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Spotlight on: Bizarro Fiction and Poetry
Gina Ranalli, Chemical Gardens
The horror genre has recently unveiled a new, more experimental subgenre (the idea isn't new, but the name is). Entitled "bizarro fiction" by its practitioners, the writers known for this style embrace weirdness for its own sake, while still retaining the primary goal of telling an entertaining story (like David Lynch does for film). The relatively inexpensive Bizarro Starter Kit is available for those wishing to test this fascinating subgenre further (and it includes a novella by the author of Chemical Gardens, Gina Ranalli, in addition to other authors like Carlton Mellick III and Kevin Dole 2).
Chemical Gardens is the first Bizarro novel I have read. I've always enjoyed what the used bookstores I frequented in my youth chose to call "weird fiction" (as that was where the horror was usually shelved), but I never sought out "strange" volumes in particular. I thought that perhaps the weirdness would outshine any relatability. Some things are just too weird for me.
Based on Gina Ranalli's debut novel, however, I was wrong. Chemical Gardens is incredibly accessible. It is, simply put, a freaked-out, punk-rock version of The Wizard of Oz, told with an engaging style that is smoothly delivered and very easy to get into, making it an ideal first purchase for those wishing to step lightly into bizarro and "test the waters," so to speak.
Ranalli does not step lightly, however; she leaps into her story in the midst of a Green is the Enemy concert -- in the middle of a song, in fact -- starting us off right in the center of the action and giving us time to get to know some of the characters beforehand. Ro is the narrator of Chemical Gardens and the lead singer for Green is the Enemy, a Seattle punk band on their way to San Francisco to open for their idols, Peroxide, at a concert for the suits at Withering Skin Records, the label they hope to sign with. On their way out of Seattle, she and her bandmates (Pawn, Dose, and Whey) hit a monster earthquake.
The ground opens up and swallows their van, dumping them in The Underground, the area of Seattle that was once the ground level before the city was raised two stories as a way to avoid the rampant flooding that previously plagued the city -- it is now a tourist attraction. (This is a piece of history of which I was unaware, never having visited the west coast, which just goes to show that even "weird fiction" can be educational!) Later, Ro wakes up from a blackout, alone. Armed only with her still-not-paid-for guitar, Nemesister, she takes off to try to find her bandmates and a way to get to San Francisco in time for the concert that is destined to change their lives forever.
The main flaw of Chemical Gardens lies at its core. It is so faithful to its source material that there is very little suspense -- anyone who has seen The Wizard of Oz more than once will be able to predict what happens next (albeit somewhat disguised) with a fair amount of accuracy. But this is a minor setback as the story is hardly the best part of this novel. The real fun is in watching how Ranalli chooses to paint the different portions of the story with her own brush. The members of the band become cockeyed versions of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (my favorite, given the hilarious metaphorical choice made). The good and bad witches and even "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" also get a weirdly imaginative makeover.
I'd love to tell more about them, but that would ruin the surprise. I will say, however, that having Nemesister play the role of ruby slippers and Toto is only one of many inspired touches. (No wonder Ranalli dedicated the book to her own guitar.) So pick up a copy of Chemical Gardens and join the transformed members of Green is the Enemy as they follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the black sewer sludge to the titular location to meet the Metal Priestess who, they hope, will give them the key to leave the Underground and get to Frisco on time. Just watch out for those white apples.
Bradley Sands, It Came from Below the Belt
"Listen carefully and no one gets hurt.... I've always thought an oft-repeated phrase contains more power than an ordinary 'or I will hurt you'.... There is a gun aimed at your head, a gun that I purchased for the singular purpose of making you do exactly as I tell you.... Are you with me so far? Good." -- from It Came from Below the Belt
Contrary to what I had originally thought, reading a novel at gunpoint is not an entirely unpleasant experience. It Came from Below the Belt -- the debut novel of Bradley Sands, editor of "the journal of absurdist and surreal fiction," Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens -- is a fine example of the burgeoning genre known as bizarro. The writers known for this style embrace weirdness for its own sake, while still retaining the primary goal of telling an entertaining story (like David Lynch does for film). The relatively inexpensive Bizarro Starter Kit is available for those wishing to test this fascinating subgenre further.
It Came from Below the Belt is only the second bizarro novel I have read. The first was Gina Ranalli's Chemical Gardens and while it gave me a good taste of the genre, it by no means prepared me for the level of oddity I was to encounter in Bradley Sands' novel. (The two authors share a publisher, Afterbirth Books.)
Grover Goldstein is not a stalker! He's just misguided, literally misguided into the future after being eaten by a giraffe that turned out to be a time machine. There in the United States of Moonsylvania ("The name had to be changed due to a copyright infringement."), he meets his clone and, in a bizarre auto-fellatio accident, the clone's penis is severed, becomes sentient, gets irked at never having been named (an unforgivable slight, apparently) and having to go around as The Unnamable ... and then ... well, once The Unnamable expresses its newfound Hitlerian aspirations, it's kind of hard to summarize what happens after that. Sands throws every offbeat tangent possible at us -- It Came from Below the Belt contains enough weirdness and absurdity for six novels.
If the purpose of a bizarro novel is to make the reader go "WTF?" at least once a page, then Sands succeeds and then some because It Came from Below the Belt had me doing that about once a paragraph! The frequency of startling weirdness did hinder my getting caught up in the story, but it is definitely an ambitious choice that lends the book a certain indefinable charm. After all, if Sands wanted us to follow along easily, he would have written a different book.
Not surprisingly, it took me a while to get my head around what Sands was trying to accomplish. His particular style seemed, on the surface, to eschew the traditionally felt need for a coherent story in favor of pure strains of oddity. I see now, however, in hindsight, that there was a discernible narrative thread there all along that kept me reading in the face of interminable outlandishness -- it was just covered with every bit of strangeness that Sands could get to stick. You could maybe say that It Came from Below the Belt is the Airplane! of bizarro.
I originally thought it was going to be a horror novel due to the freaky cover art by Lucas Aguirre, but It Came from Below the Belt is probably more rightly termed science fiction due to its involvement with time travel. But there's not all that much of that going on and, in any case, any novel where the protagonist's penis gets severed is instantly branded horror in my book. And as if the narrative itself weren't bizarre enough, Sands also plays with the novel form, changing it to suit his needs. He makes the plot interactive by including a Choose Your Own Adventure–style chapter, a recipe, a TV sitcom pilot script (complete with laugh track), an actual drawing of The Unnamable working its way up the career ladder, and even a reference to a possible alternate-world audio version available on cassette. I can't wait to get to Moonsylvania for that one!
John Edward Lawson, The Troublesome Amputee
Poetry is subjective. It is probably the most subjective form of creative expression. It is nearly impossible to predict what poem an individual will appreciate, even if you know their past likes, just because poetry affects each person in a particular way. In any other form of writing, there are rules to be followed, even if they are just the basic rules of grammar and punctuation. Only in poetry is the author allowed -- nay, encouraged -- to throw all perceived rules out the window for the sake of art.
The only artists with perhaps more freedom are those who work with abstract ideas -- the product of a poet at least has to be readable to someone who speaks the language, even if the words aren't necessarily familiar. An odd subculture has developed of horror writers who are also poets. Who knows why these delvers in the depths of the soul choose to express themselves in verse as well as prose, but the horror community fully supports their efforts. There has even been a Bram Stoker Award for poetry since 2000, and even though many of the same names recur each year, there are always enough collections produced to fill out the nominations.
Dark poetry's practitioners are some of the more respected names in the field, so don't think these are just fly-by-nighters trying to foist their high-school musings on an unsuspecting public. Including The Troublesome Amputee author John Edward Lawson, some names horror fans will surely recognize are Tom Piccirilli, Charlee Jacob, and Michael A. Arnzen (who wrote the introduction to the present collection) -- Stokers winners all for at least one volume of poetry (in addition to their novels)!
John Edward Lawson is an author, editor, and publisher. As editor-in-chief of Raw Dog Screaming Press, he has been responsible for not only bringing terrific new voices like Matthew Warner and Ronald Damien Malfi much-deserved attention, but also is a forerunner of the bizarro movement. More importantly to this review, however, Lawson is also a poet with four collections to his name. Of the dozens of poems included in The Troublesome Amputee, only eight have been previously published, including one in Dead Cat Poet Cabal (coincidentally, the last poetry volume I read before this one) and two in Bradley Sands' bizarro magazine, Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens. As Michael Arnzen states in his introduction, the poems here are for the most part about loss, and the book is divided into three sections, each titled with a different aspect of limb loss: (1) Apotemnophilia (desired amputation in order to overachieve despite the handicap), (2) Acrotomophilia (or "stump fetish"), and (3) Disarticulation (amputation via the joint instead of cut bone). The metaphor is not so hard to grasp. The first section contains primarily the horrific pieces, the second section's contents are primarily the funnier ones, and the more political works are in the third.
All poetry tries to reflect areas of human experience, dark poetry just limits itself to life's more unpleasant aspects. Among the many subjects covered in The Troublesome Amputee are abortion ("Visiting the AbortAretum"), online snuff films ("No Protection, or: Trojan Strikes Again"), culture misappropriation ("Full of Flava"), grief ("Casket Climber"), and even fad diets ("Infomercial"). But through all the troubling descriptions, Lawson keeps a sharp sense of humor, which makes the often depressing subject matter easier to handle (and sometimes even pleasant). For example, in "Jung's Diet," Lawson describes a group of doctors' interest attaching electrodes to a woman's ovaries so they can see "the dreams of human eggs." After a short description of the results, however, he ends with, "It wasn't long before the scientists decided to detach those electrodes" -- understatement at its best. Following "Jung's Diet" are a series of limericks with their own sort of appeal that Edward Lear never even considered.
Other highlights are "Hairy Trigger," which follows the circular thinking of an almost-troublemaker, and "Marvels of Horror," which turns Lawson's skewed vision on the much darker side of comic book heroes. "Plunder Revisited" shows off some pirate wordplay. "Lovable Lamb Chop the Mutilator vs. Super Virgin Dragon Girls" is a wonderful exercise in absurdity (with just a pinch of scatology). But nothing compares with the rampage of the "homeless zombie tongues" in "Will Work for Food," a surprisingly rereadable bit that just may be the best example of Lawson's peculiar vision.
Arnzen's introduction helped me out a lot with The Troublesome Amputee. Understanding the underlying theme makes a poem more readily accessible to the inexperienced poetry reader (like me). After all, this isn't anything like the poetry we studied in school, so it requires a different mindset to get around. The title work, "The Troublesome Amputee," is a highly visual (and relatively long, giving us an opportunity to really get into the topic) disturbance -- a narrative verse of a daily struggle that occurs in a familiar setting and yet is like nothing you would ever want to experience.
The result of all this is that I believe I am now a Lawson convert. The Troublesome Amputee has opened my eyes to new possibilites in poetry, and I am eager to seek out more of his work. Lawson has a way of getting under my skin with his words, making them memorable long after the pages have closed. That said, I wouldn't recommend reading many of the poems in one sitting; there are so many ideas and images that come so quickly that I needed time in between readings to process things properly. Too much may lead to some sort of mental or emotional overload.
(For those looking for further samples, videos of Lawson reading his work are available on the Raw Dog Screaming Press website. And for those who are already fans and cannot get enough of Lawson's skewed scheme, a hardcover edition of The Troublesome Amputee is also available. Called the "Scarred Edition," it is just ten dollars more, but also contains Lawson's now-out-of-print 2002 collection, The Scars are Complimentary in its entirety, including all the illustrations.)
(Email me and let me know what you think.)