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.


"The Hobbit" (1937) and "The Lord of the Rings" (1954-1955) by J.R.R. Tolkien

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.

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"Weaveworld" (1987) by Clive Barker

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.

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"American Gods" (2001) by Neil Gaiman

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.

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"Dune" (1966) by Frank Herbert

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.

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"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (1968) by Philip K. Dick

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.

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"Perdido Street Station" (2000) by China Mieville

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.

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"The Stand" (1978) by Stephen King

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.

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"The Girl Next Door" (1989) by Jack Ketchum

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.

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"American Psycho" (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis

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.

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"Red Dragon" (1981) by Thomas Harris

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.

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"Gone Baby Gone" (1998) by Dennis Lehane

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.

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"All the Beautiful Sinners" (2003) by Stephen Graham Jones

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.

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Harry Potter (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling

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.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006) by Lemony Snicket

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!

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"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" (2007) by Sherman Alexie

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.

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"Bad Behavior" (1988) by Mary Gaitskill

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.

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"Jesus’ Son" (1992) by Denis Johnson

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.

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"Tenth of December" (2013) by George Saunders

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.

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"Blood Meridian" (1985) by Cormac McCarthy

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.

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"Beloved" (1987) by Toni Morrison

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.

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"The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" (1994) by Haruki Murakami

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.

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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.


I've read a lot of amazing authors SINCE this list originally went up, and I may update my top three selections as well, but for NOW, here is an expanded reading list of Contemporary Dark Fiction that may offer up a wider range of authors:

  • Adams, Richard – Watership Down
  • Atwood, Margaret – The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Baer, Will Christopher – Kiss Me Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre
  • Banks, Iain – The Wasp Factory
  • Barron, Laird – The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and The Croning
  • Barker, Clive – Weaveworld and Books of Blood
  • Bell, Matt – Cataclysm Baby and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
  • Bradbury, Ray – Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine
  • Brooker, Charlie – Inside Black Mirror (non-fiction) with Annabel Jones and Jason Arnopp
  • Brite, Poppy Z. – Prime, Liquor, and Lost Souls
  • Card, Orson Scott – Ender’s Game
  • Cain, Chelsea – Heartsick, Sweetheart, and Evil at Heart
  • Clevenger, Craig – The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria
  • Cronin, Justin – The Passage
  • Crane, Antonia – Spent (non-fiction)
  • Crichton, Michael – The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Prey, and Next
  • Danielewski, Mark Z. – House of Leaves
  • Datlow, Ellen (editor) – Best Horror of the Year (annual) as well as The Doll Collection, Monstrous, Supernatural Noir, and Fearful Symmetries
  • Davidson, Craig – The Fighter, Rust & Bone, and Sarah Court
  • Dick, Philip K. – Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
  • Dunn, Katherine – Geek Love
  • Drake, Monica – Clown Girl
  • Ellis, Bret Easton – American Psycho
  • Erickson, Steve – Tours of the Black Clock, Our Ecstatic Days and The Sea Came in at Midnight
  • Evenson, Brian – The Warren, Windeye, Immobility, and The Open Curtain
  • Flynn, Gillian – Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and Gone Girl
  • Gay, William – I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down
  • Gaiman, Neil – Stardust, Neverwhere, American Gods, and Anansi Boys
  • Gaitskill, Mary – Bad Behavior
  • Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
  • Gran, Sara – Come Closer
  • Gray, Amelia – AM/PM, Museum of the Weird, THREATS, and Gutshot
  • Grisham, John – A Time to Kill, The Firm, and The Pelican Brief
  • Guran, Paula (editor) – The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (annual)
  • Hall, Steven – Raw Shark Texts
  • Hall, Tina May – The Physics of Imaginary Objects
  • Harris, Thomas –Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal
  • Heinlein, Robert A. – Stranger in a Strange Land, Red Planet, The Puppet Masters, and Friday
  • Homes, A.M. – The End of Alice
  • Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World
  • Iglesias, Gabino – Coyote Songs
  • Irby, Samantha – Meaty (non-fiction)
  • Hunter, Lindsay – Daddy’s, Don’t Kiss Me, and Ugly Girls
  • Jemc, Jac – The Grip of It, My Only Wife, and A Different Bed Every Time
  • Johnson, Denis – Jesus’ Son
  • Jones, Holly Goddard – Girl Trouble
  • Jones, Stephen Graham – The Only Good Indians, Mongrels, All the Beautiful Sinners, Ledfeather, The Ones That Got Away, and Bleed Into Me
  • Kelly, Michael (editor) – Year’s Best Weird Fiction (annual)
  • Kesey, Ken – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Ketchum, Jack – The Girl Next Door, Off Season, Offspring, Red, The Lost, and Peaceable Kingdom
  • King, Stephen – It, The Stand, Salem’s Lot, The Long Walk, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone, Night Shift, Needful Things, Different Seasons, The Shining, 11/22/63, On Writing (non-fiction) and The Dark Tower series
  • Koontz, Dean – Whispers, Phantoms, Strangers, and Watchers
  • Lehane, Dennis – Mystic River and Shutter Island
  • Long, Jeff – The Descent
  • Llewellyn, Livia - Furnace
  • Maass, Donald – Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling (non-fiction)
  • Machado, Carmen Maria – Her Body and Other Parties
  • Malerman, Josh – Bird Box
  • Matheson, Richard – I Am Legend and Hell House
  • McCammon, Robert R. – Swan Song
  • McCarthy, Cormac – The Road, Blood Meridian, and Outer Dark
  • Mieville, China – Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and King Rat
  • Miller, Mary – Big World
  • Minor, Kyle – In the Devil’s Territory and Praying Drunk
  • Moreno-Garcia, Silvia – Mexican Gothic and Certain Dark Things
  • Morrison, Toni – Beloved and The Bluest Eye
  • Murakami, Haruki – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
  • O’Brien, Tim – The Things They Carried
  • O’Connor, Flannery – The Complete Stories
  • Orwell, George – 1984 and Animal Farm
  • Palahniuk, Chuck – Survivor, Choke, Diary, Lullaby, Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, and Rant
  • Patterson, James – Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls
  • Percy, Benjamin – Refresh, Refresh, The Wilding, Red Moon, The Dead Lands and Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction (non-fiction)
  • Phillips, Jayne Anne – Black Tickets
  • Pollock, Donald Ray – Knockemstiff
  • Rash, Ron – Chemistry and Other Stories
  • Rice, Anne – Interview With the Vampire
  • Richard, Mark – The Ice at the Bottom of the World
  • Sebold, Alice – The Lovely Bones
  • Simmons, Dan – Song of Kali and Carrion Comfort
  • Steinbeck, John – Of Mice and Men
  • Straub, Peter – Ghost Story and Floating Dragon
  • Strayed, Cheryl – Wild (non-fiction)
  • Thomas, Richard (author) – Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Disintegration, Breaker, The Soul Standard (with Nik Korpon, Axel Taiari, and Caleb Ross), and Tribulations
  • Thomas, Richard (editor) – The New Black (Dark House Press), Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press, with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer, Exigencies (Dark House Press), and The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press).
  • Thomas, Richard (publisher) – Scratch by Steve Himmer, Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters, Vile Men by Rebecca Jones-Howe, and After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • Thomas, Richard (story contributor, anthologies) – PRISMS, The Seven Deadliest, Shallow Creek, Gorgon: Stories of Emergence, Chiral Mad 4, Lost Highways, Behold! Oddities Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Chiral Mad 3, Slave Stories: Scenes from the Slave State, Qualia Nous, Fear the Reaper, Cipher Sisters, Chiral Mad 2, The Booked Anthology, Warmed & Bound, Shivers VI
  • Thompson, Jim – Pop. 1280 and The Killer Inside Me
  • Tremblay, Paul – Survivor Song, A Head Full of Ghosts, and In the Mean Time
  • VanderMeer, Jeff – The Southern Reach Trilogy (especially Annihilation)
  • Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Yuknavitch, Lidia – The Chronology of Water (non-fiction)
  • Welsh, Irvine – Trainspotting
  • Wilson, F. Paul – The Repairman Jack series
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 175 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Lightspeed, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker (twice), Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. For more information visit or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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Andrew Peirce's picture
Andrew Peirce from Perth, Australia is reading Big Bosoms and Square Jaws June 14, 2013 - 8:31am

Most of these are books that I would gladly recommend to anyone. The ones I haven't read I'll get onto right away. 

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler June 14, 2013 - 8:48am

I think Patrick Bateman is the only character I want to meet in person for the sole purpose of stabbing.  That is one character that leaves me freaked out when I think about him.

American Gods was an amazing story.  Good choices on all of your pics.  I'll have to look into some of the ones I haven't read.


Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On June 14, 2013 - 9:04am

Great list. I love the rec for Gaitskill's work. I've heard so much about it and have never read her, so I'm going to amazon after this and getting that book. Blood Meridian I've read four times, and it never fails to enrich and inspire me while also reducing me to a microbe both in terms of emotional impact, and my own perceptions as a writer.

Daniel Donche's picture
Daniel Donche from Seattle is reading Transubstantiate, by Richard Thomas June 14, 2013 - 9:05am

Awesome list, Richard! I really need to read China Mieville. 

Melissa Wiebe's picture
Melissa Wiebe June 14, 2013 - 9:34am

What about classics?  This all seems to be fairly contemporary literature, but nothing from the classics.  And its pretty American as well.

Steve Walker's picture
Steve Walker June 14, 2013 - 9:38am

Great article. I'm definitely gonna start reading some of these, starting with Jack Ketchum.

Nicholas L. Honeck's picture
Nicholas L. Honeck June 14, 2013 - 9:40am

Raymond Carver is essential reading for short story writers.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago June 14, 2013 - 9:41am

Judging by the quality of the books on this list that I have read, I think I should read them all.

Jen Rogers's picture
Jen Rogers June 14, 2013 - 9:45am

My all-time favorite book is "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston. I just love her writing style and the amazing, human stories she tells.

Brian Kopetsky's picture
Brian Kopetsky June 14, 2013 - 9:49am

I agree with the the commenter who said Raymond Carver is essential short story reading. That said the list is excellent. I might also recommend The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi or Shipbreaker by the same author for YA. 

Jon Wright's picture
Jon Wright June 14, 2013 - 10:08am

Possibly not to everyone's taste, but Donal Ray Pollock's "Knockemstiff" is probably my favourite collection of short stories.  So many tragic, ugly, soulful characters.  Can't recommend it enough!

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books June 14, 2013 - 10:13am

Dune is one of my favorite books of all time, period. Totally transcends genre. And I loved Clive Barker in high school, Weaveworld especially. I gotta go back. Been meaning to try out some Mieville as well.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 14, 2013 - 10:27am

I actually debated Carver in the short story category, I read both him and Cheever in my MFA program. I do like Carver a lot, but some of the classic short story writers, the literary types, bore me. Some literary fiction is just too self-indulgent. And I'm not going to be the guy that talks up Shakespeare, or James Joyce, or other authors like that. Can't stand them. So, yeah, this is a pretty contemporary list. But that's what (hopefully) makes it more relevant. I already had some people telling me The Hobbit is dated and not all that compelling anymore.

I also haven't read a ton of European authors. Murakami is one of the few non-Americans. that's just biased to my reading, not supposed to be an exhaustive list.

i also haven't read The Windup Girl, but keep meaning to. Hunger Games and The Book Thief, too, for YA.

Great suggestions, guys. I'm sure that even if I picked TEN for each category, I'd leave some excellent books out.

Varkko Stush's picture
Varkko Stush June 14, 2013 - 10:58am

No Song Of Ice And Fire? I mean, I know it's probably lost its cool now that it's such a monstrous mainstream hit, but the third book in the series is a match for Lord Of The Rings, in my opinion (and I say that as an absolute lover of LOTR and all things Tolkien).


Totally agree with Blood Meridian. What a piece of work. It's enough to destroy your hopes of ever writing anything worthwhile, because you will never get near that standard.





Varkko Stush's picture
Varkko Stush June 14, 2013 - 11:03am

Ooh, also, I have to disagree on the King choice. The Stand was my favourite of his extensive back catalogue until he finished the Dark Tower series. I know it has continuity errors and odd loose ends, but I fell in love with the characters, i loved how it jumped genre, and for once, King managed an ending that fit perfectly with the journey. It's his masterpiece.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts June 14, 2013 - 12:29pm

The only ones here I don't have here with me are Mieville and Gaitskill, though I've read some of her.

I'm big on RED DRAGON over LAMBS, too, because I love living inside Will Graham's mind. Few thrillers have done that to me as well as RD had.

bachunderground's picture
bachunderground from DC is reading tea leaves June 14, 2013 - 12:40pm

I have to disagree on American Gods. It was entertaining, but not on the level of the others mentioned, if only because Shadow is a flat Gary-Stu Jesus figure who doesn't make for a very compelling protagonist. I'd also add ASOIAF to the fantasy section.

marielle's picture
marielle June 14, 2013 - 1:20pm

Every major genre? What about non-fiction? This list, while wonderful, is lacking a bit in the essay, memoir, and biography departments (after all, non-fiction books make up the majority of the market). Let's get some David Sedaris, some Chuck Klosterman, and some John Jeremiah Sullivan on here!

Catherine Finnigan's picture
Catherine Finnigan June 14, 2013 - 2:16pm

I agree with all of this, except for the lack of some James Ellroy in the Crime/Thriller section - seriously, no L.A Confidential or American Tabloid?

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 14, 2013 - 7:24pm

Haven't read SOIAF, sadly. Non-fiction, I don't read much of it, but yeah, I'd totally put Sedaris on there, and Klosterman. I've read very few biographies, either. Ellroy is a great suggestion, I think with a similar voice I went with Lehane. I did enjoy both LA and Tabloid, though. With only three books per genre, it's tough. He'd probably be #4.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin June 15, 2013 - 1:12pm

Lemony Snicket is great - I love his humour.

My favorite YA author would be a guy called Robin Jarvis, he's a totally underrated British author who writes stories of dark magic and murder and cults that are rich in history and full of plot twists. I have read his books since I was eleven & still buy his new releases now :)

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list June 16, 2013 - 4:11am

As painful as it was for me to read his work (I took an entire semester of him) I would have to put Faulkner on my list of must reads. There are truly beautiful moments in his books, and some truly great characters. Quentin is one of my all time favorite characters. He appears in both The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! My favorite book, which is his least popular, is Light in August. His work is very dark and folksy. That semester had a huge influence on one of my novels, as did work by Nella Larson and a few of the Harlem writers.

John Green and Megan McCafferty have had an influence on my contemporary writing. They are both YA authors. Didn't care for McCafferty's dystopian novels though.

I read such an eclectic mix that it all sort of melds together to form new things. Guess that could be a really bad thing, or a really good thing. Only time will tell :)

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons June 17, 2013 - 6:47pm

Fabulous suggestions. I don't think I could have picked only three in some of the categories. Good job. Im ordering the Gaitskill. 

Jaquira Diaz's picture
Jaquira Diaz June 18, 2013 - 3:18pm

A List of Writers, Specifically for the Listmakers:

Nalo Hopkinson
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Kristin Cashore

Science Fiction:
Margaret Atwood
Ursula K. Le Guin
Octavia Butler
Tananarive Due

Linda D. Addison
Helen Oyeyemi
Chesya Burke

Megan Abbott
Laura Lippman
Sue Grafton
Gillian Flynn
Joyce Carol Oates

Young Adult:
Malinda Lo
Nova Ren Suma
emily m. danforth
Kirsten Hubbard

Short Story Collections:
Amina Gautier
Caitlin Horrocks
Holly Goddard Jones
Karen Brown
Claire Vaye Watkins
E.J. Levy

Literary Fiction:
Patricia Engel
Jennine Capo Crucet
Zadie Smith

Literary Nonfiction:
Adriana Paramo
Cheryl Strayed
Michelle Tea
Brenda Miller

MicahJ's picture
MicahJ June 18, 2013 - 4:20pm

Meh. Did this guy read anything outside childhood that wasn't recommended by his oft-mentioned MFA program? Any women, maybe? Or books from other cultures? (Murakami barely counts; he's so hip and always eating spaghetti.)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 18, 2013 - 6:16pm

Great list, Jaquira.

@micahj - Um, All the Beautiful Sinners, Perdido Street Station, American Gods, American Psycho, Gone Baby Gone, Tenth of December?

Jason C's picture
Jason C from Quad Cities, Iowa is reading Growing Up Dead In Texas by Stephen Graham Jones June 18, 2013 - 10:01pm

Meh. Is Micah going to contribute some names of books or just whine?

Rachel Manwill's picture
Rachel Manwill June 21, 2013 - 2:32pm

I don't agree that Harry Potter or the Lemony Snicket series' would be considered YA. These are solidly middle grade, and YA tends to refer to an older age group. These are ideally for kids around upper elementary or middle school, though of course people much older than that read these books too. YA though is literature for teenagers. 

My suggestions for the YA genre:

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 21, 2013 - 5:33pm

Thanks, Rachel. I guess with YA, I see that as anything with young/teen protagonists, and I think both HP and LS qualify—and like you said, a wide range of people do read them. But I do agree on your comments about The Uglies and Hunger Games series.

bdrube's picture
bdrube June 21, 2013 - 8:24pm

Conceding that picking only three in each category leaves out a TON of great books I still have this quibble: "Androids" is a fairly dull book that was a rarity in having a MUCH better movie made out of it (and make sense of it, for that matter).  Also, mystery/crime writing titans Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), John D. MacDonald and Loren Estleman each put out at least three crime/noir novels better than any of those on this list.

dystopian's picture
dystopian June 21, 2013 - 8:38pm

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum is based on a true story about Sylvia Likens, who died in the 60s after being tortured by the woman supposedly taking care of her and the woman's neighbor's children.

There is a very good movie about the case called An American Crime that I'd recommend.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 22, 2013 - 9:33am

@bdrube - Well, I wanted to pick one of PKD, and that was the title that seemed most approachable. I think he's an important author, but sure, there are tons of other books by him if you want to see what he's all about. Maybe I should swap that for The Man in the High Castle?

There are certainly a ton of talented crime/noir authors out there, and you suggest some great ones. maybe i'm just not a big fan of the classic noir voice, but I certainly can't begrudge you your suggestions there, especially Block and Chandler.

Cabrin Kelly-Hale's picture
Cabrin Kelly-Hale from Pittsburgh, PA is reading Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichel June 23, 2013 - 10:46am

Seriously, if you are going to call it Crime/Noir/Thrillers then perhaps you should read some...such as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Colin Dexter, Sara Paretsky, P.D. James, Rex Stout, James Ellroy, early James Patterson, Tony Black, Andrew Vachss, Sue Grafton, Margaret Maron, Wilkie Collins, James M. Cain and OF COURSE Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the man himself, Sherlock Holmes.

You say if you haven't read Lehane yet you have probably seen one of the movies based on his books...not really a ringing endorsement for an author especially one you list as the best of the best in Crime...and as for Stephen Graham Jones please, there are so many more "psychic" crime novel out there that are far less convoluted and self congratulatory...if you want difficult to read based on the subject matter read Andrew Vachss...and "his best work to date?" It's his SECOND novel and his first was a re-hash of his dissertation...

I'm sorry if none of the masters of crime and mystery were shared with you in your MFA classes so perhaps you should start with the masters Doyle, Christie, Sayers, Chandler, Hammett and build a base of knowledge about this genre before you make these absurd recommendations.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 23, 2013 - 12:08pm

Well, thank you Cabrin for the hostile post. I believe I said this was subjective, and not exhaustive. Maybe I just don't LIKE Agatha Christie, Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, James Patterson (does he even WRITE his own stories?), Andrew Vachss, Sue Grafton, James M. Cain, Doyle and Holmes? I've read all of them. And the Lehane reference was just to say that you may have heard of his films, if you haven't heard of his books. Not to imply that you should just go see the movies. LOL. And I have no idea why you feel the need to attack my MFA program. These are MY recommendations. Go make your own list someplace else if you want to. I appreciate the suggestions, but not the tone. You say they are absurd, so I assume you've read everything on this list already right? I never understand the need to attack somebody else's OPINION. Even when I say essentially, it's just my opinion.

Dean Blake's picture
Dean Blake from Australia is reading June 23, 2013 - 4:35pm

Great article. I've only read 6 of these!

Jason C's picture
Jason C from Quad Cities, Iowa is reading Growing Up Dead In Texas by Stephen Graham Jones June 23, 2013 - 10:07pm

It's interesting that the majority of the mystery authors that Cabrin mentions have just your basic average prose or worse. Maybe some of us are looking for more when it comes to writing.  All The Beautiful Sinners stacks up easily against your list.

Jason C's picture
Jason C from Quad Cities, Iowa is reading Growing Up Dead In Texas by Stephen Graham Jones June 23, 2013 - 10:12pm

I mean seriously...Sue Grafton? Sara Paretsky? Rex Stout? Hilarious.

And no one's giving a shit about Agatha Christie now. If she was alive today, she'd be thanking her stars that she's on high school reading lists, along with other old classics that haven't stood the test of time.

jackrfoster's picture
jackrfoster June 29, 2013 - 10:18am

Three almost perfect seelctions for the science fiction category there. I think I would switch electric sheep with palmer eldrich but its a tough call. If you haven't already, you should check out Bennett R. Coles' recent novel 'Casualties of War'.


"With a colonial rebellion put down, the veterans of Expeditionary Force 15 can return to Earth. But the welcome they may have expected isn’t waiting for them. The State is on a witch-hunt for someone to blame for the recent war. The Astral Force has placed incompetents in charge of developing a new super-weapon. Families and friends have no concept of what happened amongst the stars. And subtle forces from the colonies are secretly at work."


I've read this book twice already and I might even go back for more. The characters drive this story forward superbly and the story is absolutely compelling throughout. Total must-read book this year.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies July 6, 2013 - 1:44pm

Thanks, Jack. I'll check that out!

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster July 27, 2013 - 11:44am

I've read exactly one of these (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings--or does that count as four?). I just added Dune, Perdido Street Station, and Blood Meridian to my "to read" list. I'm trying to boost my range of fiction that I've read; I've read very little Sci-Fi but love the genre so it's good to see a couple titles to start with. 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies July 28, 2013 - 4:56pm

Very cool. Hope you enjoy them, check back in and let us know what you thought!

BlueOctopuss3's picture
BlueOctopuss3 from Puerto Rico (U.S. Territory) / living in MIami, Florida is reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon August 21, 2015 - 11:50am

Thanks for the list Richard!

Some of these I've read - absolutely loved Dune - some I've heard about and been thinking about reading for a while - China Melville Perdido Street Station for example and American Gods. Gotta read The Stand, which is the next book on my list - can't believe I haven't read that one, yet.

Yes, this is a real cool list.

Thanks for your article!


Holly Bella Toschi's picture
Holly Bella Toschi from San Francisco is reading "Dance Dance Dance" August 27, 2015 - 2:43pm
How did Junot Diaz's "This is How You Leave Her" not make above short story collection list?!?   Not only is he a Pulitzer winner, but Diaz's unique prose and narrative makes him one of the most prolific voices of modern-day writers (not to mention a bad ass fiction editor of the Boston Review and creative writing instructor at M.I.T.)  His storytelling is Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex" with a bit of Murakami and lots of authentic street slang and humor.
Nice to see Patrick Bateman getting some love, though...
Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 27, 2015 - 2:47pm

How did Junot Diaz's "This is How You Leave Her" not make above short story collection list?!?   Not only is he a Pulitzer winner, but Diaz's unique prose and narrative makes him one of the most prolific voices of modern-day writers (not to mention a bad ass fiction editor of the Boston Review and creative writing instructor at M.I.T.)  His storytelling is Jeffrey Eugenides's "Middlesex" with a bit of Murakami and lots of authentic street slang and humor.

Nice to see Patrick Bateman getting some love, though...

Probably because I haven't read it. :-)