Offbeat Books About Strange Creatures for Eerie Summer Evenings

By Amy Stolls, NEA Director of Literature
Silhouette of young boy reading a book against the sunset

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Maybe it’s the hot hazy days of summer that make my surroundings feel surreal sometimes, but I’ve been thinking about strange creatures lately. Evenings especially can be eerily quiet with so many of my fellow city dwellers out of town that I get to thinking: what else is out there in the dark? Did you just hear something?

NEA Big Read author Jeff VanderMeer evokes just this kind of atmosphere in his novel Borne, where there is no shortage of strange creatures to spark one’s imagination. If you’re a fan of magical, mythical, or made-up, bioengineered beasts, you might check out Borne, as well as his novella The Strange Bird, and listen to an interview with Jeff here. If you’re a fan of beastly stories and enjoy esoteric books with words and artwork, here are some other titles you might check out, including flip books, books from other countries, and books that, like the beasts they describe, defy classification.

For Grown-Ups and Older Children

A Journey In the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus by writer/illustrator Claudio Romo (Gingko Press, 2017; translated from the Italian by David Haughton). This strange, beautiful book is chock-full of lush, colorful drawings and humorous descriptions of garden denizens such as insects that “are born from, grow up in and feed on people’s dreams.” In a brief essay at the end of the book, Romo explains that his art is partly inspired by the carnivals in the Chilean port town where he grew up in which people dressed up as “impossible sea creatures.”

The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Children’s Collection, 2017). This is an assortment of drawings and musings that surrealist painter and storyteller Leonora Carrington drew on a wall in her Mexican home to entertain her sons. Among her creations is “the Monster of Chihuahua” that walks the street when “the moon is thin” with six legs and a jewel that holds a portrait of the “head of the Sanitary Department.” Born in 1917 in Lancashire, England, Carrington grew up listening to fantastical folk tales told by her Irish nanny.

After Man: A Zoology of the Future by paleontologist and evolution expert Dougal Dixon (St. Martin’s Press, 1981). Dixon uses his scientific knowledge to imagine what new kinds of species would exist on earth 50 million years after the extinction of humans. The result is a fascinating and highly entertaining and creative tour—in words and drawings—of the (sometimes creepy) predators and prey that might roam the planet’s various terrains.

According to the authors and editor of Beasts! (Fantagraphics Books, 2007), this anthology of artistic renderings of mythological creatures from around the world began as a solicitation to artists working in the worlds of “comics, rock posters, skate graphics, fantasy illustration, pin-ups, children’s books, animation, and commercial and gallery art.” This is the first of two volumes and includes interpretations of beings ranging from the Tui Delai Gau—a gentle giant of the South Pacific—to Odontotyrannus, the amphibious, human-eating monster from India.

For Grown-Ups and Younger Children

Like their adult counterparts, children’s books have plenty of strange creatures, but they tend to be more fun, less creepy. Among my favorites: Don’t Bump the Glump! And Other Fantasies by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, 1964, reissued in a 50th anniversary edition in 2014); The Utter Zoo: An Alphabet by Edward Gorey (first published in 1967); Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky, pictures by Peter Sis (Greenwillow Books, 2002); The Tin Forest by Helen Ward, illustrated by Wayne Anderson (Dutton, 2001); The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger (Walker Books, 2012); and The Night Riders (McSweeney’s McMullens, 2012), a sweet wordless picture book by Matt Furie that shows a friendship among creatures big and small.

Two of my favorite flip books that allow readers to mix and match the fronts and backs of beautifully drawn creatures hail from England and Mexico: Myth Match: A Fantastical Flipbook of Extraordinary Beasts by Good Wives and Warriors (Laurence King Publishing, 2018) and Animalario Universal del Profesor Revillod by Miguel Murugarren, illustrated by Javier Saez Castan (Fondo de Culture Economica, 2009).

What strange creatures live on your bookshelves?