I’ve spent years denying my love of genre literature. Particularly science fiction and horror. To some extent, you probably have, too. We pick up books by stodgy old men who write beautiful sentences with stunning insight into the human condition and then tell each other how amazing they are. But what we really mean is how amazing we are for having read them. If reading is a form of therapy, what does this say about us?
You know what really goes through my head after I’ve read a book like, say, Bolano’s The Savage Detectives?
“Not bad. Would’ve been better with a werewolf.”
Last year, I couldn’t ignore these thoughts any longer. So I poked my head back into genre literature, and I was surprised by what I found. Cutting-edge writers. Strong characters. Big themes. Experimental fiction. And werewolves.
For anyone looking to stray from literary fiction into the wild of genre fiction or anyone looking to get reacquainted with an old love, check out these five books:
1. The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron. “Write what you know.” We’ve all heard that. Problem is, what most of us know is working in office buildings and living in suburbia. No one really wants to read about that. Laird Barron, on the other hand, grew up in Alaska and has an eye patch. Laird Barron raced in the Iditarod three times and has worked as a strength trainer. Laird Barron’s been in bar fights and is a badass. So is his fiction. He works in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, but his characters are hard-boiled tough guys facing off with the cosmic and the unknowable. They generally lose. In horrible, horrible ways. Barron’s got a knack for character and setting that raises these stories above traditional pulp and gives him a legitimate claim to the scariest writer in America. Sorry, Mr. King.
2. The Ones That Got Away by Stephen Graham Jones. Meet Laird Barron’s competition. Jones is Blackfeet Native American with a foot in the experimental fiction world (with his excellent collection Bleed Into Me: A Book of Stories) and the crime world (All The Beautiful Sinners). But, my God, the man shines when he writes horror. In “Raphael”—the crown jewel of the collection—the narrator is haunted by a childhood incident involving a lake and a girl. And it gave me nightmares. Seriously. A grown man getting nightmares from a story. You can hear Jones read the first two pages of “Raphael” here. “Monsters,” another prime selection, can be read in its entirety here. Each of the stories in The Ones That Got Away is about childhood—where horror begins for all of us. I think that’s why they’re so powerful.
3. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. Science fiction was one of Kurt Vonnegut’s great loves, and some of his best-known works flirt pretty heavily with it. (Slaughterhouse Five. Cat’s Cradle.) The Sirens of Titan is typical Vonnegut—a little madcap, a lot thoughtful. If you’re looking for an introduction to science fiction from a deadly serious writer with a less than serious attitude, look no further than this Indianapolis native.
4. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. Check out this essay on TheMillions.com: How China Miéville Got Me to Worrying and Love the Monsters. Replace 1950s Detroit with 1980s Pennsylvania, and I might as well have written the thing. China Miéville is endlessly imaginative, and a good place to get acquainted with his unique brand of science fiction, steampunk, fantasy, and horror is Perdido Street Station. Read the first few chapters. Get your bearings in the world Miéville creates. Then start paying attention to the undercurrents of the novel. Miéville is concerned with the power of language, the working underclass, and oppression. Pretty much the same themes we’re used to seeing in all those big, pretentious books sitting on our nightstands. Except that Miéville also likes monsters and robots.
5. 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. Do you know who Joe Hill is? For the longest time, he didn’t want you to know. Not even his agent knew. He’s Stephen King’s son. And he earned his reputation as one of the best young horror writers on the planet without trading on his father’s name. It was bound to come out eventually—but not before he put together this collection of stories that is equal parts chilling and experimental. Take “Pop Art,” for instance. Art is an inflatable boy, and he must deal with the sometimes hilarious cruelty of his peers. They bat him back and forth like a balloon. They threaten to pop him. Because, remember, he’s inflatable. Hill said that he was reading a lot of Bernard Malamud when he wrote “Pop Art,” specifically an essay in which Malamud argued that fantasy is more valid and more honest than realism because all literature is make-believe, and that a writer ought to feel free to bring a ghost or a fallen angel into his stories if it served his purposes. Hill brings in an inflatable boy and creates one of the most moving stories I’ve read in years. Like his dad, he’s not above a few gross-outs. But they’re always earned, and they’re never the point of what he’s writing.
Looking back at this list, I see all young writers, save Vonnegut. And that’s exciting to me. I get to watch these guys grow. I get to anticipate their new books. These guys represent what genre fiction can be in the right hands. It might be a little bit pulpy and a little bit (or a lot) far-fetched. But, really, it’s just another way to tell a story. And sometimes it’s a better way to tell a story. So don’t be ashamed of all those comic books you read as a kid. These guys did the same thing. And look at what they’ve made.