The Most Dangerous Novels of All Time

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The decades-old controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has been in the news again recently following the author’s cancelled appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival in the wake of reported death threats. This intended violence is not the first that Rushdie’s novel has inspired, and his is definitely not the first real-life danger to come from literature. In fact, several books are reputed to have inspired or informed violence over the years, to varying degrees. The debate over whether the impulse to violence can originate from media — whether film, video games, or books — is a complex one, and we’re not seeking to answer it here, though we tend to think that no piece of media can incite a healthy mind to violent deeds (and the violence in Rushdie’s case is definitely directly caused by dissent over the book). However, several real-life crimes have been linked to works of literature, and therefore we must consider them at least a little more dangerous than say, Pride and Prejudice. Nota bene: this is a list of dangerous novels, so any potentially harmful propaganda, religious texts and nonfiction are all ineligible. Click through to check out our list, and get ready to scan your friends’ bookshelves for signs of insanity.

The Satanic Verses , Salman Rushdie

You may think this novel was only dangerous to Rushdie, but in fact more than 50 people died as a result of its publication — or at least as a result of the extreme reaction of the Muslim community. First published in the United Kingdom in 1988, this novel, a magical realist work that includes a dream sequence about Muhammad, caused outrage among many Muslims who accused Rushdie of blasphemy. In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against the writer, ordering Muslims to kill him, a ruling that stayed in effect until 1998. Rushdie was bombarded with hate mail and death threats, and was forced to enter the British government’s protection program. Meanwhile, despite Rushdie’s apologies and written reaffirmations of his faith, several people were killed and injured in anti-Rushdie riots, including the book’s Japanese translator, who was stabbed to death, and the Italian translator, who was gravely wounded but survived. In 1993, Turkish scholars attending the Pir Sultan Abdal Literary Festival refused to hand over Aziz Nesin, the book’s Turkish translator, to a group of Islamic extremists. In response, the group burned down the hotel, killing 37 people (though Nesin escaped). Only recently, Rushdie cancelled his plans to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival after reports of planned assassination attempts.

Rage , Stephen King

The first of King’s novels to be written under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman,” Rage details a high school student who goes off the rails, killing several teachers and holding a room full of kids hostage. Since its publication it has been associated with several similar crimes, including that of Michael Carneal, who brought a gun to school and opened fire on a youth prayer group before laying down his gun and saying “Kill me, please. I can’t believe I did that.” He had a copy of Rage in his locker. “The Carneal incident was enough for me,” King said in an address to the Vermont Library Conference in 1999. “I asked my publisher to take the damned thing out of print. They concurred.”

The Secret Agent , Joseph Conrad

Conrad’s novel, a study of terrorism populated by spies and anarchists, is said to have heavily influenced the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Apparently, he read the novel at least a dozen times and kept a copy by his bedside, identifying with and using as inspiration the character of the Professor, who in the novel keeps a bomb on his person at all times, ready to kill himself and everyone around him. He even used variations of the name “Conrad” to sign himself into hotels when he wished to remain anonymous. Before his arrest, Kaczynski sent 16 bombs to different locations in the US, killing three people and injuring 23 others.

The Catcher in the Rye , J.D. Salinger

John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, famously had a copy of Salinger’s novel on him when he was picked up by the police. Inside, he had written, “This is my statement,” signing his name as “Holden Caulfield.” He said that in the days leading up to the killing he had been re-enacting scenes from the novel. Of Lennon, he said “I wanted to go back to my hotel, but I couldn’t. I waited until he came back. He knew where the ducks went in winter, and I needed to know this.” After shooting Lennon, Chapman sat on the curb and read The Catcher in the Rye while the musician died. Nine years later, another man, Robert John Bardo, who was convicted of the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, committed the crime with the novel in his pocket, though he claims coincidence.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin , Harriet Beecher Stowe

This book, while undoubtedly being a force for positive social change, also caused a whole lot of violence — at least if you listen to Abraham Lincoln. Supposedly, when meeting Harried Beecher Stowe at the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln mused, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” We think it was a little more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this list we’ll take his word for it.

The Turner Diaries , William Luther Pierce

This novel, written under the pseudonym “Andrew Macdonald,” was deemed the “bible of the racist right” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are several crimes associated with the book, but most notably the Oklahoma City Bombings — Timothy McVeigh had frequently championed it (while rejecting its racism) and photocopies of pages sixty-one and sixty-two were found on the passenger seat of McVeigh’s car when he was stopped following the attacks. Those pages describe a mortar attack on the US Capitol.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra , Friedrich Nietzsche

Though Nietzsche has been associated with several murderers, the most famous is probably Adolf Hitler. Hitler had Thus Spoke Zarathustra issued to his troops and read him religiously. Seemingly assured that he was an Übermensch himself, reportedly “Hitler often visited the Nietzsche museum in Weimar and published his veneration for the philosopher by posing for photographs of himself staring in rapture at the bust of the great man.”

A Clockwork Orange , Anthony Burgess

The Stanley Kubrick-directed film adaptation of the novel (to be fair, not the novel itself — but the movie does stay fairly faithful to the text) reportedly inspired several copycat crimes in Britain in the years following its release. In one 1972 case of a sixteen year old boy killing a fourteen year old classmate, the killer admitted that his friends had told him about the film, and the defense claimed that “the link between this crime and sensational literature, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is established beyond reasonable doubt”. In another case, a group of youths attacked a teenage girl and sang “Singin’ in the Rain” while they raped her — in the film Alex sings the same tune while preparing a similar crime. However, as far as we can recall, there’s no mention of this detail in the novel.

The Collector , John Fowles

In this novel, an asocial man obsessed with butterfly collecting kidnaps Miranda, the object of his desire, and keeps her locked away, justifying his actions all the while. The book has been associated with several serial killers, including Leonard Lake, who was obsessed with the book and kidnapped, tortured, and killed women, calling the plot “Operation Miranda” after Fowles’ character.

The Foundation series, Isaac Asimov

In these futuristic novels, Asimov imagines a universe on the brink of a thirty thousand year Dark Age, where the only hope for the survival of mankind rests on the ideas of mathematician Hari Seldon and his team of scientists, who ultimately turn their group into a religion. Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo also predicted the end of the world, and stated openly that they were using the series as a blueprint for their own plans. When the apocalypse didn’t come as planned, the organization released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring over 5,000.