Required Reading: 8 Surprising Serialized Stories

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Charles Burns’ X’ed Out is not something to curl up in your back pocket for a quick read on the subway. Each panel weaves abstract concepts into the story of an aspiring teen poet/artist whose growing pill dependency can’t numb certain uninvited images of alien-eating slugs, fetal pigs, and large incubating eggs. Reminiscent of a David Cronenberg film in its lurid dreamscapes that simultaneously confuse and enhance, this book demands time for well-paced consumption.

Unlike Burns’ Black Hole, which was put out as a series of traditional comics before complete publication by Pantheon Press, X’ed Out is the first installment of what will fittingly be a longer series of three. Sure, this method of serialized storytelling is most often associated with its 19th century heyday, but, as the following eight stories illustrate, the format has had its share of enticingly bizarre ups and downs since the days of Dickens.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Between 1918 and 1920, James Joyce’s then-unfinished masterpiece Ulysses was serialized in the pages of The Little Review. Although the US Postal Service initially burned entire press runs of it and the magazine’s editors were tried and fined for obscenity, Random House eventually managed to publish Ulysses in full in 1933. Decades later, under starkly different circumstances, Gardner Botsford decided, out of either sheer boredom or pure whimsy, to publish the first chapter of the novel in one sentence increments under The New Yorker‘s Broadway play listings — because, really, The Fantasticks, a musical about two fathers deceiving their children into falling in love, could only be described as “Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John.”

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles also marked the first appearance of her eccentric detective hero Hercule Poirot. Initially published in 1920 as an 18-part serial over a period of four months in the UK’s Times Weekly Edition, the story was later notably re-published as a novel in the US as Penguin’s sixth published book — ever. And, during the new media boom of the ’90s, it was again revived in serial form for the long-running British TV series, Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

When Irving Rosenthal, an editor of the University of Chicago’s student-run Chicago Review, first received William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, he claims it was “as close to formless as a book could possibly be.” And yet, Burroughs’ self-described “tripartite work consisting of ‘Junk,’ ‘Queer,’ and ‘Yage’” was too fascinating to cast aside, and, with some reshaping, Rosenthal published the first chapter in the journal’s spring 1958 issue. Although later installments soon followed, public disdain (including obscenity claims by The Chicago Daily News) forced the university to censor the winter issue. Rosenthal and his co-editor Paul Carroll resigned from the journal and launched Big Table, where the publication of “10 Episodes from Naked Lunch” later earned them an actual obscenity lawsuit.

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

V.C. Andrews’ filthy, gothic speed-read, Flowers in the Attic, hit top seller lists a scant two weeks after its paperback release in 1979 and later spawned a five-book serial. Combined with her other multi-installment series, Andrews had over 24 million books in print by her death in 1986. But even that hasn’t stopped her series from continuing. Based on a Washington Post interview in which Andrews admitted to having 63 synopses of other stories, the heirs to her $8-million estate hired a ghostwriter to carry on writing her unfinished yarns (the latest of which, the Storm series, is due for release in 2011).

The Green Mile by Stephen King

When horror/sci-fi icon Stephen King began publishing the lit-pop hit The Green Mile in 1996, the serialized fiction format had long since been regarded as dead. As a gimmick, King published the book in six small monthly installments, opening the series with “The Two Dead Girls.” The unexpected hit overtook the New York Times paperback bestseller list with all six segments appearing at the same time. And, three years later, it resumed its top ranking when the book’s film adaptation, starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, was released.

“Come for Dinner” by Jessica Ruston

When editor Rachel Johnson was tasked with shaking up the sedate, predictable tone of British women’s mag The Lady (reportedly her majesty’s comfort read), she cleverly married the new world Gawker mentality with the classic serial approach. The result is “Come for Dinner,” a weekly pop-fiction “dinner saga” written by Jessica Ruston, author of chick-lit favorite Luxury. Replacing cliffhangers with coat hangers, Ruston cordially invites readers to palm the mouth and eavesdrop on the young-ish South London set as they drink their way through three courses and the sumptuous recanting of mid-life foiblery.

First Experience by Yume-Hotaru

In 2007, 22-year-old Yume-Hotaru began texting a story about sex, love, and high school from his mobile phone’s keypad. He uploaded the content one sentence at a time to Mobage-town, Japan’s popular mobile social networking site, where his popular texts eventually became First Experience, a keitai shosetsu, or “cell phone novel.” This new genre, which started cropping up as early as 2000, initially excited online users to respond to the work while it was being posted, sometimes even influencing the course of the plot. Although inescapably part of the new media landscape, this type of collaborative serialization parallels what Dickens achieved with the classic Pickwick Papers in the 1830s: write and develop a novel while your audience is engaged with it.

The Mongoliad by Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear

The Mongoliad transitions magazine serials of the 19th century into app-friendly e-reading for the Digital Age. Tech-savvy sci-fi authors Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear plan to publish a weekly serial of the novel — available for download to any computer, iPad, or mobile device — for a cheap, year-long subscription rate of only $5.99. Even purist bookworms may find themselves lured by the extensive bells and whistles packaged into this nontraditional novel format: downloadable features include per-chapter discussion forums and weekly e-swag such as graphics, movies, and music.