Let’s (time) travel to other worlds for a little bit, shall we?
While I wish we could time travel to when this whole global pandemic is over, it’s simply not possible. So, this has forced me to come up with a new plan entirely: reading. Specifically, reading books of fantasy or science fiction to transport me out of the current world and into one far, far away, with problems I couldn’t even begin to understand (time portals! Monsters! Child ghosts playing games in old houses!).
Come with me on a journey to far away from home–while staying inside your home, of course.
His Dark Materials Trilogy
In Phillip Pullman’s incredible trilogy, we follow young and wily Lyra (and her daemon counterpart, Pan) as she moves throughout worlds, discovering who she truly is and exactly how vast the universes are around her. His Dark Materials transports you to a fantastical place where there are more worlds than one can count, everywhere, all at once–and every single one of these worlds is currently involved in the same war. Children are being kidnapped, bears are ruling kingdoms, souls are inside of animals, and cliff ghasts ghast about on cliffs–truly every aspect of fantasy exists within these books.
In this delightful story co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett about literally the end times (stay with me here), we follow an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, as they form an unlikely friendship over thousands of years, beginning at…well, the very beginning (the pair meet in the Garden of Eden and aid Adam and Eve in their original sin). Sometime later, Crowley is asked by Satan to bring the antichrist into the world–but there is a bit of a mix up of which baby is the actual antichrist, so things don’t exactly go as planned. With both sides of heaven and hell proving that they truly have no idea what they’re doing, it’s going to be up to a different group to help Crowley and Aziraphale save the world. Because in this apocalypse, we learn that the end of the world cannot be prevented by anything profoundly good or profoundly evil–but by something profoundly human.
The character of Death valiantly dismounts his horse and immediately slips on some ice and falls down exclaiming, “Oh, bugger,” and this is a near-perfect way of introducing you to the wild, most hilarious and fantastical world of Terry Pratchett. Here, things that were once considered “morbid” or “frightening” are treated with discerning humor–including the Grim Reaper. Mort follows the titular character, a young man who can’t seem to do anything right, as he begins an apprenticeship with the only “businessman” who will give him a job–Death. This new line of work will give Mort free housing and use of the company horse…but at what expense? (Many).
Stranger Things Happen
Kelly Link’s stories in Stranger Things Happen are unlike any other short stories you’ve read before. The character narratives have an unnerving sort of poetry to them, reminiscent of an eerie piano solo playing somewhere in a huge (and most likely haunted) house that you accidentally just walked into, for some reason. Link’s prose is light and rich, Gothic and silly, and full of whimsy, and these 11 stories will transport you to another dimension where, and I promise you, you have no idea what is happening in the best and creepiest sort of way.
Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions
All of Neil Gaimon’s short stories are worth a read, but if you’re going to start somewhere, start with Smoke and Mirrors. These short tales (and poems) are mostly reprints from other anthologies and magazines, including an adult re-telling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Troll Bridge); a story about Hollywood and writing which seems to have no plot yet somehow embodies exactly how it feels to be a writer in Los Angeles (The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories); a story about a werewolf just trying to get by (Only the End of the World Again); as well as many, many other eerie short fictions. There’s even a story reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft thrown into the mix as well as one from the perspective of an assassin who doesn’t realize he’s an assassin–these stories are all over the place, which is exactly how it should be. Keeps it interesting, you know?
This whimsical (and sometimes frightening) anthology of stories revolving around fantastical creatures that don’t exist is a wonderful escape for any pandemic and also any regular situation, as well. From a misunderstood griffin who just likes looking at himself to a girl who can communicate with snakes, these stories from different authors and different eras were chosen by Neil Gaiman, and while sometimes it’s true that collections of short stories have a cohesion issue, all of these tales complement each other perfectly.
Even better? Sales of this book benefit 826DC, a nonprofit literary organization that supports students ages 6-18. At 826DC, kids learn creative and expository writing, and teachers inspire students to write.
I’m Fine But You Appear to Be Sinking
Strangely mundane and mundanely strange, these seemingly regular stories by author Lenya Krow are at first glance, normal, set in worlds that might be an everyday suburban neighborhood. But then, bam! Something magical occurs, and it’s clear that this is a world more fantastical than our own. Each story focuses on a main character in some sort of emotionally perilous situation, such as a journalist lost at sea being hunted by some sort of sea creature–but also, he is very lonely. The weird and the normal collide to form something much more relatable in this collection of odd yet empathetic stories.
This play is a bit of a shorter read but—don’t let its size fool you—it’s weirdly gorgeous and fascinating, as playwright Annie Baker asks us to think about what value our own stories have during a world crisis. As something increasingly apocalyptic is happening to the weather outside, a group of writers appears to hold a brainstorming session. They tell each other stories while also discussing the concept of stories, in general, and the importance they have in our culture, especially during dark times. As the narratives that these writers tell each other become more and more fantastical, it becomes more and more unclear what is reality and what isn’t. Also, is this even going well? Also, is whatever they’re working on even going to see the light of day? Also, is time vertical or horizontal?
The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse
STAY WITH ME HERE. In chaotic times, it’s comforting for some (ahem, me) to read apocalyptic tales of the end of the world, or worlds, in that they’re completely fantastical and take you out of whatever is currently happening. And although the world is not actually “ending” right now, for many, it feels like it is. In anxious times, it can help to turn to more anxious stories, to, perhaps, compartmentalize anxiety, even if momentarily. That’s why I specifically turn to the fictitious apocalyptic stories in this book, with each story detailing an eerie tale of social, political, or environmental destruction of our world. THIS, right now, isn’t the end of the world–but these tales are. There are aliens! And trips through time and space! And…more aliens!