The most disturbing books ever written (revised edition)

This all began with a Goodreads poll on the most disturbing book ever written and my original Top 10 blog post in 2011. It’s a couple of years later and even though I’ve read a lot more books, there’s not much I would change here. However, there are two books especially that warrant a revision and you will find them listed below.

All of these books in some way made me grimace and shiver with repulsion and I found each of them 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!!! ***Note: the books are not listed in a way to imply rank or degree of disturbance.

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 afterwards? 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. The worst is that Ketchum based his novel on the real life case of Sylvia Likens.

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 quite 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 in 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?

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.

adamsLet’s Go Play At the Adams’ New!

by Mendal W. Johnson

Why it disturbed me: Similar in some ways to Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, this book explores terrain meant to unbalance you. Both authors are able to show just how easily children can be corrupted and led down some dark and dangerous paths to human depravity. Anything involving children always creeps me out, and there doesn’t even have to be anything supernatural involved. Children are convincing agents of evil without any help from the supernatural realm — because of their lack of a moral compass, their vulnerability to pack mentality, and their loose tethering to reality and its consequences. For further discussion, see my original blog post “A Modern Horror Classic”.

summer i diedThe Summer I Died New!

by Ryan C. Thomas

Why it disturbed me: Just like the movies, books can sometimes go too far and descend into the sensational, exploitative gutters of torture porn. And you feel dirty for having watched it, or read it in the first place. The Summer I Died is shockingly violent. There are things done to the human body in this book that I didn’t even think were possible. Though torture features prominently in its pages, I do not consider it torture porn, and it is because the book is so much more than an exercise in mechanics. There is depth and emotion and characters to feel afraid for. My full review can be found here.

To wrap up this latest edition of the most disturbing books ever written, I want to say a few words regarding graphic violence in horror. The following has been lifted from a review I wrote for the novel Endurance, available here.

In a recent documentary, Stephen King made a very interesting point about ‘torture porn’: there are times when we are reading/watching to see the monster killed, and there are other times when we are reading/watching to see the monster kill. It may seem like a nebulous distinction, but I think he hit the nail right on the head. That’s why the latter makes us feel so dirty. King refers to it as “morally queasy”.

In most horror, we want the monster to be slain, we want the good guys to prevail. Bad shit can happen along the way, but the monster should not become the hero. We root for the victims, we do not root for the sick motherfucker and the pain and carnage he/she/it is inflicting. That’s the difference between the first movie in a franchise, and the last movie in a franchise. In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy is the monster and we want him stopped. By number 5, we’re there to see what kind of sick shenanigans he can come up with next, knowing full well that the victims are now fodder to support his starring role. Suddenly, he’s the guy we’re cheering for (well, sort of, but I hope my point is clear).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as guilty as the next person. I’ve watched all the SAW movies as each has degenerated more and more into gratuitous violence. But none of them will ever be as satisfying as the original, when I really, really wanted those two guys to survive and slay the monster (before Jigsaw started getting top billing).

More to the point (and I’ve said this many times before), I don’t scare if I don’t care. Give me characters I can care about and suddenly I start fretting for their well-being and safety. I don’t want to see them hurt (no matter how imaginatively), I don’t want them to die. I want them to survive and for the monster to be slain. And that is the crucial difference.

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10 Comments

  1. Another very disturbing and interesting novel is called “Ingrid” It’s about a psycho nazi lady. It can be found at fkpublications.com

    Reply
  2. Jori

     /  September 5, 2013

    I am in the process of getting my fiction based on true facts novel published winter 2013. It was very disturbing to write but necessary to bring awareness of abuse and molest from different perspectives:
    Chocolate Flowers. Jori Nunes

    Reply
  3. Aronson

     /  July 21, 2014

    This book of Kosinski is one big LIE. It’s not a classic, it’s not the story about real world, it’s a hoax made by a very sick man with the intentions to hurt people. Popular because of it’s jewishness. Better check Kathe Koja’s Cipher – should be on this list.

    Reply
    • lils

       /  April 1, 2015

      Your opine . About the JEWISHNESS are you an anti-semite? The book is contested as to whether it is factual or not . It did not happen to Jerzy they say but then again the same people said The Holocaust never happened . This stuff did happen to many others and even worse things . So even if it is fiction it is horrifying .

      Reply
  4. Kev

     /  May 6, 2015

    I must agree with you as I am a HUGE Jack Ketchum follower. I have read a lot of horror novels e.g. S King, B E Ellis, G Rollo and M E Rogers to name but a few but Jack Ketchum grabs you very early on and before you know it he has got you hooked. He doesn’t hold back so you have to be ready and prepared for such novels like The Girl Next Door and Only Child as they are based on a true story, they really will hit you. Finally I must state how well Ketchum writes his novels, he does not waste 200 pages in the introduction to the story and you certainly will not pick up one with 1000 pages to try and work your way through. If you think you handle horror to this extent (true story) then give him a go, I did and I’ve ended up reading most of his novels……….. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Kev

       /  August 15, 2015

      I have to agree with you on that one Kev. Jack Ketchum, to me, is the very best out there. He will be for some time to come.

      Reply
  5. Billyhands

     /  September 6, 2015

    Devour by Dan Moxham is pretty disturbing and worth checking out.

    Reply
  6. Elizabeth Orr

     /  January 23, 2016

    What about Morton Bain’s ‘Psychopath’? That should be on your list…

    Reply
  7. Erin Sedoris

     /  April 11, 2016

    Jesus Saves by Darcy Steinke and Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite.Survivor has nothing on these.

    Reply
  8. Oh, Mr. Ketchum…. The first book I read of his was _The Girl Next Door_ , and like you, I was affected for several weeks after I finished it. I rarely keep fiction books but that one I did. He’s an amazing writer without a doubt.

    Now, American Psycho: Yes, twisted and shocking. However, – and many others may not agree with me here, or even see it in the book – but, it has got some seriously [was intended by author] funny bits in it. Some aspects are highly amusing!

    and….moving on 😉

    I’m glad to have found your list because there are some fresh and different titles here I’ve not seen before and I’ve pretty much exhausted nearly all ‘Most Disturbing Books’ lists so far.

    One book on one of these lists is a vintage classic called ‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago. Society breaks down as more and more people go blind. I’m finding it hard to get into perhaps because the style doesn’t do it for me. But it’s on a list and may appeal to others.

    Thanks for your reviews and I’ve decided ‘Survivor’ is my next disturbing read .’Living Dead Girl’ sounds way too harrowing (it’s the kid thing) and I’d have to be in a seriously strong mental place to deal with that one,

    Hopefully I can let you know how I get on… If I survive, that is! 😀

    Reply

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