The best books for weaving history, myth, and fantasy, as imagination sees fit

Brooks Hansen Author Of The Unknown Woman of the Seine
By Brooks Hansen

Who am I?

I like history. I also like myth. And I revere the imagination, the liberal use of which can lead to what many call “fantasy.” Though the portions change, almost all the fiction I’ve written—from The Chess Garden to John the Baptizer to my latest, The Unknown Woman of the Seine—is the product of this recipe. Some moment from the past captures my attention, digs its hooks in, invites research, which begets questions, which beget answers that only the imagination can provide, informed both by experience and by the oldest illustrations of why we are the way we are. Dice these up, let simmer until you’re not sure which is which, and serve.

I wrote...

The Unknown Woman of the Seine

By Brooks Hansen,

Book cover of The Unknown Woman of the Seine

What is my book about?

In the late 1880s, the body of a young woman washed up on the banks of the Seine, was taken directly to the morgue and publicly displayed in hopes that someone would recognize her. None did, but her face was thought to be so beautiful and enigmatic, a mask was made that grew quite famous, first for being an artist’s study tool, then a writer’s muse, then the template for the first CPR dummy.

That is the story we know. Set during the final three days of the World Exposition, 1889, The Unknown Woman of the Seine tells the story we don’t—not just of the life that led to the expression on that young maiden’s face, but even more mysteriously, the death.

The books I picked & why

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Gilgamesh: A New English Version

By Stephen Mitchell,

Book cover of Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Why this book?

Why not start with the oldest surviving long-form narrative there is. While purporting to account for the late reign of the very real King of the very real Sumerian city-state Uruk, the epic of Gilgamesh—very like the epics that the Greeks would offer some 4 to 14 hundred years later—trots out a world replete with the goddesses, monsters, magical drums, forests, and sacred undersea plants. The flavor of this world is first and most memorably signaled by the deliberate creation of a rival for its protagonist. Sculpted from river clay, then sexually domesticated by a temple maiden, the wild man Enkidu fights his way into a lifelong bromance with Gilgamesh that eventually confronts each with his own mortality. Again, for being the oldest such tale we know of, and for having to be chiseled on tablets, the whole thing holds up as a very living document, wildly entertaining, psychologically resonant, and sophisticated.

ESV Thinline Bible

By ESV Bibles,

Book cover of ESV Thinline Bible

Why this book?

The Bible, by committee. Well, sure. Provided we can leave to othersor maybe just to each individual readerthe problem of deciding which parts are the history, which the myth, and which seem to be, let’s just say, imaginatively conceived (and which of these can claim the firmest purchase on the Truth we should probably also leave to the reader), the Good Book remains the deconstructed prototype for the kind of literary braid we’re talking about, the all-time album of mirrors, fashioned from pretty much all the same genres we still write inpoetry, philosophy, allegory, parable, vignette, epistolary, horror, and IKEA instruction manual.

Regarding the blend of the natural and supernatural, the moment I’ve been looking at with students recentlythis for a class I’ve offered on the subject of mental health and literatureis the meeting of Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac, whom most contemporary readers will identify as a cutter suffering schizophrenia. (Mark 5:1-20 (NIV) Luke 8:26-39 (NIV)) After an unexpectedly chilling verbal exchange with the afflicted outcast, Jesus casts the man’s demons into a nearby herd of swine that promptly goes mad, stampeding off a cliff and drowning itself en masse in the lake. It’s chilling stuff that invites much good discussion about what the intended purpose of the scene is, what its impact is now, and the extraordinary literary imagination it displays, even if the source of that imagination remains, for some, in doubt.

Procopius: Secret History

By Richard Atwater,

Book cover of Procopius: Secret History

Why this book?

No, not the Donna Tartt novel, which I also like a lot, but the 6th-century text from which she copped her title, the one by Procopius about the reign of Justinian and Theodora (admirably and unflinchingly translated by Richard Atwater). I have a weak spot for the work of “contemporaneous” historians, especially when their self-interest is so patent. The great virtue of such texts is that they remind us: as wild and wonderful as the human imagination may be, there’s some stuff you just can’t make up. In the case of Procopius, however, it’s not clear that he isn’t making this stuff up, the Secret History being an alternate account of his experience in the Imperial court, the one he kept in a locked drawer just in case the Barbarians ever took over and needed proof he wasn’t just a toady to the former regime.

To that end, he offers up so much dirty laundry on the sitting Emperor and Empressrank with so much depravity, violence, and Dark Triadic schemingthat the two perpetrators begin to take on an almost heroic quality. Leaving the more salacious material to the reader’s curiosity (which will be satisfied, trust me) consider this sampler: that in defense of the allegation that Justinian might literally have been the spawn of the devil, the author cites several members of the court who claim to have witnessed the features all disappearing from his face, as well as other times his whole head vanished from his shoulders and reappeared again. That’s what people were saying anyway.

The Tale of Genji

By Murasaki Shikibu, Edward G. Seidensticker (translator),

Book cover of The Tale of Genji

Why this book?

Jump ahead four hundred years, spin the globe a quarter turn, and we come to what most literary taxonomists will call the first ‘novel,’ The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, who was herself a lady of court during the Heian period. While not as jaw-dropping as the Procopius, Murasaki’s tale likewise functions as a window into a world so distant and exoticfrom both a moral and aesthetic perspectivethat its abiding and underlying familiarity consoles. And isn’t that the point? The supernatural influence is more subtle, but definitely there; witness the several instances of Mononokei.e., evil spirits given to possessing innocent minds. Murasaki provides two notable twists on the idea; first that such invasive spirits can originate either from this life or the afterlife (one of the prince’s courtesans does both). Relatedly, when the evil spirit travels from a living person into the psyche of the victim, two exhibits of mental illness are on display: that of the “possessed” and of the “possessor,” whose wandering spirit reflects disease as well. Our mental health, as such, is seen as being a function not just of chemistry and circumstance, but psycho-social infection. Hmmm…

The Dream of the Ridiculous Man

By Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky,

Book cover of The Dream of the Ridiculous Man

Why this book?

Another story we discuss in my mental health and literature class, and easily found in any collection of Dostoevsky, The Dream of the Ridiculous Man recounts one desperate and momentous night in the life of the titular depressive and proto-absurdist. His experience revolves around a faith-restoring dream in which (spoiler alert) the narrator shoots himself, is buried alive, pulled from the grave by a black angel, then flown through outer space to an alternate sun with an alternate earth where the local population is enjoying a shamelessly Edinic existence—that is, until the narrator contaminates them with his ego, causing them all to fall from grace, the description of which provides Dostoevsky the opportunity to recap the whole of human history in roughly three pages. Accurately no less. It’s a bravura performance.

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Interested in myth, Japan, and the Bible?

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