Follow TV Tropes


Mind Screw / Literature

Go To

Mind-breaking, headache-inducing literature.

  • Most of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick's novels. Want specifics? Go read A Scanner Darkly, Empire of the Sun, Concrete Island, Cocaine Nights, The Simulacra, Ubik, or High Rise. Then come back and explain exactly what happened during the course of those stories.
    • especially apt is The Unteleported Man, in which the protagonist makes the journey through a strangely one-way teleporter to the planet Whale's Mouth. Soon afterward, he's hit by an LSD dart, and the world dissolves into Mind Screw for the rest of the novel.
      • The story's first eight chapters were published in the 1960s. At that time, it was pretty straightforward science fiction about how the man planned to come in his own spaceship instead of using the one-way teleportation device (and then not get hit with the LSD darts, and find out what was really going on over there, and perhaps save a lot of the people who'd been tricked into going to the dystopia). PKD couldn't decide how he should describe the dystopia until his own-experience-inspired Drugs Are Bad phase, so he broke his writer's block to complete the next eight chapters a decade after the initial publication. His writing style had changed quite a bit. The completed novel is actually titled Lies, Inc.
    • Advertisement:
    • And then you get Philip K. Dick when he writes his "exegesis". And then you read VALIS. I'm sure there is a really simple explanation for how someone's split personality takes a trip to Europe and sends his other self and his friends photos and postcards. Say goodbye to your sanity.
  • William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience contains the story of Lyca, as told in "The Little Girl Lost" and "The Little Girl Found", a long and symbolism heavy story of how Lyca falls asleep in the wilderness, is discovered by a lion, and is taken to a cave. Her parents find her, seemingly in the afterlife. It makes a little more sense if you look at it as a metaphor for growing up or sexual awakening, but it's still a very strange and dreamlike narrative.
    • The Innocence/Experience collections are about as rational as Blake ever gets. The rest of his output is mind screw up to eleven. Consider, for example, Milton, one of the most notoriously difficult poems in the English language, in which the spirit of the poet John Milton descends from heaven and enters into Blake's left foot, from which a black cloud emerges and turns into Europe. One critic described reading Milton as watching a version of Hamlet with four different actors playing Hamlet according to various interpretive traditions, and three actors for each of the female parts, each relating to his views on women at early and later stages in his career, and the important women in his life. All taking place on different planes of reality.
    • Advertisement:
    • A Marriage of Heaven and Hell is also pretty mind-screwy, especially the "A Memorable Fancy" sections.
    • Blake's long, 'prophetic' books. Good God. Detailing the unfolding events of his complex mythopoeia, the poems Milton and Jerusalem are almost impenetrably complex, with the action taking place on multiple plains of temporal and spatial existence simultaneously, where the same event can be repeated on several occasions from different perspectives, with each instance representing about three or four different 'events' with virtually no readerly amenities given in interpreting the layers and layers of dense symbolism.
      • These 'events' of the poems, such as they are, are often incomprehensibly bizarre. One memorable moment in Milton has the titular poet John Milton descend from the afterlife and enter in Blake's left ankle. Also, Milton must fight Satan. Who is himself. And then the world ends. Suck it, Gainax Studios!
  • Jorge Luis Borges drifts around between a bunch of genres, but spends a considerable amount of time in Mind Screw.
    • "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius " is about the narrator finding an article in an encyclopedia about Uqbar, a country that doesn't exist, which in turn has literature about Tlön, a world that doesn't exist - but by the end of the story, the real world has started to fade away, leaving only Tlön.
    • "El Otro, El Mismo" ("The Other, The Same"), in which he - as an older, middle-aged man - meets himself as a teenager on the bank of a river. Each sees the river as the location they are in at that point in their/his life (half a world apart) and they attempt to figure out if they are both real or if one of them is dreaming or hallucinating, and if so, which one. Eventually, Borges speculates (from the older man's POV) something about time being a circle and he had somehow crossed through the middle to intercept the boy while he was dreaming... Not only is the reader left wondering about the two, but also if Borges actually had this encounter in real life and decided to write about it.
  • Anything by Peter Carey. Especially his short stories. Especially especially "Last Days of a Famous Mime" (a guy drowns himself for no discernible reason), "Life and Death on the South Side Pavilion" (a guy drowns horses for no discernible reason), and "War Crimes" (a guy kills the unemployed with FLAMETHROWERS. For no particular reason).
  • Mark Z. Danielewski:
    • House of Leaves ranks with the most convoluted in any medium. You might not understand what happened in the book, but you might have trouble with poorly lit areas afterwards. It says that the house changes based on who is in it, so Your Mind Makes It Real. Also, the book has many layers and narrators - it's about a guy reading a manuscript for the book describing the movie about a House that's Bigger on the Inside, written by a blind guy who can't have actually watched the movie, and the movie doesn't exist anyway, but after all of this it still becomes frighteningly real in the "real" world. The book's also got hundreds of footnotes, sometimes going for pages, which can be severely screwed up. Some passages are also struck out, sometimes for whole pages, and there is a lot of blank space and sideways and backwards or both. And, main narrator Johnny is an Unreliable Narrator (whether due to innate insanity, or to drug abuse and general neglect, or (the most probable, but most sinister explanation) due to the influence of his own reading of the manuscript about the House) - who even likes to tout the reader with that - at a certain point totally making up about a week's worth of entries and then mocking the reader for not noticing the lack of swear words in those giving away they're fake. It's that kind of book.
    • Only Revolutions makes less than zero percent sense. Made even more screwy after you read through the entire book only to realize you can truly make the entire thing a circle and just start from the beginning all over again.
    • The Familiar: Uses the same Unconventional Formatting as House of Leaves to screw with your mind, but makes it even worse by having no less than nine narrators (plus, non-human narrative devices called NarCons) who each have a very distinct language pattern. And, much non-English language is in the text, mostly untranslated. Even before the weird stuff starts, the huge number of characters, constantly shifting point-of-view and weird structure make it a real challenge to read. By the time you've gotten a grasp on how to read it, the plot begins sliding into strange as well...
  • The Brazilian writer Machado de Assis was a good practitioner of this trope. In Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubasnote , the narrator says he doesn't know if he's a "dead author" or an "author dead" and then there's him mounting hippos in the afterlife.
  • Anything written by T. S. Eliot. Especially The Waste Land.
    • Possibly an even worse example is Four Quartets. All together now:
      What we call the beginning is often the end
      And to make an end is to make a beginning.
      The end is where we start from.
    • Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is quite straightforward. So why did Andrew Lloyd Webber decide to throw in a fragment from Four Quartets as "The Moment Of Happiness"?
    • Once the magic words are explained, though, it all falls into place. In the case of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock the words were "impotent" and "whorehouse".
  • William Faulkner:
    • As I Lay Dying. Does Addie's monologue imply the existence of an afterlife? Is Darl a psychic, or just a psycho? And WTF was up with all the Bananas? There's even a chapter which consists of a character declaring his dead mother to be a fish.
      • The fish chapter actually does make a lot of sense; at the beginning of the novel, Vardaman catches a fish. Since Vardaman is so young, this is the first time he's seen a dead animal, and death is still an alien concept to him. When his mother dies, he doesn't fully understand what this implies, so he can only think of it in relation to what he's already experienced. When Vardaman says "My mother is a fish", he's actually trying to say "My mother is dead."
    • To add to the Faulkner list, The Sound and the Fury. Does Benji serve any purpose besides narrating the first part of the novel? What is up with the last chapter? And don't get me started on Quentin.
  • While almost all Jasper Fforde books have a heavy dose of surrealism, none more so than One of Our Thursdays is Missing, which takes place from the point of view of a fictional character.
  • Tom Holt's novels often tend to fall into this, mainly because they run on Rule of Funny but still have a semi-serious storyline. Egregious culprits include Snow White and the Seven Samurai and Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard.
    • Then there was the aptly named Falling Sideways, in which every time you're given a sensible explanation for what's going on, it turns out to be a lie.
  • Most of Diana Wynne Jones' novels are pretty straightforward. Fire and Hemlock, on the other hand, is freakin' weird. And then there's Hexwood...
  • James Joyce:
    • Finnegans Wake, which is the ultimate embodiment of this trope. The plot is covered in about a tenth of the chapters in the book. The rest tell a series of unconnected vignettes, describe minor characters in excessive detail, give allegories for the main plot, and teach you geometry. One chapter was described by Joyce as "A chattering dialogue across a river by two washerwomen who, as night falls, become a tree and stone." Some chapters feature random doodles in the margins. The first sentence is the ending part of the last sentence, making the book circular. Finally, it's written in a combination of five dozen or so different languages, random puns that you need a doctorate in ancient mythology and the aforementioned languages to understand, and general stream of consciousness. In short, it makes no sense. Which is awesome. Joyce stated that it was supposed to be a dream-like "night book" in comparison to his "day-book", Ulysses, which described a day in the life of some ordinary Dubliners but whose style and construction was almost as weird.
      • Even the title has elements of it; notice the lack of a possessive apostrophe, and what that does to the meaning.
      • And it's even thought to be another layered pun in itself: Finn... again... is... awake.
    • Also by the same author is the more coherent but still rather mind screwy Ulysses. As a good comparison on how mindscrewy Ulysses must be: everyone who watches Evangelion tends to form the opinion that Mr. Anno is depressed and has mother issues. With Ulysses, Carl Jung read it, and concluded that Joyce was schizophrenic.
      • Apparently, one of Joyce's family was schizophrenic; and much of the inspiration for his use of language and symbolism came from them.
      • Where Jung got that idea: every chapter in Ulysses is written in a different style, as though they were written by different authors. One chapter has the structure of a classical music sonata; another features sharp cuts between different characters; another ends with the main characters getting so drunk that one of them thinks he is Siegfried from Wagner's Ring and the other has a hallucination of his dead son. Every chapter is thematically linked to a chapter from the Odyssey (hence, "Ulysses") as well as to parts of the body and a bunch of other stuff that Joyce felt like throwing in.
  • The works of Franz Kafka generally fall into this category. They seem to mean something, but, as a general rule, it's impossible to tell what. It doesn't help that he never actually finished many of his stories, either.
  • R. A. Lafferty has a knack for writing mindscrews. His short stories can get like this, but there the trope is Played for Laughs. By contrast, his novels take it Up to Eleven due to the amount of religious symbolism found in them. There are notable exceptions, like his non-fiction The Fall of Rome and historical novel Okla Hannali.
  • Polish science-fiction author Stanisław Lem was particularly fond of this, and uses it to varying degrees in many of his books and stories. He occasionally lampshaded his Mind Screw plots by having his characters react to them with increasing bewilderment and confusion. His bitingly-satirical "Ijon Tichy" character exists almost entirely within this trope. Throughout the various Ijon Tichy books, one is never sure whether Tichy is a brilliant but highly eccentric scientist and space explorer, a madman with elaborate and grandiose delusions, or simply a self-aggrandizing teller of tall tales with a particular moral or philosophical lesson; particularly since all of the stories are first-person narratives told from Tichy's own perspective. The best example is The Futurological Congress, which involves the use of drug-induced perception modification on an enormous scale; and Tichy, like the audience, is never really sure what is real and what is hallucination. The ending leaves the protagonist musing about the nature of reality and perception. One of the voyages in The Star Diaries ends with Tichy's descent into madness and incoherence; but whether this is merely a temporary condition caused by the extended isolation of the voyage, or a revelation of his true condition as a lunatic (and all his other voyages as delusions), is never explained.
  • Madeleine L'Engle's Time Trilogy, or Quartet, or Quintet, depending on who you talk to, is absolutely a mind screw. Taking only the first trilogy, one of the main themes of the first book, A Wrinkle in Time, is that distance is an illusion. A Wind in the Door then argues that size is an illusion, and it is capped off by A Swiftly Tilting Planet, where time is an illusion. (Fortunately, nowhere do the books imply that pants are an illusion.) And these are by no means the only, or even the prominent, themes of each of the books. This is a kid's series.
  • Thomas Ligotti is a man who likes to play with readers' expectations. Nowhere is this more obvious than "The Nightmare Network", the third and final story from My Work is Not Yet Done. "Think again."
    • "The Red Tower", which up until the very end manages to have no actual characters whatsoever, and only really has the narrator... and, by tacit implication, anyone that reads it. Trying to explain how this works would take a very long time, but simply put, the basic idea is that everyone alive is, unconsciously, aware of the Red Tower's existence, speaking of it constantly without knowing that they are speaking of it. The narrator has become aware of this, and is revealing the secret to the reader, hoping that they will believe him and begin to recognize the truth. Whether or not he is insane is immaterial to the massive Mind Screw.
  • Anything by Carlton Mellick III; titles include Razorwire Pubic Hair and Satan Burger, which are what the titles would lead you to expect.
  • Walter Moers' Zamonia novels are a bit difficult to untangle, having his merry way with the Fourth Wall and Author Avatars. First, there is Walter Moers, the real world author.
    • Then there is the fictional translator of the books, who translated them from the Zamonian language and is also called Walter Moers. He wrote the introduction to the books, mentioning the fact that he is a translator.
      • Then there is Hildegunst von Mythenmetz (Optimus Yarnspinner in English versions), who is the Zamonian author of the actual story, and also a Lemony Narrator who constantly goes on tangents before continuing to write down the story he wants to tell.
      • And to make things worse, the City of Dreaming Books novels are also autobiographical, which means Hildegunst appears as the main character in his own stories.
    • Most of the books are actually satires of the modern literature scene. Hildegunst constantly gets on Author Tract, and with him obviously being an Author Avatar of Walter Moers, these in-story tracts become actual author tracts. However Hildegunst's ramblings are so insane, that it is obviously Self-Deprecation on the part of Moers with the point of satirizing author tracts, by the means of an author tract.
  • The majority of Haruki Murakami's work uses this to some extent, but After Dark has it in place of the plot.
  • Just generally, everything Robert Rankin has ever written.
    • Armageddon II: The B-Movie: Actually justified in the book itself by the flywheel of the Earth wigging out. (For the curious: we're talking a book in which Elvis is not only alive, but is hunting down the Antichrist with the help of a talking, time-travelling sprout, and that's the part that makes sense.)
    • The Da-Da-De-Da-Da Code is another one, in which you begin to wonder whether the crazy person is the main character, everyone in the world except the main character, Robert Rankin, or yourself.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien's books are full of these. Who was Tom Bombadil, actually? Or Ungoliant?
  • Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón does it every single time, courtesy of giving The Reveal leaving out some important particular multiple times per novel.
    • Particularly screwy is The Angel's Game, due the following:
      • The Heavy Andreas Corelli had already being mentioned in a previous novel, The Watcher in the Shadows, as a character in an in-universe horror story. To make it worse, one of the things he pulled in that horror story, namely taking someone else's shadow and making it alive, turned out to have been done to one of the characters;
      • The plot is so confusing that at the end the protagonist and narrator David Martín admits that he's not sure if if he's really David Martín who went on the run after killing police inspector Victor Grandes or Victor Grandes who killed David Martín and then went on the run believing to be him;
      • In the following novel The Prisoner of Heaven David Martín is revealed to have been declared a madman and imprisoned, so we don't know how much of what happened in The Angel's Game was fact and what the product of his imagination (some was fact, as some characters actually appeared in both novels and The Shadow of the Wind, of which The Angel's Game was a prequel), or even if he was mad at all (he had been imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War, after all, and Franco was still ruling).
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, though once you realize it's All Just a Dream it becomes perfectly straight forward: the nonsense is normal for dreams; there isn't really any plot, just lots of witty dialogue and then Alice wakes up.
    • Not really with Through the Looking-Glass, as Alice is told by the Tweedles that the Red King dreams reality. When Alice wakes up, she has no idea whose dream it really was.
  • Many works of Magical Realism. Take, for instance, trying to explain Julio Cortazar's Axolotl:
    So there's a guy, and he really likes axolotls. But he's an axolotl himself. But he's not, but he becomes one. Except he was always an axolotl. And so he's there in the tank with the other axolotls. He doesn't really come and visit the axolotls much after that. The end.
  • Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys. Until the end you never know if the protagonist is insane or if she really is a member of The Organization, an outfit that sounds like the MIB on serious medication.
  • Anything in the pictures of Bamboozled. Sure, a jack-in-the-box is coming out of a... dishwasher, and a teapot is... drinking out of... himself... kaboom.
  • Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss. The whole book is a massive, psychedelic mindscrew.
  • The Bible:
    • The Book of Revelation, making this Older Than Feudalism. Revelation has so much symbolism that interpretations of it range from "it all already happened in the first century" to "some has already happened" to "it'll all happen sometime in the future". Interpretations on who the "Beast" is ranges from the Roman Emperor Nero (which is what most scholars think; complicated religious allegory was a popular genre in the 1st century) to the Pope to Ronald Reagan to the Mass Media to a future Skynet-like artificial intelligence to Oprah Winfrey (seriously).
    • The worst offender— the number "666" which pop culture seems to think has a very different meaning than what it really does.
      • And there are others who think the number 666 actually means nothing and the real number should be 616.
    • And that's not even getting into the Barney the Dinosaur theories...
    • Revelation is such a Mind Screw that it's the only book never read from in Orthodox Christian services. Even the priests don't claim to understand the symbolism. (Not sure how it's dealt with in other forms of Christianity.)
      • In Western European Catholic masses, passages from Revelation are not unfrequently read.
    • Made worse by John, the author, writing, "I don't have to make it clear, because you all know who I'm talking about, right? Right?" What makes this worse is that, to the 1st century readers for which the book was originally written, this all possibly did make more sense, but the passage of time has removed us from the religious and societal contexts that would've made some of it a no-brainer.
    • Genesis has its share of mindscrewy stuff (which would make an example of Bookends).
    • A lot of the Old Testament prophets get into this territory as well, what with the flaming wheels in the sky and weird human-animal hybrids and whatnot. The New Testament (for those who believe in it) acts as a Mind Screwdriver for some of this, but much of it is just plain weird.
    • Sometimes, to understand revelation, you're gonna need more revelation, where sects/religions differ.
    • The primary academic attempt at the Mind Screwdriver here is viewing it through the lens of its Genre ("apocalyptic literature"), of which the Revelation of John is but the most famous.
    • None of this even truly touches upon what is quite possible the ultimate mind screw: The Big Cheese, Himself. Just God's very concept as an omnipotent, omnipresent, all-knowing being who existed before existence existed and will exist after existence stops existing will bust your brain if you try to think about how it could be possible for too long.
      • The closest equivalent of God in fiction, according to the above description, would be HPL's Yog-Sothoth (certainly qualifying as a Mind Screw character in its own right). Not a particularly comforting thought.
  • The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a collection of short stories that are all stuff like fairytale retellings turned into sexual symbolism. The level of (in)comprehensibility varies, with the most messed-up one probably being "The Snow Child", in which a man wishes for a girl (reminiscent of Snow White), one materialises, then she dies, and he has sex with the corpse before it turns back to snow.
  • The Book of All Hours series by Hal Duncan applies itself a little to this trope. Particularly with a multi-layered universe functioning on dimensional variables with recurring archetypes across millennia acting as the main characters, one of the main characters killing his younger self (at the point when said younger self was supposed to kill the older self) because he was crying (Stable Time Loop seems to apply), and the absolute deconstruction of all levels of reality to a point where even the guy who walked across eternity can't piece it back together (no joke, he decides to steal a copy from one moderately un-corrupted dimensional version of reality in the 1920s... well, that was the plan anyway). Awesomeness and pan-cultural symbolism aside, you kinda have to read it twice. Or more than twice... Have fun.
  • The Brothers Karamazov is billed as a murder mystery and courtroom drama. Yet, characters make key revelations towards its conclusion (especially in Book Eleven, which features a conversation with a demon that might not be there) that qualify it as a Mind Screw. With everyone playing mindgames against each other for different reasons, peeling through the layers at the end and dissecting the motivations and the symbolism just blows one's mind.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz is a bit of a mind screw, particularly in the last section. A woman's seemingly lifeless, baby-like second head gains sentience and blesses a dying priest—possibly as an incarnation of the Virgin Mary. There is a mysterious recurring character who is strongly implied to be the Wandering Jew. The last couple of sentences are written from the POV of a shark. The Gratuitous Latin, frequent theological discussions, and occasional poetic asides about the fall of man don't help clarify things much.
  • The book Celia and the Fairies by Karen McQuestion. It is hard to determine whether the fairies are actually speaking to Celia when she is awake, whether the fairies are speaking to Celia through her dreams, or if all the fairies in the dreams are simply products of Celia's imagination.
  • The ending (and, to some extent, the middle) of Laura Marcelle Giebfried's psychological thriller Damnatio Memoriae is this. What starts off as a seemingly straightforward mystery throws in twist after twist, getting stranger and stranger until the ending where Enim is diagnosed with schizophrenia which means that the actual events that he narrated are greatly questioned to the extent that we don't know if he really killed the murderer, or if he killed one of the only people who went through such lengths to understand him and help him. Worse, he doesn't seem to know, either.
  • Romain Gary's The Dance of Genghis Cohn involves a heavily-in-denial ex-Nazi police chief possessed by the ghost of a Jewish stand-up comedian, a gardener who's actually the personification of Death, his hot wife who has sex with everything in existence and quite a number of men who died with huge smiles and no pants on. Not to mention the melted spoons. Or the goat.
  • Darwinia. The world suddenly gets altered mysteriously when huge chunks of the world are converted into pieces of what seem like a prehistoric world. Then there's an expedition to search for a city. Turns out all the characters are entries in an archive compiled at the end of the universe by beings consisting of the ghosts of everyone who ever died and being infected by semi-alive viruses taking the form of giant insects. Oh, and the protagonists are people who were supposed to die in one of the World Wars, being helped by the ghosts of the actual person. And that's not even close to capturing how weird this all was...
  • Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren actually begins and ends with schizophrenic word salad.
  • Dante attempts to describe God in The Divine Comedy as three spheres, of different colors, occupying the same space. After spending some time trying and failing to grasp what exactly he's looking at, he ultimately determines that his own reason is insufficient to truly understand it, and settles for basking in God's love instead. The poem ends on this note.
  • William Kotzwinkle's Doctor Rat is a heavy dose of Mind Screw told mostly by a sadistic lab rat who was screwed up by too many inhumane experiments.
  • Doctor Who Expanded Universe:
    • The Blue Angel. Parallel universes. Space warthog Valkyries. The Doctor giving birth to a winged baby from his leg. Claims that the Doctor's mother was a mermaid. Giant space owls. A Star Trek parody starship called the Nepotist. One character is an elephant (a green one, no less!), another gets turned into a giant squid for no adequately explained reason. Parallel universe Dalek-analogues who are humanoids made out of glass. Twenty questions that manage to be clever, patronizing, and headache-inducing all at once... yeah, it seems to be a product of an acid trip during a Classic Who marathon.
    • Campaign, a book that was rejected due to how weird and incomprehensible it is — not least that it was originally pitched as a pure historical but mutated enormously when the author tried to write it. The "plot", insofar as there is one, concerns the "Game of Me", which creates multiple iterations of the TARDIS crew in different parts of the TARDIS and wipes their memories of the game every time they die, and it is somehow linked to Alexander the Great's campaign in Asia and Aristotle's ten things that define a person. Only it's also about the creation of the show itself, with the multiple TARDIS crews using multiple different names and character concepts based on early production documents and various Captain Ersatz versions of the companions from old annuals. The final part of the book is done in the style of the old comics. Whole pages are told in word art. Ian Ascends to a Higher Plane of Existence (?). A free download of the PDF is available here.
  • While the Strugatsky Brothers usually focused on rather hard social science fiction, they also wrote The Doomed City - a heavily psychological surrealist mystery full of symbolism, loose threads and very weird occurrences. Let's see: people are chosen and taken (it's never explained how exactly) to participate in an Experiment (always spelled with a capital E in the novel) by the enigmatic Mentors (it's never explained who they are). The Experiment either takes place in an alternate dimension or on another planet or in a fully isolated, vast compound on Earth (it's never explained... you get the idea). The purpose of the Experiment is never even hinted at. The titular city, the sole settlement in the Experiment's area (whatever that may be), is really strange - even before supernatural things (which may or may not be planned by the Mentors - there is a lot of in-universe speculation about that) start to happen. After lots of dramatic events, psychological crises and character development, there's a revolution and the humans proclaim the end of the Experiment and demand non-interference from the Mentors. They apparently get it, although quite a few of the main characters (now all in positions of power) suspect it's still all part of the Experiment, despite their "free choice". Supernatural happenings cease and all seems fine, until the leader gets the bright idea to dispatch an expedition to the North of the city (abandoned for decades, if not centuries, before the novel begins) in order to map the area and gather info on a possible threat. The last two acts of the novel, which consists of five, deal with this expedition - at which point reality vacates the premises entirely. A textbook example of a Gainax Ending (the protagonist gets shot and is back in Leningrad, with his Mentor telling him that he has passed the "first circle" but that "there are many of them ahead") concludes the whole thing.
  • Dragaera: Orca ends with two of these in a row. First, we discover that Kiera the Thief, who actually narrates a lot of the book, is really Sethra Lavode, vampire, sorceress, and all-around badass. Then, in the last sentence of the epilogue, Kiera lets slip that she's been hiding another secret all through the book: Vlad has a son. The all-around effect is that since everyone's been hiding things from each other and it's clearly established that the characters are telling stories after the fact, both Kiera and Vlad may be hiding things from us, too. Brust has something of a history of this; halfway through the first book in the series, Jhereg, we find out that Vlad is the reincarnation of the founder of house Jhereg.
  • Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany introduces a future interplanetary society where a big thing among more informed people is classification of minds, cultures and other things into simplex, complex and multiplex based on how much they can view things from different viewpoints. The thing is, even the most sophisticated reader is probably complex at most, whereas a lot of the characters — including the narrator — and other elements of the story are multiplex. What the terms even mean is hard to divine and might need multiplex thinking to understand. Some of the events and things don't seem to be feasible or remain unclear, but the narrator would probably say "Trust me, it's multiplex." (Or maybe they should be considered less literally; the poet who has experienced almost exactly the same things as the protagonist, even with the same people, might just stand for someone whose art seems to express the same things you have experienced in a more general sense.) The part in the end where you find that the seemingly linear story has actually involved a lot of time travel all the time is actually pretty easy to understand compared to many other things.

    Late on in the story, the narrator suddenly says she's been leaving out things in the story she expects a multiplex reader to infer. Though she reveals what she'd left out in that scene — information that a normal reader would certainly want to hear — it doesn't make it at all obvious or guessable what the other things she left out earlier would have been.
  • If the narrator being Tyler all along in Fight Club is not an example of that, then we're all Martians.
  • The point of From a Buick 8 is that you'll never have all the answers. So the story hands you about three definite answers over the course of the entire novel.
  • God's Debris by Scott Adams consists entirely of a dialogue between a delivery man and a crazy guy he has a package for. Apparently, the book was laced with hypnotic suggestions and, in the foreword, asks you to identify the single fault in the crazy guy's logic. The sequel, the Religion Wars, on the other hand, provides more comfortable mind screws in the form of a Gambit Roulette, Memetic Mutation, and What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic?, as well as having an actual plot.
  • The novel Going Bovine by Libba Bray. Mon Dieu, Going Bovine. This is the entire plot. Is Cameron dying in the hospital of mad cow disease, or taking a crazy road trip? Is Dulcie just a figment of his imagination guiding him on a possible hallucinatory road trip? What happened to Gonzo at the end of the book? Where is Cameron at the end? Was Cameron hallucinating that chase scene? Why is microwave popcorn so good, what does Tobias Plummer and all that stuff that ends up getting read on tabloids and billboards have to do with the plot?!
    • The quantum physicists, the happiness cult, Disney world, freeing the snow globes...
  • I Live in Your Basement from the Goosebumps series has a kid experiencing increasingly strange events after being hit in the head, from his doctor wanting to examine his brain, to seeing a girl turn inside out. He keeps waking up from various dreams, until eventually it turns out to be a dream by the monster that was stalking him.
  • Happens a lot in Gravity's Rainbow, especially what exactly happens to Slothrop, the chapter set in Hell, Slothrops' sodium pentothal dreams, and the ending where the final V2 rocket kills you, the reader.
  • The Grey Automobile by Alexander Grin. By the end it is strongly implied that the protagonist Ebenezer Sidney went off his rails: he believes that his girlfriend is a living wax sculpture, and that he's pursued by an infernal grey car. All of this may or may not be true.
  • The Heritage of Shannara. It can all be summed up with: Who is the Shadowen again?
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is another example. Although it is convenient that you can start reading any of the books at any point in the story, put it down and walk away, and come back a year later. Nothing will make sense, but that's okay, because nothing makes sense in that series anyway. And that's the point.
  • I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier seems pretty straightforward at first, but slowly begins to screw with you as you snowball closer and closer to the end, to the point where the last two pages are one of the best examples of all time.
  • Italo Calvino's If on a winter’s night a traveler. So it starts out by you about to read the book. No seriously, the first chapter is about you trying to read the book. And then you read a story, followed by a chapter where you realize that the story is unfinished. So you go to a bookstore to correct the problem, meet a Love Interest, and end up with a completely different story. And then you find out that even that story is unfinished, and then your story goes off the rails as you find yourself in a deep and bizarre literary conspiracy, all the while gathering unfinished stories to alternate between your adventures. In true Gainax Ending fashion, the story ends with you abruptly going to a library, wherein you discuss the nature of "endings" with some people, and then discover that the chapter titles of the book were actually part of a poem all along. In the end, you marry your Love Interest, and comment that you're almost finished with the book. Makes sense.
  • The Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (which actually contains something called "Operation Mindfuck"), and ended with the main character realizing that it's all a book and that nothing is real. However, when he tells his friends about this, they either reject it as untrue, or dismiss it as unimportant. Also its sort-of-sequel, the Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy.
    • This is lampshade-hung at the end of the trilogy, at which point the main character breaks the fourth wall to criticize the authors for placing too much importance on symbolism, and not enough on writing a satisfying conclusion.
    • Also its sort-of-prequel, Masks of the Illuminati, which is relatively conventional until the last chapter, at which point sanity is thrown out the window.
      • Technically sanity is brought in the story at the end, but it's done with the aid of lots of psychedelic drugs that the protagonist consumes with Albert Einstein and James Joyce, making the experience less than coherent.
  • At the heart of the main conflict driving the plot of In the Keep of Time—who is Ollie? Did going through the mists of time merge her with a girl from the 1400's? Was there never a Mae, and time shifted around her to account for her? Did something happen to the real Mae? Or if it is Mae the children take back to the present, where did Ollie go? Did taking her along leave Muckle-mooth Meg without a daughter? Which memories are real? How did they come back, or did they? Some of this is never actually resolved.
    • Also lampshaded somewhat by Elinor, when she theorizes that Vianah was a part of Aunt Grace that stayed in the future and grew old there:
      Andrew: That doesn't make any sense.
      Elinor: Does any of it?
  • "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice Sendak (the author of Where the Wild Things Are). It feels like a good attempt to capture the Real Dreams Are Weirder trope.
  • Jason X: Death Moon; the book is half coherent and half... not, having random meta and ranty parts, scenes involving poorly explained concepts like Teknopriests,, reality hackers, etc. and what's the definition of a Gainax Ending where Jason starts fighting his past self for no immediately discernible reason.
  • The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. A series of vaguely connected short stories about decadent artists living in an alternate version of the The Roaring '20s, linked by a mind-destroying play script whose plot we never learn, but we keep getting little excerpts. Filled with Unreliable Narrators, Axe-Crazies, Cosmic Horror, and falconry. By the end of the book, it makes no sense, but is absolutely terrifying.
  • The Labyrinths of Echo feature a more-or-less benevolent version, where not understanding what the hell is going on does not prevent a reader from enjoying the series. Just don't try to make sense of the backstory of the protagonist, because Reality Warping from multiple sources makes it really difficult. Also, try not to dwell much on the exact logic of the climaxes of the individual stories. Worsens over time: while the first tome features more-or-less wholesome fantasy, the last tome will break your mind if you try to read too much sense into events.
  • The Last Dragon Chronicles: Fire Star is really heady for a children's book. The end of Dark Fire can also be really screwy to the mind when you try to think about what happened.
  • While its symbolism is clear, the novel The Man Who Was Thursday has a definite Mind Screw ending, as the last two chapters change it from a suspense novel with some philosophical undertones to an allegory of the Sabbath.
  • In MARZENA during the Totally Recalled dream sequence, Lauren comes accross two strange letters written in red on a mirror, Ф and Ш. What the hell was that about? Not to mention the carpet with big and small circles.
  • Maximum Ride: In Saving The World and Other Extreme Sports, the Flock wakes up in the School and is told that the last four years of their lives have been nothing but a drug-induced hallucination. This includes the loss of their talking dog, as well as the scars Max got earlier in the book. Fortunately, it turns out that the whole thing was just a lie to get the Flock to stop trying to evade the School.
  • The title of A Million Random Digits With 100,000 Normal Deviates juxtaposes "Normal" and "Deviates", two terms that don't make a heck of a lot of sense together. How can something that is able to be plotted and ordered also be wholly random? This dichotomy was so strong that the book was put in the New York Public Library's Psychology section, according to this New York Times article.
  • The closing chapter of Robert Sheckley's Mindswap hits this trope full on. The hero ends up trapped in the "Twisted World" but believes himself to have successfully returned home.
  • Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. There's a plot in there somewhere, amongst all the sex, drugs, violence, bizarre philosophy, and Black Comedy, but it can be difficult getting far enough into the book to find it.
    • The afterword in one book explained it as being about drug addiction (mostly morphine) and the way it messes up your mind and sense of reality.
  • The riddle of how to access the secret room in the library becomes this in-story in The Name of the Rose. "The hand over the idol?/image?/mirror! should move (how exactly?) the first and the seventh of the four(???)".
    • There's a lot of this The Name of the Rose, both in-story and out. The labyrinthine library, the gratuitous Latin/Italian/German/French (which are sometimes mixed together); the lengthy discussions on philosophy, theology, and logic; the detailed references to both real and fictional literature, the complex Framing Device, Adso's crazy dream, William quoting Wittgenstein several centuries before he was born... even the title may or may not have any actual significance. Umberto Eco was a semiotician and a postmodernist, and the whole thing is basically an experiment on meaning.
    • It also makes reference to another master of the Mind Screw, Jorge Luis Borges—particularly by way of the librarian character, Jorge of Burgos.
  • The little-known Hungarian sci-fi novel Napszélnote  is chock-full of Evangelion-levels of incomprehensibility, navel-contemplating and the like. Every time Eridanus' red sun comes up, Mind Screw ensues until it sets; in fact, said planet's mere existence is a Mind Screw since it just came out of a nebula with two suns orbiting it (you read that right, the suns orbit the planet and not the other way around) and lifeless but an atmosphere perfect for human life, launching itself across space at superluminal speeds on a collision course with Earth then out of the blue settling on a stable orbit around Sol (which is somehow never mentioned as visible from the surface, even though Earth is clearly visible with the naked eye). Lots of stuff the exploration team finds planetside don't make a goddamn sense like known chemical elements having bizarre properties. When they test the soil for viability, the saplings mutate into huge tentacle... things that turn the planet into a Death World. The rest of the novel is spent with navel-contemplating and more Mind Screw (at one point the protagonist witnesses one of her teammates killing another... then the dead woman turns to the protagonist and whispers "sometimes the rivers flow backwards... the river of time too" then time reverses and undoes the murder with no one except the protagonist remembering it) until the team decide to euthanize themselves. Thing is, the poison somehow fails to work and their ship is allowed to leave. Reading all these, you get the distinct impression the author was high when she wrote them. Just look at the cover!
  • The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Not only is every single of the three stories mind-screwing in itself, they get even weirder when you consider Paul Auster's statement that they were essentially one and the same story told three times from different perspectives.
  • The whole of Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is written by Charles Kinbote. Or was it? Maybe it was written by John Shade using Charles Kinbote as a narrative device to tell two mixed stories of a daughter's suicide and a king's romantic retreat from his country in turmoil. Maybe Charles Kinbote is real but also insane, and wrote the whole thing from mountainous seclusion, planning to end his life shortly thereafter. Or perhaps the whole book was written by one minor character who is mentioned twice in the entire novel. It's all there in the book; who wrote it all and for what is up for grabs though.
  • The very end of Pontoon by Garrison Keillor, starting just after Raoul dies and continuing for the last five or six pages.
  • The Raw Shark Texts is a complete Mind Screw. The serially amnesiac protagonist is being chased by a conceptual shark and enlists the help of people who may or may not exist to escape and find out who he is. At one point the text devolves into about 30 pages of an ASCII shark moving towards the reader.
  • Koji Suzuki's Ring Cycle novels (that The Ring films are based on):
    • Ring: Wait, saving Sadako's corpse from the well doesn't end the curse... it only ends when you copy and show the tape?
    • Rasen: Nope! The curse doesn't end - ever! She just keeps you alive until you're no longer useful! On top of that, her ultimate plan is to become reborn as a perfect double-gendered being so she can ejaculate inside herself and propagate an army of clones of Sadakos to overrun the world.
    • Loop: Okay now... so the first two books took place in a sophisticated computer simulation? And the curse/virus is leaking out into the real world? And the protagonist of Loop is actually a clone of a character that died in the first book... which we've already established took place in a computer simulation and oh dear I've gone cross-eyed.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events is another series with a similar point, so it is a pretty big Mind Screw, especially considering it's a children's literature. As the story progresses, more and more questions are raised and few are answered, cultimating in the last book, The End, which is anything but. And then there's the supplementary books...
  • The Sister Verse and the Talons of Ruin turns into this when the real villain is formally introduced, and reality starts to disintegrate. A lot of the story from that point on is told through bizarre and dream-like visual metaphors stemming from the protagonist's constant hallucinations.
  • Any dream sequence in A Song of Ice and Fire. Besides these there is the House of the Undying.
  • Though the first two books in are quite straightforward, the last book of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is very Mind Screwy, to the point that it culminates in resurrected Merlin channeling the spirits of all the other planets out to Saturn, who are clearly the Roman gods that each planet is named for, but also established as Angels of the Lord, in order to take down a scientific organization bent on achieving immortality by destroying their own physical bodies to acquire unending astral ones.
  • Many titles in the Suggsverse (written by Lionel Suggs) apply extreme Mind Screw and defy logic.
  • The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien. The reader is left with the sense that the novel was symbolic of something, but unsure of what exactly. The plot is mindscrewy enough, let alone the twist ending. Plus, at one point people die from seeing a color that has never been seen before. Yeah.
  • Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. Recurring symbols include the colour red, trout fishing in America itself - as an activity, as a character, as an adjective - and mayonnaise. One of the chapters is entitled "Sandbox minus John Dillinger equals what?" Oddly, it all kind of makes sense when taken together.
    • The same applies to almost anything written by Brautigan.
  • Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which isn't so much convoluted as so ambiguous people have devoted years to figuring out whether it's an introspective psychological work or a masterful ghost story. Start thinking too hard, and you end up with the worst headache you've had this year.
  • Asi Hart's Under a Freezing Moon is very straight forward for the most part. The end poses the question which part of the preceding adventure was just a dream, and which wasn't. And maybe none of it, which means there really is a bizarre government conspiracy involving zombies.
  • Thomas Pynchon's V, which has possibly one of the 10 densest plots in any medium.
  • Jayfeather's visions in the Warrior Cats book Night Whispers. You can't even tell they're visions until they're over.
  • The Wayside School series is an absurdist Mind Screw for some kids.
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a classic 19th century Mind Screw. It doesn't help that it's in high school text books. Basically it's about losing your mind — from a first person perspective.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: