Dive Into the Dark: 12 Unsettling Books for Brave Readers

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We talk a lot about “disturbing” media. Whether discussing books or movies (especially movies), people love to dive into topics that challenge them. If you're into psychological frights or concepts so scary you can hardly imagine them, there are plenty of books you can add to your shelves. 

1. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Child of God book ccover
Image Credit: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Child of God follows the exploits of killer Lester Ballard. Readers are not meant to root for Ballard, making getting through Child of God even more difficult. With each turn of the page, another of the killer’s horrific actions awaits to shock and distress the reader. McCarthy’s quality writing makes matters worse, which forces you to continue even when you want to call it quits and leave Lester Ballard behind.

2. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Running with Scissors book cover
Image Credit: Picador USA.

Some of the worst and most repulsive stories are pulled right from reality. Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors follows the true story of a boy whose life was anything but conventional. Raised amidst questionable characters, including an especially heinous individual living in the backyard shed, the young boy lived a trauma-filled life that’s painstakingly detailed in this memoir. You’ll swear it’s fiction, but Burroughs’ kept true to his life experiences.

3. The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade

120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
Image Credit: Penguin Books.

The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade follows four men who are seeking the limits of pleasure by taking a group of teenagers and four madams to an isolated castle and forcing the teens to engage in various horrifying acts. Be forewarned, this story has practically every imaginable trigger, which has helped it nestle into many banned book lists. 

4. Filth by Irvine Welsh

Filth by Irvine Welsh
Image Credit: W. W. Norton.

Irvine Welsh is likely most famous as the author of Trainspotting, but many of his works push the envelope. Filth follows Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson as he engages in cruel and salacious acts against the people around him and himself. 

5. Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite
Image Credit: Touchstone.

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite is a vile novel you'll want to remove from memory. Exquisite Corpse follows a serial killer who’s also a cannibal and a necrophiliac. Despite that, though, Brite (who now goes by Billy Martin) has brazenly described it as “a love story.”

6. Rant by Chuck Palahniuk

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk
Image Credit: Doubleday.

This novel is a fictional oral history of the titular character nicknamed Rant and his impact on the people in his life. A life that included playing with animal organs, seeking out bites from rabid animals, and destructive games focused on crashing cars. 

7. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Image Credit: Grove Press.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs ranks as one of the weirdest and most repulsive books ever written, and based on a brief description, you'll see why. The novel is told in chaotic vignettes primarily focused on relationships and drugs, as relayed by the character William Lee, who makes his way through the fictional space known as Interzone. The non-linear narrative is jarring, which lends to the aura of discomfort left by Lee's exploits.

8. Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer

Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer
Image Credit: Night Shade Books and Prime Books.

Jeff VanderMeer is perhaps best known as the author of Annihilation, which was itself picked as one of the most disturbing science fiction stories. The novel draws from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and Dante’s Inferno but places these classical inspirations into a dystopian world full of mutilated and horrifically transformed cybernetic humans.

9. Gone To See The River Man by Kristopher Triana

Gone to See the River Man by Kristopher Triana
Image Credit: Cemetery Dance Publications.

Gone to See the River Man follows a young woman obsessed with a sadistic serial killer and is thrilled when he gives her a task: to deliver a key to The River Man. The journey takes her through various horrifying experiences that certainly earn the description offered by the respondent.

10. Lapvona by Otessa Moshfegh

Lapvona by Otessa Moshfegh
Image Credit: Penguin Press.

Lapvona tells the tale of a disabled thirteen-year-old boy during medieval times who is given to the sadistic lord of the town after he commits a crime. While that may not sound like the setup for anything good, it's a favorite amongst readers.

11. The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter
Image Credit: Gallery Books.

The Troop follows a troop of Boy Scouts who, in an attempt to put their survival skills to the test, have journeyed to an isolated island and cut themselves off from the mainland. It doesn’t take long before they realize there are more than the cold and hunger that are dangerous as they come into contact with deadly tapeworms and discover that one of their own is homicidal. If you're a fan of Lord of the Flies, give this title a try. 

12. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Image Credit: Macmillan.

This cult classic novel centers on teenager Frank, who lives with his father on a remote Scottish island and fills his time with rituals and animal abuse. As the story goes on, we learn that he’s done far more than hurt animals. It’s a novel that’s been controversial since its release in 1984, not least because it places the reader in Frank’s point of view.

Author: Kyle Logan

Title: Contributing Writer

Expertise: Film, TV, Horror, Animation, Queer Cinema

Bio:

Film and TV Critic, Pop Culture Writer

  • Expertise: Horror, Animation, Queer Film
  • Education: Master's Degree in Philosophy from Boston College, Dual Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy and Political Science from Boston College
  • Organizer of Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd
  • Over 200 reviews, essays, articles, and lists across various sites

Experience: Kyle Logan has been writing about film since studying film and philosophy as an undergraduate at Boston College. Kyle began writing about film professionally in 2020 and has written for many sites including Screen Anarchy, Film Stories, and Fangoria. Kyle has also organized the Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd since 2020, highlighting the queer history of film and bringing attention to rising queer filmmakers. Kyle now works full time with Wealth of Geeks, contributing lists, reviews, and podcast appearances on topics as varied as film, travel, and Halloween candy.