Most-recommended: tales of crime and horror

Rakesh Khanna

Rakesh Khanna has worked as a Western classical percussionist, a punk rock drummer, a schoolteacher, a data conversion specialist, and a mathematics textbook editor. In 2008 he co-founded Blaft Publications in Chennai; one of the focuses of the publishing house is on translating genre fiction from Asia. He has edited The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. I and Vol. II, translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, and recently worked on Urdu detective writer Ibne Safi’s Jasusi Dunya series with translator Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

Note: I haven’t included any Indian-language writers in this list because Blaft has been publishing a lot of them, and it’s impossible for me to pick favorites. So I’ve limited myself to American writers I read growing up.

Dashiell Hammett
Most crime fiction fans have heard the name, but for some reason it’s rare to find Indians who have read much of him. Even people who do know him will usually have read only The Maltese Falcon—or maybe just seen the 1941 film (starring Humphrey Bogart and one of the most phenomenal supporting casts ever). Maybe it’s because Hammett doesn’t always make things easy for the reader. His tough guy characters can’t be divided easily into villains and heroes, and they’re always careful not to spill more information than necessary; they speak in tight, clipped sentences spiked with raw prohibition-era American slang.  But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do some reading, Hammett is the king.

Red Harvest

His first book, Red Harvest (1929) remains my favorite crime novel of all time, and my copies of the short story collections The Continental Op and The Big Knockover are about ready to fall apart. I hear that someone has recently discovered a bunch of previously unpublished stories, and I’m anxiously waiting to read them.

Jim Thompson
Thompson is maybe the only guy who ever managed to be grittier than Hammett. He’s also best-known today for a movie based on one of his novels, The Grifters—though the movie came out in 1990, 13 years after he died, and decades after he wrote the book.

I highly recommend an earlier 1953 novel of his, Savage Night, about a hitman who is dying of tuberculosis and slowly losing his mind. It’s got a twisted, creepy feel unlike any other book I’ve ever read.

H.P. Lovecraft
He wrote “weird tales”, not crime fiction, but Lovecraft is another classic writer with a gigantic cult following in America and the UK who seems to get much less love from Asian readers. I can think of a few reasons. For one, it can be difficult to get past his overblown vocabulary and formal, faux-Victorian sentence structures; for another, he’s often rather blatantly racist.

The Whisperer in Darkness

His plots typically revolve around a corrupted blood line: all that is pure and white and good in New England slowly becomes twisted and gory and evil, because someone a few generations ago had sex with an Indian or a Polynesian cultist—who was actually related to demonic deep-sea alien fish-things from another dimension—and now the miscegenated progeny are summoning other-worldly tentacled gods to eat everyone and OH GOD THE ELDRITCH HORROR!  I guess I get a special kick out of this because I am of mixed race myself, but can usually pass for 100% white, so I’m like Lovecraft’s perfect nightmare. Iä! Shub-niggurath!  Cthulhu fhtagn!

H.P. Lovecraft is much loved by heavy metal bands—practically every notable group has worked in some lyrical references to Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu—so if you enjoy Iron Maiden and Morbid Angel, you really ought to check this stuff out.  What’s more, all his stories are out of copyright and freely available online!

John W. Campbell, Jr. / Don A. Stuart
As the editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to 1971, he was one of the most influential figures in the American pulp science fiction scene. But early on, he was also an author, writing under the pen name of Don A. Stuart. His 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, aside from being a really, really good story, seems incredibly advanced for its time in its ideas about alien technology and biology. It’s been made into a movie 3 or 4 times—most notably as The Thing by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell—but the story is way better.

The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson
I don’t think it’s as well known here in India, but the short story “The Lottery” is required reading in almost all American schools. I read it in 7th grade, and it had all the kids in my class chattering excitedly for a while. It was at that point I realized English class could be cool.

Shirley Jackson’s horror fiction was never classified as pulp. She always avoided the obvious; she wasn’t into zombies or vampires or serial killers. There are some haunted houses—The Haunting of Hill House has my vote for the best haunted house novel—but even in that book, the real horror doesn’t come as ghostly apparitions. It comes in the form of small talk, in regular social interactions, in the protagonist’s desperate and failing attempts to seem like a normal and likeable person. I don’t think many writers have ever dug themselves this deeply inside their characters’ heads. Jackson seems to be intimately familiar with mental illness, and determined to let you know exactly what it’s like to suffer from it. Completely and totally scary.

Avram Davidson
I can’t recommend all of Avram Davidson’s work; I’ve tried to read some of his novels and found them sloppy and impenetrable. But his 1962 collection Or All the Seas with Oysters is great fun, packed with some of the wackiest science fiction ideas I’ve ever read. The title story is an absolute must-read about the alien life forms that might live in your desk drawers and your closet. Watch out.

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