The best books about descents into existential darkness

The Books I Picked & Why

Skin

By Kathe Koja

Book cover of Skin

Why this book?

Like its classic predecessor, The Cipher, Kathe Koja’s second novel brilliantly navigates artistic and romantic movements between the somatic and the transcendent, the erotic and the morbid, and ultimately between creativity and destruction. The book centers on metal sculptor Tess’s burgeoning relationship with Bibi, a transgressive performance artist whose radical visions aspire to an extreme embodiment of posthuman aesthetics.

Incorporating Tess’s metal sculptures into her performances, Bibi explores increasingly intense modes of expression through self-mutilation, cutting, and scarification, and the book plunges fearlessly into the parallel arcs of an eroding love and an increasingly deadly obsession. Koja’s prose bristles with a violent passion channeled into hyperfocus, deftly bounding between her characters’ intense interiorities and vivid descriptions of environments and embodied experiences. 


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Imperial Bedrooms

By Bret Easton Ellis

Book cover of Imperial Bedrooms

Why this book?

With Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis channels many of his career-long obsessions into a nihilistic work of Hollywood noir, written in a minimalist prose style that evokes both Raymond Chandler’s staccato brutalism and Joan Didion’s haunting lyricism. Imperial Bedrooms takes a razor to Hollywood’s beautiful surfaces while drawing the reader deeper and deeper into protagonist Clay’s misanthropic paranoia. The writing is masterful, existential horror frozen into sentences so spare and focused they often resemble haiku. It features what might be my favorite closing line in fiction: “The fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes, all the things you wipe away—I now want to explain all these things to her but I know I never will, the most important one being: I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people.”


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Asylum Piece

By Anna Kavan

Book cover of Asylum Piece

Why this book?

Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece presents exciting stylistic possibilities for the world of “personal fiction.” The book defies easy genre categorization, but one might describe it as an experimental, thematically connected collection of autofiction. Drawing on her own experiences in a Swiss sanitarium (from which she was dispatched in 1938), Kavan excavates her psychological traumas and filters them through sequences of vignettes and short stories, conveying states of extreme emotional distress through a restrained, intensely lucid form. An unblinking study of alienation, mental disarray, and feelings of helplessness under bureaucratic control, Asylum Piece takes up a lot of space in my mind.


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The Monk: A Romance

By Matthew Lewis

Book cover of The Monk: A Romance

Why this book?

Matthew Gregory Lewis wrote The Monk in his late teens, and the book glows with the heat of youthful rage, gloriously unconcerned with issues of propriety and “good taste.” The title monk, Ambrosio, unknowingly sets the course for his own damnation when he has sex with Matilda, a demon disguised as a beautiful woman. As the novel progresses, this illicit affair ignites Ambrosio’s most lurid urges, and he descends into extreme depravity: he dabbles in sorcery, he rapes, he murders. Gregory writes the book’s climax in visceral detail, gruesomely describing Ambrosio’s fate at the hands of Satan. Although The Monk features two main plotlines and, in truly Gothic fashion, periodic digressions into flashbacks and tangential subplots, it is brisk, lean, scary, and fiercely propulsive.


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The Demon

By Hubert Selby Jr.

Book cover of The Demon

Why this book?

To varying degrees, all of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novels depict descents into existential darkness. The Demon might be the one I like best, for the clarity of its allegorical power and for its intimate alignment between the development of narrative and protagonist psychology. Specifically, the novel is locked into the perspective of corporate employee Harry White, who submits to an unlocatable destructive drive that grows larger in his mind as he advances in his career. As Harry accrues more wealth and stability, his inner drive (or demon) compels him to infidelity, petty crime, and ultimately acts of extreme violence. The novel thus presents a course to damnation in alignment with America’s capitalist narrative of “growth” and “success,” serving as Selby’s most brutally direct social critique. Vicious, honest, hypnotizing fiction.  


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