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What is the Weirdest Book You've Ever Read?

Every so often a book comes along that leaves you shaking your head. Whether that shaking is a good or bad thing can often be very subjective as well. In some ways aren't the books that confound you the very books that stay with you because they provoke much thought even long after you've finished? Well, I am always curious about these books, which is why I asked more than a dozen authors: What is the weirdest book you've ever read? The earliest response by Lavie Tidhar is already up, but seeing all the different takes gives some wonderful perspective of what people consider weird.

The last entry is my own as Gail Carriger politely asked whether I was going to participate.  Me thinks she was merely goading me into taking a bit of my own medicine, but I laud her for it.  Please feel free to chime in with your own weirdest read in the comments.

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Mark Teppo

In many ways, I prefer weird, but at the same time, there are levels of weird. Jeff Vandermeer's Finch is weird, but it's a comprehensible weird. William Burroughs gets really weird, but you sign on for that ride when you open one of his books, and part of the ride is the alien landscape. The truly weird are books that I realize I don't have the right cipher keys to completely decode. Aleister Crowley's Book of Lies and Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books fall into this category. I understand the words on the page, but I'm very conscious that I'm not fully grokking the sub-text. You have to keep coming back to these sorts of books because they test your growth as a reader and as a thinker. It's only been in the last year that I feel that I've finally unlocked most of the secrets in Gene Wolfe's Books of the New Sun and Philip K. Dick's Valis.

These are the sorts of things that are constantly fascinating to me: how a writer can bury story in their language, how much meaning can be imparted by a single word choice, how they rely on the knowledge of the reader to supply context and meaning. These books stop being story--a defined tale with a beginning, middle, and end that communicates a linear progression of events that lead to a authorial summation of human nature--and become a clandestine transmission--a secret message passed between two people that is unique to their connection. What is written and what is read are never the same thing, really.


Mark Teppo is author of the Codex of Souls series which includes Lightbreaker and the recently released Heartland both published by Night Shade Books.
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Blake Charlton

Okay, so, so far the strangest book I've ever read I'm actually reading right now. It's titled Kill as Few Patients as Possible: and Fifty-Six Other Essays on How to be the World's Best Doctor by Oscar London.

It's a bit dated, creative-nonfiction humor. Sometimes funny, sometimes not. Never laugh-out-loud funny. But it is often insightful--albeit sometimes in an ironic or roundabout way--regarding the medical life (so far as I know as a med student). But what's odd about it is how earnest it is. One gets a sense of how much the author cares about and loves medicine. Most other medical humor I've encountered (many will be familiar with the laugh-out-loud House of God by Samuel Shem) is cynical and ultimately corrosive, using medicine's foibles to tear medicine into pieces. Reading London, however, is both frightening and encouraging.

I'm presently writing a novel with a physician protag, and I'm hoping to make her cynical, witty, and yet sympathetic (i.e. _not_ House MD). Add on to that the fact that in a few years I'll enter the hospital as a clinical med student, and try to get a hold on when and how to use humor appropriately. So reading this book feels a bit like my present is smashing up against a possible future in a disconcerting but at least interesting way.

Currently, Blake Charlton is writing fantasy novels, science fiction short stories, and academic essays on medical education and biomedical ethics. His debut Spellwright is due to be published in March by Tor. His short story Endosymbiont is featured in the anthology Seeds of Change.
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Lev Grossman

I initially said The Falls, by Peter Greenaway, but I'm reneging. It is, undoubtedly, a strange book, but I think some of the strangeness comes from its connection to the film of the same name. (Which I haven't seen.) Seems like cheating.

So instead I'm going to go hearken back to a time when I actually almost knew French well enough to read novels in it, at which time I read Raymond Queneau's Exercices de Style. It's about a guy who sees another man, a stranger with a long neck, get into a disagreement with somebody else on a bus. Later that day he sees the same man in a railroad station. The man is explaining to a friend that he should get a button put on his overcoat.

That's it for action. It takes about two pages. For the rest of the book Queneau goes on to retell the same pointless story 99 times, in 99 different literary styles. He tells it from all points of view, in all tenses and moods. He tells it as a sonnet, as a word game, as a telegram, in anagrams, in different dialects, as a blurb for a novel, without using the letter 'e,' and on and on and on.

It's also impossible to say, when you're done, whether or not you enjoyed it, or what it meant, or if it meant anything. But it is unquestionably weird.

Lev Grossman is the New York Times best-selling author of The Magicians and Codex.  He is hard at work on the sequel to The Magicians currently titled The Magician King.  Grossman is senior book reviewer for Time and also the creator of the Nerd World blog.
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Ekaterina Sedia

Boy, that's a tough one. I have to say, for me it's a toss up between Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, and Michael Cisco's The Traitor. Both are difficult to describe, but manage to create a very profound sense of surreal displacement within one's own skin -- these two books permanently tilt your point of view some imperceptible degrees, and you feel like you have a new set of eyes to look at the world with. This is not a pleasant feeling, necessarily, but for me these two books were terribly effective. They were so strange that they could not exist in the world as I perceived it, and thus the world needed to be expanded to accommodate them.

Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her critically acclaimed novels, The Secret History of Moscow and The Alchemy of Stone were published by Prime Books. Her next one, The House of Discarded Dreams, is coming out in 2010. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen's Universe, Dark Wisdom, and Clarkesworld, as well as Haunted Legends and Magic in the Mirrorstone anthologies. She is also an award-winning editor of Paper Cities anthology, with Running with the Pack forthcoming.
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Lou Anders

The weirdest book I ever read was Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, his debut novel, published in 1984 and written without the middle initial. Oddly, it's the only Banks I've ever read, but it made a huge impression on me. It's impossible to talk about without spoiling, but its a deeply disturbing novel with a most unusual, and most unreliable, narrator/protagonist. I think if I didn't work in SF&F, I'd be a Chuck Palahniuk kind of reader, and Banks was in that space before there was a space. But since I do work in SF&F, I'll take a moment to shameless plug James Enge's Blood of Ambrose and This Crooked Way. As books that evolve directly out of the sword & sorcery stories of the Weird Tales tradition, these would be the "Weirdest" books we publish!

Lou Anders is the three-time Hugo nominated editor of Pyr Books, as well as the editor of 9 critically-acclaimed anthologies. He has been nominated for the PKD and WFC awards, and won the Chesley Award for Best Art Director.
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Sam Sykes

Probably the weirdest book I've ever read was Talyn by Holly Lisle. It had a very cool setting (two armies at war) with a very neat premise (fought entirely through magic). Somewhere along the line, though, the story began a very dramatic change that I will describe through my reactions in parentheses: it began as a war story (cool), a war story with MAGIC (COOL), a sudden peace breaks out (oh), a brief view of soldiers trying to cope without the war that gave them identity (very cool), a romance story (uh), a bondage fetish story (wait), a betrayal by a bondage fetishist mind controlling wizard (I said wait!), and then the last hundred pages were basically any excuse to do a strange sex scene at all points. By the time I read a character say (paraphrased): "Shit, she's (the main heroine) in shock! Get her naked! GET HER NAKED RIGHT NOW!" this book had basically secured the top list in my most unforgettable reads. It wasn't so much the weird sex fetishes that came out, but rather how abruptly they came out. Basically, it was like going to a dinner theater to watch a magician, only instead of seeing the magician pull a rabbit out of his hat, my waitress hopped up on my table, hiked up her skirt and peed on my steak. I was surprised, but not necessarily in a good way.

I also keep a running list of weird sexual phrases from books I've read. Currently topping that list is the phrase "his clockwork balls" from Andy Remic's Kell's Legend, with "the whorl of his anus" and "the root of his cock" from Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains and Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold coming in second and third, respectively.

Sam Sykes is the author of Tome of the Undergates, published in the UK by Gollancz in April of this year. He once wrestled an African White Rhino to the ground, can defeat nine out of ten Prime Ministers and is largely suspected to be the chief culprit behind reality television.
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Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I have a lot of contenders for the weirdest book I ever read. I thought of including some truly strange books, including things I’d read in galleys that were nearly unreadable, but then decided that wouldn’t be fair. Then I decided to define “weird” my way, which is “I can’t believe someone published this” primarily because the book breaks a bunch of rules. The problem is that most of the books that I define as weird in that way have become classics or familiar to us now, but they were so revolutionary in their time that people talked about them. I’m thinking in particular of Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries, which is all diary entries, homework assignments, and e-mails, and yet manages to have a great voice and a riveting style. (Now everyone is doing this.) By that definition, though, the weirdest book I can remember reading is Flowers in the Storm by Laura Kinsale. It’s an historical romance novel, so our handsome hero and our beautiful heroine should suffer the slings and arrows of love, separating and getting together again, with a happily ever after. But...her hero, while handsome and rich, has just suffered a stroke. In Regency England. While alone. So everyone thinks he went crazy—and he’s put into Bedlam, the insane asylum, where our heroine, a Quaker, helps her father care for the demented. Kinsale portrays the insane asylum in a historically accurate way—in other words, it’s a horrible place—and the romance continues from there, as our hero slowly recovers from the stroke, but doesn’t really recover the power of speech. It goes from there. It’s now considered a romance classic, but when it was published, it was revolutionary. (I really love this book—and recommend Kinsale to everyone who likes to read. She did some paranormal stuff before it became popular too, for you who like fantasy with your romance.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written some weird books in her time as well, including a romance (as Kristine Grayson) whose hero is a garden gnome, kinda. (Completely Smitten) Her current novel is Diving into the Wreck, which is science fiction adventure, and was published by Pyr. Her next book is a collection of her award-winning short stories, called Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories to be published in the spring from Golden Gryphon. An even weirder Grayson novel, The Charming Way, in which Prince Charming (one of them, anyway) falls in love with the Evil Stepmother, will be published in Spring of 2011.
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Gail Carriger

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is my first pick. It wasn't until I read this book that I realized how utterly acid-trip bizarre a story could be and get away with it, especially if it also happened to be side-achingly funny. Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair is right there in the same arena.

Ms. Gail Carriger began writing in order to cope with being raised in obscurity by an expatriate Brit and an incurable curmudgeon. She is fond of teeny tiny hats and tropical fruit. She is the author of the Parasol Protectorate series, Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless.
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Jeffrey Thomas

I've read a lot of bizarre books, perhaps more bizarre than my choice, but I also have to consider literary merit...so the book that comes to mind is the novel The Other Side of the Mountain by Michael Bernanos. Bernanos was the son of the well known French author, George Bernanos, and if I recall correctly he was a troubled soul who died young. My aunt gave me this novel when I was a teenager, and its haunting imagery and desolate atmosphere have remained with me over the decades. The story itself is simple: a merchant vessel becomes becalmed at sea, and then wrecked, the only survivors being the young protagonist and an older cook. They reach an eerie island, where the trees all bow down to the ground at night, and where the statues (or are they statues?) of human beings can be found on the slopes of the island's ominous central mountain. Did the characters survive the wreck after all, or are they actually in Hell? Their efforts to survive are both depressing in their futility, and inspiring, in that the characters never cease to struggle against their circumstances, and their friendship sustains them where nothing else can. The story can be seen as a descent into madness (the author's?), and its hellish feel may have been inspired in part by the fact that Bernanos' father was a devout Catholic. The novel was republished a few years ago by Cherokee Publishing Company; it's a short read and I encourage readers of horror, dark fantasy, and the surreal to check it out.

Jeffrey Thomas is the author of such novels as Blue War, Deadstock, Punktown, Letters from Hades, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Dealers, and the forthcoming The Fall of Hades. He lives in Massachusetts.

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Alex Bledsoe

The strangest book I've run across is a slender little volume called Dragons: The Modern Infestation, by Pamela Wharton Blanpied, first published in 1980.  I discovered it in one of those remainder stores that pop up every so often in otherwise abandoned shopping centers. This one was in Florence, Alabama, in the late 80s. They had two big stacks of the book, probably fifty copies in all. I picked it up because the title seemed intriguing, and when I flipped through it, it perplexed me even more. It seemed to be a straight non-fiction book, complete with diagrams, a bibliography, and photographs detailing the current efforts to understand dragons, real fire-breathing dragons, throughout the world. Yet even with helpful arrows indicating where the dragons were supposed to be in the photos, I couldn't see them. Or could I? Because if you stare at anything long enough, you start to see what you're looking for....

It wasn't until the advent of the internet a decade later that I finally learned the book was intended as a parody of scholarly works poking fun at their seriousness by applying it to a ridiculous topic like dragons. And I guess in a sense the joke was on me, because even after reading the book and realizing it couldn't be legitimate (one dragon converses, Pern-like, with a researcher) I still didn't understand the point.

When I began researching dragons for my novel Burn Me Deadly, I tried unsuccessfully to track down Ms. Blanpied. She is evidently as elusive as the beasts in her book, if she even truly exists (if you read this, Ms. Blanpied, I'd still love to talk to you). But whoever she is, wherever she is, I hope she finally got her laugh.

Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He has been a reporter, editor, photographer and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. I now live in a Wisconsin town famous for trolls. The author of the Eddie LaCrosse high fantasy/hardboiled mysteries (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly and the forthcoming Dark Jenny), two novels about vampires in 1975 Memphis (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver, due in 2011.

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Victor Gischler

In the broadest sense of the word "weird" I shall pick Joe Meno's wonderful The Boy Detective Fails. I think there are many books that are much, much weirder, but Meno's book was an odd, strange little fairy tale that I enjoyed so much it still stays with me. What struck me as most "weird" was less the story itself and more the way I enjoyed the book. Usually I want to be driven through a story. I want the pace to keep me flipping pages. But I found myself sort of gently floating through The Boy Detective Fails as this gentle, whimsical story unfolded.

Victor Gischler is the author of author of 4 hard-boiled crime novels. including his debut novel Gun Monkeys which was nominated for the Edgar Award, and his novel Shotgun Opera was an Anthony Award finalist. His fifth novel Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse and most recent novel Vampire A-Go-Go actually have nothing to do with one another. He is also hard at work on many Deadpool comics for Marvel.
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Jesse Bullington

Upon first being asked my mind started turning to William S. Burroughs and other experimental authors that seemed way out on the outer fringes, but upon reflection I think that one book that really struck me as intrinsically weird when I first read it was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Unlike Naked Lunch, which is a weird book full of weird stuff, sure, Invisible Cities actually caught me off guard as a teenager--it wasn't that crazy stuff happened or the style was unusual, it was that the entire book as a whole seemed alien to me. The book consists of Marco Polo describing cities he has supposedly encountered to Kublai Khan but the novel is so much more than that--in addition to being a superficially fun read it's also an intricate puzzle, an incredibly nuanced work passed off as a casual series of descriptions. While not as well known as Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (the single best piece of post modern fiction ever written) or The Baron in the Trees (a comparatively straight-forward fable), Invisible Cities remains a masterpiece, and quite possibly the weirdest book I've ever read--it was certainly the weirdest I'd ever read at the time, and don't know of any book that has matched it since.

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novel The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, as well as numerous articles and pieces of short fiction.  He is currently at work on his second novel The Enterprise of Death.

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Michael, The Mad Hatter

For me it would have to be The Shape We're In by Jonathan Letham. It is a bit of a cheat as I asked everyone else to stick to novels, and The Shape We're In is a novelette at best.  Yet, it is the story that had me scratching my head days after finishing.  Told from the point of view of an alcoholic garbage man charged with moving trash from one section of a giant immobile vessel shape of sorts to another it is cynical yet hilarious at the same time. In search of his missing son the garbage man ventures into far off sections of the shape and meets hordes of odd cultures that have evolved there. I hesitate to say more as there is a big reveal that is worth uncovering on your own.

Michael, The Mad Hatter is an elusive hat and book collector spending far too much money and time on both.  He is secretly planning to open the world's first Haberdashery and Book Emporium. He also runs a little book review blog of some sort.


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13 comments:

Woodge said...

The oddest book I've ever read is Santa Steps Out by Robert Devereaux. This book (which is categorized in the Horror genre) is about a lusty Santa Claus who carries on a highly libidinous affair with the Tooth Fairy. And to complicate things, Santa's exploits are making the Easter Bunny crazy with jealousy. The Easter Bunny is, of course, a giant rabbit with the ability to become invisible but his only paramour is a self-made model he's named Petunia, made from wire mesh and bunny excrement. Oh, and of course Mrs. Claus finds out and gets royally ticked. She enacts a memorable revenge. This book is like some bizarre dream dripping with explicit sex, gruesome scenes of gory horror, and a benevolent Santa who enjoys taking time out from his yearly rounds to indulge himself in hours of carnality with the twisted but curvaceous Tooth Fairy. It's kind of like a Penthouse letter mixed with Clive Barker and a fairy tale.

Greg said...

My Oddest Book Ever Read (so far) would be House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Moreso to do with the telling of the tale. The house turns into a seemingly unending maze of rooms that stretch on and on, and the story itself follows the same route, forcing the reader to re-visit pages, follow a circular trail of footnotes, hold pages up to a mirror at times. It's a discomforting effect which adds so much to the tale. One of my favorite reads.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hitchhiker's Guide is certainly up there, but in a good way.
Weird in a bad way is the WellWorld series. Everything about the first book was so alien, and the characters so unlikable, sleezy & immoral, I just couldn't continue.

Jesse Bullington said...

Thanks again for the opportunity, Michael! And thanks to everyone for the suggestions; my TBR stack has swelled more from this post then the last few months worth of random reviews and word of mouth put together.

In terms of stuff I've actually read that showed up here I'm very much with Greg on House of Leaves, Sedia on Woman in the Dunes, and Anders on The Wasp Factory--in re: the last, I'm of the mind that Machen's The White People begot Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle which in turn begot Banks' The Wasp Factory, metaphorically speaking, but suspect I'm alone in that theory of excellent-weird-story evolution.

Grossman's got me curious on the Queanu, as I just read his The Blue Flowers a few months back and it seems that Queanu is very adept at making a languid pace work--though TBF's weirdness came more from the "plot" than the style.

Looking forward to seeing what other titles show up in the comments!

Jesse Bullington said...

than than than, of course. Balls.

Robert Devereaux said...

Thanks to Woodge for mentioning my SANTA STEPS OUT (check out its sequel as well, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE HOMOPHOBES). I'll go with Vladimir Nabokov's PALE FIRE, a novel told in a long (1000 line?) poem and commentary on that poem by a very unreliable and intriguing commentator.

cmthomas said...

I was hoping there would be a few more comments - I love seeing the variety within the belief subset "weirdest book ever".

Jo Walton did a great post on Tor.com in '08 on same:

http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=3936

My pick for weirdest is The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson. Subtitled "The Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportsman's Club", need I say more.

cmthomas said...

Shite of me to follow my own post, but I forgot to mention:

"Weirdest book/author" meme always combines in my mind with "Most obscure/overlooked/neglected book/author" which Jo Walton also did a piece on recently, which inevitably generated a list:

http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=58654

Finally, a good bridge of these two related topics - the F&SF "Curiosities" index:

http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/dcuriosities.htm

Andy Remic said...

What's wrong with clockwork balls, anyway? :-)

Sam Sykes said...

Mostly, I'm just baffled how they would work. Like normal balls, except clockwork? Or is it more mechanical?

Like, when a guy wants to get things done, does he just sort of will things to start happening? Do they start turning and something goes whirr and extends? Or does it raise like a drawbridge or...what, man?

LaLuch said...

The weirdest book I ever read was The Bible

Anonymous said...

One of the weirdest I've ever attempted to read is Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski. I don't know if I have ever really finished it. Streams of consciousness and confusion.
Another weird one is Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz. A story about a guy who has cursed days in his life and for years is hunted, taunted, and almost killed by a ex-clown who undergoes plastic surgery, facial reconstruction and other bizarre alterations to trick and capture the main characters and try to kill them. Very strange. But a wonderful story with quirky, extremely likable characters.

Anonymous said...

The strangest book I ever read was "My Favorite Band Does Not Exist." It is about a boy named Idea Deity who creates an imaginary rock band, that does exist in another dimension. Reacher, lead singer of the rockband and Idea are both connected through a fantasy book they both read and a girl with a face on both sides of her head. Very strange, I love it will reccomend to anyone.