(Previously published online for Withersin magazine)
The versatility of Bizarro fiction shines through in this collection for readers new to the genre. Within you find a world of diversity, perversity, hilarity, pathos and cruelty. The noose is tied for sublime gallows humor and all it needs is an adventurous, gruehungry crowd. Each of the ten writers is inspired and endowed with different world shaping talents and each presents a new reason that Bizarro is here to stay, whether naysayers and traditionalists like it or not. And… allow me to channel Nancy, your Timelife operator for a second: for about the price of a movie ticket you get seven (yes, seven) strange and wonderful novellas from these authors and THIRTEEN stories. Not bad. Within you’ll find Adult Swim infused Existentialism, Grindhouse Dada pandemonium, a Pythonesque Tour de France, hellish food issues, cartoonish assaults on Capitalism, two distinctly warped apocalypses and so much more.
The collection begins with the stories of D. Harlan Wilson, the madcap sci-fi genius behind Dr. Identity. Each of these stories is a pin poking a hole in one aspect of our absurd society and while, individually quite hilarious and telling, together become chilling and painfully insightful. His outlandish plots get to the core of problems in our society such as the hypocrisies of academia, the essential silliness of Capitalism and the myth of manhood. Short, concise and impressive. Wilson is among my favorite Bizarro authors and it would be a pity if his rapier wit did not go down in history with that of Harlan Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut.
Carlton Mellick III’s humor is decidedly bleaker and his results perhaps loftier in his novella the Baby Jesus Buttplug. If most writers, forced to draw titles from a hat came up with the Baby Jesus Buttplug one of three things will happen, they will write something not involving Jesus or a buttplug at all, they will create a tired Marilyn Mansonesque tirade against religion or they will exalt in dull, lowbrow humor. Mellick does none of these. Baby Jesus Buttplug deals with the reproductive anxieties of Eraserhead, the existential malaise of commercialized religion of the Holy Mountain and the sheer disgusting hilarity of using a cloned Baby Jesus as a buttplug. Using a cloned Baby Jesus as a buttplug is funny. It’s almost empirically, objectively funny and casts a satirical and perverse eye on what a thin, pasty, weak structure the American marriage is. There’s as much Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as there is Peter Jackson and South Park in it all.
I have to say the next piece sequentially in the book, Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Exinction Journals is a mild disappointment following the previous two very hard acts to follow. While a good, occasionally funny visceral work of horror about the end of mankind, it seems to lack the delirious energy that makes Mellick, Wilson and others in the book so powerful. If read alone, it might be an impressive introduction to Bizarro, but I wasn’t as fond of it as I was the rest of the collection, such as Kevin Donihe’s the Greatest Fucking Moment in Sports, which returns to the fevered explosive surreal passion of Baby Jesus Buttplug. Donihe chronicles a hilarious, violent and strange bike race in a way that almost viciously upbraids America for how seriously it takes sporting events and asks what life would be like if sports were as serious as sports fans took them.
Gina Ranalli’s Suicide Girls in the Afterlife impresses by presenting surreal circumstances with cool, mannered confidence. The novella looks at existential fairness from a Bizarro perspective, questioning if even the afterlife can be free of classism, discrimination and incompetence. I was reminded of the statement in Sartre’s No Exit that Hell is, in fact, other people and if this is so, then we have made a Hell of America. Strong social conscience also drives Andre Duza’s violent, awesome grindhouse Neo-pulp bloodbath Don’t F(beep)ck with the Coloureds. Fun, harsh and thought provoking. Then, Vincent Sakowski takes the mixed genre territory of Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman to a new weirder, crueler level, nicely capping off the middle third.
Steve Beard’s Survivor’s Dream bears an organically schizoid voice and a warped reality, but I did not myself as endeared to it as I was previous entries. The following novella, Truth in Ruins by John Lawson was more enjoyable and exciting for me, though perhaps I’m biased by my fascination with ethical apocalypses and human atavism in all its forms. Really exciting stuff that could be very appealing to crossover audiences. Then, the final third caps off with the smooth, jazzy mannered magical realism of Bruce Taylor, whose work reveals what an excellent pedigree Bizarro truly has. His stories hearken back to Marquez, Kafka and the Twilight Zone and show that he is not a writer to be missed.
I must be blunt, however and say that, as a Bizarro author and a lover of weird fiction more of the Starter Kit appealed to me than might appeal to less adventurous intellectual palates. Still, Bizarro Starter Kit: Orange is cheap at twice the price in spite of the inconvenience of being single spaced. Literature is changing and Bizarro encourages readers to change with it.