novel, as well as a sense of building menace. Throw in some astral travel and some unspeakable secrets, and you’ve got a good little thriller.
Child of God (1973)
If you only know Cormac McCarthy from his Western love-story All the Pretty Horses, then this novel will come as a shock. If, however, you’ve read The Road or the peerless nightmare that is Blood Meridian, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Child of God is about Lester Ballard, a lonely and bitter outcast who finds and nurtures his taste for violence and perversion more the further he moves away from human interaction.
While this story deals with murder and necrophilia, it is written in a spare, realistic, and lyrical style. If William Faulkner had written a short novel about one of the characters from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he may have come up with something like this. As with Blood Meridian, Child of God has strange intimations of larger significance, as if the horrible acts Ballard carries out have metaphysical implications that go beyond his more overt themes of mental imbalance and social isolation. This one is a quick, if harrowing read, but try savoring McCarthy’s prose.
A Demon in My View
Ruth Rendell, the Queen (alongside PD James) of British mystery fiction for the latter half of the twentieth century, excelled at getting into the heads of damaged yet often sympathetic characters. Her Inspector Wexford novels were police procedurals and murder mysteries, but her standalone novels were where her talents truly came into play. They usually center on a group of tangentially connected characters or even strangers whose lives are gradually tangled to the point where one or more of them get murdered.
In this book, we get to know Arthur Johnson, a seemingly milquetoast bookkeeper who lives in a ramshackle boarding-house in London. Arthur has a secret in the cellar, though, a game he plays in order to quell his darkest desires. When his game is disrupted one Guy Fawkes Day, Arthur feels he has no choice but to carry out his twisted needs in the real world. This novel is great for anyone looking for a less gory, more suspenseful take on this subject.
The Demon (1976)
Hubert Selby Jr.
Hubert Selby Jr., who also wrote Requiem for a Dream, specialized in rambling stream-of-consciousness trips into the minds of broken and obsessive men. Harry, the narrator of this novel, is no different. While on the outside Harry is a successful and good man, he is tormented by compulsions to break the law, betray his loved ones, and, increasingly, to hurt others.
Selby’s prose can be a barrier to some readers, as he digs into the minutia of this man’s perceptions and twisted thoughts, but if you can roll with the novels of Samuel Beckett or similarly solipsistic and obsessive works, you may enjoy this one. This novel is a slow build, as we watch Harry progress through stages of depravity, so don’t expect wall-to-wall killings. When he does get murderous, though, the effect is all the more impactful. Not a particularly gory novel, this one is instead quite gritty and despairing.
The Face That Must Die (1979)
How about that title? Despite its lurid connotations, this is actually a powerful, often subtle examination of psychosis. Ramsey Campbell is a master of paranoid and hallucinatory prose and in this, his second novel, he created one of the most vivid depictions of a demented mind in literature. John Horridge is a racist, a misogynist, and a creep of the first order, but it’s his virulent homophobia that takes center stage in this grim story. In fact, this is one of the first (if not the first) novels to treat homophobia and not queerness itself as the central thematic evil.
Someone has been killing male prostitutes in Liverpool, and John Horridge is sure he knows who it is. What comes of his inept detective work is a horrifying portrait of where prejudice, suspicion, and untreated mental illness can take someone. Campbell’s novel isn’t gory, nor are the acts of violence drawn-out. Instead, Horridge’s burgeoning paranoia seems to infect the prose, resulting in an ever-building sense that everyone is indeed out to get him. Bonus: if you can get ahold of the editions of this novel that were illustrated with the photos of the surrealist JK Potter, I highly recommend it!
American Psycho (1991)
Bret Easton Ellis
Certainly the most controversial, as well as possibly the most graphic work on this list, Bret Easton Ellis’s novel isn’t just a trip into the mind of a shallow and misogynistic serial killer, it is also a stone-cold satire of Reagan-era Wall Street. A big warning for those who have enjoyed the movie adaptation: Ellis’s novel is far more violent and depraved than the movie ever could have been. Some of the cruelty in this book matches or even surpasses that you’ll find in the works of the Marquis de Sade.
Patrick Bateman, our central character though far from our hero, lives, works, and kills in New York during the 1980’s, a period of American history particularly characterized by greed and vapid popularity contests. Bateman schedule swings wildly between drug-fueled parties, inane and soulless sexual encounters, petty pissing-contests with his fellow bank executives, and horrifically detailed murders. That Ellis treats these different facets of Bateman’s life with the same blank and tediously detailed prose is a clue as to his theme. If you can stomach the violence in this book, you’ll get to enjoy the other chapters in which Bateman gives extended and amusingly sincere-sounding reviews of the music of Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, and other mainstays of 80’s pop culture.
Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates has, throughout a prolific and illustrious career, often trawled the darkest waters of the human psyche in her novels and short stories. In this slim and sporadically illustrated novel, she delves into the mind of Quentin P., a young man with a very specific idea of what love should look like. If you can imagine Kurt Vonnegut writing the diaries of Jeffrey Dahmer, you’ll have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into when you open this book, and that’s no coincidence: Oates was directly inspired to write it by interviews with the serial killer.
QP (as he refers to himself) is a deeply unpleasant, arrogant, and vicious character, a brilliant portrayal of a budding serial killer in all his quotidian nastiness. No Hannibal Lecter here, brilliant and charming: this is instead a decidedly unromanticized and often pitiful human being, however much he tries to see himself as some genius. Violence, gore, and sexual assault are all involved here, so beware if those things trip your wires.
Exquisite Corpse (1996)
Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin
Note: the author formerly known as Poppy Z. Brite now identifies as a man and writes under the name Billy Martin. This novel, however, is still only published under the name Brite, so I will be referring to the author accordingly. This is another gruesome entry on this list, though Brite’s prose is more lyrical and lush than most of our authors.
In this short novel, we are introduced to not one but two vicious serial killers. British necrophiliac Andrew Compton has just escaped prison and finds himself in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Jay Byrne is a wealthy cannibal stalking the streets of the same city. When they first meet, they are intent on killing one another, but instead find themselves falling into something like psychopathic love. Meanwhile, two far more sympathetic gay lovers, Lucas and Tran, find their relationship dissolving. It won’t be long before the fates of these four men intersect in terrible ways.
Something that distinguishes this novel from the rest on this list is that our point-of-view killers aren’t isolated and lonely like our other killers, especially after they meet. In fact, Brite’s novel is queasily erotic, and he doesn’t shy away from exploring the ways serial killers in love might bond. Strong content warning for this novel: everything from suicide to AIDS to intensely detailed gore is depicted here.
The Marbled Swarm (2011)
Oh, Dennis Cooper. At least half of his slim novels could have gone on this list, as almost every one of them deal with erotically obsessed and merciless killers, but I’m singling The Marbled Swarm out for its prose and its twisty, metafictional, and mysterious plot. I’m giving the strongest content warning for this one as well as all of Cooper’s other novels, as it deals with everything from cannibalism to incest to lovingly described acts of ultraviolence.
In this story, our unnamed narrator is a wealthy and entirely corrupted aesthete, as well as the inheritor of a secret language his father invented, a language that supposedly can control people’s minds. He uses this power (as well as his inherited riches) to prey on young men in increasingly bizarre ways. Unlike every other book in this list, The Marbled Swarm is surrealistic, dreamlike in its tableaux and characters. Even the killings, gory as they are, often feel bizarre, even cartoonish. Another deviation from the rest of our killer-novels involves a central mystery that Cooper refuses to solve (or at least that this reader failed to solve). That gives it a lingering sense of unease that lasts even as the brutalities described in the book fade from your poor mind.