Category Archives: Bizarro

Sequel City Part 3 – The Southern Reach Trilogy

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeerReview: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)

Dammit, all good things have to come to an end. First it was the brooding yet uplifting Last Policeman series and now, I am sorry to say, Jeff VanderMeer’s dark, unsettling and gleefully weird Southern Reach trilogy. A prolific anthologist of strange tales and accomplished author in his own right, VanderMeer has a knack for knowing exactly what is going to send shivers up your spine and have you not quite reaching for the light switch so much as wondering what potential consequences such a seemingly innocent act might entail. The first two books of the series seemed to distill this ability into the crafting of a wonderfully original mythos, one which lurks in the most primitive parts of your brain long after the book is consigned to the freezer. A swift recap is in order…

In Annihilation we were introduced to Area X, a mysterious stretch of coastland on America’s eastern seaboard. Cut off from the surrounding world by an invisible barrier with only one entrance, the zone is the subject of intense study. Groups of explorers are sent to chart the disturbance but few return. Those who do are not the same, suffering from memory loss, personality changes and incurable tumours. Their reports, where they exist at all, are patchy at best and edging towards hallucinatory. We join the action as the twelfth expedition begins their journey. Known only by their job titles the group enters Area X and finds themselves in a thoroughly twisted world full of abandoned dwellings, a ghostly lighthouse, strange noises and an unearthly creature, the crawler. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Part two, Authority, took us back outside Area X to the Southern Reach, a government agency charged with investigating the anomaly. Despite the bizarre disturbance being left behind the weirdness is ratcheted up a few notches both by the impersonal and paranoid aspect of the Southern Reach and by the thoroughly transformed biologist from the ill-fated twelfth expedition. Under interrogation by the agency and now calling herself Ghost Bird, she is a link to Area X which seems to draw its warping influence ever closer to the outside world.

And so to Acceptance. Once more VanderMeer manages to pull on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of imagination and pushes the unease factor to maximum levels. We’re now caught jumping between times as we are filled in on the back story of the lighthouse keeper and the Southern Reach’s former director who, it transpires, was one of the twelfth expedition’s members. In present day we find ourselves following Control (the current director), Ghost Bird and Grace, the former director’s assistant as they make a final journey into Area X. By cutting up the narrative between five widely varying viewpoints and three distinct times we are never given a chance to settle down and recover our nerves. As the fractured narrative unfolds revelation is piled upon revelation, always threatening to throw some light on exactly what is going on, but only teasing and then shrouding everything in yet more darkness.

It’s impossible to read these books out of sequence, it’s best to get that straight right away. However, when consumed as intended they add up to a transcendent literary experience. You learn to trust nothing you are being told and to expect anything. In this receptive state of mind VanderMeer has a ball restructuring your psyche and twisting your thoughts back on themselves. Each installment has its own distinct flavour and is terrifying and unnerving in an entirely different way, but they roll together utterly seamlessly. Storytelling like this doesn’t happen very often. I can only urge you in the strongest terms to get on board right now.

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Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals, 2014)

Authority by Jeff VanderMeerRewind a little… A couple of months back I reviewed Annihilation, a book which came out of nowhere and scrambled my psyche into an unrecognisable configuration. Told as a series of journal entries, a literary documentary, it followed a team of four individuals into Area X, an inexplicable patch of land on America’s coast surrounded by a force field of sorts. Entering Area X is a trial, only possible through hypnosis. Surviving there is a struggle against both the environment and your own slowly suffocating sanity. Exiting is a delayed death sentence. The hallucinatory qualities of the novel, particularly the unease created through being narrated in the first person by an increasingly unsure and unhinged biologist brought to mind the very best masters of the stranger realms of fiction.

Cut to Authority. We’re once again safely outside Area X and plunged into the inner workings of Southern Reach, the government organisation responsible for monitoring the alien zone and dispatching expeditions. The biologist from the previous expedition is locked in a cell and undergoing examination after examination. Her former leader, the sinister psychologist, was none other than Southern Reach’s director travelling incognito in search of unnameable ghosts. Arriving to fill her shoes is a man naming himself, somewhat amusingly, Control. In his way stands the former director’s assistant Grace, ready to launch every obstacle she can into his path for reasons not explored until later in the story.

Authority starts off from a much more conventional narrative standpoint than its predecessor. Outside Area X there is at least some degree of normalcy but let’s face it, life on the border of a geographical/dimensional anomaly is never going to be what you expect. And of course the strangeness starts creeping in before you know it. Control’s bizarre insistence on his nickname and the conversations with his own controller put things off-kilter from the get-go. Then there is the former director’s office, housing surprises in every nook and cranny.

Where Annihilation went for full-bore mindfuckery straight off the bat, Authority chooses to bide its time and build an ever-mounting sense of dread and insecurity. Every interaction between people is shrouded in layers of hidden meaning, no-one speaks straight and even the simplest language serves only to further confuse issues. And it’s not just about the people. It seems that the warped reality of Area X is infecting the Southern Reach itself and there is a moment towards the climax which had me checking over my shoulder and scratching non-existent itches.

Given the high standard set by the first in the Southern Reach trilogy (the final installment lands in September) it’s a huge relief that Authority manages to not only keep up the pace but also raise the stakes even higher. Serving up more of the same would have been easy for VanderMeer but would have felt too claustrophobic, just too much. Taking the action back to the Reach and utterly switching styles was the perfect move, allowing us to examine his still-growing mythos from a fresh angle. Here’s hoping that part three lives up to my now insanely high expectations. I’m already preparing a dimly-lit room full of creepy ambient noise for the event…

Find a copy Authority on IndieBound

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Extreme Dentistry by Hugh AD Spencer

Extreme Dentistry by Hugh AD SpencerReview: Extreme Dentistry by Hugh AD Spencer (Brain Lag, 2014)

Note: Thanks to the good folks at Netgalley and Brain Lag for providing the ARC of this title.

Been looking for a book combining the holy trinity of root canal work, the Mormon Church and shapeshifting alien hive entities? Trust me, I know the feeling. But fear not, with Extreme Dentistry your wait is over! This is one of the stranger backs I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent months, but can such disparate elements really be thrown together to create something viable? Yes. Just as long as you’re not looking for anything resembling any kind of sense…

Arthur Percy leads a mostly unenviable life. A lapsed Mormon approaching his middle years, he’s accomplished and skilled at his job yet is constantly passed over for promotion in favour of ‘the Beautifuls’; vastly more presentable and much younger colleagues whose utter lack of knowledge and people skills present no obstacle to their meteoric corporate rise. Resigned to living forever in their shadow, Arthur retreats to the solace of his family and his uneventful home life. Until this life is interrupted by an unexpected and unaneasthetised emergency root canal operation in Singapore.

Arthur’s new dentist, devout Mormon elder Dr. Cal Stewart begins to pay undue and possibly criminal attention to Arthur, his behaviour becoming ever more erratic until he’s forced to divulge the nasty truth. Arthur is surrounded by real-life body-snatchers, parasitic aliens who take over their hosts and feed on their thoughts and emotions as well as their physical bodies. A simple toothache is just the warning sign that you’re in danger. Thanks to the swift actions of Dr Stewart and his colleagues Arthur is saved in time and inducted into the international, multi-faith taskforce (Canadian Reformed Church Of The Latter Day Saints Division) waging war against the hive menace.

So I guess I won’t have to reiterate that Extreme Dentistry is something of a strange read. It is, and gloriously so. Unlike some of the more outlandish works of bizarro fiction which end up choking on their own forced otherness, Hugh Spencer’s tale of gum disease and anal fear-rape (seriously) manages to come across as utterly effortless and natural. Somehow this works through a tactic of disposing with endless exposition and instead denying the reader any explanation of what the hell is going on, just taking it all in its narrative stride. In fact I noted to one colleague while reading that Arthur’s sections in particular (the story focuses on him but switches viewpoints now and again) felt less like reading than having having the story related to me in a pub over a few pints by the man himself.

There are a fair few themes examined in the course of Extreme Dentistry, from love to urban alienation. More than anything though it’s quite a savage attack on modern consumerism and corporate culture. The concept of the Beautifuls was one I could perfectly relate to, having worked in the marketing industry for many years previously. The obvious loathing Spencer has for this particular office-dwelling species played very well with me, although those who have not experienced it first hand may naively assume his depictions to lapse into caricature. They’re like that! Really! And he has plenty to say about the modern penchant for shopping mall life and its obvious links to the decline of individuality and creativity. There’s even a handy fictional work within the story to explain to us the role of the mall in harvesting victims for the aliens, An Occult History Of North American Shopping Malls.

So yes, it’s a very silly read but should not be passed over for that reason. Let the oddities draw you in to this unfeasible but all-too-familiar world. Oh, and if you hate dentists then beware, it gets a bit graphic at times. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite short films to get you in the mood…

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The Place In Between by Reverend Steven Rage

The Place In Between by Reverend Steven RageReview: The Place In Between by The Reverend Steven Rage (Legume Man Books, 2010)

Let’s get this out of the way first: you are not ready to read this book. You might never be ready. So do yourself a favour and forget about it. This is a perfect storm of wrong. An unholy union of bizarro, relentless horror and unbounded, amoral imagination. The Reverend Steven Rage also goes by the moniker ‘The Grim Reverend’. There is reason for that, good reason. Stay away. Go and read Twilight 5: Return Of The Angsty Teen Vampire Underwear Models. Seriously.

Still here? Good, then we can begin. The Place In Between is a triptych of tales set around the fictional town of Harbour, two taking place after an unspeakable apocalypse, one just beforehand. The first tale, Blood and Bubblegum chiefly centres around Juan and the shit-demon which lives in his ass. Juan and his passenger traverse Harbour’s cold and dangerous byways, taking care to avoid the demons spilling out of the mouth of hell while trying to rise above the pathetic, huddled masses around them. The one sure way to do this is through the drugs trade. Their key to entering is the mysterious Good Doctor and his patron, the Nocturne. Juan and his partner in crime hatch a plot, kidnapping a blood-offering which should secure their place in the Doctor’s good graces. The scenes which follow are… special.

The second story, the titular The Place In Between, is an altogether different beast. Set in a more familiar universe before things got weird, this is a tale of revenge which will tie your stomach in knots. Del is a man struggling with his wayward wife Luci, whose affinity for cocaine tends to land her in trouble far too often. Del, an upright Navy man, reaches his wit’s end when he finds that she has become ensnared by Sancho, a wicked piece of shit with whom he has unresolved business. After hooking Luci on crack and persuading her to perform all manner of acts on camera, Sancho sends the results to Del who has an understandable meltdown.

An attempted suicide leaves him completely paralysed, unable to to do anything but think, and he is placed in the care of Luci and Sancho, masquerading as an old friend. Del though life was bad before the gunshot. He was wrong. Unable to so much as breathe unaided he becomes Sancho’s plaything while his wife is further degraded. However, a near-death experience puts him in contact with a particularly vindictive demon who makes him an offer he can’t refuse.

FInally we have Bad Notion, Travelling Potion, returning us to the realm of the Good Doctor and his companions. Here the nature of the narcotics trade referred to before becomes clear. There are two main drugs available, analogues of opium and cocaine. Both are produced by a pair of conjoined creatures called Trudge and Drudge, a witless beast kept caged and which thrives only on semen, preferably the Doctor’s but man-goat will do in a pinch. The opiate is secreted by this mutant in the form of earwax while the cocaine is its dandruff. However, Trudge and Drudge harbour another secret – the salt of their tears, if ingested, will literally transport the user to a happier place. Unfortunately the creatures facilitating this transport are none to happy to see their services suddenly abused on such a huge scale.

The Place In Between is a very wrong book on many levels. The worlds it creates are dire, grim beyond belief. There are no happy endings, no morals, no reasons. The stories just are. Reading them was like passing a car wreck and feeling my gaze drawn to the scattered corpses despite my best intentions. This is not a book to read if you are in a negative state of mind or if you are of even a vaguely sensitive disposition. However if you’re made of sterner stuff it’s bloody hilarious in a way which may well make you hate yourself. You’ll feel dirty afterwards, you may actually want to take the book into the shower with you and scrub it clean, but I bet there’ll be a little smirk somewhere. Admit it. You love it.


Filed under Bizarro, Horror

Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III

Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick IIIReview: Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III (Eraserhead Press, 2001)

“The main thing that keeps the gun away from your head is thirteen hundred bottles of bourbon, eight hundred bottles of vodka, three hundred bottles of gin, two thousand bottles of rum, six cups of everclear, and twenty-two bottles of southern comfort during the course of a lifetime; but any more than that and you’ll be considered an alcoholic. Richard Stein was considered an alcoholic.”

Not that this has anything to do with anything. Richard Stein is dead. The above quote comes from his life diary, the only form of history left since the walm. You see, sometimes I’ll just dive into a book with no idea of the content, entranced by sublime cover art or, as in this case, snickering at a title. Sometimes the reaction is boredom and swift rejection. Sometimes there’s a pleasant surprise. Sometimes, just sometimes, it opens up a family-size can of WTF and smears it all over my brain. Satan Burger falls firmly into the latter category.

The scene is Rippington, New Canada. The world is a boring place, boring because it is full of new and amazing wonders, enough to make human life so mundane as to be near worthless. The Earth is a sentient being (Satan’s fault) and we are its toys. Now it’s grown up and bored, needing new playthings. These are delivered by a portal known as the walm, situated in Rippington, through which all manner of new creations from the lust-ridden blue women to terrifying scorpion flies materialise to wreak havoc. Humanity is in trouble, from malaise as much as physical danger. To make matters worse, God is lazy. He’s announced that heaven is closed to new business and departed souls will either go downstairs or, if not sufficiently impure, get sucked into the walm to provide the sillygo energy it thrives on, leaving their former bodies as soulless husks.

“God finds being called a fuck-o or a fuck-face an amusing performance: after all, these are very fun words to say when you’re angry. They launch off your tongue like fists.”

Satan, for his part, has decided to open up a burger franchise – the titular Satan Burger. This isn’t the typical biblical Satan; this one is bestowed with the power to grant life to everything he touches and also happens to be a flaming homosexual. His miraculous touch granted sentience not only to the Earth itself but to everything else in his vicinity. When we first set foot in Satan Burger it is staffed by shuffling cigarette machines and toasters. Satan has no control over his power you see, meaning that a sly fondle of a new colleague’s junk can have unintended consequences. It’s a trait which runs in the family, his brother Death’s touch having the opposite effect. Death is on hiatus as well though. The soulless, shambling corpses are massing rapidly.

“Satan is drinking a beer from a living bottle – the bottle’s beer is its blood, so Satan is bleeding it to death – but the bottle can’t complain. Satan is its master, after all.”

The protagonists of this tale – narrator Leaf and his friends Nan, Christian, Mort, Gin and Vodka (seriously) – are disaffected punks, passing their time in Rippington with alcohol and the occasional electro-noise music show. Leaf is either blessed or afflicted with God’s Eyes, the ability to leave his body and wander afar, checking out what his friends are doing and providing a handy narrative link. Despite this, he and his crew are crushed by ennui, their lives losing all significance in the shadow of the walm. Pretty soon they’ve been hustled into working at Satan Burger but by then they have more pressing problems, namely the impending end of the world.


Satan Burger is odd. You may have guessed that. The atmosphere reminds me overwhelmingly of the classic punk sci-fi movie Repo Man but with even more weirdness added. It has nowhere to go, no purpose, so it revels in becoming as messed up as possible. It’s not all insanity though, there are attacks on the emerging hipster culture, celebrations of individuality and a stark refusal to dress the real world up as any more than it really is. Was it inspiring? No, that’s the wrong word, we need a new one. A word which encapsulates the feeling when an artwork makes you simultaneously want to triumphantly shake a fist in the air, celebrate life in any way possible, sit back and laugh sarcastically at the clamouring masses out the window and annihilate yourself with alcohol, bullets and punk rock.

This book has its detractors. It’s juvenile, they say. It’s weird for weirdness sake. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s confused. You know what? They’re all correct. They just don’t realise that it’s a good thing. And they’re all wrong, because it’s a remarkably mature, polished and focused work at the same time. They’re just jealous. They’re jealous because they’re bored and because Mellick figured this out before them:

“There’s always something to do. You just got to figure out what that something is.”

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Ass Goblins Of Auschwitz by Cameron Pierce

Review: Ass Goblins Of Auschwitz by Cameron Pierce (Eraserhead Press, 2009)Ass Goblins Of Auschwitz by Cameron Pierce

“”Hey,” I say, “can someone slide this hook out of my ass? I want down from here.””

Yep, it’s that kind of book. If it sounds bizarre then you’re on the right track – Cameron Pierce’s Ass Goblins Of Auschwitz is a prime example of the bizarro fiction genre. My first introduction to this strange literary realm came via Shatnerquake, the tale of the real William Shatner attempting to escape assassinations by incarnations of the fictional characters he has portrayed throughout his career. In my stunned state following its completion I ventured further down the rabbit hole and this is where I ended up.

Kidland used to be a wonderful place. Peaceful and serene, its inhabitants pursued lives of happiness and eternal youth, sunshine and joy. Until the Ass Goblins came. Descending from the skies in legions of Nazi spacecraft, these lumbering, depraved beasts and their leader, Adolf, enslaved the children and put them to work in the massive prison camp known as Auschwitz.

The children’s’ new lot in life is not enviable in the slightest. Stripped of all personal identity, they are reduced to mere numbers. Their daily routine begins with parading themselves for the Ass Goblins, being anally probed in turn until one unlucky wretch is selected to be added to the vat of cider which keeps the Goblins in high spirits. Breakfast follows, dining on the skin of dead children and aided in this process by the toilet toads. If the children are fortunate enough to avoid invoking Shit Slaughter they are then assigned to their daily workload. Perhaps they’ll find themselves building ass dolls or bicycles for the amusement of their hideous masters. Maybe it’s off to the surgery to remove any ‘imperfections’ the Ass Goblins may not approve of. Either way, the joys of Kidland are long gone. Reality is now a world of black snow, consisting of swastika-shaped flakes.

In the midst of this nightmare we are introduced to 999 and 1,001, a pair of conjoined twins – it’s a measure of the Ass Goblins’ utter contempt that they didn’t even bother to sequentially number the two of them. Despite sharing a body, the twins are quite different with 1,001 rigidly conforming to the rules of Auschwitz in order to avoid indescribable Shit Slaughter while 999 dares to dream of escape and a better tomorrow. Unfortunately for them the camp commandant, left in place of the mysteriously absent Adolf, takes an interest and assigns them to the surgery to be separated. But it’s not just separation which awaits them, rather a Mengelian experiment to improve upon their design and discover a way to achieve eternal childhood for the Ass Goblins. Hanging from his chains, gazing in horror at his new form, 99 realises that he must somehow rise up and defeat the Ass Goblins once and for all. The question is, will he have to do this alone or can he find some allies?

Ass Goblins Of Auschwitz is, as you have surely guessed by now, far from a conventional read. A novella rather than a full length book, it nevertheless manages to cram a wealth of ideas and outright oddities between its pages. Despite the description above, Pierce manages to avoid slipping into weirdness for weirdness’ sake – no, seriously! – and has a lot to say underneath the mountains of shit and dead kids. Somehow, miraculously, Ass Goblins manages to worm its way into your brain and the bizarre storyline becomes as thought-provoking as it is stomach-churning. Through his transformation from slave kids to Ass-Goblin chimera 999 struggles with his sense of self-worth, his devotion to his brother and fellow slaves, and his desire for personal freedom and self-preservation. This conflict forms the heart of the book and the fecal fantasies are merely the catalyst to move it all along.

Of course you can also simply read it at face value, in which case Ass Goblins Of Auschwitz will either have you laughing your ass off (hehe) or make you swear off books forever. Hopefully it’s the former because this is a truly unique read and a wonderful introduction to the world of bizarro fiction, confidently written and flowing well from start to finish. And seriously – Shit Slaughter.


Filed under Bizarro, Horror, Science Fiction

Of Spiders And Men

This Book Is Full Of Spiders - David WongReview: This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It) by David Wong (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012)

It’s a normal day in [Undisclosed], which means that for human values of normal it’s beyond strange. For starters, David’s session with his psychiatrist hasn’t gone too well. The court-ordered therapy for shooting that pizza delivery guy in the gut with a crossbow are a drain. He might have  been a monster, what’s a guy supposed to do? But depressing couch trips aren’t strange, they’re just depressing. What’s strange is being attacked in his room by a skittering mutant spider, which goes on to possess the body of the cop his neighbours called to investigate the disturbance he was making while fending off its attacks. That the cop then morphed into a nigh-unstoppable killing machine and wreaked merry havoc in the local hospital only serves to complicate matters.

This, in a nutshell, is the opening gambit of This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It), David Wong’s sequel to the cult 2011 novel, John Dies At The End. If you haven’t read the first book then avert your eyes because herein lie spoilers, the first being this – John most certainly did not die at the end. Not really. During the course of the first book, he and his best friend, David, imbibed ‘Soy Sauce’, a sentient drug which had unfortunate and often explosive effects on 99% of those who ingested it. The lucky ones, such as John and David, found themselves able to see behind the normal veil of reality. In this world lurk untold horrors, having their wicked way with an unsuspecting human race. Evil shadow men stalk their clueless prey and nothing, apart from the endless stream of puerile and hilarious gibberish pouring from our heroes’ mouths, is as it seems.

The months between novels have been less eventful. With the horrors of the sauce world somewhat tamed the inseparable pair, joined by David’s girlfriend Amy and truck-driving dog Molly, are back to being cogs in a machine. David works at a painfully boring video store while Amy studies in a nearby university. John is, well, just John. A conspiracy of silence obscures the more interesting events in [Undisclosed] , relegating the previous events to a scant few local newspaper column inches. No-one mentions the unmentionable as long as it can be avoided. Which it could be, of course, until now. A SWAT team being slaughtered in full public view while a hospital is nearly demolished tends to attract unwanted attention. And that’s just the beginning.

Before long David and John are fighting off what looks to be nothing less than a full-on invasion. [Undisclosed] is cordoned off by the National Guard and the sinister REPER organisation in an attempt to contain the spread of what appears to the outside world to be a genuine zombie apocalypse. Outside the quarantine zone is a full-on panic. News reports are drenched in guts, the ‘Z’ word is everywhere and people nearby are either tooling up or panicking. Amy and John are on the outside, trying to get in. David is on the inside and is slowly realising the full extent of what is happening and the sinister forces at play.

You may have gathered from the review so far that This Book Is Full Of Spiders  isn’t exactly Anna Karenina. David Wong’s literary style is akin to the scribbled notes you might find dotted around your house after an evening of House Of The Dead and tequila with the friends your mum always told you not to hang around with. It’s juvenile, puerile and the plot is held together with scotch tape. And that’s why I loved it so damn much.

Wong’s strength  is his enthusiasm. The relish which he concocts a particularly gruesome abomination and then dispatches it in equally splattersome fashion is infectious. The throwaway stoner dialogue and non-stop childish insults had me laughing out loud in public. In Taiwan. The eventual fate of one of the book’s central characters, the improbably named Lance Falconer, had me erupting in my school’s office. Trying to teach after that was interesting. The humour comes at you right from the outset with his description of [Undisclosed]’s Native American history and just keeps piling it on. Even the core romance between David and Amy is treated lightly to allow it to form a moral backbone to the story without detracting from the mayhem going on around it.

The whole book is also just so damn cinematic. I still haven’t seen the big screen version of John Dies At The End but I seriously can’t wait for an adaptation of the sequel. Hell, even during the course of writing this review I found myself subconsciously typing ‘movie’ instead of ‘novel’. Any lover of comedic sci-fi, the Evil Dead movies or just insane humour and nerd culture in general should get a huge kick out of This Book Is Full Of Spiders. You can pick up a copy damn near anywhere, right now.

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