It's easy to understand why some people idealize childhood. Kids are expected — nay, encouraged! — to use their growing brains to think up stories, create castles out of blocks and crayon masterpieces from blank paper, turn a pointed finger into a laser gun. Getting older generally means trading in those skills for a focus on practicality.
This is not without its benefits. Life is more manageable when you no longer believe there is an evil troll hungry for your eyeballs living beneath your bed — but it does lose some of its charm, doesn't it? Our weary grown-up brains, bogged down with Logic and Reality and wondering whether we remembered to lock our door that morning, work too hard to save anytime for believing in the fantastic and unusual.
Luckily, there's a solution: books. And not just books, but weird books! Weird books with just enough reality infused in their stories that reading them will make you consider whether there's room in your real life for some magic, too: chance encounters, unusual sights, unexplained feelings. I've picked short story collections because the genre seems to lend itself well to experimental forms and out-there characters, and can be consumed in quick gulps in whatever time your adult brain can allot for them. Fair warning, though: these titles are so enchanting that you may spend more hours with them than you originally set aside.
Since her 1998 collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender has felt like the spokeswriter for those who value dreamy, weird stories above all. The stories here are modernized pieces of fable: a woman who has married an ogre debates staying with him, a girl learns how to mend tigers who have been ripped to shreds. Preserving one's imagination may not feel like an adult priority; Bender's stories will make you want to reconsider.
In what universe does Bob Dylan come to Thanksgiving dinner, an alien works in business solutions while faxing back reports on humans, and a woman goes on a date with the idea of her ex-boyfriend? The one created here by Bertino in her luminous short story collection, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Despite her characters' unique situations, the stories within still feel real enough to spark a long-lost belief in magic.
Separated into sections of "Birth," "Gestation," "Conception," and "Love," Ausubel's collection neatly explores the intricacies of human intimacy and life. If the title sounds too literal, fear not — within this pages, an expectant father grows a literal chest of drawers, a shipful of grandmothers find themselves at sea, and people sprout limbs each time they fall in love: "Seven is an unusual number. Two sometimes, maybe three, but past that something important must have gone wrong." The author's imagination and wry humor are present throughout, offering short escapes from the mundane everyday.
This is aptly titled: each of the stories in Gray's 2010 collection are an exhibit to her imaginative and strange writing. In her writing she routinely dares, playing with form, subject matter, and the way each story unfolds, and succeeds wonderfully. After finishing this one, try her latest collection, 2015's Gutshot.
I admit I walked by this in the bookstore, thinking it was a comic book about literal mystical creatures. Don't make my mistake — Founds is a treasure not to be overlooked. Her collection, a set of interconnected stories that follow the lives of English teacher and her students, begins with the prompt Write a one-page story in which your favorite mystical creature solves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time. From there, the story unfolds in assignments, emails, letters, and traditional prose.
A man comes home to find his wife shrunk down to palm size. A plane circles a city for 20 years. In Gonzales' collection, strange occurrences are commonplace. His inventive settings and lyrical language allow readers to focus on the heart of each story where human desires and urges are revealed, the strange landscapes making the revelations more stark and meaningful.
It isn't every day you hear a woman's furniture has walked out on her. Moments like these are what makes Galchen's collection so compelling. Her stories, often about reflective, introspective women ruminating on their lives, have an undercurrent of strangeness that is subtle and effective. One woman is immobilized by an accidental food order called in to her house, another girl fixates on her crush, an otherwise unremarkable fast-food worker. You'll find yourself quietly observing the world in a new way after this collection.
This collection is the ideal entry point for those unfamiliar with Butler, a prolific American science fiction writer. Readers traverse landscapes that are familiar but noticeably off — in one story, humans exist, but are enslaved by giant bugs. In another, we find a post-pandemic Los Angeles. Butler casts an unflinching look at notions of race, gender, and society, and leaves us with a breathless collection of stories (and — bonus — two essays, too).
Nutting proved with her 2013 novel Tampa that she was a cutting and unabashed literary voice. She laid the groundwork with this darkly funny collection of women in unusual — and as the title says, often dirty — jobs. It reads as a catalog of base human interaction, characters stripped of niceties and careening toward their ruin. It's unsettling, and Nutting's writing will remain with you long after you finish this book.
With a title like that, it's not a stretch to learn that Sparks' story collection is filled with the off-kilter and surreal, while still staying moored to physical reality. This book, like many on this list, is like the odd friend who manages to keep surprising you while still feeling comfortable — you'll find a kindred spirit among these stories.
Canadian author O'Neill's previous novels — Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night — were freewheeling, irreverent odes to feeling alive in Montreal. We expect she'll achieve the same in her forthcoming collection, out in the U.S. this fall (Canadian readers can snag it April 9). From the story of Jesus struggling to make friends in school, to untamed children running wild in Paris, to left-behind dolls finally sharing their story, I think this collection will be weird as hell — and I can't wait.