I’m assuming you’re here because you like to read. But how much do you like to read, really? Have you read so many books that you’ve actually become jaded with all the typical archetypes? Hopefully not! There’s still plenty of magic to be had from a traditional story, executed well. But if the worst has happened, and you just can’t get excited anymore unless somebody is doing something seriously weird, possibly illegal, and certainly wrong to the stories we all know and love, I’ve got a brief list for you. One that will hopefully burn out the entire “bizarre” center of your brain, leaving you both happy and grateful to return to the safe harbor of relatively normal fiction.
Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson
Do you like dirty, new wave literary fiction? Chewing through books by Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk in the corner booth of a bar so dark you can only make out the words when somebody lights a cigarette? Well, if you’ve somehow become complacent with all the rampant drug use and morally questionable protagonists, take a look at Skullcrack City, by Jeremy Robert Johnson.
Now, I realize it is one hell of a bold statement to say “Skullcrack City is the bizarro version of a Palahniuk novel”—Palahniuk is nobody’s definition of normal. But if you use Choke as a starting point, then head off toward some Cronenbergian mutants, pass the doomsday cult, hang a left at the bent penis, and don’t stop until you hit a sentient virus, you’ll wind up in Skullcrack City.
You, uh… you might want to keep the windows rolled up.
Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
If you enjoy behind-the-scenes music documentaries, but always find them lacking in possibly murderous ghosts, rejoice! Wylding Hall is here. It’s the making-of story of a seminal acid folk album, as told by candid interviews with the band decades later—but Wylding Hall takes all the sex, drugs, and interpersonal drama and throws in mysterious disappearances, strange suicides, and supernatural rumblings. And then the twist kicks in.
That’s right: None of that was the twist. That was all just set-up.
Inter Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe
Once upon a time, Kurt Vonnegut books were considered “too weird for the mainstream.” Sure, his work is still thought of as a bit goofy, maybe a little off-center, but the man was so influential he made weirdo meta sci-fi the new normal. Now, if you took all the foundations of an early Vonnegut book, then swapped most of the humor for soul-crushing ennui and liberally dosed the whole thing with ayahuasca, you’d get a Kobo Abe novel.
Inter Ice Age 4 is Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle mixed with Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland mixed with a little bit of The Truman Show. It’s about environmental catastrophe, psychic AI, and the meaning of free will. It’s also about 200 pages long, which makes it the most weird stuffed into the smallest package this side of Bjork.
The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest
You know what to expect from most steampunk: You’ll certainly get some steam, probably some punks. Lots of vests and corsets, brass fittings and airships, clockwork robots and muskets.
You do not know what to expect when Cherie Priest does steampunk: You’ll get all that other stuff, sure— but you also get zombies, poison gas, drugs made out of that poison gas, zombies made out of those drugs made out of that poison gas, and when all that starts to look like the new normal, that’s when the yetis come.
John Dies at the End by David Wong
John Dies at the End hits all the marks of a good stoner comedy: Loveable screw-ups, jokes so stupid they swing back around to clever, and of course, drugs. The twist here is that the drugs in Wong’s book don’t make you see things that aren’t there— they let you see the things that were there all along, lurking in the corners of your living room, waiting, watching, feeding…
But still, “stoner comedy” is front and center. John Dies at the End is fast, charming, and full of jokes—the only difference being that the punchlines here will keep you awake at night, wondering about the fabric of your universe, and how easily it tears…
All right, you get through that homework, then come see me again for my next list: Five Totally Normal Books That Won’t Haunt Your Every Waking Moment
Robert Brockway is the author of the epic punk rock fantasy series The Vicious Circuit (The Unnoticeables, The Empty Ones, and Kill All Angels). He also wrote the cyberpunk dystopia novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, and the apocalyptic essay collection, Everything is Going to Kill Everybody. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and three dogs, two of which are named for Lethal Weapon characters. (The dogs, not the wife… though how cool would that be?!)