THE BLOG
09/25/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

13 Absolutely Terrifying Serial Killers From Fiction

When I wrote Butterfly Skin (Titan Books, $14.95), a violent novel about a serial killer, his crimes and his love, readers and journalists asked me about my favorite serial-killer books. Really, Dostoevsky and George Bataille influenced me much more than Silence of the Lambs; however, I have the list they asked and would be glad to share it with you.

I don't like traditional crime novels: A pair of cops searches for an evil murderer in a rainy city or on some sunny beaches. I prefer books where the writer makes their own journey to the heart of darkness, asking not "who is the killer?" but "what is in the killer's soul and mind? What does it mean -- to be a person like this?" So, I listed books with some unexpected turn of the viewpoint: high postmodernism by Fawles, political satire by Easton Ellis, the descendent aesthetics of Poppy Z. Brite, religious parable by Suskind etc. Of course, I included some classic examples - from Robert Bloch to Stieg Larsson -- but normally nobody looks for most of the books listed here on the crime shelf in the bookstore.

The majority of my favorite novels are about love, loneliness and despair, and the books in the list below aren't exception.

"Bluebeard" by Charles Perrault (1659) This classical French fairy tale about an evil nobleman with ugly blue beard who killed his wives is the first sample of the serial killer thriller. Nobody knows why Bluebeard is so cruel -- neither reader nor the main character, a young female investigator, his new wife, who can expose the killer but can't defend herself without her brothers' help. I prefer heroic, badass female characters Perrault couldn't presume to write two and a half centuries ago, before feminism and gender-role challenging.
Das Fräulein von Scuderi: Erzählung aus dem Zeitalter Ludwig des Vierzehnten by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1819) The king of German gothic Romanticism and Edgar Poe's godfather wrote a story of a mad French jeweler (spoiler!) who kills everyone who has owned his bijoux. The first study of the sick mind of a serial killer includes the analysis of the reasons: the roots are sexual trauma and the mother-son relationship (almost a century before Freud's works!)
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952) One of the first American novels about a serial killer, and perhaps the first one written from their viewpoint. The narrator, Lou Ford, deputy sheriff in a small town, hides his sadistic and psychopathic spirit under the mask of a good cop, though his desire to dominate, manipulate and kill leads him to the devastating final. Stephen King, the big expert in the depths of criminal minds, used to call Jim Thompson brave enough to let himself see everything, write it down and publish it. The Killer Inside Me is a proof of this braveness.
Psycho by Robert Bloch (1959) Once, Robert Bloch, a writer and a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft, read about the arrest of Ed Gein, a serial killer who had lived in 35 miles near him. Impressed, Bloch began to write a novel about a psycho who kills women in his remote motel. The novel became a bestseller and Alfred Hitchcock adapted it, so everybody knows the film much better than the book. Which is a pity: The novel is great. By the way, the famous shower scene was invented by Bloch.
The Collector by John Robert Fowles (1963) Nobody calls John Fowles "the guy who writes books about crimes and serial killers": he is a star of high postmodernist fiction (The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Ebony Tower). However his first published novel is a story of a kidnapper and the girl he captured. Unlike the most books in the list, the character is not a murderer from the beginning of the book: The Collector is a story of a man turning into a serial killer. Anyway, postmodernism is still present: Fans of Shakespeare's The Tempest would like the novel much more than fans of Hannibal Lector.
Gilles et Jeanne by Michel Tournier (1983) Michel Tournier, one of the best French writers of late XXth century with delicate taste to perversion and deviations, reconstructs the story of Gilles de Rais, the famous Breton serial killer of the 15th century, the prototype of Bluebeard and even of the ogre from Hop-o'-My-Thumb. Gilles de Rais raped and killed countless children in his castle before he was exposed and executed, but Tournier reminds us about his past and studies the way the celebrated French general and the associate of Jeanne d'Arc became one of the first documented serial killer in history.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988) Due to this novel, common readers discover the serial killer may be charming and glamorous. To make us love Hannibal Lector even more, Thomas Harris gives him a female ally -- Clarice Starling from the F.B.I. -- and an opponent, traditionally ugly serial killer Buffalo Bill. I like the book as a kind of love story -- without sex or declaration of the love between characters. For justice I have to mention that real serial killers usually are lowbrow, trivial and frustrated people: Well-educated, talented psychos may become artists, warlords and -- in the worst case for us -- politicians.
American Psycho by Bred Easton Ellis (1991) The satirical monument of the yuppie '80s and one of the most brutal and violent books in the list (the novel was banned in Canada and Germany). Investment banker Patrick Bateman works at Wall Street by day and kills bums, prostitutes and colleagues at nightfall. The majority of critics described the novel as a satire on post-industrial capitalism, consumerism and the Wall Street boom of the late '80s. I like the book for the twisted end: The reader realizes that although Patrick is objectively mad, he is too much of a coward to have committed murders he wrote about.
Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite (1996) Thomas Harris made serial killers attractive for a mainstream straight audience and Poppy Z. Brite did the same for a gay, underground and gothic one. Two serial killers and a beautiful Vietnamese boy play out a gruesome drama of love, lust and violence in the scenery of decadent New Orleans French Quarter. Oh, I forgot the most important component, the art: Not incidentally, the title is the reference to the artistic game invented by French Surrealists.
Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörder by Patrick Süskind (1985) This is the most famous German-language novel since Eric Maria Remark, successfully adopted as a film by Tom Tykwer. Patrick Süskind tells the story of genius French perfumer from the 17th century who kills beautiful women to create a perfect perfume that would make everybody love the person who emits that scent. The perfumer is a monster -- but at the same time he is, in a way, sinless as a child: it's no wonder the place of his birth and his last Jesus-like sacrifice is called Cemetery of Innocent.
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (1999) There has to be at least one graphic novel in this list, because comics writers really love serial killers. For example, let's remember the great collection of Batman villains and the vicious characters of Sin City. Although my personal favorites are the ghoulish visitors of Cereal Convention from the second volume of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, I added to this list From Hell, not only because the book is thick as a real novel, but also due to its sophisticated plot and impressive characters. What is more, any serial killer list would be incomplete without Jack the Ripper's story.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002) Lucky, Alice Sebold's first book, tells the writer's own story of being raped just after her freshman year in Syracuse University. So, we don't expect The Lovely Bones to praise serial killers as Silence of the Lambs or Exquisite Corpse do. Alice Sebold focuses on the victim, not on the killer: The narrator is the dead girl raped and killed by her neighbor. From her personal heaven, she watches her family and her killer. Read this novel if you have as many brutal fantasies as Patrick Bateman.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005) Oh, there should be at least one book with standard crime novel plot: the investigator(s), the cruel murders, search, hide-and-seek, exposure and happy ending. We love the majority of these books not because of serial killers, but for a detective character -- and, of course, I listed Stieg Larsson bestselling novel because of red-haired violent hacker Lisbeth Salander. American critics compare the main female character of Butterfly Skin with Lisbeth; however, I wrote my novel a few years before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was published. I suppose the explanation is simple: both of us, Stieg Larsson and me, loved the type of heroic and violent female character Charles Perrault couldn't imagine three hundred years ago.