Probably the earliest film legend that exists involves the story of the Lumiere Brothers’ 50 second film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat.” Supposedly, when this film (a literal 50 second clip of a train arriving at a train station) aired in 1895, the idea of film was so new that audience members fled from the theaters in horror, believing the train was going to come out of the screen and crush them. True or not, it highlights something art has been doing since the first Neanderthal drew a pair of boobs on a cave wall. Art shocks us. It always has, and it always will. Exhibit B? When Michelangelo’s David was sculpted, Florentines were so offended they had the statues’ junk covered with a big, fake fig leaf. I don’t mind David’s dong being censored, but only if it’s a temporary stopgap measure until the artist crafts a new wang that’s either small enough to be actually funny or large enough to earn my begrudging respect. But it wasn’t just Michelangelo’s statue that was forced to put on a vegan a banana hammock. A vast majority of Renaissance art from the 1500’s was similarly covered in order to not offend the delicate sensibilities of an Italian population that at the time (checks notes) was overseen by the most morally bankrupt version of the Catholic Church this side of the film Spotlight, constantly at war with both itself and foreign powers, and birthed all the real-life supervillains that inspired Machiavelli’s The Prince. Marone…
And those baguette smokers from the first half of the previous paragraphs aren’t getting off the hook either! You know what they were doing when they saw the equivalent of the first home movie? They were pummeling the human rights out of Algeria and invading Madagascar. The question is, how can cultures so prone to violence and horniness in real life get so offended/terrified by the mere suggestion of violence/boobs in art? Is it because most middle-class art enjoyers believe art should be sanitized as a thin veneer over the daily savagery that is inherent in capitalist society? Is it because people that work for a living prefer their art to mindlessly entertain after a long day at the office? Perhaps because many people are pearl-clutchers that are willing to write off some artfully produced dongs/blood/bloody dongs to make themselves feel morally superior to degenerate artists?
I’ve done precisely zero research on this and have no intention of doing any. But it doesn’t take a genius (thank God!) to realize is that art has been pushing its own boundaries since boundaries were first set down. Film has gotten a lot crazier since the Lumiere brothers’ train movie. Mandy, You Were Never Really Here and Raw all came out in the last few years alone and if a Belgian colonial official saw any of them, he’d be too upset to beat his daily quota of Congolese rubber harvesters to death. Literature has gone the same way. Every awesomely depraved of culturally significant fiction from American Psycho, which almost didn’t get published in the 90’s, to anything written by Bukowksi couldn’t have been published even 100 years ago. Hell, you put Brett Easton Ellis in any historical moment that’s not between 190 and now and they’d probably burn him at the stake for being a witch. Violent and full of adult content though they may be, no piece of art deserves to be written off solely because of its content. Nor should a particularly gory piece of literature or film deserved to be remembered for gratuitous gore alone (looking at you, remake of The Evil Dead!). Tons of art has been produced and a lot of it is crap. Sometimes artists try to disguise that crap with some sort of shock factor and in the end produce momentarily shocking crap. The five books below are some of the most twisted pieces of fiction I’ve ever encountered, and I majored in English at a state school, so you know I did ALL the readings… Shock for shock’s sake is not their intention however, each of these works has a deeper meaning that is punctuated and accentuated by all that sweet, sweet sex and violence. Reading them may not always be pleasant, but they are all worthwhile reads. They deserve your attention. They deserved to be discussed. They deserved to be picked up by you at your local independent bookstore. If you can make it to the end of them, they just might widen your understanding of what art is. These books will force you to stare into the abyss, but maybe in the abyss’ gaze you’ll find some understanding of who we as humans truly are.
1. Crossed (Vol. 1) by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows
Technically, the first entry on this list is a comic book. Some people might get thrown off by that, those same people also like smelling their own farts because the odor reminds them of the quality of their artistic taste. There are hundreds of examples of artistically relevant comic book art from the last three decades alone, and comics themselves offer a unique way to take on long standing literary genres and the tropes that hang around their necks like a snooty albatross. You want a fresh take on Holocaust biographies involving furry animals? Maus! You fiending for a love letter to classic literature that plays out like a Victorian version of the Justice League? The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! You want a version of The Walking Dead that has a logical endpoint and is readable? Ladies and gentlemen, the series Crossed!
Crossed has a lot of things going for it before you even open the book. One, it’s written by Garth Ennis, easily one of the best living writers currently producing content in the modern day. Second, it’s creator owned, meaning all the various writers and artists of the series are receiving a greater cut of the profits than if they were making it for major comics company. Most importantly, these writers were allowed to act with a greater level of artistic freedom than at larger companies and GODDAMN do they run with it.
The story of Crossed plays out like any stereotypical zombie story. A strange disease infects people, those people infect others and society rapidly collapses. What sets the monsters of Crossed apart from a stereotypical zombie is that the “crossed” as they’re called by survivors aren’t true zombies. Whatever disease turns people into “crossed” leaves them alive but dissolves whatever part of their brain makes them people. The “crossed” can speak, maintain the relative intelligence and skills they had prior to infection, and cooperate with each other in small groups. Crossed cops and soldiers still no how to shoot, crossed pilots still know how to fly planes. However, all biological imperatives for self-preservation, human connection and morality are thrown by the wayside. The only clue you have as to has “crossed” is the literal crossed shaped rash that develops on their face. The crossed care for nothing they can’t kill, eat or hump (spoiler alert: the order in which they do those things doesn’t matter!). In fact, it’s heavily implied that the level of pain they cause gives them greater levels of pleasure, to the point that a crossed a crossed is run over by a truck and loudly claims to be having an orgasm right before the front tire crushes her head.
Crossed is messed up, to put it plainly. The story begins with a crossed stabbing a guy and then having sex with the wound. This first volume is full of graphic depictions of dismemberment, sexual abuse and a lot of torture. At first, the sheer over the top nature of the violence is exciting and new. Then it will curdle in your mind and give you a stomachache. The leading crossed villain is a nose-tackle sized biker named “Horsecock” that fights with the exact thing he’s named after. This is kind of funny until he graphically caves in someone’s head with it, then it’s very suddenly not. The non-crossed characters in this story aren’t any better. The human characters are selfish, flawed and in no way the badass that have defined zombie story protagonists from Ash Williams to Rick Grimes. Hell, the closest thing this story has to a Rick Grimes actively executes several grade-school aged children. The crossed infection doesn’t turn anyone into heroes, and no one has any illusions about rebuilding humanity or saving anyone. You will hate the protagonists of “Crossed.” You will hate how inured they become to death. The ease with which they kill strangers and each other will upset you. This book doesn’t give you any illusions about human heroics in times of crisis. Heroic actions routinely get people violently torn to pieces in this book. The ones that make it are those that can keep their heads down and survive just one more day in a world where there’s no longer any reason to.
The crossed are our dark side made manifest. They don’t give one the luxury of looking at them as some fundamentally changed “other” the way a half rotting zombie does. The crossed version of your mother will remember raising you. Your crossed husband will be able to recite the lyrics to your wedding song. They will both try to rape and eat you just for the hell of it. The crossed have the same dark thoughts we all have in our moments of anger, shame or desperation. The crossed however, act on them. A character in the book says of those that changed: “There was no great secret to the crossed. I’d never seen one do anything a human being couldn’t think of doing.” That, more than the violence, is the terrifying thing about Crossed. The monsters that populate this book aren’t that different from us. People act like crossed every single day.
P.S. There are currently something like 20 paperback volumes of Crossed. Generally, each volume consists of one or several self-contained stories with only a handful of instances of characters reappearing. The volume just described is its own story and doesn’t require any additional reading to conclude the story, allowing you to read more (or not) to your heart’s content. I saw Crossed: Psychopath (the second volume) in a bookstore a few weeks ago. I flipped through it, saw a character holding a woman’s severed breast in a plastic bag and put it back down. Volume one was great, but I’m all set.
2: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
Every teenager has that period in their life where they start to feel grown-up and want to do grown-up things. They want to drink beer, smoke pot, listen to all the songs and watch all the TV shows their parents told them they weren’t old enough to watch at age eight. Sometimes this can lead to an appreciation for good things The Misfits or gross-out horror movies (looking at you Evil Dead 2!). It can also lead to a love of garbage that tries to be provocative instead of being good. Being a pretentious little dirtbag in college, I tried picking up a play by the renowned French mental patient, the Marquis de Sade. The infamous French writer was reviled during his lifetime and after for writing plays full of gross sexual humor and passionately arguing that boundaries shouldn’t exist in artistic expression. I agree with this, but in practice his own work is terrible. The play I read had a character make a joke about licking butts that wasn’t funny in English or French and I immediately checked out. Wikipedia any of the other stuff he wrote and it all sounds equally weird. Weirdness is fun and all, but this guy writes like a teenager who just discovered he can say “fuck” to his friends not get in trouble. His characters are wooden and exist only as a conduit for bad words and expressing a militant atheism that sounds like a dumb guy impersonating Christopher Hitchens. De Sade is proof that shocking behavior without some deeper meaning is lame as hell. The band GWAR might be ridiculously violent in terms of the music, but at least they make cogent points about media censorship. De Sade takes all the fun out of violence, sex and blasphemy by taking the seriousness out of topics that are by nature full of passion and intensity.
Georges Bataille was a French writer who undeniably took some inspiration from the Marquis. The key difference is that his books are great. A career academic and writer, Bataille lived through two world wars and in the same way those conflicts blew what most Europeans thought they knew about the world to pieces, Bataille wrote books that upended how “normal” people view sex, death and what it means to transgress social norms. His books are surreal, but even in translation the quality of the writing is there.
Bataille’s novella The Story of the Eye centers around an unnamed male narrator and his female friend, Simone. The two exist in the throes of teenage passion and begin the book by engaging in some pretty by the number teenage hanky panky…for like three pages. Their sexual adventures quickly turn bizarre, involving everything from pee, orgies and obsession with peeing on eggs to an extremely unsettling series of scenes where they rope a friend into their adventures and drive her to literal insanity and suicide. This suicide leads to what is only the second weirdest sex scene in this book.
The two main characters continue their sexual adventures, eventually running away from their small French town to go abroad where their sexual compulsions grow in intensity, involving higher levels of violence, death and the grosser of the bodily fluids (yes, I’m talking about THOSE bodily fluids!). It’s in these scenes of depravity that Bataille’s writing is at its best. He takes scenes that should be disgusting and makes them captivating through the power of his description. His description of a bull fight witnessed by the two characters is described like a graceful dance up to and including the part where the matador is violently stabbed through the eye by the bull’s horn, prompting the onset of horniness for both of the little freaks this story follows. Future depictions of blasphemous murder involving urine, strangulation and the torn-out eye of a dead priest are equally enthralling to read. His descriptions are beautiful, but beautiful in the way lightening is beautiful. Or Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.” Terrifying, dark but it’s almost impossible to look away.
Fair warning, this book suffers from being translated into English. The dialogue seems wooden at times and sometimes I found it difficult to understand when the characters try to articulate why they do all the weird things they do. The story is less than a hundred pages and the edition I had an essay by Bataille himself about the story along with two other essays by the excellent critics Susan Sontag and Ronald Barthes. All of these lend background to the story and help iron out some of the things that were perhaps lost in translation. Bataille’s autobiographical essay is just as crazy as the story itself and essential to getting the most out of this story.
3: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is the undisputed king of modern Gothic literature. His most famous stories are either creepy and unsettling or horrifically violent and usually both. Like many great authors of the era, many of his works have been adapted into films, with No Country for Old Men winning four Oscars and The Road also being pretty good. Sadly McCarthy’s third book, Child of God, got the short end of the stick. It was made into a film by noted Hollywood creep James Franco during a four year stretch when he single-handedly tried to ruin the concept of film adaptions by directing and acting in Child of God, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. These movies all came out between 2013 and 2016 and they all suck. Franco got a Golden Globe for playing the infamous director/actor/producer of The Room and probable alien, Tommy Wiseau, and Wiseau could for sure make a more watchable version of each of these movies. At least they’d be funny. Franco clearly respects authors like Faulkner, Steinbeck and McCarthy, it’s a shame he doesn’t have enough respect for them to leave their works alone.
Terrible film adaptions aside, Child of God is a relatively small-scale story compared to McCarthy’s other novels. Humans aren’t struggling to survive the apocalypse, no invincible hit-men are chasing down cartel money opportunistically stolen by West Texas scumbags, there’s no grand historical myths about the settling of the Old West to dismantle. Child of God focuses on the life, decline and death of rural outcast Lester Ballard. A dirt-poor, uneducated orphan, Ballard’s clear mental illnesses and upsetting behavior is only made worse when poverty forces him to try and make a living out in the woods. Armed with only a rifle and the basic survival skills one picks up when one lives in the woods, Ballard proceeds to terrify his rural Tennessee community for like 180 pages. Ballard’s repeated failures to build a dignified life for himself or make the occasional human connection leads him down a road that ends with him being a serial murdering necrophiliac that literally lives in a cave with a harem of murdered women whose bodies he keeps around for the exact things one imagines a necrophiliac does.
This book reads like a certain kind of genre novel American writers have been producing for over a century. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth revolves around a New York socialite struggling financially and having her dreams crushed until she commits suicide. Frank Norris’ McTeague centers around the world’s dumbest dentist whose attempts to reach middle class respectability end with him murdering two of the roughly three people he’s ever been friends with. Novels like these derive their entertainment from watching a normal person struggle mightily against society before being crushed by forces beyond their control. Child of God is at its core a modern retelling of this type of story updated for an America that at the time of publication was in the middle of the Vietnam War and beginning the transition to a post-industrial economy that left many of its blue collar workers strung out on opiates and living only slightly better actual lives than the fictional Lester Ballard. Ballard’s behavior is not excused by McCarthy or anyone in the book. In fact, this book is typical of McCarthy’s prose in that there’s almost punctuation, little indication of who is actually talking during dialogue, and the narration possesses all the detached objectivity of a police report. The message to take from this book is that Ballard, or any person in his situation isn’t all the different from non-necrophiliac serial murderers. Lester wasn’t born a monster; he became one because society stripped him of everything before it literally came for his humanity. Ballard didn’t have much from the start, but when he lost everything, he took from others. We’re all just a few bad rolls of the dice away from joining him. As McCarthy says of his creation: “His name was Lester Ballard – a child of God, much like yourself, perhaps.”
4: The Sluts by Dennis Cooper
Dennis Cooper rocks. He’s been writing weird, horrifying, beautiful fiction for like 30 years and I hope he lives forever. His 2004 novel The Sluts is by far his craziest and is the gay murder mystery for the internet age none of us knew we needed. The whole story is told in the form of blog posts, chat room conversations, emails and what I’m pretty sure is some kind of Yelp-esque review site for rent boys. The story centers around a bunch of perverts lusting after and then investigating the “disappearance” of a particular young sex worker named in the book’s beginning as “Brad.” If anyone remembers cruising Craigslist personal ads for a laugh, this book expertly highlights the depravity you can find online when people can post things anonymously and indulge in whatever weird things they’re into that got them dis-invited from all future family gatherings.
The book is full of men retelling their encounters with the mysterious male prostitute “Brad” which become more violent and perverse as the story goes on. There’s a part where a guy describes breaking Brad’s femur with a blunt object that made me wince as I read it. How true these stories are however, is up to interpretation. It’s impossible to tell which of these stories are real, if the described as “Brad” is the same person described in these encounters or who the real “Brad” truly is. In the age of internet rumors like “Momo” and other equally dumb boogiemen, The Sluts perfectly highlights the difficulty of perceiving fact from fiction online. It also highlights the grossness and violence that people repress in their daily lives but express through social media accounts and private chat rooms. Was “Brad” slowly dismembered over a period of days, kept alive by a particularly sadistic john for his own pleasure? Did “Brad” elect to die to get money for his family, or because he wanted to end the cycle of addiction that broke his spirit? Is anything described in this book real, or is it all perverse fan fiction for lonely gay men? A mixture of the two akin to the Devil’s own chocolate milk? Who knows. The blog posts seem legit though…
5: Hogg by Samuel Delaney
This book. Holy shit, this book. Samuel Delaney is mostly known for being a science fiction writer. His book Dhalgren is long but I loved every page of it. His other, shorter stuff is pretty cool too. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He’s an LGBTQ person and apparently has written some enlightening essays and memoirs about his sexuality. I don’t know how any of that lead to the novel Hogg, ‘cause this is the craziest thing you’ll ever read. The first paragraph of page one of this book was the single most graphic thing I’d ever read up to that point. Every subsequent page was worse.
The main character of this book is teenage narrator referred to only as “cocksucker.” That’s the least objectionable part of this book. Our narrator follows the character who is the book’s namesake, a truck driving rapist for hire named Hogg. Hogg doesn’t bathe. Ever. Hogg only eats fast food and drinks beer in order to maintain a large gut to make his job extra disgusting for his victims. Hogg shits his pants and doesn’t bother changing them. He does this several times throughout the book. Hogg is the single most reprehensible creature to be put to paper in a work of fiction. This guy wasn’t thought up, he was spawned from whatever in our collective unconsciousness birthed 4chan forums. He is the human equivalent of black mold for your soul. This book is one long description of him and his troglodyte buddies breaking every taboo that separates us from the demons in a Bosch painting. Every imaginable bodily fluid is spurted and/or consumed. Indescribable horrors happen to people of all races, ages and genders and the concept of justice, cosmic or temporal, does not exist in this novel. No deserving punishments are given and never is anyone dumb enough to expect that justice to occur. A portion of the book where a mentally ill friend of Hogg pounds a nail through his penis and goes on a killing spree is a welcome respite from the rest of the book, because those victims are given more dignity than anyone else in this story gets. This is the only book on this list that made me physically ill. At one point I was reading this in a park and was so overcome with disgust that I hid it in my bag. Not because it was too gross, but because I didn’t want a bunch of strangers to know I had a copy of this thing.
This book will push you to the limit of what you think your mind can handle. It’s the ink-and-paper equivalent of the Ludovico Technique. It will cause you discomfort to the point of actual physical reactions, but it’s almost impossible to put down. Hogg is the most powerful piece of fiction you will ever read. I hated every word of it, but few books have made the impression on me that this one did. I don’t think about my favorite books to the degree I think about Hogg. Or try to understand Hogg. Or try to forget Hogg. Hogg is a walking endorsement for why art is made in the first place. As you wade through it, you are confronted by the very worst things humans can do to each other. You see these things acted out with glee. This book holds you down like you hold a puppy’s face in a puddle of piss it leaves on the floor and forces you to gaze at words arranged in the most horrifying combination ever published. It’s a story you won’t be able to forget. A story you shouldn’t forget. It will take you to the very edge of what behavior can be defined as “human,” and force you to examine just how much of Hogg might exist in you. Holy shit, this book…