Mariner Books / Riverhead Books

50 Excellent Fabulist Books Everyone Should Read


Fabulism, it seems, is having a moment — although whether it’s truly a trend is up for debate. Some might say it’s been right there, purring along all this time, while others might blink and wonder what you’re talking about. Such is always the case with magic. But whether you’re a newbie or an old hat, there are always new corners of the fantastic to discover.

Before we begin, take note: I say fabulism, but there’s really no single term that works for all of these books, or even for more than a few of them. There’s Robert Scholes’s fabulation, Todorov’s fantastic, there’s plain old fairy tale or fantasy, there’s the much-discussed magical realism, but none of these really work as blanket terms, at least not for what we think of when we consider contemporary literary works with, er, unrealistic elements. And maybe that’s a good thing — maybe that’d tether these books too close to earth, keep them too cemented in our imaginations.

So, here you’ll find 50 excellent novels and short story collections by fabulists, fantasists, and fairy-tale-tellers, literary books that incorporate the irreal, the surreal, and the supernatural, which have no unironic dragons, very few (if any) self-serious necromancers, but lots of delightful, magical, humane, real-as-all-get-out storytelling. Better get started, and if any of your own favorites are missing here, add them to the list in the comments.

Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino

From where I’m sitting, Calvino is the undisputed king of modern fabulism. Even in novels like The Baron in the Trees, in which nothing truly otherworldly happens, each sentence seems to have a little extra edge on reality — not to mention a little extra edge on everybody else’s sentences in general. This collection of linked stories explores concepts both scientific and fantastic, and includes a hilarious tale narrated by one of the first creatures to evolve from fish to land mammal. Clearly, there are some growing pains.

Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi

Oyeyemi’s most recent novel, the excellent Boy, Snow, Bird, could also have made this list, but ultimately it’s more realist than most of her others, so I’m going with Mr. Fox, a wandering, meta fairy tale about creativity, inspiration, and the fact that when you chop somebody’s head off in real life, they don’t actually become a prince.

Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link

If you’re a regular reader of this space, you know that we at Flavorwire think Kelly Link is pretty much the greatest. Link is a wizard for the modern age, one who winks and cartwheels and watches Buffy and pulls giant rabbits out of her faery handbag, and whose prose is just delicious.

The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe

A word of advice: do not take this book to the beach. Abe’s weird, fable-like novel tells of a man who takes shelter in a small desert town, only to find himself trapped in an enormous hole, forced to dig sand for hours every day just to keep himself and his strange companion from being completely smothered in the stuff. Best save it for somewhere safe and indoors. Preferably elevated.

Willful Creatures, Aimee Bender

Lots of Bender’s work could have made this list, but let’s go with this delightfully surreal collection, all matter-of-fact magic and dark, glimmering truth. There are tiny people kept as pets, a boy with an iron for a head (the rest of his family have pumpkins for theirs), potato babies, and the strangest roadside stand at which you’d ever hope to find a mango.

Safe as Houses, Marie-Helene Bertino

Much like Bender, Bertino lays her magic — just a bit of it — out on the table, shrugs, and then leaves you there to deal. These whimsical, smart-aleck stories will introduce you to college students with superpowers, a girl on a date with the idea of her ex-boyfriend, and Bob Dylan, when brought as a date to Thanksgiving dinner.

Duplex, Kathryn Davis

This book is completely bonkers, and yet contains quite a few more truths — especially about young girls and the stories they tell each other, or more importantly, themselves — than many a realist psychological novel. Not to mention the sorcerer Body-Without-Soul and the Aquanauts, and the family of robots that moved in next door, who make it all the more madcap and beautiful and brilliant.

Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow

Now, this book is one of those that doesn’t fall comfortably into any category — a bloody, beautiful, book-length poem-novel about werewolves? What shall we call thee? Excellent reading, that is what. Anything else is window dressing.

A Guide to Being Born, Ramona Ausubel

As the title suggests, the stories in this collection are organized loosely around the process of life, in reverse order from birth to gestation to conception to love. Fittingly, the fantastical elements in her gorgeous stories are often rooted in the body, whether that of the pregnant teenager who spends her days knitting onesies for the monster she believes is inside her or the man who develops a chest full of tiny, fleshy drawers or the vision of a town whose inhabitants grow extra limbs when they fall in love.

The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

The first name in fucked-up feminist fairy tales.

The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

Kafka is a straight-up fantasist, and a master to boot. What else do you call the humble story of a man who wakes up in the form of a bug?

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell

Bell’s recent novel is an epic family drama turned sideways, and then roughed up a little, and then reborn in the body of a dream-song. There is a squid, and a bear, and a secret labyrinth, and enough myths new and old to infect your dreams for ages to come.

The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits

I’ll call this one psycho-fabulism: a teacher/student rivalry at the best grad school for psychics that turns into a long-distance mind war. Stimulating to say the least.

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim

Holy hell, is Donald Antrim weird and amazing. This crackheaded suburban fantasy turns a town into a battlefield and its residents into ancient fishes, or buffalo. A must-read.

Dangerous Laughter, Stephen Millhauser

Ignore his Pulitzer for Martin Dressler. Millhauser is at his best when he works in the mysterious, the fantastical true — the realm of steamy, laughter-infected suburbs, the town that is the exact copy of your town except abandoned, the craftsman making objects ever-smaller. Plus, the sentences! You guys, the sentences.

The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg

Unless I’m mistaken, there isn’t any actual magic in this collection. Magicians, sure. French mimes, totally. Weirdos aplenty? Need you ask? But like Calvino, the fabulism is somehow written into these worlds that Van den Berg creates, little jewel-lands of strangeness butting up time and time again against the dead wood of reality.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

Giant talking cats packing pistols! Undead dinner parties! The devil come to Moscow! One of the greatest fabulist-infused novels of all time!

The Dead Father, Donald Barthelme

In what is perhaps Barthelme’s most well-regarded novel (although his short stories are king), a father-like thing is dragged to an unknown destination via cable. As the (ahem) aforementioned Donald Antrim writes in the introduction to the 2004 edition, “one has the sense that [Barthelme] enjoys an almost complete artistic freedom… a permission to reshape, misrepresent, or even ignore the world as we find it… In his surface disorder and his comic chaos, Donald Barthelme brings his own astonishing brand of order to the world.”

Madeleine Is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Madeleine is sleeping, and her dreams are wilder than yours. Or are they her dreams? This lovely, lyrical book, which Alan Cheuse called “a wonderful combination of Virginia Woolf and Freud and Jung,” is part fairy, part Kafka, part Ludwig Bemelmans, and all joy to read.

Crystal Eaters, Shane Jones

A book that counts down from 183 to 1 about a village that “survives on myth,” whose inhabitants are each born with 100 crystals inside them and expire when they run out. Like Jones’ other novels, this is one extended beaut of a fever dream, with a molten human center.

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

Borges is another classic master of fabulism and fantasy, and is oft cited as one of the best writers in that (or, let’s face it: any) genre — just imagine that infinite library and swoon.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell

But of course, the poster child for contemporary fabulism. This, her first collection, still might be my favorite.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

There’s some argument that magical realism should have its own list entirely, but it seemed too sad to leave off such a beloved classic — which has no doubt influenced almost every other author you see here.

1Q84, Haruki Murakami

Or anything by Murakami, really. His magic is his own.

The Breast, Philip Roth

Roth does Kafka. Big, breasty Kafka.

Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth

Often cited as Barth’s best, this is a postmodern fabulist romp that doubles as a Cold War allegory. It stars a boy raised as a goat who rises to Grand Tutor of New Tammany University. An absurd cult classic.

The Changeling, Joy Williams

This mythic classic was dismissed into oblivion by one scathing review when it first appeared in 1978, and only reprinted (by Fairy Tale Review Press) in recent years. As Rick Moody says in its introduction: “The Changeling, which is rich with the arresting improbabilities of magic realism, with the surrealism of the folkloric revival (Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was published about the same time), and with the modernist foreboding of Under the Volcano, would have seemed perfectly legible in 1973 when Gravity’s Rainbow was published, or Gaddis’s J.R. But the late seventies, with their punk rock nihilism and their Studio 54 fatuousness, were perhaps not properly situated to understand this variety of Joy Williams challenge. To their shame.” We’re over all that fatuousness now, though.

The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour

Based on a tale from famous Persian epic The Shahnameh, this blistering book tells the story of a boy raised in a birdcage before being set free on the streets of pre-9/11 New York City, feral and fumbling.

The Gold Family Tales, Kate Bernheimer

Bernheimer is a champion for fairy tales of all kinds, and her own fairy-tale-infused novels are pretty damn good too.

Pastoralia, George Saunders

Everybody’s favorite fabulist, doing something all his own. Any of Saunders’ excellent collections would do fine here, but Pastoralia gets pride of place for being a personal favorite.

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, Lucy Corin

If, like Buffy, you are concerned about having to know the plural form of “apocalypse,” look no further. This book has many of them, and even some stories in other shapes, but all jewel-like and strange and savage.

Eva Luna, Isabel Allende

Here’s another book (and another writer) that’s generally classified as magical realist, but a magical story about a magical storyteller? Counting it.

Ghosts, César Aira

One of the most convincing ghost stories ever told.

Museum of the Weird, Amelia Gray

Gray is an absurdist, a fabulist, a wise, foulmouthed truth-teller of the highest caliber. Get this collection. Get all her books.

City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s Ambergris is better than Yoknapatawpha County. There, I said it.

The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus

Marcus is a member of the cult of the sentence, and the cult of the surreal. This strange little collection, his first, is filled with micro-stories that add up to more than their parts. Half instruction manual, half book of poems, half surrealist fiction, all the kind of book that will allow three halves of itself.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

For epic twistings of epic myths, look no further than Neil Gaiman.

The City & The City, China Miéville

Miéville is the de facto leader of a literary movement he calls “weird fiction,” which he says is personified by the skull/octopus tattoo on his arm. I think he fits in here.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

People always forget that Rushdie is half a fabulist. This one, featuring children with telepathic powers, is probably his most beloved. After all, it is officially the Booker of all Bookers.

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

A gorgeous retelling of a Russian fairy tale set in 1920s Alaska.

The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier

In Brockmeier’s wonderful novel, a place exists between life and death: the City, whose inhabitants are all those who have left Earth but are still remembered on it. But people in both realms are disappearing. Lyrical and haunting and lovely.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory

Forty irreverent fables in 200 pages, suitable for just about any hour you can name.

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, Etgar Keret

Another writer fond of short fabulist stories, each one containing enough punch for a story three times its size.

Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson

Winner of the 2002 World Fantasy Award for short fiction, this vivid, sometimes terrifying collection takes Caribbean folklore and explodes it outwards. Cockatrices and soucoyants and werewolves abound, not to mention excellent storytelling. And skin-shedding.

Conservation of Shadows, Yoon Ha Lee

Science fiction and fabulist stories with mathy, orchestral, universal tones, written in gorgeous prose.

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Alissa Nutting

You may be familiar with her recent novel, Tampa, which is a dark fantasy in quite a different way, but don’t miss Nutting’s outrageous first collection — which won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, judged by Ben Marcus. I can’t say it any better than he did, calling it “a dark catalog of behavior for her characters and the result is a kind of human bestiary, if humans were programmed to go down in flames, to run themselves aground, to seek ruin on every occasion.”

Jagannath, Karin Tidbeck

Strange, haunting goodness from Sweden, with an emphasis on unbelonging. A captivating read.

North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Ballingrud

Love stories/monster stories.

The Boy in His Winter, Norman Lock

Norman Lock should probably be a household name. This hypnotic work takes Huck Finn and Jim and drags them through the past and future, making for a delightful and profound journey.

What I Didn’t See, Karen Joy Fowler

A stunning collection that mixes history, fantasy, myth, and something else altogether unknowable. Witty and powerful and totally out there.