Let me start things by apologizing for the grim nature of this post. I was thinking of what to write about and it just popped in my head: what are some of the most upsetting books for parents to read? And why are they so upsetting?
I love all sorts of awful horror movies and gore-splattered comics and nightmarish novels filled with things that go bump in the night -- but there are a few story concepts that are just too much for me now. In one case, there's a book I read before having kids that I don't remember finding particularly haunting at all, and then I read after becoming a parent and wow. Ugh. Gah. Just an entirely different experience altogether.
Okay, let's get to it -- a top 5 list of the most unpleasant books I've read since having kids (warning: some spoilers ahead!):
Room. There is so much dark beauty and hope in this story about 5-year-old who has lived his entire life locked in one room, but oh, it is so mind-bendingly sad, too. Having it narrated by the child puts you right inside his head, and truth be told, it wasn't the inhumane circumstances that made this book so hard for me -- it was the dedication and creativity his mother showed him by helping make his world as big and rich as possible. Comparing the fierce dedication she showed to making a life for him with "thousands of things to do" to my slacker reliance on Ninjago cartoons ... well. This book was not only upsetting in terms of imagining a child having to endure that, but IT MADE ME FEEL HORRIBLY GUILTY, OKAY?
The Road. Man, if you thought the movie was bleak, it had nothing on the book. I'm pretty sure this is the bleakest book that ever bleaked. It's just ... stark and evocative and horrifying and soaked in dread, and all the while, you're terribly, terribly worried about the main character and his son. That's really what this is all about: a parent's love for their child, and it's agonizing. I felt utterly haunted by this book all the way through, and its effects lingered long after the last page was turned.
We Need to Talk About Kevin. You probably know the basic story about what happens in this book (the movie was good too), but I'll tell you what I found the most difficult to read -- it wasn't the disturbing things Kevin did, it was the brutal way his mother Eva tortures herself with blame. If you've ever had a moment when you doubted your parenting skills, if you've ever felt that certain things didn't come as naturally to you as they seem to for other mothers, Eva's gripping words will get in your head and do nasty things in there. Honestly, for me the chilling acts of violence at the end were almost a relief compared to Eva's relentless self-exploration of her worth as a mother.
Pet Sematary. This is the book I read years ago, thought it was, you know, classic Stephen King, then tried to re-read it again sometime after my first son was born. MISTAKE. The thing about this book is that it's not just dealing with supernatural terror -- although there's plenty of that -- it deals with the death of a child. The descriptions of this event, and the father's grief, are almost too much on their own, but it gets worse. Oh my god, it get worse.
Crossed. I saved the blue-ribbon winner for last. I read this comic because I love Garth Ennis's Preacher, but this one is far more horror-gonzo. It's similar in a way to 28 Days Later, in that the afflicted are gripped with a sort of incomprehensible murderous violence, but it's much more twisted. It's a world of panic, rape, torture, and mutilation -- but that's not the worst part. No, the worst part is the female main character and her fierce devotion to her young son, and the fate that eventually befalls him. It's the sort of story where you think, I cannot BELIEVE the author went there ... and then it goes even further.
Okay! Well, that was cheery. If you feel up to it, share your own picks for the Most Upsetting Post-Parenthood Books of All Time.
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