Five of the top psychological thrillers that use isolated locations
I love an isolated setting for a book, especially in a thriller. I think it adds to the unease and atmosphere and, if done well, the setting can become a character in its own right. It taps into our primal fear of being in danger in a remote place, where nobody can hear you scream.
I’m currently writing book ten, and every one of my thrillers all have the same thing in common – a claustrophobic small town or community. The first thing I think about, before starting a book, is where best to set it; the more remote the better. In my most recent, The Girls Who Disappeared, I decided to create a little town based on a small village in Wiltshire called Avebury, which is full of character with its little mystical shops and famous standing stones. I wanted a place full of myths and folklore to add to the unsettling feeling my main character, Jenna, a reporter, experiences when arriving in the town. A place with an infamous haunted road; the perfect place to begin the book with a car accident and three missing girls. It not only had to be isolated, but spooky as well.
Here are five of my favourite psychological thrillers that use isolated locations for maximum effect to create fear and menace and a character in its own right.
BREATHLESS by Amy McCulloch
I absolutely adored this book! It has everything I love in a thriller and one of the most atmospheric, spine-chilling and original locations I’ve ever read. What can be more frightening than realising there is a killer on top of an 8,000m mountain! It’s about a journalist, Cecily Wong, who has been invited to join an expedition to climb one of the world’s tallest mountains. As Cecily’s team begin to ascend towards the Death Zone things start going wrong – a theft and an accident – but when she finds the first body it becomes apparent there is a murderer on the mountain. BREATHLESS is such a chilling, exhilarating, and heart-thumping read, and Amy’s mountaineering experience really shines through.
NOBODY BUT US by Laure Van Rensburg
A cabin in the woods is a perfect isolated setting for a thriller. NOBODY BUT US is the story of a young woman, Ellie, and her professor boyfriend, Stephen, who head to an isolated cabin for a romantic weekend away. From the prologue it’s obvious something has gone very wrong after the police make a grisly discovery. This is a sophisticated cat and mouse thriller brimming with tension and filled with well-executed twists, and it’s particularly atmospheric due to its setting. There is a powerful message at the heart of this compulsive and clever story that left me thinking about it for a long time.
DAISY DARKER by Alice Feeney
I was blown away by this impressive, emotional, and ingenious thriller. Alice Feeney has used one of my favourite books, Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, as her inspiration, and has taken it to the next level to create DAISY DARKER. Not only do we have a remote island, where, during certain times of the year, the tide comes in and isolates the area, but a quirky house on a clifftop in Cornwall, a set of well-drawn characters in the Darker family, and a murderer that’s picking them off one by one. Genuinely terrifying and claustrophobic, the plot is set over one night when secrets and the past are slowly revealed through the use of rhymes left at the scene by the killer, and video tapes of Daisy’s childhood. It’s a thriller I’ll never forget.
THE SANATORIUM by Sarah Pearse
This is an inspired location for a thriller – an imposing hotel high up in the Swiss Alps previously used as a sanatorium for tuberculosis. When an off duty detective, Elin, and her boyfriend Will go to visit her brother in the recently converted, swanky new hotel that you can only reach by a funicular railway, you can feel the sense of isolation straight away. Especially when, the day after they arrive, a storm causes an avalanche, leaving some of the guests and staff stranded at the hotel. Then a woman is found murdered, with an ugly, old-fashioned breathing mask, used when the building was a sanatorium, strapped to her face. Then another person goes missing. The local police are unable to reach the remote hotel so Elin is forced to take charge. Which one of the guests or staff is the killer?
THE DRIFT by C J Tudor
This is a particularly clever dystopian thriller that doesn’t just use one isolated location – but three, and to brilliant effect. There is Hannah, a student trapped alongside her classmates on a bus that has crashed into a snow drift; Meg, a cop who is stuck on a cable car in mid-air with five other panicking people; and Carter, who is living in a remote ski chalet called The Retreat where something terrifying lurks outside and people inside start disappearing. In all three scenarios, a snow storm rages, adding to the sense of claustrophobia. C J Tudor cleverly links the three situations together, creating an edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding and unique thriller that I read over a weekend as I couldn’t put it down.