10 Novels That Will Disturb Even the Coldest of Hearts

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[Editor’s note: While your Flavorwire editors take a much-needed holiday break, we’re revisiting some of our most popular features of the year. This post was originally published May 18, 2011.] Jezebel-writer Anna North’s debut novel, America Pacifica, is out today. The story centers around an impoverished teenage girl who is struggling to survive on an increasingly toxic island in the Pacific Ocean after a future Ice Age sets in and freezes the mainland. Though the writing can be a little clunky — especially with respect to class issues — North provides good lens into the many ways an aggrieved soul can turn against the world, and how difficult it is to get back our dignity once we’ve lost it. With this in mind, we decided to run a post on books that expose the darker side of humanity — a roundup of the most disturbing novels and short stories through time, if you will.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

In this short story, a family gets in a car accident and encounters a godless trio led by an escaped convict known as “the Misfit.” Near the end of the story, the Misfit says, “Lady… there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip,” and every time we read this we can’t help but shiver a little.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you take away the epilogue, this novel tells an unbelievably miserable story of confinement and misogynistic rule. In the near future, the United States is overthrown by the pernicious Sons of Jacob, who then establish the Republic of Gilead. The bank accounts of women and other undesirables are frozen, and a group known as Handmaids become the hosts for the future children of the ruling class. Atwood’s prose is beautiful and chilling, as always.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

David Lurie is a twice-divorced academic plodding through life in post-apartheid South Africa. When the brief affair he has with one of his students is revealed, he resigns and moves in with his daughter, Lucy, who is living in Cape Town. After she is raped and he is violently assaulted, Lurie occupies his time by volunteering at an animal shelter, where he helps kill unwanted dogs, watching “the legs buckle and the eyes dim.” Do you need anymore information here to assure you that this story is soul-crushingly bleak? We didn’t think so.

Blindness by Jose Saramago

The novel begins with a driver caught off guard when his vision fails him. After a time, other residents of this unnamed city suffer from the same white-blindness, and are moved into a holding area by authorities. Predictably, mayhem ensues as the population struggles to survive. Blindness was later made into a terrible movie starring Julianne Moore and Gael Garcia Bernal, but we try not to think about this too much.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

You could argue that any of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels could be on the list, but we chose the easy way out and included American Psycho because we can never scrub the graphically detailed images of debased sex and cold-blooded killing from our impressionable minds.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

An unnamed black man lives in the basement of a building, in a room illuminated by 1369 lights. He is expelled from college and ends up with a lousy job at a paint factory, which he eventually loses after a terrible accident, at which point he is given shock treatment. He ends up a puppet in the Brotherhood and is eventually roughed up by goons. Though the message is an important one and the writing is incredible, the story is so dispiriting we can’t imagine getting through it a second time (especially the Battle Royale scene). As the narrator explains, “A beautiful girl once told me of a recurring nightmare in which she lay in the center of a large dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me.”

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

The 50th anniversary of the US printing of Tropic of Cancer will take place this June. After the 1961 court ruling against the publisher, Grove Press, Harry T. Levin said, “In any battle between the literati and the philistines, the philistines invariably win.” The judge had this to say about the semi-autobiographical novel: “It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade

Let us give this synopsis the old college try: Four rich white dudes imprison a whole bunch of teenagers in a castle in order to rape and torture them, which they end up doing a lot of in de Sade’s first major work. Simone de Beauvoir has a different take on the novel. In the introduction, she writes, “By becoming real, any crime proves to be possible and ordinary.” She continues, “It was not murder that fulfilled Sade’s erotic nature: it was literature.”

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Heather Havrilesky writes about the new HBO adaptation in The New York Times, “Maybe it takes the grand scale of sybaritic kings and imaginary kingdoms to do justice to the perversions and the nihilism of post-empire America.” In Martin’s epic fantasy novel, the Seven Kingdoms are pitted against each other for control of the throne. It’s bloody, it’s brutal, and it’s insanely popular right now.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

No, we didn’t choose No Country for Old Men. We could have, but we just didn’t. We chose Blood Meridian because it’s a slap in the face to all the old Westerns, and because it relies less on anxiety and more on gore. The story is set in the late 1840s, on the border between Texas and Mexico. A teenager known as “the kid” becomes involved with a gang of outlaws who regularly scalp Native Americans and stir up trouble wherever they go. At one point, Judge Holden says, “If war is not holy, man is nothing but antic clay,” and we then realized that he is evil incarnate.