The five most disturbing homicides in fiction

One day when I was ten years old, I plucked one of my mother’s books from a shelf. It was a shiny paperback with a knife dripping blood on the front–a “potboiler,” she called books of that type.

That story (which technically I wasn’t allowed to read) helped me graduate from Nancy Drew to the world of grisly homicide. I never developed my mother’s taste for potboilers, but I quickly discovered Poe and later, Truman Capote.

Some of these murder stories remain standouts–over the years, I’ve never quite shaken their chill. Here’s my list of the top five most disturbing homicides in fiction:

1. The Cask of Amontillado
I’ll never forget my horror as I read the story of a chained Fortunato being sealed behind a brick wall. It was the cheerfulness of his murderer that most unnerved me. Never again would I put my full trust in a smiling face.

2. The Tell-Tale Heart
Another Poe classic, this story of guilt and obsession is also told from the the murderer’s point of view. What sound could be louder than the victim’s heart beating from beneath those floorboards?

3. The Silence of the Lambs
This story is the perfect intersection of creepiness and terror. It blends cannibalism with the skin-deep antics of a cross-dressing tailor.

4. The Godfather
This book counts the many, many ways one can eliminate the business competition. My favorite was being garroted by a wire from behind. 

5. Jaws
Technically, death by monster-shark isn’t murder. But twenty years after reading this novel, I’m still won’t put a toe in the ocean. Jaws killed my love of swimming. So I’m counting it.

So what tales of murder have most disturbed you over the years? Are blood and gore as disturbing to you as the psychological aspect of a crime?

24 thoughts on “The five most disturbing homicides in fiction

  1. Strong list, Kathryn. Those would be on my list, too. I would add RED DRAGON, also by Thomas Harris, in which we first meet Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Reading it today, even with it’s dated Super 8mm technology, will drive home the chilling meaning of “invasion of privacy”.

    Just a few days ago, NBC announced that it will produce a 13-episode series based on Lecter. I’m headed to the store to stock up on fava beans and a nice Chianti.

  2. Even without the murder element, the book that most freaked me out was the EXORCIST, although you could say the priest sacrificed himself or was forced by the Demon to jump to his death. Plus the old priest was sort of snuffed by the demon. I still laugh at the notion that demon gal’s head could turn not 90, but 360 degrees, and more than once. Loved the projectile vomiting. This is the book, not the film.

    Most literary homicides of innocents disturb me. Deaths by edged weapons: knives machetes, or straight razors are the worst. None bother me to write, just when I read them.

  3. Great topic, Kathryn. Love your list as well. Mine? 1) The murders in Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell trilogy and in 2) LOST SOULS by Poppy Z. Brite.

  4. 1. RED DRAGON! It makes you reconsider your safety at home.

    2. Silence of the Lambs: Again, the vulnerability.

    3. What John said about edged weapons. It’s not the stabbing, it’s the cutting . . .

    4. From non-fiction, Helter Skelter, see #1 about the perceived safety of your home.

    5. The real stuff I saw when I worked for the prosecutor while in law school and as a defense attorney. Some of that has worked its way into some short stories, specifically the guy who posed as a door-to-door meat seller and talked his way into women’s homes.

    6. More Stephen King than I can list here.

    Nice bloodthirsty start to a Tuesday masquerading as a Monday!


  5. I remember doing a unit on Poe back in the 9th grade, I think. Or maybe 10th. Either way, I agree with you on those. Though…I don’t know. It’s kinda hard to just choose a couple of his. ALL of his stuff is the freakiest stuff I’ve ever read. And yes…yes. Your others are good ones too.

    (I’m so glad I actually knew all of these! LOL)

  6. Joe, I’m thrilled that they’re doing that series! Instead of Chianti, I’ll probably upgrade my home alarm, lol. John, I wanted to add THE EXORCIST as well–I think that death should count ’cause the Devil really did it.
    Joe H., I’m putting those two on my reading list. Terri, I agree with you about Helter Skelter. Non-fiction crime is almost too scary to read for me at times. Or too depressing. Like fairy tales, I think it’s the fictional crimes that let us process the unspeakable.

  7. Blood and gore are nothing compared to psychological terror. When a horror book – or movie – is nothing but people being killed, I have the equivalent of a mental shrug. But combine death with creepy insights into the murderer’s mind or twisting events in such a way that I don’t know what’s going on…now I’ve got that spine-tingling chill.

  8. Capote’s In Cold Blood still haunts me. And Ellroy’s, The Black Dahlia. I really can’t take this stuff, but because it was true and so obviously evil I read it. I have to say that I’m sorry I did. Some things cannot be erased from the memory.

  9. In Needful Things, when King had that crazy guy kill that dog.

    I knew he was going to do it, I just knew it, and I had a visceral reaction when he did.

    The woodchipper scenes in I, Alex Cross.

    I’m with Jillian, some things cannot be erased from the memory. Silence of the Lambs. Al Pacino when he played the devil **Oh, Good – I finally blocked the title to that film**


  10. Haven’t read “Red Dragon” but I am about to. My cousin said long ago, when it first came out, that it’s the only book that made him sleep with a gun beneath his pillow.

    That said, I don’t care much for Harris’ writing, so I’ll have to trudge through it.

    I see “Exorcist” is already up there. The book is far more terrifying than the movie.

    The most haunting scene for me was from the movie “White Squall” with Jeff Bridges. I doubt many of you have seen it — it did not do well — but here’s the spoiler.

    At the end of the movie, his boat sinks. It’s him, his wife, and a bunch of boys he took sailing. A sudden squall sinks the boat, and his wife is stuck in the boat’s main cabin. He hangs on for a while, looking at her through a port window as the boat drops into the ocean, but he lets go because he realizes the boys will die without him.

    The last thing he sees is his wife crouched against the cabin wall, looking back at him. That scene has been seared into my brain since I saw it.

    I know it’s not a “homocide” but still, death scene. I suppose the most disturbing “homocides” were from the forensics course I took in college, but those were real deaths. One guy had an arrow shoved up his anus, and that’s a hard image to forget.

    – Eric

  11. Yeah, I didn’t find any of those stories all that violent or gory. I’ve actually always found THE TELLTALE HEART more humorous than scary. My list would be:

    1. BATTLE ROYALE. If you don’t find schoolchildren murdering each other in cold blood disturbing, then professional help is in order.

    2. FLOATING CITY. The book opens with a man elbowing a woman in the face during sex so many times that her visage caves in. And then he serves her master her body in a soup. And that’s just chapter 1.

    3. SECOND SKIN. S&M torture scene that closes out the book. There is masturbation, asphyxiation, and a death in less than three paragraphs.

    4. MISERY. That book taught me more about managing your fan base than anything, or anyone, since. You ain’t catchin’ me gettin’ my foot lopped off and cauterized with a blowtorch. No, sir.

    5. I’m not sure what my fifth is, but I’m sure it’s in something Patty Highsmith wrote.

  12. I tend not to seek out the gruesome as it is *too* memorable, but I can recall 1 novel and 2 short stories specifically that got to me:

    “The Rag Thing” – an old (1951) sci-fi short story by Donald Wollheim. An old cleaning rag, covered in dirt, water, grease, animal fat, a bloodstain or two, lies abandoned behind a radiator. What happens when the heat gets turned off too early and the Rag Thing now needs heat…?

    A Stephen King short story about an oil slick in a lake, that feeds on doomed teens who are playing around late at night on a float in the lake. Creeped me out!! (And has made those floating decks in a lake something I avoid to this day!)

    “The Dante Club” by Matthew Pearl. This first book by Pearl was a great read, and the murderer is killing his victims a la the tortures of the Circles of Hell…? Chilling and gross, but I couldn’t put it down!

  13. I immediately went to what scared me in non-fiction. In fiction, these would have to be some of my favorites: Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane. Harlan Coben’s, Hold Tight and Just One Look, Lisa Gardner’s, Live to Tell, and Tess Gerritsen’s, The Bone Garden. Yep, that’s my list.

  14. I’ve got to add another Stephen King killing – in his recent short 1922 (Full Dark, No Stars).

    This is a nasty collection, but what disturbed about the first story is that the protagonist ‘cozens’ his 15-year-old son into helping him murder his domineering wife.

    Such a vile, unnatural thing to do, to pollute his son with his murderous plan. Needless, they pay a horrible price for killing her.

  15. Lots of great candidates here! I realize I’m firmly in the fiction, psychological camp by nature–I can’t stomach much gore or true crime, even in the news. Robin, I was also struck by Stephen King’s 1922, not least because in FRESH KILLS, our short story collection by TKZ a couple of years ago, in my story called BLOOD REMAINS, a character was also murdered (spoiler alert) by being thrown down a well. It was amazing to see what is essentially the same device–being thrown down a well–treated in a gore/horror style, rather than from a psychological/paranormal point of view. I could barely finish reading King’s story, it grossed me out so much!

  16. For books, believe it or not, The Invisible Man creeped me out to no end as a kid. Not for the violence or any of that but more like a be careful what you wish for type of creepiness.

    Other than that, my own imagination can conjure horrors that defy even the source.

    at the doc’s office:

    Basil: Doc, it hurts

    Doc: Where is it on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the worst pain you can imagine.

    Basil: (suddenly cringes in horror, knees drawing up to chest, tears forming as he looks around nervously, lips quivering) uh….um….one.

    Doc: (to Mrs Basil) What’s going on with his imagination?

    Mrs Basil: (to doc) You don’t want to go there. Its not a normal place.

  17. Hey, Kathryn, as someone who abhores violence, I’m surprised I know every story you cited. Poe was probably the most vivid storyteller of cruelty and evil for my young heart to handle. Understand, I was terrorized by rediculous movies such as “The Blob” and “The Crawling Eye.” Never mind “Night of the Living Dead” or “The Body Snatchers.” Made it really tough to live in a house with a large and shadowy basement. It explains why I don’t live in a house with one now.

    BTW- Joe Moore . . . I just read you post. You are a sick man. I’m just sayin’. . . πŸ™‚

  18. Absolutely, add in Needful Things, the horrifying dog scene and Misery when she kills the cop with the riding mower.

    Actually, I can thank King for my near pathological fear of the state of Maine.


  19. Great list on your post & in the comments. Two books I read came to mind.

    Joyce Carol Oates -ZOMBIE is loosely based in Jeffrey Dahmer and is told from the deep POV of a sociopath. A small book that packs a wallop.

    Dean Koontz – THE BAD PLACE Many of Koontz’s books have disturbing elements that often border on horror. I used to read him when I traveled on business, but this book about a kid who could teleport himself anywhere to kill people had me looking in my hotel closet & under my bed. I stopped reading him for years. Thankfully I outgrew that phase of my pansy years.

    Thanks, Kathryn.

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