Dark, disturbing, and transgressive fiction

I have to admit that I am not entirely comfortable publishing this list. It’s not that I think any of the included books are so repulsive or distressing that they should never be mentioned; rather, I feel weird seeing them all grouped together under one heading. The implication is that these books are worth reading because they are disturbing, and not because of some other qualities. It all seems a little tasteless and juvenile; but the truth of the matter is that I made this list for my own reference and that I’m not above succumbing to morbid curiosity every now and then. If you want to join me in this murky territory, I can only advise you to proceed with caution, be aware of your own limits, and maintain a well-balanced reading diet.

My book lists tend to be eclectic, and this one is no exception. While transgressive fiction is a relatively well-defined genre, descriptors such as “dark” and “disturbing” are rather vague and highly subjective. For a book to qualify as disturbing, it is sufficient that someone, somewhere, felt disturbed by it – and it makes little sense to dispute their claim because it’s all down to their psychological makeup, social background, and life experiences. This accounts for the large variety of the listed titles, which span different eras and literary traditions, from avant-garde experimental fiction, through “respectable” best-sellers favored by mainstream critics, to lurid and trashy potboilers.

This variety also makes it impossible to compare the listed books in terms of the perceived “extremity” of their content. While some readers may be interested in finding “the most disturbing books out there”, this would be a fool’s errand. How does one begin to juxtapose the story of a Holocaust survivor or a domestic abuse victim against a supernatural splatterpunk horror novel written for escapist entertainment, no matter how macabre? And are detailed descriptions of graphic violence and sexual excess any more disturbing than a harrowing account of someone suffering solely from psychological distress in a truly precarious situation? Such things are clearly incommensurable. In any case, please keep in mind that my lists are ranked by popularity, so the top items here are not necessarily the “darkest” ones (whatever this entails).

My goal was to limit this list to works of fiction, so I excluded books that are primarily described as nonfiction or memoirs. I did, however, make a couple of exceptions for books that describe real-life events but are written in a decidedly literary rather than documentary style.

I also published a more focused list of disturbing and depressing science fiction. And if your interests in taboo subjects and gruesome thrills extend to the medium of comic books, I can recommend my list of violent, disturbing, and transgressive comics.

The list