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10 Surreal Horror/Horror-Adjacent Books: Avant-Garde Terrors

Horrific fiction often veers into nightmarish and inexplicable territory. After all, as Lovecraft pointed out, the oldest and most terrible fear is the fear of the unknown, and art that refuses to resolve itself into reasonable and rational sense is often that which bothers us the deepest. Or at least, so it is for me. The history of the Surrealistic movement proper, as well as its less easily classifiable bastard children, is deeply intertwined with the terrifying and the ghoulish.

In their attempts at engaging with the world of the subconscious, surrealistic authors necessarily explored some of the same dark places that horror fiction does. Only around half of the following books are considered to be part of the horror genre per se and some people would argue that inclusion of the others on a list like this is an act of literary poaching. But honestly? I just don’t care. These are novels (as well as short stories) that disturbed, unnerved, and in some cases flat out terrified me. If that isn’t horror, I’m not sure what is.

Maldoror: The Comte de Lautreamont. One of the founding texts of surrealism and a book of horrific strangeness.

Les Chants de Maldoror (1868-69)

Comte de Lautréamont/Isidore Ducasse)

It’s always best, as the March Hare and the Mad Hatter tell us, to start at the beginning, and if the European Surrealist movement has a beginning, it is in this macabre poetic novel, a work that would go on to inspire and/or lay the groundwork for everyone from Salvadore Dali to Clive Barker. Its author, the Uruguayan/French Comte de Lautréamont (real name: Isidore Ducasse) was himself inspired by Gothic classics like Melmoth the Wanderer and the works of the horror genre’s grandaddy, Edgar Allan Poe.

Maldoror is actually a sequence of prose-poems/short stories, only loosely held together by the narrative presence of a character named Maldoror, a mysterious figure who has cast aside conventional morality. These episodes weave in and out of different nightmare worlds. In one, Maldoror watches a ship sink off a coast, cheering on the sharks who eat the drowning men. In another, God sits on a throne of gold and feces eating the corpse of a man while His feet dangle in a pool of boiling blood. There is no reason here, no hope of understanding. Just a universe drowning in pain, fear, and malevolence. A book highly recommended for kids!

The Other Side: Alfred Kubin. Surreal and nightmarish, this horror novel describes a weird city built by an eccentric millionaire.

The Other Side (1909)

Alfred Kubin

The Austrian Alfred Kubin, primarily known for his dreamlike drawings, purportedly wrote this novel as a form of therapy after a severe nervous breakdown. Franz Kafka was a fan of it and it’s easy to see why. The narrator’s wealthy childhood friend, Claus Patera, has built a city after his own specifications in a remote part of Asia. When the narrator and his wife travel to this city, Pearl, they find it to be an amalgam of different periods and different styles and filled with exceedingly odd people. Patera paid to have entire buildings transplanted into his city, creating a crumbling and creepy setting within which he can carry out his mysterious agenda. Pearl is ruled over by the sort of byzantine bureaucracy Kafka would go on to explore in his own fiction.

Things take a turn for the worse in Patera’s anti-utopia as we learn the truth of its inhabitants and the novel culminates in a weird apocalypse that would prefigure not only future nightmare fiction, but also just possibly the horrors of the 20th century. Bonus: Kubin illustrated his novel himself. If you’ve never seen his Expressionist sketches, search them out. They look like glimpses of another world.

The Third Policeman: Flann O'Brien. By turns funny, surreal, and disturbing, this book follows the adventures of a scholar in a dream world.

The Third Policeman (1967)

Flann O’Brien

Yeah, this little Irish novel is just wild, as if the absurdist Samuel Beckett had been contracted to write a noir novel. The narrator is a scholar of the invented philosopher De Selby, a madman who argued, among other things, that the world is actually shaped like a sausage. Desperate to get the funds necessary to publish his book on De Selby, the narrator agrees to help an acquaintance of his rob and kill a local man of means. Years later, after having been holed up with his partner in crime, the narrator sets off to recover the money he never got his hands on.

In the course of his inexplicable journeys, he meets two policemen who are obsessed with the idea that locals are turning into bicycles, a fellow one-legged bandit, and wrestles with metaphysical questions with alarming implications. Who or what exactly is the third policeman? You’re going to have to decide that for yourself. This novel is funny, often bizarre, and ultimately disturbing in its shifting realities.

The Twenty Days of Turn: Giorgio De Maria. A weird and scary avant-garde novel about a series of murders plaguing Turin.

The Twenty Days of Turin (1977)

Giorgio De Maria

This short book was written by an author who knew Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, masters of magical realism and allusive historical fiction. De Maria followed his own strange path, fashioning a novel that veers from political allegory into cosmic terror.

Ten years before the opening of the story, twenty days of citywide insomnia shook the city of Turin, accompanied by a series of bizarre and bloody murders no one managed to solve. When an investigator looks into this old mystery, he finds it may have had something to do with an open-source experiment known as “The Library,” wherein people from all over deposited their letters, diaries, and disconnected thoughts, all there for anyone to see. What might this have had to do with the horrors that gripped the city? And why are shadowy forces trying to shut down this man’s investigation?

The Wasp Factory: Iain Banks. A creepy cult horror novel with surrealist vibes about a young person growing up on an isolated island.

The Wasp Factory (1984)

Iain Banks

First, a word of warning: do not read this short novel if cruelty against either animals or children deeply bothers you, as the book contains plenty of the first and some of the second. Teenager Frank Cauldhame lives on a bleak island off the coast of Scotland. In the first sentence of the novel, he tells us he has killed three people, including his younger brother. He reassures us that it was just a phase he was going through. Frank’s life mostly consists of roaming around this desolate island checking on and reinforcing the strange totems and contraptions he’s set up around his territory.

The Wasp Factory itself is a cruel invention in which the wasps Frank forces into it face death by one of many fates, all of which supposedly help him predict the future. Frank’s strange beliefs and ritualistic actions lend a surreal feel to the novel as if we are being introduced to a religion with only one believer. The cast is rounded out by his best friend, his insane brother Eric, and his abusive father, a man with some pretty warped ideas involving gender. This novel was controversial when it came out and it continues to polarize readers, but I found the gloomy world Banks creates as well as Frank’s warped character fascinating.

The Wine-Dark Sea: Robert Aickman. One of the best surrealist horror writers, Aickman's stories are like nightmares put down on paper.

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988)

Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman deserves to be so much better known than he is today. His “strange stories” were an inspiration for authors like Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Peter Straub, and he’s the closest author I’ve found who is a literary equivalent of David Lynch. Aickman was fascinated by psychology, and his tales run on the logic of the subconscious.

Any of his collections could’ve fit in this list, but The Wine-Dark Sea has some of my favorites, including “The Inner Room,” which is just excellent. A young girl’s parents buy her a big dollhouse that she can’t open, and she’s forced to play with the dolls inside through the structure’s windows. After her parents sell the dollhouse, she forgets about it until one stormy night decades later… “The Fetch” comes closer to being a recognizable ghost story, but if you give his fiction a chance, you’ll see there’s never anything conventional about an Aickman story.

The Cipher: Kathe Koja. A surreal novel about a disturbing hole found in an apartment complex.

The Cipher (1991)

Kathe Koja

Kathe Koja’s grim novel concerns a dissolute poet, Nicholas, his lover Nakota, and a hole they discover in a storage closet in Nicholas’s apartment building. This hole seems to open onto an abyss, and two soon grow obsessed with it. They experiment with it, sending mice, insects, and other items down. Things get particularly creepy when they lower a video-camera into the “funhole,” Koja’s original title for the novel, and see what it has recorded. Eventually, the lovers and their discovery develop a following, as more broken people are drawn to the allure of this mystery, and Nicholas develops a far more pressing problem than wondering what the hole leads to. The apartment building itself is squalid, gritty, the perfect setting for this blurry nightmare of a novel.

The Cipher is told in a poetically disjointed style, something that lends to the building sense that the hole is deranging the world around it. Don’t expect any easy answers here, nor for the book to follow the narrative directions a typical horror novel might pursue. Instead, Koja’s spins out a surreal and increasingly bleak examination of the loss of meaning and the fathomless depths of the human heart.

The Unconsoled: Kazuo Ishiguro.

The Unconsoled (1995)

Kazuo Ishiguro

Around twenty pages or so into this 500-page novel, I had to recheck the name of the author. Was this really the same Kazuo Ishiguro who wrote the delicate examination of love and class that was The Remains of the Day? The same guy who wrote the understated science fictional Never Let Me Go? Yep. The Unconsoled is probably the closest I’ve seen a novel come to capturing the indecipherable logic, the sudden plot changes, and the mutating characters of an actual dream.

It is, at least nominally, about Mr. Ryder, a pianist who has been invited to perform in an unnamed Eastern European town. The people of the town seem overjoyed to have him there, but they keep distracting him from his artistic duties by asking him to carry out little favors for him. Things get substantially weirder as Mr. Ryder begins thinking that he has been here before and that some of the strangers he meets may actually be former friends and lovers. If this novel has a cinematic counterpart, it’s the equally dreamy Last Year at Marienbad, though it also resembles some of the less violent sequences in David Lynch’s films. This is quiet and unnerving, a horror novel whatever else the critics might call it.

Class Trip & The Mustache: Emmanuel Carrere.

Class Trip/The Mustache (1995/1986)

Emmanuel Carrère

As these two short novels are usually printed together, I’m giving you a twofer here. Author Emmanuel Carrère’s existential mysteries engage with questions of identity and sanity in an elusive, compelling way, often seeming about to yield to a comprehensible solution before pulling back. The Mustache’s setup is so benign and absurd, it almost seems like the beginning of a joke: a man wakes up one morning and decides to shave off the mustache he’s worn most of his life. The problem? After he shaves, everyone in his life, including his wife and his best friends, insist he never had a mustache in the first place. Surprisingly, this innocuous beginning spins into dark psychological territory, leading him to wonder if everyone around him is lying to him, if he has gone insane, or if something even worse has happened.

Class Trip is a little more rational, though the gaps in its narrative suggest even more awful things. Nicolas is a kid whose father drives him up to a ski chalet where he’ll be joining his friends for skiing instruction and various hijinks. When a child from a nearby village goes missing, Nicolas begins daydreaming increasingly dark and violent scenarios to explain the situation to himself. This one captures very well the workings of the childish imagination as well as the ways it can fail to capture the sad truths of reality.

White is for Witching: Helen Oyeyemi.

White is for Witching (2009)

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching violently resists categorization. Is it about witchcraft? A haunting? Eating disorders? A post-colonial hangover taking supernatural form? At first, we follow the members of the Silver family, a photojournalist, her husband, and their twins, Miranda and Eliot. Miranda suffers from pica, a psychological disorder that compels its victims to eat non-food items. What might this have to do with her ancestry? And why does her house, animated by some weird force, attack people of color and immigrants? Can a house be racist?

When Miranda begins a relationship with a girl of Nigerian descent, her struggle with her home and her family’s dark history gets personal, and the novel broadens out to encompass folk magic, phantoms, and seeming possession. As with its genre-classification, this novel also defies easy summary and is perfect for someone looking for a magic-tinged and fable-like story.

SEE ALSO: The Cannibals of Candyland, My Work is Not Yet Done, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Maynard’s House, The Night Land, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, The Slynx, The Book of Joan, Altmann’s Tongue, The Lost District, We Live Inside You, Smashed, A Child Across the Sky, Throat Sprockets, Demon Theory, Broken Monsters, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Uzumaki, The Trial, The Double, The Master and Margarita, Cold Hand in Mine, The Dark Country, Annihilation, Through the Woods, The Axman Cometh, Such Small Hands, Mapping the Interior, You Should Have Left, Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World

By Matthew Pridham

I write horror stories as well as film and book reviews. I've been published in Weird Tales Magazine, Tor.com, weirdfictionreview.com, and thethoughterotic.com. My primary interests are modernist fiction, world domination, the horror genre (classic, avant-garde, modern), polyamory, and philosophy of every stripe. Favorite authors include (but are far from limited) to Marcel Proust, Ramsey Campbell, Martin Amis, Thomas Ligotti, Ruth Rendell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clive Barker. I grew up in Bergen, Norway as well as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I've attended the University of New Mexico and CU Boulder.

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