What’s love go to do with it?
When I set out to write a story about obsessive love I knew I was treading a well-worn literary path. It seems incongruous to say that most thrillers are written about love, but it’s true, no doubt because we know that it’s possible to reveal the best and worst sides of ourselves within relationships. My novel, Our Kind of Cruelty, is the story of a man unable to accept that his long-term relationship is over and his ex-girlfriend is marrying someone else. He interprets everything she does as a sign that really she wants him to swoop in and rescue her, leading to a deadly conclusion. I told it solely from his perspective, drawing the reader deep in to his delusions and obsessions, so that nothing feels clear cut. Because isn’t that exactly how love feels? Deep down we all know that loving someone else is one of the best, but also one of the most dangerous things we will ever do, as it leaves us exposed and vulnerable. The haunted house and the dark street might be scary, but every thriller writer knows that the most terrifying place to be is often inside our own heads or trapped within a destructive relationship.
Below are some of my favorite books which look at the darker side of love, the side you should cross the street to avoid, but rarely do.
Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
Marriage is meant to be a safe and nurturing place, but most people who’ve been married for a long time know that even in loving relationships you can sometimes feel a deep hatred for your spouse. Highsmith was brilliant at showing relationships that had crumbled even beyond the point of hatred into dangerously rocky territory. Vic and Melinda Van Allen are one such couple, locked in a terrible hatred and disdain for one another that drips off the page. Highsmith sets the tone for the book with one of my all-time favorite first sentences when she tells us, “Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance.” What follows is a portrayal of two people who enjoy mentally torturing each other, Melinda with her heavy drinking and supposed flings and Vic with his tight control and intent watchfulness. And all the while we know we’re heading towards a terrible denouement as the couple’s hatred and behavior spirals towards a murderous conclusion.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I have heard Rebecca described as a love story way too many times and it always enrages me. Were it to be published today I have no doubt it would be marketed as a dark and complex psychological thriller. Our unnamed narrator is swept off her feet by the dashing Max de Winter, who marries her and takes her back to his grand Cornish estate, Manderley. Once there however, she soon learns, with the help of the spine-chilling Mrs Danvers, about Max’s first wife, Rebecca, who died tragically only a year before. As our narrator flounders we think we are witnessing a man devastated over the death of his first wife, unable to love again. But as the book unfolds we reaslize we are watching a mean, controlling man terrorize a young woman, in the same way he did Rebecca, showing us how trapped women can be by marriage and love.
Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly
Kelly’s newest offering is at its heart about mother love and the lengths people travel to protect the ones they love. Marianne has left her childhood town and the terrible things that happened there for an academic career, a lovely husband and fragile daughter. When her sick mother means she has to return home for a while however her secrets start to emerge and it soon becomes clear that she will do anything to stop her emotionally vulnerable daughter learning the truth about her past. Set in a renovated lunatic asylum, the story weaves brilliantly between the past and present, and asks the reader to consider the nature of female madness and what has happened and continues to happens to women in the name of love.
Damage by Josephine Hart
Ostensibly the story of a man who falls in love with his son’s girlfriend, Damage is so much more than that. It is ultimately about how love can be the most destructive force on the planet and the punch this slender novels packs is deeply shocking. The sexual obsession in this book is so intense that it pulsates off the page, dragging the reader with it towards a deep, dark betrayal and ultimately death. It can almost be read as a cautionary tale about mistaking sexual passion for love and trusting yourself to do the right thing by those you love. Reading it is a visceral experience which reveals the darkest side of an emotion which we like to kid ourselves is all sweetness and light.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I can’t actually think of a more disturbing book about love than Lolita. And I even feel bad saying it’s about love because it isn’t, it’s about the sexual and emotional abuse of twelve-year-old Lolita by the revolting Humbert Humbert. The genius of this novel however is in how it gaslights the reader. Because it is told solely from the point of view of Humbert, who genuinely believes that Lolita is tempting him and making him fall in love with her, we get swept along and confused and then disgusted with ourselves. So clever is Nabokov’s writing that the word Lolita has almost become a noun, meaning a sexually provocative girl. An amazing book about how it is possible to twist unnatural desire and call it love, ruining lives along the way.
You by Caroline Kepnes
You’s strange anti-hero, Joe, is another character who lives by his own version of love, one that includes stalking and murder. But somehow Kepnes makes him attractive, likable even. She does this by putting the reader firmly in his mind, so we are swept along with his delusions and made aware of his human insecurities. A roller coaster of a novel, you’re never quite sure how far Joe will go to win the love of Beck, but however far you suspect, trust me, he goes further. If it’s possible to have a thrilling, but also fun, entertaining side to obsessive love then this is it.
The Witch Elm by Tana French
For a book that is essentially about protective love, it is amazing how little the word is spoken. In fact, this is a story in which so much is left is unsaid. After a nasty physical attack Toby goes to recuperate at the sprawling home of his dying uncle, where he spent many happy summers as a child and teenager. He isn’t however recovering as quickly as he wants or makes out he is which, when coupled with a nasty discovery in the garden, causes him to start to question everything he thought he knew about himself, his family and his idyllic childhood. This is a brilliant portrayal of how we can lie as much to ourselves as those we love, in the hope that we’re protecting people, when all we’re actually doing is making everything worse. By the end you’re left with the sense that loving others, or even ourselves, is so complicated, it’s almost impossible to get right.