The amount of books in existence is mindboggling. And out of all of the books in existence, how many there must be which focus on ideas which transcend the bounds of everyday human existence , i.e. the fantastic. I want to briefly put the spotlight on an arbitrary number of fantastic books because, well, this IS the season for such things. Truly though, there’s no reason to imprison these books in an artificial, temporal box; they can and should be read whenever and wherever. Still, this is a month to celebrate the extraordinary, so what better time to take a look at a few particularly delectable paragons…
On Monsters, Stephen T. Asma
I encountered On Monsters entirely by chance. Back when Borders was still around, I used to love to walk around their storefronts, not looking for anything in particular, though I would gravitate toward the sections of interest to me. I was looking through the mythology section and I found this book. I thought that it would be a great counterpoint to another book I was considering buying (Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces), so I picked it up. As it turned out, Asma provided a wonderfully readable and even-handed account of monsters throughout the ages. Various monsters, from Biblical, classical, and modern epochs, are examined from psychological, social, and biological perspectives. In my opinion, good non-fiction is hard to find; it often veers too much toward sensationalism on one hand, or dry academic prose, on the other. Asma here strikes a great balance and this book ought not be missed by anyone fascinated by the monstrous.
Animal Man, Jeff Lemire & Travel Foreman
When DC rebooted their entire line late last year, I was already on board for one title, All Star Western (consider this that title’s honorable mention — it’s a great mix of action, horror, adventure and western); I kept hearing good word of mouth about Animal Man though. For about three months, I’d read critical acclaim about this title and I finally decided to give it a shot. And the critical acclaim is dead-on. Buddy Baker — Animal Man — is a former superhero trying to make a go of his acting career and take care of his family when his entire world is thrust into horror of epic proportions. In short: there are three forces underlying our world: the red (the connection between all living animals), the green (the web connecting plant-life), and the rot (death), which consumes the red and the green. When the three work harmoniously, our world functions normally. But every once in a while, one of the forces oversteps its bounds…as the rot is doing now. And it’s up to Animal Man to stop it. (I understand that something called “Animal Man” sounds like it could be pretty dumb, but this title is really worth checking out. It takes what was formerly a B-list hero, and turns him into a character far more interesting than most of your other corporate-owned characters…) And let’s not forget the fantastically grotesque art which is really unlike anything I’ve seen in a comic before.
Night Shift, Stephen King
If I had my druthers, this entire list might consist entirely of Stephen King books; he’s certainly prolific enough! Night Shift is a collection of Stephen King’s early material (i.e. short stories); and by “early,” I mean stuff from the early 70s that was published in magazines that are largely no longer in existence. I love this collection because it’s dark and it’s powerful. It’s Stephen King from way back when he was young and hungry. There’s an edge to the stories that much of his later work lacks. (This isn’t necessarily a critique of all of King’s later work; it’s a fact of life that people grow up and older and with success, they lose some of their edge; but when they’re good at what they do, they gain in other areas — and King is definitely a writer who continously grew; see 1995’s Insomnia. (Though he later went on to call Insomnia overwritten, I think that it’s one of the best books he ever put out.)) This collection is a little hit-or-miss; I think it’s probably 75% hit — and considering how amazing that 75% is, this collection is a must-read. Some of the stand-out stories include “Night Surf,” (which captures the aimlessness and desperation of youth in a post-apocalyptic world) and “Strawberry Springs” (which follows a man who may have a connection to some terrible events…).
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt
If evil truly exists, can it be banal? Can it inhere in the impersonal cogs of a bureaucratic machine? It’s a well-trod cliché to say that evil flourishes when good men do nothing. But what happens when ordinary, unremarkable people thoughtlessly follow orders? We’ve got insight, here, into real-life horror.
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves is a labyrinth. The story goes like this: “The Navidson Record” is a movie which may or may not exist; it is being transcribed, and critically engaged with, in a book written by a blind man, who may or may not exist, named Zampano. This book, which itself may or may not really exist, is found by Johnny Truant, who may or may not exist, who edits and annotates the book. House of Leaves is a roller-coaster ride down a black hole of narration, philosophy, and insanity. I read it during my junior year of college and it had a staggering amount of influence on the way I approached writing. I began to really re-think, or think for the first time about, not just narrative devices, but the physical layout of words on the page and how they can facilitate story-telling. House of Leaves isn’t a perfect book, but it’s smart and ambitious and downright scary and I’ll never forget the marathon late-night reading sessions I had with it. If you want to see someone push the boundaries of what fiction can do, you owe it to yourself to pick this book up. You might love it, you might hate it; you might find it revolutionary or derivative; but you need to check it out and decide for yourself.
All original content copyright 2012 by Lon K. Montag. Excerpt freely, but please acknowledge the source.