The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, trans. Jack Zipes
You’re probably aware by now that all the fairy tales you knew and loved as a child are actually dark and disturbing as all hell. This book, edited and translated by eminent fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, collects all 156 of the original Grimm stories from the 1812 and 1815 editions of their Children’s and Household Tales. Turns out it gets even darker than we thought out there in the woods.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
Carnivals are dark spaces to begin with (all those decaying clown heads and burned-out bulbs and hysterical children — or was that just a nightmare I had?), but the traveling circus in Dunn’s cult novel is the most disturbing one around, populated by a family of freaks, both in body and mind. And darkest yet is the mind of Arturo the Aqua-Boy, the Machiavellian mastermind who cultivates the pain of those around him.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
A dark comedy, perhaps, but still dark, a short novel packed to the shuddering gills with poisoners and pitchforks aplenty.
Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
A novel about apartheid was never going to be cheery, but Coetzee’s masterpiece goes even blacker than that — into rape and violence and the deepest sludge pits of guilt and trauma and all that they can make you do.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
Well, it’s all there in the title.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
There may, in fact, be nothing darker than the mind of Miss Sylvia Plath — ahem, I mean Esther Greenwood. Even darker, in a way, is the book’s reputation, completed as it was only a month before its author’s famous (and much culturally mulled over) suicide.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
Perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest play, full of witches and moving forests, madness and evil and psychological deterioration in the face of power. You see what I’m getting at here.
The Trial, Franz Kafka
What’s more bleak than the endless, hopeless, monotonous struggle of a Kafka character? That ending, for one thing.
Blindness, José Saramago
When everyone goes blind, things are dark in more ways than one.
Black Hole, Charles Burns
This brilliant graphic novel gets into the rotten meat of adolescence, imagining an STD that causes surreal mutations in those afflicted spreading through the teenagers of a town. The black and white only makes it all that much more brutal.
Nightwork, Christine Schutt
The very first story in this unyielding collection centers on a daughter’s extremely disturbing relationship with her father. Yes, it’s what you think, except more. Each short tale in here is blacker than black, brutal and brilliant and likely to infect all of your nights.
Blackwater, Joyce Carol Oates
Aside from the actual, recurring, definitive sinking into the black water of the title, the novella is a sort of mythologized retelling of the famous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in all its murk and mire.
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
The darkest, bleakest, most appalling book ever to have so much hot sun in it.
Maus, Art Spiegelman
Holocaust narratives are traditionally dark, but there’s something about Spiegelman’s animalized depictions of those involved (Jews as mice, Germans as cats, etc.) that takes it all to a more disturbing level.
A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
Winter is coming. All men must die. (In the worst way you can possible think of.)
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson
In my estimation Markson’s best, a series of missives from the typewriter of the last woman on earth as she mulls over art, literature, life, and her own tragedies.
The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe
Say you’re just out for a stroll, er, in the desert. Then you get conscripted into digging a hole for yourself to live in for the rest of eternity, no escape possible. Nothing dark about that, right?
NOX, Anne Carson
Carson’s haunting notebook-as-poem-as-novel-as-accordion is also an extravagant epigraph for her brother, full of mysteries and leaps of language, some half-eroded, but all fully felt. Nox is right.
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim
Here’s another that’s completely dark and also deeply funny, the story of a surreal suburban town run amok. There are ancient fishes; there are drawing-and-quarterings.
Where The Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
Look, I know this is a kids’ book, but that’s why it’s so freaking dark. One dog gets his intestines ripped out and dies, and the other dog is so sad she starves herself to death? Stop it. It haunts me to this day.
Lush Life, Richard Price
One of the best dark-and-gritty New York City novels — from one of the writers of The Wire, if that sways you.
Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Oft cited as the first existentialist novel and definitely containing one of the best unreliable/cantankerous/pessimistic narrators ever committed to paper. All the darkness here is in the mind of the Underground Man.
Whatever, Michel Houellebecq
The debut novel from the bad boy of French letters features a downtrodden, misogynist programmer who desperately wants to have sex. Woof.
The Dark Road, Ma Jian
Jian’s unflinching portrait of the fate of families under China’s one-child policy — a dark road indeed.
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
One of the most dismal views of the American Psyche (get it) ever written. You’ll never look at your business cards in the same way.
No Exit, Jean Paul Sartre
Existentialist classics should always be read in the dark. This, of course, is the source of Sartre’s most famous phrase: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.”
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
What could be more terrifying than coming to terms with your child killing people?
Coin Locker Babies, Ryu Murakami
Every one of Ryu Murakami’s novels could be on this list — the man has one of the darkest minds around. But this one might still be the most devastating, if only for its extreme scope — and the very concept of babies being left in bus station lockers. You’ll be hiding under your covers from the very first sentence.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
Nothing gets dark faster than heroin.
1984, George Orwell
Somehow, this still feels like the blackest vision of our future.
The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski
Another Holocaust novel, and this one perhaps the most bleak in the genre: the story of a young “stray” who witnesses the most unspeakable things.
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Teenagers are terrible, but so is the government.
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks
Telling too much about this novel will give it away, but just trust me. It’ll make you thank your lucky stars for your own childhood, no matter what it was like.
Coraline, Neil Gaiman
Trust master of spook Neil Gaiman to take things down a few shades.
Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
Another disturbing family story that also happens to be a phenomenal novel.
Out, Natsuo Kirino
A group of women working at a bento box factory plagued by a shadowy villain end up chopping up bodies in the bathtub. Fun!
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
Not too much is darker than losing your mind — even if you do it to yourself.
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
Morrison’s first novel tackles race, rape, incest, and child molestation, and it will just haunt you forever.
My Happy Life, Lydia Millet
The narrator of Millet’s brilliant and terrifying novel has exactly the opposite of a happy life — but she doesn’t know it. Or at least, she can’t see it, trapped in an asylum, recounting her tortured life with joy and kindness.
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
A darker mind you might never find. The part with the bunnies, you guys.
Citrus County, John Brandon
The weather might be hot and swampy in Brandon’s first novel, but the bunker where the teenage boy hides his crush’s little sister is less so. That’s right.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor is a famous pessimist, and for a while after reading this collection you’ll be converted to her side: humanity is terrible, life is unrelenting, the world is out to get you. Whew.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
I often forget how supremely dark Wallace’s behemoth of a novel is — and perhaps I shouldn’t. It is filled with play and hilarity and inventive tennis and other games, but it is also a deep reflection on the plight of humanity and cruelty and addiction.
White Is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
A strange and disturbing novel about a girl who eats everything around her (chalk is her favorite), her twin brother, and their jealous giant of a haunted house.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Oof. A disturbing vision of the future in which some of us are bred only for our parts, and must give and give and give. This novel will chill you to whatever bones you have left.
Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Mary Gaitskill
Gaitskill’s thin parody of Ayn Rand fans also manages to be a deeply disturbing book about womanhood and being an outsider. Surprise, surprise.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Possibly the darkest novel about a marriage ever written.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Don’t worry, children, Carson McCullers is here to tell you: yes, you are completely alone. There, there.
Journey to the End of the Night, Céline
Céline’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece circles WWI and also happens to be the most unrelentingly pessimistic novel ever written. Check this quote from the book’s narrator: “I cannot refrain from doubting that there exist any genuine realizations of our deepest character except war and illness, those two infinities of nightmare.” Yikes.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
“The horror! The horror!”