When it comes to the world of literature, there are countless books that delve into the depths of the human condition – finding the true meanings and virtues within each of our souls.
However, there are some writers who delve further than others, locating the dark, grimy underbellies of the human race and laying them bare through their writing.
But what exactly do we mean by a ‘dark’ book, and what are some examples of the darkest books of the literary world?
What Do We Mean By ‘Dark’?
When we talk about ‘dark’ literature, there can of course be many different meanings.
Generally speaking though, we are talking about books that really push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable literature – namely through the choice of story matter, topics, issues, and the plot itself.
This could involve anything from the excesses of human behavior, criminality, violence, horror, or any other depictions of characters and plots that are not considered for the general reader.
However, dark fiction doesn’t have to be about human darkness at all, and could also refer to traditional horror stories – including the ones featuring ghosts, ghouls, and demonic acts that prove to be continually popular amongst readers of all ages.
In this article we will cover all of these subjects, examining some of the most infamous and well-loved novels in the world, and tackling all manner of troubling and terrifying subject matter along the way.
Our Top Ten Darkest Picks
Now that we have talked a little about what darkness is within literature, it’s time to have a look at some examples.
This is why we have compiled a list of some of the darkest novels from the market – all of them pushing boundaries in one way or another, and each of them achieving infamy in their own right.
So, without further ado, let’s get started!
In no particular order, the first dark book on our list is The Road by author Cormac McCarthy.
A mainstay and forefather of the ‘southern gothic’ genre of literature, McCarthy has long since made a name for himself for pushing the boundaries of language, violence, human behavior, and the harsh realities of existence – creating numerous iconic characters such as the unstoppable ‘Anton Chigurh’ from his novel No Country For Old Men and the equally intimidating ‘Judge Holden’ from his classic Blood Meridian.
However, it is one of McCarthy’s most recent literary creations that has really captured the hearts and minds of readers, transporting them to an unforgiving, cruel, and downright depressing dystopia from which very little can survive.
Somewhat infamous for its unflinching portrayal of the monstrosities of human behavior, The Road tells the story of a father and his young son, who while traveling across a decimated, dystopian United States, find themselves encountering dangerous men and women pushed to their limits by the unnamed cataclysm.
Encountering cannibals, thugs, bandits, and all manner of horrors along the way, the pair’s only hope for escape is the promise of reaching the coast – as well as a revolver with two bullets, should the worst happen.
As you can imagine, The Road represents a haunting, unsettling, and totally heartbreaking view of what can befall humanity following an extinction event – especially the depths people will sink to when all plants and most animals have been wiped out.
Posing the question: ‘are humans born evil, or are our surroundings?’ The Road is a troubling and gripping tale that will lead you on a life-changing journey through the heart of the dark, American psyche.
- Excellent prose
- Expertly crafted world
- Well written
- Engaging storyline
- Relatable characters in unrelatable situations
- Widely considered to be depressing
- Not for those with sensitive dispositions
Themes: Survival, isolation, good vs evil, familial ties, death, grief
A staple of the horror genre and a truly terrifying example of dark fiction at work, The Woman In Black by Susan Hill has since been seen in the form of a popular film franchise starring Daniel Radcliffe – where it terrified a whole new generation of horror fans.
Telling the story of Arthur Kipps – a young and recently widowed lawyer working in London – The Woman In Black sees him sent to the northeast coast of England to settle the estate of Alice Drablow, whose recent death has left her affairs in disarray.
Upon arriving in the village, Arthur is greeted by a suspicious and terrified town plagued by numerous child deaths, and whispers of a ‘woman in black’ whose name people seem terrified to mention.
However, after most of the village refuses to take him to the house, Arthur finally gains passage, opting to stay in the house overnight to complete the work.
After traveling across a causeway to the ominous Eel Marsh House – Arthur finds himself thrown into the troubling and terrifying world of the woman in black, whose tortured past at the hands of her own mental health and her controlling family saw her world torn apart, and her vengeance echoing out long past her death.
In his efforts to remain logical and get the job done, Arthur perseveres with the work he has to do – all the while his own grasp on his sanity loosens, the hauntings and deaths escalate, and his own troubled past comes to the forefront.
This novel explores the notion of being haunted, the relationship between the supernatural spirits we dismiss, and the real traumas we hide from – showing how even a good man is not truly free.
The Woman in Black is horror fiction at its finest, leaving the reader chilled to the core as they follow Arthur’s brave and foolish journey to the halls and corridors of Eel Marsh House, but despite your terror, you will not want to put it down.
- Spine-chilling throughout
- Atmospheric and engaging
- Well written characters
- Well constructed suspense
- Scary for younger readers
- Slow burning story
Themes: Loss, death, isolation, death of innocence, grief
While many people will be most familiar with the popular movie version of American Psycho starring Christian Bale as the infamous Patrick Bateman, the story actually began life as a novel by American author Bret Easton Ellis.
Following the story of the above-mentioned Bateman, American Psycho is narrated from his point of view – describing his life as a wealthy, handsome, yet vain investment banker living in Manhattan, who is also revealed to be a prolific serial killer.
Set during the Wall Street boom of the 1980s, American Psycho introduces us to Bateman – whose daily activities see him lying, cheating, and manipulating those around him to get what he wants and to feel powerful.
However, this image of power and composure begins to slip – beginning with the murder of his work rival Paul Owens, and progressing towards increasingly violent and depraved acts – and as his mental state begins to wane, he grows more and more unstable, eventually going on a shooting spree around Manhattan, and finding himself pursued by the police.
The novel however leaves the truth of his crimes ambiguous, with the end of the novel mysteriously explaining away his crimes (or erasing them completely), leaving the audience to wonder whether Bateman was a murderer at all, or whether the depravity of his personal life was simply a work of fantasy and delusion.
- Engaging storyline
- Well written characters
- Strong prose and narrative voice
- Confusing plot at times
- No definitive conclusion
Themes: Death, obsession, madness, isolation, power
Made popular by the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name, The Shining is a popular Stephen King novel that has gone on to become one of his most lauded and well-loved works.
While different from the film in many ways, both take place at the looming, isolated ‘Overlook Hotel’, wherein the Torrance family arrives at the end of the commercial season with a view to taking on the roles of winter caretakers.
Excited at the prospect of a fresh start following a period of misfortune and trauma, the family is happy to settle into their new surroundings.
However, as the snow begins to fall, and the gravity of their situation sets in, they soon realize that there is more to the Overlook than first meets the eye.
As the isolation gets to Jack Torrance, and his own sanity begins to come apart at the seams, the story takes a terrifying turn, as the family finds themselves preyed upon by the maniacal Jack – whose own demons are escalated tenfold by the ghostly, demonic whispers of the hotel itself.
As the story reaches breaking point, and the horrors of the hotel seem to literally manifest themselves through Jack, we as the reader are left wondering what happened at the hotel, and whether or not there were ever any ghosts to begin with.
When it comes to dark fiction and great horror, there are few books better than The Shining, and it is certainly easy to see why the novel and movie have become so loved by fans from around the globe.
What’s more, the inspiration for the Overlook, the Stanley Hotel in Colorado remains a popular haunted destination for any budding ghost hunter with time to kill. Dare you pay a visit?
- Engaging plot
- Terrifying story
- Intense yet relatable characters
- Strong prose
- Iconic setting
- Unsettling at times
- Potentially confusing
Themes: Death, familial ties, regret, death of innocence, obsession
Next on this list we have Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. While many might be more familiar with the Nicholas Cage movie adaptation, this book is infamous in its own right – namely due to the suicide of the author John O’Brien shortly after the novel’s publication.
Telling the story of alcoholic screenwriter Ben Sanderson, Leaving Las Vegas portrays a man whose life is slowly but surely falling apart – culminating in the loss of his job, the estrangement of his friends and family, and ultimately his will to live.
Deciding to take his own life, Sanderson withdraws all of his money and drives to Las Vegas, where he checks into a motel and intends to drink himself to death.
However, while under the influence, he encounters a troubled woman Sera – with whom Ben then pays $500 dollars to have a conversation with him.
The pair quickly fall in love with one another, with Ben moving into her apartment – with Ben’s only condition that she never tells him to stop drinking.
After he promises that he will never question her own profession, Sera agrees.
For a time things seem like bliss, and the novel provides us with glimpses of hope with regard to the pair’s future.
However, after Ben’s drinking worsens, and he cheats on her with another woman, she kicks him out – with both of their lives spiraling from bad to worse following this event.
After reconciling, a dying Ben and a broken Sera admit their feelings for one another, while accepting that they were not destined for a happy ending.
While dark and gruesome in its portrayal of depression, self-destruction, and the desperation of people on the fringe of society, there is at times a hopefulness to the story – one that lures the reader in with promises of redemption, before cruelly snatching them away at the last moment for a heartrending finale.
- Well written characters
- Oddly relatable characters
- Strong sense of setting
- Strong use of feeling and emotion
- Potentially upsetting conclusion
- Potentially triggering for recovering addicts
Themes: Death, depression, loss, grief, isolation, addiction
Set in Edinburgh, Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth tells the story of Police Inspector Bruce Robertson, whose traumatic past, and dive into depravity and madness set the backdrop for the proceedings.
Following (what later transpires to be) the breakdown of his marriage, and the estrangement from his young daughter, Bruce descends into the depths of depression, insanity, and substance abuse – lying, cheating, manipulating, and sabotaging his colleagues, friends, and associates in the pursuit of excess and ‘victory’, which he sees in the form of an offered prospect of a promotion.
However, as Bruce’s issues become more intense, and the remnants of his sanity begin to slip away, we see the true heartbreaking reality at the center of the story – that of a man who has lost everything that mattered, destined to remain trapped in a violent and dark world that in many ways he has created for himself.
Welsh’s story is characteristic of his style, featuring memorable, wacky characters, and mind-bending narrative techniques that leave the reader constantly guessing throughout.
- Engaging story
- Unique story
- Realistic characters
- Distinct narrative voice
- Memorable characters
- Confusing narrative voice (sometimes written phonetically in Scottish)
- Potentially confusing narrative
Themes: Death, violence, loss, grief, obsession, addiction, madness
Taking a much more psychological and terrifying approach, our next novel, The Terror by Dan Simmons gives us an isolated and lonely tale of loss and despair experienced by the doomed crew of the real-life HMS Terror who mysteriously disappeared near the Arctic circle.
Beginning in the winter of 1847, by which time the crew of the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus have already been trapped in the ice for a year, we learn that the weather has been much colder and unpredictable than normal, and that the starving crew is slowly running out of rations.
To make matters worse, the surrounding ice fields are oddly devoid of wildlife for them to hunt, leaving them truly stranded and vulnerable to the harshness of the elements – as well as a terrifying, massive polar bear-like creature that continues to prey on the two trapped ships.
After encountering a pair of Inuits on an ice field, members of the crew accidentally kill the man, before they all retreat back to the ships while being pursued by the creature.
However, they soon discover that the creature has followed them – after it begins to hunt them down one by one.
- Good use of history
- Engaging story
- Intense, chilling plot
- Well written characters
- Expertly crafted suspense
- Slow burning narrative
Themes: Death, isolation, desperation, survival, good vs evil
When we talk about darkness and horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s name is never too far away, and this collection of stories called Necronomicon is perhaps one of his darkest and most infamous releases.
Like many of Lovecraft’s fictional works, the stories featured within Necronomicon have a focus on the metaphysical, as well as the Great Old Ones – a (hopefully) fictional pantheon of ancient cosmic Gods that exist between dimensions, space, and time.
Some of his most famous short stories, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Nameless City, and The Horror at Red Hook all focus on one of Lovecraft’s most infamous creations – the ancient God Cthulhu, a gargantuan winged beast with the body of a humanoid and the head of an octopus, which awakens from its age-old slumber and unleashes horror on an ill-equipped world.
Other stories within the collection include references to supernatural meddlings (The Dunwich Horror), unsettling supernatural creations (Pickman’s Model), the horrors of distant time traveling (The Shadow Out Of Time) – as well as numerous references to the dark pantheon of monstrous entities that seem to have universes under their watchful gaze.
- A good compilation of work
- Interesting, spooky stories
- Unique narrative voice
- Memorable locations and characters
- Strong world-building
- Confusing plots at times
- Confusing narrative voice
Themes: Death, horror, isolation, good vs evil, manipulation, depression
Next on our list, we have Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye – a gripping period thriller that sees a series of grisly, supernaturally charged murders taking place at West Point Military Academy in New York State during the early 1800s.
The novel focuses on troubled former detective Augustus Landor, who after an unforeseen tragedy involving his daughter (withheld from the reader), finds himself tasked with solving the mysterious deaths on the campus.
After coming to blows with the stuffy top brass of the military school, he finds assistance in the unlikely form of a young Edgar Allen Poe – an unusual young man and student with a taste for literature, deductive reasoning, and a mind for mysteries.
As the pair grow closer and sink deeper into the depths of the troubled goings on at West Point, Landor finds a much-needed friend in Poe, revealing more and more of his own warped and troubled mind to the young writer – who in turn sees the elder lawman as a confidante and friend.
As the mystery deepens, and the seemingly supernatural grip of the killer seems to be tightening its grasp around them all, a series of shocking and disturbing events come to light that rocks the world of the young Poe – who’s already fragile sensibilities, troubled past, and burgeoning substance abuse problems provide a hint to his own unfortunate future and demise.
- Engaging plot
- Strong characters
- Good use of history
- Strong dialogue
- Questionable ending
- Slow burning plot
Themes: Death, grief, loss, depression, mystery, good vs evilNo products found.
Last on our list, but by no means least, we have The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris – a story that should need very little introduction due to the profound impact it has had on both the thriller and horror genres alike.
Focusing on protagonist Clarice Starling – a recruit at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia – whose investigation into the brutal abductor and serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ leads her to the imprisoned cannibal killer ‘Hannibal Lecter’, a formerly esteemed doctor and academic, whose own nightmarish appetites led to his imprisonment at the facility.
Seeking the insight of Dr. Lecter, Clarice opens herself up to the charismatic monster – sharing her own thoughts and feelings about the case and life, and providing the killer with some much-needed companionship and intellectual debate in the process.
However, as they grow closer to catching Buffalo Bill, Clarice makes a mistake made by many before her – underestimating the charming and softly-spoken man, and taking her eyes off Lecter long enough for him to escape out into the world and disappear for good.
- Memorable characters
- Well crafted dialogue
- Genuine suspense throughout
- Slow burning narrative
Themes: Death, obsession, good vs evil, manipulation
And there we have it, everything you need to find the darkest books on the market.
It’s true that there are some corners of literature that have pushed the boundaries – taking the reader on an often unsettling journey into the darkest depths of the human condition. However, there are some that are just a bit darker than the rest!
So if you think you’re daring enough, then why not try some of these books out? But be warned, these dark tales definitely aren’t for the faint of heart!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Are We Attracted To ‘Dark’ Fiction?
While the true answer is probably unclear, our attraction to dark fiction most likely stems from our morbid attraction towards the fringes of society, and what is considered ‘normal’ and acceptable.
What Qualifies Something As ‘Dark’?
Generally speaking, for something to qualify as ‘dark’, it must deviate from the ‘norm’ – either in terms of point of view, the individuals portrayed, or in the sensitivity of the subject matter explored.
- 20 Must-Read Genre-Blending Literary Fiction Books - May 26, 2023
- 32 Gripping Epic Fantasy Books To Transport You To Another World - May 26, 2023
- 12 Books Like Red, White, And Royal Blue You Will Love - May 17, 2023