GUEST POST by Jack Haringa
You have before you an inevitably eclectic list; anything with the above title was bound to be idiosyncratic as well as a little personal. There are lots of weird novels out there, everything from Katherine Dunn’s GEEK LOVE to J.G. Ballard’s HELLO AMERICA, and many of my friends have read a good chunk of the best known of them. So I set myself the task of constructing a list of weird novels they, and by extension a larger audience, might not have encountered.
Many of the books on this list are funny–I mean seriously, laugh-out-loud funny–but they’re never simple comedies. All of the books on the list have something to say, and they rather exuberantly violate all sorts of expectations in the process of saying it. I also wanted to compose a list of books that people could actually get hold of for a reasonable sum. As much as I like Timothy Findley’s NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE or HEADHUNTER, for instance, there’s not much point in directing people to a book that’s out of print.
I was very happy to discover that many of my favorites have recently come back into print either in hard copy or digital format. And that’s how the list before you took its shape.
While Gloria Naylor‘s second novel isn’t as well known as some of her others (including her first, THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE, and her third, MAMA DAY), like them it incorporates mythic structures into the exploration of contemporary issues of race and identity in America. Linden Hills examines the potentially Faustian bargains faced by African-Americans aspiring to or trying to hold onto the myth of the American dream–middle class stability–through a narrative derived in part from Dante’s Inferno. The main narrative is experienced through the travails of Willie and Lester (stand-ins for Dante and Virgil) two poets and handymen who work at the fringes of the titular Linden Hills, a planned community of Black professionals that is supposed to represent African-American achievement but has its dark secrets. Those secrets begin with its origin at the hands of Luther Nedeed. Naylor’s dialogue is sharp and, when necessary, very biting, and her insights are both keen and beautiful.
Interviewed at the time of the its release, Naylor said of the novel’s themes, “How do you keep your soul and still succeed in America? For the Afro-American, regardless of where you climb on the ladder of success, there will be racism. Under these conditions, if you give up what centers you, what is unique to you — then you are lost. The greatness of this country is the uniqueness of its people. But there is pressure to amalgamate. And that is suicidal when it happens to the Afro-American.” With mythic resonance and a tinge of horror, Naylor’s novel shows these conditions and the attempts to navigate them.
OFFICE SPACE as a horror novel. Do you really need to know more than that? OK… James Hynes‘ horror-satire of the cubicle life spirals increasingly into the surreal and Gothic chapter by chapter in the kind of mad collapse of reality that Bentley Little aspires to, but with tremendous precision of prose and a sensibility honed more by postmodernism than pulp. The novel followed his marvelous satires of academia (PUBLISH AND PERISH, THE LECTURER’S TALE), both of which are also well worth seeking out.
If you enjoyed William Browning Spencer’s RESUME WITH MONSTERS but want to trade your Lovecraft for a broader hodge-podge of genre fixtures (aliens, ghosts, homonculi, mole-men) and a healthy dose of mental anguish-inspired ambiguity, this is the book for you.
My second-favorite novel about a Pope (following just behind Anthony Burgess’ EARTHLY POWERS and just ahead of Lawrence Norfolk’s THE POPE’S RHINOCEROS), Hadrian the Seventh presents a chain-smoking, eccentric Englishman (a thin stand-in for Rolfe himself) raised to the papacy despite his previous rejection by the church. He proceeds to reform Roman Catholicism and live the life one imagines a failed priest might dream about.
The language is rich–even rococo in spots–and passages virtually aspirate madness. It’s a strange trip Hadrian takes, a philosophical and theological fantasy that is rooted in the very real problems of a human institution.
Marlon James‘ first novel is a horror story, an allegory, a magical-realist fantasy, and a stylistic whirlwind of language and imagery. It features a conflict of ostensibly moral forces (the Preacher and the Apostle) that, through their clash and their influence on those around them in a small town in 1957 Jamaica, reveal the flaws not only in themselves but in the systems they represent. James doesn’t shy from gore or sex in the course of his tale, but such elements never feel prurient, and as dark as the book is, it still has its moments of humor.
I feel bad for not continuing to follow his career since this book came out; his most recent novel (the 700+ page opus A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS) won an American Book Award (ABA) and was long-listed for the Booker. From all accounts, he continues to marry post-colonial concerns, the best of what may be called literary horror, and a unique personal style.
Here’s the Booklist review:
Vultures, or John Crows, descend on Gibbeah, a vine-entangled Jamaican village where a catastrophic spiritual battle takes place between the Preacher and the Apostle. Pastor Hector Bligh’s leadership of the Holy Sepulchral Full Gospel Church has eroded into drunken muttering by the time Apostle York arrives with his fire-and-brimstone manner and ironclad rules for holy living. As the Apostle and his five deacons engage in maniacal power-mongering, the black villagers are forced to submit to the harshness of a god in York’s diseased image. Will a transformed Bligh be able to save the village? First-novelist James combines evangelical ideas about spiritual warfare with the folk traditions of voodoo and magic, producing a transfixing blend of horror and metaphor that echoes Austin Clark’s Barbados tales. The result is a mesmerizing treatise on the nature of good and evil, faith and madness, guilt and forgiveness, eloquently captured in a microcosm of society.
One of my favorite novels of the past 10 years, Minster Faust‘s SHRINKING THE HEROES is the smartest deconstruction of superheroes in a now-crowded field of such books. Its novel-within-a-novel structure satirizes self-help books, the Bush administration, fandom, pop culture, and so much more, but there’s also a clear love and knowledge of superhero comics behind it all. Faust’s prose is exuberant and perfectly tuned to the subject matter, and his critical eye never falters. For you e-reader types, the kindle version is only $2.99 on Amazon.com.
From the starred review at Publisher’s Weekly:
Masquerading as a self-help book for superheroes, this sharp satire of caped crusaders hides a deeper critique of individual treatment versus social injustice. Faust (THE COYOTE KINGS OF THE SPACE-AGE BACHELOR PAD) provides funny and knowing caricatures of the famous figures of American comic books via an extended therapy session by Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman …. Faust’s well-aimed jabs spare no super sacred cows nor many pop idols and pychobabbling media stars. Underneath the humor, careful readers will find uncomfortable parallels to real-world urban tragedies in the novel’s ‘July 16 Attacks,’ where Faust gives a double meaning to the ‘Crisis of Infinite Dearths.’
While Elizabeth Hand is better known for her fantastic short fiction (see the collections SAFFRON AND BRIMSTONE and ERRANTRY) and her neo-noir novels featuring Cass Neary (GENERATION LOSS, AVAILABLE DARK), this novel showcases her knowledge of and passion for art and poetry as well as her skill for handling deep emotions across multiple timelines. The fantastic element is ambiguous, treated less as a plot element than a thematic suggestion about the beauty and ravages of artistic inspiration. As always, the prose is impeccable.
For a plot summary, here’s the Publisher’s Weekly review:
Hand (Black Light) explores the theme of artistic inspiration and its dangerous devolvement into obsession and madness through three interwoven narrative threads in this superb dark fantasy novel. In late Victorian England, American painter Radborne Comstock makes the acquaintance of Evienne Upstone, a model who’s inspired members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and driven painter Jacobus Candell completely insane. More than half a century later, Radborne’s grandson Valentine ends up institutionalized after viewing intensely erotic paintings grandpa produced under Evienne’s spell. His experiences echo those of Daniel Rowlands, an American writer in contemporary London whose research into the legend of Tristan and Iseult brings him into contact with Larkin Meade, a fey lover whose passion leaves him physically and emotionally deranged. Subtle parallels and resonances between the subplots suggest that Evienne and Larkin are, impossibly, the same being: a force of nature incomprehensible to mortals, whom countless doomed artists have translated imperfectly into aesthetic ideals of beauty and love. Hand does a marvelous job of making the ineffable tangible, lacing her tale with references to the work of artists ranging from Algernon Swinburne to Kurt Cobain and capturing the intense emotions of her characters in exquisitely sculpted prose. With its authentic period detail and tantalizing spirit of mystery, this timeless tale of desire and passion should reach many readers beyond her usual fantasy base.
Jack Womack is well known in science fiction circles as a cyberpunk author (titles include AMBIENT, TERRAPLANE, HEATHERN, ELVISSEY) and as the author of the brilliant and devastating RANDOM ACTS OF SENSELESS VIOLENCE, but this novel is rooted firmly in the present of its composition (1993). It showcases the author’s mordant humor and political awareness in a very different way from his other novels as it illustrates the chaos and energy of post-Soviet Russia. Less linguistically adventurous than his SFnal novels, LET’S PUT THE FUTURE BEHIND US offers insight into to the anarchy of unbridled capitalism with both hilarity and pathos.
The Kirkus review offers a decent summary:
Imagine 1984 as told by Alex of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Our unheroic narrator, Max Borodin, is a likable, rather elegant counterfeiter: not of rubles or dollars, but of history. For instance, his corporation produces irrefutable evidence that the KGB’s attempts to brainwash Oswald were foiled by the CIA — and the precise opposite, depending on which American scholar is in the market. Max has a feisty young mistress who’s married to his sometime business partner, and an entrepreneurial-minded wife who nags him but retains enough energy to negotiate the corruptions and decay of Moscow, where nothing can be accomplished without a bribe and everything’s for sale. Max, a clever dog in this dog-eat-dog society, is a happy man, so much so that he pragmatically wants to put the future as envisioned by reformists behind; it simply won’t work, he thinks. But trouble’s on the horizon. There’s Max’s feckless brother, who tries to involve him in a theme park called Sovietland that will invoke nostalgia for the gulag and in which American tourists will be spirited away for interrogation by park employees posing as secret police. There’s a powerful mafia trying to muscle in on Max’s sweet operation. Finally, there’s a sentimental, paranoid, right-wing politician who seems modeled on Vladimir Zhirinovsky; he has the kind of quirky vision that might get clever fellows such as Max killed.
(Note: the Amazon.com synopsis is not for this novel.)
Anthony Burgess may best be known for the violence and social commentary of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but people should never forget the brilliant wit that infuses nearly all of his work. This is plainly evident in TREMOR OF INTENT, his deconstruction of the spy thriller. Drawing on Le Carre, Fleming, and the realities of Cold War paranoia, this “eschatological spy novel” (the book’s subtitle) points out the absurdities of both the geopolitical situation and the entertainments that spun out of it.
This is a novel about which I genuinely say, “I laughed out loud.”
Matt Ruff‘s second novel out-weirds his debut, FOOL ON THE HILL, by skewering Objectivism, Ayn Rand herself, race relations, Walt Disney, eco-terrorism, and the shaky foundations of the American capitalist system. Hilarious and bizarre, the novel reads like the bastard love child of Thomas Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson raised in a group home overseen by Hunter S. Thompson.
Ruff has a sharp eye for character notes and a penchant for outrageous plot elements, both of which feature prominently in this book. One of my favorite novels of the last 20 years.
Richard Farina’s biography itself reads like a wild fiction, from his friendship with Thomas Pynchon to his marrying Mimi Baez (and winning best artist at the Newport Folk Festival) to his tragic death in an accident on the way home from a release party for this novel. And that’s without including his claims to have been an IRA bomb-maker and doing subversive work in Cuba!
The novel here is wonderfully weird, full of strange characters and gonzo events, but it’s also some sharp social commentary on campus radicals and the exploitation of idealism. I’m thrilled that this is back in print in a widely available edition.
Jack M. Haringa is a writer, editor, and teacher. After publishing a chapbook on A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft with Hippocampus Press, he founded and co-edited the review journal Dead Reckonings with S.T. Joshi. His stories have appeared in anthologies from Bedlam Press, Prime Books, and JournalStone, and in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. He currently serves on the board of the Shirley Jackson Awards.