I did an online quiz to find how many of 500 cult books I had read and found I was I the top 1% – 7th overall of those who had taken part. However in looking at that list and lots of others, I was struck by how many of my favourite books weren’t on there.
Part of that may be that quite a few of them aren’t in print – some for many years. It may also be generational – a number that were cult books when I was younger have now fallen off the radar. I therefore decided to do my own list. These are not necessarily my absolute favourites as some of those are featured regularly, but definitely the best of the rest.
Before getting into the 50 books I should mention a few publishers who can be guaranteed to have something of interest. First and foremost Atlas Books whose catalogue is full of wonderful titles from Dada, Surealism and their precursors and successors. The home of the Anti Tradition. There are also some great books produced by Daedalus worth reading.
In the US have a look at Black Scat, New Directions and Dalkey Archive as well as Black Coat Press.
There are other books I could have added – Josephine Saxton’s Heiros Gamos of Sam and An Smith, Jeremy Leven’s Creator, WW Tarn’s Treasure of the Isle of Mist, Gurdieff’s Tales of Beelzebub, Wyndham Lewis’ Childremass trilogy. Arthur Byron Cover’s Autumn Angels. If you look for anything with an introduction by Anthony Burgess you are probably on to a winner. But 50 seemed like a good round number.
Peter S Beagle – A Fine and Private Place
Beagle’s The Last Unicorn has a big cult following but I love his first book even more. Written when he was only 19, this wonderful story of love in a graveyard between two widowed people and two young ghosts has all the humanity, wisdom and humour Beagle has shown throughout his career.
Brigid Brophy – The Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God
Brophy will sometimes appear in lists for the Firbankian Palace Without Chairs or the gender questioning novel In Transit, but this short story collection shows off the full range of her considerable talent. It took me years to track down a copy after reading it in the library as a teenager.
James Branch Cabell – Jurgen
Cabell had a brief revival in the 70s after Lin Carter published several of his books as part of his Ballantine fantasy series (along with lots of other unjustifiably neglected books). He manages to be simultaneously romantic, cynical and very funny and most of the brilliantly written 25 volume Biography of Manuel is worth reading. Jurgen is probably the best starting place.
PH Cannon– Scream for Jeeves
Bertie Wooster meets Cthulhu – what more do you need to know?
Angela Carter – The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman
Nights at the Circus was Carter’s most popular book, but for me this is her best. Amongst lots of other things it is about the power of imagination to challenge and stimulate the mundane as the world is invaded by surrealism.
Jerome Charyn – The Tar Baby
Charyn’s Isaac Siddel eccentric police procedurals are to be treasured, but this bitchfest between academics carried out in the pages of a university journal is a dark joy.
G K Chesterton – The Man Who Was Thursday
There are challenges with Chesterton – his endless catholic proselytising and the causual anti-semitism that infected many writers of the time. However when he was good he was very very good and this story of a poet infiltrating a group of anarchists to find they are led by God is one of his ironic best.
John Collier – His Monkey Wife
Enormously popular in the 50s for his wonderful short stories (many featured on Tales of the Unexpected) Collier has disappeared off the radar. This is one of his two novels and tells of a tender and funny love affair between a man and a chimpanzee.
John Crowley – Little, Big
Crowley is an enormously clever writer and his four volume Endless series is worth seeking out. However claims that Little,Big called for a redefinition of fantasy were onlyslightly exagerated.
Adam Daly – The Outcasts Burden
Like The Man Who Was Thursday where all of the conspirators actually are anarchists. A very unsettling read but worthwhile.
Avram Davidson – The Adventures of Dr Esterhazy
The Vergil Magus series is probably Davidson’s masterwork but the essence of his eccentric prose style and eclectic academism is contained in this collection. A middle European Sherlock Holmes (if Holmes had three doctorates in esoteric subjects) tackles strange mysteries in an imaginary pre WW1 Balkan empire.
Thomas Disch – Camp Concentration
Again there are those who would claim 334 or On Wings of Song are better books from Disch, but this tale of conscientious objectors and criminals injected with a deadly varient of syphilis that turns them into geniuses is my favourite – and the echoes of Mann’s Dr Faustus add depth.
Jim Dodge – Stone Junction
Dodge’s short and wonderful Fup sometimes makes lists of cult classics but this tale of magic and coming of age has the same heart and brilliant writing but at greater length and depth.
Geo Alec Effinger – What Entropy Means to Me
Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy was his breakthrough to bigger sales but his first novel was an eccentric masterpiece. A bizarre dysfunctional family compete in a dystopian world. Amazing.
Firesign Theatre – Big Book of Plays
A bit of a cheat as this is a series of scripts for their brilliant albums. As the multi tracking sometimes makes it hard to catch all the jokes this is a great addition to the recorded versions.
Carlos Fuentes – Terra Nostra
There are quite a few Latin American authors who crop up on lists, but this giant novel from Fuentes doesn’t often appear, which is a shame. Modeled on Finnegan’s Wake it toggles between the 12th and 16th century Spain – with lots of digressions into the paintings of Bosch.
David Garnett The Twilight of the Gods
If you can find the later editions of this with the extra stories (as opposed to the more widely available Penguin edition) it is worth doing so. The classical references of the Symbolists and the wit of John Collier combine in a collection that has been unjustly consigned to limbo. Find it.
John Hart – Jizz
Not the US thriller writer but the sole novel by this British author. Very funny as an eccentric Brighton inventor in the pursuit of happiness finds himself in a series of scrapes – Douglas Adams without the cynicism.
Rhys Hughes – Engelbrecht Again
Maurice Richardson’s Exploits of Engelbrecht makes some lists – deservedly. Seek out the Savoy Books edition if you can find it. Hughes’ book is not in quite the same league but is still well worth reading. Everything Hughes writes can only be compared to other books by Hughes and this is one of his best.
Robert Irwin – The Arabian Nightmare
Irwin is an Arab expert and this book has elements of the 1001 Nights in a dizzying set of nested stories that infiltrate a traveller’s dreams and move him further and further away from reality. Is he dreaming within a dream within a dream? All of Irwin’s books are worth reading but this is my favourite and one of the strangest.
Alfred Jarry –The Exploits of Dr Faustroll
Why is this not on every list? Jarry is best known for Ubu Roi and often little else, but this astonishing book is his masterpiece as Faustroll navigates the world of ‘Pataphysics, sculling a seive through the streets of a hallucinatory Paris populated by books and art in the company of his bailiff and an ape whose monosyllabic utterances are as profound as many politicians. Ha ha.
Marvin Kaye – The Incredible Umbrella
The wonderful Harold Shea stories of Pratt and De Camp are on some lists, but this book is just as wonderful to read as a magical Bumbershoot helps the hero explore the worlds of Frankenstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sherlock Holmes and Flatland.
Alfred Kubin – The Other Side
There are good reasons to think Kubin’s dark Asian kingdom is modelled on that most occult of cities – Prague. In fact Symbolist artist Kubin’s illustrations were originally drawn for Meyrink’s The Golem but used for his own dark fantasy instead.
R A Lafferty– Fourth Mansions
Lafferty is another author who can only be compared to himself. His short novels are probably better than his novel length works (seek out 900 Grandmothers) but this book is Lafferty at his eccentric best.
Thomaso Landolfi– Gogol’s Wife
Often compared to Borges but in my view closer to his Italian contemporary Dino Buzzati who often does make lists. This is a landmark collection of his dark fantastic stories.
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus
Sometimes dismissed as simple surrealism, Lindsay’s best novel uses the trappings of science fiction to explore the nature of love and reality. An author with a unique world view he struggled to express it within the boundaries of commercially acceptable fiction. All of his novels are worth reading but he comes closest to squaring the circle in this. Again, seek out the Savoy Books edition.
Richard Miller – Snail
There were lots of inventive comic fantasies published in the 60s and 70s – Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, Rob Swigart’s Little America and others following (at some distance) the genius of Vonnegut and Pynchon. If you like those (and I do) you will like this.
John Myers Myers – Silverlock
A book full of books. The eponymous hero travels washes up on the Commonwealth of Letters after a shipwreck and travels meeting characters from fiction and legend. A lot of the fun is spotting who is who and where they are from.
Gerard De Nerval – Aurelia
Nerval’s life was as fantastic as this hallucinogenic reverie – not least his habit of taking his pet lobster for a walk on a lead. Sylvie is his most well regarded work and his Voyage to the Orient provides some clues to his art, but this book is my favourite and a great inspiration to the Symbolists.
Flann O’Brien – At Swim Two Birds
A man of many names (also look out forBrian O’Nolan) and a number of very funny books, this is my favourite. A student starts to write three separate stories but their characters come to life and interact with each other while seeking for freedom from their author, even going so far as to start writing their own stories with the student as a character to control his life. Seek out the Third Policeman as well.
Tom Phillips – A Humument
Artist Tom Philips created this book by colouring in a Victorian novel called A Human Document, creating an entirely new book from the words he left visible. He then collaborated with composer Gavin Bryars to produce an opera based on the book which was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records.
Jan Potocki – Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript
Like Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare, Count Potocki’s book has story within story within story set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. A large and eccentric range of characters populate tales of adventure, humour and horror in a book that was unfortunately unfinished at the time of the author’s death.
Tim Powers – The Anubis Gates
Not Powers best book (that is probably Declare) but the most fun and the start of his golden period which included On Stranger Tides which was adapted (read plundered) for the Pirates of the Carribean film of the same name. Wonderul fun.
Philip Pullman – Galatea
Pullman himself doesn’t rate this book which may be why it has been out of print for years, but this surreal quest to find alost wife in a South American city full of cyborgs, werewolves and zombies is a favourite of mine. It may not be as good as his Dark Materials series but is still well worth seeking out.
Herbert Read – The Green Child
An amazing fantasy by the anarchist poet and art critic Read, bookending the story of the hero’s time as dictattor of a South American country. It is the scenes in the Green Kingdom under Yorkshire that the wonder comes in as the hero searches for the meaning of life and death.
Ishmael Reed – Yellow Back Radio Broke Down
Anything by Ishmael Reed is worth reading but this story of a black cowboy fighting racism, religious intolerance and capitalism in the West is amazing and surreal and savagely funny by turns. And a quote from his novel Mumbo Jumbo is used as one of the kick off points for Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy.
Julian Rios – Larva
A Spanish Finnegans Wake retells the Don Juan story at a masked ball where the words are also masked by puns and double meanings.
Herbert Rosendorfer – The Architect of Ruins
Another story within a story within a story as four men create a cigar shaped armageddon shelter (Gherkin anyone?).
Rudy Rucker– Master of Time and Space
Sex drugs and maths – science fiction doesn’t get much more fun than Rucker’s tales of mad scientists and this is one of his best. There are no bad books by Rucker – either his fiction or non fiction.
Matt Ruff – Sewer, Gas, Electric
It must be really frustrating for Ruff’s agent as every book he writes explores a different genre from his debut Fantasy through this conspiracy science fiction novel to his multiple personality mystery Set This House in order to his latest Lovecraft Country which uses the Chulthu mythos to explore racism. If you love the Illuminatus trilogy, read this – it is just as good.
Ruthven Todd – The Lost Traveller
A forgotten work of English surrealism with echoes of Wyndham Lewis’ Childermass, Rex Warner’s anti fascist fantasies and some splendid visual images. Worth trying to find.
Arno Schmidt – The Egghead Republic
A mix of post apocalyptic fantasy and Gullivers Travels in a short novel where a writer wins a lottery to visit a country populated by artistic and scientific geniuses as well as centaurs. His magnum opus is Bottom’s Dream but I haven’t read that yet.
Bruno Schulz – Street of Crocodiles
Thankfully normally published in a joint edition with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. A gently surreal collection of stories based on Schulz’s childhood. If Dylan Thomas had collaborated with Leonora Carrington and Isaac Babel it would resemble Schulz’s work.
Lucius Shepard – Trujillo
This is the PS booksedition which includes the novel of the same name and a number of stories and is Shepard’s crowning achievement where his Conradian exploration of South and Central America and unique take on fantasy burn off the page. Echoes of Borges the magic realists meet the muscular style of Cendrars and London.
John Thomas Sladek – The Muller Focker Effect
I wasn’t sure whether to include this or Roderick to showcase Sladek’s brilliant blend of satire, Oulipian games and humanity in the face of technology but this won out for its surreal elements and large cast of larger than life characters.
Sydney Goodsir Smith – Carotid Cornucopius
Edinburgh’s drunken Ulysees or Night of Serious Drinking by a poet and leading member of the Scottish Rennaisance.
Gilbert Sorrentino – Mulligan Stew
Like At Swim Two Birds (which Sorrentino cites as inspiration) this is a book about writing where characters take on a life of their own as a writer whose reputation has dwindled tries to write a new novel (populated by characters from other novels) which spirals out of his control as he constantly changes styles. Very funny.
Norman Spinrad – The Iron Dream
This is Adolph Hiteler’s fantasy novel from an alternate universe where he migrates to America and becomes a science fiction artist. The plot mirrors Hitler’s rise to power in our world with Jews replaced by mutants and is a savage satire on every SF superman who knows what is wrong with the world and uses his powers to change it.
James Stephens – The Crock of Gold
A philosopher and his wife encounter the god Pan and creatures from Irish myth and folklore in a wonderful life affirming book.
Charles Williams – War in Heaven
Williams was a friend of Tolkein and CS Lewis but his strange novels are a unique blend of horror and comedies of manners injected with a real sense of the incursion of the supernatural into ordinary life. War in Heaven is a Grail quest crossed with black magic and a murder mystery. Peter S