13 Books That Are as Unsettling as ‘Squid Game’

13 Books That Are as Unsettling as ‘Squid Game’
Image: Docile/K.M. Szpara/Tor.com Publishing

Every now and then a particular TV show takes over and commands the all-seeing eye of pop culture for weeks or months at a time — think the first season of Stranger Things, or the height of Game of Thrones manis. Right now, that show is Squid Game, which has become the most successful Netflix series of all time, not to mention the latest entry in a wave of South Korean cultural exports captivating a global audience. I mean, people are editing themselves into the show on Tik Tok, which is basically the highest honour an audience can bestow in 2021.

The appeal is no mystery: Take a familiar trope (it’s a game — but deadly), roll it in a breading of late-stage capitalism dystopian horror, fold in excellent writing and character development, and let it cook on one of the world’s largest streaming services, and you’ve got Squid Game. (serves nine…episodes).

Despite the language barrier for English speakers (and the arguably janky translation work on the subtitles), the show deals in universal experiences with emotional depth, and the visuals are arresting. You might call its approach novelistic, especially in its use of allusions — ranging from M.C. Escher’s “Relativity” to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party — which is why, if you really want to have a similar entertainment experience, you can forget watching other TV shows (though we do have suggestions for other imported South Korean dramas). The comp you’re really seeking is more likely to be a book.

Some of these 13 books served as inspiration for the series, some capture its bleak understanding of the ways social and economic forces conspire to crush the life out of us, and some are similarly pitch-black stories about desperate people fighting for survival in one sense or another. Any will work as an ideal literary follow-up to your all-too-short Squid Game binge.

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

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One of the most influential books of the modern age, Lord of the Flies is the Rosetta Stone for stories like Squid Game, exploring how easily humans (in this case, tiny ones) can descend into savagery. While being evacuated during wartime, a plane carrying schoolboys crashes on a remote island. Without contact with the outside world or adult supervision, the boys form their own society, one initially based on rules and cooperation. As time goes on and rescue fails to arrive, however, the imprint of civilisation begins to fade and things take a turn for the dark and horrifying. Unlike Squid Game, Golding isn’t concerned with economics, but he is concerned with the fundamental nature of humanity and the group dynamics of desperation.

Battle Royale, by Kōshun Takami

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A crueler, darker Lord of the Flies in many ways, the crucial element Kōshun Takami adds to his debut novel is structure. Instead of crashing in the wilderness, the junior high kids in Battle Royale are brought there by the state, forced to fight each other to the death as part of a research project-slash-totalitarian show of force. The kids are given random weapons, survival kits, and compliance collars that will detonate if 24 hours pass without a death, killing everyone. As in Squid Game, some of the kids comply immediately and enthusiastically, launching an all-out assault on their peers. Others try to preserve some semblance of their humanity and seek a way to fight back. The parallels are clear, and the relationships that develop over the course of the battle are every bit as intense — and heartbreaking.

The Plotters, by Un-Su Kim

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Un-Su Kim’s 2019 novel is also set in modern-day South Korea, albeit a much darker one. Reseng is a contract killer who has spent his life murdering people according to the orders of the unseen “plotters” who call the shots, but when a colleague is unceremoniously murdered, he begins to question his place in the world. It turns out the Plotters are basically this universe’s VIPs, the wealthy and powerful who assume they can point at the things they wish to command; Reseng soon realises he’s playing a rigged game, and always has been. The universe of The Plotters isn’t game-oriented in any way, and yet there’s a similar restrictive structure to Reseng’s life, and a similar rage against the machine that will remind you of Gi-hun. (If you’re looking for more South Korean sci-fi weirdness from the author, his deeply strange novel The Cabinet dropped last week in translation, and is a similarly unsettling readalike.)

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl

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Frederick Pohl’s 1977 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Award-winning sci-fi novel might not seem like a natural pivot for a fan of Squid Game, but it’s a perfect fit if you look at it from the right angle. In a future where the wealthy can live more or less forever thanks to healthcare far beyond the means of the vast majority of people, the desperate (which is basically everyone else) travel to Gateway to take their chances by piloting one of a fleet of derelict alien ships left rotting on the asteroid. No one understands the controls or navigation systems, so people form crews and activate the vessels, risking horrifying death on their travels (your chances of popping up inside a supernova aren’t exactly zero) in the hope of discovering something valuable. Not unlike on that certain 456 people on an island near South Korea, people strategize and scheme in a deadly game that ends in incredible wealth — or death.

Liar Game, by Shinobi Kaitani

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This manga will fit perfectly into that Squid Game-sized hole in your soul. A college student receives a package containing a fortune in cash, and is informed she’s playing the Liar Game. She must try to cheat her fellow contestants out of their cash by any means necessary, while avoiding being cheated in kind. Losers take on a massive debt equal to their losses, leaving them ruined for life. The simplicity of the setup echoes the childlike games in Squid Game, while the ruthless determination of the players to save themselves will definitely remind you of a few of the people in the green jumpsuits, especially as several Liar Game participants attempt to undermine the rules and steal back a modicum of their humanity — and take a stand against the unseen forces pulling the strings.

The Long Walk, by Stephen King

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If Squid Game were just one game stretched to a punishing extreme, you might have The Long Walk. The first novel Stephen King ever wrote, it was eventually published years into his career under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman. In a dystopian future, The Long Walk is the most popular game show on TV: 100 teenagers must walk continuously until only one is left standing. If they fall below a certain pace, they are warned…and eventually shot; the winner gets cash and a prize of their choice. As the Walk stretches out over days and days, the gruelling nature of the game slowly grinds everyone down, stripping them of their humanity and their hope, until they’re all like Sang-woo at the end: Eager for it all to be over.

Hit, by Delilah S. Dawson

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In the future, a corporation pays off the US’s debt and essentially owns the government — and by extension, the indebted citizens toiling away in a bleak, broken economy. When your debts come due your life is forfeit — but some are offered an out: If they agree to work as assassins and murder 10 other debtors, they can walk away scot-free. Teenage Patsy chooses to do the dirty work to pay her mother’s astronomical healthcare bills, and the story gets crazy pretty fast — but though violent and fast-paced, the novel somehow still has time for a romantic subplot and a slow-burn revelation about what’s really going on. The theme of debt’s power to destroy our humanity and rob us of our freedom will resonate with fans of Squid Game, and Patsy’s determination to murder her way to freedom while retaining her dignity and humanity makes for a compelling tale of physical and spiritual survival.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

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Well duh. If you’re looking for a story about a group of people engaged in violent combat while a team of dedicated professionals tweaks their environment for dramatic effect, this iconic sci-fi series is probably already at the top of your list. Every year a boy and girl from each of the 12 districts of Panem are selected to be Tributes in the Hunger Games as punishment for an attempted rebellion that happened generations ago. The children are pitted against each other in a sprawling, technologically advanced arena, where they fight to the death while the elites watch in delight and celebrate the winners as celebrities. It’s dark and action-packed, and elevated by heroine Katniss Everdeen’s intelligent approach her situation — and her rage over what’s been done to her, which fans of Squid Game will find familiar.

Panic, by Lauren Oliver

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Lauren Oliver’s 2014 novel has been adapted into a Netflix series as well, but you should definitely read the source material. The tiny town of Carp, New York doesn’t offer much hope to it residents — but an underground game offers a way out in the form of a $US67,000 ($90,329) prize. Panic is a series of increasingly dangerous challenges — the first is a 12.19 m leap into a lake in total darkness, and things get much nastier quickly — overseen by two anonymous judges. The contestants’ desperation to break free from their bleak circumstances is palpable, and as the plot twists out of control, things spiral into a state literary scientists call bonkers. The ending may be a little happier than many of these stories, but the theme questioning whether it’s worth betting your life against enough money to change it is all too familiar.

Alice in Borderland, by Haro Asô

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Also adapted into a TV series on Netflix, this manga tells the story of three friends who make the mistake of wishing they could lead more exciting lives. When they’re transported to The Borderland, which resembles an empty, post-apocalyptic version of their world — they get exactly that. Oops. People trapped in the Borderland must play deadly games in order to gain a visa that lets them live, and refusing to play (or losing the games) leads to a very real death. Squaring off against others trapped in this grim alternate world, the three friends must kill or be killed in a series of increasingly vicious competitions. If the main appeal of Squid Game for you was the deadly games, this is what you should be reading.

Docile, by K.M. Szpara

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If you found the themes of debt, wealth disparity, and desperation compelling in Squid Game, this novel is your jam. In a slightly more horrifying future America, debt has become a burden handed down from generation to generation, with most people indebted to the super-wealthy. In order to pay off what you owe, you can volunteer to become a slave to whoever owns your family’s debt for a specific period of time. Most slaves opt to take a drug called Dociline that makes them calm and fogs their pain and suffering — because the wealthy VIPs are not often kind, nor gentle. Like Squid Game, Docile makes the subtext of debt and capitalist oppression into text, making it clear how our relationship to money increasingly defines our humanity.

Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, by Nobuyuki Kumoto

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Just like Squid Game’s Gi-hun, Kaiji Itō is a gambling addict who lives in perpetual poverty and shame. One day he’s tricked by a loan shark into participating in a deadly, high-stakes gambling event based on the game Rock, Paper, Scissors; the loan shark assumes he won’t make it out alive. But he emerges victorious, which leads him to complete in more and more dangerous gambles. The way Kaiji’s fortunes bounce wildly between temporary triumph and miserable defeat — at one point he finds himself in a labour camp to pay off his debt, a process that will take decades — mimics the experience of any habitual gambler, and the deadly nature of his bets definitely has the same dark, desperate vibe Squid Game gives off in spades.

Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

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A kind-of hybrid between a novel and a short story collection, Haunted tells the story of 17 aspiring writers who agree to be locked inside an abandoned theatre for three months in order to isolate them and ostensibly inspire them to write their novels. Alternating between the stories they write (including “Guts,” one of the most distressing, visceral reading experiences ever put to paper) and the things that happen to them inside the retreat, the parallels between the theatre and the Squid Game complex become clearer as the story progresses. Seeking heightened drama and stakes in the hopes of gaining reality-TV fame and literary success, each participant sabotages an aspect of the retreat until the group has descended into bloody violence and body horror. Just like Squid Game, there’s a moment when the writers can choose to turn away from the madness — and instead, they choose violence.

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