10. Jurassic Park, Michael Chricton
Aside from the novelization of Gremlins 2, Jurassic Park was my first experience with an actual novel at the ripe-old age of nine. Of course, the macro themes of chaos theory and the inherent danger in genetic god-play were a bit lost on this impressionable fourth-grader, but I knew enough to gather there was a sophistication that exceeded the popcorn novel entertainment value. Even without said sophistication, the idea of genetically recreated dinosaur theme park attractions is wildly original, and the novel stands up to repeated readings across decades.
9. Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis
I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Mr. Ellis’ work, and his influence on my own novels. Publicly owing to his books is, in some circles, akin to announcing that I myself am a depraved maniac with a penchant for torture-porn. (I’m not, by the way). I love Lunar Park, not due to the relief it offers in departing from Ellis’ trademark depths-of-depravity-satire, but because of the boldness with which he deviates from his own norm. Lunar Park unfolds in Ellis’ unmistakable satiric voice, but with shades of of not-yet-disillusioned emotion, and an infusion of Stephen King. Given that recommending American Psycho or Glamorama can get you ostracized or fired, it’s interesting that Ellis contributes something to his own bibliography that—while not completely devoid of the outrageous—does not require several showers and weeks of self-examination.
8. Rant, Chuck Palahniuk
Not unlike Lunar Park, Rant is—for me—a rare gesture of a novelist revealing his ability to do other than he does. Sure, Rant is, in every way, a Chuck Palahniuk novel—terse, sardonic, morbidly hilarious, and wildly entertaining—but somehow, as the book reveals more of its cards, a incredibly imaginative, complex, dystopian, sci-fi narrative surfaces. Chuck’s typical fare ins’t any worse-for-ware because of the more straightforward, narrow universes in which they take place, but geez, how fun it is to see this gleefully pop-nihilist author take a stab at some more elaborate world-building, and still pull it off in about 300 pages.
7. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
My mom handed me a copy of The Bell Jar when I was in junior high in order to nurture my fledgling appreciation for the dark side of classic literature. Why Sylvia Plath decided to break from her consistent run of strange and depressing poetry in order to craft this very thinly veiled semi-autobiographic novel is very strange to me. The Bell Jar was one of my first great trips down the slow-descending stairwell to madness—a narrative technique I’ve employed in countless creative endeavors of my own since.
6. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Okay, listen to me: you won’t understand what the heck Alex (A Clockwork Orange’s narrator) is saying for the first couple of chapters. Alex speaks in a fictional futuristic slang (Nadsat), oh my brothers. Because of this, many readers bail 20 pages in, but this would be a mistake, as everyone who sticks around not only finds themselves fluently speaking Nadsat themselves, but is also treated to one of the most original, influential, vivid works of fiction ever created. I always hate to be that, “the book was better than the movie” guy, so let me just point out that Kubrick’s adaptation of Burgess’ most beloved work is its own thing with its own place in cinematic history. This book is something else—a strange and savage exploration of freewill, and societal determinism. You’ll understand what rookers and a gulliver are in a bit, hang in there.
5. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
How to explain House of Leaves without leafing through an actual copy of the novel? Let me try it this way: It begins with the discovery of a mysterious, impossibly elaborate essay on a (fictional?) documentary—The Navidson Record—that itself follows the Navidson family as they deal with the horrifying discovery that their home is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That, of course, is enough to carry an incredible story… But then there’s the experimental, nearly indescribable way House of Leaves’ typography is visually constructed. Upon completing this opus, you’ll have to face two very real bummers: 1) It’s over. 2) There’s not another book even remotely like it in the whole world.
4. It, Stephen King
Color me mainstream, but there’s a reason Stephen King is Stephen King. I believe that reason is best exemplified across the massive, +1,100 page length of his masterwork, It. Spanning decades, centuries, even eons, dozens of intricately and intimately realized characters, locations, and motifs, all culminating in something so cosmically horrifying that I actually had to set the book down several times and go sit in a well-lit room with upbeat people to alleviate the consuming dread. It is the kind of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment level of magisterial story-telling that makes a fellow author sit back with a defeated sigh, and a sad but sincere slow clap.
3. Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
Let me be that “the book was better” guy once more and assure you, yes, we all love the fantastic Swedish film-adaptation of Let the Right One In (from a screenplay penned by the author himself). It’s a great movie. Now, imagine that everything wonderful about that movie rendered in infinitely more elaborate, emotional, horrifying, and epic scope. You’re beginning to picture the fantastic extent of this beautiful, heartbreaking, coming-of-age, vampire masterpiece that makes Bram Stoker look like Stephanie Meyer.
2. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
Oh the elusive, pen-shy Katherine Dunn. Having mastered literature with Geek Love in 1989, she’s taken a bit of a break from authoring novels… It’s just been, you know, almost three decades now. Given that she did indeed author Geek Love, it’s hard to stay mad at her. In order to engineer their own traveling circus freak show, Aloysius “Al” Binewski and his wife Crystal Lil indulge in a hefty diet of hardcore drugs during the conception of their children and each ensuing pregnancy. Geek Love, narrated by an albino hunchback dwarf (the second-born result of the said drug experiments) follows the Binewski’s family sideshow and their journey from popcorn attraction to death cult. All this rendered with Ms. Dunn’s effortlessly beautiful narrative prose. She has settled originality in written fiction. We can all go home.
1. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
When I read Kafka’s most notorious story in the 8th grade, I decided I would like to write novels myself. To me, The Metamorphosis is easily the greatest example of “low fantasy,” these otherwise traditional literary themes and settings disrupted by something utterly bizarre, often with no causality, rhyme or reason. Traveling salesmen Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers he has somehow transformed from a man into a giant cockroach. That’s the premise. There’s no great “why” or “how”—that isn’t the point. Instead the story follows the unraveling of the Samsa family as a result of this inexplicable and inconvenient tragedy. Gregor’s metamorphosis is a vehicle with which Kafka explores alienation, loneliness, family, fatherhood, and so on. Could he do that without a salesmen transformed into a man-sized insect? Well, sure, but isn’t this way so much better?