In my debut novel The Writing Retreat, a despairing writer named Alex is invited to attend a month-long retreat at the home of her favorite author, feminist horror novelist Roza Vallo. Roza hosts Alex and other four other up-and-coming female writers at her gothic mansion, Blackbriar Estate. While there, Alex finds herself solely surrounded by women—at least one of whom turns out to be a psychopath.
When starting this book, I decided to use it as an exercise to explore the darker corners of my own psyche. Women and girls are often criticized when we exhibit or even feel emotions such as anger, aggression, and self-centeredness. When these perfectly normal parts of us do inevitably bubble up, we’re conditioned to then feel intense shame. A lot of my work as a therapist is to help people accept and feel compassion for ALL parts of themselves, even those deemed societally unacceptable. We can even use them as guides—for example, knowing that our anger can be a helpful sign that others may be overstepping our boundaries.
As a writer working on a psychological thriller, I wondered what it would be like to follow this line even further: to not only embrace my aggressive and selfish parts without shame, but to actively stoke them, even allow them to rule my behavior. In a patriarchal society that aims to quiet and control women, and encourages them to serve others without complaint, what would it feel like to follow my darkest inclications? This question led me to the trait of psychopathy, which includes impulsivity, grandiosity, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to manipulate or control others.
Researchers estimate that 0.3% to 0.7% of U.S. women have significant levels of psychopathic traits. Most are not violent or deadly, but other authors and creatives do find them to be particularly interesting—just think of Villanelle from Killing Eve or Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Before and during my work on The Writing Retreat, I found myself taking notes from books that explore psychopathic women. I sense an authorial freedom and sometimes even glee that comes from inhabiting a female character who throws off societal conventions–even if the result is violence, mayhem, and murder. Below, I’ll share some of my favorite books in this realm, along with a to-read list I’m excited to dig into.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
In Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 classic, an unnamed female protagonist moves into her new husband’s mansion only to be haunted by the lingering presence of his deceased first wife, Rebecca. Although the protagonist initially assumes that her husband is still in love with Rebecca, she later learns that he was actually scared of her–due to her cruel and “unnatural”tendencies. We learn through the shining eyes of Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s housemaid (and possible sexual partner) that Rebecca held an incredible amount of power over others–and that it has continued even after her mysterious death.
My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s brilliant debut explores female psychopaths from the point of view of those closest to them. In this novel, protagonist Korede finds herself in the strange position of helping her sister, Ayoola, after Ayoola kills several boyfriends. Although she claims self-defense, Ayoola displays no remorse as she moves on to her next partner/victim. As with many culturally portrayed female psychopaths, Ayoola seems to be having a pretty good time, living her life impulsively while Korede races to protect both her sister and the men she attracts.
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers
Hanibal Lector’s got nothing on Dorothy Daniels, a talented and haughty food critic who decides to give into her darkest tendencies in order to enjoy the perfect meal. Relating her story from jail (“Prison is boring,” she sighs), Dorothy relates how her pleasure in preparing food crosses over into her quest to take power back in her complicated and relationships with men. I found Chelsea G Summers’s debut to be funny, disturbing, and beautifully written.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Psychopaths may be self-interested, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own moral code. Gorgeous and quick-witted protagonist Scarlett is a lauded professor at a university–and she’s also a serial killer. Each year, Scarlett chooses the most harmful, abusive man on campus to do away with; in her mind, she’s doing the school a favor. When the head of the school’s investigation starts getting too close to the truth, Scarlett knows she should take a break, but how can she when she’s got the perfect victim in her sight?
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
One of the most well-known female psychopaths in recent years, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 third book introduced us to Amy Dunne. This unreliable narrator shared her backstory via a diary that began in truth and veered into lies, in order to frame and punish her passive aggressive, cheating husband. Amy’s perfect plan spins out of control, and when a murder becomes necessary to keep up the charade, she must calculate whether or not it’s worth it.
I’m also excited to dig into these new and upcoming books that include female psychopaths–the abundance of which makes me wonder if this is growing theme…
No One Will Miss Her by Kat Rosenfield
When small town pariah Lizzie is found dead, the police’s attention turns to her missing husband. But maybe they should be looking more closely at Adrienne, a socialite from the city who rented Lizzie’s lakehouse and left in an awful hurry…
Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian
A story about a female psychopath participating in a university study of psychopaths? Sign me up! When one of the other participants is found murdered, Chloe must figure out which of the other psychopaths is responsible–so that she has a chance to put her own plan for revenge in action.
Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen
When Ava Wong’s college roommate Winnie Fang shows up twenty years later to reconnect with her, Ava finds out that it’s not just a friendly visit. Winnie’s involved in illegal activities and tries to convince Ava to join her.
Wahala by Nikki May
A charismatic new girl named Isobel adds fun and excitement to a friend group composed by three women–Ronke, Boo, and Simi–before her chaos threatens to break them apart.
None of This is True by Lisa Jewell
True crime podcaster Alix meets Josie, a charming woman who thinks she’d be a great subject for Alix’s series. When Josie disappears, Alix realizes the secrets Josie shared now put her in imminent danger.
Charles Hermans ‘Circe the Temptress’ (1881)