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Disturbing books full of psychological mystery

Hills, Clouds And Water For Disturbing Books Post

Some books frighten the life out of me, so I can’t read them last thing at night. Others take me on a journey beyond my own experience. Others tell me stories about people just like myself, living lives like mine. And others touch my mind because they are about a secret, a mystery, a darkness, so I don’t quite know what’s happening to the characters, or why they behave in the way they do. Their lives have been altered by somebody else’s actions, or by a buried secret in the village or the family, or within their own heart. I find these to be the most disturbing books. These books are what are classed as psychological mysteries, thrillers or fantasies and they are fascinating and unsettling. Every now and again you put the book down and think about what’s going on, and the story lurks in your mind, deep.

Here I’m recommending a few books that have affected me in this way. It is my interest in reading this type of book that inspired my own recent novel, Rose Doran Dreams, which is about a young woman who immerses herself so much in old stories that they begin to alter her mind. Some of my reviewers have suggested that my novel is ‘unsettling’ or ‘disturbing’, and I became interested to know what it is that attracts readers to novels with dark hearts.

Some of the featured authors, plus other book lovers, also recommend their favourite disturbing novels.

Disturbing novels – my recommendations

I am recommending three major novels that have touched my mind through their dark atmosphere, and which I’ve found to be unputdownable.

‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean

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Published by: HarperFiction, 2021. Available from Amazon.

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Girl A is one of the most recent novels I’ve read, and is lingering in my mind in a powerful way. It tells a story that’s so horrifying that you don’t want to believe it could really happen, though we know from newspaper reports that it can and does, and in fact there are several suggestions that Girl A is based on the true story of the Turpin family. Girl A, Lex, is one of seven siblings who are kept chained to their beds by a psychotic and abusive father in the ‘House of Horrors’ until she manages to escape and find help. In trying to trace her separated siblings many years later, Girl A tells the story of each of them and of how they survive their unimaginable trauma.

Girl A is not exactly a thriller or a suspense story, as it’s labelled, but is certainly unputdownable and utterly engrossing. The plot revelations are deftly handled, almost as a case history, as Lex dares to look into the dark well of her past. For me the most interesting character is the lightly drawn but ominously present father, and his descent from being overbearing and unpredictable into religious fanaticism and the criminal abuse of his entire family. It is certainly one of the most unsettling and well-crafted stories I have ever read.

About Abigail Dean

Abigail Dean is a young author who lived in Manchester and the Peak District. She is now a lawyer living in London. Her second novel, Day One, labelled ‘literary crime fiction’, will be published in January 2023. It’s a novel about the conspiracy theories that spring up after a shooting in a small town, and promises to be every bit as enthralling as Girl A.

On writing ‘Girl A’:

Abigail Dean tells me:

It was done secretly and very privately, for the most part, between my local library and the kitchen table in my flat. I had to set a curfew for writing some scenes, otherwise I couldn’t sleep. I never dreamt anyone other than my mum would read it!

Disturbing books recommended by Abigail Dean

Lia Middleton’s When They Find Her, which combines police procedure with a haunting story of motherhood. It’s sad and thrilling and very, very tense.

‘Once Upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield

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Published by: BlackSwan, 2019. Available from Amazon.

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Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is mysterious, gothic and richly atmospheric. In a chilling and dramatic start, a stranger bursts into a riverside inn carrying a drowned child in his arms. The inn is the Swan, the river is the Thames, and both these locations are essential features of the book. In the Swan are gathered the book’s chorus, local people who meet to tell stories and to ponder on the mystery of the drowned child and the injured stranger, a photographer. The Thames, winding its sinewy way throughout the twists of the novel, is as essential a character as any, and made human in the form of old Quietly, a ferryman who rescues drowned people or leaves them to be washed away.

But here’s the strangest mystery: the child, pronounced dead, comes back to life within hours. She is mute, so cannot tell her story. In subsequent twists of the tale, three different people come forward to claim her. They insist they know her, they are sure she is theirs. Yet all the child is interested in is the river. Past histories, mysteries, dark secrets twist through the strange and absorbing tale of the child who came back to life, and into this mix come the magic of the old stories and the new magic of photography.

‘Just cos a thing’s impossible doesn’t mean to say it can’t happen’ says one of the drinkers in the pub, and the reader begins to believe that it’s true.

I love this book; the interwoven stories, the intriguing and sometimes unsettling plot, and the dark, atmospheric presence of the river make a story that is unforgettable.

On writing ‘Once Upon a River’:

Diane Setterfield kindly gave me a few thoughts about writing her book:

One of the moments I remembered often while writing was a walk along the bank of the Thames when the river was so powerful and wild that I felt frightened. It was easy to understand that day why old cultures believed the river was a powerful spirit, and for a moment or two I was only an inch away from believing it myself.

Disturbing books recommended by Diane Setterfield

And here are some recommendations from Diane Setterfield for more disturbing books for you to read:

Pretty much any of Fred Vargas’s supernatural detective fiction featuring Commissaire Adamsberg, or else David Almond’s The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean (though anything by DA would fit the bill!), or Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost, or… goodness, there are so many!

‘Waterland’ by Graham Swift

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Published by: Scribner UK, 2019. Available from Amazon.

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The immediate environment is also central to the atmosphere and plot of this 1983 novel. The opening chapter reveals a Fenland landscape as an ‘empty wilderness’, pungent and slimy. This is where the boy Tom Crick lives in the lock-keeper’s cottage with his father and mentally challenged brother, Dick. Here in this flat, amphibious, fish-stenched land he grows up, plays with his friends, has teenage sex with his girl Mary, watches his brother Dick handling eels. By the end of the first chapter the worst thing that a boy can imagine happens. Tom’s father hauls a dead boy, one of Tom’s schoolfriends, out of the river. Between them, Tom, Mary and Dick are individually responsible for his death. Life metes out harsh punishment to all three of them.

All of this, all the dreadful repercussions, all the deep secrets are revealed throughout the novel by the much older Tom, an anguished middle-aged teacher who cannot escape from his own past any more than from centuries of Fenland history that are woven into the novel.

Waterland is complex, dark, atmospheric, troubling and deeply evocative. It is full of drama and intrigue. It is a powerful psychological novel of mystery, secrets, murder; of family history and the old ways. Although it must be nearly 40 years since I read it, before returning to it for this feature, it has remained chillingly with me.

Swift’s most recent novel, published in 2020, is Here We Go.

Disturbing novellas

Once I started writing this blog post I thought of loads more novels that fit this category, and maybe I’ll save them for another time.

For now I’ll just suggest three disturbing classic novellas and short stories, all which subsequently became famous and brilliant films:

  • Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
  • Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
  • Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
Tree roots of the sort you may find in disturbing books!

Disturbing books recommended by other avid readers

Friends and family have suggested more titles which have disturbed them and stayed in their minds. Some of them appear elsewhere on my website blogs, some I have yet to read. What a feast!

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson

“The book, written in the 60s, is a Gothic mystery based around the two young Blackwood sisters who live alone in a castle just on the edge of a small village. I’ve always been a sucker for gothic horror but this beautifully told short story is dark and unsettling without resorting to cliché.”

Suggested by Vicky Ackroyd

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk

“Disturbingly strange. Begins with two people dragging a dead body onto a bed.“

Suggested by Joanna Collins

‘The Third Policeman’ by Flann O’Brien

“At first, this appears to be a sharply written comedy set in 1930s rural Ireland, but develops through bizarre events, abstract conversations, infernal and impossible academic arguments into a distortion of literary structure and reality itself, where nothing is as it seems, to a final devastating conclusion.”

Suggested by Phil Young

‘Ferney’ by James Long

“In my view it qualifies as ‘once read, never forgotten’. The atmosphere evoked lingers long after the book ends…”

Suggested by Margaret Connors

Novels by Richard Powers

“Richard Powers in one of my favourite authors. All his books expand the way of looking at, exploring and trying to understand relationships and the world, using his immense knowledge of many branches of science.

In Overstory it‘s the importance and power of trees, their communication with us and each other; in Generosity it’s the power of genetic inheritance and its impact on the individual and others, and how it can be harnessed for good or exploited. In Bewilderment he explores the challenge of being different through the story of a father and his nine year old son who undertakes behavioural modification, in the context of their shared fascination with the universe, which moves into the realm of fantasy.

A quote from the first book of his that I read, The Time of our Singing, has stayed with me: ‘We do not fear difference. We fear most being lost in likeness. The thing no race can abide.’ That certainly disturbs and touches the mind, as does all his writing, which always connects with me inside and takes me way outside myself as well.”

Suggested by Jane Monach

‘Honour Thy Father’ by Lesley Glaister

Suggested by Bryony Doran

‘I am I am I am’ by Maggie O’Farrell and ‘Paula’ by Isabel Allende

Suggested by Sally Doherty

(These two are also featured in my 40 all-time favourite books blog post.)

Over to you

So there are many suggestions here for disturbing, intense books that can touch the mind. Would you like to recommend some? Please add your thoughts to the comments box below!

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams, is out now. Her forthcoming novel The Haunted Hills will be published later in 2022. See the About me page for more information.

This post has 2 comments

  1. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter

    The most disturbing book I’ve ever read by a country mile.

    Don’t read it alone. Don’t read it in cold weather. Don’t read it in bed because you’ll have to get up and put it in another room at least. Chucking it out the window won’t work because how strong is your window lock?

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