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The Bizarro Starter Kit

In his introduction to Michel Houellebecq‘s love-letter to the dark prince of Providence, HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Stephen King wrote: “A generation’s weird fiction, which has always been mainstream literature’s first cousin (and sometimes its twin sister), gives us valuable information about the society in which it appears”. As genre of the weird and “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store … sometimes goofy, sometimes bloody, and sometimes borderline pornographic,” the Bizarro literary movement is the ultimate in outsider lit.

The Bizarro Starter Kit introduces ten writers from that genre, not a new genre the authors acknowledge, but a new term. The Kit is a joint production between Raw Dog Screaming Press, Eraserhead Press and Afterbirth Books (imprints which are as underground and anti-mainstream as their names suggest), the voices gathered under a rickety Charles Addams-style umbrella are different from each other and the works span short stories to novellas. Bizarro claims it does not “defy categorization so much as deny it”, but there are some distinct styles: the isms (surrealism, magic realism, irrealism, absurdism, metrosexualism) and some self-invented tags (like blender, brutality chronic, “tweaker lit”, “Walronian fiction”, the horrible).

Leading light in the Bizarro group is avant-punk and imp of the perverse Carlton Mellick III, whose previous books include Satan Burger and The Haunted Vagina, titles which may (or may not) prepare you for his contribution to the Starter Kit: “The Baby Jesus Butt Plug”. Hipsters are using Baby Jesus pets not as they were originally intended and, in Mellick’s trashy and dark fairy-tale the narrator ends up fighting zombie clones to save his life. “People can have whatever quirks and kinks they want, but leave the fucking bugs out of it!” says Oscar Legbo, America’s golden boy of bicycle racing. Kevin L. Donihe treats us to the “Greatest Fucking Moment in Sports” — live and direct and brought to you by Anchorman Tim and Anchorlady Jane — a satire on television and the cult of celebrity which ends with human combustion and agape love.

Set in the near-future is Jeremy Robert Johnson‘s “Extinction Journals”, in which World War III was “less a war than it was a singular event. A final reckoning for a race sick of waiting for the next pandemic to clean things up”. Probably one of the more accessible contributions in the collection, Johnson takes the conceit that if there were a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches would be sure survivors and his protagonist fashions himself a bug suit to shield himself from the fall-out. John Edward Lawson‘s “Truth in Ruins” also imagines the aftermath of WWIII (“This Time It’s Holy”), with Zero Degree Zones, A-Bomb Slums, Humanzees and the citizens of the US divided into serial killer or profiler categories.

Interestingly, six of the ten writers cite William S. Burroughs as an influence, and as Burroughs looked very much the straight man of the Beats, dressed in their suits D. Harlan Wilson, Bruce Taylor and Steve Beard appear out-of-place amongst the illustrated boys and girl. Yet all three sit comfortably in the Bizarro group serving up their own brands of irrealism, magic realism (Taylor’s “The Breath Amidst the Stones” has inanimate objects talking to him and “A Little Spider Shop Talk”, a conversation with a spider; both are treats) and metrosexualism respectively (and of those three, Beard’s “Survivor’s Dream” is the most disturbing). One of Wilson’s stories, “Classroom Dynamics”, in which a professor is chastised for being too nice to his students, is knowing and self-deprecating. At risk of losing his tenure, Dr Beebody is told: “It’s about time you produced a piece of worthwhile writing. If I’m not mistaken, the last thing you published was some short story in some obscure magazine published by some middle-aged wacko who lives in his parents’ basement. What was the name of it? It doesn’t matter, it was atrocious and embarrassing. You need to write something that matters, and that isn’t atrocious and embarrassing. You are, after all, a representative of this university. Start acting like one. Fiction is the stuff of village idiots”.

Gina Ranalli‘s “Suicide Girls in the Afterlife” is just that: recent suicide casualty Pogue finds herself put up in a hotel ’til renovations are finished on heaven and hell, and meets both Lucifer (“just a skinny Goth guy”) and Jesus (a Beach Boys fan). Andre Duza‘s “Don’t F(Beep)k with the Coloreds” is as deceptive (the Coloreds are not what you think they might be) as it is compelling, owing a little to David Cronenberg: “You wouldn’t believe the kind of shit they pulled. People have the wrong idea about them based on what they see on television and in movies”. Vincent W Sakowski, particularly “The Screaming of the Fish”, is like George Saunders cranked up to the max (that is, if George Saunders had been solicited by Weird Tales).

It is easy for a man of Stephen King’s stature to talk affectionately of weird fiction — given that by appearing recently in the Paris Review he has pulled off the ultimate crossover — and while authors as diverse as Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis and Cormac McCarthy have no qualms dabbling in genre fiction, 2006 is not quite the year that pulp broke. The Bizarro writers are very much an acquired taste, and with more books expected from them, they will likely remain fringe material, something, this collection suggests, they wouldn’t have any other way.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika. Read an interview with her here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 16th, 2006.