Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, a time for love, romance, and, for those of us not romantically inclined, weird traditions. SFF is full of great romances, from the courtship of Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan (whose banter in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga recalls the squabbling of classic screen couples), to The Lord of the Rings‘ star-cross’d lovers Aragorn and Arwen, to the lovers in countless romantic fairy tales. But because this is genre, there are also many love stories that take more… unconventional turns, often into the downright bizarre. Here are seven books that take love, sex, and romance to strange new horizons, each in their own special way.
The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
Carter turns her eye for the psychosexual and feminist to popular fairy tales in this collection in order to, in her words, “extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” From here, she rebuilds familiar tales in odd shapes: a love triangle involving a murderous Marquis, toxic relationships with wolves, a vampire-themed riff on Sleeping Beauty, two examinations of Beauty and the Beast that offer differing views on relationship and power dynamics. It also features some of the most unusual human-animal relationships ever committed to the page. Carter’s intense lyricism maintains the poetry of the original works while bringing hidden facets of their meanings to light. It’s a collection of retellings that can stand wholly on its own, both gorgeous and utterly terrifying.
Private Midnight, by Kris Saknussemm
Dubbed “a psychosexual fairytale” and featuring some of the weirdest fantasy visuals ever committed to the page, Kris Saknussemm’s surrealist noir manages to use one of the genre’s most recognizable tropes (hard-boiled detective and mysterious femme fatale) to interrogate numerous power and relationship dynamics, and flings the results into one of the the darker corners of fantasy horror. A corrupt cop named Birch Ritter is put on the trail of an unusual therapist-cum-dominatrix named Genevieve Wyvern, both for her role in several unusual deaths and disappearances, and as someone who can help him manage with his own inner turmoil. As Ritter gets closer to finding answers, and closer to Genevieve, things spiral wildly out of control, and might leave both of them irrevocably changed. It’s unconventional, but the novel’s internal dialogue—about power, toxicity, toxic masculinity, and control—has never been more relevant, personal, or upsettingly intriguing.
The Smoke, by Simon Ings
Simon Ings’ novel walks a very odd, careful line between being an apocalyptic look at a post-cyberpunk future, and an examination of how love and obsession can turn someone toxic, as it charts the decline of human civilization in an alternate-history Great Britain through the numerous relationships of the Lanyon family. Through it all, Ings manages to put an impressively heartfelt spin on the strange proceedings, be it via the obsessive love the alien narrator exhibits by telepathically stalking protagonist Stuart Lanyon for a violent act he committed when he was younger, to the unusual lengths Stuart’s father and sister in law go in trying to keep Stuart’s mother alive after a terminal diagnosis, to the way the gap in ability between Stuart and his transhumanist girlfriend Fel eventually poisons and destroys his relationship. The personal and deeply human face The Smoke puts on the eventual obsolescence of the “regular” humans makes it all that more unsettling, even as the love stories at its core make it feel achingly real.
The Books of Blood, by Clive Barker
Clive Barker is almost as well known for his… unconventional takes on relationship dynamics (The Hellbound Heart and its adaptation Hellraiser are a Valentine’s Day tradition in my household) as he is for his bizarre visuals and body horror. The best example of this comes in his horrifying debut volume The Books of Blood. In its stories, a woman who learns to warp flesh uses the ability on toxic men (“Jacqueline Ess: Her Last Will and Testament”), the dynamics of a theatre troupe are heightened by a brush with the undead (“Sex, Death, and Starshine”), and, in “Pig Blood Blues,” a former policeman uncovers an unusual secret at a British reform school for boys. “Pig Blood” especially stands out for its blending of folk horror rituals, queer relationships, an atmosphere of slowly mounting dread, leading to one of the most disturbing final scenes in mainstream horror fiction. The story’s themes of devotion and obsession linger long after the lights go out.
Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart
Arguably the least weird—and definitely the least disturbing—volume on this list, Hughart’s picaresque quest fantasy stands out for being about the concept of love than about one particular love story. Love finds its way into every part of the tale of debauched genius detective “Master” Li Kao and his hapless apprentice Number Ten Ox, be their run-in with a necromancer attempting to bring his beloved back to life, to a mysterious courtesan whose sheer presence seems to spark devotion and love in the men around her, to the tragic story of Miser Shen, who sheds all his wealth to please a woman, to the gods’ attempts to reunite two long-lost celestial lovers. The villains get in on the act too, showcasing darker, obsessive flavors of love—consider the Duke of Ch’in, who locks his love away to keep her in his control, and the rather fatal love triangle involving a spoiled noblewoman and a murderous ghost. If you’re looking for something that celebrates love in all its weird, wonderful and sometimes terrible forms, Hughart’s book is an absolute delight.
Tentacle, by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas
In future Santo Domingo, at the height of both an apocalyptic disaster and an immigration crisis, a young trans prostitute-turned-housekeeper is caught up in a complex scheme involving a sacred sea anemone, Yoruba prophecy, time travel, and psychic powers. Various characters fall in and out of love with one another across timelines as the book shifts between the past, present, and future of the Dominican Republic, some characters even controlling multiple bodies at once through a kind of remote viewing after being stung by a mysterious sea creature. It makes for a very odd, multi-tiered novel, showcasing relationships that are incredibly complex in all ways— psychological, spiritual, and sexual. Indiana uses these relationships as a focal point as her characters affect history in numerous ways, flipping between their various selves to shift the flow of events in their favor. It’s a brief, odd, propulsive, and hypnotic novel.
The Steel Breakfast Era, by Carlton Mellick III
Mellick (or CM3, as fans call him) has devoted a lot of time to writing about weird relationships (at least one of his book covers makes the rounds every Valentine’s as an image meme; sadly the title is unprintable here). While many of these books are odd in and of themselves, among the strangest is The Steel Breakfast Era, a mashup of Frankenstein, cult B-movies, cyberpunk horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction. From within a fortified apartment building slowly being taken over by “tik-worms” that turn people into biomechanoid monstrosities, the insane narrator has grown so obsessed with the idea of not dying alone that he takes it upon himself to piece together a woman out of his deceased former fellow tenants. This being a Carlton Mellick novel, of course, this manages to work, somehow. Unfortunately, it’s also an utter disaster: the narrator’s new girlfriend starts exhibiting odd behaviors, and an apartment full of deranged survivors slowly turning metal tends to be a terrible place at the best of times. Steel Breakfast is one of the weirdest works by one of the biggest names in bizarro. When it comes to weird love, you can’t get much weirder than that.
What’s the weirdest SFF love story you’ve ever encountered?