Tales of the Macabre and Ordinary by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Tales of the Macabre and Ordinary

Author: Chris Mikul (longtime readers here may recognize his name – he is the publisher of the excellent ‘zine, Biblio-Curiosa)

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because Mikul actually does manage to combine the macabre and the ordinary in each story.

Availability: Published by Ramble House in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: The book does what it says on the cover. It delivers macabre (and gross) tales that are also very ordinary in some manner. It’s a very interesting way to tell stories, to permit the narrative to fall flat in some manner, or to tell a story most people know and do it in such a creepy way you make it your own, or to tell a very simple story that seems like it is telling you everything but is really telling you just enough to ask more questions.  At times Mikul denies the reader the catharsis often expected at the end of a tense story because he doesn’t spell things out, and in other instances the narrative ends in a manner that is blunt and horrible. Sometimes the simplest subversions of the traditional story-telling method are the most effective, and each of these stories in some manner are indeed macabre and indeed very ordinary.

The collection has nine stories, and I want briefly to discuss each one. I’ll do my best not to spoil the endings but in a collection like this one, avoiding spoiling endings may well be impossible. Metaphorically, how do you spoil a door slamming in the middle of a sentence? Still, I’ll be careful.

First story, “Dead Spit,” is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley dropped into the Outback. I don’t think I have spoiled it by describing it this way because, again, the ending will deprive you of the momentum you think the story is gathering. The best part of this story, for me at least, was when I realized that I had created a big mystery clue/red herring due to my own ignorance. I don’t use canola oil because the word canola disgusts me, so I was not aware it comes from plants that collectively are known as canola. I guess I thought canola oil was a mixture of crappier oils and that the trade name for such oil was “canola.” Who knew? Well, evidently everyone else on the planet knew, but that is a detail in this story – working in a canola field and it distracted me from what was really happening.

Jesus, “A Cut Above the Rest” is  Peter Jackson’s earlier films with a touch of “Evil Dead” thrown in. Gross, sort of dumb, quite funny and also gross because I need to emphasize how gross this story was. This story also brings to mind Richard Olen Butler’s Severance, which I should mention I have discussed on this very site. Quick synopsis: fat man tries to win maiden fair by losing weight the hard way.

“Meet Me at the Shot-Out Eye” is a great sort of gritty mystery. Too international for noir but still has that grimy, double-crossing dame feeling. Hero goes to Prague and meets up with a lovely Czech woman with a penchant for sketching people, even during the most inappropriate of moments. Given the length, it’s surprising how layered this story feels when finished. Excellent writing in this one.

Those who regret bitterly their goth years will despise “Blood Sport” but, if you just concentrate on the story instead of your own deep embarrassment at having worn the same Bauhaus t-shirt for years while denouncing Love and Rockets as total sellouts, you can find this story pretty funny at times. Heroine is a teenaged goth with a terrible home life who meets a self-proclaimed vampire (who does not shimmer or glimmer or whatever it was Edward Cullen did) who betrays her. She takes revenge in a very organized manner, killing two birds with one stone, as it were.

“Deddybones” is my favorite story in the collection and I don’t really know why. Les is hired to clear out a creepy old house after the owner dies. The owner had left the home as a sort of unclear monument to a life that never happened when his wife left him. The house is filled with small details that never knit together to form a coherent picture of what awaits Les, and that makes it all the more disturbing. Les falls victim to the house (and takes others down with him as he falls) in a sort of insanity that left me wondering exactly what it was that happened. I mean, we know what happens in a physical sense but never quite get what it is that makes Les go mad, what made the previous tenant go mad, and in turn, that made me feel unsteady, groping for a reason for why things happened as they did. It could be mystical, it could be that sometimes single men lose their bearings. This story is enjoyably frustrating and comfortably familiar in how Les handles the problems that come up as he deals with the fall out from his decisions. I was certain a search on “deddybones” would show me some aboriginal lore that would explain it all but to no avail. Ninety percent of all search results led to this story or to a freelancer in Indonesia. Nope, I am left to wonder what exactly drives Les mad, or if anything drove Les mad.

“The Petrol Run” is an effective story with an abrupt ending. A cult leader goes to prison for child molestation and the cult member left in charge stages a disturbing public reaction to the sentence. This one was probably more effective to me because I had been reading The SCP creepypasta just before reading this story, most notably the notorious SCP-231. Sometimes the external influences are what make a story disturbing, and that was certainly the case for me with “The Petrol Run.”

“Mountain Devils” is close to “Deddybones” in terms of excellence. An older widow paints children’s faces at a local fair, and one boy asks to be painted as a devil. That boy is later a victim of a terrible crime, and the crime doesn’t end with the perpetrator’s death. This is a relatively disturbing story, and the heroine’s end seems abrupt, but when you consider what happens in the story, it actually makes perfect sense when you realize the only person who was affected by the criminal and who did not die was a man in the throws of dementia.

“Barbecue at Nev’s” is some heavy stuff, gentle reader. This one has a pretty solid ending, but one that left me asking all kinds of questions. Family and friends gather for a cook-out and mete justice to one of their own who has stepped outside the boundaries of moral behavior. There are some pretty loathsome details in this one – putting cigarette butts out on cockroaches, for instance. And I don’t think I am giving too much away when I say this story isn’t told in third person, despite all initial appearances that it is. This story is really disturbing in its implications and was skillfully written.

The last story in the collection is “The Wonders of Modern Medicine” and it’s also pretty disturbing. A young woman sleeps through the last stop on her train and finds herself with a dead cell phone and attacked by strange men. And it just gets worse for her from there. This story borrows heavily from urban legend and what is happening is telegraphed pretty clearly but at the same time it’s a nasty little story.

All in all, this was a solid short story collection. Mikul tells you exactly what he plans to do from the outset – he mixes very obvious and at times pedestrian story-telling with extraordinary details, plots and characters. The result is generally that even as you think you know what is coming, you really don’t. And when you do manage to guess, you end up second-guessing yourself. This is a maddening, interesting, entertaining, at times gross and at other times even grosser collection. I liked it a lot. Highly recommended.

Grudgepunk by John McNee

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  Grudgepunk

Author:  John McNee

Type of Book:  Fiction, themed short story collection, noir, transhumanism with a smidge of steampunk, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because it is the first book that contains steampunk elements that didn’t make me want to throw the book at the wall.  And he didn’t screw up the transhumanist elements of his stories.  Believe me, that’s all very odd.

Availability: Published by Bizarro Press in 2012, you can get a copy here:

 

Comments: I first encountered John McNee in 2011 when I read a relatively mediocre extreme horror short story collection.  His story was the best in the book, a dystopian, transhumanist nightmare that made the rest of the stories in the collection seem almost amateurish in comparison.  I wondered how McNee would do in longer form, if he could take the amazing world-building and characterization and keep the intensity of his monstrous characters outside of the limits of a short story length.  Turns out he can.  If I had been in a position to have a “Best of” list in 2013, this book would have been at the top of the list.  I can say with no equivocation that this is an excellent book.

Though this book is released by a bizarro imprint, I hesitate to call it bizarro.  It’s noir.  It’s trans-humanist.  It’s extreme horror.  It’s brutal and intense and at times strangely touching.  It defies classification because it is a perfect synthesis of so many different influences without becoming a pastiche.  This is not an imitation – it’s a creation.  Because I am not a person much given to steampunk or noir, I should not have liked this book as much as I do but it speaks to McNee’s skills that he mixed subgenres I don’t much care for and I still couldn’t put the book down.

Quick synopsis of the book:  In the city of Grudgehaven, we are presented with a place much like Gotham late at night combined with Sin City at all hours, with some side steps into Blade Runner and Repo: The Genetic Opera as run through a Cherie Priest novel.  Criminal syndicates are at war, wreaking havoc.  A gorgeous dame sings at a club and forms a strange friendship with a taxi driver.  A man fights to keep his ailing wife alive during a riot.  A sentient severed hand is on a mission.  Human motels, in that they are motels made of human skin, have relationships with real humans.  A writer finds herself in a sticky situation when she is hired to write the autobiography of a very bad man.  The daughter of a preacher makes a deal with a devil of sorts.  A boy made of clockworks longs to be real.  And all of these single threads weave the tapestry of The Grudge, a town without pity but with plenty of malice.

Because of that pesky second X-chromosome I have, the story of Louie, his wife, Marianne, and the lounge singer Dolores, was the price of admission part of this book, though the stories of Cynthia, the woman tasked with writing a book about the worst man in The Grudge, and Alesa, the preacher’s daughter, are both excellent.  The tale of Louie is such a great story that I am going to discuss it in depth, and mostly spoil it in the process.  I don’t like doing that but if I don’t keep myself focused on one story, I would want to write about every story in the book and this discussion would be about 40 pages long.  But I also must spoil it because spoiling it is the only way to show how excellent it is.

Louie is a cab driver who is down on his luck.  He has a sick wife and he has a lot of trouble making ends meet.  He meets a gorgeous club singer named Dolores, who gets him caught up in a surprising double-cross.  This is a story that has been told so many times that it hardly seems remarkable enough, on its face, to be one of the best stories in the collection.  The delight (and sadness) is in the details. 

Sleep Has No Master by Jon Konrath

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Sleep Has No Master

Author:  Jon Konrath

Type of Book:  Fiction, themed short story collection, lunacy

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  I don’t even know how to tell you all the ways this book is odd.  I am mostly reminded of this Hunter S. Thompson quote:

Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.

Availability:  Published by Paragraph Line Books in 2012, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  This book gave me the fear.  Like I was going to go full Gonzo-paranoid and end up locking myself in the backyard shed with a gallon of whiskey and a loaded gun.  As I read parts of the book, I thought, “I wrote this.  I wrote this book and I forgot and Konrath sent it to me in some passive aggressive ruse in order to show me he has access to my thoughts and computer and probably even my medicine cabinet.”  I read the title chapter out loud to Mr. Oddbooks, who peered at me nervously from his side of the bed, no doubt wondering if I had had (another) psychotic break (there was a… problem when I read a particular Zippy the Pinhead cartoon that referenced the Oscar Meyer Wiener-mobile, but that was years ago).

A quick summary of the book is likely in order:  this is a short story collection that tells the tales of a dude who does stuff, sometimes alone, sometimes with his loser friends.   Through these dudes, Konrath hits on too many details of my life for this book to be legal.  Some of the topics that include details far too specific for my comfort: insomnia, unlikely car customizations, Varg Vikernes, specific conspiracy theories, a complete inability to use eye drops as a child, over-the-counter sleep aids, corpulent Asians friends, microsleep, the bizarre belief that one’s eyelashes are inverting back into one’s eyelid (mine grow sideways, toward my nose, and it’s a problem), spending most of one’s work days searching eBay listings, self-torture via medical sites, Crispin Glover, gg allin, disgust for how badly movies tended to represent computer capabilities in the 80s, the Voynich Manuscript, fear of what diet sodas may be doing to my brain, and so much more.  This book is, when I can tamp down the paranoia, deeply funny, verging on hilarious at times, but the paranoia lurks because who really could have so many weird idiosyncrasies in common unless something nefarious is happening?

The story “Sleep Has No Master” contains a paragraph that pretty much confirmed for me that Konrath needs to go to jail, the fucker, because I know I wrote this at some point:

I started researching sleep disorders online, the usual death spiral of fanatical WebMD queries, and stumbled upon something called fatal familial insomnia.  It’s an incredibly rare four-stage inherited prion disease that starts with progressively-worsening insomnia and panic attacks.  Then you dive into a wonderful world of Nixon-esque paranoia and vivid hallucinations.  By the third stage, you cannot sleep at all, and your body starts breaking down with rapid weight loss.  It all leads up to a crippling dementia, before you finally buy the farm.  Barbiturates and induced comas, which you’d think would knock you out, actually speed up the disease.  In one famous case, the doctors completely nuked the patient with heavy sedatives, but his brain would not shut down.  This is the exact kind of thing you don’t want to read at 3 AM when you’ve been awake for 40 hours straight and you’re trying  to find some homeopathic bullshit to turn off your brain for the evening.

Seriously, I am rethinking the microwave brain readers that Gloria Naylor insisted were used to read her thoughts.  You know how when your cats freak out and run frantically into the other room, only to stop immediately and then stare, wild-eyed at the wall?  I think that’s when Konrath is warming up the brain-microwave.  

A Greater Monster by David David Katzman

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  A Greater Monster

Author:  David David Katzman

Type of Book: Fiction, experimental, indescribable

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The reasons are numerous and many.

Availability:  Published by Bedhead Books in 2011, you can get a copy here:

You can also order this book from The Strand.

Comments:  Jesus Christ.  The best way I can begin this book discussion is to dare every single one of you to buy the book and read it.  I add the dare so that your pride forces you to get the book lest you seem the sort person who shies away from a challenge.  I need you to feel your honor is at stake.  However, it will be a dare you will be glad you took.  A Greater Monster is a book you will need to read at least twice, and even then you will be able to pick it up a third, fourth and fifth time and right around page 40 you will feel like you are reading a new book again.  Given that this book has 367 pages, that’s a bargain.  In a sense, you will get a new book every time you read it.  So really, it’s an economical dare.

The best way to describe the book is to call it experimental fiction because after the first 40 pages or so, it defies any traditional narrative.  It’s a drug trip that has a beginning of sorts but no real end.  The protagonist slides from one hallucinogenic experience to another, each itself having no beginning and no real end.  It’s disorienting and peculiar.  But at the end it is a religious experience for the protagonist, a deeply personal descent into the unreal and irreal that make it almost alienating to read.  The protagonist wants this trip into a world that has no meaning – if he doesn’t experience real meaninglessness, his life will become even more meaningless.   And each trip he experiences means only to me what I assign to it because there is no meaning once the trips begin.  Only experience.  A nauseating but ordered beginning turns into the protagonist careening in unordered experiences.

I had to read this book in a manner similar to the way I read House of Leaves.  The first time I read it in bits and pieces.  It’s a dense text and, without any linearity of plot, I don’t recommend reading through it in one attempt the first time you read it.  I honestly don’t know if the book would do you any good reading it all at once.  It would be like experiencing someone else’s delusions.  Before my senior year of high school, I developed pneumonia and had such a high fever I began to hallucinate.  My mother found me in the hallway, waiting in line to go to the bathroom.  Evidently I was convinced Chinese laborers were using the house as a rooming house and we all shared the same toilet.  I could see odors as colors and felt sure there were cows hiding in my room, producing methane gas that manifested as the color orange.  Small blue people ran across my bedsheets, warning me I needed to sit up or I would die.  My books spoke in foreign languages, the mirrors showed me unseen rooms in the house, and when I later told all of this to the doctor, he flat out did not believe me.  My mother told him, with no small amount of anger, that all of that had happened and I still don’t think he believed us.

I hallucinate now with very low fevers and most medical personnel give me the side eye when I report it.  I seldom say anything anymore.  I’ve had a couple of nurses tell me they do the same thing but mostly I know I am not believed.  I used to be offended by it but now I know better.  The fever dreams and hallucinations of one man can never really resonate with others unless they, by chance, had the same fevered dream, the same tendency to hallucinate, the same peculiar mindset.  That sort of cross-over seldom happens and you find yourself wondering how anyone could see a cow’s flatulence. And that’s why you need to read this book in little bits at first.  Otherwise the protagonist’s experiences will become too much as you try to make sense of them.  In smaller bits you won’t try to find the common thread, the element that links all these stories together.  There may be one but because this is not my hallucination, my drug trip, my terrible fever, the thread is elusive at best.

It took me several months to finish this book the first time.  I would back up and try to connect everything I was reading but ultimately that was a loser’s bet.  You just have to read in snippets and when you are finished, let it digest and then read it all in one go.  This book is a bizarre, at times alienating experience and that may sound unappealing but actually it was quite divine.  It was like taking a vacation into someone else’s mind.  It was a violent, unnerving, disjointed trip into utterly foreign fever hallucinations and that experience is enjoyable and frightening and fun if you don’t try to force it to make any linear sense.

The Bizarro Story of I by Wol-vriey

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Bizarro Story of I

Author: Wol-vriey

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There are many reasons…

Availability: Published by Bizarro Press in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book may not be the best bizarro book I have ever read, but it employs one of the best mindfucks that I’ve encountered in this genre. And it’s amazingly simple. The protagonist is named I and the book uses a third person narrative. That really is a pretty simple device, but it forces the reader to pay attention because if your mind wanders the slightest, you find yourself reading a first person novel. But it’s not a first person novel. And you will lose track of that several times as you read this book.

It’s such a strange way to write a book yet so perfect I’m surprised I haven’t seen this before.

Here’s a quick synopsis, as well as anyone can summarize a book like this: I is married to a woman called Anorexia, who is the secret daughter and heir to a kingdom run by horrible, body-building weirdos called the Steroid Cowbiys. She is kidnapped one day and I goes on a quest to find her. He loses his mouth early on and is forced to type out his end of the conversations he has. The plot, like the name trope, is simple – man goes in search of his lady-love, who is in peril. As with all bizarro, the bizarro is in the details. There’s almost an Alice in Wonderland thing going on in this book. I genuinely do not have a chance in hell of explaining the details of this book with anything approaching brevity – they are just that involved and bizarre. I meets a weird little mouse thing called Chocolate Mousse, who corners the market on rat poison and warehouses it so it can’t be used to kill him. I meets a weird fish-woman hybrid called Girlzilla who helps him but also proves to be a bit strange in her own right. He does battle with the family of body-building weirdos and sort of saves his wife but his quest doesn’t end the way you would think. And of course, there is a whole lot more to it than that, but just think of it as a love quest sprinkled with characters that would have deeply disturbed Lewis Carroll.

This book is horribly edited. It would not have made my ten error cut off, but I had read it before I made that declaration, hence this review. But this was also one of the first books released by Bizarro Press. More recent offerings show a vast improvement in regards to editing. But still, this book has a lot of errors. I have to mention it because that’s just who I am. But those who tend not to notice these sorts of things are unlikely to find this book any worse than any other bizarro offering. Just getting this out of the way so I can discuss the rest of the book to my satisfaction.

The use of “I” as a name really is quite interesting because it forces the reader to interact deeply with the text. It reads completely naturally but in the middle of sentences I found myself wondering who the “I” referred to and remembered, “Oh yeah, it’s the protagonist’s name.” In a third person narrative, it should be all the clearer that all those mentions of “I” are referring to the title character but even as I read the last pages, I still had difficulty remembering that simple fact. 

TV Snorted My Brain by Bradley Sands

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: TV Snorted My Brain

Author: Bradley Sands

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a retelling of the Arthurian myths using a sullen teenager, a sleazy wrestler, and a mystical television remote.

Availability: Published by LegumeMan books in 2012, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  This is a book you will either love or hate.  I don’t think there can be much gray area.  The reason for this is because this book relies on a teenaged narrator, a particularly stupid teenaged narrator whose brain is given to repetition.  Lots of repetition.  I suspect a real teenager would find this book interminable.  But if you can remember yourself when you were annoying as the day was long, yammering about ANARCHY and hating everyone around you because they were norms, you may find Artie Pendragon as funny as I did.

This book is a retelling of the King Arthur story using ridiculous suburban schmoes in the place of heroic figures.  Excalibur is a remote control and Camelot is inside a television.  When Artie’s father dies and his mother marries his uncle, no one can work the television until one night Artie uses the Excalibur 3000 to navigate the TV and his entire family finds themselves sucked into a netherworld wherein actors really are inside the television.  Artie has to engage in a struggle against his stepfather and little sister as he hunts for the Holy Grail.  Can he save the land in the television?  Can he achieve his goal of anarchy?  Can he get his wife back from his stepfather and take his place as the rightful ruler?  Will his struggles be so silly that it makes the mythos of Arthur seem like little more than the backdrop to a Bill and Ted film?  The only question I will answer for you is the last one and I think you know what the answer is.

As I mentioned earlier, this book is told from the perspective of an irritating and somewhat uninteresting teenager, a teenager upon whom fate has thrust greatness of sorts.   Through showing examples of Artie’s thought processes, I can demonstrate how simple and repetitive he is and, in my opinion, utterly hilarious.  Here’s a scene wherein he is watching his younger sister playing in a soccer game:

I sit in a folding beach chair on the sidelines, watching my little sister play out on the field.  The chair is uncomfortable.  A strip of polyester fabric is poking me in the ass.  I do not like to be poked in the ass.  But it is worth being poked in the ass.  It is a really great pee wee soccer game.  It is total anarchy, super-retardo anarchy awesomeness.  It is the most anarchist thing on Earth.

Oh wait, I forgot about riots in the streets.

But riots in the streets don’t have little girls picking up clumps of grass out of the ground instead of defending their goal, little girls chasing butterflies instead of the ball, little girls tripping over the ball, little girls kicking the ball into the wrong goal, little girls calling their opponents cuntbags, little girls screaming as they run away from the ball.

Riots in the streets don’t have soccer moms.  Riots on the streets don’t have soccer dads.  Riots on the streets don’t have riots between soccer moms and soccer dads over pee wee soccer games.  Riots in the streets are over real world issues.  Real world issues are fucking lame.

I say it out loud, “Real world issues are fucking lame.”

This is a long quote but I throw it out here because it’s a litmus test.  If you find this particular style of writing annoying, you will want to stop reading here and give this book a miss.  But if you find this strangely charming and exactly like the tiresome kid you sat next to in health class, the one who scrawled Anarchy! symbols all over his Trapper Keeper and quoted Metallica lyrics back before they “sold out” and totally did not give a fuck, you’ll enjoy the rest of this book.  And this really is the bulk of the book – the Arthurian myth as filtered through the mind and life of a kid who will remind you a bit of Dermott from The Venture Brothers.  There are the usual fantastic elements that accompany bizarro books but this book is quite simple in its execution – teenage dirtbag as King Arthur.  And because it is so simple, I think the best way to show how great this book is is by quoting passages.

House Hunter by S.T. Cartledge

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: House Hunter

Author: S.T. Cartledge

Type of Book:  Fiction, bizarro, action, novella

Why Do I Consider The Book Odd:  Because it appeals to my animist tendencies to see inanimate objects as living creatures.

Availability:  Published by Eraserhead Press in 2013, you can get a copy here:

Comments: We end NBAS week with S.T. Cartledge’s House Hunter.  I am torn about this book because it has so much going for it yet pings a lot of problems I have with female characters in fringe literature.  It’s almost become a cliche to me that when a badass female character is introduced and she has an unnatural hair color, I’m gonna hate her because her hair serves as her personality.  Imogen, the heroine of this book, has blue hair and is not my cup of tea, so my dayglo-hair theory is still intact.  The characterization in this book, as a whole, isn’t great but it’s also a plot-driven book.  In fact, it’s a pretty decent plot, but like so many NBAS books, it suffers from being novella-length.  This is another one that really needed space to expand and develop its plot.

The gist of House Hunter is this: Imogen is a House Hunter.  Houses, in this novel, are living creatures, some domesticated for human use, some still running wild.  Imogen is a very good house tamer and is pulled into a plot wherein a cabal of architects are trying to use a legendary house called the Jabberhouse that can destroy homes and create new ones, entire communities, that will permit the architects to take control of the houses and control all the communities and the people who live within them.  The wild houses will be stamped out and liberty will be lost.  Imogen is drawn in by a man named Clint and they engage on a quest to stop this from happening.  Clint is not who he says he is, and that plot twist really doesn’t change things as much as you might think.   There are interesting details, like cockroach people and pygmy houses and overall, this is a pretty good first effort.

This is a very action-oriented book, and when Cartledge gets into a tight action scene, you can see his strengths.  However, action-oriented books are hard for me to discuss because one has to be an excellent storyteller to pull off an action book.  Storytelling is not necessarily the same as wordsmithing and as a result storytellers tell amazing and interesting stories without engaging in the sort of writing a reader wants to quote.  Rather, the reader who loves the book is more likely to recount the plot than the beautiful writing.  Think of most Stephen King books – though King is, in my opinion, a very good writer and one of the best horror writers ever, one generally does not find oneself quoting him at length, outside of trenchant one-liners that often come up.  I explain all of this because I want it to be clear that my failure to quote much is due to this being a plot-driven novel.

This is also a book that is an homage to others authors, yet draws on influences without becoming a pastiche.  There is some clear Mark Danielewski-love in this book, with sentient houses and a character with the last name of Davinson (House of Leaves hinges on the Navidson record, this book involves the Davinson Initiative).  There are shades of Palahniuk in here, too, with a character identity revelation at the end that makes sense and is interesting but doesn’t really change much (think Invisible Monsters). There is also a video-game feel to this at times, especially during the scene wherein Imogen uses a controller of sorts to have a house duel with another house hunter.  I am not well-versed enough in video games to be able to assign scenes like this to a specific game but gaming is undeniably there.

While I don’t really like Imogen that much – blue-haired heroin who complains more than the average action heroine and isn’t particularly interesting –  I can admit that my distaste for her at times is strictly personal.  However, there are some concrete problems.  This book achieved a new editorial issue for me.  While it was peppered with editorial problems here and there, most notably with word repetition (“and and”), it had a glaring continuity error.  A character loses an arm and then throws her hands up in the air in a moment of anger.  Now she’s not throwing her severed arm up in the air – this sentence is written as though all limbs are still connected.  Very shortly after she tosses her arms into the air, another character notices her missing arm.  Sigh…  Another problem is that the novella length forced Cartledge into the dreaded “telling” rather than “showing.”  There was a lot of plot handled via conversations between characters.  I generally think telling and not showing is a garbage complaint – all science fiction requires this, especially books with this much world building, which Cartledge handles admirably.  But toward the end, it happened enough for me to notice and it became a bit tiring.

But even as I found Imogen lacking and despaired at some of the editing problems, there is a real kernel of fun in this book. The concept is unique and can easily be seen as an allegory to modern farming wherein corporations are using patents to destroy independent farmers and eliminate crops that are not genetically modified, but this connection is made without any preaching. As I mention above, the world building in this book is quite something and Cartledge creates a world the reader can immediately focus in on without feeling forced into the sort of heavy-duty otherworldliness that I find so wearying about a lot of fantasy and science fiction.  He really does give us details about the world almost effortlessly:

Imogen followed Mary around the side of the house and across a paddock of funnel web ponies.  They stopped at the gate to a paddock with a big acorn tree and at a two-story farm house behind it, standing about a foot off the ground on hundreds of matchstick legs.

Funnel web ponies may not make sense now but in the context of the story they will not trip up the reader.  It is in his worldbuilding wherein Cartledge really does show and not tell, and he’s able to create an at times sweet other world full of rich details that never verges into the outlandish.

Because this is an action bizarro novel, here’s a passage of some excellent action writing:

The old farm leapt and quivered.  Imogen’s head slammed into the porch. Sparks flew from the lightning cannon and danced across the timber deck.  She banged her fist hard on the steps.  A hoof flicked up on to the porch, brushing over her shoulder.  Imogen squeezed the trigger on the cannon and punched it into the steps.  The front legs buckled then flew up, throwing Imogen into a puddle of pigs’ blood on the sloppy ground.

The house came at her with frantic, toothy legs scraping and ripping apart the soil.  Imogen switched the cannon to scorch and fired at the front of the house.  She held her arm up in the general direction of the centipede legs and held her fire until she could no longer feel the feet clawing at the blood-soaked ground.

This is some pretty decent action writing, I think.  Action writing does best when it is simple, without a lot of flourishes.  When a character is wrestling with a house with centipede legs and brings a cannon into play, we don’t need a whole lot of extraneous details.  And to be perfectly frank, I was never one for overly descriptive novels.  I love the mystery novelist Ruth Rendell but tune out whenever she goes into great detail with plants and architecture and the arrangements of high streets.  I am partial to writing that is less baroque and Cartledge appeals to me on that level.

But that is not to say that this book is wholly without some pretty writing.  This scene comes from when Clint and Imogen are in a labyrinth and realize it is alive and is moving.

They came out of one passage into a wide room filled with plants and trees that flickered with light instead of fruit and flowers and leaves, and filled the room with the scent of peaches and roses and eucalyptus.  The plants grew from little islands of red soil that were surrounded by a black liquid sea. Along the walls, eyes watched them.  Imogen went out into the sea, knee deep.  Ellis followed.  In the centre of the room, a tree spiraled like a staircase, disappearing into a hole in the roof.

Overall, there was enough good in this book to distract me from what I didn’t like.  There was little in the way of character development, Imogen’s got the dreaded blue hair that often serves as a place marker for personality, and there were editing issues that were really distracting.  But the world-building, the action sequences and the plot were spot-on.  I recommend this book and hope that if you read it you come back and tell me what you think of it.  But as I have mentioned before, the New Bizarro Author Series writers have a limited window in which to sell enough books to be offered a writing contract.  If this book sounds interesting to you, then get a copy sooner rather than later.

Having reached the end of my NBAS week,  you guys have until 6:00 P.M. PST to leave comments in order to enter my giveaway.  I am giving away a copy of each book I discuss this week OR I am giving away an Amazon gift card in the amount that the paper versions of these books would cost.  All you have to do to enter the drawing is to leave me a comment in each of this week’s entries.  One comment on each discussion is an entry into the drawing.  Leave a comment all five days and you will have five entries into the drawing.  Only one comment per day counts as an entry but don’t let that prevent you from engaging in conversation about the books.  For all the details of this contest, visit this entry.

I will announce the winner of the contest in a separate entry and will contact the winner via e-mail.    Thanks for all the support for this endeavor and happy reading to you all.

Avoiding Mortimer by J. W. Wargo

Book: Avoiding Mortimer

Author: J.W. Wargo

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Just take my word for it, it’s odd.

Availability: Published in 2013 by Eraserhead Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This subtly weird little book is perhaps my emotional favorite of the bizarros I’ve read for this themed-week. It’s got its gross moments – vomit, biting into insects and earlobes – but even the grossness was sweetly restrained given what I have come to expect from the Bizarros. But it must be said that sweetly restrained bizarro is not going to be awesome in and of itself. No, I’m far too sophisticated to be taken in by sweetness. But I do have to say that it is nice to be able to read a bizarro book that I can describe to my mother without making her cry. (And Mama Oddbooks is no lightweight. She was the chief text editor for Deutschland Erwacht when it was published in the USA in the 70s. She knows some stuff. She’s seen some shit. And I still hesitate to share most bizarro plots with her. In short, most of you are monsters.)

The main reason I like this book so much is because I get Mortimer. I’m an Avoider, though I don’t experience anything close to Mortimer’s level of neurotic and thanatotic depression. I love avoiding people. Not because I’m mean or cruel but because I am introverted on a genetic level. It’s actually considered a psychological disorder on my part but I sort of don’t care, even though I enter therapy for it every few years. I prefer not to leave my house and, interestingly, “I prefer not to” is a perfect way to sort of ground yourself when reading this book. There is something very Bartleby about this novella. Though Mortimer ultimately finds a way to stop preferring not to, at least when it matters, folk who just feel tired and itchy around other folk have a hero in Mortimer, whose essential nature is eventually how he manages to become a hero.

I kind of lost the thread in the plot near the end where the exact mechanics of Wargo’s world were concerned, because there were sort of Kafka-esque layers of bureaucracy that I sort of refused to absorb (and I really hate to use the word Kafka-esque because it’s so woefully misused, but there were definitely elements of Kafka in this book, and now that I think of it, I don’t really like Melville or Kafka so it’s surprising I like this book as much as I do). But the gist of the book is this: Mortimer is born to schizoid parents. His sister is avoidant, and as the most socially normal member of a really abnormal family, Mortimer resists when his family undergoes a process that is sort of a living suicide that puts them in a realm between life and death. He eventually gets a factory job that is sort of gross, he has an ant-farm as a pet, and before long he sees no reason to live on. After he cracks in a magnificent manner, he commits suicide and ends up in a bureaucratic hell-hole of an afterlife. Mortimer finds himself with a job in a factory exactly like the one he had in the living world, down to the same boss. He recognizes a woman in the hereafter whom he saw die in the living world and with her he discovers that all is not right in the hereafter. Ultimately Mortimer stages a confrontation with God himself and helps the woman solve some very troubling problems and he ends up in a sort of heaven of his own, a place wherein his essential nature is loved and embraced.

There were some scratchy places in the plot, as I mentioned. But there was enough silliness, even in this novel of a depressed avoidant who loathes being around others, that I didn’t feel too pressed or upset that at times I had no idea what was going on. For example, before he dies, Mortimer eats his ant farm and then barfs it up. The ant farm puke forms a mutant ant-blob that becomes integral to the plot. Ant farm puke saves the day! When there were not enough strange details to absorb me, I just sort of grooved on Mortimer’s avoidance.

In my honest assessment, I fear I may be turning you bizarro extremists off with my wallow in the mild, so let me share some of the more awesome prose in this book. This is from the first page:

To understand Mortimer’s death, we must first focus on his life.

Simply put, Mortimer’s life was shit. It was pure unadulterated liquid feces in which he swam daily -rarely, if ever, coming up for air.

Whether or not this ocean of excrement came from outside forces or was created by Mortimer himself is a moot point. Rather, it is important to ask why Mortimer so insisted upon drowning in a world of filth when he could have just as easily swam to shore, toweled off, and worked toward removing even the very smell of shit from his life.

Janitor of Planet Anilingus by Andrew Wayne Adams

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  Janitor of Planet Anilingus

Author:  Andrew Wayne Adams

Type of Book:  Fiction, novella, bizarro

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  With a title like that, how can it not be?

Availability:  Published by Eraserhead in 2013, you can get a copy here:

Comments: We begin day three of my New Bizarro Authors Week with Andrew Wayne Adam’s Janitor of Planet Anilingus and, in all honesty, I started this book with no small amount of trepidation.  As it is, about 35% of the search strings that bring people to my site involve necrophilia and horse dildos.  I wondered what legacy this book would leave behind in the searches I view daily in my site statistics.  Moreover, the title itself is enough to give one a bit of pause, I think.  Planet Anilingus was likely to be a place wherein a tired woman would find little solace as she read late into the night, her husband snoring lightly, the suburban street silent as the normal people slept on, unaware that there was a place in the literary landscape dedicated to anus-licking.

Luckily for me, Janitor of Planet Anilingus is not the utterly ass-centric debauch I thought it would be.  It has its moments of sexual lunacy but this is mostly a quest novel wherein a man loses everything as he tries to save the woman he thinks he loves.  It has some atrociously gross moments, don’t get me wrong, but one of bizarro’s secrets is that the stories are the same as those you will find on the best-seller list.  The stories differ only because they are peppered with unusual sex, weird species, grotesque details and strange and over-the-top humor.

The hero of this novella, Jack, as the title implies, is the janitor of Planet Anilingus.  Planet Anilingus is a sort of destination spot, a DisneyWorld of sorts, for people deeply involved in butt-licking.  Jack is completing a 40-day period, a time of Lent, wherein the planet is closed to visitors, spending his time tidying up and doing a deep clean before the revelers return.  He is the only person on the planet, until a hairless, humanoid woman with helicopter blades that shoot up from her back lands on the planet.  Someone is trying to kill this hairless woman, Nimue, and Jack does his best to protect her.  In the course of his interactions with Nimue, he stops going to work and his boss, Bishop Eichmann, replaces him with his nephew Tommy.  Tommy and Jack enter into a rivalry for Nimue’s attention and both end up, god help me, pregnant after her sexual ministrations.  What the pregnancy does to the men is easily the grossest part of the book but I enjoyed it because poopy stuff makes me laugh.  Nimue ultimately is not what she seems and even knowing of her sexual perfidy with Tommy, Jack still wants to save her from the rocket launching lunatic chasing her.  Jack is not a man given to much in the way of emotion, probably because all the ass licking he witnesses has numbed him, and it’s an interesting choice on Adams’ part to insist that Jack be so removed emotionally because in the midst of all the chaos, any one else would have freaked out.

Before I begin telling you why this is a very good, funny, gross quest novella, I need to say that hallelujah, kiss the ground, this book is cleanly edited.  I mean, there are a few errors, but this is the cleanest Eraserhead Press book I’ve read in at least two years.  I swear on all that is worth discussing, half the battle with me is editing.  I hate to seem like my standards have been lowered so much by the small presses that just reading clean copy makes me want to give a rave review but it’s getting to that point.  However, I am going to show why this book is a good read on top of being edited well enough that nothing distracts the reader from the text.  (Well, the content can distract a certain kind of reader, but it won’t be because the comma usage is maddeningly bad.)

Jack enjoys his time alone on the planet, except that being the only person around makes him the sole target of the cupids, a mutant insect.

One more week and Lent was over, and then the cupids would not bother him.  His only trouble then would be the hundreds of thousands of people licking each other’s assholes day and night.  They blanketed the planet, an orgy visible from space.  Nonstop until next Lent.

At first there is nothing exceptional about this passage until one finishes the book.  Jack is not a man who exaggerates and the third-person narration in this story follows suit with flat and earnest descriptions.  After finishing this book, I realized the orgy likely was visible from space, and as a result, I felt extreme despair alongside Jack.  A week of that sort of thing?  Might wear thin after a few days.  Months and months of so much butt-licking it is likely affecting the cosmos?  Poor Jack.

And it just gets worse.  Poor Jack, indeed.

His normal uniform consisted of nothing but a pair of lace underwear and a bow tie.  It was crucial that no irregularity should sully the planet’s atmosphere of total debauchery and a stinky janitor intruding upon the middle of an orgy would certainly do so.  The job even required him to practice erotic body language as he went about his work, movements choreographed to make dusting and mopping look sexy.  And if some random reveler stole a lick of his ass, he had to pretend to like it, then extricate himself as expediently as possible.

What would OSHA make of that? I can’t help but think that a lot of the bizarros held very difficult menial jobs, or perhaps still do.  If the above description involved dealing with feet and far less sex, the mental impact would not be too different from selling shoes.  Kissing asses, handling feet – it’s all so demoralizing.

In addition to being inappropriately groped at work while mopping in a sexy manner, the rest of Jack’s job sucks as well.

“These men and women haven’t licked an asshole in six weeks,” the Bishop continued.  “All they are dreaming of now is a return to Anilingus.  They’re drooling for paradise, and we must deliver.  I’m talking true Eden, Jack – as in, not one goddamn dust bunny on the planet, and every cobblestone, every leaf, shined to look like a scale from the reptilian skin of God.  Can you handle that?”

Jack said, “I’m on top of things.”

“If you fuck up, I’ll have you peeling potatoes on Vore.”

A demotion to peeling potatoes on Vore.  Jesus, the implications… This passage made me laugh so hard that Mr. Oddbooks wanted to know what I was laughing about.  I was shocked when he knew what “vore” meant.  I don’t really know him at all, do I?  

Her Fingers by Tamara Romero

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  Her Fingers

Author:  Tamara Romero

Type of Book:  Fiction, fantasy, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  It’s published as bizarro and I will consider it odd on that basis.

Availability:  Published by Eraserhead in 2012, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Though this book is part of the New Bizarro Author Series, I consider it more fantasy than bizarro. Compared to the other books in this series, the story in this book is far more restrained, with content that would not be out of place on a fantasy/sci-fi shelf in a bricks and mortar bookstore.

I have to engage in full disclosure right out of the gate:  I am not a big fan of the fantasy genre.  I cannot explain why but there you are. This being fantasy means a lot of the details in this book were muddled to me, though I tried to read as carefully as possible, which was difficult because too much is crammed into this book.  I think Romero’s tale, given the lushness of her prose, needs to be a full-length book because the story-building in this novella is rushed.

The story is about witches who have become persecuted and deals with the specific experiences of a witch called Misadora.  Misadora has several other names in this book, and given that several other characters have several other names, I lost the thread of who was who several times, which makes it difficult to write a good plot synopsis.  At any rate, a man called Volatile finds Misadora floating in a river after she is attacked.  He takes her in and shelters her, though he has a lot of trepidation about Misadora that I cannot share because it would be a spoiler. He lives, I believe, amongst what are called the Treemothers, women whom, when called  by the witches, ran into the forests and merged with trees.  These Treemothers exude a sort of sap/jewel called Amalis and only women can touch it.  Misadora was caught wearing an Amalis ring and had all the fingers on that hand cut off.  Friends who also have several names help her out with a bionic hand.  Misadora has to stand up against the ever increasing persecution of the witches and the soldiers who try to kill the Treemothers, but at the end is faced with a horrifying truth that changes everything she thought she knew.

If this description seems very vague, that’s because I often could not get a grip on what this book was about.  That is why it would have been better had this novella been written into a longer novel.  To have multiple characters with multiple names, all the world-building with the towns, the history of the witches and the families, the Treemothers, Misadora and Volatile, and to cram it all into a book under 60 pages, is too much for the reader.   That’s no insult to Romero because even though I have to review the book in front of me, it’s no small compliment to say that a book needs to be longer so that the author has to room to fully show off her chops.  As it stands, this book is a small wave of names and places that will wash over the reader without being understood unless the reader is willing to take notes to keep track of who is who, which names are towns and what exactly being a sleepwalker may indicate.  Finally, when you factor in that this book is told from different character perspectives, characters whose names switch in the book, it’s all a bit too much.

But I have to think this book would have been a better read for me had it been edited properly.  Romero originally wrote this book in Spanish and translated it into English.  I am mono-lingual but I recall vividly the awkward sentences I came up with when I translated Cicero’s De Amicitia into English.  Even though every person in my college Latin class was a native English speaker, we delivered sentences that belied fluency in any language.  It wasn’t until class when we read our lines and smoothed them over with the help of the professor that Cicero’s text had any beauty.  I cannot say this tendency to focus on the translation rather than the prose during the yeoman work of translation is what happened with Romero, because some of this book contains beautiful sentences.  However, large chunks of the text lead me to believe that is exactly what happened.

Regardless of whether or not the beauty of the original story got lost in translation, it is the responsibility of the editor to make sure awkward sentences and strange turns of phrase are polished before they are printed.  Though I am not a fan of fantasy, even I can see that this is an interesting novella and that with some work it could have been so much better.  I’ve talked with a couple of people from Eraserhead and its imprints, and they explained that as a small press they just don’t have the budget for copy editors.  I understand that to a point.  I really do.  And I sort of hate harping on this point.  But even as I despise piling on a small press I still get annoyed because words matter.  If they didn’t matter there would be no sense in publishing anything at all and since Romero’s book is definitely worth publishing, it is worth editing.  I cannot put a number on the times that people have said to me that after one bizarro book they stopped reading because they just couldn’t take the misspelled words, bad grammar, and poor punctuation.  I take books seriously and I take the small presses as seriously as I do big publishers.  The day I stop bemoaning poor editing is the day I stop reading these books entirely.

I initially wrote out several examples of what is wrong with this book but ultimately decided not to publish them because the last thing I want to do is to seem cruel to a fledgling writer, especially one who does not deserve it.  Writing a novella and then translating it into another language means that Romero has already done some heavy lifting.  Moreover there are parts of this book that absolutely sing.  The editing issues in this are not her fault.  I will never tire of saying this – authors are the last people who should edit their works because repeated exposure to the text means they no longer can see the errors.  It is especially hard when you are translating your own work from another language because I suspect at the end of it all Romero knew this book like the back of her hand.  No one can see their own mistakes with that level of familiarity.

But even as I try to be restrained, I have to say the editing issues in this book are serious and affect the way readers enjoy the book.  It’s uncomfortable when a town’s name is spelled differently in back-to-back sentences.  There are some sentences with syntax so garbled I am  unsure what Romero is trying to convey.  Garbled syntax is a common problem with translations – that’s why translators need good editors.  This novella is so riddled with comma and punctuation errors that I stopped making note of them around half-way through the book.  Conversational punctuation is also pretty messy, with commas often placed outside of the quotation marks.  There are several word substitutions, like “were” for “where,”  “than” for “that.” Weird sentences like “I had almost never been to that area before,” stop registering about page 37, or at least that was when I stopped making notes of the problems.

This sucks.  This sucks righteously because this book has such beautiful moments, places wherein you realize that this book, for all its rushed narrative, confusing names and poor editing, is actually a cut above much of the bizarro prose out there.  In a way, it reminded me of Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, another jumbled novel wherein the reader was occasionally blinded by moments of literary brilliance.  With all my complaints about the amount of story crammed into under 60 pages and the poor editing, Romero’s talent salvages gold from the wreckage and the beauty of her prose is why I found this book worth reading.