In Kathryn Harlan’s enticing debut collection, Fruiting Bodies, primarily queer, female characters encounter surreal and fantastical situations. In the title story, the protagonist’s lover becomes mysteriously mycological, sprouting various types of mushrooms the partners can cook and enjoy—or use to poison an unwitting, uninvited guest. Harlan’s prose is beautiful and vivid, and each story has elements of beauty and horror, evocative of, as the narrator of “Algal Bloom” puts it, “nothing I had words for, like the end of the world.”
Fabulist fiction exists in the no-mans-land between “genre” and “literary” fiction, drawing heavily from each. It has this in common with a number of other subgenres—surrealism, magical realism, weird fiction. A lot of books could be reasonably given several of these labels, just as a lot of books could be reasonably shelved as both literary fiction and fantasy. What defines fabulism in my mind, though, is the use of fantastical elements to explore personal, human themes. Fabulist fiction tends to privilege internal and interpersonal conflict over large-scale, action-heavy plots; its elements of unreality follow a kind of magical thinking. When something strange occurs, the story is less interested in why it’s happening—its origin or mechanism—than in what it means, in a symbolic or emotional logic. Fabulism at its best is strange, lovely, and heartfelt, braiding the personal with the fantastical, the impossible with the familiar. The books listed below are some of my favorites, ones that had significant influences on me as both a writer and a reader and that I think offer a look at fabulism at its best.
1. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Carter reinvents popular fairytales with enthralling prose and compelling psychological realism. Some of the stories follow familiar patterns, while others twist off in entirely new directions, but all of them manage to feel novel and to bring a new angle to your understanding of the fairytale. The Bloody Chamber would be worth reading if only for the influence it’s had on other fabulist writers (much of this list included) but it also happens to be an exceptionally good book, a modern classic that feels no less vibrant or immediate now than it must have 40 years ago.
For me, Her Body and Other Parties was a lesson in what a talented writer could do with genre. The collection embraces its genre influences, regarding them with an eye that is sometimes loving and sometimes critical, but always fascinated. Machado’s stories are adventurous in both form and content—“Especially Heinous” is told through a series of imagined Law & Order SVU episodes, while “Inventory” grants us glimpses of an unfolding apocalypse through the narrator’s descriptions of her sexual encounters—and each offers its own unique angle on themes of identity, intimacy, and violence.
In this gorgeous modern Beowulf retelling, the magical forces at work serve to illuminate the social ones. The novel follows two sets of mothers and sons: Willa and Dylan, who enjoy a privileged position in the wealthy suburban development of Herot Hall, and Dana and Gren, who squat in a cave nearby. Monster stories often give shape to cultural anxieties about the Other, and the privileged have long ascribed monstrous qualities to the marginalized. The Mere Wife is an urgent story that makes the fantastical monster an instrument in its examination of privilege, power, and brutality.
There’s a playful deftness to much of Kelly Link’s work, and thus a particular joy to reading it. It’s the happy confusion of having no idea where a story is going, maybe not even being entirely sure what it’s doing in the moment, but knowing that you’re in good hands, confident you can trust the author to take you somewhere worth going. No two stories in Magic for Beginners are quite alike or quite what you expect them to be, and Link’s mastery, imagination, and wit make that a delightful experience.
A detective story set in two cities that occupy the same geographical space. Besźel and Ul Quoma have different laws, languages, faiths, and traditions, and their citizens learn from birth to maintain the delineation between the two cities by carefully ignoring the people and scenery of their sister city while interacting only with their own, lest they be taken away by a strange secret police. Against this backdrop, a detective investigates the murder of a young woman and discovers clues that lead him to both cities and something bizarre happening between them.
Beloved begins as a ghost story; its protagonist Sethe is a former slave who, after an attempted escape with her children, killed her infant daughter to save her from a return to slavery. Now Sethe and her surviving daughter are haunted by what they believe to be the child’s ghost. But the haunting unfolds into something stranger and more complicated than the typical ghost story, a manifestation of all the characters’ painful pasts and the ambivalent relationships they have with that history. Unsurprisingly, Beloved can be a heavy reading experience, but it is a deeply worthwhile one.
Valente’s lush description and unparalleled imagination really make Palimpsest what it is, but just the conceit is enticing. The titular Palimpsest is a magical city accessible by only the strangest of means—sex with someone who has already been. When visitors return, they carry a fragment of Palimpsest’s map on their bodies, the place their next partner will arrive. The novel follows four characters, each reckoning with a loss as they seek to explore the city. The defining emotion of Palimpsest is a profound longing—for a person or a place, for beauty, intimacy, adventure, or purpose, for something stranger and lovelier than our everyday world.
Russell’s plots are so strange that they border on absurdity. Vampires who’ve substituted lemons for blood navigate a tumultuous marriage. An indentured factory worker is transformed into a silkworm. Dead presidents inhabit the bodies of horses. Far from undercutting the stories’ sincerity, though, this strangeness in Russell’s hands somehow only serves to lay bare the deeply human feelings and experiences at the center of her stories. They feel all the more intimate, and all the more affecting, for being so bizarre.
9. Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson is a master of the uncanny and of her characters’ reactions to it. It’s often unclear where the dividing line is, whether the protagonist imagines horrible things because they are afraid or becomes afraid because they are perceiving horrible things. Either way, the sense of unease animating her stories grows so intense that reality itself seems to falter before it, like turning the volume on a speaker up until it pops. Dark Tales is a great introduction to Jackson’s short fiction that showcases her skill with the mundane and the terrifying, and her particular talent for mingling them.
Ali Smith’s prose alone renders her work unmissable, but this hybrid work's conceit and form are just as worthwhile. Artful is structured around a series of lectures on art and literature written by the narrator’s deceased partner. As she goes through the lectures—which are fascinating on their own merit—the narrator speaks to her partner and experiences strange visitations from her ghost. The haunting carries little horror, based instead in love and grief, and the book is a beautiful treatise on our relationships with art and those we’ve lost.