There’s a difference between being afraid and feeling uncomfortable. Funnily enough, the typical run-of-the-mill horror works rarely make me squirm. Sure, they scare me sometimes, but they don't leave me with stomach-turning discomfort or sense of unease. Instead, it’s the stuff that goes a little darker, a little more personal, and deeper left field that has a lasting effect.
As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s not always about selecting books that are the greatest works out there (anyone can mindlessly pick an unoriginal top ten of the usual suspects). It’s about the impact certain books have on you personally, good, bad, and everything in between.
Some of the following titles do both, while others might make you writhe and wriggle for different reasons.
'HAUNTED' by Chuck Palahniuk
This short story collection from Palahniuk is a shocker, one that reads like a late-night police line-up of creeps, freaks, perverts and perpetrators.
Seventeen strangers, all aspiring writers trying to escape their own lives, attend a mysterious last-minute writer’s retreat in an abandoned theater. They quickly find themselves locked inside, cut off from the world, made to live in squalor and subsist on little as they create their most important works. Each is forced to recount a story (possibly fact, maybe fictitious) inspired by their own haunted pasts. Most tales will have you worming around in no time. Try reading the short story ‘Guts’ for starters. If you don’t end up squirming, or fainting, I’ll wager that you’re not actually human.
THE N-BODY PROBLEM by Tony Burgess
It's safe to say that almost any book written by Burgess will have you wriggling at some point. His most popular book ‘Pontypool Changes Everything’ certainly had its moments, but this new offering kicks the author’s usual penchant for giving you the willies into high gear.
‘The N-Body Problem’ is an incredibly fresh take on the zombie genre, one that's literally out of this world. Burgess takes his story of the undead to places never thought possible. While there, he tells you about horrible things you could have never imagined on your own, things that make you twitch with revulsion and turn your eyes away from the pages. This book gives ‘The Walking Dead’ a run for its money.
AMERICAN PSYCHO by Brett Easton Ellis
Undoubtedly a modern classic, you could say ‘American Psycho’ takes things too far with a fair bit of regularity. The novel is a running commentary on rabid capitalism and the excesses of consumer culture in the 1980s, resulting in an equally excessive show of human depravity. Told from the perspective of a yuppie-come-serial-killer prowling Manhattan, we descend into the mind and fantasies of a psychopath whose grip on reality is shaky at best.
Anyone who's read the book will know that the movie version left out the worst of Patrick Bateman’s sadistic acts, and for good reason. Let’s just say I’ve never regarded rats and cheese the same way since I read about what Bateman did with them.
CHILD OF GOD by Cormac McCarthy
Take a southern degenerate raised in an abysmal state of affairs and trace his downward spiral into serial murder and necrophilia… that’s what McCarthy did in ‘Child of God’, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Lester Ballad is quite possibly one of the most reprehensible characters in modern literature, yet it is impossible to hate him completely. What made me squirm was Cormac’s ability to actually get me to relate to the lonely outcast and feel some sympathy for him, showing me the human side to a character we would all regard as subhuman.
RUST & BONE by Craig Davidson
A collection of short stories, I like to think of ‘Rust & Bone’ as an assortment of small situational squirms that cover a wide spectrum. The book is mostly tales of tough folks in trouble: a sea-world trainer being mauled by a killer whale, a couple involved in the brutal underground world of dog-fighting, an alcoholic father inadvertently ruining his kid’s prospects in life, and the stresses of being a sex addict among others.
Davidson’s writing is raw and visceral, giving you every bit of the grit and discomfort he intends. It isn’t necessarily the gore that gets you (although there is some of that), rather it’s the predicaments the characters find themselves in (two pitiful amputees trying to feel each other out, for instance). Incidentally, the author has a new book out called ‘The Troop’ (written under his pseudonym ‘Nick Cutter’) an outright horror novel that I have yet to read, but apparently is a total trip to Squirmville.
TACONES: HIGH HEELS by Todd Klinck
I included this in my list of 10 Books That Stuck With Me, but let's just say there are many reasons I'm listing it here too. There's so much to squirm over in this book, it is impossible to cover it all.
At first 'Tacones' seems like a bunch of short stories cobbled together, almost like vignettes, but as you go deeper you discover the threads and themes connecting them. We’re reading about damaged characters and what makes them tick, people whose life experiences, mentalities, desires and addictions are considered abnormal by the status quo. What makes Klincks work more unnerving is that the stories are taken right out of the dark side of everyday life, based on actuality. It’s like taking a peek into Hell’s peepshow. There are so many extreme personalities with odd behaviors that your eyes are guaranteed to widen as you progress through the pages.
OLD FLAMES by Jack Ketchum
There are far better works by Ketchum out there, but this one book featuring two novellas doubled the squirm factor for me. The first novella ‘Old Flames’ is one of those ‘Fatal Attraction’ kind of stories, and any tale about a psycho chick trying to weasel her way into a man’s settled life makes me squirm (something in my own past, maybe?).
The second novella, ‘Right to Life’, is a gratuitous bit of torture porn about a pregnant woman headed for the abortion clinic who ends up being kidnapped and held by a couple of deranged pro-lifers. While I dislike the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre, there were moments in that story that certainly had me fidgeting in my seat.
ZOMBIE by Joyce Carol Oates
A short novel loosely based on the life and crimes of Jeffery Dahmer, ‘Zombie’ puts you in the mind of a disturbed, and not very bright, young man named Quentin P as he begins to slip further into his strange tastes and sadistic daydreams. The character’s greatest desire is to create a mindless ‘sex slave’ he can keep indefinitely around his apartment to do his bidding. How he goes about it will send shivers coursing through your body. When his efforts fail him, he takes things a step further and begins to experiment with cannibalism and necrophilia. The squirms increase until you find yourself downright horrified by his actions.
POISON SHY by Stacey Madden
An oddball little novel about a miserable and mentally unstable exterminator working in a small dead-end town, ‘Poison Shy’ coats your mouth with distaste more than once.
Like the narrator of the book, the story feels bleak and awkward; his words and actions left me just as uncomfortable as he was when meeting his love interest (I use that term very loosely) and an array of other strange characters.
The scene where the main character has desperate and messy sex with the female lead during her time of the month had me really squirming. Those pages put a wince on my face that stayed for a good while. I know this isn't a big deal for some, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James
Why put this book on the list? No, it wasn’t the BDSM that made me squirm, nor the gender stereotyping, misogyny, or trite love affair bullshit between two cardboard cutout characters. Shit, the connection between Pants and Werepig was more believable.
What made me squirm was E.L. James God awful writing. To be fair, I didn’t actually read the whole book. I got about thirty pages in before I just had to put it down because I felt so embarrassed that a steaming piece of shit like this got published. After that, I just skipped to the sex everyone was squawking about and discovered the piss poor execution made me squirm even more. If you’re an avid reader and you want something downright uncomfortable to read, you can’t get much better than this.
Though there are a lot of other books that made me squirm these would definitely the most memorable, and as someone who loves a good read I'd love to hear what had this effect for you. Feel free to post in the comments below.