I’ve always loved authors who are unique. Not just in their “voice” or subject matter but in the way they look at the world.
There are lots of authors who have one of these qualities which makes them instantly recognisable. Lovecraft, of course, or Ray Bradbury, can be recognised from the first few lines. Both also have their own distinct view of the world. But they don’t quite make my top five because they are possible to imitate. My top five are so unique that few people would dare to imitate them.
The first in the list is Alfred Jarry. The late 19th century French author and playright had a number of influences and certainly influenced others in turn. He was close to the symbolists and decadents and inspired Dada, surrealism and those associated with the College de ‘Pataphysique but stands apart from all of them in his brilliant eccentric vision. In many ways he could be said to have created a form of literature that has only one proponent – Jarry himself. Most of his work is available in translation if you look for it – much by the wonderful Atlas Press. Most who know Jarry at all do so via Ubu Roi but everything by him is worth reading.
Second in the list (and from now on this is in order of birth rather than favouritism) is David Lindsay. Again, if you have heard of him it will be for one work – A Voyage to Arcturus. This is certainly his best book – his prose is often uneven and the unique vision compromised by attempts to shoehorn in elements of more conventional settings – but all of his work is worth reading -especially Devil’s Tor and Sphinx. If you haven’t read Acturus, see if you can find the Savoy Books hardback which is beautifully produced and includes Colin Wilson’s insightful essay on Lindsay.
Third, born a couple of years after Lindsay, is James Branch Cabell. Again, mainly know for one book – Jurgen – which came to prominence for an obscenity case over some very mild sexual innuendo. Cabell could be accused of writing the same book over and over – he explicitly had a trio of themes which he worked out over the Biography of Manuel series of which Jurgen is a part. Many of the books are fantasies but all are comedies of manners. Like Lindsay and Jarry his those he influenced are nowadays far more famous than Cabell himself.
The fourth author is R.A. Lafferty. Like Cabell, you can instantly recognise a story by Lafferty, and no-one else can write a Lafferty tale, although Michael Bishop and Gene Wolfe have made brave attempts. Often drawing on the odd facts and throwaway theories of Charles Fort Lafferty has an oblique view of the world and its mysteries. His novels are sometimes hard work but the short stories – magnificent. From his first collection -900 Grandmothers – he burst into science fiction with a unique voice. A special mention should be given to editor Terry Carr who helped launch or boost the career of a number of great authors through his two Ace Science Fiction special series and his short story collections. As well as Lafferty, he also supported the final author in our list.
Avram Davidson is as erudite as Jarry or Cabell with the allusive style of Lafferty. Davidson also has Gene Wolfe’s ability to construct a story of details that seem mere embellishment but later prove to be a key element of the plot. Like Wolfe he also uses his encyclopedic knowledge to build worlds that have enormous depth without drowning the reader in exposition. His characters live in their worlds rather than exploring them. His short stories are more accessible than his novels, but the novels are more rewarding – especially the Virgil Magus series. My own favourites are the stories featuring Dr Englebert Esterhazy in his imaginary turn of the century middle European empire and the Jack Limekiller stories set in central America.