This Is Not an Odd Book Discussion: The Bunny Game

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

I’ve wanted to talk about the movie, The Bunny Game, for a while now but I needed time to come to an understanding with myself as to why I find this film worthy of discussion. It’s a hard movie to watch, an even harder movie to digest and, if one gets derailed by accusations of this film being no more than stylish torture porn, it’s dirty and unsettling. And note that this discussion is full of spoilers, though it’s hard to spoil a film that can be summed up as “trucker tortures prostitute in the desert for several days.”

The Bunny Game struck me as a transgressive piece of cinema that showed a frightening and non-consensual ordeal path/purification ritual more troubling than anything Eli Roth ever brought to the table.  You may think this is going to be a typical torture porn horror movie because some of the marketing leans in this direction.  However this is not torture for the sake of torture, it’s torture with a demented purpose behind it that transcends just the thrill that comes for many when they see a beautiful woman abducted, raped and harmed. I felt this way before I looked up Rodleen Getsic, the protagonist of the film, and found out that she co-wrote this film and based it on an actual abduction she endured. I also read that making this film killed part of her soul, which makes it hard to know if she accomplished what she set out to do when she decided to make this film. She fasted for 40 days beforehand to make herself weak, and she consented to everything that happened to her in this film, from a graphic blowjob (actually more of a face-fuck) to the physical abuse that she endured during the abduction.

The hardest part of this movie for me to stomach was that it was largely script-less, because the implication is that Getsic often had no idea what was going to happen to her next. It was, in a sense, one long, horrible ad lib, which makes it more interesting and infinitely more sickening. The man who plays the trucker is not a professional actor (I believe I read that the director cast him because the actor tried to fight him after claiming he looked at him too long in a parking lot). But the lack of a script meant that Rodleen, a victim of a previous abduction and assault, was potentially being re-victimized even as she consented to all of it beforehand. It also makes one wonder how much anyone can be said to consent to something when they don’t know the details of what is going to happen.

The film, shot in black and white, is visually quite pretty, or maybe arresting, but the cinema quality also made it all the worse, turning all that abuse into visually appealing art. Everything that worked about this film made it all the worse because I did not want to be entertained as I watched this movie.

The film begins with a graphic, unsimulated blow job that is anti-pornographic. Rodleen, the protagonist, is not enjoying herself. She is not moaning with feigned pleasure. Forced to deep throat her john, she pulls back three times to catch her breath, gasping for air and the third time she does this, a wave of misery washes over her face. One gets the feeling she was not acting.  Her reaction shows how nasty her character’s life is and there is no way to see this with a sex positive filter.  She is not empowering herself via sex work.

From that opening scene we are taken through a few days in the prostitute’s life. Bunny lives a life of degrading sexual acts in exchange for enough money to keep her in a nondescript motel room in a nondescript Every City. She spends her time hustling johns, having horrible sex, doing drugs and recovering from it all. Before we are ten minutes in we see her raped when she passes out during a trick and wakes up to find she has been robbed of all her money and her drugs. There is a scene where Bunny sniffs a line of some drug and talks to herself in the mirror, muttering “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” as she psychs herself up to go back out and do more of the same. That, in its way, was the worst scene in the film.

Bunny, wearing platform shoes that had to be a foot tall, wanders a city scape that harbors nothing good or natural. She eats fast food sprawled in front of a wall covered in graffiti, she urinates in an alley in front of a metal fence, right on the concrete. As she wanders the streets, her bleached, straw-like hair in pig-tails, the film flashes to other images, several of her in a natural place, mountains behind her, her brown hair falling in curls, her face, young again as she laughs. Blink and you’ll miss it, but those brief scenes where we see the prostitute in better times, in fresh air in the natural world, are a clue as to what this film’s intent is.

The prostitute, Bunny, finally meets her destiny in the form of a truck driver, called Hog (each are named for the masks they wear during one of the torture scenes). He renders her unconscious, drives her to the desert and spends several days torturing her. She’s unconscious for a while, allowing him time to pull her into his empty trailer, rape her, investigate her body thoroughly, at times snuffling her hair and body like a dog. He then chains her inside the trailer and focuses a camera on her. He forces her to watch her torment, making her relive it as she is actually living it, a particularly cruel bit of meta when one remembers this movie is drawn from Rodleen Getsic’s own experiences.

Hog keeps her in chains, puts a collar around her neck and takes her on walks in the junkyard-like landscape of the desert, at one point forcing her to walk while wearing those insane platforms. He force-feeds her whiskey when she desperately needs water. He completely depersonalizes her by shaving her head, but later brands her as well, taking away one form of identity while giving her another form, one that is more permanent. The brands Hog puts on Bunny’s back resemble infinity signs with tails, but they also look like a bow tied from thin ribbon. Both are apt symbols for this film’s purpose. The torture seems like it lasts forever (this movie is a merciful 76 minutes long – any longer and I think it would have been unwatchable), and the torture is interchangeable with other women we see Hog torture in his own flashbacks. It is interminable and unceasing. But this film also shows that Bunny is being a given a perverse gift.

Bald and slowly divested of her clothing, the end of the movie shows a woman who looks like a slightly better nourished concentration camp victim. She is crouched in the back of the trailer when the door opens and light shines in on her. Naked and near insanity, Bunny runs for it. She runs toward the light. She is a gibbering mess, but the ecstasy is unmistakeable on her face. She desperately wants to live.

The film cuts away and we next see her on a cross. She did not make it to freedom. Hog has caught up to her. She is not restrained. She is not nailed to the cross. She is simply lying atop it with her arms spread, in a Christ-like position. Hog sits near her, not touching her. She hallucinates and sees herself with her healthy face, her brown curly hair, sitting nearby. Her old self burns a book. Her old self puts on a veil. Her old self is watching her self-sacrifice. She is her own Mary Magdalene in this painful vision.

Hog tells her to draw a straw from his fist – if she gets the long straw, she wins. A jittery wraith, she selects a straw. Hog mumbles something in her ear and the ecstasy again shows on her face. She laughs with hysterical delight as he carries her over his shoulder. A man in a white uniform in a white van arrives and Hog carries her to him. They put her in the back of the van and the film ends.

Does Bunny live? Who is the man in the van? I think she lives and but even if she doesn’t, in terms of the purpose of this film, it is unimportant. Taken away from the city into the desert, broken down and depersonalized, she wants to live. She has gone through an extraordinary ordeal, very nearly a vision quest and wants to live. I also thought about this in terms of an extreme purification ritual, with the head-shaving, the starvation, the food and water deprivation.

And if this is a purification ritual, then Bunny lived because there was no sense purifying her if there was only death waiting for her. Purification rituals are to cleanse a person of that which is unclean before a specific life event. I left this film thinking the specific event was life itself. Bunny was cleansed of the drugs in her system, the endless flow of semen into her body, the dirt of the city, the implications of her fried hair and her provocative clothing. Naked, starved and bald she is now ready for life after her ordeal. But even if that white van is representative of death, for the first time Bunny wanted to live. Wanting life is a redemption from the walking death she was experiencing before she was kidnapped. She may never return to being that full-faced, curly-haired, laughing brunette, but just wanting to be her again means she is saved.

I know it’s tempting for many to dismiss this as torture porn wherein the sole purpose is to revel in Bunny’s debasement. But those seeking a disgusting gore-fest will be disappointed. There is no blood. There are no saws or pliers. The blow torch is for use with the brand. No one loses a limb, no toes are cut off, no one is hung upside down with a cut throat and bleeding into a bath. This is not a cartoon of extreme violence like so many other movies that depict torture. This is psychological torture and while equally as horrible as physical torture, it has a different purpose than to titillate, which is why I think so many people were put off by this film. It wasn’t what they expected, and in many ways it was far, far worse.

I do my best to interpret the media I consume in a vacuum. I don’t like to read reviews about books or films until I see them and before I write about them, I prefer not to know too much detail about what others think. But after watching this film I wanted to know more about Rodleen Getsic. Her site is a lot to take in at once and I recommend spending ten minute increments there in the beginning. Evidently after filming The Bunny Game, Getsic slipped on a doormat at a grocery story and landed on her head, causing a catastrophic brain injury, and her site shows her struggle as she recovers and copes. She hasn’t updated her “phonetography” section in a while. I hope she’s okay. And I hope the part of her soul that died when she made The Bunny Game was a part she needed to shed. It’s an uncomfortable feeling realizing that the woman who made this film, a film based on her own experiences, has gone on to experience another ordeal.

This was a hard movie but if you ever watch it, I’d love to hear your take on it. I suspect there are a lot of different opinions, and given the nature of this film, aside from the ones that dismiss this as pointless torture porn, they may all be correct.

Drukija, Contessa of Blood and Hidden Lyrics of the Left Hand by Glenn Danzig

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Books: Drujika, Contessa of Blood and Hidden Lyrics of the Left Hand

Author/Artist: Glenn Danzig and Simon Bisley

Type of Book: Graphic novels, adult comics, horror, music

Why Do I Consider These Books Odd: I don’t know. They just are.

Availability: I have no idea if these are in print or not. I couldn’t find them on the Verotik website. I purchased mine from the Verotik store on eBay. I found the Verotik website to be marginally less helpful than a Geocities site, circa 1997, so if this discussion causes you to want to look into Danzig’s comics, the Verotik store on eBay is probably your best bet.

Comments: When George Tierney of Greenville, South Carolina, showed his extraordinary misogyny, his complete misunderstanding of how the Internet works, and his ass, I checked to see what the Twitter response was to his delightful antics. Lots of moral outrage, but the best Twitter response came from an account ostensibly belonging to Glenn Danzig. Danzig’s response was the perfect: “I’d like to get @geotie2323 alone in a room.”

Of course I had to retweet that, as I am only human. Later I came to find that Glenn Danzig doesn’t even have an e-mail address (BOO!), so it was unlikely he had a Twitter account. Still, it was a nice moment in time.

Later I had a bizarre dream wherein a shirtless Glenn Danzig, as he looked in 1992, beat the hell out of the current model of Bill Maher. I have no idea what such a dream means because I like Bill Maher and have no desire to see him beaten up. So as I pondered what the hell that dream meant, I searched on Glenn Danzig. Goodness. He’s a polarizing dude. And he has cats, and a book collection and a cabinet of curiosities that I totally want to rummage through, though in a wholly respectful way.

I have all the books he spoke of in that video (are his books next to a pool? what the hell?) and I understand what he meant when he said “all documented, all true” in reference to Montague Summers’ book on werewolves. I feel like Glenn Danzig and I would find a lot of duplicates if we compared book collections.

I have to explain, however, that I am not that familiar with Glenn Danzig’s body of music. I was a bit too young for the Misfits, I sort of liked Samhain but they got zero radio play in Dallas, and by the time Danzig, the band, was on the rise I had sunk into a weird place of radio alterna-pop and black metal. (In spite of my ignorance of Danzig’s music, I can say this: the current, Danzig-less incarnation of The Misfits released one of the worst songs I have ever heard. “Helena” is both an homage to one of the crappiest and most unintentionally hilarious movies ever and also seems to be a rip-off of a much better song by Acid Bath. Seriously, don’t test me on how much I loathe that song.) I say this because I need y’all to know I can’t speak intelligently about Danzig’s music beyond just dying a little inside when I watch the video “Wicked Pussycat” because those clawed gloves Danzig wears reminds me of when Dwayne on the cartoon Home Movies played Mr. Pants, the fearsomely violent but easily flattered kitty cat.

Here they are for your comparison. Note that the above is NSFW in a major way.

The relevant part starts around at the one minute mark. Brendan Small imbued Nathan Explosion with a bit of Glenn Danzig, so who knows – maybe there is a bit of Danzig in Mr. Pants.

What I guess I’m saying is that for me Glenn Danzig’s music career, while definitely impressive, takes a back seat to the fact that he clearly has the same taste in books as I do and that he is also fond of cats. It was hard for me to see the humor in the macros generated from a grocery store trip wherein Danzig was buying cat litter. Honestly, we buy Mr. Oddbooks’ body weight in cat litter every month. What’s the interest in a man with a cat making sure it can crap someplace other than the floor?

The problem, of course, is that he is Glenn Fucking Danzig. I guess people would feel the same sense of shocked mockery were Lemmy Kilmister found carefully cultivating a butterfly garden. Men like Danzig, who at times seems like a Frank Frazetta character come to life, are not supposed to be caregivers or nurturers. But being who I am, knowing he has a couple of cats he takes care of made me like him so much I was willing to pay a substantial price for two of his comics, a price that Mr. Oddbooks, the real comic aficionado in this house, found shocking for something with a cover that to him was essentially an extended van mural as imagined by a 15-year-old dirtbag as he sketched on his Trapper Keeper in biology.

Population Zero by Wrath James White

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Population Zero

Author: Wrath James White

Type of Book: Fiction, novella, extreme horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The extremity of the horror makes it odd by my calculations.

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

Comments: For reasons that I have discussed in the past, I have been watching Wrath James White’s writing for a while. I was introduced to him via a collaboration that was so bad it remains in my top ten category for worst books I have ever read (Teratologist was the book, the sort of book wherein the protagonist’s name is spelled three different ways in one paragraph). So I sought out White’s web presence and his well-written, interesting blog did not mesh with the hot mess I had read so I gave him another chance. I next read Book of a Thousand Sins and saw that in some respects, my belief he was a far better writer than Teratologist presented him was justified. There were problems with that story collection, but White got enough right that I was heartened.

Population Zero is pretty much a vindication that my instincts were correct. All the issues that I saw in Book of a Thousand Sins were reconciled. Whereas characters might rant for pages on end in BoaTS,  in Population Zero the protagonist’s issues were woven into the plot and showed a character arc. White’s at times baroque writing style was a bit more restrained in this book and his characterization was excellent. The villain in Teratologist embodied Dean Venture when he declared, “I dare you to make less sense!” (Dean also had a terrible problem with his testicles, and the applicability of me telling you this will become clear as you read my discussion.)

There were some small problems in Population Zero that I am going to get out of the way before discussing all that was fabulous. First, the ending left much to be desired and that may just be my feeling on the matter. But the ending felt rushed and given the amount of energy others expended to get the protagonist to the end point, the ending felt wrong. Additionally, as the protagonist goes about his job, he delivers information that become obsolete with the Welfare Reform Act of 1996; tiny little points of social policy that I suspect only I would nitpick because they aren’t too glaring and because they flow well with the story White is telling. There are some small typos, as well. Someone tries to score “heroine” and a character “grinded” his teeth. They’re minor and not that intrusive, but they’re there.

(And it should be mentioned that if you are a social justice warrior, you will not like this book. The protagonist is very unsympathetic to the obese, to the poor trapped on a social treadmill of bad choices, and pregnancy in all forms. The protagonist is also a mentally disturbed, increasingly unhinged killer. In the past, when such a character had very unpleasant ideas, it was called characterization. In some quarters these days, it is a sign of a greater misogyny and class prejudice. I hardly think it so, but I have now given some of my more socially progressive readers clear warning that this book may not be to their tastes.)

Ruthless, edited by Shane McKenzie

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Ruthless: An Extreme Shock Horror Collection

Author: Collection edited by Shane McKenzie

Type of Book: Horror, extreme horror, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Extreme horror will always have a place on this site.

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

Comments: I think that I may have reached my saturation point in terms of what can horrify me. I can recall the first time I saw the movie Scarface and watched the scene with Angel and the chainsaw. I was still technically a kid and I remember feeling nauseated and light-headed. It was the first time any form of media had that effect on me, but now it’s like every movie has a chainsaw, even the romantic comedies. Even so, it still happens from time to time, that feeling that I might vomit as I am being exposed to something terrible, but not often. The Throbbing Gristle song “Hamburger Lady” is the only form of media I can think of that still upsets me when I am exposed to it. It’s not even the lyrics. It’s the strange, gravelly but warbling siren sound that recurs in the song. My microwave makes a similar sound when the glass plate inside gets unstable, so my microwave also upsets me a little. It’s a sound that always makes me feel desolate, like no matter how good and careful I am that my life could still end up an exercise in pointless brutality disguised as medical advancement, that I could end up in a place of unending agony perpetrated against me for my own good. This is an unpleasant feeling to have come over one’s self when reheating leftovers.

That sense of nauseated terror or grim but panicked fear of pain is what I expect of extreme horror and it seldom happens anymore. It could be because I am too hardened, having exposed myself almost relentlessly to the real and fictional bad men can do. But mostly I think extreme horror often goes for the gross out, cartoonish violence that has no punch after the initial sense of “Gross!” The Three Stooges with cleavers. Luckily this collection has more good stories than bad, and given some of the really unimpressive collections I have read over the last couple of years, just being better than average means this collection stands above the rest.  But little of it was particularly horrifying as I read it, and that which did horrify me crossed the lines of a personal taboo that I suspect fans of extreme horror would not find that upsetting. There was no “Hamburger Lady” equivalent in this collection, but there was enough gross out combined with good writing that allows me to overlook the absence of the sort of extremity that can truly affect me.

Dust by Joan Frances Turner

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Dust

Author: Joan Frances Turner

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, zombies

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not wholly odd but it’s inventive and it was a great life-saver for me when I realized the zombie-western I wanted to review was too short for me to have much to say about it.

Availability: Published by Berkley Publishing in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: We have reached the final day of my first Zombie Week and I can’t thank all of you enough for making this a fun, instructive and interesting experiment for me. I have dozens of new authors on my radar due to the excellent recommendations people have shared, I’ve learned much about zombies and I’ve met some pretty cool people. Thanks to everyone who commented to my entries and contributed their love of the genre.

And today is the last day to comment in order to win the five books I am giving away. Here’s how you enter the contest to win all five books:
–Leave a comment on any of the Zombie Week discussions.
–You can enter up to five times by leaving a comment on all five of the Zombie Week entries.
–Only one comment per entry will count. So if you comment 50 times in one entry, you’ve only entered once.
–Alternately, you can leave one comment on all five entries at any time you want, as long as you make all comments by 9:00 pm CST on Friday, 4/1/11.

I bought Dust because regular IROB reader, Anton, suggested it. I was in a book store, saw it on the shelf and bought it with Anton’s recommendation in mind. It sat in a stack of books in my bedroom until last week. I was thisclose to canceling Zombie Week because I ended up with problems with two of the books I had planned to discuss. I picked up Dust, not knowing a damn thing about it other than Anton liked it and was happy, happy, happy it turned out to be about Zombies. So I booked it and got it finished in time. Anton and Dust saved Zombie Week. Yay.

There is a blurb for this book and I don’t remember who said it, but it says to the effect that with this book, Turner has done for zombies what Anne Rice did for vampires. Initially I thought that was utter bullshit, but then I thought about it and it may be right. Before Rice, did anyone tell the story of vampires from the mind of the vampire? There may have been some outliers here and there but until Rice, I am unsure if the story of the vampire from the vampire’s perspective was typical. The only other person I can think of at the time who presented the vampire’s perspective in a manner invoking sympathy for the devil was Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and I am unsure who technically got there first, but for better or worse, Rice is definitely credited with giving us the mind of the vampire in a manner that influenced just about every vampire writer since.

And since I have not read nearly enough zombie novels, I don’t know if there are others out there that give us a look into the mind of a zombie, but if there are, then they are in pretty good company with Turner’s Dust. In Dust, Turner really has created not only a zombie culture wherein zombies have personal identities, but has also combined several mythos in order to create her zombies. People die and rise from the dead. The zombies rot but they take years to do it, even centuries, becoming bug-filled, nasty, shambling messes. Eventually the zombies dry out as their flesh and viscera are eaten away, falling to dust. An elderly zombie sounds more like an unwrapped mummy to me. These zombies rise from the grave with sharpened teeth, pointed in a way that reminded me of vampires more than anything else. And these zombies are able to communicate with each other telepathically, which is important because tongues and throats rot away. Unless a zombie turns to dust from old age, they can also be killed if their brains are stomped more or less into oblivion. The condition cannot be spread by bites. It simply happens because of a specific plot device in the book, and anyone can become a zombie when dead. And there is an apocalypse but it would be hard to call it a zombie apocalypse.

The Vegan Revolution… with Zombies by David Agranoff

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Vegan Revolution… with Zombies

Author: David Agranoff

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, zombies

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s published by an Eraserhead imprint and while not odd in the vein of complete bizarro, there are enough odd elements in this book that I likely would have discussed it here whether or not Zombie Week happened.

Availability: Published by Deadite Press in 2010, it’s available but wait about a month or so to get a copy, and I will explain the reason for this recommendation.

Comments: Okay, let me get site business out of the way. I am giving away a copy of all five books I am discussing for Zombie Week and one lucky reader will get a chance to win all five of them. All you have to do to enter the drawing to win all five books is to leave me a comment on any of the five Zombie Week discussions. If you want to increase your chances of winning, leave a comment on all five entries. And while only one comment per day per entry will count as an entry to win the books, please leave more comments if the spirit moves you. I rather have enjoyed the comments and conversations that have taken place over the course of Zombie Week.

Now that the site business is out of the way, let me get two unpleasant points out of the way as well. First, this book discusses veganism. It discusses it earnestly while having the social, ethical and emotional honesty to poke fun at and satirize elements of vegan beliefs. But it has been my experience that there are a certain subset of people in this world who read the word vegan, remember That One Time a Vegan Yelled at Me For Eating a Hamburger, and start frothing at the mouth, typing in all caps, posting pics of mutilated animals and behaving like a complete asshat. As a failed vegan whose failure is not the diet but rather that I am a complete headcase, there is nothing anyone can say that I haven’t heard before nor is there any abuse anyone can hurl that won’t already be familiar. I will say that should such behavior start, I will let words stand (no pictures and if you post any you are a terrible person and even your dog knows it). If you are particularly egregious, I will be tempted to post your IP address so a couple of my more paranoid readers can track you down so the rest of us can send you tofu and vegan hotdogs via e-mail. We might slut shame your goldfish. We might even laugh at your socks. None of that seems threatening? No shit, Sherlock, and neither will any attempts to mock vegans. It’s all so dumb, so rise above, okay?

Second, the reason I did not link to the book and recommend waiting a month to get a copy is because this was one of the worst edited books I have ever read. Hands down, it wins the prize, and the problems so abundant and at times over-the-top that if I even attempt to discuss them, readers would think I was either engaging in hyperbole or assholish behavior. I contacted the publishers to ask them a generic, “What the hell, OMG?” and I have it on very good authority that the book is going to undergo a pretty substantial edit and that it should be complete in a few weeks. The editing issues are so bad I would not recommend anyone buy this book until Deadite gives the all clear that it has been cleaned up. Be sure to check back because when that happens, I will update with a link to buy it.

That also means that the person who wins this contest will get four books sent immediately and one book to follow – the contest winner will definitely get a clean copy when it is ready.

Now for the book. Aside from the editing problems, it was clear to me that Agranoff is still a green writer. He has a great ear for dialogue but has a tendency to make all his characters laugh a lot, even when it seems inappropriate. Worse, there’s a lot of giggling going on (am I the only one who thinks a sober, male character who giggles is probably a serial killer, or do others just not find the concept of giggling as creepy and annoying as I do). His characters also point and shake their heads a lot. Not sure what that was about – probably just one of those writer-crutches that a good editor shines a light on and makes disappear. I mention all of this now because with the editing issues that will soon be fixed, that’s all I have to criticize about this book.

Seriously. It’s been a while since I read a book that, editing issues aside, got every damn thing right. Agranoff’s book is clever, satirical, gross, touching, sad, and filled with more pop cultural references than you can shake a stick at. Music, movies, hipsters, Juggalos, books, vegan culture, non-vegan culture. This book is a near perfect example of the saying that sarcasm is the body’s natural defense against stupid, or, in the case of one character, mindless regurgitation of useless pop culture trivia is the best defense against awkward situations.

This book also employs the most traditional use of zombies of all the story-oriented books I will discuss this week. The agent that causes zombie-ism makes people die and come back from the dead. The transition from life to death is slow but the living are sick, and then the next moment, they are zombies. They are brainless, driven only by the impulse to attack non-zombie humans. They tend to arrive in packs but they are not organized – they don’t have the mental capacity for it. These zombies are driven so exclusively by impulse that they no longer know how to climb, how to open doors, how to escape from the buildings many of them died inside. These are creatures that can also eventually starve to death if they don’t have access to fresh humans. The way these zombies came to exist precludes the already dead rising from the grave – if you weren’t alive when the agent struck, you won’t come back.

I had an interesting conversation with the guy over at Bitterly Books in an e-mail exchange. He made an intriguing point – that the zombie tale is essentially one of exile, of a person being isolated from their own society. In the abstract, I think that’s a good way to look at this book – people who were self-exiled in the normal world find themselves the last people on Earth, and even then, some were still isolated and exiled as the world struggled to redefine itself. There are times when I wonder if I am reading too much into books, especially books from branches of the bizarro tree, but then I generally think I am on track, and I feel pretty strongly that this book is quite layered, telling a specific story and relating a specific message even while it entertains us with zombies.

Here’s a plot synopsis: Dani works for Fulci House Press, where she is editing Of Mice and Men… and Zombies. Despite the fact that her zombie-fanatic boyfriend Magik pulled strings to help her get the job, she is sick of zombies within days of starting work, even though Magik plays her his favorite zombie movies in an attempt to draw her in. At a hipster “Bacon Night” at a Portland club, Dani has an awakening and decides to become vegan and Magik joins her, just in time because Stress-Free Meat is being introduced to the country, debuting in Portland first. Animals bred so that they don’t feel pain, stress, boredom or unhappiness enter the market and consuming those meats cause people to grow more and more sick, feeling flu-ey, turning purplish, growing more and more lethargic until they die and almost immediately reanimate as zombies. The vegans who survived this food armageddon descend upon a vegan mall in Portland and together they squabble, kill zombies, and try to keep their ideals in perspective as they rebuild the world. And oh yeah, they do their best to find the best soundtrack to blast while blowing away zombies.

I very nearly stopped reading this book because of the editing issues and I am so glad I kept on because the errors were repetitive enough that I could get used to them and enjoy the story anyway. And there was much to enjoy. Agranoff has a way with dialogue that reminded me of earlier Stephen King works. He is a dedicated vegan in real life but is acutely aware of and clearly sees the the humor in the various factions that make up the vegan community. He also is immersed in all sorts of elements of pop culture, cleverly lampooning the …with Zombies series of books, fans of Insane Clown Posse, and the more negative elements of hipster culture.

I think some of my appreciation for Agranoff’s skills as a writer come from his characterization of Dani. In order to poke fun at vegans and hipsters and Juggalos, those characters must be painted with a broader brush. There isn’t going to be a lot of truth in the obese, chain-smoking Juggalo mom or the stinking, trash-digging freegan who will eat anything he finds in a dumpster, or the strident animal-liberation vegan who feels that shooting zombies is unethical. But there is some truth to be had in Dani.

Dani is an interesting character. I both liked her and was irritated by her. I understood all too well the nausea that comes when one is surrounded by bacon (and I don’t really mind that hipsters dig bacon so much – I have my own theories about hipsters and why they like bacon but that has little to do with this review so I will just shut up about that topic). Having grown up in the South, there were times I could smell bacon in my hair and clothes after a family breakfast and there is no force that will ever make me eat pig again. It’s a visceral reaction when that happens, when a food you have eaten your entire life suddenly disgusts you, and Agranoff very neatly set up this visceral disgust before animal rights veganism is really a plot point in the book. This read as utterly true to me.

Dani hates her job. Yes, most of us would be very happy to be an editor at a press, even one that is as jaded culturally as many consider the press that brought the …with Zombies franchise into the literary landscape. I think we’ve all had that experience – a friend with an enviable job who finds their work day tiresome. Her co-workers are for the most part disgusting or annoying and Dani hates them all. But even as they irritate the everloving hell out of her, Dani is not a nasty person. She loathes her hipster and freegan coworkers, but when one of them seems like she is in jeopardy, she reacts with alarm. Sally eats McDonalds every day, sometimes twice a day, and she’s become slower in speech and movement until she is… wait for it… practically a zombie. Perhaps no one else noticed how sick Sally was because they were all ill themselves. But Dani notices and tries to help reason with Sally that maybe her fast food diet is having a negative effect, all to no avail.

And while I wonder how much this element of the book will resonate with non-foodies or omnivores, I especially appreciated the satirical spears Agranoff throws at Michael Pollan, Pete Singer, Ingrid Newkirk and Gary Francione… I mean Professor Francione. With the exception of Singer (whom I just always found a little… I don’t know… uninspiring?), the rest of these people are not wholly bad, but each comes with a set of problems that have made reflecting one’s political beliefs through food choices and activism difficult. Pollan’s message is ultimately elitist and shows a false concern for animals that will ultimately be killed and eaten, Newkirk has been discredited by the insane and often offensive PETA ads, and I have to suspect that every person who hates vegans loathes them because they tangled with one of Professor Francione’s fanatical acolytes. That Agranoff is willing to dissect veganism and show it, warts and all, means a lot where his sincerity is concerned. That most of it is funny helps and that “Sanger,” Agranoff’s pseudonym for Pete Singer, is one of the first to become a zombie, was one of the best parts of the book.

I was torn over some of the dialogue in some places but then I had to just remember that half the people I know would likely sound the same. Take this exchange, which I hope does not give away too much of the plot:

“Today is a good day to die.”
“Stop it,” Dani shook her head. “We don’t know that yet.”
Bru-Dawg whispered to Mark, “Dude. Who quotes Klingons when they’re dying?”
“It’s an old Native American saying,” Mark whispered back.
“No, I was quoting Klingons,” Magik said.
“See,” Bru-Dawg shook his head. “Nerd.”

I live with a nerd-geek hybrid who shares a birthday with Leonard Nimoy. We will have this conversation, I suspect, when the zombie apocalypse finally comes.

Here’s another section, that seems sort of glib but on second thought is pretty hilarious to me. The worst has happened and the zombie apocalypse has begun and a group of people are at a vegan supermarket in a vegan strip mall. But not all who are in the store are actually vegans. There are a handful of raw foodists, who drank raw milk from Stress-Free cows, and some freegans, including Dani’s gross coworker. One of the store owners shoots Freddy the Freegan in the head, a smart move as Freddy had just turned. But Freddy’s friend remains.

Dani turned her eyes toward Freddy’s other freegan friend. He stood now and walked toward them with his mouth open. Mark pointed his Glock at the freegan zombie. Samantha appeared in the doorway. Emily blocked her from coming in the back room.
“You don’t want to see this, Sam,” Emily pleaded with her as she held her back.
“Stop. Violence doesn’t solve anything!” Samantha screamed.
“I disagree.” Mark pointed the Glock at Freddy’s mostly headless body. “I think it solves the Freegan problem quite nicely.”

And though this is funny to me (and hopefully to others), it also sets up the final struggle, which is not with the zombies, but how the surviving vegans will organize themselves and find a way to live in the world they always wanted and that they finally now have, though none of them would have seen the price the world had paid in human death to be worth it. The last 20 pages of the book are both heartbreaking and inspiring.

But let me tell you this. As much as I found Agranoff’s characterization spot-on, his insight into zombie, hipster, and pop culture to be trenchant and hilarious, and as interesting as the struggle with the zombies was, the best parts of this book were the tests at the end of each chapter. Here are a couple of examples:

Mike Poland would eat a human baby if:
A) It was locally produced.
B) It had not been given growth hormones.
C) A prayer was said thanking the baby for its sacrifice.
D) All of the above.

I guess you sort of have to dislike Michael Pollan for that to seem funny but to me, it was quite amusing.

Or take this one:

The only reason a cow would be on a desert island would be:
A) Some idiot human put him/her there.
B) To prove without a shadow of a doubt that humans being vegetarian is impossible.
C) To film an episode of Lost.
D) To get away from humans.

Okay, indulge me, but here’s one more:

At this point Sally should:
A) Eat her breakfast.
B) Get some rest.
C) Have a drink.
D) Be shot in the head immediately.

These tests are a litmus test of a sort. If, like me, you are enough of a dork that you think this was all very funny, you need to read this book.

So, what we have here is a novel in which traditional zombies do traditional things, like mindlessly attack the living for sustenance and then get shot in their heads. We have a couple of well-developed characters who contrast nicely with some humorous social stereotypes. We have a funny novel with lots of nasty gore of people slowly dying, zombies both undead and finally dead, and the horror of animal husbandry. We have the gut pleasure of watching the apocalypse from the sidelines as the worst happens, people get their guns, establish control and assert their morality as best they can. But we also have a novel that is just a nightmare in terms of editing, and take my word – do not buy a copy until it has been updated, but again, I have it on very good authority that it will be fixed up sooner rather than later. But once that happens, I think the mass of the zombie fans who have showed up here would enjoy the hell out of this book, and I think my regular readers would find this odd and off-beat enough to be worth reading. I also hope some of you zombie fans become regular readers, too. The conversations here and the book recommendations I have received have made me very happy I decided to soldier ahead with Zombie Week.

Now comment so you can enter to win the five books I am giving away, and be sure to come back tomorrow. I will be discussing a book wherein the zombies are probably berzerkers, but there’s a good reason I didn’t review this author’s awesome book that is both indisputably about zombies and awesome. Luckily, this book is also awesome, even though it wanders off the path of true zombies, so don’t miss out.

Dead Bitch Army by Andre Duza

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Dead Bitch Army

Author: Andre Duza

Type of Book: Extreme horror, zombies, fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is one that would have been discussed here whether Zombie Week happened or not. It’s a strange book and it’s published by an Eraserhead imprint.

Availability: Published by Deadite Press in 2005, you can get a copy here:

Comments: First, let’s get my site business out of the way. This is Zombie Week and there are five free books to be won by a single, lucky reader. How do you enter the contest to win the five books I am discussing this week?
1) Leave me a comment on any of the five Zombie Week book discussions.
2) You can increase your chances of winning by leaving a comment on all five discussions because each comment on each entry counts as an entry to win the books. Only one comment per entry counts, but that still means you will increase your chances of winning if you comment each day.
3) There is no time frame on when you must comment except to say that you must have all your comments posted by 9:00 pm CST on 4/1/11. So if you wait until the last minute or don’t get wind of Zombie Week until the last minute, you can leave comments whenever you like as long as you make them all by the end of the contest cut-off.

Any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

Now to the book. Dead Bitch Army is an excellent follow up to Monday’s zombie offering because it violates, alters and subverts the zombie canon. Duza’s book may cause purists to argue over his use of zombies (or rather one zombie), but fans who love a good, nasty tale of revenge, blood, guts and just plain nastiness will love this book.

I am torn, and this is one of those reviews that I hate giving because there is nothing worse for me than seeing the amazing potential of a book, recognizing clear talent, but feeling as if the potential was not realized and the talent needed a bit of redirection. There is also nothing worse than damning a writer with faint praise so let me just state plainly what didn’t work in this book and what did.

Brief plot summary: Natasha Armstrong has been tracking the Dead Bitch, a woman named Mary Jane Mezerak, also known as Bloody Mary, and her small but creepy collection of hangers-on for years. She believes the Dead Bitch Army kidnapped her son, and after years of brutal entanglements, Natasha is framed for some of the Dead Bitch Army murders and ends up in prison. She is exploited by a reporter, a sort of dogpatch Barbara Walters named Linda Ludlow, who is later shown in an extremely brutal way that Natasha, “Tasha,” was not deranged and that she especially was not a murderer. Linda helps Tasha break out of prison and Tasha confronts the Dead Bitch Army at a gothic gathering on New Years Eve, 1999. The confrontation does not go as planned, and the end of the book is both sad, sobering and a good set up for a sequel.

Now, in terms of zombies, Mary is not a zombie Dr Dale would recognize. She does not attack people to eat them, though her clan does eat the bodies. She does not use her mouth as a weapon. Rather, her murders are for revenge, though some appear to be the result of just the desire to mindfuck because she is a deranged, otherworldly creature. She is very much capable of higher thought, as she organizes and runs her small army, uses weapons and, of course, is fueled by vengeance. She did die, and came back from the dead for reasons that are not entirely clear to me (and more on that in a moment), so in that she is a typical zombie. And while she is rotting and eventually may fall to pieces, her rot has been slow and she seems more mummy-like, with bones protruding from dry skin, and tissue like fragile silk falling away from her face. Of all the novels I discuss this week, this one presents the least amount of zombie for your buck, and we end up understanding far more about Tasha, Linda, and Mary’s ex-husband than we do about Mary herself. I am unsure if that is a problem, as keeping Mary enigmatic is sort of creepy, but keeping so much of that information from the reader makes it hard to really understand the point behind Mary needing the army or her desire to see the world end. We get tantalizing clues, but none of it ever pans out in terms of cold, hard explanation.

There are many instances wherein I wanted to just find Andre Duza’s phone number and call him up and ask him to explain. Here are some plot issues I had:
–Mary’s father was a high priest in a religion called the Church of 1000 Earthly Delights, an “Ergeister” religion and her father inculcated Mary in tales of violence, hexes, and Armageddon, and so we get a sense of where she gets her desire for revenge and her desire to see the world end. The church is mentioned also as the place where Mary met her right hand man, Griff, a telepath. So the church is important but it is never explained why. The beliefs of the church, how it might be linked to Mary rising from the dead set on vengeance, are never explained aside from a sort of primal anger that her ex-husband lived while she and their unborn child died. If her rage is something no one is expected to understand, there are too many potential explanations that go no where.
–Mary died in a fatal accident (and god help me but I don’t recall how she died) when she was pregnant. She was married to a football star, who is not gonna set the world on fire with deep morality but didn’t seem like such a bad guy. But Mary rises from the dead with a rabid desire to track down Carl Mezerak and kill him, which she does in a scene that is quite gory and sickening and will satisfy any gorehound. But why? Why did she hate Carl so much? Carl smokes way too much weed, has a wandering eye and is kind of a cad but I don’t ever see him doing anything to create a need for beyond the grave vengeance. If so, it isn’t supported by the text. So Mary’s deep need for revenge against her husband is odd. Add to it that it took her years, and I mean years, to finally kill Carl, and her psychotic drive for vengeance makes even less sense.
–We find out in the book that Mary and her army wanted Natasha to follow them. Griff, whose mind can alter reality for an entire crowd of people, implanted ideas in Tasha’s head, letting her know where they would be. Why? Why did they need this one woman, who is not believed, to follow them for years? Mindfuck? If so, that was one of the more pointless mindfucks I have ever read.
–There are political side plots that, in my opinion, sap the Dead Bitch of her power, or at least the implied power that I assume is there because of the strange church and her unrelenting violent tendencies.
–There are so many peripheral characters with deeply interesting but truncated stories that it’s hard to know if you are meant to absorb their part of this book because it is going to be important later or if it is just a throwaway with a tiny bit of relevant information. This is all the more distracting and disconcerting because two of those side stories wherein you wonder, “Who the hell is this person, where did he/she come from, and what the hell does any of this mean,” you are also reveling the utter creepiness and nastiness.

It took me much longer to read this book than I would have liked because I, being the sort of person who is certain there is order in the universe, was certain that there was an explanation for all these plot dead ends, that all those characters who popped up with no explanation, that all those asides about the church, Carl and his girlfriend, hallucinations, people kidnapped, a shootout, must play a part in the plot or Duza would not have wasted so much time. So I backtracked and tried to find the link I felt I missed and of course, I never found it. While I am not going to go so far as to recommend that anyone buy and read this book, if you do, I encourage you to handle the book in this manner: Read the parts with Mary, Tasha, Griff, Carl and Linda as the novel. Had I been the editor for this book, all those side plots of the train car going missing, the shootout at the end, the kidnapped people, the girls hiding in the bathroom would have been cut out and run with the last few strange chapters in the book called “The B-sides.” Or I would have cut them and the B-sides out entirely and encouraged Duza to flesh them out slightly and put them in a collection of short stories that were all strangely linked together. So if you read this for the gore and the at times damn excellent writing, just ignore that which is not Mary, Tasha, Linda, Carl or Griff and read the rest later as bonus short stories.

And my common Eraserhead lament of less than stellar editing comes up again. Sorry. I know that many who come for the gore and foulness may not care if a nauseated character “wretches” and frankly, as I also always say, mistakes happen. They happen. Even in the best edited books released by the largest publishers who have tons of money to pay lots of copy editors. But this one was really problematic because there weren’t just usage issues. Sentences ended in the middle and never picked up again anywhere else. Words in the middle of paragraphs were missing the first letter. There were spacing issues that defied any logic as to why a human being didn’t catch them and, frankly, these problems were distracting.

But there are some reasons why you might want to read this book about a Dead Zombie Bitch and her army of freaks and their quest to bring about the end of the world so they can rule the Earth. First, it is a book wherein a completely different kind of zombie rampages. She is in complete control of her faculties, despite the violence that dominates her mind. She doesn’t shamble. She moves in stop motion. She isn’t mindlessly attacking people for food. She may eventually eat her kills but for Bloody Mary, the confusion and terror she creates, the sort of theater she produces around her kills, is the point of the hunt. She is rotting slowly, but very slowly, reminding me more of an undead, demented Miss Havisham more than she reminds me of anything you will see in a Romero movie. There is something very Biblical to her rage and there is something very Victorian to her rot. She died and came back for reasons that are not entirely clear to me but she is a mythos unto herself. When you read this book, for all its flaws you will not be reading anything derivative.

Second, despite the fact that the book often read like a short story collection got spliced into a novel, within the totality of each story, side story and character, Duza creates interesting characters, creepy situations, unsettling scenarios and some outright terrifying, disgusting prose. I won’t spoil the plot points of what happens to Linda Ludlow, but the way she is finally shown that Tasha is not a delusional spree killer is absolutely sickening, a profoundly disturbing scene. For those who want a fix of nasty, this scene may be worth the price of admission.

But there are other examples of some very good writing. That Duza can write horrific content this well is one of the reasons I didn’t dismiss the book as I muddled through the plot. Take this section where Mary has finally attacked Carl, finding him in the middle of kinky sex with a new girlfriend.

The second blast blew Sharlene’s head apart. The bulk of it ended up all over Carl’s face and in his mouth. The impact threw the remaining flap of Sharlene’s head to the right, where it smacked her shoulder and bounced back. The whole thing happened so fast that poor Sharlene never knew what hit her.


Tightening her hand around the sawed-off, Mary watched in silent ecstasy as Carl bounced from wall to wall, bound to Sharlene’s body, which twitched uncontrollably. His massive arms worked frantically against Sharlene’s flailing limbs. Her fingers grabbed his face and forced their way in and out of his nose and mouth.

“Git her off me! Git her off-a-me!” Carl kept his face turned as far as he could from Sharlene’s and promised himself that he’d never take another breath, not if it meant tasting one more drop of her saline blood. He pretended not to hear the flatulent bursts that accompanied the blood that oozed from her cranium.

Yeah, this may be the worst conclusion of consensual bondage sex I have ever read. Just the horrific implications of being bound, in mid sex act, to a person who got a shotgun blast in the head and is suffering from pre-death brain flailings, is bad enough. Then add in the fact that the sheer indignity of it all, while horrific, is just a little funny, just makes me uncomfortable, and I like it when I am made uncomfortable.

This is not a case of a writer trying to create a horrific scene and having it verge into the ridiculous. Duza, for all the plot failings in this book, has a tight grip on his characters and on the things they do. His horrific slapstick was intentional, to make the reader feel sort of sick as they fight a small grin. There is another example of this, in one of the subplots that was only tangentially related to the rest of the book. Tasha has taken shelter on the run from the Dead Bitch Army in the basement of a bar, where there is what appears to be the dead body of a young black man, shot by the racist proprietor of the bar after he found his daughter having sex with the young man. A couple of days after being shot, the kid, merely brain damaged, rises and goes after the man who shot him. Joe, the racist dad and tavern owner, has greased back hair, really bad aim, and a series of events set his hair on fire:

He knew that it was all over if he fainted. The flames were halfway down his back. STOP! DROP! AND ROLL, YOU IDIOT!

His mind began to wander as it struggled to overcome the pain and fear, both of which worked together to bring him down. Joe tried his best to get a grip on the situation.

1. Need water.
2. The sink behind the bar is broken. You’ve been doing the dishes in the bathroom for the past week.
3. Gotta find something big enough to… God it hurts so bad… something like a toilet…

Joe broke from his daze and sprinted into the bathroom.

Will Joe get the water he needs? Uh oh, his friend Paul is tripping balls on acid in the bathroom, peeing sitting down, when his friend aflame rushes in.

Paul lowered his head to get a look under the stall door.

“Joe?” Paul said, curious. Paul recognized the worn boots and jeans that Joe wore every day.

Paul smelled charred meat. He was hiking his pants up, preparing to stand, when the stall door flew at him and found his teeth.

And that’s where we leave Joe and Paul and are certain Joe’s likely gonna cook some more.

But there are moments of utter creepiness that don’t invoke humor or even attempt to be anything more than just a look at the delirium of horror that Mary’s army can dish out. Again, not discussing it in depth but the torture scene and the aftermath when Linda learns Tasha was telling the truth all along is an upsetting, repellent, effective scene. But being able to marry such mayhem with a sense of the absurd helps when reading a book like this.

So this is how this zombie book boils down: An atypical zombie, a hardcore woman, has a thirst for vengeance I am unclear about and the narrative is muddled with an often unclear plot and irrelevant characters. However, had an editor cleaned this up, Duza’s prose is excellent and with a buzz-killing hellbeast of an editor keeping his active imagination from running amok, I can see Duza’s next book being sound in all respects. But the interesting thing about this book is that while a zombie is the impetus of the action, she is just one character in a book teeming with characters. She is a force of chaos but in a completely different way than brain-dead but flesh-seeking zombies are. She wants an apocalypse but must rely on political unrest to get it. She is a cult symbol, and not at all feared the way a traditional zombie would be (though that’s a mistake for those who are unlucky enough to meet her). Her goal is not to munch intestines but to lure people into her army. But it’s interesting to me that Duza subverts the paradigm, creating chaos with one zombie rather than a hoard and makes her just one character out of many.

So while I cannot unreservedly recommend this book, I think those who like extreme horror will appreciate this book. I also think that rabid zombie fans who must read all zombie books will want to give this a look. I suspect the casual reader may not find this to their liking. For me, I know Duza has other books out there and at least one appears to be a sequel to this book and I intend to check that book out and see if his writing evolved from this effort (and for new readers, I do my best not to know much about authors who are new to me aside from locating their websites to link to them for this blog and I really do my best never to read any one else’s review of a book before I discuss it here). He showed enough raw talent and an eye for an interesting story that bodes well for later efforts.

Tomorrow, I will discuss a book that takes a traditional approach to zombies, and blends it together with plenty of social commentary, literary criticism and the potential frustrations that will come if the only people who survive the zombie apocalypse are vegans. Don’t miss it!

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Under the Skin

Author: Michel Faber

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, science fiction, indescribable

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is a book that walks the line between standard horror fiction with a literary bent and yet is so deeply disturbing that it is odd by default. So, since I am sort of a bad parent and favor one child over the other, I am discussing it over here because oddbooks is soooo much better than her sister. But I find it pretty disturbing and by my own admittedly uneven criteria, I’m discussing it here.

Availability: Published by Harcourt in 2000, you can get a copy here:

Comments:This is going to be a startlingly short discussion. I am a person who is, to put it kindly, verbose. Wordy. I type too damn much sometimes. I know this. And if I let this tendency go unchecked in this discussion, I will spoil this entire book for you. This is a book wherein crucial plot points are revealed in layers. As you read, Faber reveals bits and pieces that make you wonder what is wrong, why the main character is experiencing back pain, why she looks odd, why she is stalking large, well-built men, and it call becomes clear about a third of the way into the book. The horror continues to unfold apace but in the interest of not ruining this book for anyone who wants to read it, I will have to discuss it in vagaries that may not show the true mastery of this book.

So I will have to do that which I hate doing the most. I will have to ask you to take my word for it. This book is cleverly written. It is full of pathos and a character who is working her way through physical pain, mental anguish, and moral dilemmas that could potentially render her life meaningless and cause her to become in her own mind the worst sort of monster. It is literary fiction, but at the same time, it is extreme horror. There are graphic descriptions of cruelty in this book that are fucking horrible. This is a novel that will give you no comfort, none at all, save for one scene where Isserley, the main character, manages to prevent a dog from starving to death.

The book begins with Isserley, driving along the highway system in Scotland, stalking men who meet a very specific physical criteria. Isserley is in considerable physical discomfort as she flashes her large breasts in an attempt to distract her prey, but until the plot reveals itself you don’t ever really know why it is that the mental picture Faber paints of Isserley seems so imbued with wrongness. Isserley’s shabby little car has been outfitted with a switch that deploys a needle full of knock-out drugs through the car seat where her hitchhiker pick-ups sit and once unconscious, she takes them to a farm where they meet a fate that is later explained in deep, horrific detail. If I discuss much more than this, or even convey my favorite passages, I will spoil this book and it is killing me not being able to wallow in this book to the degree I would prefer.

But I can safely say that if you like books with deep moral dilemmas, you will like this book. If you like books with explicit violence, you will like this book. If you like horror/science fiction crossovers, you will like this book. If you prefer books with excellent characterization and find understanding the heart of darkness compelling reading, you will want to read this book.

The horror is not as extreme as “extreme horror” and it is not a mystery though the plot unfolds to reveal hidden truths. This is not straightforward horror and it is not straightforward science fiction. And for people who like character-driven books, the extraordinary plot in this book may distract. But despite all the things this book can be said definitively not to be, the hybrid that remains is a creepy, disturbing, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking book. I recommend it highly.

Portrait of the Psychopath as a Young Woman by Edward Lee & Elizabeth Steffen

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Portrait of the Psychopath as a Young Woman

Authors: Edward Lee and Elizabeth Steffen

Type of Book: Fiction, extreme horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I tend to consider books with this level of explicit violence to be odd. Mileage may vary but in my world, discussions of extreme horror end up with the odd books.

Availability: Originally published in 1998, the edition I read was published by Necro Publications in 2003. You can get a copy here:

Comments: This is one of those times when I hate discussing books. I feel full of angst because I adore Edward Lee. Even when he’s off his game a bit, I still think he is one of the most unsung horror writers out there (Jack Ketchum and Christopher Fowler are in that same category – my heart never sinks as much as it does when I mention Lee, Ketchum or Fowler and people have no idea who I am talking about). I just like him.

But this book sucks. It is bad. Bad as in there is so little redeemable about it that all I want to do is downshift into snark mode but feel conflicted because I really like Edward Lee. I sense my inner sauciness will have no choice but to burst forth but before I explain in far too much detail why this book was a grave disappointment, I need to say that I hope Edward Lee never collaborates on a book again. Teratologist, another book for which he was the coauthor, was even worse than this one. Lee is a man who needs to write alone, I think.

On the surface, this book seemed like it was gonna be great. The presence of Ed Lee was part of it but the descriptions also made it seem like it was a winner. A journalist is contacted by a serial killing female in order to tell the killer’s story. The journalist enters a new relationship that challenges her emotionally and before long, the woman, her new lover and the killer are on a collision course, and the journalist and the killer find a horrifying link between themselves. Add a mean cop, lots of violence, and pow, you got yourself a decent enough serial killer book. And to be frank, the killer herself was at times an interesting character, and the violence she wreaks might be, for some extreme horror fans, worth the price of admission.

So… Why does this book stink a’plenty? The reasons are myriad and glaring. First, you will never read a more cliched book outside of a romance novel or a western, or maybe a romance set in the Old West, preferably written by my mom. You’ve got your neurotic heroine who is hot and sexy but at weight lighter than Marilyn Fucking Monroe feels she is obese and ugly. Also she’s wacky and likes to run around naked all the time, as body-loathing headcases are wont to do, amirite? We have a murderous whackjob who is a caricature of every abused female killer, with an endless mental dialogue with her abusive daddy. And despite the fact that she’s a mentally deranged killer, she still somehow manages to dress up, lure, stalk and kill her victims and hold a day job with almost nary a hiccup.

But there’s more, oh so much more. We have the cliche of the hard ass cop bullying his unhappy witness. We have a man who is evidently a poet who is acclaimed enough to have made it into The New Yorker who is capable of writing poetry that would make a teenage goth misery case ashamed at the turgid purpleness of it all. Also, he falls in love with the heroine after a night of sex, because that’s what poets do – they fall in love with weird women involved in murder cases. And in a novel about tracking a serial killer, despite the fact that Elizabeth Steffen is a federal crime analyst, we have characters who use the words psychopath and psychotic interchangeably, descriptions of mental states that read like gibberish and a character who appears to be largely psychotic who is yet still able to write out scholarly analyses of her torture techniques.

Part of me wants to say read this for the nasty parts, that’s clearly why it exists, this book. Read it for all the blood and torture and do your best not to pay attention to the shitty plot, poor characterization and outright insult offered in the details. But I can’t. There is no reason you cannot get a fix for gore without abandoning good prose, tight plot, and believable characters and details. And as I always insist when I pan a book, I don’t want you to take my word for it. Let me support myself with examples from the text.

So let’s get started. Kathleen is an advice columnist who lives alone, and because all women in novels written between 1985 and 2001 were sexually abused, so was Kathleen. She has family money to back her up as she writes her column, is evidently quite curvy and pretty and is ten times more neurotic than I was when I was in college, perpetually drunk and before I discovered the magic of anti-anxiety meds. Anyway, Kathleen has had sex with Platt, the Dogpatch Ted Hughes of this novel, and here’s a glimpse into her mind:

Platt, though not a physical specimen, looked trim and enticing. There’s no way he could ever love a Fattie like me. This impression of herself did not depress her at all, it made her feel proudly objective, not weighing, of course, the hypocrisy. When readers wrote in, fearing rejection due to being overweight, Kathleen reassured them that looks meant nothing in a real relationship. Dump them, she’d advise.

As a woman, reading Kathleen felt like I was trapped in the girl’s room at the junior prom. I can only assume men who read this book endured just for the blood. Yay, another heroine who hates her ass. Yay, Bridget Jones is getting stalked by a killer.

Oh, but you never know, maybe Kathleen really is a lardy troll completely undeserving of human love and should be shunned for her grossness. But luckily we have this information the killer digs up from her car registration after she runs the plates on her car:


Sigh… Look, I know lots of women have negative body image. I’m a fucking American woman, believe me, I know this. But I don’t want to fucking read about a gorgeous woman bitch about being fat in an extreme horror novel. And it’s all the more annoying to read a character moan and groan about how fat her ass is and then find out she’s probably a size six or less.

Kathleen’s pointless body hate permeates the book like the smell of bacon grease in a roadside diner. Driving with her poet boyfriend, she humorously barks at traffic but also continues on with her tiresome internal dialogue.

Kathleen caught herself examining girls who waited at each crosswalk, and she dismally concluded that almost every single one was better-looking than her. Most were trim Washingtonians in traditional summer yuppie garb. Sandals, shorts, loose, pretty blouses. I’m a dinosaur, she thought. Why can’t I look like those girls?

Yeah, this shit wore thin.

Oh, but wait, Kathleen is also dense and petulant. Her boyfriend, the poet, is napping and is speaking in his sleep:

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” he mumbled.
Barbara, huh? Kathleen faintly smirked. So he’s dreaming of old girlfriends. She couldn’t very well hold that against him, though it irked her just the same. You could at least be polite enough to dream about me, Maxwell. That or keep your mouth closed when you’re off in slumberland.

For the love of all that is not shitty, is Kathleen not the more tiresome heroine outside of a haughty lady-in-waiting in some bodice ripper? Not only is she not familiar with one of the most iconic lines in movie history but upon hearing it becomes annoyed that her new man of under a week is not murmuring her name in his sleep. Kathleen, to put it plainly, sucks. When the hapless Maxwell Platt emerges from his sleep she confronts him about this seductress Barbara and when he explains that he is not lying, that he had fallen asleep to Night of the Living Dead, even after she believes him she lacks the grace to apologize.

And then we have this unlikely scene that sealed the deal for me as far as the heroine is concerned. Kathleen is in the shower, and finds herself getting turned on as she remembers the conversation she had with Spence, the adversarial officer assigned to the case:

She remembered what Spence had said, about… What word had he used? Parity, she remembered. Similarities between herself and the killer. The whole thing had been a set-up, but why? The killer was abused as a child, you were abused as a child. So what? Does she look like me? she wondered. Does she have a body like me? A face? Kathleen smiled to herself. Does she touch herself in the shower?

Okay, this is… so full of squick I almost quit reading. Some sexual abuse survivors process their abuse in a sexual manner, that is not unrealistic. But this scene ends with Kathleen bursting from the shower and masturbating on a couch, not even bothering to dry off. She is not processing abuse. She is pondering the similarities between herself and a woman who is so deranged she sent her a man’s severed penis in the mail. Instead of wondering how the other woman ended up a violent killer and contemplating the harm the killer has done, she’s musing about her body and her naked behavior in the shower and using it for masturbatory fodder. On no level does this ring true, it makes the heroine of this book look like a fucking idiot and an asshole and it was foul in every implication. Yeah, Kathleen sucks as a character and that’s problematic because as the heroine of this book, I need to want her to succeed and not get killed in the process and it’s hard to root for someone who is this dense, this self-absorbed, this whiny and this bizarre.

In addition to creating a heroine in whom I have little vested, the authors also run into some problems defining their killer. The title of the book implies the killer is a psychopath but the descriptions of the killer are all over the map and at times read like utter nonsense. Here’s information a forensic psychiatrist gives the lead investigator on the case:

“Tell them to go back a year,” Simmons corrected. “This is something more evolved than your typical unsystematized reality break. Take my word for it, Jeffrey.”

Good thing it isn’t a typical unsystematized reality break because if you Google “unsystematized reality break” you’ll find out it evidently doesn’t exist outside this book. So thank heavens they dodged that “typical” bullet. Steffen, who is a crime analyst, presumably knows her stuff but if so, she is using terminology so arcane that a layman cannot run it to ground. A phrase as weird and awkward as “typical unsystematized reality break” should show up in a Google but it doesn’t and that is problematic. And given how unusual this term is, would it have been too much to have explained it?

The forensic psychiatrist continues:

“She probably lives in a house, in a secluded community,” Simmons continued. “She was sexually abused, probably quite heinously, and probably by her father or or other prominent family figure, from a very young age. She’s obviously bipolar enough to function in public.”

Okay, that first part seems standard enough, but then that last sentence takes it all down a weird road. It’s sort of hard to understand how “bipolar” plays into this in any manner. Bipolar enough to function in public? Well, bipolar people do function in public but it generally is not one of those conditions that one would think helps anyone to function in public. Generally, it is associated with a difficulty in functioning well. Is Steffen trying to convey that the killer is both bipolar and psychotic, or that within her psychosis she is experiencing a swing in behaviors that is similar to the condition of bipolar? I’m not sure and it isn’t explained.

But then, despite the fact that the killer is being presented as psychopathic, terminology gets mixed up, as Spence talks to Kathleen about the killer:

“Most of the conversation she sounded very clear-headed, coherent. Then she goes into the bit about the pain, taking her mother’s pain away and all that.”

“Psychiatrists call it word salad,” Spence enlightened her. “A fairly common trait in bipolar psychosis. One minute she acts and sounds normal, the next minute she’s complete dissociated, completely submerged in her delusions, to such an extreme extent that only she can understand herself.”

Okay, in the course of this book we will find out the killer is bipolar, a psychotic, a psychopath and several other things and I am not a criminal analyst like Steffen but all of this seems unlikely. If it is possible that the killer is a psychopathic psychotic going through some sort of rapidly cycling bipolar spectrum that pushes her from coherence into word salad in the course of one sentence, instead of throwing all this shit out there and expecting us to swallow it, mayhaps the authors could have explained how all these terms fit together and how they manifest together because by failing to do this, it sounds like someone is just tossing out a whole bunch of stuff that sort of sounds officially crazy and hoping we buy it.

It continues:

Simmons’ eyes, in spite of their accrual of years, shined crisply and bright as an infant’s. “But you can take heart in some rather indisputable statistics. The Totem Phase always burns itself out, leaving in its wake a catastrophic amine-related depression. It’s called the Capture Phase. Very quickly the falsehood of the delusion is unveiled; the bipolar mental state reverses poles, so to speak, locking the killer in an inescapable feeling of capture. The psychopath’s self-image is reduced to total meaningless… Suicide is the most frequent result.

This verged on gibberish for me and it’s a bit disorienting when I try to piece ideas together using the Internet and my own library on psychology and criminal profiling and come up empty handed. Would the average person have any goddamned idea what an “amine-related depression” is? Google ain’t gonna be much help. Totem and Capture Phase are not that arcane but coupled in there with amine-related depression and the bad line about the crispness of a baby’s eyes and you sense that this is a novel that really didn’t weigh out the meaning of the words used.

And it goes on and on:

“The killer has to know we’re on to her. But she’s psychopathic. Lotta times psychopaths get fuzzy on the dividing line between fantasy and reality. And they make mistakes. That’s what we’re counting on. She might come here in a fugue state, or when she’s deep in one of her delusions. Then we’ve got her.”

It feels weird countering the words that presumably came from a criminal analyst but yeah, while psychopaths often suffer from delusions, do psychopaths go into a fugue state? That sounds far more like the behavior of a psychotic and the mental state of the killer in this book points far more to a psychotic, someone who has almost no connection to reality. Psychopaths, in my education, were characterized by a superficial glibness and complete inability to care about other people. The killer in this book is full-bore crazed, having a dialogue in her head with her abuser, living a life almost completely detached from reality. It seems to me that despite the presence of an expert as a writer, this book uses the words psychotic and psychopath interchangeably.

But descriptions of the killer are not the only time you will read questionable psychological approaches in this book. Here’s some advice Kathleen received to help her deal with the atrocious abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle:

“There are times when it’s perfectly healthy to redirect the pain in our lives. To transform it into someone else’s pain.” The method worked very well. Whenever a memory popped up… she simply murdered him in her mind. “Rape-Conclusion Substitution is what we call it.”

Seriously, go Google “Rape-Conclusion Substitution” with one hand and shit in the other and tell me which yields the most search results. Maybe this really is a helpful technique but is used under another name? So why include this at all? This part is not so integral to the plot of the book that the authors needed to create a bullshit label for this therapeutic technique or use a technique so arcane and obscure that it is impossible for a layperson to find out about it.

There are some seriously wacky plot devices in this book as well. At one point, Spence knows that they have a line on the killer and the powers that be, called General Command, see fit to send a helicopter to land on the lawn of Spence’s condo complex to pick him up in the middle of the night so he can be on the scene when they catch the killer. At least the authors have the decency to admit this whole scene is dumb:

The neighbors’ll love me, he thought, and then stepped out into what had to be the most ludicrous scenario of his life… The helicopter–a rebuilt white Bell JetRanger–descended amid the chugging cacophony of its props, and a mad wind siphoned about Spence, which nearly sucked his unbuttoned Christian Dior off his back.

Yeah, no sending a car for Spence. Nope, let’s risk the lives of untold people landing a fucking enormous helicopter on the grounds of a heavily populated area. C’mon, this is a serial killer/police procedural/heavy gore book. We don’t need plots lines from post-Cold War spy novel wet dreams.

Some of the dialogue was miserable. Just miserable. Take this example. Spence the detective has come to Kathleen’s door:

“Hello,” he said when she opened up.
“Damn. I was hoping it was the Fuller Brush Man.”
“The Fuller Brush Man isn’t your ticket to literary acclaim.”
“Oh, but you are?” she said. “A poker-faced cop in a bargain basement suit?”
Spence’s gaze distended. “This suit cost $850. It’s made from some of the finest–”
“Relax Kafka, I was only kidding. Are you here for anything in particular, or just the typical police harassment?”

1) No one under the age of 60 uses the Fuller Brush Man as a reference in actual conversation, even those of us who watch a lot of old television and read potboilers from the ’40s.
2) How the fuck does someone’s gaze distend?
3) Kafka? Kafka? Maybe there was a reference earlier in the book that explains this because if there isn’t (and I don’t think there is) calling Spence Kafka makes no fucking sense.

Then there’s just the bad writing. This may seem picky but if the rest of the book is a clusterfuck, it becomes hard to overlook even little problems. Like this line of dialogue from a scene in the morgue wherein an evidence tech explains things in language we can all understand.

“Three bodies,” he said. “We’ll call them One, Two, and Three.”

Well, thank God that wasn’t… so obvious that it approached pointlessness. Glad we got that cleared up.

Bad writing continues apace. Like this gem a murder victim overheard in a bathroom in a goth club that he entered because, as we all know, goth clubs are the best sort of meat markets for norm guys on the make:

In the bathroom some guys were doing cocaine as they traded jokes. “What’s the difference between Michael Jackson and potato chips? Michael Jackson comes in a can.”

Does anyone even know what this joke means? I mean, aside from the fact that it seems unlikely that such a joke would be common fare, it’s almost as cryptic as the discussion of “amine-related depression.”

While in the goth club, which we know is goth because the future victim thinks one girl looks like Morticia Adams (sic) and because there is Joy Division graffiti written in the bathrooms, we are presented with the victim’s take on the costuming around him:

Brad spotted some class cleavage, a brunette in sequins and earrings that looked like shower curtain rings.

Yeah, goth girls in sequins and enormous hoop earrings were thick on the ground in the late 1990s. Thick, I tell you. You also had to look out for all the feather boas and girls in crinoline looking like Cyndi Lauper. Eh, given that no one noticed they were misspelling the Addams family name, I am probably kicking a poorly dyed horse.

Moving on to weird and heavy-handed descriptives. Take this scene, the quotes taking place within paragraphs of each other:

He wondered what he’d done to her–some obsidian inquisitor in him with no heart.

Followed by:

It all poured out of her–the blackest ichor tapped through the wounds her uncle had lain into her spirit.

Okay, I get that the authors want to imply darkness, a blackness that implies the horrible evil that happened to Kathleen at the hands of her uncle. But why an obsidian inquisitor? A shiny, striated, glossy, brittle inquisitor? Blackest ichor? Blackest blood of the gods? I mean, these words all sound sort of good but mostly these words mean very little in conveying what I assume the authors wanted to make us aware of.

Word misuse does not end there:

Moonlight bathed the room in lucent slants, just like the dream. She lay naked in an ichor of sweat…

An ichor of sweat, eh? What the hell does that even mean? She laid in a blood of the gods of sweat? Or maybe a fluid of inflammation of sweat? And again, Kathleen’s tendency to love being naked in hot rooms feels a wee bit gratuitous.

But we aren’t done with black and blood imagery.

The words seemed to permute the paper until they were no longer words at all, but glyphic scrawlings etched in black blood.

Ignoring the fact that paper cannot be etched, I have no fucking idea what a glyphic scrawling is in this usage since we have no fucking idea what the paper was permuted into. I also wonder about using “permute” because as far as I know, it is a verb used mainly in math, implying order. If the words had been permuted, I could understand that because it would imply the order of the words was being changed. But can a page of paper be permuted? It could be mutated, I guess, but permute was not a good word choice for this sentence. In fact, this sentence can’t stand up to the most basic parsing without verging into gibberish. At several places in this book, it seemed like words were selected for how they might sound rather than what they actually mean.

Continuing on with bad writing choices, there was this bizarre statement:

“Jesus to Pete, Lieutenant. You got yourself a real winner here. This chick knows more about torture than Einstein knew about relativity. Makes Adolf Eichmann look like fuckin’ Dick Van Dyke.”

This sort of hyperbole doesn’t really give definition to the killer by emphasizing how horrific are her actions but rather gives a sense that Eichmann was somehow not all that bad, you know, given that some lady somewhere did really bad stuff to some men. Yes, this serial killer is terrible. She binds men up like mummies so that they cannot move and then does things like blow red pepper up their noses and cuts off their penises. She’s deranged and does vile things. But is she really a rival of one of history’s greatest monsters? Why include a statement like this at all because if one doesn’t immediately laugh, which I guess was the response the authors wanted, the only other thing to do is to look at the statement and realize how bad an idea it is to consider the actions of a serial killer in reference to one of history’s worst genocides. I know this book is over a decade old but even given the round of razzing people receive online when they invoke Nazis in bad arguments, the custom still persists in fiction. It’s annoying and unless one is writing about Nazis, one should not invoke them to make specious comparisons.

There were other issues with the book. A radio shrink telling a caller with sexual issues who was molested by her brother to kill him in with her mind several times a day, a therapy that may be just dandy but seems a terrible thing to be advocating over the radio, an idea that could easily become a murder charge outside of a therapeutic setting. The scene where Kathleen is symbolically confronting her abuser while being molested by a snake was so heavy-handed and dripping in false symbolism that it was a car wreck. Oh, then there was what I have no choice but to call the “butt spit” scene.


The killer walks in on people having furtive sex in the hospital where she works:

She knew the phlebotomy tech was sodomizing her because every few minutes the nurse would whisper, “More spit,” and the phlebotomy tech would stop and his head would tilt and she could hear him expectorate, and then he’d start again.

Somehow that was the foulest scene in the book. Seriously, a head nurse bent over and buttfucked and nowhere in the hospital is there a better lube than some guy’s spit? I mean, the only other place where there would have been more lube options available would have been a lube factory. Just because they spit all over each other in porn does not mean anyone else does it in real life. Use lube appropriate to the sex act. The anal fissures you won’t get later will thank you for it. And if you do so, you might be less inclined to describe anal sex in a manner that sounds like the second take for a shoe string porn script. But if this was meant to be just gross, the authors succeeded well.

Interestingly, in a book where two of the main characters are writers, neither seemed to be able to write worth a damn. Spence, the detective, reads one of Kathleen’s columns and rhetorically asks himself if it is just him or if none of it makes a lick of sense, like it was written in a foreign language. Here’s the column answer he read:

Regarding your former boyfriend, forget him. By saying such spiteful things to you he’s only elucidating his own selfishness and immaturity, not to mention his lack of consideration for your honest feelings. Men like that are best left out with the garbage. And as for your current emotional perplexion, I think you need to reverse your methods of anticipation. …

No, Spence, it’s not just you. I know the authors were trying to make an “Aren’t men and women different” statement, plus a little, “Hey, gay men don’t get women,” sort of riff but it mostly read like nonsense.

And Kathleen isn’t the only shitty writer in this hot mess. Remember her boyfriend, the poet? The one so good he’s in The New Yorker? This is a poem of his Kathleen finds. Also note that he calls every poem he writes “Exit” for reasons I am sure are too deep and poetical for the likes of me:

EXIT by Maxwell Platt
Resplendence is truth, yet it’s escaped me somehow,
And I don’t even remember what you look like now.
But in the trees, in the clouds, in the heavens above
even the angels are burning up with all my love.

Well, it’s not Tennyson. It’s not even Cummings or Plath. It’s barely a Nickelback lyric.

There is another poem, the only one not called “Exit” but is instead called “A Keatsian Inquiry.” Here’s a snippet:

Dare he wake her beauty in the moon?
For what he spied–such love–and in
that precious moment didst nearly swoon.
Yet on she slept a lovely sleep;
here is the image his love doth reap.

Could no one have looked up an actual poem by Keats or a modern love poem and at least tried to ape it a bit? Because asking us to accept this as anything but the work of an overwrought high school freshman is a bit much.

So. What have we in total? We have a spunky but self-loathing hot chick who thinks she’s fat and writes a shitty self-help column that brought her to the attention of a psychotic, psychopathic, bipolar killer who slips into word salad and sends the columnist dicks in the mail. We have a detective who largely does not grate, but we also have a poet who cannot write poetry. We have words that don’t fit together well. We have scenes so utterly dumb they would make a normal person curse their dog when they read them. Bad analogies. A girl killer worse than Eichmann. Butt sex with spit.

We also have some top notch, methodical and yet over the top extreme violence. So weigh things out. Can you take all that I laid out and so much more in order to get to the heinous parts? If not, may I recommend Edward Lee’s Infernal books. Some pretty foul content, extreme horror, and though these books likely have all kinds of issues, the content is lively, engaging, disgusting and funny enough that I didn’t really notice. And with so much extreme horror, that’s the goal, to be so wrapped up in the content that the meta of the reading experience doesn’t intrude. This book didn’t come close to achieving that goal.

Jack and Mr. Grin by Andersen Prunty

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Jack and Mr. Grin

Author: Andersen Prunty

Type of book: Fiction, bizarro

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Eraserhead Press, bizarro, etc. etc.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments:When I decided to feature a Bizarro Week here on IROB, I knew I had to discuss a work from Andersen Prunty. The first of Prunty’s books I read was The Overwhelming Urge, which I reviewed here, and I loved it. It was cerebral, gentle weirdness, a collection of short stories that was odd but restrained in the bizarro-ness. More magical realism than full-bore strangeness, all of the short stories in that collection were common scenes with a fresh and at times unsettling eye.

That is also how Jack and Mr. Grin reads. A familiar story with a new, unsettling eye. The plot is simple. A man is on a quest to find his true love before something terrible and violent happens to her. Abducted women in peril plots are a dime a dozen, from romance to thrillers, stacked in the supermarket paperback wire displays. The devil, of course, is in the details and that is where he resides in this book.

Jack Orange loves Gina Black. He spends all day at a job place called the Tent where he shovels dirt into boxes which are then shipped off to strange and unlikely destinations. It’s a foul, filthy job but he does it willingly, knowing it gives him and Gina a better life. One Sunday morning, Jack is distracted on the way back into his house after a quick trip to buy breakfast. He has a ring to propose to Gina, whom he has left in their house, listening to old records. But he is distracted by his neighbor and when he returns with breakfast and the ring, Gina is gone. She has been kidnapped by Mr. Grin and he will torture her to death if Jack does not use his wits to discover where Gina is being held and destroy Mr. Grin. The answer to her location lies in the history of their relationship and the things Gina has considered important, but it still isn’t that easy.

Jack has to navigate a landscape that has been changed by Mr. Grin. People he turns to for help end up with a stinging brand in their skin that either makes them insane or is a symbol of their insanity, becoming homicidal in their attempts to stop Jack from finding Gina. This is a quest novel but it is a bizarro quest novel so it could very easily have become a circus of intensely insane, surrealistic violence as Jack struggles to find Gina. Prunty has a strong hand and controls this story, ramping up the horror and disbelief, yet never becoming so disgusting or unbelievable that the novel reaches a state of near surrealistic parody or gut-wrenching gore (not that there is anything wrong with either, it must be said).

Nothing is random in this novel. Though one of the hallmarks of bizarro is the surrealistic plot line, at times using cloying details that seem important but later mean nothing in the face of absurdist plots, Prunty does not take that route. His plots are held together tightly, each plot device, each character we meet, every single event playing a role in the way the novel unfolds. In that way he is definitely more restrained than some of his bizarro brethren. In many ways, this book was more in the vein of dark horror. But there were enough otherworldly elements, strange, surreal descriptions, that make this book a good crossover for anyone who wants to try bizarro without descending too quickly into a complete mind bend.

All in all, this is a tight, well-told horror/bizarro tale. Every detail matters in the game Mr. Grin forces Jack to play. Anyone who has either tried to write a mystery/thriller/horror novel will know how hard this is to do, and more important, anyone who has read a novel that cannot pull it off knows how marvelous it is when a writer gets it right. Since I don’t want to spoil the plot, I can’t go into depth about all the ways that Prunty makes every word matter, but I can say that Prunty doesn’t make the mistake of making words count in a calculated, stiff manner. He is far more deft than that. Casual conversations help with characterization but it is subtle – not a hammer in our foreheads announcing, “Hey, character development, pay attention!” As Jack careens from one bad scene to the next, the plot’s pace never seems overwhelming or rushed.

However tight and well-paced this novel is, I think the real reason to read it is to wallow in Prunty’s prose and ideas. He handles some downright creepy scenes that resonated with me weeks after reading this book. For example, the first time Jack hears Mr. Grin on the phone, the voice he hears causes him to immediately know what the man looks like.

“Who are you?”

“I think you know who I am.”

Already he had a picture of this guy in his head. He was like a more bloated version of his high school history teacher. The teacher would come in and lecture for an hour about holocausts and smile the entire time. Only his history teacher had been very thin. Just from a couple of sentences, Jack pictures this guy as a plump man. He didn’t know why. He was there, on the other end of the line, his plump red cheeks all pulled back, those gleaming white teeth, almost perfect enough to be dentures, gleaming out from all that rosiness.

Later in the same conversation:

Already his head raced with ideas of trying to track the man by this phone call. Of trying to pick up some sound from the other end that would allow him to place it. The sound of kids playing in a playground, or a siren from a fire engine or a train. Anything. But he didn’t hear anything except the man’s somewhat labored breathing and, perhaps, the sound of his cheeks pulling back from his gums in that hideous grin.

I initially thought I saw so much meaning in these passages because I do this all the time – build a mental image of what a person looks like on the basis of their voice. I think everyone does that. But this passage means so much more, really. It shows that Jack is sharp, even in the face of shock. He knows to sift for clues. He knows to listen closely. But this passage most importantly shows very early on that we, the reader, can trust Jack’s instincts. On the basis of a voice, he remembers a creepy, grinning man who likely had a strong sadistic streak in him. He knows, from the very beginning, before Mr. Grin makes a single threat, exactly what sort of man he is dealing with.

I reviewed recently a book by Supervert, wherein he argued that there was a noise that could, despite philosophical assertions stating otherwise, inspire disgust. This book is full of examples of how, in the absence of any other stimulus, Jack heard noises that if heard by the reader would have been disgusting. Dreadful sloshing, slurping noises he hears on the phone can mean very disgusting, degrading things are happening to Gina. Having read Supervert, it put those noises into a whole new… horrible perspective for me. It’s nice when the odd writers I love intersect like this.

Prunty gives us more than disgust, as there is raw horror in this book. If I had any quarrel with this book, it was with the ending. It seemed too neat, in a way, but I also guess at the same time that given the otherworldly elements in this book, the sort of slipstream combination at the end, that the ending is not out of place. I guess there was enough realism for me to want the gritty horror that Prunty set up to endure throughout the book.

I think this is a fabulous book, very much worth a read. It also skirts one of the biggest complaints readers have shared with me about bizarro – that the books are too expensive for what are often no more than a 100 page novella. I’m not one to complain about the cost of books (most of the time), but at 195 pages, this is an actual novel and you will enjoy turning every one of the pages.