5 Enduring American Mysteries Explored in 5 Novels

Although the United States is a fairly young country, we have our share of secrets. Here’s five of the nation’s weirdest mysteries and novels that reference them.

The cover of the book Brief CasesBrief Cases
Scotland has the Loch Ness monster, Mexico has the chupacabra, and we in the United States have Bigfoot: an ape-like beast thought by some to roam the more isolated corners of the Pacific Northwest. No one has ever found definitive evidence for the creature’s existence, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of people from looking.

Professional wizard and magical troubleshooter Harry Dresden has taken several jobs from the sasquatch, or “forest people,” during his career. Jim Butcher’s collection Brief Cases includes three such accounts: “B is for Bigfoot,” “I Was a Teenage Bigfoot,” and “Bigfoot on Campus.”


The cover of the book Journal of a UFO InvestigatorJournal of a UFO Investigator
In the summer of 1947, townsfolk in Roswell, New Mexicoreported the discovery of what appeared to be the wreckage of some sort of space craft. The government response was confusing, to say the least. Military personnel released a statement to the local press indicating they had recovered a flying disc of some sort. Later, they claimed that what had crashed in Roswell was a perfectly ordinary weather balloon. Needless to say, people have been arguing about what really happened ever since.

David Halperin’s Journey of a UFO Investigator is the story of a troubled teenage boy who constructs an elaborate fantasy life around the UFO craze of the 1960s. As he becomes more strongly enmeshed in his world of Roswell, Men in Black, and Unidentified Flying Saucers, the lines between real and unreal begin to blur.


The cover of the book I Was Amelia EarhartI Was Amelia Earhart
On June 1, 1937, pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart set out to become the first woman pilot to fly around the world. She disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. Theories regarding her disappearance have come and gone. Recently discovered forensic evidence suggests that Earhart may have ditched her plane over the ocean and then survived a short while on Nikumaroro Island, but the mystery is far from settled.

Jane Mendelson’s I Was Amelia Earhart explores what might have happened had Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had both survived the crash and started a new life on a nearby tropical island. As they adjust to island life, Earhart looks back on her life and the expedition that might have been her doom.


The cover of the book The Lost SymbolThe Lost Symbol
The Central Intelligence Agency is a pretty mysterious organization, but one of its biggest secrets is hiding in plain sight. Kryptos is a large outdoor sculpture composed of copper, granite, quartz, and wood featuring four encrypted messages. Three of them have been solved, but the fourth has thus so far stumped amateur and professional codebreakers alike.

Kryptos is one of several mysteries referenced in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol: a suspense story set in the hidden chambers and tunnels of Washington, DC. While The Lost Symbol is fiction, there really are plenty of mysteries to explore in and around our nation’s capital city. Many of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons, and those guys really enjoyed their symbols and puzzles.


The cover of the book PhantomsPhantoms
In 1587, a little more than 100 English colonists arrived on Roanoke Island to found a new colony. After the colony was successfully established, its governor, John White, returned to England to fetch more supplies. When he returned three years later, he discovered it deserted. The only clue that might solve the mystery was a single word carved on a tree: “Croatoan.” White had no idea what it meant, and neither does anyone else. One of the more popular theories suggest that the colonists may have abandoned their settlement in favor of moving in with a nearby Native American tribe, the Croatans, and left the engraving to let White know. There are plenty of other possibilities, though, and this one isn’t going to be solved any time soon.

Dean Koontz’s Phantoms features another disappearance that is eerily similar to what happened in Roanoke. Could the two incidents be related? What could possibly be responsible? (Hint: It’s not a friendly neighboring Native American tribe.)

10 Classic Fantasy Books You Need to Read

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

We all have a few literary blindspots, those novels we’ve heard about or that everyone tells us are classics, but for whatever reason we just haven’t gotten around to reading. When it comes to classic fantasy books, it is sort of understandable. We’re in the middle of a boom in great fantasy at the moment with authors both paying homage to fantasy has been and reimagining what it could be. But even the best of today’s fantasy stand on the shoulder of giants. There are landmarks and wellsprings that led the way for the fantasy scene we see today. These are a few our favorites – classics that have inspired countless readers and, in some cases, generations of writers.

The cover of the book The Hero and the CrownThe Hero and the Crown
The Hero and the Crown tells the story of Aerin – born to a witchwoman who had enthralled the king. She was unwanted, her story told and her value apparently found wanting. But there was still more to Aerin’s story waiting to be told. A hero’s destiny awaited her in this beloved fantasy classic.


The cover of the book The Dragonbone ChairThe Dragonbone Chair
The Dragonbone Chair, the first in Tad Williams’ Osten Ard cycle, is a landmark work of fantasy fiction that inspired some of today’s best fantasy writers. Set in the war-torn land of Osten Ard, Dragonbone Chair centers on a kitchen boy who may hold the key to save the realm from total destruction. It’s a masterwork that paved the way for much of what we think of as modern fantasy inspiration for stories ranging from A Song of Ice and Fire to The Kingkiller Chronicle.


The cover of the book Mama DayMama Day
Gloria Naylor set a particularly high bar for emotional and nuanced storytelling in fantasy fiction with Mama Day. Set on the island of Willow Spring off the coast of Georgia, the story follows Mama Day, a powerful healer who’s skill is tested when the island’s darker forces descend on her great niece Cocoa. It’s a powerful generational saga not quite like any other fantasy.


The cover of the book The HobbitThe Hobbit
While Tolkien is arguably best known for his genre defining work in The Lord of the Rings, it all began with The Hobbit. The unexpected journey of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarven companions introduced readers to the world of Middle Earth and began the work of positioning Tolkien as perhaps the most influential fantasy writer of the twentieth century.


The cover of the book A Wizard of EarthseaA Wizard of Earthsea
This coming-of-age tale cemented Ursula K. Le Guin as one of the most imaginative and influential voices of fantasy fiction in the latter half of the twentieth century. Building on the structure of the traditional epic, Le Guin nonetheless challenged the basic preconceptions of what a fantasy novel could be and introduced a subversive classic that would prove to be a wellspring for modern fantasy fiction.


The cover of the book The Last UnicornThe Last Unicorn
Few other fantasy novels combine the seeming simplicity of the fairytale form with the darker edges of fantasy fiction. The Last Unicorn is both a classic adventure and a powerful meditation on grief and loss centering around a unicorn who discovers all the joy and sorrow the world has to offer, even as extinction looms.


The cover of the book Riddle-MasterRiddle-Master
Patricia A. McKillip captured the imaginations of thousands of fantasy readers with her Riddle-Master trilogy. It is the epic story of a young prince journeying through a strange land where wizards no longer exist but magic is on the verge of being reborn. The story has been engaging readers for well over twenty years, and this is the perfect time to discover what you’ve been missing.


The cover of the book The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride
If you only know The Princess Bride from the film, which is itself a classic, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the novel. While the major beats are basically the same, Goldman uses the idea that he’s abridging a longer work by the fictional S. Morgenstern to truly great effect and the novel is full of laugh-out-loud moments and brilliantly witty asides that you simply can’t get on the screen.


The cover of the book The Annotated Sword of ShannaraThe Annotated Sword of Shannara
More than 40 years after its initial release, The Sword of Shannara stands as one of the defining pillars of epic fantasy. The Sword of Shannara, the first in The Sword of Shannara Trilogy, spawned a series spanning multiple novels and beloved by readers the world over. With Sword, Terry Brooks introduced readers to Shea Ohmsford, a half-elf who may very well be the key to pushing back the forces of darkness that threaten to envelope the world. This is where it all began.


The cover of the book The Color of MagicThe Color of Magic
No one writes fantasy quite like Terry Pratchett and no one lovingly skewers fantasy tropes quite as well. Spanning over 40 novels, Discworld is a truly epic fantasy undertaking that is equal parts homage, satire, and innovator. With The Color of Magic, Pratchett introduced the concept of Discworld, the city of Ank-Morpork and all of its raucous denizens, as well as a host of fantasies most indelible (and delightfully absurd) characters.

The Top 10 Evil Robots in Science Fiction

Cover detail, The Robots of Gotham © HMH

Greetings, future toilers in the robot factories!

I’m Todd McAulty. I’m a science fiction writer. My first novel, THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM, set in a future Chicago conquered by machines, was published in hardcover this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Admittedly, science fiction writers don’t have much of a productive role to play in society. When we’re all working twenty hours a day in robot factories, we’ll be the ones getting chewed out by robotic overseers for constantly putting our slave collars on backwards. But we do have one sacred duty, and we take it seriously. It’s our job to prepare people for the future, ugly as it may be. We were the first ones to tell you about atomic power, Velcro, and the rise of hip hop. Yes, we missed the boat on Pokemon Go, but only because Neal Stephenson was on vacation that month.

The most helpful thing a science fiction writer can do today is to prepare you for the inevitable rise of our machine overlords. Yes, I know. You just got your deck resurfaced, and now you won’t get to enjoy it because you’ll soon be chained to a post, eating protein gruel and making power packs for a robot army. It could be worse. No, I don’t know how. Look, it’s just our job to tell you the bad news, not handhold you through the entire process.

Fortunately for me, most of the hard work preparing society for the robot uprising has already been done. Science fiction writers have been warning you about our future as second-class citizens for nearly a century, ever since Czech writer Karel Čapek penned the robot play R.U.R. in 1920, and Fritz Lang released the brilliant silent film Metropolis in 1927. If you haven’t got your escape route planned and your hidden mountain cave picked out by now, we wash our hands of you.

What’s that? You’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones and The Good Place, and totally missed all the warning signs science fiction has been spooning you for the past thirty years?

All right, fine. We’ve probably got some time before the robots make their first move. While we wait patiently for our slave collars, here’s a quick refresher course on all those important lessons you missed.  We can’t cover them all, so I’ve condensed it down to a list of the Top Ten Evil Robots in Science Fiction. Study these carefully, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll be ready for your future role as a resistance fighter in burnt out urban trenches, or a loyal toady proudly posting proclamations on behalf of your robot masters. Wherever your career path takes you, we don’t judge.

A few caveats before we get started. We’re including only one evil robot per media franchise. Otherwise, let’s face it, this entire list would be made up of increasingly advanced Terminator models and five entries for Mechagodzilla. Also, we define ‘robot’ fairly loosely, to include pretty much any computer or algorithm with a nasty disposition.

With that, let’s plunge into the list!

[Caution: Spoilers for all the films mentioned below, plus Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, a bunch of Star Trek episodes, and other random stuff.]

10. Ultron (The Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015)

Ultron is the newest robot on this list (and also the shiniest). That means he built on everything that came before, and it shows. Ingenious evil plan for world domination? Check. Witty villain dialog? Check. Killer robotic styling? Check.

But the real reason Ultron makes the list is that Age of Ultron – which earned nearly $1.5 billion at the box office worldwide — instantly made him an iconic villain. He fought the Avengers to a virtual standstill, and went down to defeat only because his own robot creation, Vision, turned against him.

That’s tough luck, and it shows that even the greatest robot villains can have an off day. Remember that when you’re dithering between enlisting in the human resistance, and signing up for a cushy job as a robot toady.

Image courtesy of Disney

9. Megalon (Godzilla vs. Megalon, 1973)

Technically, Megalon’s not really a robot. He’s a 180-foot tall cyborg god, unleashed by an undersea civilization to wreak havoc on surface dwellers in retaliation for thoughtless underwater atomic testing (as they do). However, once you surpass about 30 feet, all these classifications get a little meaningless, so we’re just going to go with ‘robot.’

Why is Megalon on this list, and not Godzilla’s other metal adversaries, like the entirely awesome Mechagodzilla? Well. While it’s true that Mechagodzilla successfully went toe-to-toe with the big guy in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Megalon has the distinction of facing off against bothGodzilla and his giant robot buddy Jet Jaguar, and acquitting himself admirably.

Also, there’s this. Yes, that’s Megalon on the receiving end of a drop kick by a 90-ton Godzilla. In my book, that earns you a place of pride in the Top 10 Evil Robots of All Time.

Image courtesy of Toho

8. Ava (Ex Machina, 2014)

Ava almost didn’t make this list. And it’s because you can alllllmost be sympathetic to her plight.

She was made in an isolated laboratory by a textbook mad scientist and, despite the fact that she is without a doubt the most sophisticated artificial intelligence ever created, she’s scheduled to be cruelly dismantled for parts so her creator can get on with the business of creating the next model.

So, yeah, the murderous plot she hatches and executes really is all in the name of self-preservation. But it’s the way she does it that leaves you in a cold sweat. Her doe-eyed seduction of the naïve Caleb, and the grateful way she shields him from the worst of the violence, lulls you into a false sense of security. Until she coldly leaves him behind to die of starvation.

Also, she’s definitely the hottest robot on this list. I mean, woo. She is one hot robot. You can understand Caleb’s fascination with her, and the dawning horror he feels, helplessly watching her escape the compound. She is a ruthless and efficient killer slipping effortlessly into a world that doesn’t even know she exists.

It’s only as the credits come up in Ex Machina that you realize you’ve watched a horror film. And that gut punch you feel is because you understand Ava for the first time.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

7. Ash (Alien, 1979)

Like Ava in Ex Machina, Ash has secret motivations, and you sort of understand them. He’s an android secretly planted among a human crew by the evil Weyland-Yutani corporation, and he’s there to make sure nobody does anything to jeopardize profits. And that includes damaging a deadly alien specimen the bioweapons division would love to get their hands on.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Ash is an asshole. I mean, seriously. His entire crew is being systematically slaughtered by an alien xenomorph, and he’s secretly helping the thing? Dick move, Ash. You’re an evil robot, and you suck.

Image courtesy of Paramount

6. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)

HAL is one of the oldest entries on this list – 50 years old this year! — and in many ways is the archetype for every evil computer of the last half century. Yes, people argue that HAL wasn’t really evil, that he was just confused, but those people want to suck the fun out of everything. HAL was evil, and we love him for it.

Is it true that when IBM refused to allow Arthur C. Clarke to name his evil computer the IBM 9000, Clarke just nudged all the letters in “IBM” down the alphabet by one to produce HAL? If not, it should be. If I were IBM, I’d put a big red glowing eye on every supercomputer I make from now on, and watch my stock take an easy 50% bump.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

5. Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)

Roy Batty is a coldly ruthless killer, and richly deserves a place of honor on any list of Top Ten Evil Robots. When he and his band of replicants hijack a shuttle to Earth, they kill the entire crew. Batty kills his creator Tyrell with his bare hands, and even kills poor Sebastian, whose only crime was trusting Roy enough to bring him to Tyrell.

So does it matter than when Rick Deckard kills his beloved Pris and comes gunning for him, Batty chases him relentlessly, only to save his life? Does it matter that life become so precious to him in his final moments that he lets Deckard live? Does it matter that in those moments he delivers the famous “Tears in rain” monologue, which critic Mark Rowlands describes as “the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history”?

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros./Getty Images

4. The Doomsday Machine (Star Trek, 1967)

You remember the Doomsday Machine, right? The deadly mechanical artifact left over from an ancient galactic war that destroys Commodore Matt Decker’s ship and crew, and leaves him a traumatized wreck until Captain  Kirk and the Enterprise find him on the battered husk of the USS Constellation? “The Doomsday Machine” is one of the most beloved episodes of the original Trek, and it’s for a reason. Forget Khan Noonien Singh – the Doomsday Machine is the most dangerous opponent Kirk and crew ever faced, and no mistake.

Also, the machine gets serious points for originally of design. Most robots on this list have two arms and two legs, and use them for mischief. Not the Doomsday Machine. It’s a miles-long space cigar with a big glowy mouth, capable of gobbling planets for fuel and carving a path of destruction through the most densely populated section of our galaxy. It’s destroyed only through grit, quick thinking, and the kind of determination that Kirk and his crew are justly famous for.

Star Trek has a rich legacy of evil robot villains, from the indestructible Nomad of “The Changeling” to the V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But the Doomsday Machine towers above them all.

Image courtesy of Paramount Television

3. GLaDOS (Portal, 2007)

Valve’s brilliant Portal is the only game to make this list, and it’s purely on the strength of its magnificent villain GLaDOS, one of the most well-realized and sinister fictional robots ever created.

Portal has a fairly simple story. You wake up with no memories in the Aperture Science research facility, where the computer voice of GLaDOS guides you through a series of increasingly dangerous trials of something called the portal gun, a weapon that creates portals you can teleport through. The true nature of your surroundings and your circumstance gradually becomes clear as the tests progress. It’s a magnificent game, with a revolutionary play mechanic and a terrific sense of humor.

GLaDOS is one of the greatest villains in science fiction, of any kind. On top of using you to perfect her methods of killing, GLaDOS also totally cheats with her reward system. Since she’s a disembodied voice for virtually the entire game, it’s a challenge for her to find ways to really motivate you. One she abuses shamelessly is the promise of cake. Mmmm, delicious cake. You can almost taste it. But then you find desiccated corpses of earlier clone bodies, and ominous graffiti written in hidden locations: “THE CAKE IS A LIE.”

Could it be? Could the despicable GLaDOS, exterminator of all mankind, also be LYING ABOUT THE CAKE? Spoiler: yes.

Image courtesy of Valve

2. T-800 (The Terminator, 1984)

Now don’t act all surprised. You knew the Terminator had to be on this list somewhere. Although the film The Terminator is 34 years old (yes, 34 years old – stop thinking about it), it remains the high-water mark for evil robot cinema.

Although the T-800 has been technologically surpassed by newer models, including the terrifying shape-changing T-1000 and the T-X, the sturdy T-800 has never really been supplanted in our hearts.

In fact, the Terminator movies – and I’ve kinda lost track of how many there have been by this point – are a treasure trove of evil robots. The grandpappy of them all of course is Skynet, the net-based superintelligence that brings Armageddon down on its creators, one of the greatest of all fictional artificial intelligences. I debated giving Skynet the place of honor on this list rather than the T-800. But Skynet is not played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

1. Agent Smith (The Matrix, 1999)

Hmm, did I say The Terminator was the high-water mark for evil robot cinema? I meant, “except for The Matrix.”

The Matrix is a brilliant film, and a film like that needs a brilliant villain. It found it in Agent Smith, chillingly portrayed by Hugo Weaving.

Is Agent Smith a robot? I think so. He’s an artificial intelligence, that’s for sure. He shoots guns and you can punch him. Ergo, he’s a robot. Q.E.D.

Now that we got that out of the way, I submit that Agent Smith is the greatest evil robot ever created. All the other machines on this list are flawed in some way. Either they have sympathetic motivations, like Ava and Roy Batty, or they’re just following their programming, like Ash. Or they have a secret weakness, like the Doomsday Machine and GLaDOS.

Not Agent Smith. Despite that brief moment where he pulls out his earpiece and has some chummy one-on-one bonding time with Morpheus, we never come to sympathize with Smith. He is evil, supremely capable, and he has no weaknesses. And unlike other, lesser Agents, he absolutely will not give up. He is your nightmare, wrapped up in a superintelligent and indestructible package.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers


There you have it. All the abject lessons of 100 years of science fiction condensed down into a neat package. You’re welcome.

While we await the inevitable arrival of our robot overlords, I know you have lots of questions. Let me simplify it for you. There’s really only one that matters: When the robots come, will they look like WALL-E, or Agent Smith?

Sleep well.

5 Ways That Technology’s Evolution Pushes the Boundary of Fiction

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

The Martian. Science fiction, or not? For many the answer is obvious: it’s about an astronaut living on Mars. Pure SF. Hard SF. No question about it. And yet it turns out the answer is something of a black-and-gold dress or, to use a more recent mind-bending metaphor, can be heard as either “Laurel” or “Yanny.”

I attended a local book club recently (not one limited to SF books) to discuss The Martian. The group of twenty was pretty evenly split as to whether or not it was SF. And it was all down to how the individual reader perceived the likelihood of the events, and the technology being portrayed. “We landed on the Moon,” “People live in the desert to simulate this stuff,” “Pathfinder is a real thing,” “We’ve got robots on Mars!”

For what it’s worth, I see The Martian as very much SF. But the discussion was interesting and it got me thinking about the interaction between technology and storytelling and, in particular, how the evolution of technology pushes at the boundary of fiction and science fiction.

Here are five ways in which technology and storytelling interrelate, in no particular order.

1. Fictional technology quickly becomes reality: I grew up watching “Star Trek: TNG” and, while the show rests primarily on the premise of warp drive, the little nuggets of day to day technology were the things that at once seemed so real and yet were completely out of reach: food replicators, holodecks, tablet computers…

Younger members of my family are far less impressed. Tablets are in all our homes, and aren’t replicators just fancy 3D printers? Travelling in the opposite direction, when my parents first watched the original “Star Trek,” the things that stood out to them were handheld communicators and doors that opened automatically when someone approached them – neither of which appeared at all odd to me when I was watching it!

One of the most interesting aspects of this phenomenon is the feedback loop between fiction and technology: those consuming science fiction shows tend to try and create the amazing tech that they’ve watched as a child. After all, who wouldn’t want a go on Marty McFly’s hoverboard?

2. Technology changes the rules: While technology does open new possibilities for storytelling, its rule benders can also pose serious problems for authors. Two examples are the cellphone and the internet. After all, how can a protagonist be put in danger when they can simply call for help? And how can satisfying puzzles be set for our characters, when those same cellphones give them access to the sum of humanity’s knowledge?

The fact that technology is constantly changing doesn’t just cause headaches for science fiction. Would we believe a story, for instance, that didn’t include characters using credit cards (which first appeared in Edward Bellamy’s 1887 story, Looking Backward)? Or a modern crime novel that didn’t include forensics, etc. etc.?

When writing my new novel, The Synapse Sequence, I was thinking about some of the ways in which policing is likely to change in the very near future. So when a teenage girl goes missing, would the police assign a grizzled detective to the case – or would they be more likely to get an AI to judge the evidence and use facial recognition to try and find her? At the time of writing, I considered this to be very much science fiction. Now though, I can almost hear the members of my book group objecting – and certainly similar systems are being introduced in certain parts of the world (notably China).

The main component of The Synapse Sequence, however, is more speculative. It involves the use of technology that allows an investigator to explore the memories of witnesses. A little more far-fetched than using AI’s and algorithms? Nope. All stuff that’s in development, and being reported on in science journals.

3. The world becomes both smaller and larger: In the decades leading up to the end of the 20th Century, technology was increasing the scope of stories, and opening up constrained settings: Phileas Fogg traveled around the world in eighty days, whereas nowadays it takes a few hours. Similarly, it’s possible to find out what’s happening on the other side of the globe on the evening news. So our stories are not limited to a single place, and characters like James Bond can hop from the Caribbean to Moscow to Japan between a few chapters…

…but this effect has also led to revisions to once staple story elements. We now know there is no life on Venus or Mars, we can be certain there are no sea creatures that once adorned ancient maps, and the rough sketches of exotic animals drawn by early explorers have long since been replaced by definitive photos. The answer? We’ve had to create more complex alien worlds and fantastical settings. The aliens no longer inhabit Mars, but interdimensional spaces!

4. Technology allows us to tell stories in different ways: I live quite close to the only place in the UK which has cave art (dating back 13,000 years). Alongside oral traditions, it represents some of the earliest forms of storytelling. Of course, writing itself can be viewed as a technology. The development of the printing press allowed mass communication and (arguably) accelerated the loss of local languages. And the personal computer has transformed our ability to edit and craft our work.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to claim we’re living through a period of rapid storytelling innovation. As some debate whether the novel is “doomed,” storytelling itself seems to be in rude health. A Golden Age in television drama is giving us hours of astonishingly complex worlds and plotting; computer games are delivering on the promise of truly interactive entertainment; and new social media tools (Twitter/Instagram) are quickly becoming a hybrid of oral, printed word, and visual traditions.

5. Technology changes the way we look at ourselves: One of the most important contributions of the space race was to transform our understanding of Earth’s place in the universe. The Hubble Space telescope – and its astonishing deep field view – provided a glimpse of thousands of galaxies from a tiny segment of space. Many have written about the environmental narrative being strengthened by photos of the pale blue dot, but I would also suggest that it has had another more subtle impact. Aliens are no longer of sole interest to science fiction – there is growing mainstream scientific interest in the search for life beyond our planet and indeed our solar system. The view increasingly seems to be that we are not alone, which might explain growing interest in speculative fiction within mainstream genre circles.

* * *

And that’s my list (typed on a very old, but serviceable, laptop). So how will technology affect storytelling in future? I can’t wait to find out!

Genre Friday – Comedic Fantasy

So You Want to Read Comedic Fantasy: Here’s Where to Start

Illustration: Paul Kidby/Orion Books

Fantasy fiction is serious business, until it isn’t. While we love our multi-volume doorstoppers and grimdark epics as much as the next reader, sometimes it’s fun to let loose and look for a laugh. Enter comedic fantasy.

Where fantasy began as a genre is certainly up for debate — one we’re not having now — but if you consider mythology a predecessor, then humor has been part of it since the beginning. Norse myth offers a tale of Thor dressing in drag to fool a frost giant into returning his stolen hammer Mjölnir. There’s also Anansi the spider, an African trickster spirit that cheerfully trolls anyone and anything it can. Those are just a couple of examples.

There are plenty of funny fairy and folk tales, too. Jack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, just to name a few. Of course, Shakespeare worked plenty of laughs into his own take on the fairy tale, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Heading into the modern era, fantasy fiction godfathers Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell, wrote for chuckles, as did fantasy-adjacent authors like Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Plenty of old school fantasy writers did, too. Fritz Leiber’s stuff is full of chuckles, as is Fletcher Pratt’s.

There are plenty of contemporary fantasy writers who know their way around a joke, and if you’re looking for a laugh, then you’ve come to the right place. Here are our suggestions for the humor-hungry bookworm.

The cover of the book Kill the Farm BoyKill the Farm Boy
Iron Druid Chronicles author Kevin Hearne and Star Wars: Phasma author Delilah S. Dawson’s Kill the Farm Boy is a take-no-prisoners comedy assault on the high fantasy genre, complete with a trash-talking goat, necromancer named Steve, and a Dark Lord who is a bit of a turophile — a cheese lover, that is. It isn’t out until July 17, but this should be a definite pre-order for the comedic fantasy fan.


The cover of the book The Color of MagicThe Color of Magic
Sir Terry was the 800 pound gorilla of comedic fantasy, and that’s not going to change any time soon. Few, if any, fantasy readers would argue with the contention that his Discworld series pretty much made the genre what it is in the modern age. What is arguable is where one should begin reading the series. According to some fans, you can jump in anywhere you like. Others point to this or that volume as being better points of entry. With all of that in mind, I’ll just point you toward the first book, The Color of Magic, and you can decide for yourself.


The cover of the book Another Fine MythAnother Fine Myth
Robert Asprin, like Sir Terry, was a giant in comedic fantasy. His Myth Adventures series started with a fairly formulaic trope — the bumbling wizard’s apprentice — and took it to some weird, weird places. Book one introduces the aforementioned apprentice, Skeeve, his fearsome-looking demon sidekick Aahz, and a host of other misfit characters you’ll come to know and love as much as I did. A note: the series seems to be out of print in dead tree, but the ebooks are still available.


The cover of the book The HikeThe Hike
Drew Magary’s fantasy novel The Hike is one of the strangest and funniest contributions to the genre that I’ve read in the last few years. It’s the story of a guy whose short walk in the woods turns into an epic journey across a fantasy world populated with hungry giantesses, witheringly sarcastic crabs, dog-men, and dwarves — Oh God, the dwarves. I almost forgot. Dwarves.


The cover of the book The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride
You were expecting this one, weren’t you? Well, you should be — and with good reason. Goldman’s The Princess Bride is as heartwarming as it is funny, and the book is just as much a pleasure to experience as the movie based on it. (You’ve never seen “The Princess Bride”? Stop reading this now and go. Just go and watch it. I’ll wait.)


The cover of the book In the Company of OgresIn the Company of Ogres
A. Lee Martinez has written a ton of funny stuff across half a dozen genres. In the Company of Ogres is his sharp, pointy stick in the eye of proper fantasy fiction. It’s about a guy — a guy who has trouble staying dead — who is put in charge of an oddball company of monsters, including, but not limited to, a two-headed ogre


The cover of the book The Tough Guide to FantasylandThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland
The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land is your travel guide to the fantasy worlds of your favorite authors. Which ones? All of them! Jones parodic masterwork skewers the fantasy tropes that all of us know and love, from magic swords to dark lords. If you’ve ever lost a few hours at tvtropes.com, then this book is for you.


The cover of the book Bored of the RingsBored of the Rings
Bored of the Rings is a parody of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic written by Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney, Harvard Lampoonstaffers who went on to launch the classic humor magazine (and movie production company) National Lampoon. Like the Lampoon itself, the humor of Bored of the Rings can be downright crude, but if your taste leans that way, then you’ll probably enjoy it. (No judgment!)


The cover of the book Kings of the WyldKings of the Wyld
In a world where adventuring parties are like rock bands, Clay Cooper and his rowdy crew of mercenaries were legends. Now they’re older, and out of shape, and married, and … well, they’re not kids anymore. But it’s time to get the band back together, and show that you’re never too old to rock. The cover of this book, while awesome, makes it seem a lot darker than it really is. Honestly, it’s a really funny story about the bonds of friendship. And friendly zombies. Air ships, too.


The cover of the book To Say Nothing of the DogTo Say Nothing of the Dog
I’ll readily concede to stretching the definition of “fantasy” for this one, but I would be remiss not mentioning this bona fide classic.The invention of the time machine has opened up the past to historians in a way that their forebears could only dream of. There are rules, though: You aren’t supposed to bring anything back with you from the past — least of all a cat. Now an overworked Oxford Don has to return to the 19th century to set things right. To Say Nothing of the Dog is part of the same universe as The Doomsday Book, but a heck of a lot funnier.


The cover of the book Heroine's JourneyHeroine’s Journey
Does comedic fantasy only come in chainmail and wizard’s hats? I think not. Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex novels stand as proof that you can find big laughs in other forms of fantastic literature. In her case, superhero fiction. Heroine Complex is about a former personal assistant to an A-list superhero whose life turns upside down when she discovers her own powers. Look for book three, Heroine’s Journey, on July 3!

Oh Poor Horror, Misunderstood: Josh Malerman on Horror’s New Generation

Photo by W A T A R I on Unsplash

Oh, poor horror, misunderstood.

Mother says you’re made up of witches and woods, brutal bloodletting, slashers in hoods. But I know better, having eaten my share, saved some for later, stashed under stairs.

Mixed ‘em and matched ‘em and made new pairs.

Mother doesn’t like you. She says you are trite! I try to convince her night after night. I beseeched her, “Dear Mother, open thy mind. Horror is no longer a word you will find so neatly packaged with stuffing and twine.”

“Leave me, dark child, with a full foamy stein.
And take your common monsters, speckled with teeth
Used so often they put me to sleep.
Take your old bones lying out in the rain
While I read something compelling and sane.”

Oh, poor horror, misunderstood.

I continued with Mother, as well as I could. My argument expanded to include books she deemed good. “Some say Jane Eyre is as much of a fright as Tanith Lee’s Dreams of Dark and Light. And some cite Melville as a man of such tales, for what could be scarier than a giant white whale? But never mind the classics, fuddy mother of mine, horror no longer grows on the vine Here, let me show you one of mine.”

Here I showed Mother Inspection of mine.

She huffed and she hawed until halfway she knew it, she lifted the book and she almost threw it, then brought it back down to the yarn on her knees, and read the second half at her ease.

“But this isn’t horror, rotten child of mine, for it has no vampires or inverted nines.”

“But Mother, you see! The word is elastic, and all us new writers are made of new plastic! We’ll write of such things, but not cause they’re gaudy, we’re interested in both the mind and the body. We thrill but we think, we’re intellectually naughty. We’re interested in both the mind and the body.”

Dear Mother then frowned and dismissed me again. But she hadn’t yet thrown the book in her hand.

“What does your kind know of the ways of the soul? Coming of age? Quality control? Leave me, braindead child, and take with you your trolls.”

Oh poor horror, misunderstood.

I took leave as she ordered but for only so long, and returned with a stack of new songs.
A tower of books, a stack of new songs.

“Horror has changed, Dear Mother it’s true, it’s not the same now as it was for you. The genre is present as the ice in your drink, it’s come up through the pipes and the sink.”

Here Mother looked to the kitchen, to the sink, and I felt I’d made progress, had got her to think.

“The genre has fled from the castles of yore and is no longer steeped in bones and gore–though we love such elements, we love them, it’s true! But did you know the color blue could be as much monster as the thing in the brew? Did you know we see monsters in even baby blue?”

“The way you talk, it’s as if you see scares everywhere.”

“That’s it! That’s right! Even over there!”

I pointed to a corner where nothing was there.

Mother shook her head and pointed, too, a long wrinkled finger and said, “You, oh you. Do you think me so vulgar to believe such a thing? That your genre might be found on a butterfly’s wing?”

“But what better place–do not make a face–for your likeness may match the pattern of lace in the curtains of this room in which we debate, or the pattern indeed of the butterfly’s mate.”

“Oh!” Mother said, shaking her head. “Leave me, gross child, and take your undead. You speak as though you’d marry Dreary and Dread.”

Oh poor horror, misunderstood.

“I’ll leave you, Dear Mother, I’ll go up to my bed. But not without repeating the things that I’ve said. For horror has risen from the graves of yore and can be found now in places never heard of before, or perhaps even the corners of this very room! A brand new monster in this very room!”

She looked to the corner and I felt I’d scored, but I’d need to describe what stood where the walls met the floor.

“Do you see it, Dear Mother? The crown of its head? Why, it’s not even a ghost, it’s not even dead. Nor is it invisible, as you’ve read of before. What stands in this room is More.”

More as a monster?” Mother laughed at me so. “But what sort of horror does More have in store?”

I crossed the room then.

“The livers are living but they still want More.
The lovers are loving but they still want More.
Mothers are presented with examples but they still want More.
Do you see, Dear Mother, we’ve made a monster of More?”

Mother seemed to consider, but did not look resigned.

“I told you,” I said, “the body and the mind.”

She set down my book, took the yarn from her lap, rose to a standing, and clapped a lone clap.

“Bedtime for me, ugly child of mine.” And she made for the staircase of antique pine.

Her opinion, I thought, as hard as the wood.

Oh poor horror, misunderstood.

But as she took the first step, and the step did shriek, she paused without turning to speak: “The way you see it, stairs could be horror. And a person who takes them, an explorer.”

She did turn then, and gave me a wink, nodded her head as if to rethink, then climbed the stairs and called over her shoulder, “Interesting child, you simmer and smolder–do all you new writers think this way? Horror in all things, every day?”

She stopped outside her bedroom up there, perhaps pondering a brand new scare.

“Yes, Dear Mother,” Dear Mother, I swore.

And she whispered, “Not bad,” before closing the door.

25 Horror Classics You Need to Read

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

In any genre there are always those seminal works that are pure must-reads. They’re the classics, the stories that are either the foundational underpinnings or pitch perfect examples of what the genre has to offer. People have been telling scary stories for as long as they’ve been, in fact, telling stories. There’s just something addictive about a bit of bone-chilling terror. But the sheer breadth of the horror catalog can be a little daunting – particularly when you’re talking the must-reads. Ever the glutton for punishment, I’ve taken a stab at pulling together twenty-five must-read classics, from the 1800s through the 1980s. Let us know your favorite horror reads in the comments!

The cover of the book The Haunting of Hill House (Movie Tie-In)The Haunting of Hill House 
With The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson crafted one of the most influential haunted house tales of all time. It’s a slow burn masterpiece that relies as much on its deeply drawn characters as its potentially haunted setting to methodically ratchet up the dread and terror.



The cover of the book Interview with the VampireInterview with the Vampire
Anne Rice essentially reinvented the popular mythology of the vampire with her Vampire Chronicles series, and it all began with Interview with the Vampire. Rice’s influence on the vampire genre in the latter twentieth century is difficult to overstate and Interview is still one of her best.



The cover of the book ItIt
For me personally, this was the most difficult pick. I debated The Shining, The Stand, and ‘Salem’s Lot. However, I just can’t escape the fact that It is just so quintessentially Stephen King. If you only read one Stephen King novel, the sprawling story of a group of kids fighting a timeless evil in the twisted of community Derry, Maine has to be the one.



The cover of the book DraculaDracula
Dracula is the definitive vampire novel. It quite literally defined many of the tropes and conventions that are now staples of the of the vampire genre. Beyond underpinning an entire subgenre, Dracula is a tale of obsession, loss, and repressed sexuality.



The cover of the book Something Wicked This Way ComesSomething Wicked This Way Comes
There are times when it feels like I read Ray Bradbury as much for his absurdly well-written prose and use of metaphor as his forays into all things horrific. Something Wicked This Way Comes is the gold standard – it melds Bradbury’s keen sense of nostalgia, unfettered imagination, and gleeful wordsmithing into one brilliant and unsettling package.



The cover of the book Frankenstein: The 1818 TextFrankenstein: The 1818 Text
Although it’s also widely considered one of the first science fiction novels, the macabre horror of Frankenstein is undeniable. Its influence has stretched through two centuries of horror and it remains a foundational piece of the genre.



The cover of the book BelovedBeloved
Beloved wrecked me the first time I read it. At its base, it is a ghost story – and an incredibly well-told one – but the horrifying secret at its core, and the way Toni Morrison expertly peels away the layers of guilt, desperation, and trauma that define the tale, make this Pulitzer Prize-winner a singular and devastating appearance.



The cover of the book Gothic TalesGothic Tales
Any discussion of Gothic horror and its genesis should include Elizabeth Gaskell. The dread-inducing collection of stories in Gothic Tales is a perfect example why. Her works are darkly surreal, blending local legends, fairy tales, and an incisive understanding of mankind’s darker inclinations into a deeply unsettling collection of eerie tales.



The cover of the book RebeccaRebecca
Rebecca is a classic study in obsession and sustained suspense. Readers are inexorably carried along with the unnamed narrator’s increasingly intense fascination with the death of her husband’s first wife. What unfolds is intricately woven mystery as unnerving as it is shocking.



The cover of the book The Best of Richard MathesonThe Best of Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson is arguably best known for I Am Legend, his seminal post-apocalyptic pseudo-vampire novel, but he’s also one of the finest short fiction writers of latter twentieth century. Matheson’s occasionally pulpy and always terrifying short stories influenced virtually every major horror writer to follow in his considerable wake, including the likes of Stephen King and Peter Straub. They also had a major impact on Victor LaValle, who both edited and wrote an introduction for this collection. LaValle is no slouch in the horror department himself and well worth a look.



The cover of the book The OtherThe Other
It was arguably the success of novels like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Other that ushered in the paperback horror boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s. With The Other Tryon’s takes a deep dive into humanity’s darker side. Set against a bucolic farming community, the story eschews the supernatural in favor of more mundane, if no less horrifying, scares.



The cover of the book The ExorcistThe Exorcist
If you only know William Peter Blatty’s terrifying masterpiece by way of its classic adaptation, pick up a copy of the novel that inspired it. Blatty manages to imbue an eerie sense of plausibility into the story that makes it all the more unsettling.




The cover of the book Rosemary's BabyRosemary’s Baby
Rosemary’s Baby effortlessly weaves its suspense through the oft-mundane everyday lives of the young couple at its center. There’s an inkling from the beginning that something is not quite right, but the reader’s realization, paced alongside Rosemary’s own, is what lifts Ira Levin’s masterpiece to a different level.



The cover of the book The Woman in BlackThe Woman in Black
The Woman in Black feels like a throwback to a much earlier period. It’s a bit shocking to realize this Victorian chiller was published in 1983. That’s a very good thing. The Woman in Black is a pitch perfect ghost story – one that takes its time and lets the fear slowly creep in and envelope the reader.



The cover of the book The House Next DoorThe House Next Door
The House Next Door is an oddly overlooked slice of horror that deserves a spot alongside the haunted house heavyweights (The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Hell House). Best known for novels like Peachtree Road that center around the sagas of wealthy southern families, Anne Rivers Siddons nonetheless quietly crafted a brilliantly creepy haunted house tale that has stood the test of time.



The cover of the book PhantomsPhantoms
Dean Koontz has leaned a bit more into sci-fi and pure thrillers for most of his prodigious career, but on the occasion that he embraces full-on horror it’s invariably worth a look, and Phantoms is one of his best. It builds on classic urban legend with more than a small debt to Lovecraft, and is precisely the sort of page-turner that made Koontz a perennial bestseller.



The cover of the book The Damnation GameThe Damnation Game
The Damnation Game proved without a doubt that Barker could sustain his particular brand of unrelenting terror over the course of an entire novel. Following Books of Blood, The Damnation Game delves into the darkest recesses of Barker’s imagination for a particularly depraved tale tinged with cannibalism, incest, and all manner of macabre.



The cover of the book The Bloody ChamberThe Bloody Chamber
The Bloody Chamber is, at base, a series of fairy tale retellings. What lifts the whole package and sets it apart is Carter’s understanding of the dark undertones of virtually every fairy tale ever conceived. She pulls those darker elements to the forefront, deftly inverting every classic trope.



The cover of the book The Bad SeedThe Bad Seed
The idea of a seemingly innocent child committing heinous acts has become a fairly common trope in horror, but when The Bad Seed was published in 1954, it proved a tremendous shock for its readers. March’s matter-of-fact prose style lends an air of both authority and plausibility to this story of a mother slowly realizing the true evil of her young, murderous daughter.



The cover of the book Geek LoveGeek Love
Odds are you’ve never read a novel quite a like Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Geek Love, centering around a family of circus “freaks,” is bizarre, mesmerizing, and perverse. It’s a shocking lamentation on the human condition, of torment and trauma. Ultimately, it turns a sort of fun house mirror on societal ideals, presenting a delirious and disturbing vision in return.



The cover of the book The Turn of the Screw and Other Ghost StoriesThe Turn of the Screw and Other Ghost Stories
Henry James seminal ghost tale is one of those foundational texts for the horror genre. There are still very few authors who have done the traditional ghost story better. James keeps the scares and narrative subtle, but no less dread-inducing. The fact that even after the final page it’s not precisely clear what’s happening — that very uncertainty is the genius of “The Turn of the Screw.”



The cover of the book American PsychoAmerican Psycho
American Psycho is a gleefully over-the-top slasher flick in prose form that also happens to be an absurdly biting, post-modern cultural dissection. It’s dark, for sure. There’s cannibalism, necrophilia, all manner of torture. But it’s also a wholly unreliable descent into pure madness – but also maybe not. This one is as thought-provoking as it is unsettling.



The cover of the book Summer of NightSummer of Night
There’s a lot of great horror scattered across Dan Simmons’ eclectic bibliography. Summer of Night is one of my favorites. Falling on a spectrum somewhere between Bradbury and King, it is a tale of small towns and ancient evils, but there’s an eerie sort of quality that taints the nostalgic hue in a way that separates it from those clear influences.



The cover of the book The ElementalsThe Elementals
Best known for scripting the likes of “Beetlejuice” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” McDowell’s brilliantly terrifying novels are once again making their way onto the radar of horror fans. The Elementals is arguably his best work – a southern Gothic-tinged haunt that is claustrophobic and disturbing.



The cover of the book The Silence of the LambsThe Silence of the Lambs
While it’s on the list of novels overshadowed by their adaptations, there really is just something about experiencing Hannibal Lecter in print that even the brilliance of Anthony Hopkins can’t quite match. And while Thomas Harris may have overextended with perhaps too many sequels, Silence of the Lambs is an unrelenting and bone-chilling descent into the darker – and very plausible – recesses of humanity.