The best underrated offbeat humorous fantasy books

Who am I?

The world is a strange place and life can feel very weird at times, and I have long had the suspicion that a truly imaginative and inventive comedy has more to say about reality, albeit in an exaggerated and oblique way, than much serious gloomy work. Comedy has a wider range than people often think. It doesn’t have to be sweet, light, and uplifting all the time. It can be dark, unsettling and suspenseful, or profoundly philosophical. It can be political, mystical, paradoxical. There are humorous fantasy novels and short story collections that have been sadly neglected or unjustly forgotten, and I try to recommend those books to readers whenever I can.

I wrote...

My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand

By Rhys Hughes,

Book cover of My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand

What is my book about?

A novella that makes use of playful experimental techniques to tell the strange story of an entertainer who specialises in creating rabbits from shadows. He creates twelve special shadow rabbits who communicate with him via stories and poems that are fully contained works but also interact with each other to form a bigger story. These twelve narratives are set in a frame by another story and it turns out that this framing story is also potentially framed in a much larger cosmos. My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand is a fantasy tale, a romance, and an example of philosophical speculative fiction with a humorous slant.

The books I picked & why

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The Exploits of Engelbrecht

By Maurice Richardson,

Book cover of The Exploits of Engelbrecht

Why this book?

The stories that appear in this book were first published in Lilliput in the 1940s, a British monthly magazine. They relate the perilous, often diabolical activities of the Surrealist Sportsman’s Club, a society devoted to playing games that no one else would dream of attempting. Engelbrecht is a diminutive boxer who fights clocks, zombies, witches, and other assorted horrors and marvels, and he generally wins because of pluck combined with luck. Richardson’s prose style here is a blend of gothic horror, period science fiction, and the wisecracking of Damon Runyan, and the reader can expect no respite from the tumult of ideas, images, situations, jokes, and subversion of clichés.

The Cruise of the Talking Fish

By W.E. Bowman,

Book cover of The Cruise of the Talking Fish

Why this book?

W.E. Bowman’s comic novel, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, has achieved a cult status among mountaineers as well as aficionados of spoof adventure stories. But the sequel is much less well-known, and that’s a shame, for it is absolutely its equal in terms of humour and invention and, if anything, even more absurd and fantastical in the development of the plot, which concerns a voyage on a raft (in the manner of Thor Heyerdahl) in search of a fabled school of talking fish. I am convinced that Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns was influenced by Bowman’s work, and if not, then this is a case of great minds thinking alike.

The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story about the Hard Life

By Flann O'Brien,

Book cover of The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story about the Hard Life

Why this book?

Flann O’Brien is famous for his ingenious novels, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, but I regard his funniest book as this short fictional memoir about life in the far West of Ireland. Originally published in Gaelic in 1941, it is a mock-pastoral farce about the customs of the remotest region in the country, where it rains all the time, but O’Brien is actually satirising the lack of mutual understanding between the local inhabitants and the modern outside world. The narrator’s adventures begin immediately after he is born and include (among many other absurdities) catastrophic pigs and the quest to climb a mountain to find an eternal fountain of whisky.

Froth on the Daydream

By Boris Vian, Stanley Chapman (translator),

Book cover of Froth on the Daydream

Why this book?

In an alternative version of our own society, where jazz music serves all the functions of our present-day internet and cats and mice can talk, there exist two couples who are heading towards disaster because of philosophy and love. In the meantime, they enjoy everything life has to offer, including cocktails made by playing a special type of piano (wrong notes produce alarming flavours) and the fact that inanimate objects can respond to their emotional states. The novel is genuinely poignant as well as incredibly odd, and the evolving story, and the language in which it is told, are always surprising. 

The Crock of Gold

By James Stephens,

Book cover of The Crock of Gold

Why this book?

This book is luminous. The world of everyday reality and the world of magic overlap and interact and influence each other. There are philosophers and gods, leprechauns and (once again) taking animals, and women wiser than all of them put together. The plot concerns a crime that never occurred and various types of bizarre trouble that result from it. Adventures follow adventures in a picaresque manner, not all of them necessarily connecting with any other, a free and easy approach that gives great fluidity to the whimsical narrative.

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