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15 Horror Books Written By Women

I’m always surprised – and a bit disheartened – to come across lists of recommended horror books, or glance along the horror shelf at a bookstore, and see it populated almost exclusively with books by men. Nothing wrong with books by men, of course – I read plenty of ’em myself – but there are so many women writers with the capacity to scare our pants off, it’s a shame they don’t get more of a look-in. So, as always, I’m determined to be part of the solution. Here’s my round-up of great horror books written by women.

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This post contains affiliate links. Shock, horror! Just kidding – I’ll earn a small commission if you use them to make a purchase.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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Most people who haven’t read Daphne du Maurier assume that she wrote fluffy mid-century romances. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rebecca is one of the most haunting Gothic horror novels – written by women or men, or anyone else! – from that era. The story follows a young naive woman, swept up in a marriage to an older wealthy widow. She moves into his mansion and finds it haunted, the specter of his late wife looming in every corner. But what really happened to Rebecca? Why does her housekeeper cling to her memory so tightly? Read my full review of Rebecca here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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Imagine you’re trapped in a holiday house with Lord Byron, he’s bored and he’s drinking and he suggests a game. Sounds like a horror story in and of itself, doesn’t it? That’s the situation Mary Shelley found herself in when she came up with the idea for Frankenstein, one of the most iconic horror books written by women – and the genesis of the science fiction genre. I recommend finding an edition with detailed biographical information about the author, because the more you learn about Shelley’s many personal tragedies, the richer this story of a monster rejected by his creator becomes. Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The scariest thing about horror books written by women is that they are often rooted in horrifying realities for many women, around the world and throughout time. Take The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – perhaps more of a story than a full-length book or novel, but terrifying all the same. It is styled as a series of journal entries by a woman prescribed “treatment” by her psychiatrist husband for her supposed ailments (“nervous depression” and “hysteria”). Confined to her room, isolated and forbidden from working, the narrator slowly descends into true madness, the “cure” proving worse than the disease.

Flowers In The Attic by VC Andrews

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Not every horror story has to be traditionally scary, in the jump-scare-throw-your-popcorn-in-the-air sense. Flowers In The Attic is technically a horror novel, but really, the scariest thing about it is the horrible writing – and the grip it had over teenage girls in the ’90s. This book went the old-timey version of viral, passed around playgrounds and under school desks. Young girls were intrigued by the story of teenage Cathy, locked in an attic by her mother with her siblings for years. That in itself is pretty twisted, but it gets worse: Cathy falls in love with her rapist… her brother. Ew! Read my full review of Flowers In The Attic here.

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

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Her career is only a few years old, but Megan Giddings has already produced some of the best horror books written by women in recent memory. Her debut, Lakewood, has a killer premise – one that particularly resonates in light of the failing health system in the U.S. The main character, a black millennial woman named Lena, is forced to drop out of college and find a way to cover her family’s astronomical medical debt. She thinks she’s found salvation in a research program testing new drugs and therapies, offering her body (and, it turns out, her mind) as a test subject. Of course, it also means a loss of privacy, great personal risk, and the penalties of a terrifying NDA… but if it saves her mother and gets her family out of debt, it’s worth it, right? Wrong. Read my full review of Lakewood here.

Bonus: read my review of Megan Giddings’ follow-up novel, The Women Could Fly, here.

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

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Millions of people around the world recoil when they see a copy of The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, having been traumatised by it in a high-school English class. The fact that teachers continue to assign this book – one of the most terrifying horror books written by women in the 20th century – to adolescent students is beyond me. Jackson had a unique talent for making the mundane – suburban streets, family homes, childish games – into something that will keep you up at night. Strangely, she was equally adept at eliciting a laugh – some compensation, I guess, for all that lost sleep.

Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice

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If you find yourself surprisingly… well, turned on by Interview With The Vampire, don’t worry. You’re not weird, and you’re definitely not the only one. Even though Anne Rice produced some of the best horror books written by women, she laced them with erotic and sensual subtext that has left readers both scared and stimulated for decades. (Proof is in the pudding: the film adaptation starred ’90s heartthrobs Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.) The story is related by Louis de Pointe du Lac, a vampire who tells the story of his life to a reporter. It’s a rich and sensual story, one that will remind you that sex and death are closely interwoven.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of the best horror books written by women from Australia. In it, you can find the early seeds of dark academia and the lost girl aesthetic that has become so popular in certain circles of #Bookstagram. Set in 1900, the story follows a group of girls from Appleyard College for Young Ladies who take a picnic on St Valentine’s Day. A cloudless summer day in the outback might seem like a strange setting for a horror novel, but as anyone who’s experienced one will tell you: the idea of three young girls going missing in that setting will make your stomach drop. That’s exactly what happens in Lindsay’s tale – and, best of all, the ambiguous ending will leave you haunted.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of short stories, a kind of genre stew with hints of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, horror and more. So, maybe it doesn’t belong completely on a list of horror books written by women – but it’s my list, and the horror bits are so good, I say it counts! As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest). Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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Entertainment Weekly called Baby Teeth (among other things) “We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Gone Girl meets The Omen” – can you imagine anything scarier? There are so many levels to this story, it’s hard to know where to begin. Seven-year-old Hanna looks to all the world like a sweet young girl, a real Daddy’s Girl who can do no wrong in her father’s eyes. But Suzette, her mother, sees a different side – one far more frightening, and one that could pose a real threat to their family. Horror books written by women often explore the terrifying dark side of domesticity, a nexus that male writers have historically overlooked (not all, of course, blah blah blah) – and this is one of the finest examples.

You by Caroline Kepnes

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The Netflix adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’s debut novel You has become a widely-beloved and much-discussed blockbuster – but for fans of spooky reads, the original book is well-worth checking out. This is one of the horror books written by women that speaks directly to our contemporary concerns around privacy and patriarchy. Joe Goldberg, the main character, works in a bookstore and sets his sights on a beautiful customer. All he has to do is Google her name, and he finds enough information to ingratiate himself in her life. He becomes her lover, her defender, and he’ll do anything to prevent their “happy” lives together from being disturbed. Anything – even murder.

The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood

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The scariest horror books written by women often cross over in a Venn diagram with feminist dystopias. Take The Natural Way Of Things, a novel by Stella Prize-winning Australian writer Charlotte Wood. A group of young women are held – drugged, and dressed in rags – in a stark compound hidden deep in the Australian outback. Some of them vaguely recognise one another, but nothing clearly links them – until painful events from their pasts emerge, and it becomes all too clear why they’ve been isolated together. They’re being held for a reason, by people more powerful than you could imagine. What hope do they have of getting out?

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

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Remember when Cat Person went viral? A seemingly quiet piece in The New Yorker was suddenly everywhere, trending on Twitter and causing arguments in hetero relationships around the world., Kristen Roupenian managed to blow a spark into a flame, how we perceive and navigate relationships between men and women in a post-#MeToo world. That story is included among others by Roupenian in You Know You Want This. Like the story that captured global attention, this collection is one of the horror books written by women that doesn’t offer jump-scares or loud squeals, but quiet creeping terror that seeps into the realities of our everyday lives. This is one of the sharpest and most surprising interrogations of sex and power you’ll find on your shelves.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

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Hurricane Season is a murder mystery (of sorts) based on true events that happened in Fernanda Melchor’s hometown. I’ve got to tell you: this is a HEAVY read, more horror than whodunnit. Trigger warnings for literally everything you can imagine. It has these beautiful long lyrical sentences that lure you in, but the visceral, carnal, brutal nature of the events it depicts are not for the faint of heart. It all begins when a group of children discover a decomposing body in a canal, that of the local Witch, and the story unfolds through the perspectives of bystanders, accomplices, and (of course) the perpetrators… Read my full review of Hurricane Season here.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

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Fans of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman who haven’t read any of her later work might be surprised to see Earthlings on a list of horror books written by women. Murata’s protagonists are kooky, sure, and she leans towards the dark and eccentric – but is that enough to constitute “horror”? Trust me, you need to read this one to see what I mean. Natsuki is pretending to be normal, living a quiet life in an asexual marriage, hoping that she can someday succumb to the pressure to be truly “normal”. Unfortunately, the horrors of her childhood won’t be quieted so easily. This one takes twists and turns you will never see coming. Read my full review of Earthlings here.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames – David Sedaris

I treat myself to one David Sedaris book a year (otherwise, I’d gobble them all up at once like a greedy little goblin). This year, I went for When You Are Engulfed In Flames, his sixth essay collection first published in 2008. As per the blurb: “Subjects include a parasitic worm that once lived in his mother-in-law’s leg, an encounter with a dingo, and the recreational use of an external catheter. Also recounted is the buying of a human skeleton and the author’s attempt to quit smoking.”

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Get When You Are Engulfed In Flames here.
(And when you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll be engulfed with gratitude – plus a small commission for referring you.)

Yes, of course, When You Are Engulfed In Flames contains twenty-two essays as hilarious and ridiculous as we’ve come to expect from Sedaris. Other subjects include the time he joined his brother for a drug deal in a North Carolina trailer home, karmic retribution on rude plane passengers, his husband lancing a boil on his tailbone, and befriending a French local only to find out he was a child abuser.

There’s less about his family in this collection than in others I’ve read so far. It’s disappointing, if only because his family seems a veritable goldmine of comic fodder (I have a particularly soft spot for his foul-mouthed brother). But When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t lacking in comic characters, even if they’re not related to Sedaris. I saw another review refer to them as a “new crop of lunatics”, which is spot on.

My personal favourite in the collection – one that gave me many, many literal lols – is That’s Amore, an essay about/profile of Sedaris’s New York neighbour, Helen. She hates everyone, believes herself to be the center of the universe, and sounds like an absolute nightmare to live next to (if incredibly funny to read about). Sedaris attributes to her endless hysterical non sequiturs, including “I shit so hard, I think I sprained my asshole”.

(Heads up: there’s a few uncensored slurs scattered here and there throughout When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Normally, it wouldn’t warrant a mention, but I’ve noticed an uptick on readers looking for content warnings before they pick up a book – so, there you have it.)

The final story in When You Are Engulfed In FlamesThe Smoking Section – is remarkably long, much longer than any other essay I’ve read by Sedaris. He recounts, diary-style, his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for six months (yes, that sounds insane, but in Sedaris’s world it makes perfect sense). The story is good – not quite as good as his very best, but still good by any benchmark – even if it does read more like An American In Tokyo, and make me crave a cigarette myself.

My dog, Fyodor Dogstoyevsky, doesn’t care for David Sedaris – because the books make me laugh out loud so hard and so often, his nap time is frequently disturbed. Even though When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t my favourite of his collections I’ve read so far – and probably not one I’d recommend to first-time Sedaris readers – it’s still great. I’m still in awe of the way Sedaris can craft a story out of seemingly nothing at all. I’d dearly love to share a cocktail and a smoke with him (if he hadn’t, as The Smoking Section suggests, sadly quit both alcohol and cigarettes).

Read my reviews of Sedaris’s other books here:

My favourite Amazon reviews of When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

  • “I laughed out loud more reading this book than I have in my day to day life since childhood.” – aprillaman
  • “He is a breath of fres air for this busy weiry lady suffocated by every day stressers.” – Elizabeth Carver
  • “I felt like I was sitting next to a guy on the plane who tried really hard to make me laugh, waving his arms in my face telling crude exaggerated stories. I sat stone faced for 30 minute chance before I told him, “Enough.”” – R Hilux

The Matchmaker – Saman Shad

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(affiliate link)

The decision to marry someone is complicated: do you want the same things? Will you in ten, twenty, fifty years? Will your love last as long as you both shall live? Being part of a community with cultural and religious expectations around marriage adds layers of complication on top of that, even.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone guiding you, helping you make the big decisions, giving your marriage the best shot possible? That’s Saima’s job in The Matchmaker – a brand-new debut novel from Sydney author Saman Shad, which Penguin Books Australia sent to me for review.

The story follows Saima as she tackles a particularly challenging assignment: finding a match for a sexy, wealthy bachelor, without letting him know that his parents are pulling the strings.

Books+Publishing bills The Matchmaker as “A light read that still delves deep into the complexities and heartbreak of immigrant and first-generation experiences,”. It’s like an Australian-Pakistani Failure To Launch, meets The Wedding Planner. Saima and Kal both find themselves caught between the traditions and expectations of their parents’ homeland, and all the modern promise of the country in which they grew up.

The prose and dialogue were patchy in places, but completely forgivable for a debut author with such striking insight. It was a particular delight to read a rom-com set in my home city of Sydney. I recognised many of the spots that Saima and Kal visit – not to mention the “types” they encounter. Given that there’s no mention of COVID, and no spice (except for the frequently-mentioned delicious-sounding meals), The Matchmaker is the perfect blend of escapism anchored in reality, a wonderful end-of-summer read.

Buy The Matchmaker on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

10 Books Set In Ireland

Ireland: birthplace of Oscar Wilde, home of Guinness, lush land of no snakes and green shamrocks. While travel is still out of reach for some of us (by some of us, I mean me), there are plenty of books on our shelves that can take us to our dream destinations – and, for me, that’s the Emerald Isle. Here are ten books set in Ireland for a budget-friendly escape.

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The luck of the Irish will be with you if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase – you’ll be sending some leprechaun gold my way!

Milkman by Anna Burns

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Milkman is set in an “unnamed city” – but for anyone who’s paying the slightest bit of attention, it’s obviously Belfast. That’s where Anna Burns herself was raised, and her experiences of the turbulent times of the Troubles inform this intense psychological novel. It’s a story about gossip, silence, violence, and consequences. With this book, Burns actually became the first-ever writer from Northern Ireland to win the Booker Prize, with the judges commending it as “an exploration of the universal experience of societies in crisis.” Read my full review of Milkman here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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Ulysses has a bit of a reputation – being notoriously difficult to read, for one thing – but if you can grit your teeth (and find a helpful guide to scaffold your reading), it’s well worth it. The story follows Joyce’s self-insert character, Leopold Bloom, and his friends and lovers over the course of a single day of misadventures in Dublin. The book is so beloved as part of the Irish canon that communities celebrate “Bloomsday” on 16 June each year, the anniversary of the day that Joyce depicts. (It was also the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife, so that’s surely worth a pint.) Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Sally Rooney is a bit of a millennial wunderkid – “the Salinger of the Snapchat generation”. All of her books are (at least partially) set in Ireland, but the most iconic is definitely Normal People. The story begins in a fictionalised small Irish town in County Sligo, where Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house. What follows between the two teenagers is a lifelong push-pull of will-they-won’t-they frenemies-to-lovers-back-to-frenemies-then-maybe-lovers-again. The plot follows them to Dublin and Trinity College (where Rooney herself, naturally, studied) and back again. I’m sure there will be “Normal People tours” of those areas in the future – if there aren’t already. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Bonus: Read my full review of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, here.

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

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You know that old saying, “you can’t choose your family”? Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose your friends, either. That’s definitely the case for Katie, who grows up in the small (fictional) Irish town of Glenbruff in You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here. She has no choice but to become friends with the glamorous troublemaker Evelyn, and the wet blanket Maeve. They dream of escaping their small-town life someday, but in the meantime (as the title suggests) they have to make their own fun – and a city girl is coming to shake things up. This is a fantastic exploration of female friendship and coming-of-age against the backdrop of ’90s in the Emerald Isle. Read my full review of You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here here.

The Likeness by Tana French

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Tana French is the reigning queen of detective books set in Ireland. The Likeness is the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, and it’s severely underrated. The concept is just ridiculous enough to work. Cassie Maddox is drawn back into the Dublin Murder Squad to investigate the murder of her doppelganger, a young university student who looks eerily like her. What’s more, it turns out the victim was living under an alias Maddox had used for a previous investigation. Obviously, she has no choice but to go back undercover, this time posing as the dead girl, to see if any of her Dublin housemates will reveal themselves to be the murderer. Isn’t that bonkers? Isn’t it amazing?

Amongst Women by John McGahern

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Amongst Women is a slim little unassuming tome, and John McGahern is far from a household name, but this is one of the best books set in Ireland interrogating the impact of the country’s internal conflict on families and domestic life. The patriarch character, Michael Moran, is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. His wife and daughters gather at the family home in Ireland’s rural midlands, hoping to lift Moran’s spirits lest his most recent bout of depression kill him, but it’s far from a happy reunion. Read my full review of Amongst Women here.

Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

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Okay, so technically Instructions For A Heatwave begins in London – but the Riordan family has tended carefully to their Irish roots, and the story drags them back there. Plus, Maggie O’Farrell is a widely beloved Northern Irish author, so I say it counts as one of the best books set in Ireland. Everyone in the Riordan family is hiding a secret: they miss home, their marriages are breaking down, their step-kids hate them, they can’t read… and all of those secrets come to a head when the patriarch of the family disappears. This is a fascinating novel of simmering resentments and emotional claustrophobia, a rich family drama that feels very Irish. Read my full review of Instructions For A Heatwave here.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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Eimear McBride draws on a rich tradition for books set in Ireland, stream-of-consciousness writing to explore the depths of trauma and psychology (see Ulysses above), in her debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. The rambling story explores a young Irish girl’s family relationships – pushed to the breaking point by her brother’s brain tumour – and her struggle to accept her own sexuality. The New York Times called this book a future classic (among many other complimentary things), and McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction for her efforts.

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

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Love true crime? Love books-within-books? Looking for books set in Ireland that will get your heart pumping? You need to read The Nothing Man. The title is a moniker given to a serial killer who assaulted and murdered people in their Cork homes. They called him that because the Gardaí had “nothing” on him. Nowadays, though, he goes by Jim, and he’s a faceless security guard at a grocery store. Jim’s about to get the opportunity to relive his criminal hey-day though, because a true crime book has just come out about him – an I’ll Be Gone In The Dark-esque memoir by his only known survivor. Read my full review of The Nothing Man here.

Bonus: Check out more of the thriller books by Irish authors I recommend here.

The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes

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In 2008, the Celtic Tiger – a period of foreign investment in Ireland that lead to a major property bubble burst – devastated some Irish families while richly rewarding others. That’s the backdrop for The Wild Laughter, a novel by “one of Ireland’s most audacious, nuanced and insightful young writers”. The Black brothers are living on either side of a chasm, with their beloved father dancing along a delicate tightrope between them. This is a “snapshot of a family and a nation suddenly unmoored”, named Book Of The Year in 2020 by the Irish Times, the Irish Sunday Times, the Irish Independent, AND the Sunday Independent. That might make it one of the most-endorsed books set in Ireland in living memory!

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

Back in 2006, before Gone Girl took over all the best-seller lists and became shorthand for the unlikeable female narrator, Gillian Flynn released her quiet debut: Sharp Objects. It didn’t take long to catch on. Even back then, the seeds of what makes Flynn’s books so popular (especially with women) were beginning to sprout.

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Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker, a journalist for a small Chicago newspaper, as she’s drawn back to her hometown to report on the abduction and murder of two young girls. At first, Camille doesn’t seem particularly unusual – sure, she’s a bit of a drinker, and she clearly has some unresolved issues with her family, but who doesn’t? Gradually, as the events of Sharp Objects unfold, you realise how dark she really is, and why those issues with her mother and her hometown might never be untangled.

And who are the other players? Well, the dead/missing girls, of course: Natalie Keene and Ann Nash, both boisterous young girls with rebellious streaks. There’s also Camille’s sisters: Marian passed away when Camille was still very young, but Amma is still around. She’s 13 years old, and a master manipulator. Amma and Camille’s mother, Adora (what a name!), is a strict disciplinarian and judgemental as heck. She comes from old money and she knows just how to wield her influence, inside of the family and out of it. The men in the story recede right to the background: Camille’s editor Frank Curry, long-time small-town cop Chief Vickery, and the big-time city detective called in to help out, Richard Willis.

Camille gets pushed and pulled, from pillar to post, as she tries to craft a neat story out of a very messy situation. Returning to your hometown is stressful under normal circumstances, but when you’ve got an editor breathing down your neck for copy, a mother who doesn’t want you around, two dead girls with their teeth pulled out, and a history of mental instability… yeah, you’re not going to have a good time. Eventually, though, she does figure out who killed the little girls. I’ll respect the convenant against spoilers, for once, but I will say that the conclusion is fairly predictable (aside from a couple of fun twists right at the very end).

The plot of Sharp Objects isn’t quite as propulsive or gripping as Gone Girl, but it’s still highly readable. It’s also much darker, if you can believe it. It turns out Flynn never shied away from mining the depths of female psychopathology to turn our collective stomachs. This book mixes together the “beautiful woman with dark secrets” idea with the essence of Southern Gothic, and the results are very good. Flynn has said that she was working at Entertainment Weekly as she was writing Sharp Objects, and she initially struggled to maintain the “moist, gothic tone” of her draft manuscript – she “didn’t want it to be EW bouncy”. I’m glad she stuck at it.

(Oh, and, of course, the trigger warnings: violence against children, alcoholism, sexual assault, and – the biggie – self-harm.)

After the super-mega success of Gone Girl and the corresponding film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Sharp Objects got the screen treatment, too. It became a 2018 HBO mini-series, and won considerable critical acclaim. Viewers praised the visuals, directing, and performances of Amy Adams (as Camille) and Patricia Clarkson (as Adora). It sounds like it’s worth checking out.

So, it would seem that Flynn is no one-hit wonder. Even though Sharp Objects didn’t quite live up to her most popular book, it was still good enough to convince me to check out the rest of her back-list. Plus, Flynn has hinted that she’s working (slowly) on a new one – so I’ll be staying tuned for news on that front, too.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sharp Objects:

  • “The author is not good and the editing is terrible. Lack of research. Weird, untrue statements about farming” – PaigeB1920
  • “We get it, you’re bitter and woke and you wish all your old high school mates were miserable. Most people actual just want good for others. Get over yourself. And get over high school.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Please tell me you have better things to do than read about a serial killer who kills little girls and pulls their teeth. I do.” – SAF/ALF
  • “The descriptions are so detailed, that I have to wonder about the author’s own mental health. The characters are sick, the details are sick and the town is sick. Not a redeeming thing in this story. I have to wonder about Reese as well. I gave three stars because it is well written for a sick story.” – Happy Thoughts
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