In the first chapter of For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher I describe my pre-teen Friday nights with my dear ol’ Mom. She’d set aside these evenings as “Family Movie Time.” Each week she and I would trek to the local video rental store to find the latest offerings of horror movies.
Why did she let her ten-year-old boy watch movies such as The Exorcist and The Howling? My best guess is she wanted the company, as my dad worked in the coal mines 60 to 70 hours a week. Whether or not this was the case, movie time with Mom greatly shaped my entertainment tastes, even to this very day. Thinking back on those movie nights with Mom, there are two movies that still stand out for me, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Both are outstanding films. Both are relentlessly dark with denouements that will punch you in the gut with despair. The visceral emotions I felt as a kid still affect me as an adult.
Contemporary literature is filled with grim classics that reward readers with incredibly imagery, thoughtful plots, and a penchant for making you look at your fellow human beings and think “Jesus, you lot are terrible!” Included below are five books that will entertain and drop you into the depths of despair.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Women are subjugated by a patriarchal society. They are used for menial chores and propagation. Our protagonist, Offred, can remember the days of freedom, and longs to find an escape. As the book moves forward, Offred becomes more desperate and depressed.
“I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatter-proof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.”
Not a fun read, but thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and a siren’s call that we need to remain vigilant when it comes to equal rights for all.
Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
Frankly, I could fill this list with at least two more McCarthy novels: No Country for Old Men and The Road. But Blood Meridian is the most interesting of the three to me. The threadbare plot follows fourteen-year-old ‘The Kid’ as he travels through the wilds of Mexico with the scalp hunters John Joel Glanton and the monstrous Judge Holden.
“The men as they rode turned black in the sun from the blood on their clothes and their faces and then paled slowly in the rising dust until they assumed once more the color of the land through which they passed.”
Some critics cite Blood Meridian as the pinnacle of contemporary fiction. Naturally, that is a debatable stance. But McCarthy’s novel stands as an incredible indictment of senseless violence, in particular, those acts of evil committed in the name of America and Christianity. The Judge will haunt your dreams for weeks after you finish the last page.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
A teenage girl is held captive and brutally tortured by neighborhood children. Based on a true story, this shocking novel reveals the depravity of which we are all capable.
And when the synopsis states that the book is based on a true story, it isn’t exaggerating. The book holds uncomfortably close to the actual events in the murder of Sylvia Likens.
The Deep by Nick Cutter
In Cutter’s follow up to the incredible The Troop, we are taken to the deepest parts of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. A mysterious plague called the ‘Gets is killing humanity. The protagonist’s brother, the world’s leading scientific researcher, is sent to Mariana Trench in search of a miracle cute hailed as ‘ambrosia’. But the brother and the two other men sent seven miles below the surface have stopped communicating and the protagonist is sent to investigate.
The Deep begins with this opening sentence: “The old man’s head was covered in mantises.”
Things get no better. This is the most claustrophobic novel I’ve ever read. And if you’re looking for any hope for humanity in the pages of The Deep, then close this book and look elsewhere.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Perhaps the most heartbreaking and most powerful genre novel I’ve read. Russell’s novel is the perfect encapsulation of using genre trappings to express ideas regarding how one culture’s well-meaning interference and views can be seen as horrifying and devastating.
“See that’s where it falls apart for me!” Anne cried. “What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can’t swallow that kind of theological candy. Either God’s in charge or he’s not…”
Unlike the other books I’ve listed, The Sparrow doesn’t end on a despairing note. The Jesuit priest who suffers the most has an enduring faith, giving the reader some degree of hope. Even so, his ordeal will change the way you see the world.
The beauty of these depressing novels is that each is a classic in their own right. They are thoughtful, entertaining, and have something to say about the human condition.
What are some of your favorite depressing works? Share in the comments. I look forward to your suggestions!
Born the son of an unemployed coal miner in a tiny Kentucky Appalachian villa named Big Creek (population 400), Jason Sizemore fought his way out of the hills to the big city of Lexington. He attended Transylvania University (a real school with its own vampire legend) and received a degree in computer science. Since 2005, he has owned and operated Apex Publications and Apex Magazine. He is the editor of five anthologies, author of Irredeemable and For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher, a three-time Hugo Award loser, an occasional writer, who can usually be found wandering the halls of hotel conventions.