I’ve never been a horror fan — my imagination is much too active, and my childish fear of the dark is still much too present to be able to deal with that particular genre. But I actually think that other types of fiction — particularly realistic stories — has a way of snaking into our guts more effectively — more realistically, if you will — than shock-tactic-loaded thrillers do. Often, the books that stay with us the longest remain not because they are revolutionary, or earth-shatteringly enlightening, but because they are unequivocally messed up. And sometimes, these deeply disconcerting tomes aren’t actually shelved under the “horror” or “thriller” sections, but settle sneakily beside mainstream literary novels.
One of the many purposes of reading fiction is to momentarily escape into an alternate sphere of reality, right? Right. But, little problem: Reality can be seriously disturbing to contemplate. Because what’s scarier than the possibility of losing half your face in a horrific accident? Or the very real reality of pre-teen crust punks slumming it under the Strip’s sickly neon lights? Or encountering a sentient, 7-foot-tall, Anubis-resembling alien species on a planet not so far from our own? (Hey, it could happen). These glimpses of a potential truth disturb me way more than thirsty vampires and vengeful poltergeists.
Here are 10 haunting, non-horror books you won’t be able to wring out of your consciousness if you’d tried. Trust me: I've tried.
300,000,000 by Blake Butler
If you want to have your brain shredded apart by the tale of a serial killer, then voilà: 300,000,000. Blake Butler's book tells the story of a guy, Gravey, so disturbed he makes Charles Manson look like a he was just sort of having a cup of tea. Gravey and his legion of brainwashed followers lure women into his House of Leaves-esque crypt where he eviscerates their bodies — and graphically so. You'll have to challenge yourself to get past the first section, told entirely in Gravey's voice, which is lyrical and arresting — Butler is basically a something of a genius of writing consciousness — but, man is it terrifying. Like, get up and put the book down and take a Twitter break terrifying.
GEEK LOVE BY KATHERINE DUNN
This 1989 cult classic tells the story of the Binewski family, a truly self-made gang of carnival freaks. Using a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, poison, and radiation, Aloysious and Crystal Lil Binewski purposely bred their children to sport disturbing defects. The resulting kin includes the novel’s narrator, Oly, an albino hunchback; Siamese twins Iphy and Elly; telekinetic Chick; and Arturo, whose flippers-for-extremities frightened me less than did his evil charisma, which attracts a cult of self-mutilating fanatics. Dunn is a gorgeous writer and the story is fascinating (and fun to imagine in Lego-form), but the novel neatly targets my particular phobias of body horror and freak shows... so my total revulsion outweighed the pleasure of Dunn’s prose, and I had to tuck this one away into the far reaches of my bookshelf.
INVISIBLE MONSTERS BY CHUCK PALAHNIUK
In keeping with my body horror phobia, I also seriously struggled through Invisible Monsters , Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal work of transgressive fiction. The narrator, a former model, is horribly disfigured in a drive-by shooting that essentially wipes out her entire lower face. Palahniuk’s graphic narration made the heroine’s story all the more disturbingly real. One image in particular has haunted me for the seven or more years since I read the novel. Here, the unnamed heroine, who wears a veil to hide her disfigurement, sneaks into the bathroom at an open house to study the face she no longer recognizes.
My breath smells hot and sour inside my veils, inside the damp layers of silk and mesh and cotton georgette I lift for the first time all day; and in the mirrors, I look at the pink reflection of what’s left of my face.
Ugh. If that’s not a horror-worthy shot, I don’t know what is.
BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN BY CHARLES BOCK
Bock’s 2008 debut novel is dark, and gritty, and deeply depressing, but it’s possibly one of my favorite reads of all time. The creepiness here lies not in body horror (thank God), but in Bock’s lush representation of the corrupted, sinister, artificially-lit wasteland that is Las Vegas. The premise centers on the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy, but it’s the shadowy characters orbiting the central narrative that are truly affecting: the wily, wiry, inked-up Ponyboy; the grossly obese porn king; the anonymous homeless girl and her vampiric crony, creeping unseen among the Dumpsters and abandoned lots behind the sparkly Strip. It’s an enlightening, yet haunting, look at Las Vegas, an oft-overlooked city infused with its own gritty poetry.
THE SPARROW BY MARY DORIA RUSSELL
The Sparrow is a firm work of science fiction — it won the 1998 Arthur C. Clarke Award — but Russell’s dynamic, flawed, Everyman/woman characters and mainstream-friendly prose ground the novel in the remarkably mundane. In fact, the novel — which reads, by turns, as an anthropological study and a historical account — fits so neatly into literary fiction territory that you may momentarily wonder at the sudden appearance of aliens. The story imagines a 2019 space expedition to the nearby planet Alpha Centauri, armed with a crew of nonprofessionals including a Jesuit priest and a baby boomer couple. Things turn nightmarish when the crew encounters the alien planet’s native race. But the novel is truly terrifying not because of the extraterrestrial influence, but because of the horrifying, human repercussions of meddling with what should remain unknown.
THE PRINCE OF TIDES BY PAT CONROY
You may know this 1986 novel as its sappy film adaptation starring Barbra Streisand and a brooding Nick Nolte. But don’t let the movie poster’s watercolored depiction of Barbra and Nick in a post-coital embrace mislead you: Conroy’s novel is a darkly striking, modern Southern Gothic classic. This is a sweeping multi-generational saga, complete with heartbreaking dysfunction, unspeakable trauma (literally: I can’t tell you what happens, or it’ll spoil the whole thing), and bittersweet redemption. The viscerally disturbing climax will seriously ruin your entire week — but it’s worth reading for the novel’s sheer beauty.
THE TATTOOED GIRL BY JOYCE CAROL OATES
A list of haunting books would not be complete without the inclusion of American Gothic queen Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’ 2003 novel The Tattooed Girl may not be the ridiculously prolific writer's most eminent work, but I like to think of it as the hidden gem of her literary treasure trove. The story follows a young, gifted writer, Joshua Siegl, whose failing health requires him to hire a live-in assistant. Enter Alma, a nearly-mute, Rubenesque beauty hailing from the Hell-on-Earth of a Pennsylvania coalmining town. The mysterious woman is decorated (or branded?) with strange, intricate tattoos — but she has no idea how they got there. Alma is a complicated character: her vicious ignorance, her self-neglect, and her consistent victimization by the men who strive to control her make for a horrifically tortured soul. But Oates’ natural proclivity towards exacerbating the dreadful – the bleak Upstate landscape; Alma’s repellent anti-Semitism; the doomed sexual tension stewing between the two anti-heroes – makes this complex read viscerally haunting.
THE PANOPTICON BY JENNI FAGAN
I picked up The Panopticon this past summer because I am an Anglophile and a bit of a literary snob, and debut author Fagan was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. My Anglophilia was indulged, for sure — but don’t pick this up thinking you’ll be pampered with a nice cuppa and jaunty Jubilee bunting. Rather, this experimental, heavily voice-driven novel plunges into the brutal depths of the British institutional system, with 15-year-old Anais Hendricks acting as our darkly hilarious guide. The novel opens with foster care-alum Anais handcuffed and bloody in the back of a police car, picked up for allegedly putting a cop into a coma. She’s headed Northward toward the Panopticon, a notorious institution for juvenile delinquents. Anais is a scrappy, whip-smart, true-blue survivor: a Dickensian heroine for the hallucinogen-fueled Skins era. She’s vicious as an untrained Doberman, but as Anais gradually lets us into her world, we see that her armor is up by absolute necessity, not by choice. You can’t help falling in love with her — which makes following her plight through the bleak, utterly corrupted institutional system all the more painful to experience.
THE ACID HOUSE BY IRVINE WELSH
When reading this 1994 short story collection, you could imagine Welsh, the reigning king of Scots junkie fiction, scraping the scum off the bottom of his boot, bestowing the repellent contents with heavy, drug-addled brogues, and presenting them to us with a shit-eating grin. The bottom-of-the-barrel characters in these experimental, realist-fantasy-mash-ups include among them: a newborn baby with a twisted, junkie-narrated interior monologue; a Nietzsche-bashing, ale-swigging God; and a floating severed head. Though his characters are anything but subtle, Welsh is a master of the craft, and he wields his words deftly: it only takes one story before you’re thinking your own demented thoughts (in a Scottish accent, no less).
ONE ARM AND OTHER STORIES BY TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
To round out this list, here’s another body horror classic for your creepy pleasure. This master of Southern Gothic may be better known for his canonized plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but Williams’ short stories are equally affecting (read: horrifying). Williams is a champion for the freaks and the marginalized, illuminating — but never, ever romanticizing — society’s fringiest taboos in all their shocking glory. Cannibalism, for instance, rears its head often in Williams’ work, like in his 1946 story “Desire and the Black Masseur,” in which intense physical pleasure crosses into sadomasochism, which, in turn, crosses into humans eating other humans. The title story, which has also been staged, centers on a former boxer, whose career is cut dramatically short when he loses his arm in a car accident. To make money, he turns to prostitution, exploiting his amputeeism (and angelic beauty) to fetishists. But the horror doesn’t lie solely in these shocking scenarios. Rather, Williams’ relentless, fearless examination of human nature reveals our erratic proclivities to be the real demon at work.