I hoped The Bizarro Starter Kit would help me figure out if I’d like bizarro fiction, a genre self-defined by a loose collective of writers with a shared love of cult/trash cinema. It didn’t. The Bizarro Starter Kit makes the case that there’s too much going on for me to dismiss it, and too much going on for me to say that I “like” the genre as a whole. The starter kit includes stories and/or novellas by 10 writers, several of which, as far as I can tell, were previously published as stand-alone books.
A sextet of short stories by D. Harlan Wilson opens the collection. Wilson is big on present tense, and characters with attributes instead of names: “the man in the silver handlebar mustache”, “the little boy”, “a bodybuilder in a purple spandex G-string.” He favors dream-like illogic over anything resembling coherent plot. His prose is often very concrete and mechanical: “[He] sniggered, then began moving his tongue around the insides of his mouth so that his cheeks poked out.” Wilson claims Kafka as in influence to the extent that he titled a short story collection The Kafka Effect, but nothing drives these stories the way Kafka’s paranoia and the tension between the individual and society/The State drove his. None of them really grabbed me.
Bizarro first came to my attention via the impressively lurid titles of Carlton Mellick III’s novellas, here represented by The Baby Jesus Butt Plug. It’s probably not a bad litmus test: the titular object is not a molded toy-in-the-shape-of, it’s an actual clone of the Savior, and if this seems simply too offensive or too mechanically improbable, then Mellick is probably not for you. The shock-for-its-own-sake aspect leaves me cold, but beyond that the obvious metaphor of (ahem) internalizing belief systems and its consequences on a couple whose beliefs become disparate is explored with something approaching emotional resonance. Meanwhile the nightmarish milieu doesn’t make sense to me, but it seems to make sense to Mellick’s narrator; there’s something approaching internal consistency. I might cautiously experiment further with Mellick.
I didn’t enjoy Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Extinction Journals while I was reading it, but its grotesque imagery has stayed with me more than anything else in the book. And I have to admit that while marrying the hoary last-man-and-woman-in-post-apocalyptic-wasteland cliché with the popular notion that cockroaches are the critters most likely to survive a nuclear holocaust struck me as a tad obvious (not to mention really gross), I had never read anything quite like it.
Kevin L. Donihe’s The Greatest Fucking Moment in Sports was for me the anthology’s first clear win. It has some weak spots — the back and forth between a pair of news commentators seemed trite, but on the whole it was surprising and held my interest. I may have a soft spot for it in part because the “sport” is cycling (and not, as the title might have led you to expect, copulation).
Gina Rinalli’s Suicide Girls in the Afterlife seemed a bit too familiar — a bit of Neil Gaiman, a dash of Kelly Link, a dollop of Beetlejuice — but if it’s maybe too indebted to obvious sources, I like those sources. Promising.
Andre Duza’s Don’t F(beep) with the Coloureds goes in quite a different direction than its inflammatory title might suggest. It reminded me a lot of a 1988 film, only (naturally) darker, and grosser. I liked the story-in-story structure (although I would have liked to see it pushed a little further) and thought some of the expository chunks could have been more smoothly integrated, but give it a qualified thumbs up overall.
Vincent Sakowski offers up one two short-shorts, one of which feels a bit like a Robyn Hitchcock song rendered in prose, and one which is tired and vile, and the pretty nifty long short story “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Ragnarok.” Its embittered modern couple, Vogue and GQ, have just enough depth to be more than tropes, and the intrusion of mythic elements offered a few interesting twists. The mood reminded me a bit of Leslie What’s “The Goddess is Alive, And, Well, Living in New York City,” only (naturally) darker and grosser. I may seek out more from Sakowski, although the story I really disliked leaves me somewhat distrustful.
I was a little annoyed by a persistent tic of Steve Beard’s Survivor’s Dream: it uses a boatload of definitive articles, maybe to evoke a childlike narrative voice: “She was hiding in this ship”, “It had a domed roof held up by these thick white pillars,” et cetera. It seemed excessive, but afterward it occurred to me that plenty of writers from the lit’ry side of the street play with not dissimilar tactics, e.g., Kathy Acker or even Vonnegut’s “So it goes.” (Of course I’m sometimes annoyed by those, too). Other than that, Beard manages a kind of impressive balancing act between multiple, contradictory narrative threads tied together by a pervasive mood and Beard’s flat, unmusical prose. I would have liked it better if it had been shorter.
John Edward Lawson’s Truth in Ruins is one of the most hyperbolic entries in the entire anthology. In Lawson’s grim future humanity is divided into serial killers and profilers, with genetically engineered “Humanzees” poised to take over after humanity’s failure. It’s self-consciously, cartoonishly, uber-violent, and narrative chunks are jammed together in ways that emphasize their incongruities, like a movie made of nothing but jump cuts. I sort of liked it, although I had to skim over some stomach-turning bits.
Three of Bruce Taylor’s short stories, “The Breath Amidst the Stones” and “A Little Spider Shop Talk,” and “Of Tunafish and Galaxies” are perhaps the most conventional entries in the collection: weird, for sure, but coherent, reminiscent of Leiber and Lafferty. I liked them. I thought the last, “City Streets” was less successful.
needs more demons? maybe kinda sorta