10 Disturbing Novels

From my column in the Washington Times Communities

WASHINGTON, DC, December 6, 2012- You know that book that you simply cannot put down?  The one that you keep thinking about when you do put it down and way after you’ve finished reading it?  The one that makes you just a little bit uncomfortable when you think about it?

Some of us really like to be disturbed or shocked by a novel; some of us don’t.  I absolutely love novels that surprise and disturb me.  Following is a list of the 10 most disturbing novels that I have read, and a list of those that are on my list to read.  These are just my personal top 10, and I would love to know what other readers recmmend.  The list is in chronological order by publication date.  Also, there are no spoilers in the descriptions!

1.  The Lord of the Flies (1954), William Golding

lofThis novel is as disturbing today as it was when it was first published.  Following a group of boys marooned on a deserted island, The Lord of the Flies presents a stark and brutal portrayal of human nature.  As the reality of having to survive on the island settles on the group, their experience quickly changes from a fun adventure into a nightmare where social rules and constructs give way to a primitive world that reveals the more disturbing side of human nature.


2.  Perfume (1985), Patrick Suskind


Perfume is one of my favorite novels.  Originally in German, Suskind’s unique novel focuses on the sense of smell and how it is intimately tied to the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, murderer/ 18th century perfumer.   Said to have committed his first murder only minutes after birth by crying out as his fishmonger mother leaves him to die among the fish guts, Grenouille begins life at the fringe of Paris society, where he will remain until his death.

Possessing the gift of “absolute sense of smell,” Grenouille pursues his obsession with creating the ultimate perfume.  This book’s engaging description of smells and the role they play in our lives and how we define ourselves, as well as Grenouille’s gift and obsession, are unforgettable and unlike anything you’ve read before.

3.  The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood

handThe Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s creepy classic dystopian novel.  Set in the Republic of Gilead in the near future, women in this novel are mainly valued for their reproductive capabilities and have been subjugated under a totalitarian Christian theocracy that strives to strip them of their humanity and individuality.  Offred, the protagonist, is a handmaid belonging to a new caste of women destined to serve as reproductive vessels for the ruling class, which has experienced a declining birth rates.   Even though the world portrayed is horrifying and appalling, the most disturbing part of this novel is that it is kind of believable.


4.  Geek Love (1989), Katherine Dunn

geekGeek Love is the story of the Binewiski family, told by Olympia “Oly” Binewiski, a hunchback albino dwarf.  The Binewiskis, Al and “Crystal” Lil, run a traveling carnival of freaks and living oddities featuring their own children.  The Binewiski children are created through Lil’s deliberate experimentation –under Al’s direction and supervision- with recreational and prescription drugs as well as amphetamines, arsenic, and radioisotopes during her pregnancies.

Al and Lil’s “tinkering” yields Arturo the Aquaboy, a megalomaniac tyrant with flippers instead of limbs; Iphy and Elly, Siamese twins who sing and perform; Oly, the hunchback albino dwarf; and Chick, normal on the surface, but possessing a mysterious power that makes him the family’s most prized asset.

Dunn makes the abnormal “normal,” and creates a dark, sordid world that envelops the reader and is sure to “freak” you out!

Read my full review.

5.  Glamorama (1998), Bret Easton Ellis

imagesEven though this is not a novel that I particularly “liked,” I was disturbed by the gory scenes and thorough description, including torture, dismemberment, bombings, and airplane crashes.  All of these are described in ghastly, gory detail, making this an unforgettable book, if not the most pleasant to read.  Another aspect of the book that I found particularly disturbing is how utterly annoyed I was by the main character, Victor, and his name-dropping, egocentric, and shallow view of the world.

Read my full review


6.  Invisible Monsters (1999), Chuck Palahniuk

invisibleInvisible Monsters was the first Chuck Palahniuk book I read and I was completely surprised and delighted- and yes, very disturbed.  The novel centers on the life of an ex-fashion-model who was in the prime of her life and career when she was shot in the face while driving down the highway.

Disfigured and divested of her identity, an invisible monster, the protagonist is befriended by Brandy Alexander, Queen Supreme, on her way to becoming a biological woman.  Joined by Seth, another interesting bird, the trio tour rich houses for sale only to steal the prescription drugs inside.

Dealing with identity, love, family, and self-determination, where nothing is what it seems on the surface- or even under the surface- Invisible Monsters is unforgettable and deeply disturbing.

7.  We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), Lionel Shriver

kevin2Shriver’s epistolary novel told from the point of view of the mother of a school shooter is riveting and yes, very disturbing.  18 months after her son killed 11 people, Eva Katchadourian reflects on Kevin, his life, upbringing, and character.  The letters are written to Franklin, Kevin’s father, in which Eva recounts how they met, married, and decided to have Kevin.  She then details their family life and her relationship with her son.

Life before and after Kevin’s spree stand in stark contrast, as Eva, formerly a rich and successful wife and mother is now alone, in debt, and an outcast.  Her current life revolves around the letters she writes to Franklin and her visits to Kevin, who is currently in juvenile detention and on his way to adult prison.

An unexpected and disturbing look at motherhood, family dynamics, and how life can change in the blink of an eye.

Read my full review

8.  Sin tetas no hay paraiso (Without Tits There is No Paradise)(2007), Gustavo Bolivar Moreno

tetasOk, I had to add a book in Spanish.  Sin tetas no hay paraiso is a bit obscure, but definitely disturbing.  The novel follows the life of Catalina, a young lower middle-class Colombian girl who dreams of getting breast implants since she is 13 years old, and will do anything to get them.  Catalina’s quest for breasts takes her to the seedy, sordid world of Colombian drug dealers and hit men; a life that quickly strips her of her innocence and humanity.  Bolivar Morneo’s world is one where life is cheap, the weak survive in any way they can, and women value themselves and each other by the size of their breasts.  A disturbing look at the values some girls grow up with.

9.  Little Bee (2010), Chris Cleave

beeEven though this book didn’t make that many people’s list for most disturbing books, I found it incredibly unsettling on several levels.  This is one that is difficult to describe without giving away the revelation that hits you like a baseball bat to the face…

The cover and title are pretty misleading: I was expecting some kind of The Help-ish, feel-good novel, and boy was I mistaken.  This is a book that still makes me shiver and kind of sad when I think about it…

10.  Savages (2010), Don Winslow

savagesSavages makes my list because I couldn’t put it down and couldn’t stop thinking about the characters for a long time after I had finished reading it.

Ben and Chon (formerly John), are the kings of the Southern California marihuana business.  Perhaps too successful, Ben and Chon are approached by the Baja Cartel, who want to take over their lucrative business, and they are not asking.

Fast-paced, gory, and in-your-face, the world portrayed by Winslow is like a car accident: you don’t want to look, but you just have to…

Read my full review

Disturbing books I want to read

As I looked at other lists online, I found other titles that I put on my to-read list. These include:

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Misery by Stephen King

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Blindness by José Saramago

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

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Please feel free to add books that you have found disturbing, and a link to your site, if you have one, NO SPOILERS please!