Nine Novels that Changed My Life

I also filmed a video version of this blog post. Watch it on YouTube.

Most readers can put together a list of life changing books. I have my own. A list of novels that shaped me in some way. Some of they expanded my perspective of the world, others inspired they way I write my own works. So today I’m sharing a list of nine life changing novels.

This is an abbreviated list. If I were to list every novel that affected me, we’d be here for days. So I set up a kit, an ever-growing list of books that changed my life. If you want more life-changing books, check it out too.

Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson

Treasure Island was one of those early books that encouraged my love of reading and writing. While I started reading illustrated abridged versions of young readers, as I grew older I revisited it several times. Unlike other novels (and movies for that matter) of my younger years, this one held up because of it’s fun and fast-moving plot, engaging characters, and standout villain.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is an inspiration (buy his complete works). I continue to draw from his works again and again, but never live up to anything he’s accomplished. I love King Lear and Titus for the passion in their protagonists. There’s something so compelling in watching a person at their height brought low. The Tempest is surreal, and Othello is captivating. If you haven’t seen a live Shakespeare performance, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Generally speaking, people tend to talk about Catcher in the Rye as J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece, but I personally think it pales in comparison to Franny and Zooey. The novel is mostly dialog, so we Perdidoget to know these characters. If you’re looking for a study in dialog to improve your own writing, you can’t do much better than this.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon

Doesn’t it have a fantastic title? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time follows a young autistic boy as he investigates the murder of a dog in his Perdido yard. But it goes much deeper than that as we follow him day by day and see everything through his perspective. It does a great job of immersing you in a characters head that may be very much unlike you, which is why it affected me so much.

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days heavily influenced the writing style in my first two books, Discovering Aberration and The Gin ThiefI love the way he strings a sentence together, so when I set to writing a steampunk novel, I thought a voice similar to his would make a great fit. Not only that, but his novels are pure fun. Sure there are a few boring sections here and there where he get’s overly specific on how technology works or how an economy functions, but if that bores you, simply skip a paragraph or two and you’re back into the adventure.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hess

In my college years, Hermann Hess affected me more than any other writer. I felt a real connection with him that I haven’t felt with a writer since. While everyone reads Siddhartha, a book that’s fine, most don’t move on to his real masterpieces like Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, or The Glass Bead Game. All of these novels shaped the way I think permanently, gave me perspective on life, sex, religion, and art. If you’re looking for the standout author who really changed the way I view the world, it would be Hermann Hess.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

The grand achievement of this book is the fact that as soon as I finished reading it, I started again from the beginning. I don’t think I’ve done that before or since. It’s world is so utterly engrossing, and so wildly different from our own. If you’re searching for a fantasy that throws out all of the genre norms, builds a world fresh from the ground up, and tells an engaging and dark narrative, look no further than the masterpiece that is Perdido Street Station.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

It is the first book of a now famously unfinished trilogy. The fact that it’s unfinished doesn’t bother me a bit, and it shouldn’t bother you either. Let genius work. Time has always been a major ingredient in the writing of these books. Anyway, The Name of the Wind is an outstanding novel that drops you into a characters head as he goes about life, grows up, learns magic, and seeks revenge in this fantasy world. It all sounds fairly typical of a fantasy novel, but in its execution, it really stands out. I’ve read it several times and will read it several more.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

This is a novel with perfect prose. I’ve never read a more perfectly written novel. It’s astounding. Blood Meridian is an extremely dark tale that will stick with you well after you put it down. There are scenes that get etched in your mind. I’ve loved some of Cormac McCarthy’s other books, such as The Road and No Country for Old Men, but even those fantastic novels don’t hold a candle to Blood Meridian.

How R.L. Stine & Chuck Palahniuk Taught me Greatness is All About Timing

What makes a novel great?

I’ve been sucking on this questions like a breath mint for months. What makes a novel great? I don’t mean good, entertaining, or popular. Those are all worthwhile things.

What makes a novel great? Not good, worthwhile, or popular, but great? Maybe it's all about timing. #books Click To Tweet

But I’m seeking greatness. I’m seeking works of fiction that will stick with me long after I put them down. Books that’ll change my mind, make me feel different from before I picked them up.

On this hunt for greatness, I’ve made a few discoveries. And over the next few months, I’m going to explore what I found.

Sleeping with Goosebumps

When I was young, novels like Goosebumps granted me a safe place to find thrills, mystery, and a little danger. I still remember bits of It Came From Beneath the Sink and Monster Blood.

Every week or two, my mom would buy me a new Goosebumps book. I loved them so much I’d sleep with them under my pillow. When I woke up, all my tossing and turning would destroy them, creasing the cover and crumpling pages.

You could say Goosebumps had a profound affect on me. The series planted the seed that would blossom into my current obsession with writing. But if I were to pick up Say Cheese and Die today, I doubt it would have the same effect.

Fight Club and the $100 plate of nachos

The make-out years

I was a nerdy kid. All the way to freshman year, all I did was hang out with church friends, play video games, read books, and walk to the local Blockbuster to rent movies. I didn’t know how to talk to girls. I had little rebellions, but nothing substantial.

Sophomore year, everything changed. I made friends with the rebellious kids, started going out more, discovered girls were a thing and they were soft and fun to kiss. I even came up with a bold move — at a party, I’d sit next to a cute girl, lean in, and just go for it. And it worked! Let the sloppy make-out session begin. I became a smug little shit.

The book that changed everything

During this time, I heard whispers about this book everyone said was “badass and messed up”. It passed from rebel to rebel, and eventually worked its way into my hands. The book, Fight Club. I didn’t just read it. I cut it up into a line and inhaled itThen again and again…

Fight Club inspired a strong, prolonged drive in me to push against my boundaries in all directions. It’s nihilistic glee spoke to me, empowered me to break away from everything that held me down. I took part in a series of escalating acts of destruction, mayhem, experimentation. Tyler Durden was my hero.

First, I skipped school to go to the river or hang out on the train tracks. Then I ran away from home. I stole backpacks full of groceries and alcohol. I played around with mushrooms, dextroamphetamine, nearly got arrested while on mescaline. One night my friends and I wanted nachos, so we stole enough chips, salsa, meat, and condiments to make a plate of the most over indigent nachos we could muster. It was cemented in infamy as the $100 Nachos.

I’m not bragging about it or suggesting you do what I did. The reason why I share is to illustrate the profound impact Chuck’s book had on me. It, along with Punk Rock and my growing dissatisfaction with Mormonism literally shaped a period of my life in drastic ways.

Join the S.C. Barrus newsletter to receive a free copy of Discovering Aberration and exclusive monthly updates.

All About Timing

Outside influences

This begs the question: why did Fight Club affect me so much? What about it impacted me more than all those other books I read before? Of all the books I can remember reading in that period of my life, from The Hobbit to Catcher in the RyeI don’t think any inspired a discernible change in me til this one.

Turns out, I have an answer. As I get older and go back to reread books I loved from previous periods in my life, some I have a greater appreciation for, while others I’m left wondering what it is about it that made me love it in the first place. It all comes down to timing.

Books can mean incredibly different things based on so many factors outside of the text itself. From the culture around you, to your own mindset that morphs year to year, the book you pick up today will be very different from that same book seven years from now.

Sure, it can be argued that Fight Club is targeted to young men at the exact age I was. But that’s missing the point. Reading Kurt Vonnegut now vs. reading it him in high school brings up a different response in me. I image the same will be true when I pick up Robert Luis Stephenson, Hermann Hesse, Cormac McCarthy, or Patrick Rothfuss again.

So maybe greatness is all about timing.

Fight Club fifteen years later

I recently re-read Fight Club. I went into it concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memory, but something happened. I read it with two mindsets. I was transported via nostalgia right back to that feeling I had when I was a kid reading it for the first time. Meanwhile, I read it with older eyes. I was more distanced from the characters, the anti-consumerist message, the unique rhythm of Palahniuk’s prose. Of course it felt different, I’m different now. But it was still fun, still gleefully anarchistic, and I enjoyed it.

Reading it for the first time at age 32, would it have changed my life? Doubtful. It would certainly entertain me, and I would still find Tyler Durden to be enduring as all hell. But it wouldn’t change the way I think.

What does that mean? Was it once a great novel, and now it’s just good? Does a novel need to change the way you think to be considered great? Of course not. Not all great books will change you. But only a great book can.

So that makes it official. I declare Fight Club to be a masterpiece. Because in the end, I guess it did change me a second time. It taught me that greatness is just as much about the reader as it is the book. Not just that, but the specific stage in the reader’s life when they pick it up.

So maybe I’ll try to pick up A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man again. Maybe last time I tried the timing was off.

How R.L. Stine and Chuck Palahniuk Taught me Greatness is All About Timing Click To Tweet

I consider Fight Club a book that changed my life. If you haven’t read it, it’s probably about time. Consider supporting this blog by purchasing the paperback, ebook, or audiobook.

On Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian. I don’t know where to begin with this book.

It’s a western, or an anti-western. I’ve heard it called the greatest work of southern gothic lit out there, if that helps at all. It follows the kid (he has no name, always referred to simply as “the kid”) through 1850’s northern Mexico who joins the Glanton gang as they go on a scalping spree.

It’s fantastic. Maybe the best novel I’ve ever read. Definitely provocative, controversial, often difficult to read, eye-opening, mind changing, terrifying. The prose is sparse, gripping, often perfect, I mean really truly perfect as if some greater power wrote through Cormac McCarthy. What a novel. What a novel.

So many people have written about Blood Meridian, throwing my hat in the ring hardly feels justified. Doesn’t matter, I’m giving it a shot. My goal isn’t to be illuminating. I don’t think I can help you fully comprehend this novel. I just want you to read the damn book and wear the same look of shock on your face that I did during the three months it took me to soldier through it.

Sketches by JaradOwen of characters from Blood Meridian.

No it’s not a long novel. But it demands your full attention and concentration. Sometimes reading it was so taxing, I had to put it down for several days before I had the energy to pick it back up again.

And you should read it. No matter what I say throughout this piece, remind yourself that you owe it to you to read this book. It’s a masterpiece.

What’s it about? Professional American scalpers in 1850’s Mexico. The Glanton gang who butchered Indians for a buck, then Mexican villagers and American soldiers. They get consumed in the violence before getting consumed by the violence. Saying Blood Meridian is violent is kind of like saying water is wet. It’s a stupid sentiment because it’s so clearly evident from page 1 til the end.

Eye gouging in chapter one is the least of the atrocities. Scalping becomes commonplace. There are several massacres. The violence is never exciting. It’s never thrilling or fun. It is a gut punch until you grow numb to gut punches. By the end of this novel, you’ll form a callous around your heart. You’ll walk through life in a kind of stupor, replaying scenes in your mind over and over again. Will you gain a greater understanding? Probably not. But it will consume you, that much is certain.

Found this on Pinterest. Could not find out who the artist is… If you know, let me know, and I’ll link here.

There is a kind of illumination in the violence. Illumination of what, I don’t know. Was the novel written in defiance of God? I don’t know. Was it written with hands blessed by God? It could go either way. More than once I found myself seriously considering whether Cormac McCarthy is extremely blessed or cursed, sanctified or damned. I still don’t know. But God is in this book, and so is the devil.

The devil, in fact, makes perhaps the most literal appearance in the form of The Judge. But I’ve read convincing arguments that The Judge is in fact God. Who ever he is, he’s chilling.

The prose often require some effort to gain a full understanding of any given paragraph. Here’s a quote showing how difficult some paragraphs are to read, but you can’t deny the imagery these words conjure. This is perhaps Blood Meridian at it’s most difficult, but I personally didn’t mind:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Holy shit! Did you read what I just read? Damn it, I might need to give up the craft. That’s the kind of thing you’ll be reading throughout Blood Meridian. For some, this is enticing, but it may dissuade many. Do not let it. This book is worth it. Trust me.

Another quote:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

I mean, come on! It’s beautiful, dark, enlightening and nearly indecipherable on first reading.

There are scenes that will linger in your mind long after you put the page down. Such as when the Judge lifts a meteor over his head in defiance of the universe. Such as when the Glanton Gang make gun powder of piss and bat guano and lava rock, then gun down their pursuers with their crude recipe.

There were sentences so perfectly wrote I threw the book down and cursed because I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to write half this well. It’s infuriating to see someone using language near perfection, even when it’s contained in a few short lines describing the way spit evaporates in the desert and how the lizards will drink it up before it bubbles and dries.

A Blood Meridian poster I found on Red Bubble

And that last paragraph. If you’ve reached this point, and you’re convinced that you’ll never read Blood Meridian, you owe it to yourself to read that final paragraph and see if it doesn’t give you chills. Even removed from all context, the final words of this novel will make your blood curdle.

I loved Blood Meridian because it more than once made me pause and think “How was that written by a person, a human being like me?” Can a man really be that good a writer? I don’t know. Can I ever be that good a writer? I don’t know. Probably not, and even typing that makes me sad.

It does, however, give me something to strive for. I’ll revisit this novel, of that I’m certain. And when I do, I think I’ll type out the best of pages word for word just so I can see how it feels to mimic what I can only describe as perfection. I have so much to learn from Blood Meridian.

Read it. Just read it.


I highly recommend Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I consider it a book that changed my life. If you’re thinking about reading it and want to support this blog, buy it in paperback herebuy the hardback edition I own here, or listen to the excellent recording on audible.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

The Three Greatest Influences on Grim Curio

This week I reached a major writing milestone in Grim Curio. I wrote my 50,000th word. This is a big step in the process and to celebrate I’m going to share some of the works that have influenced me over the past few months.

What follows are GC’s three greatest influences, which is by no means a complete list. Each of these books feature specific elements in the area’s of tone, character arcs, and genre elements that I’ve taken, made my own, and tried to emulate. Let’s get started.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - Book CoverEvery Cormac McCarthy novel has blown me away. The guy is a master of prose, at genre subversion, and at non-conventional storytelling techniques. He has a voice all his own and manages to write genre fiction with deeply embedded literary flair.

Of his works, you might expect The Road to be the greatest source of inspiration. It shares the Post Apocalyptic genre with Grim Curio, and it’s probably his most well-known book at this point. And while The Road is certainly a book that makes me aspire to being a better writer, there are only really superficial similarities between that book and mine.

No, the McCarthy book that had the greatest impact on GC is easily No Country for Old Men. From the tightly paced narrative and the interesting moral dilemmas to absolutely stunning prose and fantastic character arcs, there’s so much to draw on.

Is No Country for Old Men an action novel? You could argue that it’s an action subversion, taking the guise of an action narrative while flipping all the tropes on their heads. Or perhaps it’d be better classified as post-action, especially in the way the book ends. Whatever it is, it’s a damn fine novel, and one that inspires me continually as I write.

Check out the three biggest influences on Grim Curio by @SCBarrus #novels #thriller #fantasy #scienceficiton Click To Tweet

The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson - Book Cover

Switching genres, the next major influence is the Mistborn trilogy which consists of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. These books feature an epic fantasy plot with a unique magic system and massive twists all along the way. But it’s not really these elements that inspire any element of Grim Curio.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every aspect above, but what really caught my eye was the near perfect character arcs. While reading I kept picking up on these often subtle character changes. Almost none of the major characters are static, they all end up as drastically different people than they started as, but the progression feels so subtle and natural.

Taken by the character progression, I ended up watching a series of novel-writing lectures from Brandon Sanderson on YouTube hoping that his secret would be revealed. Turns out it totally was, and it changed the way I write.

He has a unique approach to novel planning which I’ll dive deep into in a future post. It involves listing out all the major moments in a characters arc, then figuring out how that a character will earn that plot point. Each of these will turn into a scene. The end result, when done well, is subtle character growth leading to major changes over time.

While Grim Curio isn’t going to be anywhere near as long as Mistborn, I hope it still carries elements of this kind of character progression with all the major characters.

Mushishi

Long time followers may have guessed Mushishi would appear on this list. Mushishi is a quiet, contemplative and amazing piece of entertainment. Some may criticize it for being slow, but to them I say “no one asked you!”

Mushishi follows Ginko, a sort of traveling medicine man in feudal Japan. He wanders the rural villages to cure the ailments brought on by Mushi, creatures that exists in a different plane, yet affect our world in sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic ways.

While this one isn’t at all an edge of the seat thriller, it does instill the viewer with a sense of awe rarely felt while watching TV or movies. While technically Grim Curio will likely be categorized as Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction, it’s really Fantasy masquerading as Sci-Fi. The fantasy elements are all written through a Sci-Fi lens, but really it’s closer to Mushishi than any sort of hard science fiction.

GC attempts to take these small moments of wonder, and then build and build upon them until the scale is massive and the stakes are higher than ever. But it also seeks to capture periodic quiet moments of contemplation.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Conclusion

There you have it, the three biggest influences on Grim Curio. If you’re interested in learning more about inspiration, be sure to check out this post where I explore how to live a lifestyle that encourages constant inspiration and idea generation. Or if you’d rather get more peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, check out Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio.