The best novels where everyday reality is charged with the energy of the dark fantastic

Stephen Gallagher Author Of The Bedlam Detective
By Stephen Gallagher

Who am I?

They say that we begin by imitating what we love and find our personal themes in the process, and that’s certainly been true for me. I grew up reading horror and fantasy and now I write realistic fiction with something deeper and darker always throbbing under the surface. My subjects can be contemporary, like Nightmare, with Angel or The Spirit Box, but I’ve had some of my biggest critical successes with historical fiction. I’ve had parallel career paths in books and TV, each often crossing with the other, but it’s in the novels and short stories that you’ll find me uniquely invested.

I wrote...

The Bedlam Detective

By Stephen Gallagher,

Book cover of The Bedlam Detective

What is my book about?

It's 1912 and Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, arrives in the West Country to interview Sir Owain Lancaster on his run-down country estate. Descending from his train in the coastal town of Arnmouth, Becker finds the entire community mobilised in a search for a pair of missing girls.

Sir Owain is one of only two survivors of a self-funded Amazonian expedition which saw his entire party wiped out, wife and child included. His explanation for that tragedy was a nightmarish fantasy of lost-world monsters and mythical beasts. The questions that face Sebastian: what really happened then, and how dangerous is this man now? A Kirkus 100 Best Books of the Year pick.

The books I picked & why

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The Land of Laughs

By Jonathan Carroll,

Book cover of The Land of Laughs

Why this book?

I defy any reader not to fall in love with The Land of Laughs. Tom Abbey and ‘spirited girlfriend’ Saxony Gardner head to the small Midwestern town where children’s author Marshall France once lived and wrote, with the aim of persuading France’s daughter to approve a biography. They come to realise that the town has a personality that’s unlike any other, as much the author’s creation as his adopted home. Warm, surprising, funny, scary; if, like me, you were ever captivated in childhood by a favourite writer’s imagined world and wish you could go there again, then this is the book for your adult self.

Blind Voices

By Tom Reamy,

Book cover of Blind Voices

Why this book?

Tom Reamy’s first novel was also to be his last. Its carnival sideshow setting is reminiscent of Geek Love, Nightmare Alley, and much of Ray Bradbury, but with a poignancy and sense of place that set it apart. I can guarantee that you’ll never forget Angel, the mute, blind flying boy. Reamy was an active genre critic, editor, and convention organiser for at least two decades before he began submitting the fiction he’d been working on in private. Its impact was immediate but he saw little of its success, struck by a heart attack while working on a story at the age of 42. For me his legacy—this novel, and the collection San Diego Lightfoot Sue and Other Storiesequal that of many a more prolific author.

Frankenstein's Prescription

By Tim Lees,

Book cover of Frankenstein's Prescription

Why this book?

This book arrived in the avalanche of volumes that descended on my house the year I agreed to join the judging panel for the World Fantasy Awards, and for me it shone out. The story’s told by Hans Schneider, who kills a fellow student when a duel goes wrong and ends up working in a low-rent asylum. There he meets the mysterious Dr. Lavenza and joins him in a mission to locate Victor Frankenstein’s formula for eternal life. It’s written with style and wit and a great sense of period. I felt so strongly about the lack of a paperback edition that I later offered to create one for the Brooligan Press. And for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t make a penny from its sales!

The Electric Michelangelo

By Sarah Hall,

Book cover of The Electric Michelangelo

Why this book?

Sarah Hall is a phenomenal writer and this is the novel that got me hooked. The Electric Michaelangelo of the title is tattoo artist Cy Parks, a man whose heart, art, and the love of his life are all inextricably entangled. The narrative charts his journey from a Morecambe childhood to a tattoo booth on Coney Island and back again, and it’s another take on the kind of Sideshow Gothic that I love. Hall writes accessible award-worthy novels in prose that’s stripped of any pretentiousness. After reading this and then her debut novel Haweswater I just order whatever she publishes, sight unseen.


By Geoff Ryman,

Book cover of Was

Why this book?

Ryman describes himself as a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism, and there’s something of that in each of the novels I’ve chosen here. In Was he draws together three story strands and weaves from them something unique and moving around the cultural tentpole of The Wizard of Oz. The main strand concerns little Dorothy Gael whose harsh life inspires Baum’s fictional revision of her unhappy childhood: then there’s ‘baby Frances’ who, as Judy Garland, embodies Dorothy in screen fantasy: and Frank, a dying man for whom Garland’s movie has been a lifelong obsession and source of comfort. The connections are effortless, the story engrossing. Here’s a confession; I love this book, but I’ve never actually read or watched The Wizard of Oz.

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