Julia Bartz on the new wave of psychological thrillers

Feb 23, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Crime Reads (by Julia Bartz).

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.

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