Book: They Had Goat Heads
Author: D. Harlan Wilson
Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because there is some full-bore absurdity in this collection.
Availability: Published by Atlatl Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Day Three of Bizarro Week begins with They Had Goat Heads by D. Harlan Wilson, and before I begin to discuss the book, I want to remind you that one lucky reader will win a free copy of each book I review this week. Check out the contest rules and be sure to comment to enter!
Okay, on Monday, I discussed a book that is regular bizarro, with a traditional story framework but with outrageous and strange characters and details. Tuesday featured a gently weird book that focuses on the human experience more than the lunatic elements that can often be the trademark of bizarro. So it seems fitting that today we are looking at a book that is all over the map. It’s absurdist. It’s surreal. It alternates between hilarity and horror. It has a six-word story. It has flash fiction. It has short stories, consisting of simple vignettes and traditional plots. It has a creepy story that is made all the creepier because of the excellent illustrations accompanying it, making it a short, stylized graphic novel.
In fact, I’m unsure even how to begin the discussion. Thematically, I’m completely screwed. So I think I’m going to concentrate on examples of all the story types that I mention above.
First, the six-word story. It is also the first story in the book. “6 Word Scifi”:
Mechanical flâneurs goosestep across the prairie.
Thank god I went through a heavy Baudelaire phase or I would have had no idea what a “flâneur” is. As six word stories go, it’s not bad. I think Hemingway still takes first place in my mind (“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”) but this one is pretty evocative, too. This story immediately brought to mind those Nazi hammers from Pink Floyd: The Wall. I just imagined them leisurely marching across the American Heartland. Minimalism is always a winner for people with over-active imaginations and plenty of pop cultural references to fill in the mental blanks.
There are several very well-executed flash fiction pieces that were in turns interesting, maddening, clever and strange. Take “Monster Truck,” wherein a man wants to become a monster truck.
“Whoever fights monster trucks should see to it that in the process she does not become a monster truck,” said his wife when he tried to crawl into bed.
I don’t want to spoil this story of a couple hundred words, but he really should have heeded his wife’s warning.
“Strongmen & Motorcycles (& Monkeys, Too)” is a mini surrealist masterpiece:
The question is – why are muscles a prerequisite for strongmen? Strength is a relative term. Strength can indicate corporeal authority in equal measure with Einstein’s motorcycle…
Well of course, a strongman can beat your ass but Einstein on a motorcycle can blow up your town and zoom away unscathed. Always respect Einstein before strongmen. Is this the message of this tale? Who knows? It is delightful nonsense and can be shaped to fit all kinds of conclusions:
I edit the sound of the daily news with a synthesizer and a pocketful of nitroglycerine. Nobody minds.
Should I mind? Should I be dissecting this story? Probably not but someone has to do it. Even if it makes no sense, which I cannot judge really, it has a very nice rhythm. I think I am going to ask Mr. Oddbooks to read this story to me out loud one day, to see how the meter of it rolls off the tongue.
The last bit of flash I want to discuss is “Cape Crusade.” I don’t want to quote from it because it looks like it is less than 100 words, but the image of a Superman-type chasing his cape like a dog chases his tail made me want to see if I could fashion a cape of sorts on my enormous kitten, Grendel, who chases his tail like it owes him money. He can never catch his tail. I wonder if he could catch a cape?
The short stories in this collection that worked the best for me were the ones that more or less implemented a plot. I am at times constitutionally unsuited for too much absurdism because I cannot help but try to find meaning in things. I can deal with this in very short pieces wherein motorcycles, Einstein and strongmen are discussed to no real conclusion, but in longer form, I end up with a puzzle with no edge pieces to guide me as I read it. It’s a personal failing but one I sense many may have. We are a species that likes order and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just hard to turn that tendency off.
However, possessing this failing does not mean I cannot enjoy the lunacy of absurdism with a touch of surrealism. Or maybe it’s surrealism with a touch of absurdity. I tend to think it is the former but it gets hard to tell for me at times. So I made my brain shut up and just read and at times it was quite fun.
Take “Victrola,” a vignette (and it may actually be closer to flash but I’m calling it a short story for these purposes) about a man who is waiting for someone to give him a midnight snack. It reads like a dream, one of those dreams where things just happen without any concern for plot. The man’s parents come downstairs, then leave and go back to sleep, snoring. Then a man in a stovepipe hat and a three-piece suit comes into the room, and the Victrola lectures the snack-less man on mortality. His parents come back into the kitchen and dance and search the cabinets for something they cannot find. The father roughs up the mother a bit and they return upstairs. The Victrola speaks some more things one would not commonly hear from a Victrola. The story ends with the man listening to his parents’ noises as they sleep. That is a synopsis, or is as close to a synopsis as I can come.
I think that if I work hard enough, I can force myself into finding meaning in this story. There is a sense of coming to terms with disappointment and death. The parents demand coffee and receive none. The Victrola delivers strange news:
“Welcome to the kitchen. I am your host. I hope you enjoy a snack. You must enjoy things. Eventually you will die.”
The mother also has some hard wisdom she imparts after she fails to find decaf:
“That’s life, son,” says my mother, tilting her head. “One failure after another. But one must continue to fail. Otherwise one ceases to be human.”
But even this is a bit empty, explanation-wise. I think that with these stories that veer into absurdity, it’s best to concentrate on the language. Wilson is a writer who clearly delights in words, how they appear on paper and how they sound when spoken. His images are often quite beautiful. In this story about a strange Victrola, the words are melodic:
I listen to my mother and father’s muffled voices. They intersect and accomplish a crescendo, then roll out and taper off, fatigued, paling, until the only thing I can hear is the hush of the ocean surf, the Victrola’s fleur-de-lis whispering like a conch.
The last story I want to discuss is “The Sister.” This is the illustrated story, the one that was a mini graphic novel. This brief tale shows how a visual image changes the entirety of how a story is perceived. The words alone in the story are a bit unsettling. A man sews his sister back together only to watch passively and impotently as a madman in a monster truck kidnaps her. Tied to the grill of the truck, she is torn to pieces when the truck runs into a wall. The brother sews his sister back together again, and again she is kidnapped and placed in a bird cage as a vulture flies over her. One can see how this is a repetitive nightmare, showing a weak man who can restore his sister to health but cannot protect her from harm. That was simple enough.
It is the artwork that takes this to another level, a horrifying level. The sister is a doll with mismatched parts. Ragged scars cover her face. Her eyes do not match. The first stranger looks like Lon Chaney, Sr in the role of The Phantom of the Opera. The little sister, after the car accident, is laid out and looks for all in the world like the slashed-face Elizabeth Short, the sad Black Dahlia (NSFW and not for the squeamish), as she laid on a coroner’s table.
These illustrations worked beyond this story. Seeing in such horrific graphic depiction the words that would have seemed just slightly strange and uneasy by themselves, put some of the other stories into similarly horrific terms. Perhaps the genius of Wilson’s writing, in addition to the at times sheer beauty of it, is how easily, via surreal images, he might be cloaking something truly horrific. That man with the stovepipe hat that scraped the ceiling in “Victrola” became a leering Slender Man. The man who wanted to be a monster truck who looked into the abyss seems infinitely more monstrous. “The Sister” is a short story in terms of words but packs a wallop in terms of impact. This is one of those “worth the price of admission” stories.
With 40 stories, some leaning toward meaning, some a lesson in utter absurdity, this is a collection I very much recommend. Wilson blends humor and horror so well that even as I was affected reading some of the stories, like “The Sister,” my overall feeling at the end of this book was uneasiness. I had a sense there was much that I had missed but a reread did me no good in deciphering any meanings. In most cases I was forced to take the stories as they came, internalizing that tantalizing sense that meaning was so close but could never really be had. And it cannot be had for most of these tales because that is the cost of reading a book so absurdist. But in these absurd tales there is body horror, a sense of otherness, a feeling of awakening and a feeling of helplessness, and sometimes simply feeling something is enough meaning itself. And if that is not enough, I think the beauty of Wilson’s language is certainly worth reading This is also an excellent collection for those who seek out the actively weird and strange in bizarro. I definitely think this is a collection worth your time.