Misadventures in a Thumbnail Universe by Vincent W. Sakowski

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Misadventures in a Thumbnail Universe

Author: Vincent W. Sakowski

Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s early(ish) bizarro and is very strange and sweet. I know for many that the word “sweet” is the kiss of death where a book is concerned, but this is sweet bizarro, not sweet like our moms would read. Although not having met your mothers, perhaps this is a bad call on my part.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Bizarro Week continues onward with Vincent W. Sakowski’s Misadventures in a Thumbnail Universe. Don’t forget that I am giving away a copy of each book I am discussing this week and one lucky commenter will win all five. Click here for contest details and comment now, comment often!

Misadventures in a Thumbnail Universe was a wonderful surprise. The stories in this collection are creepy, surreal, beautiful, pulled from history and legend, and in one case, unconsciously reminiscent of one of my favorite speculative authors. Where Wilson’s stories creeped me out and where Rauch’s stories left me with a sense of emotional sadness, Sakowski’s stories left me feeling wistful. Using a traditional (more or less) plot structure and characterization, Sakowski’s stories invoke a sense of the unpleasant using the most beautiful language and present the utterly disturbing that registers as beautiful even as it appalls.

There was not a single story in this collection that did not work so I will just discuss the ones I enjoyed the most. “The Miracle Babies” was about a woman who gave birth to rabbits and sent them out into the world to make their mark. Immediately I was reminded of the story of Mary Toft, the 18th century woman who claimed to give birth to rabbits, but unlike Toft, who shoved mutilated rabbits up her vagina and squeezed them out in a hoax meant to bring her money, the protagonist of “The Miracle Babies” gives birth to cute, fuzzy bunny rabbits. The scene of her giving birth immediately reminded me of this Mark Ryden painting, though there are definitely some differences because she cannot nurse these baby bunnies, as they are carnivorous and feed on her flesh. Tiring of having them chew on her, she feeds them hamburger and then callously sends them out into the world. But free of the little rabbits that she had known only for hours unexpectedly affects the woman deeply.

In her sorrow and in her seclusion, she made a special mask to shut herself even further. Initially, she only wore it a few minutes before bedtime, as it reminded her of her children. Then she wore it more and more often – lying in bed, or sitting in the living room. The mask was made of black satin, leaving only her face from under her nose down exposed. There were no holes for the eyes or ears. On her head stood two tall bunny ears – black and white. The bit of white was for the small hope she still felt on occasion. That perhaps some day, one or more of her children would return to her.

I’m being very careful not to spoil these stories so I will stop here but ultimately this was a story of legacy, of making your mark passively, though painfully. As I read this story I was reminded of the works of an Austin artist named Jay Long, whose cute but creepy bunnies and people in masks eerily reflected elements of this story.

“The Screaming of the Fish” was about a man who literally has a fishbowl for a head. This is more of a vignette than a story so I can’t discuss it too much without utterly ruining it, but I will share a snippet of the story to give an idea of the calm, sweet humor that at times permeates this collection:

The two goldfish in the bowl didn’t seem to be too crazy about him jogging every day – with all of the rocks from the bottom getting stirred up, swishing around and scraping their sides.  Way too many scars over the years, but what could they say?

My friend kept them well-fed, and they certainly got their exercise. And even though they were stuck in a small home, they got to see a lot of the sights. Especially since my friend liked to jog a new route everyday.

“Peel and Eat Buffet” is a truly nasty story that is told in beautiful language, word combinations so lovely that the true horror of the story is almost muted. And to share much of it would spoil it utterly but here’s a quick look:

To a song that only she can hear, she begins to undulate and slowly turn on the platform – her body in constant motion – but every move deliberate. Sensual. As she turns, her hips gyrating, she begins to pull at the film, working the knots open. Stretching out scenes. Letting them fall. Editing in her own way. There is only the crinkling of the film to be heard as it unwinds and she crushes it underfoot.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Ragnarok” also has some fairly disgusting moments but overall is one of the funnier pieces in the book. A longer story, it tells the story of how GQ and Vogue, a good-looking and successful DINK couple find themselves sucked into Loki’s bizarre plans for Ragnarok. You see, GQ dreamed about the end of the world and Loki was collecting stray hair and nail clippings in order to build a long ship. Vogue was trimming her nails and lost one crescent of nail (and really, she should have been getting professional manicures were she really that vogue, but never mind) and GQ panics and makes her collect her nail clippings lest she trigger the end of the world. As she is throwing out the trash before leaving for work, Vogue is confronted by a smelly, unattractive creature.

“Good morning, my dear. I was wondering if you could spare some-”

“Is your name Loki?”

“Do I look like a Norse God to you?”

“I don’t watch that much television. I have no idea how a Norse God is supposed to look, but I couldn’t help noticing that sack of hair and nails. Are you building a long ship with them?”

“This is the suburbs, my dear. No open water for tens of miles… Will you be my friend?

“Is that really necessary?”

“It would be nice.” The derelict flashes a brown, hour-glass toothed smile.

Vogue steps back, grimacing. “Let me think about it.”

“Uh huh… Bad day, my dear?”

“I’ve just discovered that my husband’s an asshole.”

“Only this morning? You have my sympathies.”

She gives him change, leaves for work, he fishes her nail clippings out of the trash and yes, Ragnarok is upon them, among other things. This story combined the ridiculous, the gross, and the funny into one harmonious, bizarre tale.

My favorite story in the collection was “See Emily Play?” Beautifully written, extremely creepy and unsettling, it reminded me of a Caitlín R. Kiernan story. There was a Victorian, almost steampunk element to it, and I generally am not a fan of steampunk, but the images of a lovely little girl dressed in an elaborate gown, with bronze Praying Mantis arms, sort of creeps into elements of the genre. Emily gets gossip and news of the outside world from a bird called Mr. Calm and is visited by a friend Marla, who agrees to make Emily a new body. The first one, run by coal and producing steam, is not to Emily’s liking. The second is the one I would have chosen:

Mostly made of clear glass, inside, there were a variety of flowers and plants, all of which Emily eventually recognized from Mr. Calm’s lessons from long before. In the chest, hawthorn flowers and their red berries encircled a water lily. On the right side of the lily were white violets, on the left were blue. Below them were yellow jasmine and blue hyacinth, wild plum blossoms and even a small hemp plant, which seemed odd and disturbing to her, as it was linked with Fate. On the the lowest level, orange and lemon blossoms grew around a tiny willow, which she perhaps found the most unsettling of all. Even with the body on its back, the plants were held in place, and appeared to be vibrant and alive.

This body that implies fecundity does not appeal to Emily. She says it is because she does not want to rely on watering the plants and getting them sunlight, both of which would power the body and presumably would leave her unable to move on cloudy days. Really, it is clear Emily prefers a body which can move only under the power she creates for it, so she chooses a more sexually appealing PVC body and begins to engage in activities that upset Mr. Calm and calls into question Emily’s loyalty. Her body becomes her undoing and giving up her Praying Mantis arms means she is, herself, in danger of becoming prey.

There is a lot of body horror in this story, though it is presented in very lovely language, which is why I think I was reminded of Kiernan, though perhaps these formally dressed, strange young women could have led me to such a comparison. This piece also reminded me of a painting I know I have seen of a pretty girl dressed in finery and in possession of insect arms of some sort. I cannot find this anywhere, and if you know the one I mean, please send me a link. Though it is not impossible that I am imagining it. This story was vivid enough that perhaps thinking of Mark Ryden in an earlier story caused me to place insect arms on one of his little girls.

This collection of stories is unique, even though it triggered in me thoughts of other works. Sakowski can write of a world of strangeness, a world that few others can effectively pull off. That he reminds me of Kiernan in subject matter and that his works bring to mind Ryden paintings as images is a sign that Sakowski’s mind delves into veins that other excellent artists have mined, and he mines it well on his own. Nothing about this collection is derivative, though his imagery certainly is visually evocative for me. I am not a person known for much in the way of visual acuity, so if he had this effect on me, I wonder how he affected those with a more artistic bent. I loved this short story collection and very much want to read Sakowski’s other works.

Don’t miss tomorrow, the last installment of this Bizarro Week. I will be discussing Bradley Sand’s Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy, and it’s gonna be a hoot.

20 thoughts on “Misadventures in a Thumbnail Universe by Vincent W. Sakowski

  1. Cool. I read a few of these stories in the Bizarro Starter Kit (Orange). To me he’s a bit like Neil Gaiman, using traditional mythology and tall tales to play on universal fears, like Ragnarok. Sakowski refers to his work as blender fiction; a bit of sci-fi, horror, irrealism, fantasy, etc. The elements blend well, like left over curry after a night of hard drinking >:)

    Reading Sakowski gives be a sense of déjà vu.

    1. Interesting, your comparison, because in my mind, I have always linked Kiernan and Gaiman, for whatever reason. If I think about it, I see some Gaiman in there, too, or I may be trying to hard, what with American Gods and all.

      Kiernan is sort of blender fiction, as well. She is absolutely impossible for me to classify – using urban legend, pieces of Lovecraft, horror, fantasy.

      Sakowski made me feel sort of sad, like I wanted the stories to end differently in some cases, or the details made me unhappy, like the one about the rabbits. Not really sadness but a sense of dissatisfaction in the way the world works, maybe? Just a fleeting, strange emptiness. I liked it.

  2. I’ve read the goldfish-bowl-head story before and really loved it. Bizarro must have some strange fetish for object-headed people. Well, it basically is the genre of strange fetishes, but the head-thing stands out to me. Off the top of my leprechaun-caught-in-a-mousetrap noggin, I’m recalling CM3’s works Candy Coated and Sex & Death in Television Town. I’m tempted to describe Joe R. Lansdale’s The Drive-In 2 as proto-bizarro, and that one’s got the same hard-on for TV-craniums as Sex & Death in Television Town.
    Anyone else care to list some bizarro head replacements?

    1. I can’t believe I can’t name another head-object replacement. Hopefully someone else will be more on the ball.

      Body horror is a key element of bizarro, I am beginning to think. Mechanical otherness, parts stitched together, human-animal hybrids. The story I am discussing on Friday features a functioning man with no head.

      It is shameful to admit that I don’t think I have read a Lansdale book. Other than The Drive-In 2, do you have any recommendations?

      1. I’ve only read the Drive-In trilogy and a few scattered stories, but those come recommended. Each book declines in quality, but the first two are pretty great. The Drive-In (A B Movie with Blood and Popcorn) is a superb yarn about a massive drive in sealed off by alien filmmakers. Lots of dark humor, but it’s the kind that heightens the cruelty rather than makes you laugh. The Drive-In 2 (Not Just One of Them Sequels) is a little lighter and a lot zanier, with the survivors going on a road trip through the bizarro land the aliens dumped them in. Drive-In 3 isn’t worth reading, but it’s collected with the first two, along with some cool artwork.

  3. I just put this book on my goodreads wish list. Planning on buying a book sometime soon and this is def in my price range. Sounds great but all bizarro authors books give me the wow when I read the back of book. I read Some Things Are Left Better Unplugged and thought it was an ok book.

    1. Hey, Donald, I see you got here from BC! Glad you’re reading and glad you’re now entered the drawing.

      This was the first book I had read by Sakowski and I plan to get Some Things Are Better Left Unplugged soon. His style really appeals to me.

      Have you joined the Bizarro Brigade? I haven’t joined yet but it looks like a good chance to get some bizarro fiction in exchange for reviews. Worth a look if you’re a fan because free books have no price range. 🙂

  4. I am still relatively new to the Bizarro would so the idea of this book of “strange and sweet” stories sounds perfect! I will definitely have to put in on my TBR list!

    1. Cool! I love them both sooo much. I also love it when books provoke my artistic memories and I find commonalities, so I’m happy to share when that happens.

    1. I think this was a good palate cleanser. I like the full-bore craziness and nastiness one finds in bizarro, and there was some in this collection, but mostly it was more ethereal and light.

    1. I need to trade off back and forth between f-ed up and sweet. They both have a place in my book heart but too much of either at one time tends to make me a little nutty(ier).

  5. “Misadventures” is wonderful, but “Not Quite One of the Boys” and “Some Things Are Better Left Unplugged” are better. “Unplugged…” especially has a timeless quality to it.

    1. I definitely am going to be reading more of his works. This collection was amazing so even if his others are simply middling-good, I’ll feel it is money well-spent.

    1. You are entered in the drawing, Miss Contest Entrant, so hopefully some books will be coming your way! Fingers crossed.

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