7 Short Story Collections that Feel Psychedelic
Reading these books is the next best thing to an acid trip
The word “psychedelic” is rooted in Ancient Greek, and means something like “mind-revealing” or “mind-manifesting.” To me it means pushing boundaries, revealing new corridors of the mind.
When I was in my twenties, I read all the Anglophone fiction about the border by Mexican American/Chicanx/Latinx writers I could get my hands on. What I found the majority of these works had in common was that they were written in an often stark, realist tradition, much in the style of mid-20th-century American novels. I began to notice the weirdness, humor, and surreal nature of South Texas, the border that I’d grown up with, was absent not only from these works, but the entirety of American literature.
That’s when my reading started to significantly branch out, obsessively reading works from other countries, and in translation, searching for a way to get in touch with this type of story I couldn’t find anywhere written by my people. Along the way I discovered the works of Daniil Kharms, Silvina Ocampo, and Amos Tutuola, among others, whose unique visions and work helped inform my developing style at the time.
With the stories in Valleyesque, my debut short story collection, I reflected on the kind of storytelling that comes from the land I live in. Here are seven short story collections I consider to be psychedelic. They do so many more things than merely being strange, weird, speculative, enchanting, or even fantastical. Each of these risk-taking collections shows us fiction can still be unpredictable and morbid in the best ways.
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales
When The Miniature Wife and Other Stories first came out, and I remember being at once grateful and in awe—here was a Brown writer, from the same city I was from, no less, publishing weird, unique stories, with robots, swamp monsters, and Borgesian capsule biographies I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. This was before the fiction of Yuri Herrera and Valeria Luiselli, and most of the “post-Bolaño boom” had appeared in book form. For a person like me, this book was earth-shattering, and brought me great relief. Where else would you find a story with a black market unicorn that drinks beer, as in the story “One-Horned and Wild-Eyed”?
The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
If you’ve read this book, you unwillingly belong to something like a cult, one where everyone wears ancient wooden clogs that’ve become muddy and mossy. I dare you to find a collection with a shorter, creepier, more impossible-to-describe title story—not to mention the other fictive ingredients, like a sewing machine rigged with special powers; the inner thoughts of a spider; the extraordinary tales of a “sconce,” filled with mermaids and sailors and the sadness of the world. This is a book you’ll want to tell everyone about, as well as keep secret.
The New Adventures of Helen by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Jane Bugaeva
I’ll never forget that day, years ago, rummaging through a bookstore’s shelves, when I found There Was Once A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby. The stories in this morbid collection take place in vague time periods that could be the past, the present, the future, or all three. It has quite possibly, in my opinion, the most punk rock story ever written, “Queen Lir,” in which, among other things, the queen hijacks a bus.
Somadeva: Tales from the Kathasaritsagara, adapted and retold by Rohini Chowdhury
Somadeva: Tales from the Kathasaritsagara illustrates perhaps the oldest (and best?) way short stories work together, flowing into one another in an endless ocean, on the border of the oral and written traditions. All the classic archetypes of demons, kidnapped princesses, magical animals, jealous rich people, fools and kings come alive to enchant us once again. This edition—the first translation of the Kathasaritsagara by a woman—is marketed as a children’s book; and, I guess, it is. But on second thought: is it?
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull with Nikolai Formozov
NYRB Classics has been steadily releasing this previously untranslated Ukrainian-born Russophone writer for a little over ten years now, and every book is worth reading. There’s a story here with a talking white toad from the river Styx; a pianist’s runaway fingers; biblical pieces of silver accidentally “invent” monetary devaluation, or debt. The title story gives a whole new meaning to “autobiographical fiction.l of these stories left me speechless with their audacity, magic, and hidden mathematics.
Gutshot by Amelia Gray
Body horror, the gothic mundane, an appearance by a whale’s heart in a living room: these are just a few refreshing subjects this book creeps upon. At any turn you’ll laugh, feel unsettled, or be moved with the poetry in Gray’s lines: “I tried to remember myself at her age, but when I tried, I only saw a girl lost in the woods.” I first read Gutshot while listening to The Shaggs, really loud—not sure I recommend that part. Actually, fuck it: I recommend it!
The Houseguest & Other Stories by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Harris & Matthew Gleeson
When the galley for this book first fell into my hands, I read it right away, plunging into its world of haunted culinary dishes, and blurred lines between people and feral creatures, such as in “Moses and Gaspar”, where it’s unclear if the titular characters are wild children or beasts trying to be civilized. Dávila manages to describe the indescribable just enough for our minds to fill, and complicate, in those horrors. The intensity and impact of these stories will impact you immediately, and with long-lasting effect.