Do you need to blow out the dust and cobwebs from your mind? Here are my recommendations (in no particular order):
Robert Anton Wilson – He is the penultimate countercultural writer. He knew how to make conspiracies fun. The Illuminatus! Trilogy was entertaining fiction that covers a lot of the same material he writes about in his nonfiction. If you just want his ideas straight, then a good book would be Prometheus Rising. I personally think the world would be a better (or at least more interesting) place if everyone read some RAW.
Terence McKenna – In the area of psychedelics, he is my favorite writer. But his mind is wideranging which covers similar topics as Robert Anton Wilson. I started with True Hallucinations, but any of his writings are quite enjoyable. For the sake of variety, The Archaic Revival is a good collection of essays and interviews. I have a book that has these two published together which is quite nice. I’d also recommend listening to recordings of him speaking because his enthusiasm is contagious.
John Keel – A truly weird writer in the Fortean tradition. The first book of his I read was the The Mothman Prophecies which is a good introduction to his ideas, but for his full weirdness read The Eighth Tower. By the way, the movie based on the first book was decent entertainment (and I do recommend it as worthy attempt at portraying difficult material), but a lot of the weirdness got left out.
Patrick Harpur – Read Daimonic Reality. Not quite as all-out weird, but still helpful in shifting your view on reality. It’s probably the best all-around introduction to help you grasp the wide spectrum of the strange and the paranormal.
Jacques Vallee – A scientist with a very respectable intellect who doesn’t let his evenhandedness get in the way of his appreciation of the oddness that is the human being. He is well known fo his Passport to Magonia where he discussed the connection of UFOs with folklore, mythology, religion and non-ordinary experiences, but there is no need to seek out that out-of-print book. He reworked at least some of the material in his more recent book Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact.
George P. Hansen – I’ve read The Trickster and the Paranormal which I highly recommend. However, it’s no casual read. He packs in a lot of info that you probably won’t see connected together by any other author. If you can read this book and not feel a little uncertain about objective reality, then I’ll be impressed.
Victoria Nelson – Her book The Secret Life of Puppets was an inspiration to me. She gave me new appreciation for some authors I was already familiar with and made me aware of some works I’d never heard of. I found it very enjoyable the way she connected certain strains of Western thought, popular culture and weird fiction. It’s a very accessible book of very deep ideas.
Eric G. Wilson – His writing is directly in line with Victoria Nelson, but with more emphasis on philosophy and religion. Both authors look at the underbelly of Western thought. I find his mix of ideas appealing, and I like how he keeps his focus on what it means to be human. I first read his The Melancholy Android, but his Secret Cinema might be a better intro to his thinking. Neither are massive tomes, but he packs a lot in.
William S. Burroughs – He is best known for his fiction, but I’m going to recommend some of his other writings instead. One book that offers an interesting glimpse of an interesting mind is The Cat Inside. It’s partly autobiographical and partly musings about life. Another one that I really enjoyed is My Education: A Book of Dreams. Burroughs had a rare mind. He is one of those writers who I can sense the actual person behind the words. If you really want to get the sense of Burroughs, then you have to listen to his recordings. He read many excerpts from his works and he did some interviews, but what I love is simply the sound of his voice. Once his voice is firmly implanted in your brain, then read some of his books. A very odd and entertaining adaptation was made of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg, but actually it’s also an adaptation of Burroughs’ life and writing in general. I really liked Cronenberg’s loose adaptation and he has done a number of enjoyable weird movies worth watching such as eXistenZ.
Philip K. Dick – He is another writer who I have the sense of knowing as a person because his writing was often autobiographical. He didn’t travel widely as Burroughs had, but his mind certainly travelled widely. I’ve enjoyed all of the fiction I’ve read by him. One of his more interesting novels might be Valis which is the first in his Valis Trilogy. However, to really appreciate his fiction it’s necessary to read some of his nonfiction. I’d suggest reading either In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis or The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. Even if you’re not someone who normally likes theology and philosophy, PKD’s odd take on them might amuse you. It’s hard to find non-fiction writings any weirder than what he has to offer. If you want to read some writings about PKD, there is a lot of good stuff out there (for instance, those who’ve written about him include some writers I’ve mentioned above: Terence McKenna, Victoria Nelson, and Eric G. Nelson). My favorite book about him is Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter: The Science-Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick by Gabriel Mckee. Mckee provides some useful context by which to understand PKD’s philosophizing. Also, my favorite movie adaptations are Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly. I really love the latter done by Richard Linklater who also made Waking Life which is an even stranger film. Some people didn’t like the rotoscoping technique of Linklater’s adaptation, but personally I thought he captured PKD like no other movie. A Scanner Darkly is one of those stories that is so mindblowing in it’s depressing darkness that I was glad it’s balanced with a playful attitude and the actors in the film captured well that playfulness.
Franz Kafka – Now, this guy is a writer who can always lift my mind out of mundane normality. His fiction is required reading and personally I’d recommend his short stories, but if you’ve already read some of his fiction then I’d recommend the Blue Octavo Notebooks. These notebooks were different than his diaries and they contain some very interesting musings and fictional snippets. By the way, I’d recommend Jeremy Irons‘ simply titled movie Kafka and Orson Welles‘ The Trial.
Douglas Adams – I figured I should include this author simply because he has a very weird imagination that is endlessly humorous. He throws out a lot of odd ideas and manages to tell an enjoyable story at the same time. If you feel like you’re taking life too seriously, any of his fiction would be a good antidote. His most popular work is his Hitchhiker Trilogy, but I think I might’ve enjoyed even more his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Barry Yourgrau – His stories are just outright goofy but in a good way. The only book I’ve read by him is A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane and so that is the one I’d recommend. He has also written children’s stories, and he has done some spoken word which can be found online (check out The Sadness of Sex on Youtube which is just the first part of a larger work).
Thomas Wiloch – I just like his imagination and the fantastic images he creates can be quite striking at times. I suppose one could think of him as a darker version of Yourgrau. I have read some of his stories from different collections, but the only book of his that I own is Screaming In Code which has some nice pictures in it. I don’t know which would be his best book, but if you just want a taste of his writing you can find some of his stories online.
Neil Gaiman – His Sandman series is some of the best graphic novels around. They’re strange stories with high quality artwork. He manages to create some very distinctively intriguing characters and places them in equally intriguing worlds. I won’t vouch for all of Gaiman’s work, but I’ve enjoyed all of the graphic novels I’ve read by him. A good graphic novel is always nice when you’re trying to escape from reality. Gaiman has also been involved in films and shows either in writing the scripts or in having his work adapted. I’ll mention only two notable examples. He wrote the story for Dave McKean‘s move MirrorMask (and they’ve worked together before in graphic novels). McKean has a surreal visual imagination that goes well with Gaiman’s writing. His story Coraline (which I’ve never read) was made into a delightful animated stop-motion 3-D film. It was actually a bit freaky considering its target audience would seem to be young kids.
Alan Moore – He has done a lot in the field of graphic novels and I’ve only read a small portion of it. I started with his Promethea which I absolutely loved. It’s an imaginative work about imagination. Moore has also done some darker stuff which is also good such as Watchmen (a decent movie adaptation was made of it, but it’s seems surprisingly difficult to do justice to a graphic novel in the constraints of Hollywood). What I like about his imagination is that it has some intelligence to it. I like seeing interesting ideas placed in a visually stunning medium.
Grant Morrison – I first read his Doom Patrol which is truly bizarre. I’ve since read some of The Invisibles and The Filth. Both of those are equally bizarre. If you like weird, this as weird as you can get and still tell a good story.
Bill Willingham – I include him for reasons of basic amusement. Like Gaiman, Willingham draws on folklore in his Fables series. Otherwise, they’re very different in style. His Fables series tell the stories of the fairytale characters we’re all familiar with but mixes them together with an overarching plot. It’s just fun to read.
Harlan Ellison – He was friends with Philip K. Dick for a time. He isn’t as well known as PKD, but Ellison was also one of the early innovators who helped popularize the field of weird fiction. He is a very prolific writer and I certainly haven’t read all or even most of his work, but what I have read I’ve enjoyed. Even though he doesn’t quite have the philosophical depth of PKD, he does have a strange imagination. There was an interesting graphic novel adaptation of his work called Dream Corridor. It’s uneven in the quality of different adaptors, but overall his stories translate well to a visual medium. Another very interesting collection is Mind Fields: The Art of Jacek Yerka, the Fiction of Harlan Ellison. The art in that book is truly surreal and Ellison wrote his stories as direct inspirations of each picture. It’s been a while since I read the stories in that collection, but the pictures have stuck in my mind.
Thomas Ligotti – Something about Harlan Ellison’s work reminds me of Ligotti. I’m sure I like Ligotti better, but I don’t think they’re really comparable. Ellison is dark and Ligotti is even darker. However, by saying he is even darker I don’t mean grotesque or violent. It’s dark in a more subtle sense. Many consider Ligotti to be the best or at least most weird writer in horror fiction. A good collection of his stories is Teatro Grottesco, but maybe the reason Ellison made me think of Ligotti is because the latter also has a graphic novel adaptation of his work (i.e., Nightmare Factory). I should mention that some serious Ligotti fans dislike the adaptations. I understand that much of the enjoyment of Ligotti’s work comes from his mastery of language, but still some of the artwork in the adaptations is truly compelling. His story The Frolic was made into a very good film. Although I’m not sure that Ligotti’s writing will blow out the dust or cobwebs from your mind, his stories probably will do something to your mind.
Matthew Rossi – I own his Things That Never Were: fantasies, lunacies & entertaining lies. As far as I know, this is his only published book, but I’d hope he would continue writing. I don’t know the type of person that this book would appeal to. It isn’t exactly either fiction or nonfiction. It’s just intelligent silliness. Obviously, he is someone who has accumulated lots of useless information in his head and so decided to try to put it together in such a way that it made it somewhat plausible. He mixes up history, mythology, religion, genre fiction, conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. As Paul Di Filippo says in the Introduction: “Rossi’s several incompatible mindchildren aren’t fighting. they’re violently screwing, and out of this brain-intercourse is going to arise an unpredictable hybrid of startling portent.” Also, if you like Rossi’s writing, you might enjoy Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe by Win Scott Eckert.
Some collections that are required reading:
I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book
Edited by Iona & Peter Opie
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
This is a well-chosen collection of songs and rhymes that children have repeated for many generations. I was only familiar with some of them probably because the editors collected these 50 years ago in British schools, but I enjoyed many of them that were new to me. These songs and rhymes are just pure silliness, and Sendak’s pictures are almost on every page.
Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: the subversive folklore of childhood
By Josepha Sherman & T.K.F. Weisskopf
This is a great find. I recognized many of the songs and rhymes. This is the unedited version of your childhood. A nice thing about it is that the collectors provide multiple versions which demonstrates the innovativeness of children. Some people might be surprised by the dark perversity of the child’s mind, but I can’t say I was surprised.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
If you haven’t ever read any of these, you should. And if you haven’t read them in a long while, then you should read them again. I really love these stories. There are many different versions and I don’t know which is the best. I’d probably go with the Jack Zipes edition. I didn’t read these as a kid and I doubt many parents these days would read them to their children. Some of them are fairly dark, but that is part of what makes them amusing. The Grimm brothers supposedly had even cleaned these stories up a bit when they realized that their target audience might actually be children. I would love to see the original versions, but I don’t know if there is such a collection. Anyways, the Grimm’s versions are enjoyable. I personally find something immensely appealing in the simplicity of a fairy tale. Many fairy tales (especially in their earliest unpolished form) have a dream-like quality about them. The only modern fiction that comes close are prose poems or flash fiction.
I’ve already mentioned some movies above. Here are some other movies that just amuse me or in some cases help free my imagination and inspire a sense of wonder (I’ll only list my top favorites, but you can find all of my favorites on my About page):
Monty Python – Pretty much anything by them is amusing.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show – I enjoy this movie in the same way I enjoy Monty Python. Inane weirdness and silly songs and dance.
Army of Darkness – This is one of the best cult classic horror camp movies ever made. I’m a fan of Bruce Campbell’s brand of humor. If you’ve already seen this movie and enjoyed it, then I’d recommend Cemetery Man.
Waking Life – Strange ideas presented in a strange style. This was Richard Linklater’s first use of rotoscoping which he later used in A Scanner Darkly (which I also highly recommend).
The Nines – It’s hard for me to judge this movie for it is strange to the extreme and yet certainly not weird simply for the sake of weird. It’s an amazing movie, but it probably requires watching it more than once.
Donnie Darko – Another movie that really makes you ponder reality. There is some very startling imagery in this movie that sticks in my mind.
Dancer in the Dark – I realize this is a movie people either love or hate. I admit it’s a bit difficult to get into at first, and of course not everyone appreciates Bjork’s singing. However, there is no movie like it. After a while, I was completely pulled into the world of the protagonist and I thought it a very fascinating world. It shows how imagination helps someone survive even the bleakest of situations. So, if you like despairingly depressing movies where the characters break out into song and dance, then this is for you.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – This also was a movie I had a hard time getting into the first time I watched it, but it’s grown on me. This movie literally takes you into the mind of the protagonist. It’s both funny and sad, something like life itself but with more entertainment value.
The Truman Show – This is one of the best Philip K. Dick movies ever made that wasn’t specifically based on a Philip K. Dick story. All I can say is I hope I’m not trapped in a reality tv show. That would be truly sad, especially for those watching.
Dark City – This is an even darker and more fantastically weird version of The Truman Show. Being trapped in a reality tv show might not be such a bad fate afterall. It’s an awesome movie and the visuals are just amazing. By the way, it’s somewhat similar to the Matrix Trilogy, but Dark City was made first.
What Dreams May Come – This is a more positive view of the imagination, but it has plenty of dark to it as well. Even if you discredit it for the romantic optimism, I hope you can appreciate some of the stunning visual scenes. This is the only movie I’ve ever watched that made the afterlife seem compellingly real. For certain, the Hell that is presented feels much more convincing than the Christian version.
The Fountain – This is one of my all-time favorites, but I can understand why others might not like it. Similar to What Dreams May Come, it plays with ideals of romantic love but it stays away from sentimental superficialities. It’s a very convoluted movie which some have complained about. However, if you’re like me and have some ability to understand complexity, then it shouldn’t bother you. There is some very intelligent use of visual language that helps hold the narratives together.
Altered States – This was a very original take on the scientist that goes too far, but in this case he nearly falls off the edge of reality. Psychedelics and monkey-men, sex and religious imagery… what isn’t there to like?
Return to Oz – If you liked the original The Wizard of Oz movie (or maybe even if you didn’t), then you should see this. It’s Oz transformed. I’ll just say that, upon her return, Dorothy isn’t greeted by singing Munchkins.
If you don’t have the time to read a book or watch a movie and need some quick amusement or mind-expanding edification, then here are some websites for you.
The Church of the SubGenius
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
The Landover Baptist Church
The Deoxyribonucleic Hyperdimension
Thomas Ligotti Online