8 Serial Killer Books That Are About More than Murder
Michael J Seidlinger, the author of ‘My Pet Serial Killer,’ on using the serial killer trope to foster a bold, alarming narrative
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Serial killers. Yeah, we get it. A quick search on Google for books about serial killers will yield thousands upon thousands of results. On any list of tropes, the “serial killer” ranks near the top for commonly-used, perhaps even most overused.
But while easy to dismiss, it’s important to note that when it comes to literature’s use of the serial killer, isn’t just The Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho; as writers became attracted to the serial killer as a concept, they’ve donned the textbook characteristics in their fiction to then dismantle and subvert it, and turn the “serial killer” into a metaphor all its own. In my book My Pet Serial Killer, I use the serial killer trope to dismantle the killer’s “power” to the point of submission, helping facilitate a deep-dive into the complexities of human attraction. Perhaps it’s, in fact, less about the “killer” and more about the kaleidoscopic effect it creates and fosters a bold, alarming narrative.
Here are eight examples where the serial killer becomes a vehicle for the author’s narrative vision.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
Süskind’s cult classic about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who is born with the gift of perfect smell, is more than a mere perfumer-turned-serial killer. A tale of obsession, the book follows Grenouille as he chases the impossible act of capturing the “perfect scent,” and in doing so lays claim to countless corpses. The book carries a sinister arc, above and beyond the “perfumer killer” concept: it explores the extent of genius, and how being “gifted” with perfection may in fact be less a gift and more a curse.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The title of Beuke’s novel hints upon the killer’s bind — the need to kill those with utmost potential. “The shining girls” are the targeted victims of Harper Curtis, a man that stumbles upon the ability to travel through time. Trick is, he must travel through time with a specific purpose: to kill every women that “burn with potential.” Of course, it’s not that simple especially when one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives. The book never oversells its more fantastical elements, nor does it hide a prevailing theme of personal worth, and how one measures it.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
I love how this book subverts the very act of serial killing with the decision to have it narrated not by the killer, victim, or detective, but rather by the sister of the serial killer, complete with a refreshing bitter tone that screams “dammit sis: Stop leaving your dead boyfriends for me to clean up!” Using this clever upheaval of the serial killer narrative, Braithwaite explores topics of social media, voyeurism, and jealousy in a manner that feels all too real at times. Talk about getting under your skin.
Altmann’s Tongue by Brian Evenson
Evenson’s first book, first published in 1994, has continued to haunt me long after the first read. His book was also one of the few that frightened me enough that I couldn’t sleep at night. These stories are indeed brutal and horrifying — from feeding a man the tongue of one’s victim to going on a bit of a “joy ride” aimed at killing cats — but what Evenson is really doing here is showcasing human morality, baring it all for readers to see.
The Sluts by Dennis Cooper
Is it strange for me to think, “Ah, this takes me back” when thinking of Cooper’s cult hit, The Sluts? It’s probably because I first read it back when I binged indie lit nonstop, exploring all that was discussed on the literary blog, HTMLGiant. A tale of potential murder and massacre surrounding a highly-rated young escort, Cooper uses the threat of serial murder to explore obsession, identity, and self-destruction, and he folds it all into an innovative structure that successfully captures the feeling of scrolling through a forbidden corner of the web.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
No doubt it comes as no surprise to have Ligotti on this list; the author has carved out his own corner of the cosmic horror genre, so much that his own nihilistic philosophy inspired the iconic character x from the first season of True Detective. His story, “The Frolic,” about an unnamed serial killer of children and the protagonist, prison psychologist David Munck’s budding fear of the killer. True to form, Ligotti aims subverts expectations, further allowing the psychological focus to shine through. The story demonstrates that it’s one’s own past that becomes the “true murderer.”
There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins
Perkins’ novel begins with a familiar premise — Makani Young has recently moved to a middle-of-nowhere town in Nebraska and is only just beginning to acclimate at the novel’s start. A killer descends upon the town and true to form, both the populous and the media that fuels it plays into the frenzy of paranoia. You see, Makani has a past she’s hiding and worries the media will dig it up, turning her into a person-of-interest. Fill in the blanks with adolescent bonding and intrigue and Perkins’ book makes this list for its effective use of the aforementioned paranoia to explore racism and self-identity.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
In one of Murakami’s best hides a serial killer named Johnnie Walker (yes, after the scotch). Walker’s M.O. is to murder, eviscerate, and remove the hearts of cats. It’s a devastating image that sends ripples through the novel’s magical realist narrative. It is perhaps because the killer is so unexpected that Walker becomes a mark from which the novel does an amazing job of examining the depths of cruelty and the reasons with which one becomes blinded from the severity of their actions.