The Strop is a place to whet your appetite for damn good stories. Check back every Friday for our latest recommendations. This week, the recommendations come from Wrangler contributor Sierra Stonebraker.
I’ve been struggling to define the concept of “weird.” How do you come up with a concrete definition of something that is so inherently subjective? One person’s weird may be another person’s norm. While I was looking at my bookshelf and trying to decide what I would categorize as “weird” fiction, I realized that I have a large volume of genre books, mostly fantasy. Many of these books aren’t set within the familiar world, but I couldn’t classify them as “weird.” Even though the rules of those worlds don’t fit into the rules of my reality, they often follow an already existing set of rules, which tend to be what classifies those stories into their respective genres. My definition of “weird” may not be yours, but I’ve chosen these three books because the worlds in which they belong are reality-adjacent — most of what exists in these pages is familiar — but the author tweaks this reality in some unique way. They choose not to follow anyone’s rules but their own, and those rules may not be clearly defined. These books belong entirely to themselves, and are unapologetically unique.
1. Smoke City by Keith Rosson
This is one of those books that showed me a writer can do whatever the hell they want, so long as it’s good. This is a story about ghostly apparitions popping up across California, a guilt-ridden man who happens to be the reincarnation of the French executioner that lit Joan of Arc’s pyre, and a drunken painter on his way to his ex-wife’s funeral in Los Angeles. The pair embark on a road trip from Portland to LA in the hopes of seeking absolution from the women they wronged. They run into the phenomenon that is exclusive to California, the ghosts of those long-dead — called “smokes” — which appear and vanish seemingly without reason or warning. But the unforgettable characters are the heart of this novel: two men seeking redemption and struggling to become better people, but who cannot move on when the people they’ve hurt are already gone.
2. Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks
A beautiful, terrifying novel in which the setting pushes the story, and makes it unlike anything else. Swine Hill cannot get rid of its ghosts. It doesn’t seem to want to. They populate the town along with the living, and in many cases, possess the people in which they see some part of themselves. Jane and Henry are both possessed with ghosts that give them extraordinary abilities. Jane’s ghost can read minds and tells her the painful thoughts of the people around her. Henry’s ghost takes complete control of him, and forces him to build strange, and often harmful creations. This story begins after Henry’s ghost builds something completely new, another type of laborer for the slaughterhouse that looms over their town. This creation is part man, and part pig, and he has the best name I’ve ever come across: Walter Hogboss.
3. Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
This story is about the end of the world, and it is told by Shit-Turd — S.T. for short — who is a foul-mouthed, human-loving, domesticated crow. S.T. loves only a few things: Big Jim, his human; Dennis the bloodhound; and Cheetos. When Big Jim’s eyeball pops out of his skull, S.T. and Dennis are forced to leave their home, travel across zombie-ridden Seattle, and find out what happened to the humans they’d both loved dearly. The pair discover a new world outside of the safety of their old home, a world in which nature has taken back control. S.T.’s journey is about letting go of a world he loved, finding beauty in the natural world, and carrying on the legacy of humanity when all traces of humankind have been destroyed. This book came to me when I was considering writing a story from a crow’s perspective myself. Seeing this fresh novel in a bookstore reminded me of the lesson I’d already learned from Smoke City: do what you want, just do it well. Buxton does what she wants, follows the voice and perspective that calls to her the strongest, and makes it great.