Storyville: 3 Essential Books You Should Read in Every Major Genre
This list is entirely subjective, based on books that I’ve read over the years. But what they all have in common is that they’ve stayed with me. Many of these titles I’ve read over and over again. Some are touchstones, lodestones that I reference when I get blocked, bowing at the feet of masters that have taught me everything I’ve ever learned about what makes compelling fiction. I’m hoping that you’ve read most of these and will spend much of this column nodding your head in agreement. More importantly, I hope you find some new authors and novels that will enlighten you at some point down the road.
NOTE: The genres I’ve picked are “major” to me, not to publishing in general. In leaving out romance, for example. I’m not saying it’s unimportant, just not for me. As you know, I tend to be drawn to dark writing, so that’s probably easy to see in these selections, including the YA and literary fiction.
I’m just going to lump it all together, here, so grant me that if you would. A blend of British adventure stories, European mythology and fantasy, with a sprinkle of Christianity thrown in, I don’t know if there is a better fantasy world than the one Tolkien built for these books. Technically it starts with The Hobbit, and then Lord of the Rings is broken down into a trilogy. We all know the story, right? Bilbo Baggins, the original hobbit, Gandalf the wizard, and later Frodo and Samwise, the next generation of hobbits, Aragorn the ranger, and of course Sauron the Dark Lord. If you have only seen the movies (which are great) pick up the books, too, as they provide so much more detail.
I know—he’s famous for being a horror writer, but this is such an epic novel that I had to include it here under fantasy—albeit dark fantasy. I can remember falling into this novel, much like Cal slips into the Fugue, a magical world that lies woven within a rug. The names alone are hypnotizing—in addition to the Fugue there are the Seerkind (magical creatures), a spell called “Rapture,” and a dark force called The Scourge. Poetic, lyrical and horrific, it’s one of his books that you may not have read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m not as big a fan of The Great and Secret Show or Imajica, but I tend to enjoy everything he writes.
What I found most appealing about this novel is that it blends the contemporary setting of “now” with an ancient mythology that spans hundreds, if not thousands of years. A Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel, and his fourth book, it’s a gripping read that can really show you how to take the best aspects of fantasy and bring them up to date, and push them forward. Based on the idea that gods and mythological creatures exist because we believe in them, this is quite possibly my favorite book of his. See also Anansi Boys, Neverwhere and Stardust.
I’ve heard this title called science fiction’s answer to Lord of the Rings, and that’s not a bad assessment. A Hugo winning novel, and the inaugural Nebula winner for best novel, it tops many best lists. Set more than 21,000 years in the future, it’s the story of young Paul Atreides, the heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides—their planet the only source of the “spice” mélange, a valuable commodity. Touching on a wide range of subjects including politics, environmentalism, social issues, Zen philosophies, and heroism, it’s a captivating read from start to finish. The series, in my opinion, declines as the rest of the stories unfold, but may be worth reading if you love the first book.
I mean, really, you just have to pick something by PKD to read, so why not start here. It was the inspiration for the movie, Blade Runner, quite possibly my favorite movie ever. Post-apocalyptic in setting, it’s the story of bounty hunter Rick Deckard, and his quest to find eight androids and terminate them. It raises issues about the rights of humans vs. near-humans (skinjobs, as the film calls them). I can’t say that Dick is an acquired taste without giggling, but he’s not for readers that want an easy book. I can also recommend Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, and Ubik.
I can’t remember how I stumbled across this book, but as far as contemporary world building and technology goes, the setting of Bas-Lag is fascinating. You can really call this book fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, and even horror at times, but I’ll place it in this category anyway due to the fact that our protagonist, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, is indeed an eccentric scientist living in the city of New Crobuzon. The imagery of wings, and the brutality that comes to mind when I think of Yagharek, is just as powerful now as it was when I read it. The Weaver is a frightening creature, and this is definitely my favorite of Mieville's novels, by far. The Scar and The Iron Council are the rest of the Bas-Lag series.
I had a really hard time picking my favorite Stephen King book, but I knew I wanted to include him here. It could have just as easily been It, The Shining or Pet Sematary. But what really sticks with me about this book is the fact that so many people cite it as his best and that it’s one of his longest books. It’s a post-apocalyptic story, an epic good vs. evil tale, one that crosses the United States and ends with disaster. I can still remember the opening chapter, the car crashing into the gas pump, the family trying to out-run “Captain Trips,” a mutating virus. So compelling. I really came to love the characters in this novel, to care about them, and I was upset as many of them died. People like Mother Abigail, Stuart Redman, Larry Underwood, and Tom Cullen (everything is spelled MOON, M-O-O-N, Moon) all became real to me. And that’s when I fell in love with Stephen King’s writing. Randall Flagg? Yeah, that guy, he is present in many of King’s works, with many different names, “the Dark Man,” and “the Walking Dude,” the embodiment of evil. I know it’s a long book, but it does so much right—the story, the people, the setting, the humor, the horror. If you only read one King book, make it this one.
If you have to read King because of his storytelling abilities, then you have to read Ketchum for the violence, gore, and his ability to never look away, to never flinch. His work is hard to get though, sometimes. I can remember going on a Ketchum binge, after buying about ten of his paperbacks at a yard sale, and I had to read something light between each one, as I often felt dirty and tainted after reading his books. This book is particularly powerful because the monster is us, the neighbor, the boy next door, David, who doesn’t report the horrors in the basement of Ruth, a mother who begins verbally and physically abusing her nieces, Meg and Susan. It’s hard to read, to stomach. But in this book, as well as other titles, such as The Offspring, Red, and Off Season, there is a valuable lesson in surviving this horror. We all have a bottom to hit, and it’s good to know where that is.
It’s hard to pinpoint what really makes this book so terrifying, so powerful. Sure, there are the graphic scenes, including the one with the rat, there is the sex and mutilation, the cold, calculated and almost clinical events that transpire as Patrick Bateman lives his dual life—by day a wealthy investment banker, by night, a violent serial killer. But I think what makes it so unsettling for me is the genius of Ellis playing the 1980s as the backdrop, the music and greed, the sex and drugs that happen in nightclubs, the money, the aspirations of Bateman and his peers, right alongside the horrible crimes that he acts out in his apartment. It’s that balance of superficiality and then horror, the unimportant and the terminal. Back and forth, back and forth—it’s like throwing hot water on a naked body, and then cold, and then hot, and then cold. It’s a brutal and important book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. WARNING: It's the only book to ever make me gag.
Everyone will say that this pick should be The Silence of the Lambs, but Red Dragon was what I read first, and it is so creepy, so tense and powerful. It’s the first time we meet Hannibal Lecter, and the William Blake imagery, the Tooth Fairy serial killer, the brutal crimes—it all adds up to a intense read. Sure, keep reading—pick up Silence of the Lambs, which is just as good, and even read Hannibal, which is less impressive, but still has its moments. But start with this one. It’s a wild ride.
If you haven’t read Lehane yet, you have probably seen at least one of his films. In addition to this novel, Mystic River and Shutter Island were also made into movies. Typically set in the Boston and east coast area, Lehane shows us that cops are not always the good guys, and the criminals sometimes have heart. This novel twists and turns, with lots of surprises, and the ending is not the typical happy ending that Hollywood likes to slap on its flicks. Gritty, dark, and easy to read, he’s an important writer in the neo-noir movement. If not this book, then one of the others I’ve listed here, but definitely give him a read to understand how to write effective settings, dialogue, plot, and emotion.
This novel really transcends the genre, taking it above and beyond what we know as the standard crime novel. The opening scene, the entire set-up, the introduction is so haunting, ethereal and dark that I can picture it in its entirety right now—any day, at any time. And it is not a pretty site. The plot and story is tricky, not an easy read, surreal at times, slippery and tense. Sheriff Jim Doe is on a manhunt to find a serial killer, one that swoops in after tornadoes to steal children, dressed up as a fireman. A descendant of the Blackfeet Nation himself, Doe keeps getting mistaken for the killer he’s chasing. And we haven’t even started talking about the Tin Man. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up today. You may not be ready for it, but you will be, in time. I still think it’s his best work to date.
Yes, the entire series. I mean, come on, right? If you really want to understand what makes for great YA reading, not just fantasy, but world building, language, relationships, and tension, you could do worse than to read this series. I read it once by myself and again to my children, and there is so much magic, love, and beauty in this series. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried several times while reading it. I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t read it all, but not everyone makes it to the end. These characters have become almost iconic—Harry Potter, the destined hero; Ron Weasley, his red-headed sidekick; Hermione, the love interest and genius; Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster, acclaimed wizard and mentor; Severus Snape, the unreliable potion’s master; and Lord Voledmort, the Dark Lord. An epic story spanning many years, it is ultimately a very rewarding experience.
I know, another series. I’m just finishing up reading this one to my kids as well, my son having already read it, my daughter now interested in the story. It’s funny, dark, and very unique in its tone, point of view, and morality. This series really gets you to root for the kids: Violet (the inventor), Klaus (the intellectual) and Sunny (the biter). They manage to stay alive at the end of each book, thwart the advances of Count Olaf, and give us a few laughs along the way. I haven’t finished the series yet, so don’t spoil anything for me!
His first YA title, Alexie won several awards for this novel about a Native American teenager, known as Junior, and his desire to leave the reservation and attend an all-white high school. The novel is controversial for some of its content on issues such as alcohol, poverty, bullying, references to masturbation and physical arousal, as well as for the tragic deaths of characters and the use of profanity. As a result, some schools have banned the book from their libraries. And that’s exactly why I loved this book—he tells it as it is. Even as an teenager, life is complicated, and not always so pretty.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
What I love about Gaitskill is her ability to write about some really dark subjects and still make the work literary. Her fiction typically is about female characters dealing with their own inner conflicts, and her topics matter-of-factly include many "taboo" subjects such as prostitution, addiction, and sado-masochism. Her story, “Secretary” (which is in this collection) was adapted into a really great film of the same name starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Gaitskill has admitted to a dark past, being a stripper and call girl, and being raped. She says that her work is influenced by Flannery O’Connor, another of my favorite authors, and I can see that in her writing.
This collection is about the exploits of several addicts living in rural America, as they engage in drug use, petty crime and even murder. The stories are linked by shared locations (such as a dive bar in small-town Iowa) and repeated imagery. This is a slim volume of stories, but they are powerful. “Emergency” is one of my favorites, and the scene with the baby rabbits just breaks my heart. It’s sad, funny, dark, and gritty—but not without hope. It’s one of the few books that were listed on my MFA list of approved books to read that I was actually excited to read.
I only recently discovered George Sanders, when I read the Best American Short Stories (2008) anthology for my MFA program. Some will say that “Puppy” is not even the best story in this collection, but I disagree. With it’s dual perspective of a “rich woman” and her disgust at the sight of a young boy chained up outside a rural home, and the loving mother that put the boy there, his mental condition rendering him a danger to himself, often running across the highway in a kamikaze mission for freedom. It’s a beautiful, touching story, and was my introduction to the work of Saunders. Although this collection does contain more recent work (with stories like “Sea Oak” in a previous collection) it does contain “Victory Lap,” a story that ran in The New Yorker, with more profanity than I’ve ever read in a single story, as well as “Escape from Spiderhead” and “Al Roosten,” two other favorites of mine. Saunders is smart, funny, dark, and unique. If you haven’t read him, please do.
There are many different genres that would love to claim McCarthy as their own, and they do. But I’ll qualify this selection as literary for a couple of reasons—the language is dense, complicated, and obscure, making it a challenging read; two of his books were selected by my MFA program (Outer Dark was the other one) while I was there; and because I say so. How’s that for logic? There is a poetic lyricism in this book, and many of this other novels, that you just can’t find anywhere else in the world. He is a cowboy and a poet, a killer and a saint, an innocent child and a demonic lothario. This book is simply the story of “The Kid” and his exploits with the Glanton Gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion. Judge Holden is one of the most evil, intimidating, and vile characters in contemporary literary fiction. This is a western, a supernatural tale, a Bildungsroman, a horror story, and a grotesquery. The violence in this story is some of the worst, and most beautifully rendered, that I have ever read. Not for the faint of heart, mind or soul.
I’ll bet this one shocks a lot of people. The reason I put this book on here is that I had to take a class on African-American literature for my MFA program. I’d heard a lot of great things about Morrison from my friends. But I thought, and I have to be honest here, “What is a straight, white guy in Chicago going to like about her writing?” Man, I loved everything about her writing. She’s dark, supernatural, funny, tragic, and the power of her words, the emotion, it bowled me over. I read several other books by her (The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon) but this is by far my favorite. To shine a light on slavery, to really sit with these characters, to understand what it was to be invisible, to be less than everyone else, to be ignored—it’s a powerless, haunting, and humiliating feeling. When a mother would rather brain her daughter on a rock and kill her than let her get taken back into slavery, that’s a powerful moment, a deep and complicated love, a story that has kept me up at night, and made me contemplate a great many things.
This was another novel that I read in my MFA program, although I’d read it years before. A mix of gritty, urban, Japanese noir and surreal, literary fiction, this is such a unique title, that I really urge you to pick it up. The novel is about a laid-back unemployed man, Toru Okada, whose cat runs away. A chain of events follows that prove that his seemingly mundane life is much more complicated than it appears. I can’t even explain this novel well. There is a historical lesson on war at the center of the story that gives it great authority. There are bizarre sexual interludes that grab your attention. There are surreal moments where we aren’t sure what is real. And of course, there is the actual wind-up bird, and the death song it sings. Dark, funny, simple, and layered, it’s also uplifting, sad, complicated and all on the surface for you to see. I also enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, too, but not nearly as much.
I know, I know. There are so many titles that I couldn't include here—so many authors in every genre that I didn’t mention. I can only say that these are some of my favorites, and what I consider essential books to read if you write in these genres. Who would you include? Who have you read on this list, and do you agree? Who have you not read, but want to? Any names you’ve never heard before? Let me know what you think. Maybe I’ll pick up a few new titles or authors as well.
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