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In the sprawling ecosystem of speculative fiction, there exist remarkable beasts of every shape and size. On the horizon, science fiction’s gleaming starships and many-appendaged aliens and dreams of utopia crowd the skies. In dark castles, darker forests, and the darkest corners of the human mind lay unspeakable horrors. Somewhere in the center of this scene, swords and sorcery lead the way into the fae realms of fantasy, with its penchant for lush worldbuilding.
But the strangest creatures of all—the ones that have eluded scientists, researchers, and literary critics alike—are lying right under your nose. Donning parts of each genre as they see fit, the strange creatures of the New Weird exist in a continual state of flux, changing their shapes in unexpected and surreal ways. Look closely, and you just might catch a glimpse of them in the 10 best books from the New Weird that follow.
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
In my mind, no single novel does a better job of encapsulating the New Weird than China Mieville’s seminal Perdido Street Station. Set in the dense, dark, and magical urban cityscape of New Crobuzon, the novel introduces a motley cast of characters that bring together a half-dozen sci-fi and fantasy archetypes with surprising clarity and strength of character. Interweaving the lives and challenges of a spurned scientist and his scarab-headed lover, a living collage of a crime boss, and a penance-seeking birdman—all revolving around the titular Perdido Street Station, a massive spire of a government building with a direct connection to Hell—takes true imagination, which Mieville has in spades. It’s a near-perfect introduction to the genre.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
As part one of the critically acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation breaks new ground not just in the contents of its plot, but in the development of its characters as they interact with a landscape that is at once foreign and familiar. When the group of four women sent to catalog and map Area X begins to perceive that all is not as it has been said to be, tensions arise between the members. And as those divisions push their minds to their breaking points, so too does the presence of a deep stairwell descending directly into the Earth provoke their innermost fears.
The Vorrh by Brian Catling
Reading somewhere between an historical travelog and a surrealist fever dream, The Vorrh (book one of three in the Vorrh trilogy) follows its main character—a cyclops of unknown origins—into the eponymous living heart of the jungle. Within its pages, you’ll find full-length excursions into the fantastical, dream-like nature of the twisting tropical setting; no one quite knows what they’ll find when they enter the Vorrh, and no one leaves with as much as they came in with. Catling’s prose is dense but rewarding, offering an intimate view into the inner life of a multi-modal artist’s visions of the sublime.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
David Mitchell, best known for his timeline- and genre-bending work in Cloud Atlas, has put together a creepingly haunting work of imaginative fiction in The Bone Clocks. Set across many eras and many countries, the world-hopping tale chronicles the events and members of two opposing secret societies—both of which have found a way to greatly extend their lifespans. But behind the elements of the weird and fantastical, Mitchell is also telling a cut-to-the-bone story of love and family in a rapidly changing world. It will likely leave you with both fresh insights into our modern dilemmas as well as a deep curiosity for what lies behind the facade of the everyday.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
A favorite to study in universities for its unique take on the use of a digital medium for storytelling, House of Leaves has a simple premise: It is a documentary of sorts about a family whose house is much, much bigger on the inside than the outside appears to be able to hold. Multiple narrators add to the disorienting effect of the book’s unconventional layout, with embedded strings of footnotes and the occasional necessity to turn the book sideways to continue reading. Adventurous readers will love the tactile, mysterious nature of the book—but even people who dislike House of Leaves still remember its effect on them strongly.
Going Bovine by Libba Bray
The most lighthearted and comedic book on this curated list of the New Weird comes to us courtesy of Libba Bray, widely considered to be a marvelously talented writer of young adult novels. Her command of satire in Going Bovine makes it accessible to readers of all ages though, in much the same way that classic Looney Tunes cartoons carried messages for adults and children alike. At heart, the book is an American road trip story, with the disease-afflicted main character accompanied on his adventure by a dwarf and a yard gnome. Strap in, because this is gonna be a thrilling ride.
The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
Australian author K.J. Bishop’s debut novel, The Etched City, tells a tale of romance, love, magic, and the liminal boundaries of our world. A healer and a bounty hunter are running from a grisly fate on the wrong side of a civil war, and try to start a new life in the city of Ashamoil. Beneath a vaguely Victorian-era surface, nothing is quite what it seems—and the characters wax poetic about what life becomes for them in this grungy city of dreams. It’s a beautifully written book that promises to immerse you into the city, only letting you up for air when you finally turn the last page.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Living right at the border between dark, gritty fantasy and present reality, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere takes you into the seedy magical underbelly of a London unlike any you’ve ever known. Young Richard Mayhew’s entirely ordinary life is turned upside down in the first few pages of the novel, where a token showing of empathy earns him access to realms of thought and experience others only dream of. Living by his wits and the bonds he makes with friends along the way, Richard must ultimately find his way out of the myths that hold him—both literally and figuratively.
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Written as a sequence of novels and short stories published between 1971 and 1984, M. John Harrison’s visionary Viriconium series takes place in a future Earth city of the same name. In contrast to the efforts of his sci-fi and fantasy contemporaries to laboriously map every detail of their worlds (we’re looking at you, Tolkien), Harrison took the leap of making Viriconium a constantly shifting world—both geographically and historically. The general sense of unease created by this choice plays out beautifully, weaving suspense and expectation into every page. Many consider this a forebear to the entire New Weird genre, and it’s well worth a second read.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer
Collecting 110 of the finest weird fiction short stories ever published, The Weird is a one-stop introduction to the best that speculative fiction has to offer. You’ll find all the classic greats featured here, like William Gibson and Angela Carter, as well as contemporary fiction from New Weird emissaries like China Mieville and Neil Gaiman. It’s a veritable who’s who of the genre, and an ideal book to keep on your bedside table for when you need an extra dose of the strange and fantastic.