What Books Unsettled You The Most Due To Their Content?
Posted on 31st of July, 2018


Very few books have ever unsettled me, mildly perturbed me for sure, but never really unsettled. That is until I read Ripper by Michael Slade, who I later found out is actually a Canadian lawyer named Jay Clarke. This made the book even more unsettling as Clarke specializes in criminal insanity, which means a lot of the stuff in the book is probably based on the kind of messed up things he has to deal with daily. I also discovered that Ripper is part of a series, so for those who are interested in reading it, it may be better to start with Headhunter, then Ghoul and then Cutthroat before reading Ripper. It is not truly necessary as Ripper stands well on its own as a complete story, but it does contain some characters and references that will be lost on you if you are not familiar with the series.

The story of Ripper is obviously influenced by the "Jack The Ripper" mythos and the author is not one to pull any punches when it comes to killing off characters in creatively disturbing ways. I've read plenty of gory stories in my time, so even these were not enough to unsettle me, but when the occult elements start to appear thick and fast I admit that it made me feel a lot more tense.
I have a feeling that in a hundred years (or even less) readers will look back at answers to questions such as this and wonder how anyone could ever have felt unsettled by stories that are so tame in comparison to what is available in their time. Just compare the sex and violence in recent books to the kind of stuff that shocked the public a hundred years ago to see what I mean. There's no way that 50 Shades of Gray would have been an international bestseller back then! But I digress, to answer your question, here is my list of unsettling books (in no particular order.)

-Suffer the Children by Craig DiLouie = Don't read this if you are a parent.
-Horns: A Novel by Joe Hill = Forget the motion picture, the book is the real deal and written by Stephen King's son.
-Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk = Is throwing up the same as feel unsettled? If so, this book definitely unsettled me.
I have a friend who can read any book without batting an eyelash at even the most sickening or depraved passages while I have to put the book down and walk away to cool down after every intense scene. This just shows that what unsettles you in a book will probably be determined by your personality more than the author.

With that said, books that stand out in my memory as really unsettling include American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and Haunted: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk. I am fairly sure that most people have read American Psycho or at the very least watched the movie where Christian Bale killed it as Bateman. For the lucky people who have not yet read it, it is about a businessman named Patrick Bateman who also happens to be a psychopathic serial killer. The story takes place in the eighties, so you have the Wall Street boom that has given Bateman all his wealth. The book is disturbing because of the casual matter of fact way in which the author describes Bateman's life as well as the murders he commits. It starts out "simple" enough with him stabbing people, but as Bateman becomes increasingly more unhinged, so does the murders. The book caused quite an uproar when it was released and I can understand why it had such an effect on people as it is very unsettling.

Haunted: A Novel is a completely different kettle of fish and it is the work of Fight Club author, Chuck Palahniuk. While I have always known that Palahniuk is a nihilist, I had no idea that he was able to write stuff of this caliber. The book is written in such a way that it is made up of unconnected short stories told by authors who supposedly went on a writers' retreat. The different stories are all unsettling in their own ways and the over arching plot is typical Palahniuk, but it is one of the stories "Guts" that stands out the most. I won't say much about it except that you should not read it while eating.
The most unsettling book that I have ever read is Living Dead Girl from Elizabeth Scott. The reason why it unsettled me so much is because I basically went into the story blind and had no idea what really to expect. The blurb sounded a bit interesting, but nothing about it really prepared me for what I was about to read. To explain why I think everyone will find this book unsettling I have to venture somewhat into spoiler territory, so anyone who hasn't read the book yet and want to go into it blind should stop reading now.

OK, here goes; Living Dead Girl is about a girl called Alice who is kidnapped by a pedophile when she is only ten years old. Her twisted captor then goes on to abuse her for the next five years until she isn't young enough anymore for his twisted preferences. In a shocking twist, he then tasks Alice with finding him a younger replacement for her. All of this makes for a very unsettling book, but the author also doesn't shy away in how Alice is mistreated, which is quite emotionally draining if you are a parent or sensitive reader. To make everything even more gut wrenching the whole story is told from Alice's perspective, which makes you feel like you are experiencing everything with her. Living Dead Girl is classified as a young adult novel, but I can't imagine any young readers not getting emotionally scarred from reading it.
There are plenty of authors who have carved out a niche for them by being as shocking or controversial as possible, but very few of them stay with you for very long. What really gets me are the non-fiction books out there that document the very real atrocities that humanity is able to inflict on each other. Just about any book about the Holocaust are mighty disturbing, but a special mention should also go to a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman called Maus. I believe it was based on the actual experiences of the author's father who lived through the terrors of Nazi Germany as a Jewish person. It isn't just unsettling, but also deeply sad. Just in case you are convinced that the Nazis were all evil cackling beings who thrived on death on violence you should read Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning. The book explains how a lot of the atrocities were committed by average middle-aged Germans who were just following orders.

In a similar vein there is a book by Iris Chang called "The Rape of Nanking." Reading about what happened in Nanking during World War 2 when the Japanese invaded the city is the stuff of nightmares. Then, just when you think things can't get any worse, you stumble upon the photos that are also included in the book. If you have a weak constitution I guarantee that you will feel ill after reading this book. It disturbed me even more when I found out that the later of this book ended up committing suicide. This was due to a number of reasons, but personally I think that the type of research that she had to do for books like this one contributed to her severe depression.

Finally, there is a very harrowing book called "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families." It is a book by Philip Gourevitch that covers what happened during the genocide that happened in Rwanda. Nevermind unsettling, the stories that emerge in this book are downright terrifying. There is another book about the topic called Shake Hands With The Devil by Romeo Dallaire, but I Think Tomorrow Will Be Killed is the "better" of the two for a lack of a better way to phrase it.
-Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman: These books are all kinds of messed up. Picture a world where teens get their body parts harvested if they are unwanted. This is the fate that awaits three teens who get together and try and survive in this crazy world.

-Meat by Joseph D'Lacey: This one is even worse than Unwind and you can already infer from the title alone that it is going to be gruesome. I wasn't quite prepared for how gruesome it would actually be and I could hardly believe that it was the debut novel of the author. The long and short of it is that in the world of Meat being a vegetarian is punishable by a horrible death. That's just the beginning of people's problems.

-Gerald's Game by Stephen King: Stephen King is the master of disturbing stories, but for some reason this one unsettled me the most. I haven't watched the latest movie adaptation yet as not all his books translate well to films and I would like to preserve the memory of this one.

-Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: The first and last "western" that I have ever read.

-Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye: Take Children of The Corn and make it a thousand times more unsettling and you might have a clue what to expect from this book. I've seen some creepy small towns in my time, but Hemmersmoor is a place I wouldn't want to visit in my worst nightmares.

New to Manybooks Discuss?

This is where readers and authors alike can submit any questions they have about books. Browse through all the questions previously asked by our community here, or post a new question using the button below.