Despite all the streaming services and different ways to consume media, reading a good book is still the best form of entertainment. It paints pictures that no director or filmmaker can capture in your head. There are many different genres of novels, but nothing beats a darkly disturbing book.
The most disturbing novels are those that challenge your sensibilities and push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or even imaginable. Many of the best disturbing novels focus on taboo subjects and terrifying events you won’t be able to forget quickly. There are psychological thrillers and terrifying horror novels that tell stories so creepy they’ll induce the worst nightmares. True crime books, fantasy epics, and weird science fiction stories all describe eerie events and scenes that will linger in the mind long after the final page is turned.
These disturbing books are not for the faint of heart but will keep readers engrossed and scared at the same time. Ready to head to some dark places? Then read on and discover some of the most disturbing books ever written.
15 of the Most Disturbing Books Ever Written
1. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Despite writing a long list of frightening horror stories, author Stephen King considers Pet Semetary the scariest. Dr. Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and two young kids, Ellie and Gage, move to Ludlow with their cat Church. After Church dies, Louis buries the cat in an ancient burial ground at the odd Pet Sematary, resurrecting the beloved cat. But there’s something different about Church. Spoiler alert: he’s basically a soulless cat demon!
After tragedy strikes the family, Louis buries a loved one in the Pet Sematary despite warnings from his neighbor. Rising from the ground is an evil being who goes on a murderous rampage. The chilling and disturbing ending will have you jumping out of your seat.
2. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
An unreliable narrator, investment banker Patrick Bateman takes readers through his life during the 1980s Wall Street boom. He details his daily routine, taking care of his looks, hanging out with his friends while they do drugs, and his loveless engagement. Bateman also describes his life as a serial killer and the brutal murders he commits.
As Bateman’s mind unravels, you won’t be able to tell what’s real, just like Bateman. Is he a sick sadistic serial killer or is it all in his mind? Author Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial and disturbing novel is so shocking that reviewers thought it would end his career. Instead, it became one of his greatest works and was even turned into a box-office smash that introduced the world to Christian Bale.
3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Written by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange is a disturbing tale split into three parts. In a dystopian future, teenagers commit acts of extreme and brutal violence. During the first section of the novel, a teen called Alex and his gang enjoy terrorizing innocent people with violent beatings, robberies, and rape.
The second part picks up with Alex in prison, undergoing an experimental treatment known as Ludovico Technique. The final part tracks Alex’s integration back into society and ends with a fitting conclusion to one of the great English novels.
4. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
Loosely based on the 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens, Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a dark and disturbing horror story. Set in the 1950s, the narrator, David, recounts the unsettling events in his neighborhood. An alcoholic woman, Ruth, often lets David and the other kids enter her house freely.
Around this time, Ruth’s young nieces, teenager Meg and her sister Susan, move in with her and her three sons. Ruth and her sons torture, rape, and beat Meg as they keep her locked up. A young David tries to help Meg as he develops feelings for her. The troubling events haunt David in adulthood and will leave a lasting impression on you after you’re done with this book.
5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House is a disturbing and fear-inducing story. Jackson’s famous ghost story relies on slow-building tension and terror instead of graphic horror. An investigator of the supernatural, Dr. Montague, rents the supposedly haunted Hill House.
Hill House’s heir Luke Sanderson, an artist Theodora, and the shy Eleanor Vance also stay at the famed mansion. Everyone begins to experience strange, unsettling, and terrifying noises. Eleanor begins to lose it as she witnesses supernatural and disturbing occurrences. The other characters do not share Eleanor’s experience, questioning her mental state until the truth is revealed. The spine-chilling tale pulls you into the dark and terrifying Hill House and will have you locking your doors and checking under your bed before turning off the lights.
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6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a non-fiction true crime novel detailing the Clutter family murders of 1959. Captoe travels to the small farming community in Holcomb, Kansas, to write about the crime and interview law enforcement and residents.
Capote dives deep into the mind, psychology, and relationships of killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The book follows three stories: the lives of the victims, the community, and the murders. In Cold Blood became one of Capote’s most significant works.
7. The Collector by John Fowles
John Fowles’s The Collector is a disturbing and uncompromising book set in London’s swinging 60s. The story focuses on a friendless man, Frederick, who becomes obsessed with an art student, Miranda. He kidnaps and holds her captive in a farmhouse.
The novel divides into two parts, the first from Fredrick’s point of view as he tries to win over Miranda. The second part features Miranda’s viewpoint while she’s held captive. The unsettling tale will leave you shocked and feeling hopeless.
8. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
In an unknown time and place, Cormac McCarthy’s disturbing novel, Outer Dark, deals with themes of sin and redemption. The story starts with Rinthy Holme giving birth to a child due to a sexual relationship with her brother Culla. Feeling deeply ashamed, Culla abandons the baby in the woods.
Rinthy goes on a dangerous journey to search for her child, taking her to strange and weird places. Feeling incredible guilt for his sin, Culla goes on a trip encountering disturbing and problematic situations himself. Their strange and worrisome journey brings the two siblings full circle, resulting in an unsettling climax.
9. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver explores school massacres in We Need To Talk About Kevin. The plot centers around a school shooting perpetrated by Kevin. Told from the viewpoint of Kevin’s mother, Eva, she reflects on her ambivalence when pregnant with Kevin, his psychopathic tendencies, and the years leading up to the massacre.
Through letters Eva writes to her ex-husband, she details the school shooting and the aftermath, leading to a shocking conclusion you won’t be ready for. The heartbreaking and relevant tale is a disturbing look at the gun control problem facing America and is vital reading for teens and adults.
10. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Troubled by her sister’s death in childhood, journalist Camile Preaker returns to her hometown in Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate two recent murders of two young girls. The police find both girls severely beaten with their teeth pulled out. As Camile investigates, she reconnects with her 13-year-old half-sister Amma and her estranged mother, Adora.
Camile’s unsettling past and present collide when she believes she has solved the case. After she returns to Chicago, Camile realizes the wrong person went to jail when a similar murder occurs in Chicago. Camile learns the answer to the mystery is closer to home and hides in her past.
Gillian Flynn’s second novel, Sharp Objects, was an instant hit dealing with themes of self-harm, guilt, blame, and loss. She followed it up with the New York Times Best Seller Gone Girl, which led to a movie adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
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11. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian future. After killing the President and Congress, the Republic of Gilead overthrow the United States. The Republic rules with an iron fist as they reduce women’s rights, banning females from the opportunity to gain an education, work, or have control over their reproductive rights.
The plot revolves around a handmaid, Offred, forced by the government to produce children for the ruling class commanders. Offred reflects on the days before the revolution as she fights for her freedom. The Handmaid’s Tale has also been turned into a thrilling TV series that is well worth a watch.
12. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima
Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a tragic tale set in the 1950s. The novel follows the son of a Buddhist, Mizoguchi, who learns about the beautiful Golden Pavilion from his father. This image of the Golden Pavilion becomes ingrained into his mind as Mizoguchi lives in poverty and struggles with his mental health.
With visions of the pavilion haunting him, Mizoguchi’s only solution is to end his own life or destroy the pavilion. It’s set in a disturbing world, lacking hope and positivity, and presents a bleak existence where obsession can become life-consuming.
12. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Influential author William S. Burroughs struggled with his drug addiction while writing this disturbing tale about drug addiction. Written a few years after Burroughs accidentally shot and killed his wife, Naked Lunch has no straightforward plot, featuring a series of loosely connected stories.
The reader follows along with Burroughs’s alter ego, William Lee, in the semi-autobiographical novel that finds Lee on the run from the police as he searches for his next fix. He travels from the United States to Tangier and the Interzone. Intertwined with Lee’s story is a series of other disjointed tales that will have you scratching your head and wondering just what the hell Burroughs was on about.
14. Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.
In Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr. takes readers on a harrowing and relentless journey through 1950s Brooklyn. Selby breaks every grammar rule, writing the story in an unconventional method that will have English teachers flipping out.
The novel’s conversational tone tells six separate stories dealing with topics of domestic violence, drug use, homophobia, and rape. The controversial book faced an obscenity trial in the UK due to the disturbing and violent content contained within but is now considered a classic piece of literature.
15. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
The gripping, heartbreaking, and disturbing Flowers in the Attic is the first book in the Dollanganger series. Author V.C. Andrews introduces members of the Dollanganger family, Chris, Cathy, and twins Carrie and Cory. To get her inheritance from her dying father, Corinne Dollanganger locks her kids in the attic of her father’s mansion. She promises once their grandfather dies, the kids can leave the attic.
At first, days go by, then months, and then a year. Eventually, their mother stops visiting and the kids become mysteriously ill. The kids soon discover the cause of their illness and their mother’s disappearance. Several schools in the United States banned the best-selling but disturbing book due to depictions of incest, rape, and graphic sexual intercourse.
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