The Ten Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Novels You've Probably Never Read

By M.V. Moorhead in Books, Daily Lists, Nerdery
Monday, April 1, 2013 at 6:00 am

6. Gilamanster by Barry Stephenson (1991)

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Also published under the title The Mascot, this potboiler set in a small town in Arizona concerns a desperate-to-fit-in kid who wears the costume of his high school's football mascot, a Gila monster. The rich kids hire him to entertain in costume at a party after the big game, but it's a Carrie-style prank: once he's in the suit, they stuff it with real Gila monsters, stolen from the lab of the creepy science teacher. The poor kid plunges into a nearby desert lake, but the rich kids don't know that the science teacher was working on a project for the government. The mascot re-emerges from the water soon after, fully equipped with the lethal venom and strength of a real Gila monster, and breaks up the rich kid party. Some readers have observed a similarity, both of content and of style, between McTigue and Stephenson.

7. Pearworld by Ian Bricker (1994)

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How many fantasy novels have an art critic for a hero? This one, written, as it happens, by a veteran art critic, features a critic who's invited to the home of a famous painter whose work he regularly trashed in print, and who has recently died. The great man's sexy widow gives the critic a real pear which, she claims, has been taken out of one of the painter's still lifes by a mysterious process. Unable to resist, the critic eats the pear, and soon finds himself in a parallel (pear-allel?) universe where abstract color patterns walk down the street and strike up conversations with you at diner counters, and where a shopping cart stack in a store parking lot becomes a menacing dragon.

8. Malcontents of Mars by Mitchell Tiemeyer (1937)

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First serialized in Likely Stories, this yarn featured square-jawed hero Bolt Willard, who was sent by his Uncle, the President of AriesCorp, to investigate the possibility of union organization in the company's Martian uranium mines. Sure enough, with inside information from his faithful sidekicks Tom and Chin, Bolt learns that agitating is going on, but that the miners are being duped by the sinister power-monger Abraham Tong, who hopes to become King of the Red Planet. At the end, Mars is returned to the benign governance of AriesCorp. In addition to his pulp adventures, Bolt Willard was a modestly popular radio hero and was featured in a 13-chapter Republic serial, but it's been hard to find since Tiemeyer fell out of favor shortly after Pearl Harbor.

9. The Stone Thief by Arthur Addison Goff (1926)

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"Even the monks of the Cattail Abbey, the youngest of which was over three hundred years old, could not say when The War had begun. If you asked the eldest of them, Brother Bernard, if he remembered the beginning of The War, he would say yes, but since Brother Bernard said yes to every question he was asked except whether he would like some more mole pudding, and never said anything else, his testimony was regarded as neither reliable nor helpful."

The payoff to this opening of Goff's only published novel is that we never get another word about the monks of Cattail Abbey. The War started a long time ago; that's the point. Touches like this are found throughout the tale, creating an immersive sense of a wholly imagined world. Though claimed as a minor influence on Tolkien, this high-fantasy epic was an abject failure upon initial publication, and has never really undergone a major critical reassessment.

The War is a centuries-long siege, with the forces of King Corambis permanently encamped around the walled city of Lowgrippe, ruled by King Lannius. The title character is One-Hip, a street urchin chosen, because he's so skinny, to slip through a newly-discovered catacomb into Lowgrippe and steal the magic stone that will allow Corambis to take the city. Once inside, One-Hip is captured and imprisoned. Falling in with fellow prisoners Stekli, a Dionysian priest who has his own agenda for the stone, as well as Stekli's beautiful young apprentice, ZuZu, One-Hip is soon tempted to change his plans...

10. The Rise and Fall of Scabbopolis by Lucian Conavaloff (1921)

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It's said that the unrealized project dearest to legendary Battleship Potemkin director Sergei Eisenstein's heart was a film adaptation of this early Soviet satire of capitalism. The capitalists are here depicted allegorically as a clan of skin mites building their empire, Scabbopolis, on the forearm of a dutiful worker in a factory. The itch they cause him eventually leads to their destruction, by way of a Soviet-developed ointment. The book wasn't translated into English for many years, in part because, in emulation of Conavaloff's beloved Eugene Onegin, the story was told entirely as a series of "Pushkin Sonnets" (ababccddeffegg). A translation was finally attempted in the '50s by the Russian-lit scholar William Helwig Nicholson, resulting in such renderings as this (when the initial mites meet)...

One inch per hour I perambulate
In search, like every searcher is, of love,
Across my epidermal grand estate,
Past mighty tree trunks, fading gray above.
Beneath this countryside, the thudding beat
Of that great salty river drums my feet,
And tints the leather prairie pink, and heats
The burrows into which my love retreats.
And there she is! From me she cannot hide!
No wrinkle in this continent, no pit
That hair-tree hath eschewed, no split
Half-patched by scab detains me from her side.
Close nestled in this crevice, we embrace,
And found a colony for all our race.

Later, when destruction of Scabbopolis is imminent, the Mite Queen gives her husband this proud, wistful farewell...

Good patriarch to all my broods, my spouse
And ardent love, I sense the Ointment's day
Descending fast upon our noble House,
Demanding we to Disappointment pay
The dues of grief that all who seek to loom
A weave of generations must assume.
Our kind hides not within the scarlet deep
Of this great fleshy planet. No, we creep
Exposed across the open, daylit plain,
And there raise up our cities to the sky,
And risk the notice of that jealous Eye
Who sends us death in tides of oily stain.
Does he suppose the Skin on which he lives
And freely scars, unendingly forgives?

Unable to find an academic publisher for this work, Nicholson finally got his translation released in America by Belfry Books, on the basis of some risque passages. As for Conavaloff, like many other promising writers of his time he fell out of favor with Stalin - his mites were too sympathetic, maybe - and died in obscurity, with the result that his book is even less known in Russia than it is in the U.S.


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