Classic literature is often associated with the academic setting – meaning dull, wholesome tales written by dead white men that teachers deem appropriate for young minds. These novels often sound lifeless or boring because academia makes it so. They are serious works, meant to be examined without humor or emotion. And that’s a damn shame. Some of those classics are seriously demented, far more terrifying than your average paperback genre tale. Give yourself an education in nightmares with these eight works of madness.
BELOVED by Toni Morrison
Morrison might be a little too strange for the everyday classroom setting, but I remember reading SONG OF SOLOMON as a junior – it taught me that great books could also be utterly weird. While SOLOMON has moments of dread, it pales in comparison to her seminal BELOVED. This post-Civil War story follows a family living in a haunted house, tormented at every turn by the spirit of their lost baby. The ghostly phenomena is effective, but Morrison finds her true terror in depictions of slavery, and gives readers a vivid look at the trauma left behind after the war. This type of horror sinks into your stomach and ensures that you feel the characters’ pain.
THE TRIAL by Franz Kafka
Imagine one day waking up to find a policeman at your bedside, informing you that you are under arrest. Even worse, there are no charges. The master of mind-destroying bureaucracy reaches his peak of existential fear with this novel, which follows an arrogant banker placed in that exact situation. The further he delves into the justice system, the more he realizes that there is no system – and no answers. This situation may not be as absurd as it sounds, when one considers how our own justice system is full of loopholes and barriers. Engage with Kafka at your own risk – his fiction is closer to truth than we want to know.
CRIME & PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Does 600-plus pages of an impoverished Russian man dealing with internal guilt sound boring? Not in Dostoevsky’s hands. Opening with a shockingly violent axe murder, this early psychological novel burrows deep into the mind of a man consumed by the knowledge of his evil. The cat-and-mouse conversations with the police and the bizarre set of sub-characters are enough to make anyone feel paranoid. Those Russians know how to turn the brain into a landscape of hopeless monstrosities.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte
H.P. Lovecraft found this Romantic novel disturbing enough to discuss it in his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” essay. While another Bronte achieved more with her equally Gothic JANE EYRE, Emily created a truly grotesque love story in her only novel. This moody tale features tortured minds whose hate for each other equals their love, vengeful phantoms at the windowpanes, and a truly wicked tyrant driven mad by rejection. The descriptions of the titular landscape are full of gloomy, melancholic atmosphere that matches its protagonists’ psyches. It’s not without hope, but Brontes drags the reader through the bleakest darkness first.
ABSALOM, ABSALOM! by William Faulkner
Along with authors like Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner is responsible for epitomizing the Southern Gothic genre – tales full of depraved characters, spiritual destruction and atmosphere as thick as the humid air. One of his most complex and disturbing is this novel, composed of different peoples’ memories of a disgraced family headed by the insane Thomas Sutpen. The disjointed, stream-of-consciousness memories of the Sutpen dynasty’s rise and violent collapse make it seem folkloric, the myth of a hero turned into a demon. And like the best of Southern Gothic, it oozes with a hazy, overheated tone.
DEATH IN VENICE by Thomas Mann
This is more of a novella, but it packs enough punch to warrant inclusion on this list. Thomas Mann was always fascinated by the occult and the supernatural, attending his fair share of seances in his time, but this story’s terror comes straight from a lonely mind. What begins as an aging man’s interest in a beautiful boy who he sees at his resort becomes a psychological portrait of obsession. Told against the backdrop of an increasingly devastating plague, Mann’s exploration ends in depraved tragedy that calls into question the division between physical and mental sickness. Not one to read by the beach, but a powerful piece of writing nonetheless.
HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad
Like DEATH IN VENICE, Conrad’s seminal novella has enough depth and emotional impact to classify it as such. This is a staple in literature classes, but its density begs for more attention than it’s given. This dark odyssey takes us into the very pits of human hell, full of Dante-esque descriptions of the Congo and a truly chilling depiction of madness at its end. It’s a product of its time – which means plenty of scenes come across as racist, painting African people as helpless victims – but its vision of Imperialism as the mental apocalypse is hard to dismiss. It’s a testament to Conrad’s skill with prose that he can make such a clear plot feel so awfully ambiguous.
I won’t lie – this one is a slog. It features hundreds of pages filled with descriptions of whale anatomy, down to the individual tail bones. But its central story is worth all the tedious sections. Not only does Herman Melville create a thorough depiction of harrowing, gruesome whaling life, he also tells a dark tale of obsession which drives his characters to their doom. The treacherous sea is frightening enough, but add to it the threat of a monstrous, invincible whale, and you’ve got pure monster terror. The last hundred pages are a bolt of queasy suspense and tragic awe – the highest emotions a horror author can reach for.
What school-sanctioned reads traumatized you? Leave a comment below!