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The 20 Most Terrifying Non-Horror Books You'll Ever Read

Paramount Pictures

Horror novels, who needs them? It's anxiety about our rapidly depleting checking accounts, or the terror of realizing that we may have married a self-involved narcissist, or the utter ghastliness of contemplating another thirty years in the same cubicle that really keeps most of us awake at night. 

So what are you afraid of? There's a novel here to feed every one of our most crippling fears. 

You're Convinced You'll Never Find Anyone Who Will Really Love You

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton: Lily Bart thinks it's beneath her to marry the man she truly cares about, Lawrence Selden. From then on, every decision she makes only leads her further away from happiness. We won't ruin the ending, but it's one of the most heartbreaking in all of literature.

Runners Up: 

Villette by Charlotte Bronte: Lucy Snowe's love for her married fellow teacher is heartbreaking enough before you discover the story is based on Bronte's real-life story of being sent to Belgium alone to earn money to support her family.

Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman: You can’t escape your exes … especially in Brooklyn.

Your Marriage Is a Sham, Built on a Lie, With a Crumbling Foundation

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates: Frank and April Wheeler think they deserve better than their middle-class suburban surroundings. They're right, but their yearning for what they see as a more fulfilling life destroys their family, their relationship, and their self-worth.

Runners Up:

Arlington Road by Rachel Cusk: A novel about a set of suburban London wives, whose daily lives are bookended by the drama of the morning school drop-off and the afternoon pick-up; the middle is filled with folding towels. Positively terrifying.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: A couple so consumed by hatred that they'd rather destroy themselves than let the other thrive.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: Isabelle Archer is walking proof that marriage is a long-con and that absolutely nobody is to be trusted. 

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Yes, the protagonist clearly has a screw loose. But her husband has locked her in her own home. Locked her. In her own home.

You'll Be A Terrible Parent, or Even Worse, You'll Give Birth to a Terrible Child

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Perhaps the best novel with a truly terrible name, We Need To Talk About Kevin revolves around a question all parents fear they may one day have to ask themselves: Did I create a monster?

Runners Up: 

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy: There isn't an ounce of cheer in this still-brilliant, near-perfect novel. But its very lowest point involves child-on-child violence and death, accompanied by a note that reads "Done because we are too menny." 

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe: A baby born with a brain hernia. Need we say more? Don’t read this book if you’re about to have a child. Or ever want to have a child.

You're Going to Die Alone and Penniless

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: Flaubert's masterpiece would work just as well if it were written today. Instead of accruing debts over draperies and frocks, Emma would rack up credit card bills over a kitchen remodel and Chanel bags. But the quickly fleeting pleasure and dwindling returns on happiness Emma gets from her purchases would remain the same.    

Your Entire Life Is a Series of Missed Opportunities

The Aspern Papers by Henry James: James's nameless narrator dedicates himself to obtaining the papers of the late poet Jeffrey Aspern. When they're within his grasp, but a major sacrifice is necessary, he wavers. James himself thought it his best short work.

Runner Up:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: It's brief, and beautifully written, and you have to read to the very last pages to understand how the narrator has missed out entirely on his own life.

Every Day Spent In Your Hole of an Office Is an Exercise in Meaninglessness 

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: The employees of the Peoria, Illinois branch of the IRS in 1985, done by David Foster Wallace. Even incomplete, it's a thing of genius.

Runner Up:

And Then We Came to The End by Joshua Ferris: Ferris takes our Great Recession fears, brings them to life in a crumbling ad agency, and makes it hysterically funny—until we remember how waveringly close it is to reality.

You've Been Right All Along; Your Family Members Really Are Psychotic

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: Half the family has been murdered via arsenic in their sugared berries. The other half has turned reclusive. Only the narrator wants to lead a normal life—and only one person knows who the murderer is.

Runner Up:

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: If you want to figure out why the narrator has been carving words into her body for years, just wait until she introduces her mother.

Society Really Is About To Collapse, Forever and Unalterably

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: A flu wipes out 99% of the Earth's population. Mandel's description of the moment that Internet goes out and the TV stations go black are the most chilling, stomach-knot-inducing words we've ever read.

Runner Up:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: We won't spoil it, but the serenity of the bucolic English boarding school plays foil to one of the most bizarre, unthinkable plot twists in recent history.