From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Bizarro Fiction 101: Not Just Weird for Weird’s Sake

Warning: Explicit Language.

Bizarro Fiction is a fairly new genre, most often referred to as literature’s equivalent of the Cult section in your video store. One of the founders and core producers of Bizarro fiction is Eraserhead Press, lead by publisher Rose O’keefe. So I asked Rose a few questions to help clarify just what Bizarro Fiction is (and isn’t). You can also learn more about Bizarro at Bizarro Central.

Q: What are the most common misconceptions folks seem to have about Bizarro fiction?
A: There are a lot of misconceptions, but the only one I want to focus on right now is the reason why bizarro was created. Most people believe bizarro was created so that a bunch of outsider writers would have a genre to call home. This isn’t the case. Bizarro might have a strong community of writers who are as tight as family, but the genre was formed based solely on reader demand. There are a lot of people out there who view “weird stuff” as a genre. They actively go out looking for books and movies that are weird in the same way that some people seek out books/movies that are scary or romantic. This is our target audience. It is a bigger audience than people realize and it is an audience that has been mostly ignored. With the little niche genre of bizarro, we are just trying to fill a void that we see in the publishing world.

Q: If Bizarro Fiction was a movie monster, which would it be, and why?

A: Megalon. Because he was a giant cockroach with drills for hands who shot lightning bolts from a horn on his head. How bizarro is that?

Q: How did Bizarro get started?
A: For the past ten years, three small press companies—Raw Dog Screaming Press, Afterbirth Books, and my own Eraserhead Press—have specialized in publishing weird cult fiction books. There wasn’t a label for what we were publishing when we started. It clearly wasn’t horror, science-fiction, fantasy, or even experimental fiction. The only real way to describe it would be: weird. That’s the only reason people were buying our books. They bought them because they were looking for something weird and unusual to read.

It was like the kind of stuff that is common in the cult sections of video stores, with films such as Six String Samurai, Brazil, Repo Man, Pink Flamingos, Tromeo and Juliet, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Our readers saw the books we published as all part of the same category, as a genre, long before we did, but they didn’t know what to call it. So, in 2005, the three companies decided to officially label this style of writing Bizarro. Basically, we want bizarro to be the literary equivalent to cult movies. Our books are quirky, campy, freaky, funny, lewd, rude, and just out there. It’s been growing exponentially ever since.

Q: Can you give me some short examples of typical Bizarro stories and what makes them Bizarro?
A: “Washer Mouth” by Kevin L. Donihe is about a washing machine who becomes human in order to follow his dream of becoming a soap opera star. “Sex and Death in Television Town” by Carlton Mellick III – a weird western where a band of hermaphrodite gunslingers have their last stand in a town where its citizens have televisions for heads. “Shatnerquake” by Jeff Burk is about every character that William Shatner has ever played enter our reality with one mission: hunt down and destroy the real William Shatner. Mykle Hansen’s “Help! A Bear is Eating Me!” is about a man trapped under his SUV in the middle of the wilderness, while he is slowly being eaten by a bear. “The Emerald Burrito of Oz” by John Skipp and Marc Levinthal. Not only is the world of Oz a real place, but it’s also a hot new tourist attraction! “The Haunted Vagina” by Carlton Mellick III is about the relationship problems that occur once a man discovers that his girlfriend’s vagina is a gateway to the world of the dead. “Ass Goblins of Auschwitz” by Cameron Pierce… On second thought, you probably don’t want to know what this one is about… But the true weirdness of these books is in all the odd little details.

Q: How has Bizarro fiction evolved from its early days (and would you say it is evolving by genetic mutation, radioactive supergrowth, or alien manipulation)?
A: Radioactive alien genetics, of course. Bizarro started out as a neat little niche, but has evolved into a massive community. It started with three companies, but now there are at least a dozen more who have published books labeled bizarro. We now have a bizarro children’s book imprint. A comic book line coming up. Several zines that specialize in bizarro fiction, including our own publication “The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction.” We have Bizarro Bootcamp, an intensive 10 day bizarro writing workshop. We have a Bizarro Convention every year, where about a hundred of us meet up to make plans for world domination.

So bizarro is just evolving into something bigger and more successful every year. The quality of the books published have also been going up from year to year. We’ve had people like Lloyd Kaufman, Alan Moore, Chuck Palahniuk, William Gibson, and Christopher Moore praise bizarro books in the past. We’re beginning to get respect from the industry. That is something we earned through our evolution. In the beginning, nobody respected what we were doing. We didn’t care too much then. Respect was nothing we were seeking from our peers. But, in all honesty, it does feel good once you have it.

Q: Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are compiling an anthology of “The Weird,” and I’ve heard terms like The New Weird used to describe “weird” fiction for a while. How is Bizarro Fiction different from Weird Fiction, or is it?
A: New Weird and Bizarro might seem like similar genres, but they are actually quite different. A big thing that separates them is the audience. Not many readers of New Weird like bizarro and not many readers of Bizarro like New Weird. There is a little crossover, but not much. Bizarro is a genre of weirdness. People who buy bizarro are buying it for the sole reason that they want to read something weird. The kind of fiction that is too weird to be categorized anywhere else. These aren’t the same people who are buying New Weird. People buy New Weird because they want cutting edge speculative fiction with a literary slant. It’s kind of like slipstream with a side of weirdness. But bizarro readers want weirdness with a side of more weirdness.

Another thing that separates Bizarro and New Weird is that Bizarro leans toward the humorous low brow side. New Weird leans toward the literary high brow side. There is Bizarro that is smart and there is New Weird that is fun, but for the most part they are separated because bizarro is mostly for entertainment and New Weird shoots to be high art. At least higher art than bizarro.

Q: It seems to me that Bizarro also often gets confused with experimental fiction. My impression is that Bizarro is to experimental fiction a bit like what Mad Magazine is to the New Yorker (in the sense of fun versus pretension), though that example belies the underlying quality of much Bizarro fiction. How would you describe the difference?
A: Experimental fiction is weirdness of style. Bizarro fiction is weirdness of plot. Bizarro is not typically described as “high art,” whereas experimental fiction usually is or at least tries to be. Many of the writers of bizarro are incredibly brilliant human beings, but they aren’t trying to appeal to the high brow crowd. I’d describe them as similar to South Park—low brow on the surface, with some intelligent things to say if you can get past the cheap animation and offensive jokes.

Q: Urban Fantasy and Bizarro both often play with conventional tropes and elements of horror fiction. If Urban Fantasy challenged Bizarro to a duel, what would be the weapons, location, and method of conflict Bizarro would choose? Who would win? (And is it wrong of me to try and manufacture an entirely random internet war between Urban Fantasy and Bizarro)?
A: I love Urban Fantasy and think it would be fun for Bizarro and Urban Fantasy to have some nice microbrew beers and dance to some punk rock. Our battle could be a dance competition, but we’d let them win.

Q: Are there Bizarro stories that you consider core works (the way some would say Neuromancer is to cyberpunk, or Lord of the Rings is to epic fantasy)?
A: As of which books are core works of bizarro, the one that springs to mind the most is “Satan Burger” by Carlton Mellick III. That was the first bizarro success and has grown quite a fanatical following over the past nine years. It’s definitely a cult favorite, perhaps even a cult classic. The last two winners of the Wonderland Book Award: “Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere” by Mykle Hansen and “House of Houses” by Kevin L. Donihe definitely deserve recognition. Other favorites of the bizarro community: “Zerostrata” by Andersen Prunty, “Squid Pulp Blues” by Jordan Krall, and “Angel Dust Apocalypse” by Jeremy Robert Johnson.

Q: Who are some of the Bizarro authors to watch going forward?
A: Of the popular authors, there are: Carlton Mellick III, Mykle Hansen, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Kevin L Donihe, Chris Genoa, Gina Ranalli, D. Harlan Wilson, and Steve Aylett. I also recommend watching some of the newer authors like Jordan Krall, Jeff Burk, Cameron Pierce, Andersen Prunty, and Andrew Goldfarb who are all taking bizarro in new and unique directions.

Q: Pick your favorite non-Bizarro fantasy or science fiction story and give me an example of how it might have been different if written as a Bizarro story.
A: Many people say that science-fiction is weird fiction. But the thing is, most science-fiction has only a single weird element to the story. With bizarro, there are three or more. So to make a science-fiction story bizarro, two or more weird elements should be added.

Since my favorite science-fiction and fantasy stories already lean toward the bizarro side, I’ll just choose one that everyone’s familiar with:

Jurassic Park – the weird element for this that makes it science-fiction is that it is about a zoo for dinosaurs. So to add another weird element, I’d change the characters from a nice family of scientists to a group of pornographers who have broken into the park in order to film bestiality fetish porn with the dinosaurs. For a third weird element, I’d make it so that the act of having sex with these dinosaurs somehow gave the porn actors super powers. Right there, the story would be weird enough to be labeled bizarro. I’m not sure if it would be any good, but it would be bizarro.

Many bizarro story ideas start out as completely ridiculous and sometimes flat out stupid, as the above example proves. It is the challenge of the bizarro writer to turn these stupid ideas into something actually worth reading. A bizarro writer has to come up with clever ways to make the reader care about a group of bestiality pornographers. A bizarro writer has to keep the reader interested in what happens next and make sure the weird elements play an integral part of the plotting and character development. Bizarro writers must make sure the story doesn’t cross the line from being engagingly weird to nauseatingly weird. Because of this, it is a very difficult genre to write in. Not many people can pull it off. A lot of inexperienced writers trying their hand at bizarro will fall into the nauseatingly weird category pretty fast. The writers I work with must keep their weirdness on the engaging side at all times.

Remember, bizarro isn’t weird for the sake of being weird, it is weird for the sake of being interesting and/or entertaining.

Q: If a person wanted to ease into Bizarro, what are the Jello-filled kiddy pool toe-dipping works that they should sample?
A: The place you should start is with the Bizarro Starter Kit series. The books (Blue, and Orange) are cheap and each volume includes novellas by 10 different bizarro writers. These books were designed to be bizarro primers.

Q: Can you give me a Bizarro haiku to end this interview with?
A: psychotic death tank
falls in love with lonely man
they have ugly kids

Randy Henderson stays crunchy in milk. His fiction has appeared in Alienskin Magazine, The Harrow, and From the Asylum. He likes milkshakes. He recently graduated from Clarion West. He has a robot monkey army. And most importantly he has won the prestigious “Fantasy Friday Blog for a Beer” award five times (to date). For his genre-related musings, go to his blog.

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