10 Most Disturbing Books I’ve Ever Read

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 [1962] 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 [1995] 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 [1991] 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 [2015] 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 [2013] 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 [1970] by Toni Morrison

Some name Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved [1987] 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 [2019] by Colson Whitehead.

VII. The Silence of the Lambs [1988] 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 [1989] 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 [1953] 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 [1958] 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 [1954], 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?

45 thoughts on “10 Most Disturbing Books I’ve Ever Read

    1. Yes, all of these are difficult reads and if I were to recommend one it would be A Clockwork Orange and only because it is a classic with some interesting philosophical ideas. However, I read it when I was rather young and I am not sure if I ever would want to re-read it. In turn, I have not read any Kathy Acker. Perhaps the closest author to Acker I’ve read was Hubert Selby. I know Burroughs only through Naked Lunch and then more because of the film than the book.

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  1. I haven’t read any of these yet, but I don’t do too well with books with psychopaths or actually rather with too much violence. Books that really scare me more than even the ‘horror’ books I’ve read would probably include Animal Farm and Cousin Phyllis (Elizabeth Gaskell).

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  2. I’ve read a few on your list (Clockwork Orange; A Little Life; American Psycho & Silence of the Lambs; also Beloved but not The Bluest Eye). Each book left me with something I found painful or horrifying, but . . . not the entire book, if that makes sense. I think my reaction is geared more to individual scenes, episodes, story arcs and characters and that I have trouble sustaining that reaction to an entire work of art. That being said, I could never read Tender is the Flesh! Even reading the reviews turned my stomach.
    Your very interesting post made me think of the visual arts. I’ve only seen them online, but Titan’s Flaying of Marysas is truly horrifying (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/656438) as it Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturn_Devouring_His_Son). Or — lots of other things by Goya!

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    1. I know what you mean, yes. Tender is the Flesh was a distressing read for me. But, despite the shocking content and “interesting” ideas, I thought it did not really develop into anything of substance plot or characters-wise and had a perplexing ending.

      Oh, yes, thanks very much for the art! I was not familiar with The Flaying of Marsyas and it looks terrifying indeed. Goya’s work is indeed disturbing. The other artist I found disturbing is Caravaggio, especially his “David with the Head of Goliath”, which is pretty graphic. And wasn’t his life as violent as some of his paintings? Also, have you seen Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes? Stuff of nightmares https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/judith-beheading-holofernes

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      1. I’m familiar (a little) with Caravaggio’s David w/Goliath (my baroque art history instructor liked Caravaggio) and I totally agree with you — its graphic and disturbing. It’s also thought by many that Caravaggio used his own face for Goliath’s. I also agree with you about Gentileschi’s Judith. I don’t have a reference off-hand, but Gentileschi was raped when she was a young woman and put to the torture during her rapist’s trial (to test the truth of HER testimony, of course). There’s been much theorizing that she transferred some of the violence she had personally experienced into her Judith paintings . . .

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  3. Oof… I’m going to make note NOT to read these. 😆 With the exception of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, which might be interesting as a comparison with LOTF.

    I think the most disturbing book I’ve ever read – which was worth reading – was The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo. It wasn’t graphic per se, but the writing and subject matter haunted me deeply. The most disturbing book to be avoided was Blindness by Jose Saramago.

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    1. 🙂 Kenzaburō Ōe’s work is very interesting (he is a Nobel Laureate, after all) , but definitely not for everyone.

      The Sea and the Poison is a very interesting recommendation and I am curious now that you say you found it so haunting. I loved Endo’s Silence and then only read his When I Whistle. I now recall The Sea & the Poison has been on my TBR for some time, then it wasn’t for some reason and now I want to prioritise it, many many thanks!

      Like 1984 and Handmaid’s Tale mentioned by Jeanne above, I don’t seem to find books that focus on dystopia and crazy social orders that “disturbing”, perhaps I should, and thus I omitted Blindness. Maybe I view them close to sci-fi or fantasy or parable rather than reality and therefore, like Kafka also, they do not scary me that much for this reason? I don’t know. They seem more brainy and philosophical to me than anything else, though certain scenes in Blindness were very unsettling, yes.

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  4. You have a much stronger stomach than me—I find summary reports of depravity in the news as much as I can take, and true crime rarely attracts me (though I did read Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac about the serial murderer).

    Incidentally Jack Ketchum’s name is interesting: it seems to incorporate the phrase “catch ’em” as well as echoing the infamous late 17th-century public executioner John or Jack Ketch. Is Ketchum a pseudonym, do you know?

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    1. I do read some true crime, but rarely. I do prefer film Zodiac to the book. I do not even now know what to think when I hear news that the murderer was apparently identified as one Gary Francis Poste, sounds legit, but who knows. As I see, it was his pseudonym – Ketchum 🙂 Your thinking and conclusions are impressive!

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  5. Weirdly enough, I only watched movies based on these books. Clockwork Orange is the classic on the list – an unusually fascinating and offputting movie, well worth watching. I remember Levinson’s movie, very upsetting indeed. The Mystic River would find a place on my list, too, certainly. And you can’t go wrong with Hopkins as Lecter 😉 Red Dragon is pretty creepy as well.

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    1. The books are very cinematic so I’m not surprised nearly all of them were made into films. And yes, film Sleepers traumatised me A LOT. I cannot look at actor Kevin Bacon in the same way anymore… Thanks for the Mystic River recommendation, too! I love Dennis Lehane’s books, especially Shutter Island 🙂

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  6. I am not sure if I were reading it today that it would have the same impact, but the scariest book I recall reading is Ghost Story by Peter Straub. I have a very high bar for hair-raising fright from fictional work. But I read a couple of non-fics this year that gave me the willies, Paradise (https://cootsreviews.com/2021/08/13/the-burning-times/) about the 2018 Camp Fire in California, and Earth’s Wild Music (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55303804-earth-s-wild-music) about silencing of the natural sounds of the Earth. Real-world scary stuff, those. There are plenty of really scary political books about. I am currently reading Peril by Woodward and Acosta. It is rather terrifying if one values democracy.

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  7. “American Psycho” is one of my favorite books. I think it should be read along side ” East of Eden”. I’m female, and was maybe 35-40 years old when I read it. Although, on the surface, it is horrifying, disgusting, [fill in your preferred adjective] it is also hysterically funny, and captures that hedonistic moment in time, and space, perfectly.

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  8. “Child of God” by Cormac McCarthy includes a phrase, a very descriptive phrase, that still creeps me out, some 30+ years later. It will pop in to my head, without warning, with no “trigger”, and the ungodly image it conjured up when I first read it, is unleashed, full color, once again.

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      1. Years since read “Edith’s Diary” along with the entire Highsmith oeuvre but I finished “This Sweet Sickness” last week and found it disturbing enough. And then started “A Dog’s Ransom”. I put it aside unfinished – the inevitable downward trajectory was too depressing. I may go back as she is certainly a compelling writer. All that flat, unemotional, simple prose spiraling you into the abyss.

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        1. Sorry for the late reply to this comment. Yes, you put it very well when you said “spiralling you into the abyss”. Highsmith is more than capable of doing this. I haven’t read Sweet Sickness nor A Dog’s Ransom, but plan so in near future. I am now thinking reading The Glass Cell which I have and something tells me it will be depressing, too. I finished Deep Water not so long ago too and I know there is a movie coming up based on it.

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    1. I found “Ice” so haunting, so I agree! I think I said about it that all the claustrophobia there even reminded me of Kafka and it was all just so surreal, enigmatic and terrifying, definitely loved all the dystopian elements, too. Now, after reading your amazing review, I think I should have read it with more care and extra attention, if you know what I mean. I think I will re-read it soon. Besides, it will be a very “seasonal” read, too!

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