The darkest, most disturbing books of all time (2020 update)

Well written “good” books create worlds and characters you don’t want to leave. Dark and disturbing books create worlds so disgusting and inhuman that all you can ever think about is how to escape them.

In what might be an ironic twist of fate, it’s the dark and disturbing books that teach one to be optimistic. No matter how bad your life is, at least you aren’t eaten from the inside out by hungry rats.

The list below contains some of the most depraved, violent, creepy and disgusting books ever written. You’ll feel the need to throw them at the wall, you’ll feel something that conventional “good” books can’t really transmit, at least not at the same intensity.


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Without further ado, here is the list of books:

A list of dark and disturbing books

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

dark and disturbing books

In a post-apocalyptic world, a sentient and super-intelligent AI spends every second of its existence torturing the last few human survivors, healing them, then torturing them again.

When I first read it I just had circulating thoughts about it for weeks. Kept me up at night.

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: I have no mouth and I must scream

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

A World War 1 soldier is hit by an exploding artillery shell and loses his arms, legs, eyes, teeth, tongue and ears. His mind however is intact, and he learns to communicate in Morse code by banging his head against the pillow.

I got shell shock from reading it.

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: Johnny Got His Gun

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

dark and disturbing books

After doing detailed measurements, a family discovers their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside and do not understand how this is possible.

It doesn’t scare you outright, but it sits in the pit if your stomach and stays there. It comes out when it’s dark.

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

On The Beach by Nevil Shute

Australians prepare to die as the radioactive fallout that destroyed the rest of humanity slowly reaches their country.

“Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”

– Character quote

Recommended edition: On The Beach by Nevil Shute

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

dark disturbing books

A middle-aged professor becomes the step-father of a 12 year old girl, and then starts a physically intimate relationship with her.

Lolita is a wonderful book abut a disturbing situation. Some people just can’t handle facing the fact that situations like this actually happen, or they refuse to expose themselves to a book that might make them (gasp) empathize or understand how it might happen.

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

A kind hearted, but mentally disabled man, undergoes experimental surgery that dramatically increases his intelligence.

F*** that book, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going to go drown in my tears now, just for considering it.

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

In the 1850’s, a 14 year old teenager joins a band of wild west criminals that kills Indians, peels away their scalps from the head and then sell them.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. An attack, not just an attack, a seizure. A seizure on your gut belief that life is important. After I finished the book it took me three days to figure out I wasn’t sick. I went to the prison doctor twice. I put the book away several times and picked it up again.

– from The God File, by Frank Turner Hollon.

Quote: It’s pure poetry in the most horrifying way possible.

Recommended edition: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Night by Elie Wiesel

Life of a Jew in the Auschwitz concentration camp, as written by a Jew who survived Auschwitz concentration camp.

Huge flames were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children.

Recommended edition: Night by Elie Wiesel

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

A salesman wakes up one morning and discovers he has transformed into an insect.

“Kafka is always challenging and an excellent example of there being no ‘right’ answer in interpreting a work of literature, and it seems to actively try to resist interpretation.”

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Collector by John Fowles

A psychotic bureaucrat captures a young art student and holds her captive in the basement of his country house.

’I am one in a row of specimens. It’s when I try to flutter out of line that he hates me. I’m meant to be dead, pinned, always the same, always beautiful. He knows that part of my beauty is being alive, but it’s the dead me he wants. He wants me living-but-dead.’

– Miranda, The Collector

Just finished this book. No idea what to feel. Can’t even think straight. Anger, Pain, Sadness. It was so brilliant. And so creepy. Awful. But absolutely perfect in its awfulness. I just needed to get it out.

– Reader’s quote

Recommended edition: The Collector by John Fowles

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Patrick Bateman, a New York investment banker, narrates his day to day life of going to clubs, musical tastes, fashion advice, snorting cocaine, troubled relationship with his senile mother, going to prostitutes, murdering prostitutes, mutilating prostitutes, butchering colleagues, rape, necrophilia and torture.

“American Psycho was the only book I’ve ever had to put down because it made me physically ill.”

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

A step by step recounting of the brutal and pointless killing of the Clutter family. A true story, based on interviews Capote had with the murderers.

“I’ve never read a book that is so chillingly cold yet somehow portrays some empathy for the killers like In Cold Blood. Truly a masterpiece.”

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Describes the psychopathic life and development of Kevin from the perspective of his mother.

“The emotional build up to the last chapter is incredible. I was on the metro when I finished it. I had to get off a stop early to go throw up, not because of gore but just how horrible it made me feel.”

– Readers Quote

Recommended edition: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Unwind by Neil Shusterman

A Civil War breaks out over reproductive rights and ends with abortion becoming illegal. However, from ages 13 to 18 parents have the right to dismember their children organ by organ and give them up for donation in a process called “unwinding”.

Recommended edition: Unwind by Neil Shusterman

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A religious sect overthrows the USA government and institutes a religious dictatorship where women capable of reproduction are used as child making slaves.

I like that we see the beginning, how it started. Usually with dystopias the book starts and the dystopia is well in place and we never really get to know how it happened or evolved to that. But in this book, you feel the transition, the panic that the main character goes through when she understands her new reality. I liked that.

– Readers review

Recommended edition: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

Two teenage girls come into the care of their aunt and her three sons. After an initially happy welcome, their relationships degenerate into a hateful cycle of violence.

“In the basement, with Ruth, I began to learn that anger, hate, fear and loneliness are all one button awaiting the touch of just a single finger to set them blazing toward destruction.”

Recommended edition: The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

A troubled couple tries to resurrect their love lives with a bondage game. The husband suddenly dies of a heart attack while his wife is handcuffed to the bed.

 “You’re not real. You’re only made of the moonlight.” 

– Book quote

Recommended edition: Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Social order and common human decency evaporate as a city is struck by a mass epidemic of blindness.

Recommended edition: Blindness by Jose Saramago

It by Stephen King

A dancing clown hunts and eats children.

“I’m glad that I’m not the only one that was disturbed by that scene. Obviously the rest of the book is next-level horror compared to a lot of other books but that section, the first time I finished reading it I kind of just marked my place, set the book down and just sat there staring into space. I was just numbed by it.”

– Readers quote in regards to a particularly gruesome scene

Recommended edition: It by Stephen King

Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

A novel written by a drug addict about a drug addict who is trying to find his next drug dose and somehow survive the process.

“Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch quite a while after shooting his wife Joan in Mexico. He was living in Morocco, in a state of constant derangement and heavy drug use. The pages were written in no particular order, and after having finished one page he would simply throw it to the ground and write another bizarre and outlandish scenario.”

– On the history of the book.

Recommended edition: Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr

Multiple stories that cover the hidden and rotten world of New York in the 1960’s.

“Hubert Selby, Jr. just has a way of ripping out your soul and shitting on it. Amazing and heartbreaking book.”

– Readers quote

“Just absolutely bleak at best and horrifying at worst.”

– Readers quote

Recommended edition: Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Frank is a troubled 16-year old from a deeply broken family. His idea of fun is to kill and torture animals. Frank has no genital organs because of a dog attack.

“A work of unparalleled depravity.” – The Irish Times

Recommended edition: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A violent, psychopathic teenager gets imprisoned for his crimes. He then undergoes an experimental technique that makes him physically incapable of violence.

“Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?”

– Book quote

Recommended edition: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A father and his son try to survive a journey to the coast after a cataclysm has destroyed almost all life on Earth.

Recommended edition: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Escape from Camp 14 by Barbara Demick

The story of a man born in a North Korean prison camp and his escape.

Recommended edition: Escape from Camp 14 by Barbara Demick

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

A gang of Scottish drug addicts try to survive their criminal underworld and get their next hit.

“Love does not exist, it’s like religion, the state wants you to believe in that kind of crap so they can control you, and f**k your head up.”

– Book quote

Recommended edition: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh