Three Great Novels With Disturbed Protagonists

by Josh Hanagarne on January 27, 2010

"Your bwog makes me SO angwy"

When I reviewed Watership Down, I got this comment (twice in two days), which I’ll only post the beginning of:

“You idiot. You repugnant person. Why oh why must you…” This person–unless it was a robot programmed to spew out impotent venom and bile directed at something as insignificant as a blog–took serious umbrage at just about everything I said.

This went on and on and was full of uncreative profanity and great lameness. It is in fact number one in my stupid hate mail hall of fame, which I will probably publish at some point.

But it got me thinking about unbalanced people, and how much fun they can be…when they’re confined to fiction.

I like to read stories about unbalanced people. I don’t know why. If I was still writing English papers, I could probably come up with a reason and back it up with big silly words that don’t mean a whole hell of a lot outside of the English classroom.

But I just like them. That’s good enough for me.

Here are three of my favorites.

1. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

This is going to be a movie starring Casey Affleck soon, but don’t let that stop you from reading the book. Written in first person by a small-town sheriff whose tenuous grip on reality is slipping away, The Killer Inside Me is an unnerving but fun read.

There aren’t any real pyrotechnics. No lingering over the violent scenes. There are hints that the sheriff has a sickness which manifested in his past, and is starting to creep back into his life. There are disturbing scenes, but they are brief summaries of events. Most of the writing is the sheriff’s thoughts, not a catalog of violent acts, unlike American Psycho, in which scenes of heinous brutality go on for pages and pages.

2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

This is actually my favorite movie. Nothing else even comes close. I love the book as well, but don’t feel like comparing it to the movie is worthwhile. They are different enough that for me, both can be enjoyed and evaluated on their own merits without worrying about who was faithful to the source material.

The story: R.P. Mcmurphy, rather than go to jail for a crime, pretends he is insane and lands himself a spot in a psychiatric ward. Soon he is in a battle of wills with Nurse Ratched. (Feel free to include the nurse as another highly disturbed character). The scenes where he is befriending the other mental patients and turning them against the nurse are my favorites.

The ending of Cuckoo’s Nest makes me cry every time I see the movie or read the book. Every single time. I get used to most things after enough exposure, but not this.

3. His Monkey Wife (Or, Married To A Chimp) by John Collier

A pet chimpanzee falls in love with her owner and tries very, very, very hard to sabotage the man’s engagement to his human fiancee. His Monkey Wife was written in the 1930s, but it still makes me laugh every time I open it. I’m including it here because the monkey in question uses all sots of questionable methods to change her owner’s mind. This book freaking rules.

And there you have it. Three more slumming book recommendations from your favorite Idiot and Repugnant Person.

When Han Solo looked up and that Ewok was pointing its spear at him, what did he say? “Point that thing somewhere else.”

If you’re out there, lame little Ewok hatemail person, take that finger and point it somewhere else–maybe into your eye. But be careful–you don’t want to dislodge your dunce cap.

Josh

PS: since I wrote this post, a few people chimed in and wanted to include Olive Kitteridge. Here’s a link to the Olive Kitteridge synopsis.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Jaky Astik January 27, 2010 at 3:57 am

Ha ha. I’ve read ‘his monkey wife’ and it’s super fabulous. Like, at least, I liked it. It was lying there in the library getting wearied out. I dusted it off and wooo..!

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Phil January 27, 2010 at 4:23 am

Have you read any of Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy? Each one, when I am reading it, is my personal favorite disturbed protagonist novel.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 9:01 am

Phil, I’ve read them all. Very good stuff.

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Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave January 27, 2010 at 5:59 am

So you were part of that great group in the High School courtyard who actually read (probably everything) weird books, watched odd movies and listened to anything out there and weren’t afraid to talk about it, at least in the courtyard.

I’ve missed you guys!!

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Todd January 27, 2010 at 7:34 am

The Killer Inside Me sounds like an interesting read. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic (the book and the movie). I really need to start reading more again.

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Jenny January 27, 2010 at 10:21 am

So that’s the second time you have scared the shite out of me. That baby is horrific and awesome at the same time. Kudos.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 10:44 am

when was the other time? Was it the dancing hot dog?

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Jenny January 27, 2010 at 9:04 pm

No! It was that Halloween video post where the bat or whatever screamed.

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ami January 27, 2010 at 10:32 am

Loved Cuckoo’s Nest. Based on your rec, will have to check out His Monkey Wife (and re-read Watership Down, such an amazing book).

Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? It manages to give a glimpse of the thought process of an autistic person. I also liked the Underachiever’s Diary.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 10:44 am

I did read Curious Incident. Loved it. His second book is great as well. Never heard of Underachiever’s Diary. I’ll look it up. thanks!

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Robby G January 27, 2010 at 10:34 am

Good thing I’m not about to fall asleep, because that demon baby would’ve definitely ruined my dreams.
Anywho, The Killer Inside of Me sounds like a really interesting read, I think I’d really enjoy it. I’m past all the gruesome story-telling… figured the “idea” of brutality is even more frightening than complete detail of the events, if you know what I mean.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 10:43 am

Robby, you’d like it. I thought of you when I read it, but not because you reminded me of the killer:)

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Robby G January 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Haha I hope not. But now I’ll make sure to check it out.

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Stacey Cornelius January 27, 2010 at 10:50 am

Ditto on the demon baby. Yikes. I’m curious about His Monkey Wife; I’ll have to check that out. Gruesome, no can do.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 11:51 am

His Monkey Wife is still in print, just barely. Most decent libraries still have a copy.

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Casey Brazeal (North and Clark) January 27, 2010 at 10:55 am

Somebody was mad about the Watership Down Review? I can’t understand how that happened. It seems like a subject that isn’t likely to polarize. It’s like getting hate mail for suggesting that pie is nice.

Also thanks for the tip on His Monkey Wife I might check that out.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 11:50 am

You think pie is nice? I’ll kill you!

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Lynn Kilpatrick January 27, 2010 at 10:56 am

I was tempted to see the movie of “Killer Inside Me” playing at Sundance (tonight actually at the Tower), but it’s gotten a lot of flack for violence against women, convincing me that who ever wrote the screenplay really didn’t get the book. That book inspired one of my stories, btw.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 11:49 am

Sounds plausible. I hadn’t heard any advance press about it, but that would dampen my enthusiasm if it’s true.

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Larissa January 27, 2010 at 11:28 am

That is one ugly baby doll!
I’ve always thought something was wrong with me for being drawn to books that take place in mental institutions. . . One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one my favorite books in high school. I wrote a paper on the symbolic life of McMurphy and that of Christ’s here on Earth, that I still enjoy going back to read as well.
Anyway, I also just read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden about a psychotic girl that is placed in a mental hospital. Obviously not a classic, but it was a good story. :)

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 11:49 am

That’s one of my baby pictures! Everyone leave that baby alone!

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Michelle January 27, 2010 at 11:52 am

I love the books that mess with your mind and make you question, “What if that was me? Am I sane really?” I’ve added these 3 to my Goodreads list, they sound right up my alley.

I try to add a bit of that to the books I write too. I’m actually working on self publishing a horror novel where (I’m giving away some of the plot here) a disembodied spirit ends up convincing a head trauma victim to let her share space in her head, and I give her view of it. I’m afraid it ends up getting a bit weird.

Another book I’ve written and is in the editing process focuses on a woman who is addicted to chocolate, in a hypothetical world where chocolate is illegal. I don’t think I’d call her unbalanced though.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 2:46 pm

How close are you to finishing your latest project?

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Michelle January 27, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I’m debuting the horror novel, called Helpless, at the HorrorHound convention in Indianapolis at the end of March.

I don’t anticipate Sweet Addition, the one about chocolate, and the one I feel is the better of the two, to be through the editing stage until much later in the year. I’m going to try to shop that one out.

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Andria January 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

I had to read your review of Watership Down. I read it in 5th grade, and I was just commenting over the holidays that it is one of those books that I would love to re-read because I think an adult perspective would lend even more value to the book. It’s one of those books (in a very long and forgettable bookwormlist) that I never forgot how much I loved, even though I read it over two decades ago. With that said, I now trust your opinion enough :) to check into your other recommendations.

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Feel free to disagree with every other book recommendation, but not Watership Down:)

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Randy January 27, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I would include Trainspotting on my list. Maybe not a great novel in the big scheme of things, but one of my favorite reads.

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Heather January 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for more great reading material, oh all-time fave fellow Idiot and Repugnant Person! “The Killer Inside Me” sound fascinating, as does “His Monkey Wife.” I’ve read “Cuckoo’s Nest” a lot, as well as stuff like “On the Road,” “Dharma Bums,” and “Naked Lunch.” I also tried to read “From A to B and Back Again,” but that’s like trying to read “Finnegan’s Wake” when you’re drunk. Hell, I couldn’t even read it sober. But I tried. So you hate people who hate pie? Messed up! That’s it, man. . . .you’re goin’ on Da List. . . . .

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Josh Hanagarne January 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I like pie. I was just trying to figure out how it feels to hate something not worth hating.

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Randy January 27, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Hate me.

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Jessie Carty January 28, 2010 at 8:36 am

love how you took hate mail and turned it into such a good blog post :) have you read “Olive Kitteridge” yet? The Character of Olive is hard to love which makes it interesting that each of the stories in the novel in stories hinge on her in some way.

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Megan Horton January 28, 2010 at 8:36 am

I’m going to have to check these out. I got Carrion Comfort from the library so I’m going to try that first. I like the picture you have at the top of the blog. Very nice!

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Jason January 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm

The Killer Inside Me is a great novel.

Hey, don’t be knocking those big silly words in the English class. If it weren’t for those, I wouldn’t have a job. :)

Great kettlebell class last week, by the way.

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Josh Hanagarne January 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Thanks Jason. Pulchritudinous comment!

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Jason January 28, 2010 at 3:11 pm

All right, I had to look that up. Quit being so sesquipedalian.

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Brad January 28, 2010 at 10:12 pm

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is definitely in my top 5 movies and either my top 5 or 10 novels.

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