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It was a few weeks ago, just past two in the morning, and I had come to the end of James Frey’s 2003 success, A Million Little Pieces. Equally moving as it is brutal, Frey’s memoir of his time spent in a rehabilitation centre in the American midwest when he was in his twenties—after years of being an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal—left me embarrassingly teary-eyed and a little drained (even though the book is purportedly more fiction than memoir). I’ve come to realise that this is a recurring pattern, and my friends have often questioned why I don’t delve into more cheerful, uplifting reads instead. Sometimes I wonder the same, but there are many reasons why so many book lovers keep being drawn back to darker works.
Without a doubt, books with more pleasant storylines are easier reads. There have been many occasions where I’ve had to put down a book for a few days, take a breather, because its traumatic plot lines and twisted characters became too difficult to bear. After too much time spent alone reading about the murderous tendencies of the fictional Patrick Bateman, a good week passed before I could go back to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho without feeling a little terrified. And yet, this novel, whose final pages brought forth my tears and whose unsettling chapters have left me with sleepless nights, have become one of my favourite titles. Novels like this may be tough to get through, but the intense reading experiences they provide are hard to forget. If going through emotional turmoil means that a great story will resonate with me, I’d prefer that a thousand times over happily gliding through a book only to feel a sense of emptiness and detachment at its end.
Sure, some of the bleakest books are ultimately uplifting, but they can only feel to be so after you’ve plunged into its harrowing depths. After chapter upon chapter of dark material, when moments of joy do surface, they undoubtedly seem a lot more resonant. Whether it comes in the form of a happy ending or otherwise, as a reader you can’t help but be elated and relieved, having journeyed with a character through the blackness and gloom and finally reaching a more hopeful place. Even if a bleak book finishes with a bleaker conclusion, I find that it only leaves more room for personal reflection. For days afterwards you’ll find yourself wondering if those fictional people and places will ever be okay. Will they ever break away from the tragedy that dogged them?
Obviously one of the main joys of literature is having the opportunity to live vicariously through imaginary characters, to engage in a life that is very far from one’s own. But there is a strange, deeper pleasure in doing this with stories that have more morally complex, albeit sometimes sinister, characters. High-drama novels often present society’s evils: addicts, criminals, individuals who are normally feared, loathed and rejected, but when these conventionally “wrong” figures become protagonists, we inevitably become committed to them and in a weird way, even begin to understand them. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but undoubtedly opens up debate—something I experienced directly with Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, a book shocking and controversial in the way it makes us begin to sympathise with its leading character Frank, an isolated, monstrous and psychopathic teenager. These novels bring us closer to people we never usually want to encounter, and in turn, feed an attraction we can all have to the obscure, dangerous and unknown.
We indulge in darker literature for the same reason we sometimes find ourselves watching soppy romantic comedies or chilling horror films that have us jumping out of our seats. They give us a safe medium through which we can explore some of our most extreme emotions, from sadness, to terror—and to experience and expel these emotions can be very cathartic; we all feel better after a good cry, don’t we? It is also easier to conjure up our empathy and compassion with tragedy, building a stronger emotional connection between reader and character.
Of course, I can understand why anyone would want to avoid this side of fiction. Who wants to face life’s harsh realities in an imaginary world when there is already so much of that in our physical one? Buoyant reads can be rose-tinted escapes, a tantalising vacation into an abstract time and setting where everything is all right; but there’s also a selfish indulgence to be found in books with heavier plot threads. One can revel in the fact that the fictional life being portrayed is much gloomier than their own. Our news broadcasts constantly deliver awful, upsetting information from all over the world, so immersing yourself in a even more troubled—but fictional—world is a welcome reminder that things could be a great deal worse. The everyday certainly appeared a lot more promising after I consumed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; luckily, I was able to leave it—and its helpless, desolate post-apocalyptic society—behind.
Ultimately, the happiness we get from reading good literature doesn’t always come from upbeat content. We find pleasure in stories that stir up reactions, that get us thinking and that stay with us. And in the end, a good book always finds a way to pull us all out of the dark.
Natasha Levy is a 19-year-old student currently studying at Brunel University for a degree in English literature. She has recently interned for other magazines including Notion and ShortList, and hopes one day to become an arts and culture writer. She loves Italy, obsessing over a great book, and a good milky cup of tea.