Some readers grow up relishing stories about fantastical creatures, and then set such books aside for more realistic reads when they’re adults. But we all could use a unicorn or two in our lives, which is why it’s so delightful when a writer known for realism sneaks a mythical creature into literary fiction—or builds a whole book around one. I always interpret the presence of mythical creatures in a novel as a sign that a writer is pushing boundaries, taking risks, delving into folklore, and aspiring to delight and mesmerize the reader. Here are six works of literary fiction that take their mythical creatures seriously.
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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (The Golem)
In this rollicking story about two cousins set against the backdrop of World War II, Czech-born Joseph Kavalier and Brooklyn’s Sam Clay, comic book artists extraordinaire, just about anything is possible. So it’s not too surprising when the legendary Golem of Prague makes an appearance. In one traditional story about this figure from Jewish folklore, the 16th-century Rabbi Loew of Prague is said to have created the Golem out of clay to defend the Jewish people against attack. Chabon’s unforgettable book concerns a time when the Golem’s help is sorely needed, as Kavalier agonizes over his family’s fate during Hitler’s rise in Europe.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich (The Wiindigoo)
Louise Erdrich introduced a cannibalistic Ojibwe monster known as the wiindigoo (sometimes spelled windigo) in her first novel, 1984’s Love Medicine. A tribal elder says a wiindigoo “could cast its spirit inside of a person,” creating “people who lost all human compunctions in hungry times and craved the flesh of others.” The creature appears repeatedly in Erdrich’s work, most recently in the National Book Award–winning The Round House, in which the endearing 13-year-old narrator and boy detective Joe Coutts must confront the wiindigoo to save his family after his mother is raped and the attacker remains at large.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell (Vampires and more)
Karen Russell never got the memo that says that in order to be taken seriously as a literary fiction writer, you have to put mythical creatures aside. Her debut story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, features characters of a lupine nature, and Russell’s most recent collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, includes elderly vampires hanging out in Santa Francesca’s lemon grove, where the lemons they suck quell their thirst for blood. In another story in the collection, “Reeling for the Empire,” Russell invents her own mythical creatures, imagining young Japanese women working in a silk factory transforming into silkworms.
Busy Monsters, by William Giraldi (Bigfoot, Kraken, and more)
Charles Homar, a newspaper columnist and memoirist with a healthy ego, narrates Giraldi’s first novel, about his quest to secure the love of his fiancée, the “fair and at times not so fair maiden” Gillian Lee. Gillian is obsessed with giant squid, and aims to capture one alive for scientific research. As Charles offends her with his actions and then attempts to win her back, he crosses paths with all manner of cryptozoologists, including a UFO specialist and a Bigfoot researcher.
Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins (Mutant Desert Fauna)
Watkins’ debut novel takes the reader to a California of the not-too-distant future, when the American southwest has been transformed by drought into a roiling desert called the Amargosa Dune Sea. With the landscape so altered, it’s only natural that new creatures would evolve to live in it, and Watkins includes a field guide to the critters one might encounter, including the Vampire Grackle, the Incandescent Bat, the Albino Hummingbird, and the Blue Chupacabra.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Dragons and Ogres)
Ishiguro fans were in for a surprise when he published The Buried Giant earlier this year. The novel is set in an England “not much beyond the Iron Age,” where “icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.” The Buried Giant marks a turn toward fantasy and Arthurian legend for a novelist better known for realism. But maybe readers shouldn’t have been surprised that Ishiguro’s new novel features a quest for a dragon; for a novelist who endeavors to reinvent himself with each book, anything is possible.