The Book of Job in Jewish and Christian literature, illustrates the compounding tragic woes of a honest God fearing farmer who loses everything: his health, his family, his reputation, his farm. Satan wagers with God that the only reason why Job is so humble is because God has granted him so much in his youth, and thus a wager was set forth that Satan can get Job to curse God.
Every novel by Franz Kafka. Ever. Just when you don't think things can get any worse for his Chew Toy protagonist, things always do.
The Book and Movie versions of Sybil should have been entitled Sybil: It got worse.
The state of the known universe in Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space trilogy. Everything was fine and dandy in the golden age of nanotechnology, then the Melding Plague showed up and ruined everything. Then the Inhibitors showed up and started hunting down humanity. And then the Greenfly terraformers were released, which will devour the entire universe
Also applies to the state of the Nostalgia for Infinity; at the beginning of the trilogy, most of the ship is exposed to vacuum, radioactive, and full of malfunctioning defense automatons. Amazingly, it goes From Bad to Worse. Like how The Captain becomes one with the ship via a strain of the Melding Plague, causing the ship to turn into a giant flying Captain, with organic goop covering it. Then it/He gets cut to bits at the end of the trilogy
Hubert Selby's Requiem for a Dream. In fact, he was probably thinking "How could I possibly make this worse?" the entire time writing the book.
On the DVD Commentary for The Film of the Book, director Darren Aronofsky recalls a conversation he had with Selby during the planning phase. Aronofsky asked if Harry was supposed to survive the end of the novel. Selby's response: "Of course he lives. He has to suffer more."
While good things do occasionally happen in A Song of Ice and Fire, when bad things happen, they do so in the very worst possible way. And the same goes for characters that do bad things.
The Stark family motto ("Winter is coming") is an acknowledgment of how peculiarly applicable this trope seems to be to the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms.
And this is particularly true for Stark family itself. Look at their history through the series: the first major event in the first book is Bran (son #2) getting thrown out of the window, barely surviving but leaving him crippled for the rest of his life. Then the family splits: Ned (the father) goes to King's Landing with his daughters to serve as King's Hand while Catelyn (the mother) stays in Winterfell with their sons. In King's Landing, Ned's naivete and sense of justice lead to his own execution. His daughter Sansa, quickly shaken out of her naive and idealistic view of the world, is forced to endure physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her former fiancee, then-Crown-Prince-now-King - who turns out to be a sadistic prick fond of torture and murder. Younger daughter Arya manages to escape King's Landing only to see her friends and mentor getting killed and getting captured twice. Meanwhile, Robb (son #1), leaving his younger two brothers behind in Winterfell, leads his army south hoping to liberate his father from prison. After a series of hard-won battles, he is betrayed and killed by his supposed allies, along with his mother and most of his army. Two young Starks - Bran and Rickon - left in Winterfell, get to see their home razed, their people killed and are forced into fleeing.
Their rivals the Lannisters have started getting this since Book 3. Ironically, it starts right after the Starks have been all but destroyed.
Westeros and Essos get in on this, both, as a whole. One has sustained dynastic turmoil that leads to repeated cycles of civil war and outright uncertainty, particularly recently, in its one major, single political entity. That's... pretty bad. But, it's nothing to what is building up on that country's northern border while nobody is able to pay attention thanks to the latest internal spat. And, Essos is always a roiling political game between many different City States and would-be Empires all playing for high-stakes in a slavery-based economy. With the advent of baby dragons and outside, Westerosi and Shadow Lands influences now thrown into the volatile mix, just to stir everything up even more. Hell and hand-baskets spring to mind.
In the future world described in The Time Machine, the human race has degenerated into Morlocks and Eloi. In the even more distant futures, Morlocks and Eloi have disappeared, along with all other forms of vertebrate life. Little is left but an endless ocean, a dying sun and a bitter wind. And a creepy flapping thing that comes after you.
This could be said for any number of the books in the Harry Potter series, but Goblet of Fire certainly qualifies. Near the end, Harry and Cedric get through the myriad dangers of the Triwizard Tournament, only to not tie for the Triwizard Tournament, instead being transported to a place where Cedric gets promptly killed, Voldemort is restored to his body, Harry gets tortured repeatedly and nearly murdered. He finally escapes and the worst seems over... until Mad-Eye, a Death Eater in disguise, brings Harry up to his office and nearly kills him again.
It also is the turning point of the series, which from that point on becomes Darker and Edgier with each book.
Umbridge's presence in book 5. First she votes to get Harry expelled from Hogwarts during a disciplinary hearing, then she gets a job at Hogwarts and sets a curriculum that ensures that none of her students will learn jack shit about defense. Then she starts telling the students that the whole Voldemort coming back story is a lie. Then she starts giving out detentions for calling her out on this. Then it turns out her detentions are medieval torture. Then she gets a position as a High Inquisitor, allowing her to inspect and suspend teachers who don't conform to her opinions by leveraging enormous bias on them. Then she gets Fudge to pass decree after decree expanding her power more and more and more, until she gets Dumbledore kicked out and becomes Headmistress. Then she passes more decrees, turning her from Headmistress to absolute tyrant. Then she tries to throw Hagrid in Azkaban, and gets her lackeys to almost kill Professor McGonagall. Then she reveals that she was the one who sicced Dementors on Harry last summer, making her retroactively even worse than before. Then she tries to torture Harry for information. And that's leaving out what she does later, in the seventh and final book.
This trope is pretty much the bread and butter of the Sword of Truth series. Each book somehow gets progressively worse, despite the first book starting with all of creation being on the brink of oblivion. Terry Goodkind is almost disturbingly fond of the trope.
In the first book, only the entirety of the world is at stake. In the second book, reality itself comes close to being destroyed. Then back to merely worrying about the fate of the world. Then the world again. Then the world again. Then reality. Then the world. Then reality and the world. And of course Richard and Kahlan are constantly in mortal danger.
Thomas Hardy adores this trope, especially in his later novels. "From Bad To Worse" could be an alternate title for Jude the Obscure. Jude begins his life as an unloved orphan, grows up to be tricked into marriage with a coarse woman who destroys any chance he has to reach intellectual fulfillment and then leaves him, and then falls in love with his cousin Sue, who proceeds to marry his mentor. Sue eventually runs away with Jude, but refuses to marry him, which (due to Victorian morality) condemns them and their children to an endless cycle of transience and poverty. Their nine-year-old son pulls a murder-suicide, hanging himself and his siblings when he realizes Jude and Sue can't provide for them. Sue has a mental breakdown and leaves Jude for her first husband. Jude meets Sue privately to try to convince her to return, but finds that she blames her children's fate on her and Jude's sins and means to devote the rest of her life to religious penance. This completely obliterates any hope Jude has in both religion and humanity. His first wife then tricks him into remarrying her, just in time for him to get pneumonia and die. As a final kicker, he dies alone because his wife is out on a date with another man.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles fits pretty well also. Every time you think things are going to get better for the title character, they only get much, much worse.
If it weren't for the fact that "It Tessed" doesn't sound quite right, she could be the trope namer. It's pretty hard, without introducing supernatural elements, to imagine any way it could possibly have gotten even worse by the book's close, and the thing about Tess is that she never catches a break. She's not on a roller-coaster, where she goes down, then up, then down again, even if she eventually ends up at the bottom. It's all down. There's never a single tiny bump up anywhere. Angel Clare might seem like one, but he's the start of the sharpest decline of all. At best, he's a brief plateau in her constant descent into suck. Although, to be fair, that was Thomas Hardy's point: no matter how hard you try, fate wins in the end.
A Radio 4 Panel Show about literature once had a round "Things literary characters would never say". The winner was "Anyone in a Thomas Hardy novel: 'Things can only get better.'"
The Seafort Saga can be described as "Anvil drops on Seafort. Anvil drops on Seafort. Two anvils drop on Seafort. Giant anvil drops on Seafort..."
Germinal. At the start of the book, the coal-miners are overworked, underpaid, and working under horrible conditions. Enter the protagonist, who convinces them to go on strike to improve their lot. Their failure is more than just a little tragic.
"From Bad to Worse" pretty much sums up the whole of Ian Irvine's Three Worlds series, giving him scope to end every book (even some at the end of supposedly self-contained series) with a ridiculously hopeless-seeming Cliff Hanger. Mauve Shirts get killed off at random, plans fail, main characters get ambushed, captured, tortured and horrifically injured; it's not an Ian Irvine book if someone isn't trying to scale a frozen, razor-sharp mountain ridge with at least two broken limbs and losing blood by the minute, while being pursued by vicious soldiers with some sort of Secret Art-powered flying machine,and he's still doing.
The first half of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is essentially this happening over and over again.
The first half of Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy is a laundry list of bad news for NATO. First, the Soviets launch a Macross Missile Massacre against the outpost on Iceland, resulting in a Five-Man Band situation for the Americans. Two chapters later, a NATO carrier strike force falls victim to Bombers on the Screen. To top it off, by Chapter 28, the Dirty Communists make a strategic breakthrough in the town of Alfeld, West Germany. Fortunately, that book ends happily when General Colonel Alekseyev refuses to help unleash Mnogo Nukes after the Red Army fails to make progress.
The Chung Kuo series by David Wingrove takes this trope almost as far as it can go in regards to the human race. Over 8 books we get: a world wide clandestine civil war, which develops into open revolution, then open war that killed practically everyone on the Mars colony, followed by a Colony Drop that leads to the utter collapse of all civilization in North America (when next we see them they are basically techno-tribes fighting wars killing millions for possession of North America). Next we have a plague that cripples Southern Europe, which is partly good because no one notices (outside the government of City Europe) that a quarter of a million people died when a storm hit France. Europe and Western Asia go to war with Africa. The rulers of South America, Australia, Africa and all of Asia are removed from power, causing civil wars there and the rise of Warlords. Civil War (notice the pattern?) breaks out in Europe and the ruling Emperor kills 20 million of his own people just to hold off the enemy, and only survives because the Warlords backstab the new Fuehrer of Europe. Then the leader of the original rebels returns from Pluto with 100 million copies of himself, killing half the human race. Then a plague breaks out at the end killing off basically 99.99% of the human race (which by this stage probably doesn't consist of many people)...and it gets even worse. Eventually, Earth returns to just being inhabited by plants and the only surviving humans were already leaving Earth 10 years before and colonized another planet..but only after some of them help another Earth from economic collapse even worse then their Earth did. All this because a General didn't do what he was told.
This is pretty much the story of the Mistborn Trilogy. No matter what happens, until the VERY end of the series, things get worse. Even if the good guys win. Heck, especiallyif the good guys win. Oh, and this is a series that starts with the world as an ash-covered wasteland under the millennium-long tyrannical rule of the seemingly immortal Lord Ruler.
Actually, The Grapes of Wrath can be argued to end with a glimmer of hope. The previously self-centred Rose of Sharon uses her breast milk to feed a starving man, suggesting community can prevail where the land cannot, and that the nurturing power of women is the salvation of humanity.
Robin Hobb seems to love this trope as well, as a lot of her plots seem to centre around "What's the absolute worst thing that could happen to my main character?" Particularly in her Farseer Trilogy.
The novel Hard to Be a God by Strugatsky Brothers starts by a nice, brave and kind character from a shiny Utopia being a on a medieval planet to study comparative history (Don't ask). The standard medieval world is bad enough, but then an Evil Chancellor Reba usurps the power and goes all Pol Pot on educated people (where "educated" means everybody who can write his own name, unless he is an aristocrat; but even this is not a 100% protection). Then Reba poisons the king and the prince and blames the protagonist on it. Then hero's Love Interest is killed, he snaps and goes on Roaring Rampage of Revenge, at which point he is forcibly removed from this world, but his earlier thought indicate that because of his actions it will yet get worse on this world (because by killing all Lawful EvilMooks he paved the way for Chaotic Evil barbarians). Oh, and he is now pretty much ostracized on Earth, too because of his actions...
The entire plot of The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf's Children, written by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steve Barnes. The story begins with a bunch of Earth's best and brightest on a ship headed to a new planet for a colonization project. It's only after they arrive that they find out that the cryogenics they used during the long trip caused ice crystals to form in their brains. So a bunch of Earth's best and brightest are stuck on an alien world — and they all have brain damage to various degrees.
Things go worse for the first time when people start to vanish, and the colonists think that a murderer is in their midst. They blame the Ignored Expert, and leave him drugged and strapped to a table when the local wildlife comes calling: a deadly predator with Super Speed which is dubbed a grendel. Jor-El is understandably pissed, but a colonist woman tracks him down and plies him with sex to come back and kill it.
Then they discover that the "fish" (which they call samlon) they've been eating are actually baby grendels: like some species of frogs, they change gender as they mature, and the mothers tend to eat their own young when there's nothing else around. When colonists introduced Earth fish, they provided an additional food source, permitting more samlon to mature into vicious and hungry adults... and then they killed all the adult grendels, permitting every single samlon to become a grendel! The colonists only survive by realizing that adult grendels hate each other, meaning recorded calls and grendel blood drive them into self-destructive frenzies.
And this is just the first book. Things somehow get much worse in the sequel after a rather peaceful Time Skipthanks to a twisted Magnificent Bastard and a huge swarm of flesh-eating bees with Super Speed. Yup, flesh-eating bees with Super Speed. Thankfully things do get better in the end.
The beginning of American Gods. Having been in prison for three years, the protagonist gets out, only to find out his wife and best friend have died in a car crash. He later finds out that the car crashed because his wife was performing oral sex on his best friend while he was driving. Believe it or not, it gets worse: later, the protagonist is crucified.
Voltaire's Candide is long stretches of this, with occasional respites of getting better so things can get worse again.
World Binder is about how things go wrong for both its entire series and the world it is set in because of the efforts of The Chosen One. Things continually get worse for the protagonists,too - the climactic battle at the end meticulously crushes the hopes of the entire human race. Only a small incidental detail prevents it from becoming an utter Downer Ending.
The Thai novel, The Judgment by Chart Korbjitti could be described as this. Malicious gossip proceeds to ruin the life of a guy who just wanted to do the right thing by taking care of his father's insane (or merely mentally retarded) widow. Cue a downward spiral into alcoholism, social ostracization, the death of the lead's principles, recurring illness, a beating from some angry villagers, being cheated of his life savings, and death that is contrasted with the village's modernization.
And then it got worse when the Dragon Overlords showed up and enslaved Krynn.
And then the War of Souls happened, and it got even WORSE.
Harry Dresden will usually start the story with a major, but not intractable, problem. Then he'll find out that some sort of absurdly dangerous magical group involved. Okay, that's going to make things tougher, but- wait, there's another one? And they don't want him reaching his goal either? And now they're holding one of his friends hostage? And the whole city and probably eventually the rest of the world will be annihilated if he doesn't do something blatantly impossible? Ah, there we go, now it's a Jim Butcher novel. Taken Up to Eleven in Changes, where the entire universe and everything in it seems determined to eviscerate his soul.
Based on the gradually changing tone of the series and commentary from the author the tendency for it to get worse in each individual novel is a microcosm for the series as a whole.
As opposed to other Shakespeare tragedies? For instance, try Titus Andronicus. Short version: Titus's daughter gets raped, and her tongue cut out so she can't identify her attackers. She manages to reveal their identities to Titus by writing their names in the sand, but he can't do anything. One of his sons is accused, and Aaron tells Titus he can get him reprieved if Titus cuts off his own hand, which he does; then Aaron just says I Lied. (Near this point, Titus bursts out laughing because he "has not another tear to shed"). The rapists then visit Titus to mock him, which finally causes him to snap; he bakes them in a pie, tricks their mother into eating them (to be fair, she had been complicit) and only then tells her what she has just eaten, leading to a final scene in which all the remaining characters kill each other except Lucius, a Flat Character whose sole function in the play is to exist so there will be someone left alive to punish Aaron.
In Night by Elie Wiesel, Elie is a Jew during the Holocaust. He gets taken to a ghetto, then a cattle train, then a concentration camp then another... And that's not the half of it.
At least he survived. For a lot of Jews in similar situations, it got even worse than it got for Wiesel.
Bear deeply in mind though that in no way is that a bittersweet ending. Elie discovers his dehumanized figure in the mirror.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, at the very end, Viola is shot. With a bullet. From a gun. Then, when they finally reach the city they had been trying to reach throughout the entire book, it turns out the army that had been chasing them got there first. Then the book ends.
Used again in the second book in the series, The Ask and the Answer. sure, Viola and Todd just got done beating the crap out of Mayor -excuse me- I mean President Prentiss. But there's still two armies fighting each other, one of which is led by someone that might be worse than Prentiss. Oh, then it turns out the alien Todd let escape earlier in the book went and gathered an army of its own. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero. Three armies and no sign of a stop in violence to see. Then the book ends.
In Philip Roth's American Pastoral, the main character's daughter goes from being a happy, loving child (albeit with a speech condition) to a viciously angry war protestor. Then she blows up a post office and kills a local doctor. Then she disappears. Then a crazy woman who claims to know her comes to her father and forces him to do everything from give her money to have sex with her if he wants to see his daughter again. Then she also disappears, and he doesn't see his daughter for five years. When he does, she's become a Jain and is starving herself to death. Then he finds out his wife is cheating on him and that his former lover had sheltered his daughter for half a week without telling him. Oh, and all this time the reader knows that his daughter is going to die before she reaches thirty.
Goto Dengo's whole ordeal in Cryptonomicon, from when Americans attack until he meets up with his fellow Nipponese again. I mean, first the bombs, then the flaming oil everywhere, then the whole nearly dying of thirst and exhaustion thing, then the sharks, then the other sharks, then the sharp coral, then the poisonous snake, then the cannibals, then an Australian patrol, then a death sentence for surrendering to the enemy...
In the novel Wither, scientists know that many people die each year of various diseases such as cancer. They alter everyone's DNA so that future generations will never suffer from these diseases. This works fine for the first generation, after that all males who are born die at the age of 25, all females at age 20.
In Codex Alera, everything involving the Vord. Whenever the might of Alera's legions and citizenry gets unleashed against the Vord, something goes spectacularly wrong. Then the next major encounter involves even stronger Aleran forces in an even better position and something goes spectacularly wrong. Repeat until end of series. Most common forms: It turns out that the surviving Vord forces are three times the size of the dead ones, Takers arrive unexpectedly, the queen takes the field, and/or the Alerans are abruptly outflanked.
Poor Precious, her life is a long series of things getting worse and worse until they're a tiny bit better at the end. And then comes the sequel, which opens with Precious dying of AIDS and gets worse for her son Abdul, who goes into foster care where he's raped and beaten until he becomes an abusive rapist himself.
Mike Resnick does this to the Nth level in his books Paradise, Purgatory, and Inferno (which he admits are based upon the histories of Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda, respectively). Particularly appalling is the ending of Purgatory, where a tree which was an historic landmark for the natives is chopped down for firewood.
Maria's chapter in Fame. It starts with her traveling to an unnamed Eastern country for a writer's conference, and ends with her in slavery, through a series of Kafkaesque misunderstandings.
The Commander's Daughter by J. Jakovlev starts with the heroine Valya, a 14-years old girl, stuck in the Brest Fortress during the siege. The situation is pretty bleak from the beginning (the fortress is caught by a surprise attack, they are nearly out of of ammo, out of meals, even out of water), but at least people assume help is underway and the main army will reconnect with the fortress shortly. But then it is revealed that the army is pushed back 400 km and the German troops keep advancing, meaning no help, and escape proves blocked by Germans, meaning everybody inside (including Valya) is doomed. Then Valya's friends Dima and Mitja are killed and the end is imminent...
The Killing Star begins with the destruction of the majority of humankind by a sneak assault by aliens. Things don't get much easier for the survivors.
The Philosophical Strangler has a chapter entitled "Too Disgusting to Title" followed by one entitled "It Gets Worse". Both are accurate. The chapters chronicle the heroes descent through Hell. The next chapter, they enter The Place Even Worse Than Hell. Yes, that's its official name.
While it happens seriously in The Nightside on numerous occasions, it's also played for laughs in an early book. John Taylor is looking for Suzie Shooter in order to get her assistance. He finds her raiding a compound of UFO survivors to get a bounty who took refuge with them. When he enters the building...
A voice spoke up from behind the barricade. "Oh, great, now it's John bloody Taylor. Okay, which of you idiots pissed him off?!?"
William Tenn's satirical short story "The Liberation of Earth" details how two warring groups of aliens keep trading control of the eponymous planet back and forth, causing more and more damage in the process. When the two species' battle finally shifts to another solar system, they leave behind a handful of ragged human survivors scrabbling on a pear-shaped atmosphere-depleted burnt-out husk.
The Iain M. Banks novel Consider Phlebas begins with Horza, the protagonist, manacled to the wall of a prison cell that is also a septic tank, and the sewage level is rising. He does get rescued just before drowning, but by a ship that ends up on the losing side of a space battle. Horza survives by being thrown out of the airlock of the doomed ship, to drift helplessly in a spacesuit with only a few hours of air left. He's rescued again — by a crew of pirates who force him to fight one of their number to the death. Having survived this, he is allowed to join the crew . . . and has to help them carry out raids and heists that, due to the crew's incompetence, always fail and get some of them killed. And it just keeps going downhill from there.
His Night's Dawn trilogy introduces a party of colonists who begin building a village from scratch in a remote wilderness area of an undeveloped backwater planet. Unfortunately, the spot they've picked is just a short distance away from the secret base of a fugitive supervillain who likes to use Mind Control to enslave people. Also, the colonists don't know that they've brought with them a group of Satanist rapists and serial killers. Then a freak accident opens a rift in the fabric of space, allowing the souls of the dead to return and possess the bodies of living human beings. The Possessed all have Reality Warper superpowers, which they use to capture more humans and summon more dead souls to possess them, leading to a rapidly-expanding possession plague that spreads to hundreds of other planets before the Confederation realizes what's happening and begins trying to stop it. One of the first Possessed is the leader of the Satanist cell, who may in fact be the most evil person of the galaxy — so terrifyingly sadistic that he drives his own possessing soul into a catatonic state, seizes control of his powers, and heads directly for Earth.
The Commonwealth Saga begins with the discovery of a astronomical anomaly in a distant part of the galaxy. The starship sent to investigate it accidentally releases a truly nightmarish Sealed Evil in a Can: an omnicidalHive Mind that humanity is utterly unprepared for. As the Commonwealth desperately tries to organize a defense against the invading alien hordes, it turns out that the enemy has sleeper agents everywhere, ensuring that every defensive strategy is betrayed or sabotaged, and every secret weapon the humans develop is immediately leaked to the enemy and used against them. Oh, and the characters who best understand the alien menace and how to fight it are discredited, fired from their jobs, and exiled (except for the ones who were already Most Wanted terrorists when the story began). By the end of the first book, the reader is thinking, "Man, the human race is screwed." In the second book, things get much worse.