They Had Goat Heads by D. Harlan Wilson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: They Had Goat Heads

Author: D. Harlan Wilson

Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because there is some full-bore absurdity in this collection.

Availability: Published by Atlatl Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Day Three of Bizarro Week begins with They Had Goat Heads by D. Harlan Wilson, and before I begin to discuss the book, I want to remind you that one lucky reader will win a free copy of each book I review this week. Check out the contest rules and be sure to comment to enter!

Okay, on Monday, I discussed a book that is regular bizarro, with a traditional story framework but with outrageous and strange characters and details. Tuesday featured a gently weird book that focuses on the human experience more than the lunatic elements that can often be the trademark of bizarro. So it seems fitting that today we are looking at a book that is all over the map. It’s absurdist. It’s surreal. It alternates between hilarity and horror. It has a six-word story. It has flash fiction. It has short stories, consisting of simple vignettes and traditional plots. It has a creepy story that is made all the creepier because of the excellent illustrations accompanying it, making it a short, stylized graphic novel.

In fact, I’m unsure even how to begin the discussion. Thematically, I’m completely screwed. So I think I’m going to concentrate on examples of all the story types that I mention above.

First, the six-word story. It is also the first story in the book. “6 Word Scifi”:

Mechanical flâneurs goosestep across the prairie.

Thank god I went through a heavy Baudelaire phase or I would have had no idea what a “flâneur” is. As six word stories go, it’s not bad. I think Hemingway still takes first place in my mind (“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”) but this one is pretty evocative, too. This story immediately brought to mind those Nazi hammers from Pink Floyd: The Wall. I just imagined them leisurely marching across the American Heartland. Minimalism is always a winner for people with over-active imaginations and plenty of pop cultural references to fill in the mental blanks.

There are several very well-executed flash fiction pieces that were in turns interesting, maddening, clever and strange. Take “Monster Truck,” wherein a man wants to become a monster truck.

“Whoever fights monster trucks should see to it that in the process she does not become a monster truck,” said his wife when he tried to crawl into bed.

I don’t want to spoil this story of a couple hundred words, but he really should have heeded his wife’s warning.

“Strongmen & Motorcycles (& Monkeys, Too)” is a mini surrealist masterpiece:

The question is – why are muscles a prerequisite for strongmen? Strength is a relative term. Strength can indicate corporeal authority in equal measure with Einstein’s motorcycle…
Vroom.
Screech.
Kachunk. Kachunk-kachunk.

Well of course, a strongman can beat your ass but Einstein on a motorcycle can blow up your town and zoom away unscathed. Always respect Einstein before strongmen. Is this the message of this tale? Who knows? It is delightful nonsense and can be shaped to fit all kinds of conclusions:

I edit the sound of the daily news with a synthesizer and a pocketful of nitroglycerine. Nobody minds.

Should I mind? Should I be dissecting this story? Probably not but someone has to do it. Even if it makes no sense, which I cannot judge really, it has a very nice rhythm. I think I am going to ask Mr. Oddbooks to read this story to me out loud one day, to see how the meter of it rolls off the tongue.

The last bit of flash I want to discuss is “Cape Crusade.” I don’t want to quote from it because it looks like it is less than 100 words, but the image of a Superman-type chasing his cape like a dog chases his tail made me want to see if I could fashion a cape of sorts on my enormous kitten, Grendel, who chases his tail like it owes him money. He can never catch his tail. I wonder if he could catch a cape?

The short stories in this collection that worked the best for me were the ones that more or less implemented a plot. I am at times constitutionally unsuited for too much absurdism because I cannot help but try to find meaning in things. I can deal with this in very short pieces wherein motorcycles, Einstein and strongmen are discussed to no real conclusion, but in longer form, I end up with a puzzle with no edge pieces to guide me as I read it. It’s a personal failing but one I sense many may have. We are a species that likes order and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just hard to turn that tendency off.

However, possessing this failing does not mean I cannot enjoy the lunacy of absurdism with a touch of surrealism. Or maybe it’s surrealism with a touch of absurdity. I tend to think it is the former but it gets hard to tell for me at times. So I made my brain shut up and just read and at times it was quite fun.

Take “Victrola,” a vignette (and it may actually be closer to flash but I’m calling it a short story for these purposes) about a man who is waiting for someone to give him a midnight snack. It reads like a dream, one of those dreams where things just happen without any concern for plot. The man’s parents come downstairs, then leave and go back to sleep, snoring. Then a man in a stovepipe hat and a three-piece suit comes into the room, and the Victrola lectures the snack-less man on mortality. His parents come back into the kitchen and dance and search the cabinets for something they cannot find. The father roughs up the mother a bit and they return upstairs. The Victrola speaks some more things one would not commonly hear from a Victrola. The story ends with the man listening to his parents’ noises as they sleep. That is a synopsis, or is as close to a synopsis as I can come.

I think that if I work hard enough, I can force myself into finding meaning in this story. There is a sense of coming to terms with disappointment and death. The parents demand coffee and receive none. The Victrola delivers strange news:

“Welcome to the kitchen. I am your host. I hope you enjoy a snack. You must enjoy things. Eventually you will die.”

The mother also has some hard wisdom she imparts after she fails to find decaf:

“That’s life, son,” says my mother, tilting her head. “One failure after another. But one must continue to fail. Otherwise one ceases to be human.”

But even this is a bit empty, explanation-wise. I think that with these stories that veer into absurdity, it’s best to concentrate on the language. Wilson is a writer who clearly delights in words, how they appear on paper and how they sound when spoken. His images are often quite beautiful. In this story about a strange Victrola, the words are melodic:

I listen to my mother and father’s muffled voices. They intersect and accomplish a crescendo, then roll out and taper off, fatigued, paling, until the only thing I can hear is the hush of the ocean surf, the Victrola’s fleur-de-lis whispering like a conch.

The last story I want to discuss is “The Sister.” This is the illustrated story, the one that was a mini graphic novel. This brief tale shows how a visual image changes the entirety of how a story is perceived. The words alone in the story are a bit unsettling. A man sews his sister back together only to watch passively and impotently as a madman in a monster truck kidnaps her. Tied to the grill of the truck, she is torn to pieces when the truck runs into a wall. The brother sews his sister back together again, and again she is kidnapped and placed in a bird cage as a vulture flies over her. One can see how this is a repetitive nightmare, showing a weak man who can restore his sister to health but cannot protect her from harm. That was simple enough.

It is the artwork that takes this to another level, a horrifying level. The sister is a doll with mismatched parts. Ragged scars cover her face. Her eyes do not match. The first stranger looks like Lon Chaney, Sr in the role of The Phantom of the Opera. The little sister, after the car accident, is laid out and looks for all in the world like the slashed-face Elizabeth Short, the sad Black Dahlia (NSFW and not for the squeamish), as she laid on a coroner’s table.

These illustrations worked beyond this story. Seeing in such horrific graphic depiction the words that would have seemed just slightly strange and uneasy by themselves, put some of the other stories into similarly horrific terms. Perhaps the genius of Wilson’s writing, in addition to the at times sheer beauty of it, is how easily, via surreal images, he might be cloaking something truly horrific. That man with the stovepipe hat that scraped the ceiling in “Victrola” became a leering Slender Man. The man who wanted to be a monster truck who looked into the abyss seems infinitely more monstrous. “The Sister” is a short story in terms of words but packs a wallop in terms of impact. This is one of those “worth the price of admission” stories.

With 40 stories, some leaning toward meaning, some a lesson in utter absurdity, this is a collection I very much recommend. Wilson blends humor and horror so well that even as I was affected reading some of the stories, like “The Sister,” my overall feeling at the end of this book was uneasiness. I had a sense there was much that I had missed but a reread did me no good in deciphering any meanings. In most cases I was forced to take the stories as they came, internalizing that tantalizing sense that meaning was so close but could never really be had. And it cannot be had for most of these tales because that is the cost of reading a book so absurdist. But in these absurd tales there is body horror, a sense of otherness, a feeling of awakening and a feeling of helplessness, and sometimes simply feeling something is enough meaning itself. And if that is not enough, I think the beauty of Wilson’s language is  certainly worth reading  This is also an excellent collection for those who seek out the actively weird and strange in bizarro. I definitely think this is a collection worth your time.

30 thoughts on “They Had Goat Heads by D. Harlan Wilson

  1. This book sounds absolutely fascinating, and probably one that is read with a deep furrow across the eyebrows.

    1. Hey, Suz! Thanks for commenting – this was indeed a great book and now you’re entered in the drawing.

  2. Wilson sounds very interesting, I had not heard of him or this book until reading this review. You break it down very well, and although some of the stories mentioned I am not sure if I would like them, the language he uses as you say and his writing style are intriguing and leave me wanting to check it out.

    1. Brutally honest here: There were a couple of stories that I genuinely am unsure what the hell was happening. Maybe there was nothing happening, maybe it was sheer absurdity but there were kernels of lucidity and they drove me nuts. Wilson is a writer who really challenged me.

  3. “Mechanical flâneurs goosestep across the prairie.”

    Spoiler alert! Jeez.

    Irrealism is my bread and butter. I live for that feeling of alien-ness, of nausea…

    FYI, The Sister can be found in the 25th issue of The Dream People, an online journal of irreal and bizarro literature: http://www.dreampeople.org/

    1. Oh man, I totally spoiled it! My bad.

      I need to read up more on irrealism because I know actually very little about it. What I have read hasn’t led me to think it is much different than surrealism but that can’t be right or why have a different word? A search on the term led me to an explanation on cafeirreal.com that I will need to read again when I am not so weary. But I have come away with this: “If the reader of an irreal story is thereby left with an underlying but palpable anxiety, then the irreal story or piece of art has successfully established the foundation for its unique form of storytelling and representation. ”

      If underlying but palpable anxiety is an element of the irreal, then this book is definitely irreal in that regard.

      Thanks for the link! Everyone should have a look. I ended up on Beth Short websites for hours after seeing the drawings in “The Sister.”

      1. Yeah, well the classical surrealist movement is bound up with theories about the unconscious, and dreams. But as Carlton Mellick 3 puts it, dreams aren’t weird, they’re common (http://carltonmellick.com/2009/06/11/bizarro-vs-surrealism/). Which is why any story that ended “He woke up bathed in sweat” would be a massive let down, at least for me.

        I think irrealism is a wider term than surrealism. I gather that a story is irreal if it doesn’t make internal sense, or is inexplicable.

  4. I hope you don’t get in trouble with the author for reprinting his entire story! Would just “flâneur” work for fair use, or would it have to be more like “flân”?

    I have yet to read a proper bizarro book, but it sounds fascinating. Like the kind of dream where everything you’re doing and seeing seems completely normal, and it’s only when you wake up that you realize that most of it made no rational sense at all.

    1. I want to be known as the woman who got sent to jail over six words (or rather sued to death).

      This book often used dream logic and was rather hypnotic in that regard. Just enough real to force a pedant like me to analyze the story closely then so much dream logic that I felt like an asshole when I was done.

  5. Wilson’s great. I’ve only read a few scatted stories but they were all cool and either creepy or gut-busting. Here’s a link to the stories he’s got online:
    http://www.dharlanwilson.com/stories.html

    Also, here’s one to Mr. Wilson’s reading of The Arrest, which is hilarious:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21QMce94lVA

    And finally, a link to a short film based on a story of his:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBs7tQi5TXs

    To me, the difference between surrealism has always seemed to be about how each genre reacts to the strange. Surrealism’s big on the dream logic and general acceptance of the bizarre, while irrealism’s all about how freaky the weirdness is while paradoxically accepting its normalcy. Surrealism kinda gets you to realize “Hey, we’re not so different after all!” and to derive joy from dreams. Irrealism get’s you to do the same and then causes you to run screaming from reality.
    Or at least that’s the understanding Wilson’s work gave me.

    Toodles 😉

    1. Oh wow, thanks for all the links. Sorry you got hung up in the approval queue.

      The definition you give of irrealism sounds as good as any but this is something I do intend to investigate further because as I am beginning to notice, there is some bizarro that really does slide past both the ideas of surrealism and absurdism into territory that seems familiar but really has some unfamiliar terrain. I want to be sure lest I become lazy and deem all that is neither absurd or surreal as irreal.

      Thanks for taking the time to inform me! And thanks for reading.

  6. I love these collections of thought and fragments of surreal consciousness. I always find book like these put me in a great frame of mine=d when I sit down to write myself. 🙂

    1. Interesting. If I think about it, I bet stories like these are excellent inspiration to write. Wilson’s language is beautiful and the stories are challenging, yet his style is almost impossible to imitate so you don’t end up creating an unconscious echo of his work. Cool, Brennon!

  7. I have read almost all od D. Harlan Wilson`s books, my library has gotten me his books thru i-ll loans

  8. I have read almost all od D. Harlan Wilson`s books, my library has gotten me his books thru i-ll loans. But this title was to NeW . Maybe i will have to make a purrchase. Wilson is a great author neva a Blah moment in his writting

    1. Hey, Donald! I’m happy you were able to get his books via Library Loans. I know a lot of people find it very hard to get bizarro through libraries at all. Rock on!

    1. There is a remarkable dearth of good dessert references, period. Dammit.

      Also, your blog hates me. I have tried to leave on two occasions my story of The Time I Met James Dobson as a comment to his execrable book but it thwarts me. I will try again but maybe not since now the entry is sort of old. Maybe you will read another of his informative books about how gays and Satan are gonna get the youth of today. Fingers crossed!

  9. D. is a really great guy and an awesome author. I really want to read his doctoral thesis “Technologized Desire”. He has such a gift for satire and ultraviolence.

  10. I enjoyed reading these responses and am happy that people seem to like or are intrigued by THEY HAD GOAT HEADS. For full inundation into irrealism, check out THE CAFE IRREAL (www.cafeirreal.com), which has been around for over a decade and was one of the first mags I sold a story to. Thanks for your insightful review, Anita.

    1. Thanks for the link – I definitely need to get my brain around irealism if I am to continue to speak about these sorts of books.

      You are welcome for the review. I have another of your books in queue to read and look forward to it muchly.

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