Updated on 10/27/2023
Can we talk about Jennifer McMahon for a minute? Because she’s amazing. Since 2007 she has published TWELVE adult novels plus a YA novel. Yes, you read that correctly. Thirteen books in sixteen years. And several of them on the New York Times bestseller list. In other words, lady knows what she’s doing.
Not only are McMahon’s novels insanely creepy and suspenseful, they’re also masterfully written. It did not come as a surprise to me that McMahon studied poetry in the MFA writing program at Vermont College. Hers are literary suspense novels: the language of a poet in a fast-paced thriller. And some of the stories are deeply metaphorical, exploring themes of true evil versus imaginary. What’s scarier? That your abusive mother might be possessed by a demon, or that she herself is capable of such cruelty?
Now that I’ve read all of her books, I realize that Jennifer McMahon has a formula: her novels are often set in a small town in Vermont, where something mysterious happened in the past that is now coming back to haunt (sometimes quite literally) the present-day characters.
Do I mind that she has a formula? No. Because I like her formula. It works. And she does it really well. Did I also mention that her books are CREEPY AS ALL GET OUT? I seriously think she must begin her drafting process by sitting down and brainstorming a list of “Super Creepy Things.” Life-sized dolls, dead children, Easter bunny costumes, abandoned roadside motels, deep water, severed hands… the list goes on and on into your nightmares.
Anyway, without further ado, here is (in my opinion) every single Jennifer McMahon paranormal suspense novel (and one non-paranormal suspense), ranked from good to better to the very creepy-best.
All 12 Jennifer McMahon Paranormal Suspense Novels: RANKED
Read on to see my #1 favorite book by master of paranormal suspense, Jennifer McMahon
Tess and Henry are boring and married, but ten years ago they and their college friends were rebellious artists who called themselves The Compassionate Dismantlers. The summer after graduation the Dismantlers let a mean prank go too far, and their leader, magnetic-mean-girl Suz, ended up dead. Now Henry and Tess learn that the victim of their prank has committed suicide, and his death is bringing their history back to haunt them.
This novel has plenty of creepiness and suspense. Most notably creepy: Henry and Tess’s nine-year-old daughter Emma and her imaginary friend, Donner. At one point Emma decides to make a life-sized “Donner doll,” and it eerily starts appearing all over the house… I get chills just thinking about it! This book had, to me, a slightly disappointing ending, but it was still page-turning, spine-tingling, and poetically-written.
WINS FOR: the creepy imaginary friend
While parked at a gas station, twenty-three year old Rhonda sees something so strange that she doesn’t realize until it’s over that she sat there while someone dressed in a rabbit costume kidnapped a young girl. Feeling guilty about having done nothing, Rhonda joins the investigation. As she gets closer to finding the kidnapper, she starts to unravel the mystery of another missing girl: her best friend from childhood, Lizzy.
Although this is perhaps the least scary of the bunch, I have to give McMahon props for her imagination because a child getting kidnapped by someone in a bunny suit is pure creepy genius. Did she get the idea while looking at this slideshow of disturbing Easter Bunnies?
WINS FOR: that creepy Easter Bunny costume
In the 1950’s, the Tower Motel was home to two sisters and their dark secrets…. Years later, as children, Amy, Piper, and Margot loved to play in the abandoned Tower Motel… until they discovered something dark and twisted in one of the old rooms and never went back. Now an adult, Amy is accused of committing a terrible crime, and a mysterious message forces Piper and Margot to revisit the old roadside motel… where they’ll learn the horrifying secrets the Tower Motel has been keeping.
This novel borrows from Hitchcock and uses the horror trope of an abandoned roadside motel in both new and familiar ways. The suspense and pacing, like all of MacMahon’s books, is expertly done, but I thought the big reveal at the end was a bit far-fetched. I still enjoyed it, though.
WINS FOR: creepiest setting
In the summer of 1985, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women in thirteen-year-old Reggie’s town. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, leaves their bodies to be found. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand shows up on the police department steps. But her body is never found, and Neptune never strikes again. Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie learns that her mother has been found alive at a homeless shelter. Reggie returns to her hometown to care for her mother, where she must face her past and find Neptune before he kills again.
This is the only novel that doesn’t have any paranormal element. Still has plenty of creepy, though (the severed hands! the confused mother babbling strange things!) Also fun? The story is interspersed with excerpts from a book written about the Neptune killer. If you’re in the mood for crime fiction and psychological suspense without the threat of the supernatural, this is the one for you.
WINS FOR: best crime fiction
From the Amazon description:
“At her renowned treatment center in picturesque Vermont, the brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth, is acclaimed for her compassionate work with the mentally ill. But when she’s home with her cherished grandchildren, Vi and Eric, she’s just Gran—teaching them how to take care of their pets, preparing them home-cooked meals, providing them with care and attention and love.
Then one day Gran brings home a child to stay with the family. Iris—silent, hollow-eyed, skittish, and feral—does not behave like a normal girl.
Meanwhile, Lizzy Shelley, the host of the popular podcast Monsters Among Us, is traveling to Vermont, where a young girl has been abducted, and a monster sighting has the town in an uproar. She’s determined to hunt it down, because Lizzy knows better than anyone that monsters are real—and one of them is her very own sister.”
A little bit Frankenstein with a healthy dose of creepy pscyh hospital. And, because McMahon is a genius, it also explores a very real evil from Vermont history.
WINS FOR: the nod to horror-history and the psych hospital
I’m not sure I even want to explain the plot of this one because I won’t be able to do it justice. Instead, let me describe some of the characters. Eva, who goes by the name Necco, is a teenager who has been living on the streets ever since her inventor father died in a mysterious flood years ago. Necco’s mother, Lily, is part of a group of homeless women who grow and consume a powerful hallucinogenic they call “the Devil’s Snuff.” Speaking of drugs, there’s Theo, the Catholic school girl slash drug dealer, who has recently been double-crossed by her girlfriend, and Pru, the overweight, slightly-delusional, circus-obsessed cafeteria worker who has become one of Theo’s customers. When Eva’s boyfriend is murdered, and it looks like the crime might be pinned on Theo, these character’s stories come together in a most unusual and interesting way.
This one has all of her hallmarks: suspense, paranormal, secrets in the past… and yet it seemed different to me, too. It was the oddest, most-genre-defying and, perhaps, the most literary of McMahon’s novels. This book had some sweetness to it, too, along with a healthy dose of creepiness and mystery. But I think my favorite thing was the unique characters and the interesting ways their stories overlapped.
WINS FOR: most unique
Kate returns home to rural Vermont to take care of her mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered. Three decades earlier, Kate’s friend Del was mudered in a similar fashion. Del’s killer was never found and has become a part of local legends and ghost stories. Now, as this new murder is investigated, Kate’s past, quite literally, comes back to haunt her.
I’m a sucker for a good ghost story/murder mystery, and this (McMahon’s debut novel) does not disappoint. I found some of the scenes with the Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother to be both deeply creepy but also profoundly emotional. And I agree with Amazon’s description that Promise Not to Tell is not only a paranormal suspense novel but also “a story of friendship and family, devotion and betrayal—tautly written, deeply insightful, beautifully evocative, and utterly unforgettable.”
WINS FOR: best ghost story
Allison has a perfect, cozy life with her husband and two daughters. It’s a far cry from what her own childhood was like, living in fear of her mother who was “fun mom” one minute and drunk, angry, abusive mom the next. When Allison learns that her mother, Mavis,m is dying of cancer and wants to live out her remaining days with her only daughter, she wonders if this is a last chance to repair her relationship with her mother and gain a little closure to the horrors of her childhood.
So Mavis moves in and charms Allison’s husband and daughters. But in the middle of the night, Allison finds Mavis wandering the house, muttering strange things and acting cruel. Is it just her meds, or, as Allison starts to suspect, is Mavis possessed by a demon? A demon that has been gaining strength ever since Allison was a girl. And now that Mavis is dying, the demon is looking around for a new host…
Either that, or Allison is going completely insane.
Let’s be honest: an abusive mother now on her deathbed, loopy from morphine, saying spooky things and claiming her name is actually Azha? Already creepy. McMahon is an expert at taking things that are already unsettling and infusing them with a healthy dose of paranormal.
My Darling Girl is McMahon doing what she does best: toeing the line between paranormal and psychological. I thought this story was also a brilliant metaphor for abuse. Because when a parent harms their own child, isn’t it because, in some way, they are possessed by something evil? Whether that thing be mental illness, alcohol or drugs, or their own childhood traumas.
This was a quick read. Not as scary as some of McMahon’s other novels, but masterfully done, hitting all the right beats and exploring all the dark corners of horrors both real and imagined.
WINS FOR: best metaphor for real-life horrors
This book begins with an excerpt from “The Book of Fairies.” I know. Right now you’re rolling your eyes saying, “Fairies? Please. Fairies aren’t scary.” Oh, but you would be WRONG. This book, in which a twelve-year-old girl goes into the woods never to be seen again because, perhaps, she has been kidnapped by the Fairy King is SO CREEPY YOU’LL SLEEP WITH THE LIGHT ON. The story is twisty and turny, like all of McMahon’s books, with visceral descriptions and fully-realized characters. Somehow she makes the threat of fairies seem both real and freaking terrifying. Plus, the ending? Let’s just say: I got actual chills.
WINS FOR: best ending
Looking for a simpler life, Helen and Nate buy a plot of land in Vermont with a plan to build their own house. They soon find out that a woman named Hattie, suspected of being a witch, was murdered on their property a century earlier. Helen begins to find special materials to incorporate into their new house: a beam from an old schoolroom, bricks from a burned-down mill, a mantel from a farmhouse. Each object has a connection to a dark and violent event, as well as a connection to Hattie herself. As Helen believes she’s making contact with the ghost of Hattie, Nate becomes increasingly obsessed with a white doe that only he can see.
This is McMahon’s take on a haunted house story, but she has her characters BUILD a haunted house. Brilliant. I absolutely LOVED this book. Not only is it super creepy (seances, ghosts, murders), but McMahon does a great job portraying the unraveling of Helen and Nate’s marriage as each begins to believe the other is going insane. It’s great psychological suspense with a healthy dose of spooky scares.
WINS FOR: best psychological suspense
When Jax receives a call that her mentally-ill sister, Lexie, drowned in the pool at her grandmother’s estate, she must return to the strange house her agoraphobic grandmother never left, where Lexie had been living by herself. As Jax goes through her sister’s things, she learns Lexie was researching the house’s history, and specifically the history of the pool, which is fed by a natural spring that was once been a popular tourist destination.
(And let me tell you, the pool is TERRIFYING. How can a pool be terrifying? Oh, you just read this book and you will find out.)
This novel employs the classic McMahon trope of “diary entries from the past.” Has she used this trick in other novels? Sure. But it is so masterfully done in this one. As we read the diary entries from 1929, the truth about the natural springs and the pool comes slowly into focus, and, with a mounting sense of horror, we begin to understand the deep and dark power the water contains. And how much danger Jax is in.
I think the thing that impresses me most about this novel (besides the diary entires, which were brilliant) is how McMahon can make a simple backyard pool so terrifying that every time a character was even NEAR the pool, I started cringing in terror. In fact, I often use the initial description of the pool when I teach about both suspense and setting. Masterfully done.
WINS FOR: diary entries from the past and the scary pool
Nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in an old farmhouse in West Hall, Vermont, a small town that has more than its fair share of mysterious disappearances and ghostly legends. One morning Ruthie wakes up to find her mother has vanished, and while searching the house for clues she finds, hidden under the floorboards, the diary of a woman named Sara Harrison Shea. Sara lived in the farmhouse back in 1908 and was found dead in the fields just months after the tragic death of her young daughter. Several stories of love, loss, and mystery collide in this SERIOUSLY bone-chilling ghost story.
O.M.G. Do not read this book at home by yourself at night. Just don’t do it. I had a hard time reading The Winter People in broad daylight with my husband sitting next to me on the couch. It is THAT creepy and THAT scary. Jennifer McMahon really knows how to dig up our deepest nightmares then use her gift for language to paint them in the most visceral and terrifying ways. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely for anyone who likes horror and a thrilling paranormal suspense novel.
I will admit: this is the first McMahon novel I ever read, so I may be biased in naming this #1, but still, it’s up there for sure.
WINS FOR: The absolute scariest and the original (in my mind) Jennifer McMahon paranormal suspense
What about you? Have you read any Jennifer McMahon novels? What’s your favorite paranormal suspense novel?