There had been a Facebook trend to list ten or so books (over the course of ten or so days) that you felt had lasting impact on you and your work. I didn’t partake in that when it was infecting the timeline like a malicious virus, but I’ll drop it here, all in one go, like a wicked 24-hour flu. For the really curious, I even took a picture.
It’s an odd assembly, but it speaks to my tastes and reading habits, which are all over the fucking place. I get bored reading the same stuff for too long, so I like to switch it up.
But I digress, let me address the titles in question.
I’ll start with the book whose cover you likely cannot make out, due to the glare from the overhead light: Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves. To say this book made a mark does not do it justice. Dare I say, a short story contained therein, “The Hitchhiking Game,” was quite possibly the key ingredient to my upending of my own personal life, at that point. After reading this story, I simply couldn’t be who I was pretending to be, any longer. The narrative fired up the synapses in my brain and allowed me to reflect on the fact that I was the author of my own misery. It stood to reason, then, that I could author my own happiness, however meager. And though I’d written things before reading this, Laughable Loves set a high bar for what was possible to accomplish in a handful of pages. I think about it often.
Goodnight Moon is, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written. The desperation to recognize all that you can within your little world before succumbing to sleep is both beautiful and sad. I’ve never been able to shake the idea in which Goodnight Moon is a metaphor for death, however unintentional. But that reading of the text does not, also in my opinion, make it any less beautiful. If nothing else, it is part and parcel why I find it so intoxicating. Read it to me on my deathbed, please.
Then, there is The Count of Monte Cristo. If there is another adventure that sells the idea of really living your life, to its fullest, all else be damned, while also entertaining you from one end of the book to the other, then I have yet to read it. Cristo is just fucking fun, man. The writing is superb. You want to get lost in a book? Well, you could do a whole lot worse than Dumas’ great big tome. Quite formal when it needs to be, filled with poetic moments, and action written with as much clarity as you’d find in any modern pulp. I’ve a werewolf story, some of which has popped up in the form of short stories, and much of it was directly inspired by this book. As adventure novels go, it is practically unequaled.
I will forever have a soft spot for Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. I don’t read much fantasy, now, and I did not indulge much as a kid, either. I was almost always a horror fan, though, and I knew Barker because of Hellraiser (which my parents, god love ’em, decided to rent on VHS, one night, when I was very young). Imagine my surprise when I found a Barker book stashed away in the kid’s section of the East Alton Public Library. Knowing what he was capable of creating, I picked it up almost as a point of sheer curiosity. See, between that fateful viewing of Hellraiser and finding …Always at the library, I’d managed to squirrel away my brother’s paperback of The Books of Blood. What could the mind behind “Rawhead Rex” have in store for children? And to my pleasure, I found he had written, perhaps, the best horror story for children since Dahl’s The Witches.
Speaking of, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Roald Dahl’s tale of witches turning children into mice. I read the book ages ago, and I come back to it occasionally, especially now as I have my own child, to whom I’ve read the book. The Witches, I think, falls squarely into the horror category, regardless of the target audience. I mean, Dahl even addresses this in the opening, more or less, when he dismisses the idea of the fairy tale and insists that the story concerns REAL WITCHES. He means it to be a word of warning to children, concerning the predatory nature of adults and the indifference of small-minded, unimaginative grown-ups who’d allow harm to come to their child, maybe not out of malice but then I suppose indifference is its own kind of malice. Dahl had a thing or two to say about personal responsibility and self-reliance, and he wrapped it up in a story about child-murdering monsters. At least, this is the general Idea I glommed to as a child, and it has stuck with me ever since. I’d love to write a children’s story, and if I ever do, then The Witches will be the map I use to chart my own journey.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House may be in my personal top 5. I think I’d seen the movie once or twice when I was very young, probably during a Halloween marathon on American Movie Classics. But, as much as I do like the Robert Wise film, it still doesn’t compare to Jackson’s novel. There is a scene, a good ways into the book, where one of the protagonists thinks they are holding the hand of an unseen friend in a pitch black room, only for the lights to come on, the friends on either side of the room from each other, and whatever had been holding the protagonist’s hand was gone, retreated from the light. After I’d finished reading that, I put the book down, deciding that was quite enough for one night. The scare was so perfectly set up, the misdirection and revelation, that I could not help but share the dread of the protagonist. For a moment, Jackson managed to turn my imagination into a haunted house. That ghostly hand gives me goosebumps to this day.
Taking a break from, perhaps, some obvious choices, I’d definitely nominate Gary Larson’s The Far Side as having a major impact on me and serving as an enormous influence on my own sense of humor, which is jet black and very morbid, but sometimes kind of whimsical. For instance, in my novella, Necrosaurus Rex, I posit that the whole of reality and human existence was born from a traumatized rectum, which is followed by brutalities of the kind usually imagined to be in snuff porno, and I call the whole thing a miracle. But it’s also a story about love, so it has a happy ending. Sort of. And, years ago, I wrote a spec script that ended up getting optioned. It was a really brutal, mean, over-the-top violent neo-noir. The producer loved it, thought it was hilarious. I just agreed, sure, why not? Exactly what I was going for! But then, I think, it was Mel Brooks that said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Look, I don’t think I’m particularly funny, and I never set out to make people laugh, really, but “really funny” is a compliment I get often enough to just accept it on face value. I don’t know where that humor comes from, if I am being honest. But Gary Larson’s comic strip is one of the few things, during my more formative years, that I can remember finding genuinely funny.
If I push back even further, I can recall the first proper novel I ever read, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. My parents had purchased a mass market version after the movie had come out in ’84. I must’ve carried it around with me, like a totem, the way some kids will carry a blanket or stuffed animal. I took that book everywhere. And somewhere between 1985 and 1986, I set about reading. Neverending Story was the seminal event, for me. Not only did it foster what became a lifelong reading habit, but it fired my imagination and had me scribbling little stories of my own, handwritten, in any number of notebooks. My little mass market eventually bit the dust after years of tearing through the book. It literally fell apart and I ended up having to toss it out. I’ve never replaced that particular edition, though many years later I received the book, in hardback, and in its original German, Die Unendliche Geschichte, as a gift. That copy is what is in the above photograph, sandwiched between Count of Monte Cristo and Thief of Always. In the future, perhaps, I’ll hunt down a good copy of the mass market on which I cut my teeth.
Another author I fell in love with pretty early on was Franz Kafka. His novella, The Metamorphosis, had me at hello. A man wakes up having turned into a bug, overnight? Sold! It was really the first time I’d ever read a piece of literature that was so unapologetically weird. And that weirdness was its own inspiration. That people are willing to read really strange stories meant I could . . . indulge, for lack of a better word. Much later in life, I began to see just how malleable the interpretation of Kafka’s story could be, with any number of academics coming to any number of conclusions. Was the guy even a bug, fer Christ’s sake? Or did he just really hate what he had become? Did the sister pity him, or hate him? And maybe, just maybe, Gregor’s own sexuality is so foreign to him, that his hard, bug shell is nothing more than an intense erection with no proper avenue for relief. And that is the power of a good story. The narrative just is, like a mountain or a stream, and you stand before it and marvel at it, bringing your own life and wealth of influence upon it, turning the vision into a kind of reflection.
On the flipside of that fluidity of interpretation stands Flannery O’Connor. Unsentimental, blunt, and a writer to whom, I believe, one can only apply misinterpretation if you don’t understand her intentions. This woman meant what she wrote: divinity and grace through pain, regardless of your inner or outer characteristics. The thing I always loved about “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is not that it ends with a horror show, but that it ends with a deliverance from this mortal coil by way of violent salvation, and from the actions of one who would not normally be associated with godliness, an association often treacle in its portrayal. There are stories I treasure because of their impenetrability, you can only interpret those stories how you must, as there are no real answers, but I love O’Connor because she not only eschews ambiguity, but does so beautifully, which is a rare feat in literature. Flannery O’Connor The Complete Stories is a book I return to, often, and that blunt execution of style is something to aspire to.
Blunt style may also be said to be an attribution of journalism, since that form relies almost entirely of fact stripped from bias, and so I come to the only non-fiction book in this list: The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Fun for the whole family! And educational, since it is a loose primer for learning the alphabet. A mainstay for any parent who is tired of reading Goodnight Moon to the kiddos before bed. Or, probably not, I guess. This little ditty was introduced to me in high school, and if I didn’t trust adults before, then I certainly didn’t after leafing through Harold Schechter’s nightmarish, though oddly humorous, parade of unrepentant murderers. And it was something of a cross-reference, letting you fall down a rabbit hole of depravity, if you so chose. Truth is stranger than fiction, but only if you don’t know how fucked up truth really is, and this book–while being a good alphabet primer–is really a primer on just how monstrous humans are capable of being to one another. True story: I heard Netflix was making a show that would feature Edmund Kemper and I owe my excitement for that program to having read this book. I mean, if you’re not going to bother getting to know your neighbor, you can at least read this encyclopedia and develop a healthy suspicion of them.
Speaking of alphabet primers, have you ever read The Gashlycrumb Tinies, written and illustrated by the late, great Edward Gorey? One untimely end for every letter of the alphabet, told in simple rhyme and depicted in beautiful black and white drawings. Gorey was someone I was aware of at an early age, but didn’t really explore until I was much older, to my unending dismay. I wish, wish, wish I’d come to Gorey’s work when I was a kid. Existing somewhere between the humor and morbidity of Charles Adams and Gary Larson, Gorey is a near-perfect synthesis of everything I enjoy in media: fine art, lyricism, nonsense, and death. I sometimes entertain the idea of crafting heavily illustrated morbidities of my own, and that dream is so very indebted to Gorey and his wonderful work.
And so, we come to the last three titles pictured above:
Angel Dust Apocalypse
Discovered, by me, in that order, starting in my early twenties and ending in my late-twenties. They are all three very, very different from one another, yet act as a weird trilogy, for me, that lead to my taking my own writing seriously in a way that I previously had not and resulting, ultimately, in Necrosaurus Rex and subsequent works.
With Kindred, not only was the book one that absolutely cuts through you, emotionally, but it did so through a science-fiction premise that it neither really explained nor ever intended to, because the device needed only to serve the narrative, and not the other way around, which I find to be a detriment to lots of books dealing in the fantastic and weird. Specifically, we have in Kindred the idea of time travel. Butler all but abandons the cliché of that particular fantasy, and merely lets it happen, making it entirely consequential to the narrative, but inconsequential as a speculative device. The best time-travel narratives adopt this approach, I think. Don’t dwell on it too much, just acknowledge that the event happens and get on with the important stuff, the narrative and the characters. This, of course, is to say nothing of how powerful the book is, beyond its genre trappings. And that is what strikes me, when I revisit the book, the power and emotion and the importance of what is being expressed, all pulled off by way of science fiction’s hoariest of tropes. A cliché is only a cliché until it isn’t, and that is all in the execution. Octavia Butler absolutely nails the execution in Kindred, and it remains one of my favorite books.
Angel Dust Apocalypse, in my mid-twenties, was a bit like reading Kafka’s stuff in my teens. It served as a big, brash reminder that you can write something that’s just as god damned crazy as you want, but if you write it well, then it can transcend whatever the work’s trappings may be and become nothing less than a stellar piece of literature. Johnson’s work, while being deliriously entertaining to the reader, reminds the writer that you can and should just let your imagination go where it wants, damn the consequences. Transgression, splatterpunk, slipstream, the stories are only as good as you’re willing to let them be. Like Kindred, much of the tropes employed by Johnson are window dressing for narratives that are rich in emotional complexity and depth of character. Like I wrote before, be as god damned weird as you want, but if you play it straight, if there is a truth underlying the outrageousness of it all, then labels become little more than horseshit marketing tags. This is literature, plain and simple.
And that leaves us with Matthew Stokoe’s High Life.
Holy fucking shit, what a book.
Stokoe’s novel remains one of the very best, and most grueling, contemporary noirs that I’ve ever read. A true heir to Jim Thompson’s amoral pulps. Maybe one of the most bleak explorations of gross opportunism and greed since James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. To say more would be an injustice to the extremely dark surprises found within the book. Suffice it to say, I’d likely never have felt comfortable writing something as bleak and as violent as Necrosaurus Rex had I not picked up High Life, first. Its notoriety will only grow over time.
And that, as they say, is that.
Though certainly not definitive, this list pretty much illustrates what I look for in reading, and points to what I may enjoy writing, as well.
Thanks for reading.