It is that time of the year again when we indulge in spooky stories, so I have compiled this list of ten most disturbing books I have ever read (not necessarily horror, but rather unsettling/upsetting reads and they are in no particular order).
I. A Clockwork Orange  by Anthony Burgess
I read this book a long time ago, but its disturbing aspects stayed with me. In this story, sociopathic Alex and his gang participate in random acts of extreme violence until Alex is caught, convicted and is forced into a special conditioning programme that is designed to make him averse to violent actions in future. The book may be on a short side, but it is full of thought-provoking, philosophical issues, for example, implicitly commenting on the nature vs. nurture, and free will vs. determinism debates. Stanley Kubrick based his 1971 film on this novella by Burgess.
II. Sleepers  by Lorenzo Carcaterra
This book talks about a group of boys who are into pranks of all kinds until they are sent to one juvenile detention centre for their misbehaviour and there endure horrific abuse at the hands of people in authority. There is still a dispute whether Carcaterra based this book on his own story or that of his friend (and perhaps added some details), but the book is still compelling and harrowing. The film Sleepers by Barry Levinson and starring Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman is also one of the most disturbing films I have ever watched (and thus I do not really recommend it to anyone).
III. American Psycho  by Bret Easton Ellis
This notorious book portrays Patrick Bateman, a charismatic young man working on Wall Street, the very image of financial success and sophistication. However, Bateman is also a psychopath who can never pass an opportunity to satisfy his every-growing ego and desire for violence and humiliation of others. His bank account seems to grow in tandem with the number of his victims. A female director was specifically chosen to direct film American Psycho in 2000 to lessen the film’s image of being sexist, demeaning-to-women and glorying violence against women.
IV. Tender is the Flesh [2017/2020] by Agustina Bazterrica
This relatively recent release is one of the “sickest” books I have ever read. It presents a dystopian future in which animal meat becomes inedible due to a virus, and the government approves “human meat” for consumption. The main character Marcos is attached to a factory that processes *living humans* for meat. Cannibalism, animal cruelty, slavery and greed are some of the themes in this novel by the Argentinian author. Although I did not like this book (many other critics did), I still found the prose admirable in its matter-of-fact simplicity and effectiveness.
V. A Little Life  by Hanya Yanagihara
One part of me wishes I never read this book by Yanagihara – that is how much trauma is inside of it. In this story, the author of The People in the Trees  focuses on four friends in New York who try “to make it” in the big city, and the focus is especially on Jude St. Francis, a brilliant lawyer, but also a damaged man who is unable to come to terms with his early familial circumstances and upbringing. Though overwritten, the novel is still brutally honest and the story itself is “a touching and emotional tribute to the power, loyalty and sacrifices of friendship and love”.
VI. The Bluest Eye  by Toni Morrison
Some name Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved  as one of their “hardest-to-go-through” books, but I will go with her slim book The Bluest Eye which focuses on an eleven-year-old black girl Pecola Breedlove. Many themes are touched upon in Morrison’s debut, including racism, poverty, depression, alienation and sexual abuse. The prose is succinct, yet powerful, effectively conveying the tender hopes of Pecola despite the destitution around her and finally the sheer wretchedness of her situation. Another book which deals with a traumatic topic and racism, as well as set in the south of the US, is The Nickel Boys  by Colson Whitehead.
VII. The Silence of the Lambs  by Thomas Harris
The Silence of the Lambs is probably best known for the Academy Award-winning film of 1991 starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, but the book is also a best-seller with some excellent pacing and psychological insight. In this story, Special FBI Agent Clarice Starling is involved in hunting down a serial killer who preys on lone women, “Buffalo Bill”. The unlikely help in the FBI investigation may actually come from another serial murderer Dr Lecter (“Hannibal the Cannibal”). Starling soon realises that to catch the murderer before he kills his next victim, her contact/relationship with Dr Lecter will have to deepen. This book may not have aged all that well, but its premise remains as terrifying.
VIII. The Girl Next Door  by Jack Ketchum
In this story, teenager Meg and her sister Susan are left at the mercy of their deranged aunt and her three psychopathic sons who take turns abusing the sisters. This book was inspired by a real case of torture-murder of a sixteen-year old girl Sylvia Likens in Indianapolis in 1965. An even more gruesome case than that of Likens happened in Japan. There, in the late 1980s, a schoolgirl Junko Furuta had to endure forty-four-day torture at the hands of her captors-teenage boys and be subsequently murdered in the most horrifying way. It is the most sickening and gruesome criminal case I have ever read.
IX. A Kiss Before Dying  by Ira Levin
Maybe some of you will be surprised to find this book on my list because it does not have any overt description of horror or violence. However, I still found the idea presented there and the psychopathic personality of the main character truly horrifying. In this story, one ambitious young man is dating Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of one very influential man. When Dorothy gets pregnant, things start to go wrong. The book has the most delicious twist and check out also the film of 1956 based on this book.
X. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids  by Kenzaburō Ōe
I was debating whether to include this book or Kenzaburō Ōe’s The Silent Cry, which also has many disturbing aspects. Much like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies , Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids centres on a group of boys who are left stranded on their own and establish their own authority chain. High up in the mountains, they have to deal with hostile villagers, lack of food, a possible epidemic and other inhumane conditions, finally crossing the morality line.
Do you agree with my choices? What is the most disturbing book you have ever read?