So You Want to Read Weird Fiction: Here’s Where to Start
It could be that you’re in the mood to dust off some old Edgar Allan Poe classics. Perhaps you’ve ventured into the world of H.P. Lovecraft and now want to expand those dark horizons. Or maybe you just watched “True Detective” Season One and are wondering what all those “carcosa” and The King in Yellow references were about. Whatever the case may be, an interest in weird fiction has been piqued; now the question is where to start.
Weird fiction is not an easily defined. It’s a literary style that can blend speculative fiction with elements of horror, fantasy, magical realism, Lovecraftian Cosmicism, and others to create a genre that is surreal and deeply unnerving. According to H.P. Lovecraft — a twentieth-century master of the genre — weird fiction is more than “secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains.” Although weird fiction most certainly has a grounding in the macabre, the central power of the weird tale is the ever-present sense of mounting and inescapable dread. Of forces outside both the power and understanding of man. According to Lovecraft, the weird is a malign suspension of the laws of nature, of the very things that we rely on to safeguard our fragile lives and psyches against the chaos and malignancy lurking just beyond the world we know. Even within this framework, the sheer breadth and style of weird fiction is daunting. Thankfully, there are more than a few good spots to dive in and test the surreal waters. Here are a few recommendations to get you started.
No introduction to weird fiction would be complete without a nod to H.P. Lovecraft. At the Mountains of Madness was my introduction into the genre and is one of those wondrous pieces of fiction that continues to linger with me. At the Mountains of Madness, with it incredible atmosphere and finely wrought sense of existential dread, tells the story of a primordial city discovered beyond an arctic mountain range and presents essentially all of the elements that made Lovecraft’s work so groundbreaking: the well-tuned and expansive language, the arcane and bizarre creatures, and most importantly the sense of utterly crushing fear.
If you’ve yet to discover Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs is the place to start. The novel is the first in Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy and melds bits of fantasy with speculative sci-fi, horror, and the political thriller. City of Stairs begins with a whip-smart diplomat investigating the death of a colleague, but quickly spirals into a political power struggle involving a pantheon of deities long thought dead, magic, Lovecraftian horrors, and a disturbing cityscape that defies our conception of geometry.
This 2016 novel follows a man whose short hike into the woods behind his hotel in rural Pennsylvania becomes an adventure into a fantastical world of bizarre demons, man-eating giants, and wickedly profane crustacean companions. It explores the more absurdist end of the weird fiction spectrum and, despite a healthy dose of humor, is brimming with the horrific and macabre.
A magnificent fantasy rife with scientific splendor, magical intrigue, and wonderfully realized characters, told in a storytelling style in which Charles Dickens meets Neal Stephenson, Perdido Street Station offers an eerie, voluptuously crafted world that will plumb the depths of every reader’s imagination.
House of Leaves was once nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth — musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies — the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.
Adrift in a dinghy, Edward Prendick, the single survivor from the good ship Lady Vain, is rescued by a vessel carrying an unusual cargo—a menagerie of savage animals. Nursed to recovery by their keeper Montgomery, who gives him dark medicine that tastes of blood, Prendick soon finds himself stranded upon an uncharted island in the Pacific with his rescuer and the beasts. There, he meets the sinister Dr. Moreau—a brilliant scientist whose notorious experiments in vivisection have caused him to abandon the civilized world. It soon becomes clear that he has continued to develop these experiments with truly horrific results.