The best deeply weird historical novels

Who am I?

I’m a writer in Toronto, Canada. My novel Call Me Stan is weird historical fiction. Probably not as weird as the books below, but still weird. Its initial inspiration was the stunning cognitive dissonance between composer Richard Wagner’s vile anti-Semitism and his fascination with the Buddha. If I’d stuck with just that idea, I might’ve ended up with a fairly conventional historical novel. But a second idea collided with it and gave it energy: the legend of the cursed immortal referred to as the Wandering Jew. That gave me a present-day narrator who could carry us through a vast sweep of history in a jarringly anachronistic way. Which was exactly weird enough for me. 

I wrote...

Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

By K.R. Wilson,

Book cover of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

What is my book about?

When the Hittites fought the Egyptians at Qadesh, Stan was there. When King Priam's pregnant daughter fled the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there—one cross over. Stan doesn't die, and he doesn't know why. And now he's being investigated for a horrific crime.

As he tells his story, from his origins as an Anatolian sheep farmer to his custody in a Toronto police interview room, he brings a wry, anachronistic perspective to three thousand years of Eurasian history. Call Me Stan is a Biblical epic from the bleachers, a gender-fluid operatic love quadrangle, and a touching exploration of what it is to outlive everyone you love. Or almost everyone.

The books I picked & why

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Gravity's Rainbow

By Thomas Pynchon,

Book cover of Gravity's Rainbow

Why this book?

Gravity’s Rainbow is the granddaddy of deeply weird historical novels. From its opening line “A screaming comes across the sky” to the final few pages where the implications of that simple sentence become chillingly clear, it’s a densely populated, picaresque, almost hallucinatory WWII fantasy about Nazi Germany’s development and deployment of the V-2 rocket. Or at least it’s mainly about that. Which doesn’t even begin to hint at the intricacies of its story or the depths of its weirdness. For me, Gravity’s Rainbow is a masterclass in letting your writerly imagination off the leash, and in keeping an enormously complicated story coherent.

Midnight's Children

By Salman Rushdie,

Book cover of Midnight's Children

Why this book?

Midnight’s Children is one of my favourite novels ever. During the first hour of August 15, 1947, as British-ruled India achieves its independence, children across the subcontinent are born with a variety of paranormal gifts. The narrative follows the interactions and conflicts among these children as they come of age in the fractious early years of post-independence India and Pakistan. The story is compelling, and, because it’s Rushdie, who is himself so gifted, the supernatural world-building is rock solid.

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Why this book?

Lincoln in the Bardo is breathtaking. During a single night when Abraham Lincoln visits the tomb of his recently deceased son, his memories and reveries dance together with snippets of contemporary historical commentary and observations by the shades of the disoriented dead. These swirling fragments tease together a touching set of interlocked narratives that you almost feel rather than follow. I was particularly impressed by how Saunders’ mastery of craft holds the book’s fragmentary elements together.

Ring Shout

By P. Djèlí Clark,

Book cover of Ring Shout

Why this book?

Ring Shout is historical fiction on a whole other level of weirdness, in the best possible way. It’s 1922 in Macon, Georgia, and a ragtag group of Black women and their allies are fighting back against the Ku Kluxes. But not all Ku Kluxes are just men in white hoods. Sure, they all start out that way, but a malign supernatural influence spread by the white supremacist film The Birth of a Nation has started transforming them into bone-white, red-eyed, nine-foot-tall demons. Yes, Klansmen as literal demons. It’s a bit on the nose, but it totally works. Ring Shout is both unapologetically political horror writing and a superbly well-crafted novel. 

Yiddish for Pirates

By Gary Barwin,

Book cover of Yiddish for Pirates

Why this book?

Gary Barwin had to make this list. He’s a Prospero of historical weirdness. I was torn between this book and his more recent novel Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy, which follows its titular character on a harrowing journey across Nazi-infested Europe to retrieve his shot-off-by-a-Dadaist testicles from a Swiss glacier. But Yiddish for Pirates wins the toss because it’s narrated by a parrot.

Aharon, a Yiddish-idiom-spouting 500-year-old ship’s parrot, traces the life of his Captain, Moishe, from a shtetl near Vilnius through Torquemada’s Inquisition and Columbus’ brutal conquest of the Caribbean to an eventual erratic career in piracy, with a couple of quests along the way. What makes Barwin’s work sing is the tragic humanity within the swirl of its jaw-dropping narrative ridiculousness.

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