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10 Most Disturbing Books of All Time (Plus Bonuses!)


My boyfriend is watching The Wire, and the poor guy just finished Season 4. For those who have seen it, Season 4 ends in a cataclysmic doom-and-gloom explosion of life kicking the crap out of all the characters we’ve spent 4 seasons growing to care about. I kept getting text messages from him last night: “I hate this show now.” “They just killed so-and-so.” “What is WRONG with the writers of this show?!”. By the end, he was in the emotional equivalent of the fetal position. I remember feeling the same way.

Then this morning I came across this post from popcrunch.com about the 10 Most Disturbing Books of all time. How fitting! Here’s the post:

10.Blindness by Jose Saramago

Blindness is a book with a truly horrifying scenario at it’s heart: what if everyone in the world were to lose their sight to disease in a short period of time? The answer is actually somewhat predictable, but that doesn’t lessen the bleakness as society collapses quickly in this novel by Portugese author José Saramago. The story follows a group of characters who are among the first diagnosed and sent to be quarantined. Many think the book is an allegory dealing with spiritual blindness, but to me the book is all the more devastating when taken literally. An easily communicable virus that causes the recipient to lose their sight would be the end of things, and it wouldn’t be an easy end.

9.Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.

requiem-for-dream-hubert-selby-jr Anti drug crusaders should stop airing goofy commercials that nobody takes seriously and start pushing to have Requiem For A Dream made required reading for every high schooler in the country. Kids would probably still do drugs, but I imagine they’d be thinking twice after reading Requiem. Most people are more familiar with the movie, which was a pretty faithful translation of the book that deals with four characters who all see their lives ruined by various addictions. I read an essay at some point that argued that the real protagonist isn’t any of the main characters, instead the protagonist is Addiction, and let’s just say for Addiction things go pretty swimmingly. For the human beings it’s just one long depressing ride that ends up making you want to curl up in a corner and sob. Not exactly good beach reading.

8.Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch is another ode to drug addiction. While it’s not as flat out depressing as Requiem For A Dream, it’s a hell of a lot more strange. The story is told in a series of dream like vignettes that never allow the reader to really get their bearings and includes acts of child murder, auto-erotic asphyxiation, lots of drug use, cop killing, and orgies. The book was banned in many sections of the United States when it came out in 1959, and it’s not hard to see why. This book is easily one of the most bizarre I’ve ever read.

7.We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

we-need-talk-about-kevin-shriverWe Need to Talk About Kevin concerns a fictionalized school massacre told through the perspective of his mother, who is writing letters to her husband trying to come to terms with the monstrosity that she birthed. The book goes into detail about Kevin displaying signs of psychosis from a young age leading up to his murder of seven classmates, a cafeteria worker, and an alegebra teacher. Kevin’s mother at least partially blames herself, as she was never all that enthusiastic about being a parent, led alone being a parent to a deeply disturbed individual. This book might sound like a bad TV movie, but it’s actually pretty well written and extremely depressing. It stays with you after you read it.

6.The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s novel deals with a father and son dealing with a cataclysmic event (probably a meteor strike) that has left the world barren and gray. I read this book shortly after my wife and I had our first child, making the story of a father who is unable to provide much comfort to his small son in a post apocalyptic world all the more devastating. The pair travel through the book, with the father hoping things will improve the further south they get. Plants will not grow in this world, and food is scarce. Cannibals are everywhere. As powerful a book as this might be I still generally don’t recommend it to people, as it is pretty much guaranteed to leave you morose and feeling like you’ve been repeatedly hit in the stomach.

5.American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

american-psycho-ellis American Psycho really leaves you wondering a little bit about Bret Easton Ellis’ sanity. Many people are probably familiar with the movie starring Christian Bale, but the movie pales in comparison to the book when it comes to levels of depraved insanity. The book follows investment banker, and serial killer, Patrick Bateman over a few years of his life. As the book moves on his killings becomes more and more sadistic, leading to quite a few scenes that will never, ever completely leave your mind, including a particularly repugnant sequence involving a starved rat, some cheese, and a tube. You are guaranteed to feel a little filthy, at the least, after reading this book.

4.Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

One of the most effective anti-war novels of all time, Johnny Got His Gun is also one of the most disturbing. The book was published in 1938 and deals with a WWI soldier who has had his legs, arms, and face blown off by an artillery shell. However, his mind is completely undamaged, leaving him a prisoner in his own body, unable to communicate with the outside world. The book was later made into a film and immortalized in the Metallica song “One”.

3.The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade

120-days-sodom-sadeThe 120 Days of Sodom was a work by Marquis de Sade, who had to have at least one work on this list. The book deals with four wealthy men who want to have the ultimate orgy. To accomplish this they seal themselves away with a bunch of young men and women. The sex quickly turns sadistic and matters quickly turns to humiliation, pain, and killing. Pretty much every debased and bizarre sexual fetish is explored in detail in the book, with much of the work crossing lines that even today would be declared obscene in many parts of the US. It is amazing to me that the book was written in 1785. The 120 Days of Sodom was turned into a film called Sado, widely considered to be one of the most unpleasant and disturbing films of all time.

2.The Turner Diaries by Andrew MacDonald
The Turner Diaries is a racist, antisemitic novel written by William Luther Pierce, the crazy ass former leader of the white Nationalist organization “National Alliance”. It depicts a racist’s wet dream consisting of a violent revolution in the United States that leads to the overthrow of the US government and the extermination of all non-whites and Jewish people. To Pierce, Hitler’s problem was clearly that he didn’t go far enough. The rest of the plot is too crazy to even go into (let’s just say it’s about as well written and realistic as you’d expect a book like this to be), but the book gets bumped up a few notches on our list due to the fact that Timothy McVeigh was a big promoter of the book, and may have used a scene in the book as inspiration for the Oklahoma City bombing.

And the not at all scary thing is that this is still being sold at gun shows all over the US. Sleep tight!

1.The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

girl-next-door-ketchum Jack Ketchum is often mentioned when the topic of “most extreme horror writer” is breached, and it’s not hard to see why when you read The Girl Next Door. The book details the abuse of a teenage girl by her aunt, who enlists neighborhood children to help torture the girl over the course of a summer. The kids gradually go along with the insane aunt, who moves from abuse to outright torture and eventually murder. This is a very twisted tale that leaves you feeling ill, until you find out the story is based on a real life murder. Then you feel really sick.

********

I have to say, of the ones I’ve read, I mostly agree. Blindness is a book that I became so engrossed in that the damage and cruelty its characters wreak upon each other were devastating – and the kindnesses and selflessness, in such a terrible, unimaginable scenario, hurt even more.

I’ve not read Requiem for a Dream, but the movie was so disgusting and ugly that I wanted to shower immediately afterwards, or maybe go for a nice rubbing-alcohol sponge bath. If the book is as vivid, descriptive and horrifying as the movie, than I’m not sure I could stomach it, since the pictures my own imagination conjures up tend to be even worse than what has thus far been produced even with computer graphics.

I couldn’t possibly agree more about The Road. That book made me feel like my stomach was full of ice water for at least a week. Its writing is so stark and minimal, totally devoid of adjectival self-indulgence, that the heartbreak and hopeless futility in its pages feels like an ice pick to the chest. I found it deeply, deeply troubling. That said, it’s some of the best writing I’ve encountered. I told my mom not to read it, because I love her. But everyone else should read it, because it’s brilliant. Mum, don’t read it.

trainspotting-irvine-welsh I would also include Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, which once I figured out how to read it (“what the hell is ‘fitba’??”), made me want to throw up, and or die, several times throughout its stinking, rotting, collapsed-vein-riddled narrative.

And by a different definition of ‘disturbing’, I would put forth Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. It was utterly quiet, unassuming and understated, and free of unpleasantness, let alone horror. The effectiveness of the text comes, in part, from the fact that as readers, we’re used to getting what we want. Typically, the end of the book is happy, or just, or if nothing else, complete, and ends as it should. We are accustomed to good people coming out okay in our fiction (again – not counting horror fiction here). But the butler in The Remains of the Day, through his desperate inability to unlock his tongue, unlock his heart, step outside his painful, controlled self for even a moment, remains old, alone, and left behind, and it really hurts to read.

So! Buy some books! Upset the hell out of yourself! C’mon, WHO’S WITH ME?!

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

21 Responses to “10 Most Disturbing Books of All Time (Plus Bonuses!)”

  1. Blindness is kind of an adult Lord of the Flies.

  2. What about Vernon God Little?

  3. Beth Carswell

    King Rat: I know exactly what you mean; in Lord of the Flies, the order and guidelines of society break down when the adults are missing, and in Blindness, they break down when governments, police, regulations are missing. In each case there are the true natures of heroes and villains emerging under extreme circumstances. It’s funny; I think a lot of people would say Lord of the Flies was more revolting, because it’s repugnant to believe that savage nature could exist in children, but I think Blindness was the more disturbing of the two, because it’s saying that some of us never grow out of it, and are decent human beings on a day-to-day basis only because we have to be.

    Jennifer: For some reason, Vernon God Little didn’t really disturb me. The whole book had such a dreamy, sheepish, accepting air about it that I read the boy’s perspectives and feelings without ever really being sucked into the actual horror of the subject matter of the school shooting, the neglectful parenting, the mob mentality surrounding him. I felt I remained sort of…safely on the outside of the actual nastiness of that one.

    Also, (Jennifer) have you read Black Swan Green by David Mitchell? If not, you should give it a go. I think you’d like it.

    Thanks for the comments!

  4. I nominate Ironweed by William Kennedy!

    Messed me up BAD.

  5. Also, yeah. The final two episodes of The Wire: Season 4 are horrific!

  6. What about Crash by J G Ballard? That’s pretty twisted, and even now, 30 years after I first read it, the mental pictures it left make the motorways round Heathrow airport seem even more hellish than they actually are.

  7. Richard Davies
    Richard Davies May 14, 2009 at 10:20 am

    What about sTORI Telling by Tori Spelling? Oh the horror.

  8. Beth Carswell

    Gabriel – I’ve not read Ironweed (yet!) but I did think of it when I was making the list, because you seemed so shattered by it.

    Mike – I’ve never read the book, but I thought the movie was not only disturbing but also one of the worst movies ever in the history of cinema. My GOD that was a dog of a movie.

    Richard – Unless it’s a detailed look into plastic surgery gone wrong, and Tori’s terrible boob job, I imagine it would be more funny than horrific…though its existence in general is fairly chilling.

  9. ‘Fitba’, assuming you’re actually asking, is broad Scots dialect for ‘football’, or soccer if you’re on the American side of the atlantic :-)

  10. Beth Carswell

    als – Thank you. I did figure that out, but it took me a chapter or two of reading it aloud and muttering angrily to myself.

  11. I Agree With That List Extremely Passionantely. But I Would Add “Christine” By The One And The Only Stephen King! That Book Was So Discriptive And So Heart Wrenching That You Couldn’t Sleep.

  12. Beth Carswell

    Michael – thanks for commenting! I found Christine more funny than disturbing, really, but to each their own. Both Misery and It did a number on me when I first read them, though – Stephen King can be downright chilling.

  13. I think House of Leaves is rather distrubing, I certainly haven’t been able to look at the book since!

  14. Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn is bleak and disturbing and brilliant. You want to yell at the characters, or weep for them, or scream at them to stop. But you’re helpless to do anything but keep reading. And take a break for a few weeks between chapters.

  15. Beth Carswell

    Thanks, Merritt – is it a good book?

  16. ‘Bleeding The Orchid’ by Aidan Lord. Just horrible.

  17. Anushree Kejriwal July 25, 2011 at 4:11 am

    please add “My name is Salma” by Fadia Faqir to that list. its a heart wrenching saga of a mother who gives birth to a daughter out of a wedlock in an extremely orthodoxical setup of Arabia. its a tale of love and betrayal.

  18. For me, hands down, with nothing else coming anywhere CLOSE as far as “disturbing” in every conceivable sense of the word:

    Hogg, by Samuel R. Delany, is the most foul, disgusting, depraved, and downright evil book ever written. I’m quite surprised, that, after looking at a few “Top Ten Most Disturbing Books” lists, this novel has yet to make an appearance. Before I read it, I saw an Amazon.com customer review describe it as making American Psycho look like child’s play. I thought, “No way such a book could possibly exist.” I was wrong.

    I can’t, in good conscience, “recommend” this novel to anyone, anywhere. If you have managed to make it through American Psycho, and, like me, believed that the Amazon customer’s description above couldn’t POSSIBLY be true, you will quickly find yourself disabused

  19. of such doubts. With all this said, Delany remains one of my all time favorite authors. As inexplicably vile as Hogg may be, I can’t deny Norman Mailer’s assertion that it is a book that certainly has “literary merit.”. Delany was most famous for his works of science fiction, but Hogg, along with The Mad Man and certain others, are pure pornography. And no, I do not mean the kind of pornography that is made for the purpose of arousal and sexual titillation.

    Should you decide to read Hogg, or attempt to do so (for many who start it will stop not very far into the novel), consider yourself warned.

  20. To Luke: I couldn’t agree with you more regarding House of Leaves. It is an entire house/labyrinth contained in a book, and renders most any other “haunted house” books/stories/movies meaningless, or curious trifles at best.

    Regarding the original list’s number one pick, The Girl Next Door: definitely disturbing in so many ways. However, Jack Ketchum’s first novel, Off Season, in its original, uncut version, disturbed me so much more.

  21. “The Room” by Hubert Selby Jr