There’s something to be said for the horror novel–unlike the horror film, everything in the novel is up to the imagination of the reader, which can sometimes be more devastating. To quote Indian actor Hrithik Roshan, as stated in an instagram video:
“I’m so curious about knowing the unknown; it can be scary, but I see it as a game.”
So many of us see the art of horror films and novels in such a way. How scary can it really be? How deeply can it really affect us? And usually, there are a few that linger in the mind as frightening or intriguing beyond the norm. Few, in my experience, actually disturb too deeply.
But they exist. They very much exist; and once they crawl and burrow their way into the mind of the reader, they become very difficult to get out. I’m including a disclaimer with trigger and content warnings ahead of the article. I am also including honorable mentions first, with the reason I did not include it on the final list.
DISCLAIMER: The following books are listed as disturbing for a reason. I absolutely respect that everyone is going to have triggers or be upset by certain content, and therefore I am warning ahead of time and encouraging anyone who might be interested in a book to dig further before reading. I am giving you the tools needed to help with your mental health but past that, the choice is in your hands. The following books contain these triggers (though not every book has all of them):
- Sexual assault
- Child sexual abuse
- Murder, including lynching and femicide
- Torture and abuse
- Misogyny and misogynistic violence
- Racism and race based violence
- Body horror
- Stockholm Syndrome
- Alcohol and drug use
- Sex worker abuse
I believe this should cover everything, but again I encourage anyone interested in a title to read ahead and read in depth looks online for more information.
The following are honorable mentions with a brief line as to why I did not include them on the list. There are also plenty of disturbing books that I just won’t read due to certain contents that I know will trigger bad thoughts in me, and I am ultimately the one responsible for my own mental health and well-being.
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Whereas this book is disturbing, I didn’t feel the same visceral reaction to it that many seem to have. The narrative voice of the mother is a bit too alien to me.
- Haunted by Chuck Palahnuik: Honestly seemed mostly written for shock value. Was gross to me, but not disturbing?
- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: I think if the narrator were a bit different it would have disturbed me more, personally; but I also admit that the narrator being exactly who he is is what makes it effective and proves the point. A good read, just not for me.
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Just…didn’t disturb me? Depressed me, but didn’t linger with me other than vague distaste which put me off reading more McCarthy.
- Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov: Much like later similar books which I did not bother to read, I just…don’t read books where the main disturbing quality is that the narrator is a predator of children.
Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
I wanna say I was about 21 when I first read this. I loved horror already, of course, but as far as adult horror reading I had done in my life, I wasn’t particularly ahead of the curve. King, Lovecraft, and House of Leaves by Danielewski as a community challenge on livejournal. I’d read some Barker, but none of his horror–rather one of his fantasy stories with darker elements, Imajica, had gripped ahold of me. I curiously wondered what else horror might have to offer to me as a curious reader in the lgbtq+ community. There were other works by Barker, of course, but another list of horror with gay characters listed the works of Poppy Z. Brite.
Oh, I thought naively. I like Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon and other movies about killers. I’ll be fine.
…y’all, I was not okay!
Andrew is a serial killer, who fakes his own death to escape execution. As he flees to New Orleans, he meets the bored, wealthy, and secretly sadistic Jay, who quickly determines that Tran would be the perfect victim for the horrifying couple to murder together. Tran himself is on the run from his abusive ex Lucas. The four collide in one explosive night that will undoubtedly leave readers traumatized and put off the exceptionally dark for quite awhile.
There are quite a few authors who get well into the heads of dark characters, but Brite’s narrator Andrew Comptom is a twisted atrocity of a man matched only by his eventual love interest Jay. Lucas is terrible in his own way, as well, and the victim, Tran, is the only character in the novel worthy of sympathy. Though outside of sympathy…damn, all of them are compelling characters.
That said, no one writes a villain protagonist quite like Brite, and I find his writing incredibly influential to my own.
Gone to See the River Man by Kristopher Triana
What I went into assuming was a story about a delusional yet ultimately sympathetic serial killer groupie dragged into a nightmare by her obsession, turned out to be one of the darkest character reveals I’ve ever witnessed in fiction.
Gone to See the River Man follows Lori, a 39-year-old true crime junkie and serial killer groupie, who is in a rapidly turned toxic dynamic with convicted killer penpal Edmund Cox. Cox requests Lori go to a cabin in the woods of Killeen, retrieve a key, and deliver it to a mysterious figure called the River Man. But as Lori goes on her journey, dragging her disabled sister in toe, it becomes starkly clear that there’s more darkness to Lori than we could ever imagine.
Despite this novel being labeled “splatterpunk”, it’s less the bloodiness of the story that stains your mind–rather it’s the incredibly dark reveal of who Lori is slowly leaching its way into the nooks and crannies of your mind like an oil spill. Long after I’ve forgotten the admittedly affective scenes of gore or brutality, I still remember Lori. And I’m not sure I want to.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
‘Iain Banks has great sci-fi novels, lemme give this a try–’ I thought to myself when I got my copy of The Wasp Factory. Later that week, after I’d finished it. I returned it to the used media store for store credit and determined to stick to the Culture novels instead of…whatever Wasp Factory had been. Startlingly misogynistic for one thing, though that’s the characters and not Banks himself using them as a mouthpiece for his actual beliefs. In fact, one could and should successfully be able to argue he is critiquing such thoughts.
Frank lives with his father in a remote Scottish village. Their lives are ones of bizarre rituals, bound to the father’s obsessions. The monotony is broken up by Frank’s outbursts of violence, which only worsen when his brother returns to the tiny village, having escaped a psychiatric facility. As the story unfolds, revealing one horrifying truth after another, it becomes clear that no one in this terrible family is free from the curses of violence, sadism, and toxic masculinity (this is text btw, not subtext) that bind them together.
This is…a helluva first novel from Iain Banks who went on to write the fascinating but far less horrifying Culture series of science fiction novels. It’s incredibly difficult to make it through a lot of the parts, and even though it is a critique of toxic masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in so many ways, it’s still potentially triggering to read. That said, the despicable characters crafted by Banks are fascinated. Once you’re caught in the wasp factory, it’s only a matter of which path you choose which decides your fate.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Technically not a horror novel, this crime and mystery novel from Japan is still disturbing enough to qualify for this list. One of the defining texts of the “iyamisu” genre (translating literally to “ew fiction”), Out is a white knuckle murder mystery–a story of four desperate women both helping and destroying each other in devastating ways.
The tale follows four women working at a bento factory, exploring their interpersonal dynamics both before and after the conflict occurs. Things are already tense and depressing at the start, but when one of the women murders her abusive husband in self-defense and the group plots to dispose of him, things go truly haywire. As the murder is discovered from bodily evidence, the group begins fighting, trying to blackmail each other, and trying to ensure that everyone takes the fall but herself. The climax is shocking but thematically fitting (in my opinion), cementing this novel’s place on the list even as parts stretch credulity.
This is ultimately a very socially thematic novel, with each woman representing and critiquing an aspect of Japanese society and its repressive roles for women. The author does this brilliantly, showing her deep and personal understanding in each of the main female characters. For fans of mystery who want something a touch darker, without diving into the sheer horror of other texts on this list, Out is a great doorway to disturbing fiction.
Confessions by Kanae Minato
Another entry from the iyamisu subgenre of Japanese horror-mystery, Confessions is a story of vengeance, violation, and body horror that is difficult to describe without spoiling it. However, the shocking premise is revealed in the first few pages, and the rest of the novel follows the devolution of the characters in such a way that haunts the reader.
Widowed young teacher Yuko announces to her class that she will be leaving the teaching profession once break is over. Her young daughter was found drowned in a pool, and she cannot take the heartbreak of it. Slowly, she reveals that the drowning was not an accident, but a cruel murder by two students in the class who she does not name, but admits are protected under the Juvenile Law of 1947. This law ensures that the punishment for their crime would be light, which Yuko cannot accept. She has contaminated the drinks of the two students with the blood of her late husband who died of complications related to HIV.
And that’s just the opening chapter.
The remainder of the book only gets more unhinged.
I won’t say more though, just that this book utterly ruined most of the mystery genre for me from here on out cause it was so damn good. There’s also a film version of the novel that is very faithful and well done, and I highly recommend it.
Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage
A spooky kid novel? Really? You might be asking yourself this, which is totally valid. I’m not normally one to be that freaked out by disturbing kid books, especially after teaching. Yes, some kids are dangerous and scary (see honorable mention of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver), but after years of teaching, most “scary” kids are just…weird. Or worse, abused, and have become scary through no fault of their own. As a former “scary” kid, who was really just repressed and undiagnosed as neurodivergent, more of than than not my sympathies are with the scary kids.
I have no sympathy for Hanna. The book goes out of its way to show that her poor mother is NOT imagining things, that Hanna IS evil, and that she is actively gaslighting everyone around them both to convince them that it’s her poor mother Suzette who is insane. This hurts as a reader, especially since we see how damn hard Suzette is trying to be a good mother.
There were a lot of complaints I saw about the internal monologue of Hanna being too mature, but I personally enjoyed those sections, finding them intensely disturbing. It’s less of a looking into Hanna’s actual wording, I felt, and more a translation of her thoughts to the reader. As someone who worked with seven year olds, I don’t understand the desire for writing for them in fiction to be developmentally appropriate–barring some advanced students, their writing isn’t really readable, and should be more an example of progress than actual literary quality?
Overall, I highly recommend this freaky Bram Stoker Award finalist as the ultimate Scary Kid Book, save for maybe the more realistic We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
This is a book about lots of things. Factory farming. Misogynistic objectification. Commodification of the working class.
There’s no easy way to describe this book, other than labeling my read of it as one of the most deeply unpleasant experiences I have ever had while reading a book that is actually well written that I tentatively agree with the premise of. The ending is hyped as the most disturbing last line of a novel/novella, and you know what? FAIR.
This book is deeply sickening though, so even though I do totally think it has so much socio-political and artistic value, PLEASE be careful of your own mental health going into it.
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Technically an iyamisu novel, there is no real mystery in this terrifying and disgusting tale from an author who calls himself “the other Murakami” with a sardonic grin. We know the criminal. We know the crimes. We just live in suspense of the increased brutality and the unknowable quantity of where he’ll strike next…and whether our narrator and his significant other will be the next victims.
Kenji is a morally gray protagonist, living life in the 1990s as a tour guide for sex tourists in a Japan increasingly shutting down the practice due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When he’s contacted by a creepy American man, he shoves down his misgivings–after all, most of the guys he guides around are real creeps anyway, right? But something is…wrong with Frank. More wrong than anyone else he’s ever met. As blood begins to spill and Kenji is held hostage by threats to his and his girlfriend Jun’s life, we’re on the edge of our seats as readers watching the depravity through his eyes.
This book does NOT hold back on brutality. With Murakami writing this story as a metaphor for consumerism and the emptiness thereof, it’s clear that he thinks of it as an act of destruction. This work can also be read as a critique of the exotification and commodification of women–in fact, it’s difficult to not read it as such, even though the blood-streaked lenses one views the story through.
I devoured this short book in one sitting and still think about it to this day. I highly recommend it.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The first three whole times I tried to read this book, I couldn’t make it past the first fourth of the text. While the film does more justice to building tension through slowburn and implication, the novel leaves no room for imagination on exactly every horror of the vampire Eli’s story, the monster that aids them in finding victims, and the fate of Oskar as he slowly falls for Eli.
This book has graphic mentions of child molestation. I cannot and will not beat around the bush on that. There are other graphic abuses in other books listed here, but the ones in Let the Right One In are what kept me from completing the novel for years.
That said, it is a wonderful tribute to the horrific and brutally realistic experience that a being like Eli would experience. If you can get through it, it’s very much worth a read, but…
I don’t blame you if you can’t get through it.
When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen
Jordan Peele produced, Nia DaCosta directed adaptation WHEN?
Mira hasn’t returned to her hometown in over a decade, when her (white) high school best friend calls her, gleefully announcing she’s engaged to marry the local wealthy heir to a tobacco fortune. The wedding? To be held at the gorgeous plantation house in the woods, its blood-soaked history hidden by white paint and scroll-topped columns and now converted to a historical touring location. As Mira collides with her ex-friend Jesse–one of the only other Black women from the town–memories resurface both from the womens’ pasts and the bloody past of the plantation.
This book deals with racial dynamics that I have not experienced and therefore cannot dissect, other than to say McQueen deftly handles every aspect, creating a compelling horror story with a message. It’s an incredibly dark and disturbing historical horror that also pushes forward and centers Black queer narratives in a way that the genre needs. Despite being scary as hell, I very much encourage folks to read it.
The Cipher by Kathe Koja
Kathe Koja writes like no one else and I mean that in the best possible way–she takes a mix of the cosmic, the folk, and the analog horror genres and somehow makes it work in the most disgusting and horrifying way possible. The Cipher is the most excellent example of that, with some reviewers even saying it made them feel ill (and me too, tbh, I’m reviewers).
When a video store clerk and his friend find a cosmic portal in the back of the movie store, they begin to experiment with its powers. However, as they slowly experiment, the portal seems to be experimenting back. It soon devolves into a cosmic flavor of body horror like no other.
It’s difficult to describe without getting into spoiler territory, but please give this under-appreciated gem of a novel a chance!
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
When a town slowly becomes infected by spirals, it devolves into cosmic body horror that is simultaneously disgusting and visually iconic. Ito’s stories, writing, concepts, and art are impeccable and none of his manga emphasize that like Uzumaki.
The inclusion of a manga instead of a straight up novel may raise some eyebrows, but y’all.
Y’all, I threw up twice reading this manga. Heaved a few other times. Not even exaggerating. This book had me MESSED UP.
It’s odd, perhaps, as this is one of the most iconic on this list, that it provoked such a visceral reaction in me (and others), but for those who haven’t been initiated to the world of Ito yet….whew boy, he is worth it.
Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca
Two lonely hearts connect online, and things rapidly begin spinning out of control.
This book got a lot of hype on tiktok for being a queer horror story, and while this description is technically true, it disgusting and divided many readers with just how intense the story was. While I adored it, it’s definitely not one for the masses, as it blends an already divisive social media/internet-based epistolary style of writing with some of the most disturbing content I’ve ever seen put to this style.
Body horror? Check. Fungal horror? Absolutely. This book is queer in all sense, not just in the characters’ identities but in the identity of the book itself. Definitely one for stronger stomachs and a willingness to read unapologetically disturbing content.
So what do y’all think? Do you agree with these choices if you’ve read them? Disagree? Are there other novels you think should have been included (or would have, rather, if you’d written this list)? Leave a comment below to start the discussion!