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The Sunflower

REVIEW: Reading TikTok’s favorite ‘disturbing books’ so you don’t have to

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Makenzie Miller
(Illustration)

A couple of years ago, I started getting an insane amount of videos labeling different books as “disturbing” or “weird” on my social media. I had felt a bit bored of reading at the time and wanted something to jolt me back into the hobby. With that, my love for reading began again, taking me down some really dark paths.

All of these books were seen in at least one video on TikTok or Instagram, if not multiple. I’ve read all of them cover to cover, so I’ll use my knowledge to save you some time or give you a good read. The books will be ranked from what I thought was least to most disturbing, with respective content warnings attached. 

“Big Swiss” by Jen Beagin
Disturbing rating: 2/10
Overall rating: 10/10

“Big Swiss” is the story of a transcriptionist for a psychologist who becomes deeply obsessed with one of the clients. Nicknaming the client “Big Swiss,” the transcriptionist uses her highly sensitive information to weasel her way into Big Swiss’s life. 

Although “Big Swiss,” like Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood,” sure has its dark moments, I wouldn’t call it truly disturbing. It’s a sad portrait of obsession and its overlapping layers with love. The biggest factor that makes “Big Swiss” disturbing at all is the length that the main character goes to unravel the inner workings of Big Swiss and manipulate her way into a relationship. 

Overall, “Big Swiss” was a novel that I found highly engrossing and entertaining, and despite a couple of graphic sex scenes and depictions of trauma, I was confused about its placement on these lists. 

“Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata
Disturbing rating: 3/10
Overall rating: 8/10

“Convenience Store Woman” was the first example of Japanese psychological fiction I saw online and the first I read. “Convenience Store Woman” is the story of Keiko, a 36-year-old woman who has been working at the same convenience store since she was 18. Despite attempts from basically everyone to get her to settle down and start a family, Keiko is perfectly content with her life. 

Sayaka Murata uses the familiar setting of a convenience store — a location often romanticized in Japan by foreigners — to create a complex critique of the modern hustle of work culture and pressures to conform to typical society. 

Overall, the only disturbing trait of “Convenience Store Woman” is the ending. It’s a short and easy read, and I think it packs a powerful message about staying true to yourself. Sayaka Murata has an incredibly memorable writing style, and I think her novel “Earthlings” is far more disturbing, though I enjoyed “Convenience Store Woman” much more. 

“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami
Disturbing rating: 3/10
Overall rating: 9/10

Content warning for suicide and sexual assault.

Murakami is the king of disturbing fiction, and “Norwegian Wood” is his crown jewel. The novel follows Toru Watanabe through his best friend’s suicide and his growing connection to his best friend’s girlfriend, all the while he balances college, self-reflection and a budding romance with a classmate. “Norwegian Wood” has a great cast of characters that I found very memorable, which I think is important with such a loose plot.

Honestly, I don’t find “Norwegian Wood” all that disturbing. It’s pretty sad at parts, but overall, just feels like reading the diary of a melancholic and highly intuitive college boy. 

Like any Murakami work, it definitely has its head-scratcher moments that seem random or disconnected from the overall plot, but “Norwegian Wood” altogether is a beautiful novel that anyone looking to breach the surface of Japanese literature should read. If you want one of Murakami’s more disturbing books, check out “Sputnik Sweetheart.”

“Nightbitch” by Rachel Yoder
Disturbing rating: 5/10
Overall rating: 6/10

Content warning for body horror and animal harm. 

In “Nightbitch,” a young stay-at-home mom slowly transitions into a dog: craving raw meat, barking and growing tufts of fur. I know, I know, but stay with me. “Nightbitch,” if you take it at face value, is weird. But if you view it as a fable or an incredibly extended metaphor, it’s an amazing commentary on motherhood and the expectations placed on mothers. I also found a lot of the metaphors a good look at the pressures of womanhood. 

“Nightbitch” sure has some descriptions that many might find disturbing, but I think these examples lend to the power of the novel. The pages are slow to turn at times, but the plot carries. “Nightbitch” was a wonderful read that I think is a great introduction to the body horror genre without being gross just for the sake of grossness. 

“Bunny” by Mona Awad
Disturbing rating: 6/10
Overall rating: 6/10

Content warning for animal harm, body horror and murder.

“Bunny” was not what I expected at all, and I was pretty disappointed. In “Bunny,” reclusive student Samantha struggles to find her inspiration in a fiction writing program, all while watching (and hating) an uppity group of girls from afar. 

The girls, who call each other “Bunny” (see where the title comes from?), invite Samantha to join one of their hangouts to share their writing. Samantha quickly realizes that these girls are into some very weird stuff and realizes soon after that she’s completely caught up in their charms. 

Samantha has finally found a place where she belongs and is willing to make it work, even if it means sacrificing a rabbit to create the perfect male partner. The introduction of this wild concept felt incredibly rushed, and I think the plot’s pacing struggled throughout. 

“Bunny” is an interesting look at cliques and the pressures of friendship, but I found it hard to keep up with and falling flat at times. Still, it’s definitely earned its place as a disturbing read on BookTok. 

“Milk Fed” by Melissa Broder
Disturbing rating: 7/10
Overall rating: 10/10

Content warning for sexually dubious content and explicit depictions of eating disorders.

Let me be honest: “Milk Fed” is one of my favorite books ever. It sure has its problems, but they pale in comparison to the successes of the novel, in my opinion. 

In “Milk Fed,” 24-year-old Rachel is in the midst of a life-crushing eating disorder. Every single bite is planned out, and every calorie is counted — until she meets Miriam, an overweight frozen yogurt maker that wants to help Rachel indulge in the pleasures of dessert and life itself. As the two fall in love, Miriam helps Rachel cope with her mental health and her Jewishness and find a sense of family within Miriam’s relatives. 

“Milk Fed” for sure has its icky parts but, to me, they feel purposeful and tactful. Overall, the novel is beautifully written and has a lovely and bittersweet ending. I was unable to put it down for my first read, and I can’t wait to read it again. 

“Stupid Children” by Lenore Zion
Disturbing rating: 8/10
Overall rating: 6/10

Content warning for suicide, sexually dubious content (never explained explicitly), relationships between adults and minors, and drug usage. 

“Stupid Children” is a short novel about the story of young Jane following her father’s suicide. She is placed in the care of an eccentric couple who follow a cult focused on cleansing children of their impurities. As the main character, Jane is revered as the second coming of the highest cult figure’s late wife. From there, the book spirals into a horrible record of what Jane endures under the cult’s care. 

According to the Goodreads description, “Stupid Children” was inspired by Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love,” another book that often populates these disturbing lit lists. I have yet to read “Geek Love,” but I do know it’s about a traveling circus, and it definitely belongs on these lists. 

“Stupid Children,” although less popular, has earned its place as well. Despite being only 130 pages on iBooks, I struggled to get through it due to the heaviness. On top of that, the plot felt poorly structured and the writing style annoying at times. 

“Stupid Children” definitely backs up its horrors with real substance and meaning but lacks direction. It’s worth the read, but I doubt it will ever make it to the leaderboard of horror fiction. 

“Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke” by Eric LaRocca
Disturbing rating: 9/10
Overall rating: 1/10

Content warning for sexually dubious content, body horror and bodily fluids and functions. It’s just really gross. There’s a tapeworm.

The most disturbing thing about this novella is how much it sucks. It feels like a try-hard attempt at edginess with nothing of substance under the surface. 

In “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke,” two women meet on an online forum and then engage in a BDSM-style relationship with a dominant figure and completely subservient slave. It quickly devolves into one of the characters being pushed past her physical and emotional limits. The relationship becomes really disgusting, and some unspeakable things are done. 

If you’re not easily nauseated and feel like reading some garbage, you might be so inclined to check out this short story, but let me save you the brainpower: just don’t. Watching paint dry would be a better use of your time. “Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke” is exploitative gore porn at its finest. Don’t even bother. 

“Paradise Rot” by Jenny Hval
Disturbing rating: 10/10
Overall rating: 8/10

Content warning for general grossness, body horror and bodily fluids. 

“Paradise Rot” is downright nasty. The story starts innocently enough with a foreign exchange college student seeking housing. She ends up finding a huge warehouse-turned-loft with a roommate in her mid-20s. The only hints of what is to come within the story are a few descriptions of the auditory impact of someone urinating. I was just as alarmed as you are reading that, I’m sure. 

The story snowballs when the roommate brings home a huge quantity of aging apples. . Originally a clean freak, the roommate becomes more and more accustomed to unhygienic conditions as the apples begin to rot — and the apartment along with it. I can’t say any more without spoiling the entire latter half of the book, but I was sick to my stomach almost the entire time. The writing style is just compelling enough to keep the pages turning.

Fortunately, “Paradise Rot” is a quick read, one I was able to finish in one setting. To spread the reading of “Paradise Rot” across several days must be a form of self-harm. Still, I genuinely recommend it to anyone who’s curious and isn’t prone to nausea. 

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About the Contributors
Sascha Harvey, Opinion Editor
Sascha Harvey is the opinon editor for The Sunflower. A junior majoring in graphic design, this is Harvey's third year on staff and second year as a section editor. He is originally from Arkansas but has no accent to speak of (unless you listen really hard). The graphic design major enjoys covering feature stories and local news. Harvey uses he/him pronouns.
Makenzie Miller, Illustrator/Designer
Makenzie Miller is an animation major and a first-year illustrator on The Sunflower. She is from Eureka, Kansas, and enjoys not only art but also cartoons, video games, softball, and literally any type of animal. She hopes to one day be a storyboarder/concept artist for an animation company.

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