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.
At the Mountains of Madness
by H.P. Lovecraft
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.
Annihilation: The Southern Reach Trilogy #1
by Jeff VanderMeer
This Nebula Award winner is a great place to start if you’re looking for a more recent entry-point into the weird. It centers on a team of scientists and researchers working for a clandestine agency known as the Southern Reach and sent to investigate a bizarre and grotesque wilderness called Area X. The entire trilogy is an excellent read, but the sheer creepiness that threads through Annihilation, from its gothic horror underpinnings to the unreliable narration, set it apart.
City of Stairs
by Robert Jackson Bennett
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.
by Drew Magary
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.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Weird fiction is a genre that often works particularly well in shorter formats like the novella and the short story. If you’re feeling more like a deep dive into the lands of weird fiction, this 1,100-page doorstop is the place to go. It features stories covering the breadth of weird fiction and features the likes of Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Franz Kafka, and Clive Barker to name a few.