They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle-class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker
-Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”
Here’s a first-world reading problem (recognizing that all reading problems are first-world problems): when you expect to be emotionally devastated by a book, but you remained unmoved. You wish the characters made even worse choices, or that they suffered even harsher consequences. You may question your drive to see (fictional) people suffer, but the drive remains: you want it darker.
If you have that problem, here are some solutions.
Only this first example is legit. I read the first book, and specifically sought out the second because I wanted the same thing, only darker:
You want to read: Historical CanLit about sexual exploitation
You want it dark: The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
You want it darker: Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue
For a book about a twelve year old girl sold into domestic slavery, and then to a brothel, The Virgin Cure is so light and inconsequential, from the plot points to the convenient feminist mentor/mother figure, to the main character’s name, “Moth”. There was no character development, no insight, and no dark, dirty horror – shouldn’t be tough given the story and the squalor of the setting. So, enter Slammerkin. Mary, another poor, unwanted young girl, sells herself into the sex trade – not on purpose, of course. But she’s soon whispering “fourteen and clean” at men on the street and meets her own mother/mentor figure, Doll Higgins, who is anything but convenient. These characters are real, the setting horrifically evoked as just as dirty and fetid as you’d imagine 18th century London to be, and there are several moments, not only the end but especially the end, that will leave the reader breathless. The Crimson Petal and the White would probably fall somewhere in the middle of these, for your gritty historical prostitute tales, but for unrelenting darkness, Slammerkin wins.
The rest of these pairings came to me in hindsight, and in some cases I read the “darker” book first.
You want to read about: 19th century French infidelity
You want it dark: Madame Bovary by Gaustave Flaubert
You want it darker: Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola
Yes, Madame Bovary is already pretty dark. But Emma gets to enjoy a couple of years of shopping before the bill collectors come, and of jeepin’ with Rodolphe in his carriage before he tires of her. Poor Thérèse lives in a dank alley and even when she’s getting it on with Laurent, it never sounds all that sexy (their first encounter conveyed in this sentence: “The act was silent and brutal.”) The end is reminiscent of Mme. B, with more death (spoiler?) The writing is so stark, and horror so unrelenting – take it from me, do NOT read the morgue scene while eating lunch!
You want to read about: Modern marriage
You want it dark: Mitzi Bytes by Kerry Clare
You want it darker: Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard
This isn’t totally fair. Mitzi Bytes isn’t really the story of a marriage. It’s the story of how the main character navigates relationships with her husband, her kids, her mother, her friends, her sister in law, and herself (IRL self + online alter ego). But Mitzi is a perfect example of a book I enjoyed, but wanted to be darker, particularly when it came to her marriage. There were revelations and family secrets on both sides, but the marital conflict was solved so quickly, and honestly, I don’t want to read about husbands who are constantly bringing their wives tea. I read Listen to Me months ago, and it’s the kind of marriage I want to read about – claustrophobic, totally dysfunctional, but with moments of tenderness. An ill-fated road trip and pain-in-the-ass anxious dog (symbolic, fer sure) should tear this couple apart, and almost does. I tore through this short book and the ending left me feeling sick. If you’ve ever wanted to scream “LISTEN TO ME” to your spouse (or actually done it) you’ll love this.
You want to read: Historical fiction featuring circuses
You want it dark: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
You want it darker: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
The marketing copy for The Lonely Hearts Hotel says “With echoes of The Night Circus, a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans in love with each other since they can remember whose childhood talents allow them to rewrite their future,” which is a terrible sentence, and also quite unfair, as people who loved The Night Circus are not gonna be into the realness of TLHH, circuses notwithstanding. Seriously, check out the Goodreads reviews. One of the more self aware one-star reviewer says “maybe I’m too much of a prude or too ignorant,” but the rest can’t get over the fact that most early 20th century orphans aren’t dropped off at orphanages by storks, but rather, are the products of rape and abuse. The they get to the stuff that happens after page 5. So, while “echoes” is pushing it, if you were sadly disappointed by The Night Circus, you might just love the gritty, outlandish, surreal world of The Lonely Hearts Hotel.
You want to read about: Fashion!
You want it dark: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
You want it darker: How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell
Yes, one is a novel and one is a memoir, but, the novel is acknowledged to be based on real events, and the memoir was written by an active addict, so the amount of “truth” in each book is likely comparable. The Devil Wears Prada is one of those rare adapted books where the movie really is better – they changed the ending, which in the book is utterly toothless and pathetic. How to Murder Your Life is a rare drug memoir that doesn’t spend half its pages convincing you how badass the author is – luckily for Marnell, her reputation precedes her. In TDWP, Andrea is a fashion outsider who discovers the seedy underbelly of an industry that’s all about the surface level – and the book doesn’t go much deeper. In HTMYL, Marnell lurks in a secret underworld of her own, but her love of fashion, and the people who work in the industry, burns through. And yes, she can write. If you spent the mid-90s wearing homemade Riot Grrl tshirts and the mid-00s reading fashion blogs like The Imaginary Socialite, pick this up immediately.
Tell me, do you want it darker?