A Genius You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

Is there a musician who you love...and no one else cares about?

Since this blog is about speculative fiction, I want to give props to a writer whose works I greatly admire, but he's not exactly a household name.

Back in 2003, Harold Bloom, the high-minded literary critic, gave a shortlist of five great living American novelists "who are still at work and who deserve our praise." The writers he cited were: Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and John Crowley.

I’m sure that most people’s reaction when seeing this list is: John who?

(We’ll set aside the fact that the writers are all aging white men—that’s a whole other column.)

John Crowley is a fiction writer, screenwriter, and essayist whose most famous works are in the realms of fantasy and speculative fiction. Having said that, his aesthetics are closer in spirit to Iris Murdoch or Umberto Eco rather than Harry Potter. If you cannot stomach his books, then I feel sorry for you—you’re missing one of the finest literary stylists in the English language.

If there is a quintessential Crowley novel, then Little, Big (1981) is it. A winner of the World Fantasy Award, the novel is extraordinary and almost indescribable. A magic realist fable set mostly in a sprawling mansion in upstate New York, the plot is about an eccentric family and their contact with the dimension of Faerie. Oh, and we also meet an autocratic presidential candidate who is the reincarnation of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Gulp!

I agree with Bloom on this one. “It is literally the most enchanting twentieth-century book I know,” he wrote. It’s worth a look, simply for the style. Here is a description of the mansion’s unique architecture: “a severe, classical façade softened by ivy, its gray stone stained as though by dark tears…pillars turned pilasters and disappeared. Like one of those ripply pictures children play with, where a face turns from grim to grin as you move it…the house had become cheerful and mock-Tudor, with deep curling eaves and clustered chimneys like comic hats.” Now that’s a mansion!

 The most recent edition of  Little, Big  (image taken from Amazon.com).

The most recent edition of Little, Big (image taken from Amazon.com).

If you are feeling ambitious, then I’d also recommend Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle. The cycle is a tetralogy of novels concerning the intellectual adventures of an American writer named Pierce Moffett. He sets out to find the hidden history of the world, and his research delves into Hermeticism and the writings of the real-life occultist, John Dee. All this intellectualizing is putting a dent in Moffett’s personal life. The poor guy just wants to be loved. Is the Aegypt Cycle esoteric? Yes. But it’s also brilliant. Critic Michael Dirda raved about it in a long essay.

Here is the best way to approach a Crowley book—don’t think…just dive in.


Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.

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