A while back, I rattled off a list of five of my favorite horror novels of all time. But because no one should restrict their literary diet to any one genre (not even someone as tunnel-visioned as yours truly) today I thought I’d recommend five of my favorite non-horror novels of all time.
Moby-Dick: or, The Whale
by Herman Melville
I almost didn’t want to include Moby-Dick on this list because, just like Frankenstein last time, this is one of those books whose status as a towering classic is such that it feels a bit silly to “recommend” it. Recommending Moby-Dick is like recommending food or shelter or oxygen. Nonetheless, if I’m going to be listing my own personal favorite novels of all time, I can’t avoid including it.
It was in high school that I first read Herman Melville’s timeless tale of a vengeance-crazed captain hunting down the titular white whale. I had no interest, really, only giving it a shot because it was one of the titles on a required reading list I was given for English class, and because I found a battered copy for pocket change at a thrift shop. Of course, my English teacher never actually tested the class or asked us to write any papers proving we had read any of books from that list, but my effort wasn’t for naught. In spite of myself, and completely independent of its iconic reputation, I fell in love with Melville’s masterpiece. It’s not hard to see why, with its epic action, character-driven narrative, vivid language, and ambitious integration of both Christian mythology and Shakespearean dramatics. Much like with Frankenstein, though, what captivates me most to this day is Moby-Dick’s thematic resonance, that multi-layered depth which lends itself to academic study and perpetual reinterpretation. It ensures that, no matter how ingrained in pop culture the images of Ahab and Ishmael and that monstrous whale might be, Melville’s book endures. Always relevant, never hackneyed, this one’s a “classic” in the truest sense.
by Ray Bradbury
Look at that, a Ray Bradbury book made my previous list, and another one is making this list. It speaks to Bradbury’s range, consistency, and ability that he produced not just one but two prime examples of what I would consider some of the best novels ever written. And in two different genres to boot! Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 may not technically qualify as a horror novel, but as a reader it has much the same effect on me. Being a very, very vocal advocate for my beloved horror genre, I often get asked what the scariest book I’ve ever read is. Without any hesitation, my go-to answer has always been Bradbury’s tale of a future society in which censorship is official policy and government-employed “firemen” burn books by the thousands.
See, vampires and werewolves don’t really scare me. You know what does? Apathy. Illiteracy. Anti-intellectualism. I’m scared of the status quo. I’m scared of a system designed specifically to deny marginalized people a voice. I’m scared of cultural infantilization, of uniformity and nationalism and political correctness. I’m scared of forces that suppress diversity and creativity, forces that uphold an obsolete establishment to the detriment of growth and progress. I’m scared of those who are willing to neither learn from the past nor contribute to the coming future. I’m scared of someone else deciding what I should or shouldn’t see, read, think, and say. More than anything, I’m scared of how, with each day, the society of Fahrenheit 451 feels less like a fictional dystopia and more like an emerging reality.
Justine; or The Misfortunes of Virtue
Juliette; or Vice Amply Rewarded
by the Marquis de Sade
What’s this? Two for the price of one? Oh yes, if I mention one of these books I certainly can’t omit the other. With this duo, the Marquis de Sade gave birth to a pair of twins, sister novels that are the yin to each other’s yang, sparring partners who continuously pose and answer questions to and from one another. In doing so, they deliver something that is itself greater than the sum of its parts. First, there’s Justine, the titular protagonist a naive and uncompromising idealist whose pride and sense of moral superiority offer little protection from the perverse cruelties of the real world. Juliette’s, meanwhile, embraces the idea that humankind is just another animal, and an imperfect one at that. A libertine who indulges all of her appetites, no matter how extreme, she ultimately finds a life of fulfillment and peace.
Similar to George Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, and Pauline Reage’s Story of O, Sade’s salacious sisters are dark, debauched, boundary-pushing works, driven as much by philosophy as by sexuality. Together they perfectly embody the Sadean school of thought. Their characters are less living people and more exaggerated metaphors, anthropomorphic symbols fashioned to explore such controversial topics as man’s state of nature, the blurry dividing line between sex and violence, and the hypocrisy of socially acceptable morality. Not at all for squeamish readers, Justine and Juliette may be cruel, nihilistic, blasphemous screeds of unabashed pornography, but they are also astoundingly ahead of their time, precursors of a sort to the later works of Frederick Nietzsche and Thomas Ligotti. Even so, what’s wrong with a little porn and nihilism anyway, right?
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
by Edwin A. Abbott
I often credit horror giant H.P. Lovecraft for opening my eyes to the possibility of worlds beyond human understanding, but the truth is that Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland had just as much an impact on me, although through a slightly more circuitous route. Before I ever read Flatland itself, and long before I read Lovecraft at all, I grew up reading superhero comics. I also grew up broke, so my childhood funny-book collection was a patchwork of whatever off-brand back issues I could find for cheap. That’s how I chanced upon a somewhat obscure series called 1963, an Alan Moore project published by Image in the early 90s that parodied Silver Age capes-and-tights books. One of the issues featured a Green Lantern-esque hero fighting a villain he could only barely perceive, a villain who hailed from a higher dimension. In the resulting adventure, Moore subtly name-dropped Abbott’s book, and my imagination was blown wide open.
When I finally discovered Flatland myself years later, I found a high-concept corker set in a two-dimensional space occupied by sentient geometric shapes. The protagonist? A literal square, one whose entire understanding of reality is challenged when he is visited by a sphere from three-dimensional space. Though originally intended as a satire of social class hierarchies (and, sure, it still works well in that regard), Flatland’s most remarkable contribution is the way it encourages readers to seriously consider the probability of worlds beyond humanity’s own limited perceptions. After all, if a two-dimensional being would be oblivious to the existence of a third dimension, doesn’t it follow that a three-dimensional being would be oblivious to a fourth dimension, or a fifth, or a sixth, and so on? Keep in mind that Flatland was published in 1884, more than 30 years before Albert Einstein put forth his theory of relativity. Today, the idea that there is more to reality than the five physical senses and three or four dimensions that mankind perceives has become central to not only my own fiction writing, but to my very philosophy of life. And while Moore may have first planted the seed in my head, and Lovecraft later helped it bloom, it is ultimately Abbott that laid the groundwork before anyone else.