Dark humor books that will make you laugh uncomfortably

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I have long been a fan of works that mix black and humor. In 2021 in particular, I relied heavily on comedic horror to get through a year of emotional overwhelm. As I ditched high-profile works of literary fiction and cultural criticism, my favorite reading list included Grady Hendrix, Rachel Harrison, and Claire Kohda. give me laughter, I asked. Give me a horror too outsized to be real.

But black humor books are something else entirely. Not necessarily limited to horror alone, the word “dark” instead refers to the book’s subject matter, which in this particular genre is often considered taboo, serious, or far too painful to discuss. War is an example of a common theme in the genre. Poverty. Death. Sickness.

The themes are gruesome but, by employing humor, the authors of these works can explore these topics while provoking serious thought, deep introspection and, yes, awkward, uncomfortable laughter.

The titles in the list below span multiple genres. Besides being labeled as black comedy, they are also works of satire, black academia, surrealism, absurdism, literary fiction, and yes, horror. No matter the genre, they’re sure to make you think differently about everything from war and sexual violence to racism and transphobia. This should go without saying but, due to genre, content warnings could be applied to all titles below. I appreciate, however, how all the authors treat their subject with care and attention.

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

In this satirical novel, our young protagonist is recruited from his job at Starbucks to work on the sales team of a tech startup. After cautiously taking the job, he soon realizes that he is the only black person on the staff. Emboldened by his success as a salesman but desperate by the racial imbalance he sees, he launches a plan to help young people of color infiltrate white-collar workers. The book tackles race and ambition while employing a dark sense of humor that will have you flying through the pages.

BUNNY cover image by Mona Awad

Rabbit by Mona Awad

This Heathers-esque dark college piece explores the classroom but also, more deeply, loneliness and desire, all set in the unforgiving world of the MFA program. But there are also exploding bunnies and horribly deformed fantasy suitors and, honestly, this gruesome story is a little hard to adequately describe or explain. Without saying too much, a scholarship student suddenly finds herself absorbed by a clique of wealthy girls who make up the rest of her cohort of fiction writers. As they invite her deeper into their world, things get wacky and she begins to have trouble discerning the line between reality and what she thinks are just dark dreams.

catch 22 cover

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

This is perhaps the first dark humor book I fell in love with. I read it for the first time in college, when I was going through a phase where I was engorged with war literature. I’ve read it several times since, and it turns out to be a delightful ride each 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 hung by a thread. This classic satire is over 60 years old now!

Eat Your Heart cover

Eat Your Heart by Kelly deVos

God, I’m so heart-eyed on this cover. Anyway. This YA horror manages to tackle systemic fatphobia amidst a fun and funny zombie adventure. Told from the perspective of multiple characters, this book is about a group of teenagers sent to a weight loss camp where something seems to have gone horribly wrong. Soon our cast of characters are fighting for their lives. And while their opponents appear to be zombies, the real villain is…capitalism?…military experimentation?…government? All the foregoing?

cover image of fierce women and notorious liars

Fierce Women and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom

This book is not presented as a black humor book, but fierce women is undoubtedly funny, even if it traffics in dark fare. This thin, surreal story is a coming-of-age tale about an Asian trans woman who runs away from her violent and intolerant home to fend for herself in the city. She meets a group of trans women in the Pleasure District who take her under their wing, but when members of their group begin to die, the path forward becomes blurry. The group forms a vigilante gang and extreme violence ensues…but are they on the right path?

How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister - book cover - exploding flower on navy background

How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister

This story is set in the aftermath of a school shooting and is told from the perspective of the teacher who is momentarily named as a suspect in the shooting before being quickly cleared. The damage has already been done, however, and in the days and weeks that follow, she finds herself trapped by the misplaced judgment and scrutiny of her community. By showing readers the mess of his life during this time, the author draws a strong connection between gun culture, misogyny, and toxic masculinity.

cover of the book in case of emergency - white text on the image of a city with scattered flower petals

In case of emergency by Mahsa Mohebali, translated by Mariam Rahmani

This one is a newer title and I’m still in the middle of it, but here’s the truth. In a crumbling Tehran, our opium-addicted protagonist has only one concern: how she’ll score her next dose. Set against the backdrop of his dysfunctional family, 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.

Book cover of My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

As I wrote before in an article about the rage and murder of women, the protagonist of this satirical thriller has always protected her sociopathic serial killer sister. But when the man she’s been quietly lusting after for years asks for her sister’s phone number, she’s forced to reconsider her loyalties. Along with murder, which is dark enough on its own, this book explores sociopathy, family loyalty, and the lingering pain of womanhood.

tampa cover

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Finally, Nutting turns the usual teacher/student affair scenario on its head by providing us with a middle school teacher who has a predatory interest in one of her 14-year-old students. Told from the perspective of the sociopathic, sexually voracious teacher — not the most reliable of narrators — readers are front and center in her grooming attempt, which continues to escalate until it all goes to hell.

If the thought of the above books makes you cringe, maybe you’d rather like total horror?