Heart of Darkness

Two times this year, a book has let me down by not being dark enough. I felt like the authors held back to make things a little more palatable – The main characters got off too lightly. There wasn’t enough at stake. Things resolved themselves a little too neatly.

I don’t like it when a story feels reigned in. I want the characters to hit bottom and keep falling.

I do feel a little guilty about this. Why do I want bad things to happen to good characters, and why do I roll my eyes at a happy ending? Schadenfreude? Shock value? Or, am I not quite over my goth phase of 1996-1997? I think it’s a bit of all of those things. I need an emotional connection to really enjoy a story, and the dark and depressing route is the easiest way to my heart.

Here are the two examples that came up this year, the darker alternatives I found, and even more dark recommendations for the long winter nights ahead. BONUS: All four books featured below are by Canadian authors!

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

Slammerkin is slang for a loose dress or a loose woman.

The Virgin Cure / Slammerkin

I started The Virgin Cure with very high expectations. I LOVED Ami McKay’s debut, The Birth House, for the depth of historical research, its strong female characters, and for being absolutely unflinching in its examination of pregnancy, birth, and how women navigate these events in a male-dominated world.

The premise sounds dark enough: a young girl is sold into prostitution during a syphilis epidemic in 19th century Manhattan, while men line up for the latest “cure:” sex with a virgin. Twelve year old Moth has her share of hardships, but with such a build-up, I was expecting more. She is saved from a life of prostitution almost as soon as it begins, and the whole Virgin Cure set up doesn’t really pay off. Much of the story focuses on Moth’s cravings for fine clothes and food and living arrangements. The happy ending feels tacked on.

When I read a review that referred to The Virgin Cure as “Slammerkin presented by Disney,” I knew what my next read was going to be.  Slammerkin‘s Mary (who I immediately liked more than Moth because… her name isn’t Moth) goes from angsty 18th century school girl to “clapped and carrying” (i.e. has an STD and is pregnant) with spectacular speed. Author Emma Donaghue (of Room fame) doesn’t shy away from what a young prostitute’s life would be like. Mary’s late-term abortion is described in graphic detail, made even worse by the matter of fact way it’s presented.

Like Moth, Mary’s craving for fine things drives her downfall. She has a chance to redeem herself by becoming a seamstress, but once she’s had a taste of freedom and colour in her life, she can’t go back to being ordinary. Mary’s life is a cautionary tale against materialism, a feminist rant against the narrow set of choices afforded to young women, and a goddamn tragedy. No happy endings here.

It was the bargain most women made, whether wife or whore, one side of the sheets or the other. “Don’t you see?… You got a thing, ain’t you, that any man, from a beggar to a baronet, will pay to lay his hands on.”

Anna From Away by D.R. MacDonald

Dark cover art, too. Love it.

From Away / Anna From Away

I wrote about From Away a couple weeks back. Like The Virgin Cure, From Away felt sanitized, and I had a hard time connecting with the characters.  Conveniently, a book with a very similar premise (and title) came out this fall. Anna From Away examines similar themes of belonging, isolation, and the changing nature of community. Both main characters come to the martimes to find themselves. Both find love as well as a burgeoning drug trade that threatens to tear the small communities apart. But Anna’s story is darker; the plot is messier and the consequences are heavier.

I found it more realistic that when Anna interfers with drug dealers, she doesn’t just walk away as Marion did in From Away. She endangers her own life and those of her new found friends. Indeed, lives are lost. Anna’s romantic life is similarly complicated. A flirtation turned one night stand threatens her place in the community, and her relationship with loner Red Murdoch is overshadowed by his late lover Rosaire.

MacDonald uses the harsh winter landscape to enhance the dark mood. Having Anna arrive in February was genius – Canadians know that February is the darkest month. I thought of the moors in Wuthering Heights while reading about the winter coast and that’s a comparison I don’t make lightly!

Soft, hazy snow hung like gauze over the afternoon, everything cast in grey shades, darker, lighter. The sea was no more violent than the silent fields, and just as still, a driftwood grey, ice white and startling along the shore, fixed in a slack tide.

More of my Favourite Dark and Depressing Reads:

  • Anything by Irvine Welsh. Once you’ve warmed up with Trainspotting, read Glue and brace yourself for some of the most depressing scenes in modern literature.
  • Lullabies for Little Criminals by Canadian author Heather O’Neil. Thirteen year old Baby has to deal with realities of life on the street. Her twenty six year old heroin addict father is hardly equipped to help. Heartbreaking and dazzling and WHEN is Heather O’Neill going to write another book?!
  • She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Dolores is one of the most pathetic yet mesmerizing heroines I’ve ever read. A brutally honest look at abusive relationships. The wildly polarized reviews on Goodreads say it all – you will either love or hate this book.
  • Push by Saphhire. The epitome of bad things happening to good characters. Precious is repeatedly raped and abused by both parents. She has her first child (by her father) at 12. The baby has Downs Syndrome. She is pregnant again at 16 and has contracted HIV. That this book ends on a hopeful note is a testament to Sapphire’s talent.

Recommendations from the Internets

I asked my Book Blogging crew and Twitter followers for their favourite dark reads.

Do you like dark books? Do you have a favourite dark or depressing read?  


  1. Rick MacDonnell

    Yay for Emma Donaghue, she’s fantastic. Such a good recommendation.

    I plan on reading “She’s Come Undone” and “The Birth House” by the end of the year, actually. It’s about time I get back on the Wally Lamb train.

    As for dark and depressing reads … I’m not entirely sure how many of these I’ve ever read, actually. None come to mind, at least none that I’ve enjoyed. Hmm. I’ve got to think more on this. I’ll get back to you.

    Great idea for a post, by the way. 🙂

    • lauratfrey

      I Know This Much Is True is one of your favs, right? I liked She’s Come Undone better (but not by much, they’re both good).

      I need to reread The Birth House now that I have kids. Lots about the medicalization of birth. At the time I was like “hmm interesting,” now I have *somewhat* stronger opinions 🙂

  2. Tammy

    Slammerkin is a great read, and so is She’s Come Undone – definitely an unusual and self-destructing character. Another good depressing read is Beloved by Toni Morrison. Thanks for adding a few more recommendations to my ever growing TBR pile! LOL

  3. Kristilyn

    There are some depressing books I can handle, but some I just don’t get. I hated Push and couldn’t get into We Need to Talk About Kevin. But I loved Room and I really loved The Road. Night was also super good! I read Running with Scissors LONG ago and really hated it. I also saw the movie and they really made it all happier than it was.

    I like books with happy endings. Books that are fun to read and make me happy with the characters, the writing, or both. Sometimes life gets so busy that I need to just veg with a good book — if it drags me down, I just don’t feel good.

  4. Megan

    I’m way more of a happy-ending kind of girl, so I haven’t read any of these. Although I’ve read Room by Emma Donaghue. My favourite dark and depressing read probably goes back to high school when I read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which I actually ready enjoyed (maybe because of the part with the toboggan)!

    Great post!

  5. Brie @ Eat Books

    I know We Need to Talk About Kevin is talked about a lot nowadays, but you should read it. I first read it about 5-6 years ago and am still haunted by it. I’m currently re-reading it and still finding it just as disturbing at the first time.

    Have you read Room? I liked that book a lot, but one I forgot to mention was Still Missing by Chevy Stevens (who is a Canadian author from Vancouver Island), which I think I liked even better than Room. (I reviewed it on my blog). Since Still Missing is told from the adult’s point of view, the psychological aspect of it is deep and disturbing. I couldn’t put it down. The ending got a little crazy, but I still enjoyed it.

    The first time I read She’s Come Undone, I was 14 and on a plane all by myself to visit family in Europe. I devoured that book. But then two years ago I re-read it and found I couldn’t stand the main character. I liked I Know This Much is True more, although it’s been years since I read that one too. His newest one, The Hour I Last Believed, was my last favorite of his books.

    I want to re-read the Birth House too, I barely remember much of it now. Another book I really enjoyed about midwives was Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, about a midwife in the 80s who on one cold winter night, performs a Caesarean on one of her patients who appears to have died during labour, in order to save the baby. The story examines the after-affects, both consciously and lawfully, of such a choice. Sorry, got off topic here!

    • lauratfrey

      Wow these are all great recommendations! *updates Goodreads to-read list*

      I’ve been thinking about a blog post on depictions of pregnancy & birth in literature for a long time, I just never get around to if. I’ve never heard of the Midwives book, but that sounds right up my alley!

      Whoa, I can’t imagine reading She’s Come Undone at 14. I think I was quite a bit older, probably 20, and I still found it pretty disturbing. I wonder how it would hold up to a re-read?

      I have read Room and I really liked it. I reviewed it a while back on the blog. She’s a wonderful writer.

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