A certain other blogger has been making a lot of claims about Bizarro recently, most of which are highly exaggerated or outright falsehoods. In the interest of giving some positive clarity to the matter, as well as some actual history, I’ve decided to put together just a couple of blog posts about it. If any of the information I give here is inaccurate, PLEASE do not hesitate to contact me to correct the info.
That being said… where do we start?
A lot of people start with a seemingly simple question:
WHAT IS BIZARRO?
That’s a good question, but it’s not a simple question to answer, and that answer is inextricably tied to the origins and development of the Bizarro scene. The most basic attempt to give a guideline (and a guideline is far more important than a dictionary definition here) is this: Bizarro is the literary equivalent of the cult movie section of a local video store. This is a section full of lots of different, off-kilter, and genuinely strange movies by filmmakers like John Waters, David Lynch, Takashi Miike, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jan Svankmajer, David Cronenberg, Guy Maddin, Lloyd Kaufman, Terry Gilliam, and Yorgos Lanthimos.
That covers a lot of territory and some people find that confusing – everything from surreal art-house to low-budget shock films – but it’s hard to make it any clearer in less than a thousand words of explanation. Recently, when I used that rule of thumb, the person asking responded that this guideline was “uselessly broad.” And I responded, “Well if American Psycho, The Wolf Man, Dead Alive, Jacob’s Ladder, Scream, Shaun of the Dead, Jaws, Videodrome, and Critters are all the same genre, how usefully narrow is that?”
EVERY genre is extremely broad, and until you understand the associated elements and the aesthetic you won’t get it. All Bizarro could be classified in other genres, though not necessarily in a way that’s sensible. Just like one person might argue that American Werewolf in London is a Comedy movie first and a Horror movie second, or that Bone Tomahawk is a Western first and Horror second, Bizarro is one particular metric that overlaps with a lot of other genres. And that metric is WEIRDNESS. If the appeal of something is that it is entertainingly weird, then it is Bizarro. Period. Regardless of whatever other elements are in play from any other genre or style. A lot of Bizarro is trangressive, or surreal, or absurd, or grotesque, or perverse, or incorporates horrific elements, but none of these have ever been required for a book to be considered Bizarro, only weirdness.
Is a category of weird books useful? If you don’t think so, then Bizarro may not be for you. This is a category that didn’t necessarily happen by design – just like Lynch didn’t decide at the outset to be a cult filmmaker – but it is also not something that happened by accident. Bizarro coalesced when a tiny group of writers and small presses noticed there was a growing amount of hard-to-classify underground lit that shared some similarities. There were “Horror” authors whose work was far more weird than scary, and often darkly humorous. There were authors writing with elements of Sci-Fi that focused less on the science and more on the general weirdness of the world it allowed them to create. There were authors doing almost experimental literature that was too low-brow to be taken seriously in the academic scene and used genre elements that ghetto-ized it. And they looked around to more popular authors who were hard-to-classify like Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Roald Dahl, or Joe Lansdale, and they decided that not only was there already a genre of weird in existence, but it needed a label so that people who were into weird stuff could find it more easily.
So three presses got together and decided to brand their releases as Bizarro. It was extremely small at first, mainly limited to authors already involved with Eraserhead, Raw Dog Screaming, or the now defunct Afterbirth Books. This was 2005, when “Bizarro” was picked as the genre tag for all these previously misclassified books. Those first Bizarro authors had already been writing Bizarro since the early 2000s or even the 90s, but they’d never had a name for it. They’d never had a convenient way to communicate to readers what their stuff was all about. Bizarro, as a label, changed that.
Now, for a lot of authors whose work doesn’t fit into traditional genres, Bizarro provides a haven and an opportunity to reach an audience that they may not have known existed before there was a rallying point, a short hand, a brand name. I didn’t set out to write Bizarro. I know that I am not alone. I started out just writing stories that were too weird to get accepted by the Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Lit markets I’d been submitting them to. I was getting rejected because I was submitting to the wrong places, not realizing how bizarre my work was by core genre standards. When I found Bizarro, I found the appropriate market for my work. And I was way late in the game compared to progenitors like Carlton Mellick III, Kevin L. Donihe, John Edward Lawson, D. Harlan Wilson, or Gina Ranalli. But I came to Bizarro the same way they did: seeking an outlet for a voice too weird to make it in other markets. If I hadn’t found Bizarro, I might have eventually given up on ever getting published. You can only take so many rejections before you feel like your work must suck. And it’s very hard to tell, especially with form rejections, if the problem is the quality of your work or that you aren’t writing what the markets are looking for. If no other market is looking for your work, YOU are probably Bizarro.
Now, when I first heard of Bizarro and started to look into what it was about circa 2009, I was immediately skeptical. I looked around and got the impression that it was the paperback equivalent of Troma films and IN-YOU-FACE Gwar videos dripping with green hog semen. But this was not accurate. There were those books, don’t get me wrong, and I’m not shitting on authors who write those kinds of books, but at the time it seemed to me that my weird was different from their weird.
I started to explore some Bizarro books and I was pleasantly blown away. The genre was incredibly diverse, and even titles that screamed GONZO SLIME EXPLOITATION were actually books that defied my expectations. There was something going on in this scene much deeper than superficial shock humor. There was an undercurrent of weirdness that ran through this material, from one end of the spectrum to the other. There were weird children’s books and weird romances. There were incredibly well written books with cuss words in the title. It was hard for me to process. But once I got it, I had found my home.
From the time I got involved in Bizarro in 2012, the scene has only grown more diverse, more vibrant, and more creative. If anyone tells you anything else they are selling something. There are still plenty of shockingly extreme titles to choose from, as well as fabulously weird magical realism, weird noir, pop culture absurdity, high-brow strangeness, and even absurd Bizarro erotica that you can’t imagine anyone jilling off to. There are so many flavors of weird here, I can hardly believe it.
And in closing the section, I’d like to visually list just a few TOTALLY BODACIOUS AND RADICALLY IN YOUR FACE TITLES that came out in the last five years, showing definitively that the Bizarro scene is not dead, oh no it’s not.
by Jeremy Maddux
The Turbo Dome was filled to capacity with ravenous fans who’d scrapped and saved all year to witness the spectacle that was known as Trucks ‘N Guts ‘N Stuff. TGS was a lot like the Harlem Globetrotters or professional wrestling, only the violence was real, and people died on a nightly basis.
The fans had their favorites. There was Marv Molotov, who was notorious for throwing Molotov cocktails or cherry bombs at his enemies. There was the Excess Express, a traveling troupe of ravers who rode in a futuristic looking car that glowed in the dark and played trance music. Their vehicle’s offensive maneuver was to enable a strobe effect on their headlights that would disorient the other drivers they went up against. These were crowd favorites, but none eclipsed the unbridled might of Pussyripper.
There wasn’t much biographical information available concerning Pussy Ripper or its driver, Gus Gloom. What people knew, what they recognized and respected about Pussy Ripper was the fact that it was 30 feet high, which significantly dwarfed the standard 10 foot variety. Every year, people gathered to plunk down their hard earned money for the pleasure of watching Pussy Ripper flatten eighteen wheelers the way the normal trucks flattened cars. That was just a warm up. It was when the trucks went head to head in vehicular combat that the people came unglued from their seats.
It took something like this to bring the Caulfield family together, young Hatebreed thought to himself as he waited in line at the concession stand for a slice of pizza. He’d been there since intermission, and worried about missing the main event: Pussy Ripper vs. Marv Molotov, for the first time ever. Everyone could see the dream bubble of the confrontation hover listlessly above his head, the promise of things to come.
Hatebreed was a living cartoon. This sometimes unnerved people from interacting with him. Friends thought it was great but some liked to put him through the usual cartoon hijinks to which his body was accustomed. They’d flatten him with a rolling pin or confuse him with black holes painted onto the wall. He was used to it.
“Fuck off, looney toon,” shouted a boy his age as he cut in front of him. Before Hatebreed could respond, an announcement burst over the intercom saying that the intermission was about to end.
As Hatebreed hurried back to his seat, a tinny voice came over the PA system. It was the announcer, Gary Goodvibe. Someone in the audience had foam hands made to represent his enormous floppy ears.
“And now, without any further interruptions, our feature presentation of the evening.”
The revving of engines could be heard from the entrance hall. Generic synth-metal piped up through the PA. The chants were unmistakable. ‘Puss-y-Rip-per!’ Everyone in the rows ahead stood from their seats. Hatebreed had to stand on his chair to see the pit below.
“Oh, he’s coming! But first, let’s get to know his opponent. Weighing in at 10,000 pounds with a titanium frame and a customized flamethrower, he’s known by his colleagues as ‘the Short Fuse’. When he boards an airplane, the TSA inspects him to make sure he IS carrying explosives! He is the challenger for the TGS World Championship, Marv Molotov!”
Molotov’s truck was nice, but his story wasn’t the kind that inspired any kind of grassroots, underdog feeling. The silence that followed was so loud that it pierced the air like feedback.
“And his opponent, with the combined weight of 15 monolithic structures and tall enough to run over Lady Liberty. He’s not here to give marriage advice! He doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice. Don’t call it a truck, it’s a high performance fuck! It’s death row on wheels and the happiness machine that kills! The undefeated and reigning Trucks ‘N Guts ‘N Stuff Champion of the World…”
Gary paused to let the chants envelop him.
“I give you Pussy Ripper!” He shouted until his voice went shrill, swinging his arm towards the entryway to signal the champ’s arrival. Hatebreed knew this spiel all too well. Gary was going to say that the truck’s too big to fit, then Pussy Ripper would burrow up out of the pit like he always did. Hatebreed wasn’t disappointed. As the monster truck made its way to the surface, it kicked up dirt clouds so big they were dirt mushroom clouds. Marv Molotov circled back around to get in close. It was like a hornet buzzing in the face of a lion. Pussy Ripper rammed into a flattened car at the end of the row of flattened cars, upending it like a seesaw as it impacted Molotov’s rear. Molotov turned up the heat with his flamethrower, napalm-like projectiles making beautiful brimstone sparks as they sought to melt Pussy Ripper’s titanium armor. Pussy Ripper shook it off, picking up speed at over 100 miles per hour.
What the ripper had in sheer size and brawn, Molotov made up for in stealth and agility. Molotov’s flaming assault continued until the ripper’s driver, Gus Gloom, activated a new feature: fire proof shields. Molotov was clearly thrown off his game by this response, but it didn’t stop him from making a beeline straight for the passenger side door of his opponent. It all happened so fast, like lightning striking a window. One moment, Marv Molotov was driving recklessly toward his target and the next, he was ricocheting off a barricade. A sizzling storm of sparks, hydraulics, glass and sheet metal danced and convulsed through the air. The 20,000 people in attendance simultaneously lost and found religion. Maybe in the aftermath they would learn the secret of life and death, an ancient touchstone forgotten to all men. Or maybe it was just their disbelief that Marv Molotov was revving up for another charge at the heart of darkness before him. The two drivers waited at opposite sides of the arena, measuring the distance and mileage it would take to remove the other from this world.
Molotov’s flamethrower was on standby mode. Pussy Ripper’s burrowing jaws of death chomped through the air. Each driver dared the other to make the first move. It was Molotov who acted. His entire driver’s side was caved in, the door hanging by a hinge. Blood hung in syrupy rivulets against the cracked glass of the windshield. More of it dotted his forehead and jaw like war paint. He may have been headed for oblivion, but he was damn sure going to take the other son of a bitch with him. Then, in a final reversal, Molotov dodged the oncoming Goliath. He had psyched out the champion, and now he was on his rear! No one likes a tailgater, especially Gus Gloom, so he put on his brakes and let the dumb son go sidewinding up and over the truckbed, taking a nosedive on the armored frame. In the time Hatebreed managed a blink, Marv Molotov had become debris.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced Gary Goodvibe, “here is your winner, and still the TGS Champion of the World, Pussy Ripper!”
Hatebreed wiped away fresh tears with his coat sleeve. Cartoon tears were messier than human tears. His dad pulled him in for a hug.
“What’s wrong, buddy?”
“This is the best Christmas ever!”
Jeremy Maddux is Co-Editor of Surreal Grotesque magazine. He has several projects forthcoming, including his first attempt at a Bizarro novella and the second Surreal Grotesque anthology, entitled Vertigo Schisms. He used to date an ex con and worked backstage for a professional wrestling organization.
Issue seven features the novella “Noah’s Arkopolis” by David W Barbee short fiction by David Agranoff, Molly Tanzer, Andrew Wayne Adams, Shane McKenzie and Dustin Reade, comics by Andrew Goldfarb and SCAR, articles by Constance Ann Fitzgerald, Carlton Mellick III, Kirsten Alene Pierce, Garrett Cook and Bradley Sands, a spotlight on author Jordan Krall, reviews, and more!
Click HERE to order The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction (Issue Seven)!
A kid wearing Shrek ears pulled the lid off a chocolate mousse container, dipped his finger in and licked it, dipped his finger in again and put it back on the shelf. The father wore a chain of sausages around his neck as he pushed his trolley into the laundry detergent aisle. He picked up the home brand detergent, cracked the lid open, took a sip and pulled a face. He picked up a branded detergent, took a sip and then a gulp. He put the detergent in his trolley and wiped his lips with his sleeve. The son took a toothbrush and a cheese-flavor toothpaste, sat in the trolley and brushed his teeth, rinsing with generic brand cola.
I was the only other person in the supermarket. I watched them fill another trolley and set it on fire. I was too fascinated just watching them to put the fire out.
They went to the egg aisle. The son went down one end and the father went down the other. The son picked up a dozen goose eggs and threw them across the aisle and they splattered on the floor around the father.
The father had a sack of ostrich eggs, and he flung the massive orbs at his son, one by one. Back and forth, eggs flew between the father and son, until egg and shell bits coated the floor and shelves.
Then the father said, “Hold on.” He went to another aisle and came back with a trebuchet.
He loaded up a pterodactyl egg in the timber contraption and aimed it at his son.
He said, “I’ll give you a million dollars if you catch this.” He said, “Ready?”
His son got ready for the egg.
The father drew back the wooden arm of the trebuchet and sent the egg flying. The son wasn’t going to catch it, so I ran to catch it for him, but the floor was so slippery, coated in marbled egg whites and yellows. I fell over.
The father was surprised to see me. The son was surprised to see me.
The egg flew over the son’s head and smashed into the dairy produce section behind us. The egg smashed and a baby pterodactyl bounced off the shelf with a half gallon milk carton stuck on its head.
The father said, “You owe me a million dollars!” to his son. They both vanished around the corner.
The pterodactyl roared, stumbled and fell at my feet. The milk carton didn’t want to come off. I grabbed both sides and pulled one direction. The pterodactyl dug its claws into the floor and pulled in the other direction.
The carton came off with a pop. I stared at the pterodactyl. The pterodactyl stared at me. I held out my hand and it licked my fingers.
It opened its mouth and croaked, “mama.” I knew the bond we created right there would last a lifetime.