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Book Buzz

What drives humans to behave like monsters?

Nancy Harris, a practicing psychologist of 30 years and voracious reader, offers recommendations on books you might enjoy. In this installment of Book Buzz: scary novels.

Nancy Harris
Nancy Harrishandout

At this time of year our attention is drawn to monsters and all things creepy. Certainly, there are plenty of novels that focus on creatures with fangs, fur, and ferocious appetities. But as a psychologist, I am more interested in the kind of monstrous behavior inflicted by one human being upon another.

But how do we explain acts of extreme cruelty and depraved indifference in human behavior? It is not surprising that we often turn to the idea of evil. Yet, perhaps a more useful and powerful explanatory concept is one called “empathy erosion,” proposed by Simon Baron-Cohen in his book, The Science of Evil.


According to Baron-Cohen, empathy requires not only the capacity to suspend self-interest and a single-minded focus, but also the ability to identify with what another person is thinking or feeling, and to respond with appropriate emotions. In other words, true empathy entails both recognition and response.

Erosion of human empathy, he suggests, can be caused by many factors, such as rage, jealousy, abandonment, revenge, hatred, physical abuse, and even the desire to protect. As such, heinous acts inflicted upon another can occur as a function of either transient moments of “empathy erosion,” or as an enduring, lifelong pattern of behavior.

The novels below do a particularly good job at allowing us to encounter characters who are imprisoned in their own self-focus. The question is whether you are witnessing a temporary state of “empathy erosion,” or rather an enduring and complete loss of empathy.

Brother, by Ania Ahlborn, is a deeply chilling story set in the heart of the Appalachians in West Virginia in 1980. The Morrow family farm is the setting of brutal abductions and murders of local young women, orchestrated by the family matriarch and carried out by her entire family. The tale is told by Michael Morrow, 19, the youngest, who is desperately tired of both the abuse within the family and the ritual killings. When Michael meets and falls in love with a beautiful young girl, his desire for his own escape is palpable. Will he ultimately be able to save both himself and the girl from his family, or is he going to fall victim forever to ties that bind?


You is Caroline Kepnes’s debut novel. It is told in the voice of Joe Goldberg, a clever, charming autodidact who manages a book store in the East Village. When Beck, an attractive, literate, aspiring writer walks into his life, Joe is smitten. But very quickly, smitten turns into obsession. In this quickly evolving story, Joe goes from simple voyeurism to commanding complete control of Beck’s life on social media -- tweets, e-mails, posts, texts -- ultimately managing to turn his delusion of becoming Beck’s boyfriend into shocking reality. While the plot is simple, Kepnes does a brilliant job of letting us into the brittle mind of a beguiling psychopath, who vacillates between moments of love-struck insecurity and sadistic, cruel indifference.

The Bones of You, by Debbie Howells, begins with the discovery of the bludgeoned and stabbed body of 18-year-old Rosie Anderson in the woods near her home in England. On the surface, the Anderson family seems to be the picture-perfect family. Mom Jo, a beautiful, graceful mother, dotes on her charismatic and handsome journalist husband, Neal, and her two well-behaved girls -- 12-year-old Delphine and Rosie. But after Rosie’s death, the community is reeling. When a compassionate neighbor, Kate Mckay, also mother of an 18-year-old girl, reaches out to Jo, she becomes drawn into the family and begins to suspect that not everything is as perfect as it would appear. Told through the watchful eyes of Kate, Delphine, and even the voice of the deceased Rosie, the pieces of who committed this heinous crime begin to come together. Yet, even Rosie herself, could not have guessed who did this to her.


The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica, is a suspenseful, pulse-pounding read. Mia Dennett, a young art teacher and daughter of a high-profile judge and society mother, goes into a Chicago bar one night to meet her on-and-off-again boyfriend for a nightcap. But she walks out instead with a charming and seemingly decent guy, Colin Thatcher. But, again, nothing is as it appears. Mia has walked right into the arms of kidnapper and is embroiled in a dangerous plot for revenge that could cost someone’s life. Who wants to destroy the Dennett family, and why?

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com or on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com or on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.