Christmas fell on a Tuesday this year, but that won’t stop me from my regular weekly post! To all my Christian friends, Merry Christmas, to all my non-Christian friends, have fun at the movies. But anyway, for a “holiday edition” this year, how about my suggestions for how to spend those book store gift cards you got this year—and please tell me you got book store gift cards. Absent that, there really should be a War on Christmas!

In any case, you’ll find no shortage of book recommendations from me peppered all throughout Fantasy Author’s Handbook, but for this week, I’ll share books I’ve suggested, drawn examples from, or otherwise mentioned in my Writer’s Digest University online courses, starting with…

[UPDATE: I am no longer teaching these courses via WDU, but look for links off in the right side column and @PhilAthans on Twitter for NEW courses coming soon!]

This course came from Writing Monsters  and  The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by lil’ ol’ me. Of course. First advice to all authors: Never pass up an opportunity to put your own books in front of people—any people, pretty much anywhere!

Your self-study textbook!

But courses like this demand examples from novels and short stories so we can learn from what other authors have done. For this course I mentioned The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, which I quoted on the subject of technology in science fiction. I also wrote much more about this book here at FAH. I specifically referenced the stories “Domestic Magic” by Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem (on the subject of magic) and “The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times” by Eleanor Arnason (regarding fantasy religions) from The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Seven, which I used as a textbook for the original course I taught several years ago at a local community college.

There’s no way I could possibly talk about science fiction worldbuilding and not draw examples, specifically on the subjects of both government and religion, from Dune by Frank Herbert. But also on the same subject, a lighter take from the space opera epic Deathstalker by Simon R. Green. At least as important as Dune, especially in terms of government and politics in science fiction is 1984 by George Orwell, but I got an interesting quote from the lighter Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein as well, showing that there’s truth and ideas to be found in virtually any story, intended for any audience.

The difficult subject of culture challenges a lot of people who take that course, and I think an example from Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta goes a long way to illustrating the difference between culture, government, and religion, and it’s a brilliantly written book in any case.

And finally, one of the assignments, regarding cultures, is inspired by a paragraph from George Orwell’s essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” which can be found in the book Why I Write.

There are amazing resources all over the web that will let us read scans of original pulp magazines, and anyone with even a passing interest in the era will want to check out sites like the Pulp Magazines Project, the Pulp Magazine Archive, Comic Book+, Online Pulps, and the Luminist Archives.

This course is based around the “formula” created by pulp legend Lester Dent, and more on his strange life and career can be gleaned from Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc Savage, by Marilyn Cannaday. A fun overview of the pulp era comes to life in the art-heavy The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines by Peter Haining and the amazingly weird Men’s Adventure Magazines in Postwar America by Rich Oberg, Steven Heller, Max Allan Collins, and George Hagenauer.

This course starts with some essential texts that certainly won’t come as too big a surprise based on the title of the course itself, but please tell me you’ve either already read On Writing, Danse Macabre, and Skeleton Crew by Stephen King or have them close to the top of your to-read pile.

But the horror sun doesn’t rise and set on Stephen King alone, so I also drew from varied works of fiction for this course including American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, The Terror by Dan Simmons, Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler, The Strain by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan, and the classics The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

And let’s not forget the short stories, including “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “Pickman’s Model,” and the rest of the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft you’ll find in any of a number of anthologies, or online; “The Death of Halpin Frayser” by Ambrose Bierce; the story “Wolfshead” by Robert E. Howard, which can be found in the collection The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard; and the story “The Keeper of the Key” by August Derleth, which  can be found in the collection The Cthulhu Mythos. You’ll also want to find the stories “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, found in The Essential Ellison; and, of course, “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe.

And of course there are other books on the craft of horror or fiction in general, including Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and Take Joy by Jane Yolen, those last three popping up in most of these courses.


And finally, for my newest course, which takes a much deeper, four-week dive into horror, On Writing Horror, edited by Mort Castle; the anthology The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow; and my own Writing Monsters are the actual textbooks for this course, but I also reference the first book of Horror of Philosophy by Eugene Thacker: In the Dust of This Planet, as well as the novels The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle, and Hell House by Richard Matheson.

If, like me, you’re planning on an aggressive 2019 reading challenge (I’m going for 52 again this year), this should keep you busy for a while. So then this is me wishing you all a happy holidays, and a safe and happy new year. I’ll see you back here in 2019!


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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