Updated on 10/7/2020
Apparently, my love for a good paranormal suspense novel goes back to early childhood. When my parents tucked me into bed at night, I’d always beg for a ghost story. And, because there aren’t many ghost stories written for six-year-olds, my parents made stuff up. They told me stories like “the ghost inside the air-conditioning unit” and “the haunted toaster oven.”
In elementary school I devoured Mary Downing Hahn’s ghost stories and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, and in high school I fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories.
I still love all things dark, gothic, and creepy. I have just finished revising my own YA paranormal suspense novel, and my current favorite suspense novel author is Jennifer McMahon.
Can we talk about Jennifer McMahon for a minute? Because she’s kind of amazing. Since 2007 she has published nine adult novels plus a YA novel. Yes, you read that correctly. Ten books in thirteen years. And two 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, but 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.
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, 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.
Every Jennifer McMahon Paranormal Suspense Novel: RANKED
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
#8 Island of Lost Girls (2008)
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 just 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
#6 The One I Left Behind (2013)
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
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 is one of McMahon’s latest novel and 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
#3 Don’t Breathe a Word (2011)
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
McMahon’s very newest novel does NOT disappoint. 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
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.
WINS FOR: THE ABSOLUTE SCARIEST!
What about you? Have you read any Jennifer McMahon novels? What’s your favorite paranormal suspense novel?
daneen rogers says
What a great, well thought out list on McMahon! As an adult I enjoy reading YA from time to time, and McMahon never fails to disappoint! Saved this to my reading board on pinterest as well.
Thanks! I don’t think of McMahon as YA — I think these are all adult novels — although I do love YA mystery/suspense as well! (And I’m sure plenty of teenagers would enjoy McMahon’s novels.) 🙂
Carrie | Clean Eating Kitchen says
Some great recommendations here, I love suspense books. Thanks for sharing!
Sam @ The Haunted Housewife says
You had me at “paranormal.” 😎 I have heard of Jennifer but I’ve yet to read anything of hers. You’re making it so easy to choose a first book by ranking them! I think I’m going to start with maximum creepy. 💀
I just added all of these to my reading list! I’m obsessed with great thrillers! Thnks for sharing these!
Ashley @ GrowingSpangs.com says
Paranormal suspense or ghost stories has never been my thing, but I’ve always loved Poe. After reading several of your summaries on the McMahon books, they seem kind of like a CSI thing, where there is murder and heresay, and someone has to figure out what happened, how it all goes together. I’m totally a fan of that! I’ll have to look into a couple of these, I love the talent that goes into complex story telling.
I am always impressed with complex storytelling, too! And on this list, The One I Left Behind isn’t paranormal — just straight mystery/crime fiction. 🙂
Ann Bussey says
I usually stick to my tried and true favorites, Roberts, Kennyon, Graham, Hooper and Jackson, but my grandaughter picked Promise Not To Tell solely from the cover. I’m hooked! Gotta find all the others!