The title of this post may seem like clickbait when you see the legendary authors that landed on this list, but despite their reputations as literary behemoths, the books in question are far weirder and way more obscure than almost anything else in their respective canons. You won’t find seminal characters like Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’s Raoul Duke or Hellraiser’s Pinhead/Priest anywhere in sight.
What you will find are some of the strangest and most unsung literary works to ever be pounded into parchment. From salacious specters and violent dwarves to dangerous cheerleaders and questionable reincarnations, the following represent the very best in these writers’ forgotten works.
The Curse of Lono, Hunter S. Thompson (Bantam Books)
Emerging from what could seem like kismet or cruel fate, depending on who you ask, The Curse of Lono chronicles what happened after Running magazine approached Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson about covering the 1980 Honolulu Marathon.
In a fit of pique, Thompson wrote his longtime illustrator Ralph Steadman about joining him on this journey which he clearly saw as an opportunity to create a spiritual follow-up to their landmark Fear & Loathing collaborations.
‘Lono’ doesn’t disappoint, delivering plenty of madcap satire and hallucinatory imagery, but the Gonzo humorist is scattered and unmoored in a way that he definitely was not when he penned his masterpiece. In fact, it is the uneven narrative and repeated historical digressions that give this novella its weirdest quality, that sense as a reader that everything is slightly askew.
First published in 1983, ‘Lono’ eventually went out of print and by the early-Aughts, it was nigh impossible to snag yourself a copy of the limited edition reprint for less than 120 bucks. No doubt Thompson, notorious for demanding money at every opportunity, would have relished in this fact.
Today, a copy of this massive oversize coffee table book generally goes for around $35 on sites like AbeBooks, and it’s well worth the price of admission. From the opening scenes in which Thompson’s arm turns blue from fist to elbow after getting it trapped in the airplane toilet to his fateful meeting with the enigmatic Ackerman, whose connections to the Hawaiian drug trade make for a subtle mystery sub-plot, ‘Lono’ crackles with Thompson’s bizarre wit.
The weirdness is amped up when they arrive at their destination and Thompson sees talking penguins over cocktails. It only gets more odd after the gimcrack-loving Gonzo godfather gets his hands on a Samoan war club and uses it to beat a trophy Marlin to death.
While it lacks the raw brilliance and generation-defining components that make the “Vegas book” such an important literary achievement, Thompson’s beautifully indelible language and yen for Fun are still intact…along with his penchant for grandstanding. The main thrust of ‘Lono’ is Thompson’s proclamation “I am Lono!” This is the engine that the second half of the plot runs on and it seems beyond absurd. But at the end of the day, who are we to say that Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t, indeed, the freak reincarnation of the doomed god Lono?
A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)
Harry Crews is one of the finest authors of Southern grit lit, but many of his titles have fallen out of print. Fortunately, A Feast of Snakes is still readily available in paperback. While this one may not be his most esoteric novel, it is definitely one of his weirdest. And that’s saying a lot when one considers the imaginatively grotesque underworld he created in his cult classic Naked in Garden Hills.
This one doesn’t waste any time in ramping up the weirdness; we’re off to the ribald races in the very first paragraph: “She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.”
‘Snakes’ revolves around Mystic, Georgia’s annual Rattlesnake Roundup and the hysteria that attends this local tradition. More specifically, it revolves around Joe Lon Mackey, a withering former football star and trailer park drunk whose family breed fight dogs and sell moonshine.
The book is full to the brim with violent and repulsive imagery, from genital mutilation to cretinish backwoods behavior, but there are other sights to be seen here, including one of the most out-of-left-field shit gags that you are likely to ever read.
Mackey makes a foreboding declaration early on, one that cannot prepare you for the chaotic conclusion of this curiously funny eldritch tale. Reflecting on the hordes of primitive hilljacks that turn out in droves for the Miss Mystic Rattle beauty contest, he observes, “Just a bunch of crazy people cranking up to git crazier. But that’s all right. Feel on the edge of doing something outstanding myself.”
And that Joe Lon Mackey does.
If you’re in for more inexplicable strangeness from the late, great Crews seek out a copy of the out-of-print This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven. It may cost you a hundy, but as Hunter Thompson would say, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Coldheart Canyon, Clive Barker (HarperTorch/HarperCollins)
The name Clive Barker is synonymous with strange and unspeakable images, having produced countless creatures in a slew of novels, novellas, short stories, comic books and motion pictures. However, Coldheart Canyon stands out among his more famous offerings (The Hellbound Heart, Imajica, Cabal, The Great & Secret Show) in that it features flawed flesh and bone human beings in central roles. Billed as a Hollywood Ghost Story, Coldheart Canyon focuses on Todd Pickett, a washed-up movie star who is hideously deformed during plastic surgery.
In the wake of the botched surgery, Pickett must go into hiding lest the paparazzi get a glimpse of his deformity. Pickett’s agent selects the abandoned former home of a once-beautiful 1920s movie actress.
What makes ‘Canyon’ weird is the twist that Barker puts on the classic ghost story. These ghosts are Bacchanalian swingers who fuck in the courtyard. When they’re not getting off, they’re rather vengeful as Pickett soon learns.
What’s weirder is the relationship that develops between Pickett and the obese woman who runs his unofficial fan club. As this robust volume unfolds, it is she who emerges as the smartest and most heroic character. Without a doubt, this is the sharpest and most subversive Barker has been in years, and it’s delightful to witness what old Hollywood personalities become in his callused hands.
Grape City, Kevin L. Donihe (Eraserhead Press)
For those familiar with author Kevin L. Donihe’s work, Grape City is an especially interesting read. It shows Donihe’s extraordinary talent for making the uncommon seem commonplace and the commonplace seem absolutely deranged.
Grape City was my introduction to the world of Bizarro fiction and I’m glad I read it when I did since all subsequent entries into the genre should have to be measured against the clarity of its prose and the sharpness of its satire.
Donihe himself has said that it isn’t a book that he counts among his favorites, but I don’t care. If anything this reminds me of filmmaker John Waters saying that Desperate Living is the film he likes the least of all his titles. It is worth noting that this very same John Waters movie is an enduring fan favorite. Marilyn Manson can be counted among those fans, having sampled its dialogue on his debut LP Portrait of an American Family. One could easily see the same happening with the demented words of Donihe’s debut novella.
Grape City’s protagonist is a world-weary demon named Charles who is forced to be berated by his pipsqueak boss at a fast food restaurant. He whiles away his time on our crumbling clusterfuck of a planet by writing desperate emails to a Satan who won’t return his calls.
There is little that one could say isn’t weird about Grape City…were it not for the simple fact that the foul earth Donihe conjures in its pages is most certainly an outsized version of the one we now inhabit. The culturally-accepted past-times of hack-raping and bang-murdering referenced in the book aren’t a far cry from the insanity we see in our everyday news cycle.
It is the precision with which Donihe lampoons these abominable acts that makes this Bizarro novella such a bladder-shatteringly fun read. I dare you to read it at work without drawing looks of pity and concern from co-workers.
Although this book has gone largely unrecognized by even the indie press, it is available in paperback on Amazon.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut (Holt, Rinehart & Winston)
Kurt Vonnegut is well-known and, indeed, well-regarded for his proclivities towards the weird and wacky. Despite being held in high esteem by the literati, he has always featured bizarre imagery and strange sub-plots in his canon, from the constant peripheral presence of fictional sci-fi novelist Kilgore Trout to the funky little drawings in Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut never disappoints the discerning reader who is keen on camp and chaos.
What some may forget is how serious a writer he is and, most importantly, what a humanitarian he considered himself. What makes God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater particularly weird isn’t any gross detail or gory sequence; it’s simply how beautifully earnest its words are.
Far and away Vonnegut’s least talked about novel, ‘Mr. Rosewater’ sings from page one, a hushed lullaby that can only be heard by the downtrodden and tethered to earth. Like Cervantes’ classic about fighting windmills, Vonnegut’s novel presents a plot that would, at first blush, appear to be just absurd and pathetic…but along the way its bloated and seemingly simple philanthropist becomes what all men should aspire to—a renaissance man and a real martyr, bearing witness to the undoing of man by money.
In a world driven by commerce and financial status symbols, really, what could be weirder than a book about the root of all evil?
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