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What’s The Most Disturbing Book You’ve Ever Read?

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | May 23, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | May 23, 2023 |

Tender is the Flesh banner.jpg

I love horror. I’m also a massive chicken, so you can understand the quandary this presents to me. I am that 30-something adult who will still keep the bedside lamp on after watching a particularly scary movie, just in case something happens. Curiously, my weak resistance to fear doesn’t extend to literature. I’m not sure what the exact differences are, but I can read anything and not be scared by it. Even as an especially freaked-out teen, I had a near-impervious tolerance to disturbing literature. I devoured true crime. The Hannibal Lecter books were my bedtime reading. I remember curling up in our 6th year library section with American Psycho and, while I was unnerved by its contents, being weirdly okay about it while my classmates’ faces turned pale. Even as I’ve gotten older, my resistance to dark sh*t is pretty strong when it’s in a literary form.

But there are a couple of notable exceptions, and what disturbed me so much in those books seems like a revealing insight to my subconscious.

There are two novels I can point to that truly upset me. Both are horror titles, both feature cannibalism, and both were so full-on that I literally had to put them down and walk away for a while. Because such incidents are so rare, I can’t help but dissect them, which is why we’re here today!

The first book is Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica. First published in English in 2020, the novel depicts a cold dystopian world where a virus has contaminated all animal meat. Rather than become a vegan species, humanity makes cannibalism legal, and Marcos, a human meat supplier, works at one of these new slaughterhouses where ‘special meat’ is processed.

I’m no stranger to stories about cannibalism, especially as a card-carrying Fannibal. But NBC’s Hannibal is a decidedly unreal series, a baroque opera that is entirely divorced from the mundanities of our reality. It’s easy to separate the horrors of eating human flesh from the stylised fervour of Dr. Lecter’s dinner parties. With Tender is the Flesh, you’re repeatedly pummelled in the face by how real it all is. The slaughtering of humans raised to be eaten is described in clinical language, with various terms euphemised to distance the perpetrators from the true grotesquery of their crimes. When Marcos talks about veal, it takes a second for you to realize what is actually being reared. The capitalistic nature of this system, one where our own flesh is a commodity and certain figures up the totem pole are entitled to devour it, is delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner. It’s not simply the new status quo; it’s a status symbol, as evidenced by Marcos’s social climbing sister who is eager to ‘home rear’ special meat.

It’s the distancing language that really unnerves me about Tender is the Flesh. This is a book that’s clearly intended to be an allegory for the all-consuming anti-human nature of capitalism, and not some insight into the near-future. Yet it never feels outside the realm of possibility. I entirely buy that, if all forms of animal meat were to become inedible tomorrow, some politicians and corporations would immediately lobby for legal cannibalism. Selling human flesh isn’t a pressing issue but the mass exploitation of our bodies for the service of an elite few? That very much is, and Tender is the Flesh captures that hellscape more acutely than any other novel I’ve read.

My other most disturbing book also features endless cannibalism, but this one is a different beast. Exquisite Corpse is that rare thing in art: something I am truly amazed ever got published. For all of the ranting about cancel culture and wokeness erasing provocative art from our landscape, mainstream media has never been prone to true risk taking. I’m genuinely not sure how Billy Martin’s novel (published under the name Poppy Z. Brite) ever made its way to shelves in 1996. In fairness, it almost didn’t as Martin’s original publisher turned it down and he had to shop it around. It’s not hard to see why. Wow, this book…

The original UK cover for Exquisite Corpse says it all ‘Imagine meeting Nilsen and Dahmer in a bar, being invited home for coffee…’ The two killers are Andrew Compton (based on Dennis Nilsen), who escapes prison through narratively wobbly means and flees to New Orleans, where he meets Jay Byrne (based on Jeffrey Dahmer), a wealthy recluse and cannibal. At first, they plan to kill one another, but once they realize their shared hobby, they begin what I can only describe as a queer AIDS murder orgy. They set their sights on the ‘perfect’ victim, a homeless gay teen named Tran. Spoiler: there is no happy ending for Tran.

This is an all-consuming novel, no pun intended, as gripping and hypnotic in its repulsions as Martin’s other horror titles. This is truly repulsive, so agonizingly detailed in its descriptions not only of these men’s murders but the pleasure it elicits in them. What makes this book so unique is how queer it is, like all of Martin’s work. This is a book about an ostracized and oft-demonized community, trying to thrive under the unbearable weight of the AIDS epidemic, and Martin reimagines it to its most sickening and fearful conclusion. It’s a sick joke - two gay cannibals walk into a bar - rendered 100% seriously, albeit with pitch-black humour peppered throughout. Where the intricacies of Tender is the Flesh were described as clinically as possible, Exquisite Corpse makes it romantic to the point of queasiness. To call it fetishistic would be to downplay its adoring approach, but it’s not endorsing what it depicts. If you want to truly descend into hell, you have to be prepared for those who love what they see and do. This is ultimately a book of fear, of despair for a time where queer people were tossed to the curb and left to die. As beautiful as the prose is, it’s clearly the work of a deeply pissed-off queer guy who saw too much pain unfold before his eyes. If he had to see it, so do you.

So, what books scared or disturbed you the most? Let me know in the comments so we can all commiserate together on the palpable terror of a good old-fashioned read. I’m sure I can stomach it…