I have long been a fan of works that braid together the dark and the humorous. In 2021 especially, I leaned heavily on comedic horror to make it through a year of emotional overwhelm. As I DNF’d works of literary fiction and sweeping cultural critiques, my list of favorite reads included the likes of Grady Hendrix, Rachel Harrison, and Claire Kohda. Give me laughter, I demanded. Give me horror that is too outsized to ever be real.
But dark humor books are something else entirely. Not necessarily limited to horror alone, the word “dark” instead refers to the subject matter of the book, which in this particular genre is often considered taboo, serious, or far too painful to discuss. War is one example of a common theme in the genre. Poverty. Death. Disease.
The themes are horrific but, in employing humor, authors of these works can explore these topics while provoking serious thought, deep introspection and, yes, uneasy, uncomfortable laughter.
The titles in the list below sprawl across several genres. In addition to being labeled as dark comedy, they are also works of satire, dark academia, surrealism, absurdism, literary fiction and, yes, horror. No matter the genre, they’re sure to make you think differently about everything from war to sexual violence to racism to transphobia. It should go without saying but, by dint of the genre, content warnings could be applied to all of the titles below. I appreciate, however, how all of the authors handle their subject matter with thoughtfulness and care.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
In this satirical novel, our young protagonist is recruited out of his job at Starbucks to work on the sales team of a tech startup. After warily taking the gig, he soon realizes he’s the only Black person on staff. Emboldened by his success as a salesperson but despairing over the racial imbalance he sees, he initiates a plan to help young people of color infiltrate the white-collar workforce. The book tackles race and ambition while utilizing a sense of dark humor that will have you flying through the pages.
Bunny by Mona Awad
This Heathers-esque piece of dark academia explores class but also, more deeply, loneliness and longing, all set in the cutthroat world of the MFA program. But there are also exploding bunnies and horribly deformed fantasy suitors and, honestly, this gruesome tale is a little bit difficult to adequately describe or explain. Without revealing too much, a scholarship student finds herself suddenly absorbed into a clique of rich girls who make up the rest of her fiction writing cohort. As they invite her deeper into their world, things get wacky, and she starts to have trouble discerning the line between reality and what she thinks may just be dark dreams.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
This may be the first dark humor book I ever fell in love with. I first read it in college, when I was going through a phase in which I engorged myself on war literature. I’ve read it several times since, and it proves itself to be a delightful ride every single time. This despite the fact that its subject matter is World War II and the hideous bureaucracy that kept soldiers in combat even when the last shreds of their sanity were hanging on by a thread. This classic satire is over 60 years old now!
Eat Your Heart Out by Kelly deVos
God, I am so heart-eyes over this cover. Anyway. This YA horror manages to tackle systemic fatphobia in the midst of a laugh-out-loud funny zombie adventure. Told from the point of view of several characters, this book is about a group of teens sent to a weight loss camp where something seems to have gone horribly wrong. Soon enough, our cast of characters is fighting for their lives. And while their opponents appear to be zombies, the real villain is…capitalism?…military experimentation?…the government? All of the above?
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom
This book isn’t billed as a dark humor book, but Fierce Femmes is undoubtedly funny, even as it traffics in dark fare. This slim, surrealist story is a coming-of-age tale about an Asian trans woman who runs away from her abusive and intolerant home to make it on her own in the city. She falls in with a group of trans femmes in the pleasure district who take her under their wing, but when members of their group start coming up dead, the way forward becomes unclear. The group forms a vigilante gang and extreme violence ensues…but are they taking the right path?
How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
This story takes place in the aftermath of a school shooting and is told from the point of view of the teacher who is momentarily named as a suspect in the shooting before quickly being cleared. The damage has already been done, however, and in the days and weeks that follow, she finds herself pinned down by her community’s misplaced judgment and scrutiny. By showing readers the mess of her life during this time, the author draws a strong connection between gun culture, misogyny, and toxic masculinity.
In Case of Emergency by Mahsa Mohebali, Translated by Mariam Rahmani
This one is a more recent title and I’m still in the middle of it, but here’s the lowdown. In a Tehran that is crumbling, our opium-addicted protagonist has only one concern: how she’ll score her next fix. Placed against the backdrop of her dysfunctional family, her depressed friends, and a troubled Iranian city, this story manages to delve into everything from authoritarianism and global capitalism to addiction, destruction, and the gender binary.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
As I’ve written previously in a post about female rage and murder, the protagonist of this satirical thriller has always protected her sociopathic, serial-killing sister. But when the man she’s been quietly pining after for years asks for her sister’s phone number, she’s forced to reconsider where her loyalties lie. In addition to murder, which is dark enough on its own, this book explores sociopathy, familial loyalty, and the enduring pain of womanhood.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Finally, Nutting flips the usual teacher/student affair script by providing us with a female middle school teacher who has a predatory interest in one of her 14-year-old pupils. Told from the point of view of the sociopathic, sexually voracious teacher — not the most reliable of narrators — readers get a front-row seat to her attempt at grooming, which continues to intensify until it all goes to hell.
If the thought of the books above makes you wince, perhaps you’d enjoy some full-on horror instead?