Coming To Come Bargain With Uncanny Things Strand 4: The Reading List Cometh
Updated: Oct 23
This blog is part of a series on how I came to write Come Bargain With Uncanny Things (tickets available now!). If you want to read the other parts, see the links below:
I really like speculative fiction, stories about bargains, and the underlying nature of what it is to be human.
I could try talking about that in a more learnéd way. But I’d rather just squeal wildly about some of the things I’m most excited by in the field that all fed into the pot.
So, you clicked on the blog post with the most boring title in all of my blog’s history?
Congratulations! I now have your attention for a list of my favourite books, films, and other such things that I suspect fed into Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, with an occasional gloss on why that’s a part of what I’m doing.
Top Tier Seven
Top tier items are the ones where I’m 100% sure that they’re a part of the DNA of Come Bargain. Something where I just look at them and know I drew on them, or sometimes was referring back to them while I wrote Come Bargain.
Ursula Le Guin, basically anything, but especially her translation and notes on the Tao Te Ching, The Word for World is Forest, Always Coming Home, and some of her essays in Words Are My Matter. A wonderful sense of community, a responsibility for our world and what’s around us that’s far from naïve, and above all an awareness that sometimes people do screw it up.
Terry Pratchett, likewise anything, but especially Sourcery, Small Gods, and Witches Abroad (the last of which is not, perhaps, his best writing, but among the clearest articulation of some ideas that are core to his work). In particular, the ideas that power comes with a price, by virtue of negotiation, and one ought to be responsible; not only that, but it is as human to not succumb to enchantment and the desire for power as it is to fall, even if it is hard. A wonderfully positive vision of humanity; one that might also be found in the more obvious source Lords and Ladies.
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman. Much like American Gods, a use of fantasy as a way to explore what it is to be alive in modern(ish) London, and a version of that where the magic is laid alongside our functioning real world.
Macbeth, Shakespeare. Unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who’s worked out that I was writing Come Bargain in the window between my first production of Macbeth (2020) getting delayed by the lockdowns, and consequently many of the core ideas in that cyberpunk production are included in Come Bargain too: of drawing bargains with unknowable powers, stepping into the dark and being unable to step back wholly, and the nihilism of existence versus the effort to try and cling to humanity. My especial thanks to Emma Scott, my Macbeth, from whom I drew many helpful hours of thought.
Paradise Lost, Milton. Another classic, about Satan’s fall from Heaven and subsequent revenge, all the while yearning for some sort of reconciliation with Heaven… as long as he can maintain what is important to him. It’s a remarkable poem (frankly, I’d rate Milton’s iambic pentameter above most of Will’s), and its underlying idea of a price being paid for everything is remarkable.
The Mahabharata, Vyasa. The Hindu epic, which I first learnt of from a film of the Peter Brook production (itself a huge influence, with its comfort in granting huge amounts of space and time to the production). But constantly grappling with thoughts about the right way to live, how one should balance with imperfections in the world, and the price of virtuous goals.
Zeami, many works, but most especially Atsumori. A Noh play that features an old priest, a retired warrior, encountering the ghost of a young man he killed in battle. Its motifs of trying to live well, reconciliation with adverse spirits, and trying to be better are ones I think come into Come Bargain, alongside Noh’s very particular relationships with time, space, and trying to be in a moment, rather than showing lots of them.
Second Tier Nine
These are the ones where I know I like them, I feel them in the work, but I’d not put them at the top of the reading list. Some commentary.
The Magnus Archives, Jonathan Sims. Like Neverwhere, an alternate London, this time rooted in cosmic horror. A wonderful podcast that I enjoyed a great deal in lockdown, with strong ideas around humanity, bargains, and the price of survival and knowledge.
Akhenaten, Philip Glass. One of my favourite operas, because it defies expectations to create a vast three-hour ritual. Like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
Batter My Heart, from John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, most especially as sung by Gerald Finley. The librettist (or chooser of this Donne text), Peter Sellars, has been a huge influence and kind presence in my work, and this one, with its ideas of trying to reach something one cannot reach, is one I find especially moving.
The Doomed, Masks, by Brendan Conway. A tabletop roleplaying game, and I love this character-type for how it manifests a wonderful idea in play: the closer you get to your doom, the more powerful you are. Try though you might, your doom will come anyway. I desperately want to play it; I particularly like the contrast between this and Dungeons & Dragons’ warlock class, which has a similar concept of Faustian bargains without any such mechanical reinforcement. More positive comparison with ever-craving Hollow from Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts.
Dream Askew/Dream Apart, by Avery Alder and Ben Rosenbaum. The former uses a very simple token transfer system to represent the relationships within a post-apocalyptic queer commune, and consequently offers a wonderful way to embody communities of kindness, acceptance, and strife that I stole a lot from.
Pickman’s Model, The Rats in the Walls, The Statement of Randolph Carter, H.P. Lovecraft. An awful man. An awful, racist, frightened man. But I, like many others before me, can’t deny that his cosmic horror captures a sense of fear of the unknown, and of knowing the unknowable, which I prize. Even if Borges’ and Pratchett’s parodies of him are an utter delight, the above three are striking tales I can’t get out of my mind.
The King in Yellow, Robert Chambers. The idea of a book that enthrals and corrupts is delightful, and comes from here. The first four short stories are just marvellous, and I’d recommend them wholeheartedly for a slightly different (and mostly less racist) take on cosmic horror to Lovecraft.
Fictions, Borges. A set of short stories that, like the Tao Te Ching, will just expand your mind and what you think is possible. And a kind reminder that yes, many ideas make a far better short story than a novel [take notes, Lovecraft].
Crisis, What Crisis?, Parabolic Theatre. Again, one of those shows that just expanded my mind about a dozen times. First time I went, I got to run the union negotiations for the Labour government in the Winter of Discontent. Second time, I [REDACTED]. An astonishing amount of fun, utterly rooted in an interesting yet not-imposed idea about how the world works, and quite simply changed my life and practice.
I’ve spent too much time watching Shut Up & Sit Down reviews of board games I’ll never play to not mention them. I learnt a lot of mechanics and ways of thinking about mechanics from their board game criticism.
This Is How You Lose The Timewar, Amal El-Mohtal and Max Gladstone. I bought it because I liked the title and cover art. I loved it for a heartbreaking lovestory I daren’t spoil beyond saying it’s on my “makes me cry every time” shelf.
Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes. Trying to become more intelligent, succeeding, and then realising it’s going to be taken away? Utterly brilliant use of first-person narrative.
L’Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Mallory. The first proper epic I ever read, and my word but the ideas of questing fruitlessly for the holy grail, trying to make a perfect society only to end it by being riddled by Arthur’s own failings and mistakes, and just utterly gorgeous prose stuck with me. Lancelot weeping on watching his son attain the grail, knowing it is his own faults that block his entry, and the tragedy of the Battle of Camlann starting while friends charge to one another’s slaughter… I dearly look forward to returning to some day.
The ‘Dark Willow’ arc, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Someone in a community increasingly goes too far in the name of power? Excellent choices.
The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, a non-fiction autobiography the author had locked away for 50 years after his death, and a remarkably clear-eyed queer memoir of the early 20th century. I’ve not read it for a while, but its ideas of yearning stuck with me, and the heartfelt pessimism of “The utmost we dare expect is tolerance… Love for love we cannot get…”. Perhaps worth contrasting with Wilde’s Die Profundis, or Douglas’ Two Loves.
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. Again, bad deals, and primarily an allegorical critique of Vietnam. But equally driven by a sense of the bonds between people, and I really like that. Don’t read the sequels. Don’t. In a similar category to Dan Simmons’ Hyperion in that regard. Contrast with Dancers at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock, the last book of which has some wonderful
Fetch, Grant Howitt. Another TTRPG, and utterly horrifyingly scratch-out-my-unwanted-eyes depressed. But one of the best expressions of the fundamental changeling idea I’ve ever seen; I’d recommend it wholeheartedly - and it’s single player, so you don’t… even… need… friends.
Dialect, by Hymes & Seyalioglu. A TTRPG about language and how it dies; that is to say, about how communities function around their languages. Gentle, wonderful, and I ran a couple of games for myself to generate some of the world for Come Bargain.
The Power of Five, Antony Horowitz. I liked them a lot when I was a kid, and I suspect they’re in here somewhere with their child-friendly ideas of cosmic horrors and unwise bargains being the cause of betrayal. But I may be wrong.
Likewise, The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony Ditzerli and Holly Black, which introduced me to ideas of the fey as untrustworthy tricksters with their own rules as a child. While on children’s literature, Varjak Paw by SF Said is just lovely, fun, and once again ideas of gaining power by discipline but being wise with it. In many ways, a striking contrast with much of the cosmic horror on this list. Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver, deserves a mention here too, as does His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman for its depiction of doors between realities.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allen Poe, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. All nice, classic gothic literature that I’ve had swirling around in my brain for a while now (except Wuthering Heights, which I only read last year after a Yorkshire colleague reminded me that it was entirely up my street).
The Kraken, Tennyson. A nice poem, the first one I ever memorised, about what lies beneath waiting to wake up at the end of time…
Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo. I have a fondness for stories about (primarily Catholic) holy figures trying to maintain their faith while being alive. Similar enjoyable instalments of this genre include Carpe Jugularum’s Brother Brutha, and some of Milton’s Lucifer. Try Tu vas me détruire from the musical adaptation of Hugo.
Eldest, Christopher Paolini. More particularly, one scene in which Eragon, the protagonist, drains the life of a forest in order to cast a spell and feels terrible.
A vast amount of Chloe Mashiter’s work onstage and off, which combines interactivity, care for its audience, and ideas glittering.
Erlkönig, Schubert. A wonderful song which entirely captures the sense of the predatory, hungry, and unnatural fey.
American McGee’s Alice Madness. A video game I watched a playthrough with once, and adored the aesthetics of its twisted take on Alice in Wonderland.
Insurgent Empire, Priyamvada Gopal. Filled with ideas about different ways of organising and resistance to the British Empire, it forms the bedrock of Come Bargain’s alternate history of the empire, and offers a radical idea about how one can be British and proud of a radical legacy.
I almost didn’t mention Leo Skilbeck’s JOAN, which was a remarkably formative influence for me in its freedom of styles and sense of fun; Leo is also just a wonderful creator and leader. I’m not sure I felt allowed to have fun while seeing a show before that.
Faust, various versions. Ironically, I’ve never actually read this one. But it’s so deeply-rooted in the DNA of many things I’m drawing on that I probably ought to include it. And maybe read it by the time I publish this.
Life, mine. And I’m not going to tell you about that right now.