The following list consists of the novels and/or short stories that contain, either directly through plot, characters, circumstances, or just in general batshit-insane style, a disturbing undertone.
also, floating severed heads
Alright, maybe not the best example of a truly disturbing book, but the elements are all certainly there. You have a splash of forced confinement, a dash of abuse, a spackle of incest, what's not to love?
Story: A brother and sister find themselves held captive in an attic by their grandmother. While most of us with grandparents only ever had to put up with the cheek-pulling and the almost constant, stomach-turning stench of gin and hopelessness, the grandmother in the novel is a sadistic and cruel old woman. Sure, the siblings don't have to experience the childhood trauma of being gently drawn into a shuddering mass of flesh and boobs, asphyxiated slowly by the sheer force of granny's love.
pictured: unconditional love
They do, however, get the sharp edge of the stick in all manner of mental and physical abuse, culminating in granny dearest trying to slip her grandkids a couple of almond-flavoured Mickeys.
Why it is Disturbing: Did you miss the part about the incest? How about if we throw a bit of rape in there, just for giggles? Never mind the constant stream of crazy and bananas that our two mains have to contend with in the form of grandmother cat-a-nine.
above: collapse of civilization, as pictured by Salvador Dalii
Dystopian novels feature prominently on this list, including as they do some truly unsettling depictions of what may be to come sometime in the future (if we're not all cowering naked and wet in the shadows of our glorious robotic overlords). Atwood's own version of things to come ring a note of familiarity; that creepy leering pervert in the corner that you just know, know is going to try to touch you some day. You can see him eyeing you and you even bought the same bungee cord from him he's going to use to secure you in his trunk twenty minutes from now, and yet you are just so comfortable where you are. This is Atwood's dystopia: death by consumerism, a pacification apocalypse.
Story: Jimmy is the son of two scientist eggheads working on abusing the genetic code to its maximum potential in that hilarious way that scientists are prone to do. The story follows Jimmy from childhood, living the so-called idyllic and safe life within one of the "compounds", an area kept secure from the rest of the world. Life outside the compounds is awash with disease, poverty, and crime, masked under a veil of heavy commercialism and corporation (you know, kind of exactly like now).
Oh no, how did we not see it coming? D:
Jimmy passes through that world in much the same way that most people do: largely a state of ignorance and self-interest and what we assume a steady IV drip of liquid prozzac. He meets and becomes best friends with a boy he nicknames 'Crake', who unbeknownst to Jimmy starts the avalanche that leads to the virtual end of human society.
Why it is Disturbing: There is something about Atwood's vision of our future as a species that rings uncomfortably true. Sure, you may read about the ChickieNobs, the genetically engineered, creepy meat blobs sold to KFC's worldwide and laugh. You may log into one of the many, many televised executions currently streaming online. You might skim over the details of genetically modifying your unborn child to suit your standards and think it's just awesome. But at the end of the day, you're just a crazy, naked bum wrapped in a blanket, screaming at the heavens for a time long past. Also, child pornography (you know, in case you find that disturbing too)
Another offer to the dystopian pile is The Chrysalids, which presents to us a world ravaged by a nuclear cataclysm. We have fond memories of being assigned this book during our school years some time ago and are pretty sure it contributed to some degree of childhood scarring.
The Story: The world in the Chrysalids is a bleak one. A post-nuclear world with only a smattering of humanity left, the last remaining remnants of our totally-not-insane race decide the best strategy to save humanity is to go the Nazi route and maintain "purity" in each bloodline. Of course, this is rather hard due in part to the number of mutated babies born into the new world. The solution is obvious: Born with a sixth toe? Well you're shit out of luck, as this new perfect society prefers to go the kittens-in-the-sack route and put you out of your freakish, six-toed misery! Fighting for survival in this world are all the babies that didn't receive the coveted gold star at birth: those lucky enough to survive live in secret, ostracized and hunted by society.
if only he were just like everyone else
Why it is Disturbing: Any mention of "race purification" immediately brings to mind a very specific image. One that does not in any way include a bag of adorable, fluffy kittens (unless for drowning purposes, those impure little fucks).
pictured: everything that is wrong with the world
The idea that a future society might happily integrate these kind of ideas when we so adamantly hope for a brighter, better future (you know, one without the prejudice and baby-killing) is a bleak one indeed.
There are plenty of things about a black hole itself that one might find disturbing: The way that they float invisibly through the blackness of the galaxies, like some kind of sucky space ninjas. The way that time (a concept absolute for us as a species) does not apply to a black hole in any comfortable way. Mostly it's the fact that we're sure the term 'spaghettification' doesn't in any way refer to a delicious plate of any kind. Unless that plate includes a nigh-infinite number of broken pieces that used to be your feeble, fleshy body.
Plot: What would you do if you won the lottery? If you answered: Bought a one-way ticket on board an alien starship in order to hurl yourself into the depths of space with no knowledge of where the hell you're going, yeah, that would have been our choice too. Bob Broadhead shares our brilliance and using the cash he won from a lottery purchases a seat on one of the spaceships left behind by an alien race. Signing up alongside a woman he has fallen in love with, Bob and entourage strap in, hearts filled with the joy of human wonder and catapult into space-right into the inescapable event horizon of a black hole....yeah, fuck you joy of human wonder.
Why it is Disturbing: (ENDING SPOILER) Let's say, hypothetically, that by some massive amount of luck you happen to have stored directly up your ass, you end up escaping the pull of a black hole. Let's say you manage to get home to the pleasure of soul-crushing survivor guilt. You work through it and eventually learn to live with what has happened; knowing that the death of your friends and the woman you love was not your fault. And then you realize that they're, in fact, still dying. Days after you watched them fall into the black hole, weeks, years after, perhaps and you saw them die. They are in fact, STILL dying. Remember that pesky time dilation thingamajig? Well, due to being so close to the gravity of a black hole, from which nothing (even light) can escape, time is passing far slower for the victims in the ship and none have died yet. Maybe they won't for a long time. Maybe they won't for years, you Just. Don't. Know.
now with Beholders
When you want to imagine a world run completely by a corrupt, insanely right-wing, control-mongering government where your every thought and deed risks whatever illusion of freedom you might harbour, do not pass go and head directly for 1984. The novel coined the concept of "Big Brother", largely associated with the kind of government that watches our every move like some horrible, Gestapo Santa Clause.
The Story: The year is 1984 and Winston Smith is living the dream: if the dream happens to include a post-atomic world and a government with a leash on its citizens so tight it could be considered foreplay. This may very well be the case, as the Big Brother in 1984 wants nothing more than your love. Also, in place of your love, it will accept your balls. Smith defies law by falling in love with a woman named Julia, a definite no-no when your government happens to own your balls to begin with. The two are eventually captured, tortured, and interrogated; the eventual lesson being that fear is greater than love.
Why it is Disturbing: While not disturbing in the kind of visceral or descriptive ways of some of the previous novels, 1984 presents us with a message contrary from what we have ingrained in us by society: That love is not fool-proof. Love is not forever. Love is not the strongest tool. Not when you have a perfectly good cage of face rats at your disposal.
there's also, you know...whatever the fuck that is
It's difficult to choose any one piece from Ellison as the end-all of the disturbia buffet. Just about every one of his stories has some element of the bizarre, the unknown, or in the case of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, the outright, testicle-tightening horrific.
Story: The story centers around the five unluckiest sad bastards left alive on earth: trapped in an underground complex by a super advanced AI computer; AM. Not unlike the kind of sentient AI that likes to free-launch astronauts into space and occasionaly cheats at chess, AM is kind of a douche; driven as he is to insanity due to his capacity to imagine but without any physical outlet. He has spent over 100 years keeping his captives alive so that he might pass the time torturing them.
Why it is Disturbing: Take your pick. AM is to torture what Hostel was to torture-porn. Will it be the delicious organic food he leaves out for out unfortunate lot (hint: not part of the fruit/vegetable family). Perhaps you prefer your torture psychological? Physical? Sexual? Or perhaps you just like to close a story to a much loved feel of soul-crushing, absolute, and never-ending despair.