The most disturbing book ever written

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Recently, I was asked to cast my votes in a poll on the most disturbing book ever written. Here is my Top 10. These are the books that made me grimace, shiver with repulsion, and the books I found difficult to shake weeks after I finished reading them. This doesn’t necessarily mean these are good books, well-written or otherwise, it just means these are books that grabbed me by the throat and left me feeling assaulted for one reason or another. If you want to continue adding to this list, please feel free to do so in the comments!!!

Survivor

by J.F. Gonzalez

Why it disturbed me: This was a tough one to finish and I nearly threw it down in complete revulsion more than once. Yet, there was also something so compelling about the story that kept me riveted and turning the pages to get to the end…no matter how much it cost me. In order to survive the worst circumstances imaginable the female protagonist makes a choice no human should ever make in order to save her own skin. It’s brutal and calculating and really got me thinking…in the same situation, would I do the same? Could I do the same? And if I did, could I live with myself afterwords? If this book was half as tough to write as it is to read, my hat goes off to J.F. Gonzalez.

The Girl Next Door

by Jack Ketchum

Why it disturbed me: This is the harrowing tale of two sisters, Meg and Sarah, who lose their parents in a car accident. They are sent to live with a relative — Ruth — who over the course of one summer becomes “unhinged” shall we say. As her madness grows, Ruth’s treatment of the girls degenerates into abuse, and then finally, torture. Where this story finally goes you will never guess. This book is not for the squeamish, and I’ll admit, there are a few places where I thought I would have to quit it for my own sanity. It will get under the skin and you will never forget it.

Living Dead Girl

by Elizabeth Scott

Why it disturbed me: There is a part of me that regrets ever having picked up this book, and definitely a part of me that (for better or worse) will never forget reading it. My first visceral reaction to it was that Scott had penned an outrageously exploitative, gratuitous book, one so gruesome in parts, and so fully realized, that I felt like an accomplice, aiding and abetting “Alice’s” abductor. The book left me reeling from shock and revulsion. Yes, it’s that graphic. Having said that, this is an important book, one that throws a spotlight on a taboo subject we all wish didn’t exist. But it does exist, for countless abducted children, and for countless children victimized by family or friends. I did not enjoy this book; it ranks as one of the most difficult and assaulting reads of my life. But Scott has told an amazing story, giving voice to a voiceless victim, restoring humanity to a young girl who thought she had every bit of hers ripped away.

Only Child

by Jack Ketchum

Why it disturbed me: Ketchum strikes again with a novel that is not as strong or memorable as The Girl Next Door, but disturbing nevertheless. Ketchum has a real talent for examining the many roads that lead down to utter human depravity. Only Child (previously published as Stranglehold) is inspired by true events — and what a horrible and depressing story! Give me supernatural horror any day because at least then I don’t have to brood about the real consequences for the real people involved. This one does not have a happy ending and left me feeling really traumatized. It is compelling and well-written, but reader beware.

The Painted Bird

by Jerzy Kosiński

Why it disturbed me: Originally published in 1965, The Painted Bird is now considered a literary “classic” and has been translated into more than 30 languages. It follows the wanderings of a boy after he is abandoned by his parents during World War II. Harrowing, disturbing, unimaginable and unforgettable. Can people really be that cruel and savage towards one another? Of course they can, I just don’t like to be reminded of it especially by a writer with such obvious talents.

Tobacco Road

by Erskine Caldwell

Why it disturbed me: Like The Painted Bird, Tobacco Road is classic literature but horrifying and horrible in unexpected ways. Set during the Depression, it tells the story of the Lester family — impoverished white sharecroppers who have relinquished their humanity in the face of their crushing circumstances. I was extremely disturbed by some scenes and almost hoped Caldwell meant this to be a parody of harsh, destitute country life. But no. Whereas Steinbeck painted portraits of human dignity and courage in the face of unspeakable tragedy, Caldwell zeros in on our baser natures. The characters of Tobacco Road are cruel, vicious beings driven solely by primitive urges. There is no humanity, and certainly no dignity. The whole book depressed me, but maybe I’m missing the point.

Off Season

by Jack Ketchum

Why it disturbed me: Jack’s back! Another Ketchum classic (he’s got three on this list in case you haven’t been keeping count). Published early on his career, this pulpy horror tale has enjoyed a huge revival in popularity (and notoriety) since its re-release as a mass market paperback by Leisure Books. In the woods. In a cabin. Surrounded by cannibals. That’s all I’m going to say. Can you dig it?

Cuts

by Richard Laymon

Why it disturbed me: Laymon’s books are rip-roaring reads punctuated by graphic violence and sexual content. The best of escapist fiction, Laymon is not trying to save the world with his writing, nor offer any great moral insights. What he does do, and very well, is give readers a page-turning tale that will scare the life out of them. Even when Laymon isn’t at his best, I still find myself turning the pages and unable to put the book down. His books are often dreadful, compelling stuff — trashy but satisfying. For me, Laymon is the equivalent of a greasy cheeseburger and fries — consume in moderation and enjoy — and try not to feel guilty about it later! Cuts isn’t one of Laymon’s better books, but there is at least one scene that is so wickedly disturbing, it earned it a spot on this list.

American Psycho

by Bret Easton Ellis

Why it disturbed me: This book caused a lot of controversy when it was first published, a controversy that flared up again when Christian Bale was cast in the lead role for the film version (which manages to be as sick and twisted as the book). Love it, hate it, or maybe by now you’re simply bored by it? American Psycho is nevertheless a dark and terrifying journey that unflinchingly depicts what happens when a psychopathic killer succumbs to his most gruesome sadistic urges. The line between reality and fantasy blurs beyond recognition as wealthy New York investment banker Patrick Bateman struggles to hide his alternate homicidal ego.

Suffer the Children

by John Saul

Why it disturbed me: Saul’s later novels have become so tepid and ho-hum, weak and unforgettable, but his early stuff was harsh, creepy and horrible. I haven’t read this one in a long time, but what I do remember about it still haunts my nightmares. Small town, evil kid, and a horrible, dreadful scene involving a cat that I’ve completely blocked from my mind.

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8 Comments

  1. I heard the book version of ‘American Psycho’ was even more disturbing than the film version. I find it hard to be traumatized by anything with Christian Bale, being as he is so hot and all, but the scene with the antique gynecological instruments tends to show up in my nightmares.

    Reply
  2. HA! not that ‘antique gynecological instruments’ aren’t scary, but that Christian Bale isn’t 😉

    I remember the controversy surrounding even getting this film made, and then getting it cast. Certainly Bale wasn’t the producers first choice, and I know Leo DiCaprio turned it down and that at one point Johnny Depp and then Brad Pitt (!) were on deck.

    Reply
  3. Another book I would now add to this list is The Summer I Died by Ryan C. Thomas. Please see my review here.

    Reply
  4. Great to see you giving the early John Saul due respect. SUFFER THE CHILDREN is a masterpiece of mood. A cold, cold novel. I also like CRY FOR THE STRANGERS and PUNISH THE SINNERS. Applause also for your selection of ONLY CHILD, one of Ketchum’s top three works. SURVIVOR, too.

    I urge you to read HOG by Samuel R. Delany. I think you will add it to this list.

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting and for the rec! I’ve investigated HOG and I have to say the squick factor may be too high for me to indulge this one. Ditto Edward Lee’s Bighead. I tried, but just couldn’t do it!! Even I have my limits 😀

      Reply
  5. i was surprised to see suffer the children … bit of a morbid child , i remember reading lots of john saul books , once started couldnt put them down . the kids being lured to the cave creepy stuff .

    Reply
  6. evi1 – a novel about you
    The most evil, disturbing book ever written.

    Reply
  7. evi1 – a novel about you
    http://books.google.com/books/about/evi1_a_novel_about_you.html?id=AJPHAgAAQBAJ
    The most evil man in the universe becomes God.

    Reply

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