Do your ears prick up when you hear a news anchor say “this story might be distressing for some viewers”? Do you compulsively click past trigger warnings to look at whatever gruesome thing they hide? There’s no shame in it, I do too! Our natural inquisitiveness might seem ghoulish or grim to others, but this list isn’t for them. This list is for us: books for people with morbid curiosity.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty is a girl after our own heart. She followed her interest in the macabre all the way to a job at a crematory, then wrote one of the best books for people with morbid curiosity about it. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is a coming-of-age memoir, set against the unusual backdrop of a building full of corpses. Doughty draws on her experience to answer all the questions we don’t feel like we’re allowed to ask (what does a skull look like when it’s on fire?). And after all the fun facts and unique insights, she calls for a more forthright and honest way of dealing with death, treating it as what it is: a normal part of life.
Stiff by Mary Roach
Sticking with death and corpses for a minute: what happens to us after we die? Not in the woo-woo pearly-gates kind of way, in the literal “who takes our body and where does it go?” kind of way. If you’ve ever wondered, you need to read Stiff. Mary Roach explores the strange history of cadavers, and how they’ve shaped everything we know about the modern world. Executions? Space travel? Plastic surgery? Car accidents? Cancer treatment? Pretty much everything that could possibly happen to a human body was tested on a dead one first. This book shows you a side of death you’ve never seen it before, making it the perfect read for people with morbid curiosity.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
True crime is the morbidly curious person’s bread and butter. We probably discovered a book like In Cold Blood way too young, and so began our lifelong fascinating. If you skipped it, never fear – it’s not too late to go back and revisit this classic true crime novel about the Clutter murders. Capote might have been a bit liberal with the ol’ creative license, but it’s hard not to forgive him when he wrote such a captivating and engrossing story. From what the Clutters ate to what the perpetrators wrote in letters from Death Row, he doesn’t spare a single detail. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
Have you ever wondered what happens to a crime scene once it’s been photographed and inspected by detectives? If your loved one is murdered in your home, who’s responsible for cleaning the blood off the walls? Well, Sarah Krasnostein has an answer for you: women like Sandra Pankhurst. In The Trauma Cleaner, Krasnostein lifts the veil on the strange and compassionate career of cleaning messes we’d rather not even think about (let alone deal with). In so doing, she writes a beautiful and moving tribute to a woman who lived through more than enough trauma of her own, and yet still found it within herself to help others. Read my full review of The Trauma Cleaner here.
CSI Told You Lies by Meshel Laurie
We all know that shows like SVU and CSI are unrealistic – but how unrealistic are they really? And does it even matter? Well, the answers in turn are: yes, and a lot. CSI Told You Lies is a fascinating and confronting book about the work of forensic pathologists, and how integral it is to giving victims a voice in the justice system. These are the people who answer the phone when a body needs to be identified, when a tragedy needs an explanation, or when a survivor needs scientific proof of what happened to them. The misrepresentation of their work on screen is dangerous, as it gives people who serve on juries misguided ideas about how rules of evidence should work. This book goes some way to redressing the balance. Read my full review of CSI Told You Lies here.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
Are you really a person with morbid curiosity if you haven’t looked at someone in your life and wondered if they were secretly a serial killer? Of course, none of us expect it to really be the case. Unfortunately, it was for Ann Rule. The “kind, solicitous, and empathetic” man she worked with at a suicide hotline was actually a sadistic rapist and murderer, and she just so happened to be a crime journalist. That makes The Stranger Beside Me a strange blend of journalism and memoir, with Rule’s own emotional investment impossible to separate from the facts of Ted Bundy’s life. This is another one of the must-read books for people with morbid curiosity. Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Receiving a terminal diagnosis is terrifying for anyone. Imagine how much more terrifying it must be for a doctor, who knows exactly what’s happening inside their own body, and exactly how ill-equipped their profession is to handle it. When Breath Becomes Air is a lot more emotional and moving than most books for people with morbid curiosity, but they can’t all be frank and funny. It’s a glimpse into the reality of facing your own mortality, and what you think about when you know the end is coming. Make sure you have a box of tissues to hand!
Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd
Performing over 23,000 autopsies gives a person a unique perspective on life and death – and Richard Shepherd is kind enough to share it with us morbidly curious readers in Unnatural Causes. His work as a forensic pathologist had him investigating some of the most high-profile mysterious deaths of our times: the Hungerford Massacre, Princess Diana, 9/11. He investigated the damage done by serial killers, natural disasters, ‘perfect murders’ and freak accidents. But this book isn’t just a spectacle, it’s also a brutally honest account of the kind of toll that non-stop parade of tragedy takes on the man who looks so closely at the end result.
Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber
Granted, Sybil doesn’t have the gristle or gore you’d expect from most books for people with morbid curiosity, but it’s definitely the kind of story that compels anyone who wants to peer into the darkness. This is the book that brought the concept of multiple personalities to the mainstream; the idea that one person could contain many, distinct people had been around for a while, but this was the first in-depth account of what that might actually look like. The abuse that Sybil suffered at the hands of her mother growing up is truly gut-churning, and the symptoms she experienced as an adolescent and an adult will chill you to your bones. Read my full review of Sybil here.
Going Dark by Julia Ebner
Going Dark might be a very contemporary version of books for people with morbid curiosity, but it gets scarier every day. Julia Ebner dives deep into the murky world of online radicalisation, how otherwise ordinary people find themselves sucked into dangerous extremism. She takes on secret identities to gain access to the darkest corners of the internet that you can imagine. What’s truly terrifying is the fact that we’ve all, at some point, felt as lonely and hard-done-by as the people that Ebner finds in groups for trad-wives, in-cels, jihadists, and white supremacists. Could we really be radicalised and not even know it? Yes. Read my full review of Going Dark here.