What do you think of first when you hear the term “speculative fiction?” I often understand it as a blanket term for fiction that blends genres and tropes. Authors of speculative fiction often eschew the confines of a single genre in order to better explore—and tell—the story they desire most. It results in some wondrous worlds—and some utterly chilling narratives.
Many of the books considered modern-day classics could all fit under the term “speculative.” Speculative fiction books are often inquisitive and aware of what exists on their pages. These are books that take the idea of genre itself and morph it to fit the darkness within the pages. In this strange convergence, we get to experience something that isn't any "one" thing and doesn't fit specific genre molds. This work is simply itself.
Let’s take a look at some extraordinary examples of speculative fiction at its dazzling dark, fantastical, and dynamic.
Our Share of the Night
The English translation of Marina Enriquez’s epic novel Our Share of the Night was published this February, offering this utterly unique novel to an entirely new slate of readers. At the center of the novel is a family in the throes of grief.
After Gaspar’s, our protagonist, mother dies, he ends up on a grief-ridden road trip with his father in search of her roots. The novel pulls from fantasy and horror, historical fiction, and familial drama, to conjure a narrative that extends across multiple generations, a cult, and a mortifying evil that is always just over the horizon. Gaspar discovers that there is a power that his father has that not only allows for communication with evil but also an ancestral curse.
The novel plunges into some messed up cult rituals and other surprising acts all in the name of conjuring this power. Enriquez masterfully took some of the same tropes found in the everyday possession and cult horror narratives and blurred them into a highly literary epic sweeping across family and time itself.
Indra Das’s The Devourers always comes to mind when book talk turns to books that cross genres. Though many will bring up tropes like “werewolves” when describing the central conflict of the novel, Das has woven a tale that dodges any such direct description.
Here we are introduced to Alok, a college professor that is visited by a stranger one night in Kolkata, India. This stranger has visited him to impart a tale unlike anything else, one that Alok becomes compelled to complete no matter what. The tale involves a “shapeshifter,” someone made of magic and a desperate need for blood.
Das brings in elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and more to keep the pages turning as readers are witness to a completely original take on an age-old trope. The best part is the novel’s nested narrative involving shapeshifter origins in the Moghul era, all told as Alok himself is understanding the telling. It’s addictive, gripping stuff.
The Shoemaker’s Magician
The latest in Cynthia Pelayo’s Chicago Saga trilogy, The Shoemaker’s Magician pulls from elements of mystery, fantasy, and even hints of noir to build out a speculative narrative singular and definitively compelling.
There has been a murder at the Chicago Theater, a movie poster affixed to the body. This opens the layered narrative between Paloma and her husband, the detective given the mysterious case surrounding the murder. An expert on all-things film, Paloma naturally becomes an integral part of the solving and unraveling of the mystery.
And it doesn’t stop there either, the murder itself becoming personal when their son seems to be getting fable-like stories that act like tendrils, pulling the case and family history into a knot of concern. Pelayo takes various tropes and genre conventions and blurs them into a penultimate mystery made to be a love letter of sorts to all-things mysterious and magical.
No Longer Human
Oh man, this book. Originally published in 1948, No Longer Human is the author’s most famous and infamous book, mostly due to the subject material and how it was an exemplification of autobiographical fiction at a time when such material had no direct corollary.
No More Human reads like a confession, and also a diary without the dates, an epistolary text at times without there being written for anyone. Rather, its Dazai writing to the void that has consumed and complicated his entire life. In the same vein as novels like Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre and The Stranger by Albert Camus, the protagonist of the novel is afflicted by an existential misery that cannot be solved or healed. The young man as a facsimile goes throughout life with this disconnection that he uses the novel to explain confirms his not being human.
It’s a fantastic example of speculative fiction that blurs fact, postmodern themes, memoir, and psychological horror without ever dithering into a specific monstrosity.
Mona Awad’s Bunny will have you laughing at the same time you’re recoiling in horror.
The novel introduces readers to a familiar setting, a student named Samantha entering a high-end (or should it be “high prestige”) MFA program on scholarship. As is routinely the case, she discovers a cliquey and toxic cohort of aspiring writers; among them is a particularly odd clique of girls that come from wealth, all referred to as “Bunny,” complete with increasingly odd and insane rituals they practice in order to conjure something that we’ll just refer to as “creativity.”
This book blends the campus novel with body horror, cult horror, and a hefty dose of comedy.
Under the Skin
Most will be familiar with this novel solely on its 2013 film adaptation starring Scartlett Johannson, but Michel Faber’s novel is still worth diving into, literally and figuratively. Under the Skin feels like its own black hole, equally a blend of the road novel and science fiction, thriller and fantasy.
Readers take a cross-country tailspin with an alien named Isserley who goes around picking up hitchhikers to harvest. She looks the part, her “human skin” exactly what any male hitchhiker would find attractive. It’s all in the name of the hunt, and yet, we see Isserley becoming increasingly curious about what it means to be human, what can be found under the skin of every victim she procures.
Under the Skin remains one of the oddest speculative feats, and one that will remain fresh in your mind for a long time.