High Literature: 24 Mind-Expanding Drug Novels

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Truth be told, most of our best-known drug literature comes in the form of memoir. This is fine, I suppose, if we’re talking Confessions of an English Opium Eater and not A Million Little Pieces. But if you’re anything like me, you need the power of a robust, fictional delivery system to get the required effect of your literary drugs. And by this I don’t mean On the Road or Fear and Loathing — fine books, I guess, but a little careworn and, well, inefficient for our purposes. With this in mind, here are 24 works of required-reading drug lit for research purposes only.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Readers may be surprised to find Don Quixote on a list of drug novels, but who could deny the psychopharmacological power of the Balsam of Fierabras, which allows the knight (or so he believes) to evade death with a single drop? It also causes him to vomit and sleep for three hours at a time.

The Story of Han Xiangzi: The Alchemical Adventures of a Daoist Immortal, Yang Erzeng

An under-read, classic Chinese novel that features immortalizing drugs that form clouds below your feet and sweep you up into the air.

Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

Frankly better than most of the male-counterpart drug novels of the 1960s and ’70s, and the drugs in Valley of the Dolls are even built into the title. The Dolls are pills.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens

Unfinished, yes, but Charles Dickens’ final novel featured no shortage of opium and opium dens, which makes sense because Dickens himself was a low-grade smackhead.

Valentine, George Sand

Just mix a little opium into your orange-flower water and sit with Valentine. George Sand’s second novel features the drug as a conduit to seduction (and its resulting discontents).

Novel with Cocaine, M. Ageyev

This 1930s Soviet novel by émigré M. Ageyev (a pseudonym for Mark Levi) is a perhaps allegorical, certainly Dostoevskian novel of drugs and their attendant “ideas.” It doesn’t actually come with cocaine.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

Arguably not an experiential drug novel, James’ excellent Killings is perhaps an even better thing: a novel (in part)about the distribution and circulation of drugs. In this case, James’ panorama, which includes New York City and Jamaica, charts the crack wars of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. It’s probably the best novel about crack ever written.

The Sign of the Four, Arthur Conan Doyle

The first Holmes novel to introduce the detective’s notorious addiction to “the seven percent solution.”

The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick

Everyone cites Dick’s A Scanner Darkly as his preeminent drug fiction, and maybe they’re right to do so. But for my money, it’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, where interplanetary colonists who abscond from a globally-warmed Earth escape their misery via a drug called Can-D.

Diary of a Drug Fiend, Aleister Crowley

Crowley, who most certainly was a drug “fiend,” features a hilarious preface that includes the novel-effacing line: “This is a true story. It has been rewritten only so far as was necessary to conceal personalities.” If only Knausgaard had done the same. Nonetheless, it is among the most impressively arrayed drug novels on this list, featuring everything from heroin to cocaine to Prussic acid (which is, admittedly, a way for the characters to kill themselves instead of facing up to addiction).

Junkie, William S. Burroughs

Pubilshed pseudonymously, Burroughs’ Junkie is part of a lineage of first “novels” (read: thinly veiled memoirs) by writers who proved their intellectual dexterity through the haze of drugs. See also: Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend.

Insel, Mina Loy

Loy’s only novel, Insel is a surrealist work based (to some extent) on her friendship with, Richard Oelze, the (likewise surrealist) painter and drug addict.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Not by any stretch Pynchon’s best novel, Inherent Vice is nonetheless his best drug novel, or at least it is his funniest drug novel. A fine paranoiac comedy, a world where LSD can stand for “Location, Surveillance, Detection” and lysergic acid diethylamide.

Villette, Charlotte Brontë

The heroine of Villette, through no fault of her own, is overdosed on opiates intended to help her sleep. Instead, she finds herself on a hallucinogenic night stroll, a convincing denouement that undermines Brontë’s claim that she never did opium.

Taipei, Tao Lin

It’s basically an encyclopedia of the drug habits of 20-somethings in the 21st century. It makes one wonder what unforeseen neurological damage is being caused by the ingestion of so much psychopharmacological innovation.

The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn

A fine distillation of that aristocratic English admixture of alcohol and heroin, The Patrick Melrose Novels demonstrate the recuperative powers of the English caste system. If you’re posh and not dead: there’s hope, even for a heroin addict.

The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren

Probably the inspiration for the monkey-on-back as drug addiction metaphor, Algren’s National Book Award-winning drug novel originally featured no drug use at all — even though it’s a heroin novel titled The Man with the Golden Arm?

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

As the forthcoming The End of the Tour dramatizes to weird effect, Wallace was usually tight-lipped about his past addictions. Nonetheless, Infinite Jest is, as much as anything else, a Debordian novel about the (specifically American) intersection of spectacle, dream, and delusion — of drug.

Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis

Kind of a stupid book, or at least a work of cloyingly minimalist juvenilia, Less Than Zero is still valuable for its depiction of the modern drug dealer, a creature that maybe did come of age in 1980s Los Angeles.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

Burgess’ novel, wherein language itself is a drug, features an array of invented drugs that only sound like 21st-century pharmaceuticals: vellocet and synthemesc and drencrom. Just remember to mix it all up in your breakfast milk.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Huxley’s book poses the timeless question of whether a drug is really a drug if literally everyone is doing it. In this case we’re talking about the orgy-fueling drug soma. It’s also worth remembering that Huxley experimented with mescaline. He wrote about that experience in The Doors of Perception.

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

A work of genius and arguably the apotheosis of the “woman gets hooked on sleeping meds” — in this case chloral — “and everything goes wrong” — genre.

Against the Grain, J.K. Huysmans

This masterpiece of decadent literature, by an author who will become more famous because of Michel Houellbecq’s forthcoming Submission, features the funniest drug scene in 19th-century literature. I’ll say nothing more than that it showcases an aphrodisiacal bonbon that sends Des Esseintes, its protagonist, into a psychosexual fit where he gets turned on my an imaginary woman with long teeth.

Glow, Ned Beauman

One of the best of recent drug fictions, Beauman’s Glow plots the arrival of a new drug (called glow) in South London’s rave scene. Then it becomes a novel of global intrigue where even the moon is like “a silver pill half dissolved on the tongue of the night.”