Above you’ll find our own books that we would shamelessly recommend as gifts for the weirdie in your life: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities and massive 1,200-page The Weird from this year and The New Weird from 2008. Why? Well, they’re not just full of weird, uncanny, strange fictions, they’re also all three beautifully designed books. (Also check out our amazing new Cheeky Frawg website for ODD?–the “Bloat Toad” story running this week is from ODD?—and other weirdnesses.)
Those two criteria–weirdo-saturated and good-lookin’–guided our selections below, which are mostly from the last couple of years. This is by no means a definitive list of the best books–a lot of our international fiction reading, for example, was research that fed directly into our own projects–but instead new and recent releases or reprints that strike us as sumptuous and/or unusual gifts to give this holiday season. In offering these recommendations, we have to note that two publishers of weird fiction in particular offer consistent high-quality, high-value, beautiful books time and time again: Centipede Press and Tartarus Press. Ex Occidente also produces great books, although we don’t get to see most of them, so it’s sometimes hard to judge. Subterranean Press, even though they don’t specialize in weird fiction to the exclusion of all else, continues to impress. PS Publishing remains stalwart and awesome, but as with Subterranean, their focus is broader than weird fiction. As for who is taking the most chances, that’s also clear: Chômu Press. They don’t always get it right, but they’re not afraid to promote the bleeding edge.
Please do suggest additional books in the comments thread–and may the eccentric and incomplete nature of our selections enrage you enough to be passionate in your selections!!
The Weird Book of the Year
“My coffin is suddenly ablaze with light. A luminous vapor appears with a pop like a cloud in a cloud chamber directly above me and my coffin glows like a flourescent tube. I can see myself, all withered.”
Although this is not a year’s best list per se, we still must single out The Great Lover by Michael Cisco as the best weird novel of 2011–by far. At this point, it appears Cisco is simply operating in a sphere that most weird fiction writers never reach, or attain only rarely, and is doing it effortlessly. That he remains so unknown is an absolute travesty. The best work of the weird in 2010, The Narrator, Cisco’s prior novel, may be more accessible than The Great Lover, but once you become accustomed to the rhythms of this book, it is an unforgettable experience. The Great Lover of the title is a sewerman and undead hero and the novel, to some measure, follows his adventures. It’s a hard novel to describe–just buy it and experience it. In some alternate universe, Cisco is the most award-winning weird writer of the twenty-first century. As Publishers Weekly said about this novel, “Fans of stylish and thematically sophisticated weird fiction should seek out this mad testament to Cisco’s visionary genius.”
The Blissfully Eccentric
Revagations:A Book of Dreams by Eric Basso – This crisply designed volume chronicles the author’s dreams from the 1970s and could be described as a series of avant-Gothic flash fictions. Engrossing, disturbing, and straddling the divide between Basso’s short story narratives and his poetry: “This island-city of rain, where a shower of drops constantly falls; not from the sky but up from the surrounding sky…” Because of the bite-sized portions that make up this thick book, it may be the best entry point to Basso for new readers. It also features a brilliant essay on dreams referencing various poems and other narratives.
There Is No Year by Blake Butler – Some may not consider Butler a weird writer, even though parts of his prior cult classic Scorch Atlas have the feel and sense of unease you expect from weird fiction. Although this new novel also falls into the cracks between genres, it has an even more intense feel of nightmare or dark dreaming, with inexplicable events and terrors that evoke the best of writers like Mark Danielewski. It begins with an eerie prologue about the saturation of the world with a damaging light. If you’re fond of Machen you may not like Butler, but if you like your trad weird cut with some William Burroughs, Butler is the writer for you.
The Lost Machine by Richard A. Kirk– An amazing artist, Kirk took it upon himself to publish this novella of utter strangeness, adding wonderful illustrations. In a wasteland ravaged by plague, a man emerges from a decaying prison determined to track down the murderer of five children. His quest take him through odd lands and odder situations. As in some of the work of Gene Wolfe, the line between dark fantasy and dystopic SF is blurred in Kirk’s work.
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich – Weird by way of Seattle grunge, this novel reads, as Shelley Jackson put it, “Like something…on the underside of a freeway overpass in a fever dream…visionary, pervy, unhinged.” In a fevre-dream of a reflection of the Pacific Northwest, a band of hobo vampires roams the dessicated landscape and a girl with ESP searches for her sister while stalked by a monster.” Here, the tale is all in the telling, and a more surreal and original weird tale you will not find anywhere.
We Are For the Dark by Robert Aickman and Elizabeth Jane Howard– From Tartarus Press, this volume is not only quite excellent but, according to the publisher, “can be said to have kick-started the ‘Aickmanesque’ short story… Contributing three tales each, the authors were not identified with their own stories when the book was first published in 1951.” The collection includes six stories: ‘The Trains’, ‘The View’ and ‘The Insufficient Answer’ by Robert Aickman and‘Three Miles Up’, ‘Left Luggage’ and ‘Perfect Love’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
The Monstrous and the Marvelous by Rikki Durcornet – This little-known collection of essays and ruminations from a master surrealist would be worth it for the piece on “optical terrors” alone, focusing on cabinets of curiosities. But she also links Kafka to Borges, has a wonderful essay on Rosamund Purcell, and a strange essay on Swift influenced by Georges Bataille, along with an exploration of the female body that invokes Robert Coover and Angela Carter. It’s also a beautiful little book.
Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories – Although much of Jackson’s work contains a subtle weird element, she could also burst into full-on creepy, as in the novel The Haunting of Hill House. That book, her brilliant stories, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle have now been housed in a lovely Library of America edition that every weirdie really ought to own and then gift to their friends.
The Silent Land by Graham Joyce – Perhaps gentler and yet more emotional than the other selections on this list, Joyce’s novel takes as its premise a couple who return to their hotel in the Alps after skiing to find it abandoned. What happens next is by turns creepy, bittersweet, horrifying, and one of the best novels we have read in the past few years. This is classic weird written by a master storyteller. The US hardcover is a gorgeous, hauntingly designed book, with a semi-transparent dust jacket and title treatments and images also printed on the boards.
Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan – Standing as one member of the Triad of Infernal Weird–the three who clearly have signed pacts with demons to keep the quality of their story forever elevated–that also includes Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco, Kiernan has emerged since the 1990s as a master of the weird tale. This collection from Subterranean only confirms her brilliance.
Grimscribe: His Life and Works by Thomas Ligotti – Subterranean has also re-issued one of Ligotti’s best story collections, first published in 1991. It includes such classics as “The Last Feast of the Harlequins” and comes complete with a wonderfully bizarre Aeron Alfrey cover.
Malpertius by Jean Ray – Very little of this iconic Belgian writer of the weird is currently in print, but his most famous novel of the supernatural is still available directly from Atlas Press. A manuscript stolen from a monastery, the ancient stone house of a sea-trading dynasty that may be haunted. Monumental intensity. Terrifying at times–and published by Atlas in a eye-catching format and size.
Of Recent Interest
Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow – An anthology that features noir, but at its heart this is an entertaining volume of uncanny fiction by some great writers, including of original tales of the dark fantastic from Brian Evenson, Joe R. Lansdale, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Nick Mamatas, Gregory Frost, and Jeffrey Ford
The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham– by Brian Keene / Nick Mamatas – Combining gonzo journalism with Lovecraft might be a recipe for lame pastiche, but in the hands of these two talented horror writers, it’s much more. Yes, the gonzo and the humor are there, but the prose is layered and has depth–a fun romp that also has some pointy bits. On a freaked-out bus journey to Arkham, Massachusetts and the 1972 Presidential primary, evidence mounts that sinister forces are on the rise, led by the Cult of Cthulhu and its most prominent member – Richard M. Nixon!
Embassytown by China Mieville – This tale of alien contact and the repercussion of the uses of language is by no means perfect–it is ironically enough at its least perfect when it shifts into conventional action mode–but when it is content to dwell in realms of the meditative, philosophical, and descriptive, the novel has an eldrich power that lingers in the mind long after reading. No matter what Mieville does, the weird follows him.
The Tangled Muse by Wilum Pugmire– An adept at the short form, Pugmire is primarily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft and fans of the master’s work will also enjoy that of his disciple. What makes Pugmire stand out, though, is that he’s also influenced by Decadent-era writers. The collection also includes prose and prose-poems.
Regicide by Nicholas Royle – The narrator of this novel by the underrated Royle begins to get glimpses in the real world of an odd and nightmarish other place that cannot possibly exist. Some of the opening scenes are among the creepiest we’ve read recently, and although the ending can’t quite live up to the beginning, the novel is still an impressive achievement. Among the more original page-turners of the year.
Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem– Sometimes “traditional” is a good thing, and in Tem’s case he has built a hugely successful foundation for Deadfall Hotel by trading off of familiar horror tropes. Anyone who gets a shiver just thinking about an old, run-down hotel with odd corridors and hidden rooms will love this novel. Hints of Edward Gorey and far darker influences permeate this text. If ever there were a book for a cold winter night by the fireplace, Deadfall Hotel is it.
Cthulhu Versus Cthulhu
Rather than taking sides and offending the Elder Gods, we simply point your attention to two recent anthologies that allow you to overdose on Lovecraftian fiction. “Two books enter, one book leaves. Choose your eldritch weapons, and advance across a bizarre Svankmajer crytozoological battlefield!”
Cthulhu: The Recent Weird edited by Paula Guran – An all-reprints anthology in a sharp cover and layout that has some small overlap with the Ross Lockhart anthology below (same Elizabeth Bear and Charles Stross, for example). John Shirley, Michael Shea, China Mieville, etc.
The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E. Lockhart – A mostly reprints anthology with two original stories that featuring Kage Baker, Laird Barron, Elizabeth Bear, Ramsey Campbell Caitlin R. Kiernan, etc., as spotlighted on the Amazon book blog.
These are titles we either didn’t receive or just alas haven’t gotten around to reading–books from the indie press that have received a lot of buzz and may be of interest as gifts. Go check them out!
Isis Unbound by Allyson Bird – A novel inspired in part by Inspired in part by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s, Prometheus Unbound, and the works of Rider Haggard
Women Writing the Weird edited by Deb Hoag – Eugie Foster, Aliette de Bodard, and more contribute to this original anthology of uncanny tales by women.
Nemonymous Night by D.F. Lewis – A novel in which an ocean liner is mysteriously stranded in Dry Dock. The children are missing and a search party has been sent out. The inhabitants of the city have taken to drinking Angel Wine, or dreaming that they do. Meat and poultry are merging in disquieting ways. Only at the zoo can the citizens be sure that dreams are not reality.
Future Lovecraft edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – An anthology of original SF stories based on or riffing off of Lovecraft’s fiction. Featuring Nick Mamatas, Ann K. Schwader, Don Webb, Paul Jessup, E. Catherine Tobler, and A.C. Wise.
The Orphan Palace by Joseph Pulver, Sr. – A novel in which the protagonist is heading east through the night-bleak cities of America and back to confront the past he has never escaped, as a resident of Zimms, an orphanage-cum-asylum and a true palace of dementia, presided over by the ‘Chaos Lord’, Dr. Archer.
Nightingale Songs by Simon Strantzas – The latest collection from the critically acclaimed horror writer. There’s a great and creepy horror convention story in the book.
Thanks to Paul Charles Smith and Larry Nolen for reminding us of some titles.