Last week we asked you to share the books that have most shocked or disturbed you – and boy, you guys responded with a passion. Over the 1,200 comments, the winning book – if that’s the right word – was:
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: ‘I found myself suddenly inexplicably weeping’
“I read American Psycho all the way through but nearly fainted reading one of the scenes. I did get rid of it … thought of burning it but imagined a vision of some kind of devil in the flames, so consigned to a cardboard box and then the dump.” tribord
“When it got to the bit where he inserts a tube into a woman’s vagina and then runs a rodent up it I found myself suddenly inexplicably weeping. That was 20 years ago and I haven’t reread it since, so don’t know how I’d react now.” noush
“I read it during a particularly low period in my life. I was going through a divorce, living in a friend’s part converted garage which had no insulation or heating. It was the dead of winter, minus 15 outside, during the big freeze we had in early 2010.
I began to get really sick, I was freezing cold but kept spiking a fever. I ended up admitted to hospital with pneumonia and cyanosis but throughout this period I was reading America Psycho. At some points I didn’t know if I was reading the book or hallucinating it. It was utterly surreal and yet … brilliant. Read that book when you’re dying – it’s really good.” Campagnolo
The authors you suggested most often were John Fowles, Iain Banks and Stephen King
“I read The Collector by John Fowles whilst remanded for four days in an Israeli police station. There were eight bunks arranged over two cells and approximately 20-plus other blokes. That was horrific. True story.” notinamillion
“The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. I had to read it a sentence at a time and then put it down in between each one as it was so unbelievably shocking. I still remember the feeling of breathlessness 20 years later.” Leonie Drury
“I read Pet Sematary as a teen in the midst of a horror jag. And while I recognised it was bleak, shocking and desperately sad, I got through it breezily enough. Tried rereading as a parent and lasted until the cat met the truck and the neighbour made a suggestion about the crazy cemetery deep in the spooky woods … But I just couldn’t bear to revisit the trauma that I knew King was about to inflict upon that poor family.” RobP
“I find most of King’s works harder to read now that I’m a parent, but the one that got to me the most was when I recently read The Shining. The moment of clarity that Jack has in the midst of his (madness? possession?), enough to tell his son that he loves him, and to run – I finished the book feeling overwhelmingly sad.” TheIcewoman
“Gerald’s Game is the only book that I’ve put down, thrown in the recycling bin, taken the bin to the recycling center and buried at the bottom of the collection dumpster. I was fine until I got to the degloving.” Hyphenman
‘Simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying’: dystopian fiction
“The Road scene where the main protagonist follows a troupe that includes a pregnant women – then the follow-up where he describes them roasting the newborn baby on a spit. I can’t think of a more shocking excerpt from anything I’ve read. I had to put it down for a couple of days before I could start again.” happyjs
“Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, where a character bites into a deformed baby’s throat … pretty shocking and high-calibre writing from a southern gothic master. The Road’s basement scene is also one of the scariest things I’ve read and also seen in the film.” PeppyOoze
“Crash by JG Ballard. After a while, the endless descriptions of human faces being mangled proved deadening. I was no longer shocked by the grotesque imagery. It was this that I found truly disturbing. It showed that under the correct circumstances, humans could lose (some) empathy, and this didn’t require one to agree with the ideology behind those circumstances.” cubit271
“On the Beach by Nevil Shute, about a spreading radioactive cloud, is the most disturbing thing I have ever read. It really unsettled me for a long time and even now I can’t properly think about it or look at the cover.” ID8664073
“When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs. Simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying. I read this when I was about 10 – I can recall working out what direction London was and then making sure I slept with my back to it in case of a nuclear blast.” natstar7777
‘I fainted on the train’: Guts and gore.
“So hard to get through Guts by Chuck Palahniuk. Sent a copy of that to a workmate who I’d been exchanging ‘edgy’ fiction with … he politely asked me to never ever send him anything like that again.” BadThingsHappen
“I’ve never been quite sure whether it was the fact I was coming off a 72-hour work week and succumbing to a viral infection or because I was reading Gutsthat I fainted on the train home several years ago. Either way, that story had some indescribable effect. I don’t often go swimming now. The book’s now in storage and for the good of society will remain locked away for all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style. Yuk.” HotToffee
“I find Haruki Murakami generally quite a humane and uplifting writer, but there is one story a character tells in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle where someone is tortured for information, and it is the single most upsetting thing I’ve ever read. I’ve read some grisly stuff, such as American Psycho, The Wasp Factory, Blood Meridian – but that one scene trumps all others because the character recounting it also sounds so wounded by what they’ve seen, and because much of the book surrounding it is thoughtful and charming.” Thorn Davis
“All of Hubert Selby Jr’s output is hard going, but for sheer bleakness, Last Exit to Brooklyn comes out top (or should that be bottom?) Why I read it a second time, I’ll never know. The film introduces a happy ending where there isn’t one in the book, if memory serves – Tra La La survives the gang rape/torture. Some happy ending. Bleakbleakbleak.” musicforpleasure
“The most unsettling book I’ve ever read has to be The Room by Hubert Selby Jr. Spent most of the book wishing it’d be over soon. Apparently the author himself was unable to read the book for another 20 years after writing it!” EastOfMacondo
“Despite being a sick-lit fan for quite some time, I had to force myself to the end of De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I started off thinking ‘what’s all the fuss?’ and then the depravity went off the chart. Removed it from the house (couldn’t bear to throw it away so took it to the charity shop, which in hindsight wasn’t the best plan) and haven’t been able to watch a horror film since. Still on the sick-lit, though, and haven’t yet found something that has disturbed me to that level.” Joanne Thompson
‘No novel has ever unsettled me more’: the most haunting fiction
“James Dickey’s Deliverance. The Hillbilly rape scene. All the more shocking because it is described with such distanced, cold objectivity. I remember the first time I read it and my blood running cold. Having seen the Boorman film several times I thought I’d be OK with it. I was wrong. Horrifying and masterful writing.” Kemster
“Betsy Reavley’s Beneath a Watery Moon is the only book I’ve ever physically destroyed – violence pornography at its sickest and most graphic. Dreadful.” grumpyoldgirl
“AM Homes’s novel The End of Alice, depicting the epistolary relationship between a teenage girl and an older jailed man, takes elements of Alice in Wonderland, turns them on their head, and sends the reader down the darkest of rabbit holes. Searingly intelligent and horrifying, but never exploitative, no novel has ever unsettled me more.” Brad “DJ Aural” Latendresse
“The Exorcist by William Blatty. I read it when I was 13. After only a few chapters, Regan’s behaviour disturbed me enough that I became terrified, not just of the contents but of the book itself, so I buried it under a pile of other books in my bedroom. The next day I hid the book in the garden shed. Yet even then I sensed its supernatural powers would reach me. So the following day I cycled some distance from home and threw it in a bin … I’m over 60 and have never returned to the novel nor will I.” ID2765618
“The late, great, criminally underappreciated Shirley Jackson’s early novel The Road Through the Wall upset me more than anything else she wrote. It moves slowly, in Jackson’s careful, unadorned prose, through depictions of dull suburban conformism, alienation, and petty sin behind closed doors to a most distressing and violent climax. Highly recommended.” fantod
“House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski got right under my skin for weeks and weeks, although I’d really be pushed to explain why. The message on the dedication page – ‘This is not for you’ – still makes me feel a bit odd.” unclestinky
“Moby-Dick. Drama and allegory aplenty but amid it, the vile realities of the whaling industry. Nowhere is it plainer than in the heartrending chase and killing of an old, blind, sperm whale, barely able to swim for lack of a fin, as he labours along, trailing his younger, faster pod, until the merciless whalers plunge their barbs into his exhausted body … It still shocks, even now. Every time I read that passage, I will him to dive, to escape, and my heart sinks as he coughs blood and rolls over. Every time.” Brian Trevelyan
“Exoskeleton by Shane Stadler makes the torture in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four seem like a stroll in the park on a sunny afternoon. After reading it you think: “Do I really know what is going on in this world?” gavernism
“A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is the worst book I have ever read. I found it both morally and intellectually offensive; morally offensive for the things it says about victimisation, mental illness, and suicide, intellectually offensive for being asked to believe the shoddy, contrived plot and world building.” sarahcl
“The closing scene of The Grapes of Wrath had me shaking and screaming to myself … The lead into it was so well-written it lowered me gradually into dread of what was coming. If you turned straight to the end it probably wouldn’t have the same effect.” jogi
‘This book destroyed me for weeks’: non-fiction and novels about real history
“Surely the most shocking and disturbing books are non-fiction. For me, that would include Primo Levi’s devastating Holocaust memoir If This Is a Man, Ishmael Beah’s Memoirs of a Child Soldier, and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Nothing is as disturbing as the personal testimony of those who have experienced the worst that humans can do to each other.” fmoreau
“The Rape of Nanjing by Iris Chang is still unfinished on my bookshelf. It is a well researched book that details the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese war but it is difficult to face the detailed descriptions of their inhumanity to fellow human beings and I had to put it aside. Maybe I will steel myself to finish it one day.” lwb48_zh
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. The accounts of the wanton cruelty of the US government toward the various native tribes is practically unbearable to read. Especially shocking was to realise how recently such savage behaviour was condoned and performed.” Pensum
“Gita Sereny’s Into That Darkness. The story of Franz Stangl, a perfectly ordinary man who becomes the commander of the death camp at Treblinka. An examination not just of the banality of evil but just how easy it is to get sucked in.” SmokyBarnable
“Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. The horror of the Holocaust, made freshly horrifying with a new dose of absurdity and head-slapping stupidity. This book destroyed me for weeks; it’s upsetting just writing a couple of sentences about it.” tomimber
“The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell was hard work to read simply because it was so graphic and disturbing and will remain as one of my most thought-provoking books of war and its awful effects.” Booksareme
“Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life Of Ivan Denisovich stuck with me. No depictions of disturbing gore, just the relentless, deliberate, crushing of the human spirit, reducing men to frightened animals competing for survival – with no hope of either happy ending or blessed release. And you know it isn’t fiction but was the reality of life for millions. The ‘banality of evil’, indeed.” TheHighRoad
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