Alternate History and The Thrill of What Could Have Been

Alternate History is a pretty interesting genre. It’s sort of like fantasy and science fiction, but also kind of it’s own thing. Basically, the short and sweet definition is that Alternate History stories take real historical events and change a detail or two in order to create a very different world for the story to take place in. For example, what if the American colonists lost the Revolution? What if the Wright Brothers never learned to fly? You get the idea. I also tend to use Alternate History to describe books where the thing changed was not a real event, but a literary one. Let’s pick on Romeo and Juliet for a moment. What if someone rewrote the play so that Romeo never went to the party where he meets Juliet? What if she falls in love with Benvolio instead? Or, what if Friar Lawrence gave Juliet actual poison? On purpose? The possibilities are endless.

So, that’s a bit of what this list is going to be. These are titles that either A.) Change significant facts of a historical event or B.) Change significant facts of a literary story.

The Amazing Screw-On Head is probably one of the stranger titles on this list. When the evil Emperor Zombie threatens the United States, President Lincoln turns to his secret weapon: a robotic head (that can screw itself into different bodies, which is admittedly very cool). Together with Mr. Groin (his faithful manservant) and Mr. Dog (his dog), the Amazing Screw-On Head sets out to stop Emperor Zombie’s fearsome plans, braving ancient tombs, flying apparatuses, and even a gaggle of demons from another dimension. This is a perfect example of “alternate history”– what if President Lincoln had a special, advanced robot to assist him when danger threatened? The story itself is somewhat short, but there is other bonus material in the book, including a short story written by the author’s young child about a wizard and a snake.

In this (admittedly bizarre) collection, comedian Colin Mochrie creates his own special take on classic novels…sort of. Each story takes the first and last line of a classic, and completely changes the plot in the middle. For example, “A Study in Ha-Ha” (A Study in Scarlet) features Sherlock Holmes trying his hand at comedy. “Franken’s Time” (Frankenstein) is about a super-intelligent chicken named Franken. “The Cat and My Dad” is a Seussian take on the zombie apocalypse, etc. Each story is unique, incredibly weird, and really funny. From bald actors with demonic wigs to coyotes chasing roadrunners, parodies of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and “Casey at the Bat,” Mochrie really put together a fascinating and quirky collection of tales. They’re Not Quite the Classics, but still a ton of fun in their own right.

Okay, so one of my favorite cartoonists, Jason, wrote a handful of these sorts of stories and I’m going to include three of them here. First, we have I Killed Adolf Hitler. A scientist creates a time machine and sends an assassin back in time to kill Hitler and avert the horrible disaster that was WWII. But, when Hitler not only survives the attempted murder, but manages to steal the time machine and journey to the present, leaving his would-be-killer stranded in the past. In The Last Musketeer, Athos, who is now centuries old, travels to Mars after an alien invasion on Earth. There, he must fight the Martian king in order to get back home. And finally, The Left Bank Gang reimagines the lives of Lost Generation writers living in Paris (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Joyce) as cartoonists. The group decides to commit a robbery, but things do not go as planned…

The Name of the Star is the first book in the chilling Shades of London series. When Louisiana teenager Aurora “Rory” Deveaux arrives at her new boarding school in London, she’s more concerned about fitting in and adjusting to her new home than anything else. But, there is a killer on the loose, and a string of Jack-the-Ripper-style murders shakes up London. Rory believes she’s seen the prime suspect…but she’s the only one who actually saw him. And his reaction is very strange. In fact, he seems genuinely surprised that she could see him at all… What follows is a supernatural thriller as Rory discovers that there is more to the world than the average person realizes, with dark and dangerous things lurking behind every corner. And now she’s pursued by a supernatural foe with a deadly bloodlust. How can Rory protect herself against a monster that no one else can see?

Set during the Boxer Rebellion, the dual narratives of Boxers and Saints address the conflict from two very different perspectives. Boxers is the story of Little Bao, a Chinese teenager who in his struggles to drive the Christian missionaries from China, discovers that he and his friends can harness the power of the ancient Chinese gods. Little Bao recruits an army known as the Boxers to fight the “foreign devils”. On the other side of the divide is Four-Girl, whose story is told in Saints. As the unwanted fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family. But, she finds solace, comfort, and friendship with the Christian missionaries visiting her homeland. They even give her a name: Vibiana. But, China is a very dangerous place for Christians right now, and Vibiana must decide where her loyalties lie–with the culture that rejected her or with her newfound friends. And she must also decide if she is willing to die for her newfound faith. What I really love about these two books is that they take a complex and bloody conflict and beautifully illustrate both sides of the story, weaving a tale that is heartbreaking and beautiful and that forces the reader into a situation where there are no easy answers.

Erin

I'm the Reader's Advisory Librarian at WPPL. My interests include old horror films, classic novels, manga and anime, paper-crafting, and plants. If you like my suggestions, you can request personalized recommendations from me on My Librarian page.