Upon first sampling the fiction of Garrett Cook, it doesn’t take long to realize, you’ve hit a live wire. His literary voice is instantly unmistakable. His thumb is squarely on the pulse of an age of incendiary, increasingly complex social-political upheaval in Twenty-First century American culture, and he’s not afraid to tell you the truth as he sees it, often too-close-for-comfort in-your-face, with an enraged primal shriek. The guy seems fearless, to a rare, inspiring degree, be it in introspection, social observation, or when pulling the dripping, often rancid gobs from his rich, lurid imagination, throwing them at the wall in bloody chunks, and seeing what sticks. He anchors it all in the best old-fashioned way: he knows how to tell a damn good story. I suspect, as Garrett’s work reaches an expanding readership over time, he’ll come to be known as one of those talents people either love or loath passionately, with little in-between. There’s not enough of that going around these days, in my opinion, and I’m always happy to discover such a voice.
I found Garrett’s short-story collection You Might Just Make It Out Of This Alive, (now available from Eraserhead Press and all major online retailers) to be one hell of a ride. After I bought the ticket, took the ride…and yes, made it out alive…Garrett was nice enough to let me pick his brain over the experience.
This collection was my crash-course introduction to this new genre they’re calling Bizarro fiction. I now feel like I have a solid sense of what that means, but I can’t quite put my finger on it in words. How would you define the genre? What sets it apart from, say, surrealism, absurdism, magical realism or fantasy, etcetera?
GC: I would say Bizarro is about working with dream logic, moreso than Absurdism. Absurdism kind of starts at the intention to mock. Bizarro is in certain ways more personal and more about being one’s own genre. It’s almost about taking things in and processing them wrong, or rather about an expressionistic approach to dreaming, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. It’s about being your own planet.
Did you start with Bizarro by consciously cultivating stories in that form/mode (the way, say, Michael Moorcock clearly set out to write his own take on sword-and-sorcery with the Elric saga after being inspired by the likes of Tolkien and Howard), or did you just naturally slip into it because it fit your own unique creative inclinations like a glove (as Stephen Kind and Anne Rice initially did as “horror writers”)? Or somewhere in between?
GC: I didn’t necessarily know I was writing Bizarro when I was doing pieces like Along the Crease and The Man in the Film Noir Hat. I just loved authors like Lansdale and Ellison and splatterpunk stuff by writers like John Skipp. I was just trying to tell stories that wanted to get to the limits of language and imagination. When I discovered other Bizarro writers, I didn’t know if I would fit in but I did and it permitted me to stop holding back. As I stopped holding back, my work became more like the Bizarros around me but also more like me and that felt good. To quote Supertramp, “I have to have things my own way to keep me in my youth.”
Since Bizarro’s a pretty new scene, who are some other practitioners in the field whose work drew you to it? In other words, I guess, for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with the genre, who are some other authors you’d recommend from your all-star playlist roster?
GC: D. Harlan Wilson’s Dr. Identity and Jordan Krall’s Piecemeal June were the first two Bizarro books I encountered and I thought “damn, this is amazing”. Carlton Mellick III is our Mickey Mouse. He is the most popular author in the genre and the main representative of it, and for good reason. I recommend his books The Baby Jesus Buttplug wholeheartedly. Autumn Christian is new to the scene but her books We Are Wormwood and Crooked God Machine should shut down anyone who says that this shit is stagnating. Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Angeldust Apocalypse and We Live Inside You were huge intellectual and spiritual influences on how I assembled this collection. His new one Skullcrack City is a book I’ve been waiting for since I read the Cemetery Dance interview with him that first introduced me to the concept of Bizarro…shit, eight years ago. Laura Lee Bahr’s Haunt will tear out your fucking soul and you will send her flowers and candy for doing so.
Are there any older authors you’d point to as pioneers, whose experiments laid the groundwork for what’s evolved into Bizarro fiction? The proto-Bizarrists, if you will?
GC: Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Grant Morrison, The Noid, The Marquis de Sade, Lewis Carroll, Takashi Miike, David Lynch, Lloyd Kaufmann, John Skipp, Joe Lansdale, Steve Gerber, Phillip K. Dick, Luis Bunuel, Todd Browning, Jean Luc Goddard, Quentin Tarantino, Dr. Seuss, John Waters, Syd Barrett, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Robert E. Howard, H.P Lovecraft, Jimmy Hendrix, Saturday Night Live, The Kids in the Hall, Captain Crunch, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Telegram Sam, Little Willy, Polythene Pam, Francisco Goya, Dante Alighieri, Jack Arnold, Gene Roddenberry, Salvador Dali, David Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon, Roman Polanski, Allen Ginsberg, Ishiro Honda, Shigeru Miyamoto, Musashi Miyamoto, Edgar Allan Poe, Doctor Who, Clive Barker, Mary Shelley, Kathy Acker, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Don Cornelius, Steely Dan, Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy. Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Prince, Andy Kaufmann, Malcolm McLaren, Andy Warhol, Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, Rod Serling, Roger Corman and Henry Winkler as The Fonz
What authors inspired and spurred your own development as a storyteller? What elements from their work stuck with you, and how would you say you’ve made it your own?
GC: Many of the people I’ve listed above. Dante, Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury and Joe Lansdale I think have influenced me the most. That question’s kind of too big to answer. I don’t feel like I know enough about my work to do it justice. I got a quiet intensity from Oates. I got a love of big stories from Lansdale and a warm regard for pulp told smart. I’d like to give credit where it’s due but I use the tools for the story at hand and they might come from anywhere from Raymond Chandler to Debby Does Dallas.
You’ve written elsewhere comparing the construction and arrangement of a short-story collection to that of a music album. Appropriately, for me, reading YMJMIOOTA felt a lot like listening to a raw, hard, in-your-face piss-your-parents-off rock an’ roll album for the first time (discovering Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar as a teenager comes to mind). Van Morrison’s Into The Mystic is alluded to in several pieces, I noticed, and you’re a musician yourself (a metal vocalist and lyricist, among other things I don’t wonder). What’s the relationship like, between music and your creative process as a prose fiction storyteller? Do you listen to music while you write, etcetera?
GC: I’m really flattered by that. Thank you. That’s what I’m hoping to do with it. I love the thought of tossing something on the turntable and suddenly ye shall be changed. I love music. I love poetry. I like to be surrounded at all times by art and words. I actually get very uncomfortable without them. Music too. I will forget to listen to music for days though and then rediscover it and have a great upswing of productivity.
From the “About the Stories” notes at the end, it sounds like Re-Mancipator resulted from a bundle of disparate ideas you pitched to a publisher at once…so of course your least favorite – “Zombie Lincolns” – was what captured the editor’s heart and had to be the central narrative thrust. I just gotta pry for more details on how you shaped the rest of it from there.
GC: Well, it was stupid but somebody was ready to pay and publish me for it, so I said “fuck it, I’ll do this”. From there, I had to make sure that I was entertaining myself. When I’m not surprising or entertaining myself, I’m dying. My will to live has always been a fragile thing and while I don’t mind pain and suffering and sadness and loss and abuse as much as I should, I can’t really stomach tedium. So I had to find meaning in it, I had to see what the central dream of a zombie Lincoln attack is, who would have that dream and what the consequences were. Mostly, this story was about not writing a story that’s about zombie Lincolns. I chose the hardest way possible to do that.
Making John Wilks Booth – one of history’s more deeply demonized baddies – the tale’s tragi-comic hero was a bold move. As the first story in the collection, it’s one of the first flashing signals that we’re headed into some provocative territory. How much of that would you say is the result of going, “Wow, that’s an insane idea…so fuck it, let’s roll with it!” and/or how much calculated button-pushing and thought-provocation is going on there? Is there even a line between the two, in your mind?
GC: The dream goes where it goes. What’s true’s true. Sometimes I’m trying to make myself laugh or cry or cum, sometimes I’m trying to make somebody else laugh or cry or cum but most of the time I’m just looking for the terminus of the particular dream, the place where it all ends up. Sometimes the truth is ugly but fiction is not about telling lies. There’s somebody to lie to you on every street corner. Nobody needs my help getting lied to.
You did say Absinthe helped. I know how that is, except you refer to the drink as a man. The Green Fairy always materializes to me more traditionally, as a woman, though now that I think about it, it makes sense for that one to switch genders at will depending on who he/she’s visiting. So what’s that green weirdo like in dude-form? Or is that confidential information?
GC: I have been through some things and I don’t want to think of anything that makes me vomit as a lady.
You dive headfirst into the mindsets of some pretty despicable point-of-view protagonists (The Adventures of Blackmetal Bjorn and Accomplice Boy and Hit and Fun come to mind, especially). Properly capturing that kind of headspace always reminds me somewhat of Will Graham [the serial-killer-profiler in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon); one can get lost in some nasty places within the psyche, or at least it can feel that way. What’s been your experience, working within the relative safety of the imagination, with the connective tissue between your own shadow and these disturbed, over-the-edge people?
GC: It can hurt sometimes. The headspace of Jeremy, the “hero” of Murderland, for example, is a really toxic place. I don’t like being there. It makes me pissy. It makes me distrust those I love. The narrator of the horror novel I wrote makes that place look like Free Beer Monkey Superbowl Anne Hathaway Blowjob Chuck E Cheese. I questioned the value of my own life and the project of carrying on, of falling in love, finding a home and being happy from that place. But when you don’t ask the question, you don’t get any closer to the answer. Maybe I’ll never know what I’m worth but I sure as shit will pursue this line of inquiry to the terminus of which I spoke earlier.
In the case of Hit and Fun, it sounds like the main draw into that yarn was the “What if?” mythos of the Trikloptikon. Still, the Slashcats are a pretty strong, driving forefront presence in and of themselves. They put me very much in mind of old-school splatterpunk, except that the unreliable narrator often makes what’s not graphically described more disturbing and disgusting than what is. Did those guys grow out of the larger, cosmic idea, or did you have them and their ilk stuck in your head for a while, waiting for a fitting premise to drop on them?
GC: I like giant bug and alien invasion movies from the 50s. I thought it would be fun to do one of those where the hotrodding teenagers were reprehensible, sociopathic dickfaces. And to have it pretty much narrated by Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth.
And on the other side of the coin, there’s An Author is a Beagle as a Flying Ace. The title alone beautifully sums up something about the wish-fulfilment factor of writing (and reading) adventure fiction. The story felt like an exploration of how that’s a trap, how such larger-than-life myth and metaphor can take us to the truest, most vulnerable places, in this case the complications of male/female relationships. Would you say that’s accurate? What stories resonated with the themes of this piece, and how’d they gel into the form they took here?
GC: My book Jimmy Plush, Teddy Bear Detective and Archelon Ranch deal a lot with the line between narcissism and heroism and how thin it is. I have a tough relationship with success of any kind, material, spiritual, professional, romantic. This is why these things don’t come calling often as they could.
Speaking of wish-fulfillment, you often seem to use it as a trap…particularly with erotic daydreams, where a hookup appears to be working out too easily for the protagonist, but of course, there’s a catch. You could easily be writing straight porn, but of course you’re not one to make it that easy. What draws you to this method of attack?
GC: I guess I just don’t like safe spaces. Masculinity as we know it is too safe a space in some ways, as problematic as it is. Pulp and porn are safe spaces to be a man. Though on the other hand, it is in the nature of manhood to be confrontational and challenge other men, so maybe I fall into that trap.
The Wake at the House of Butchered Hogs makes for an effectively mind-bending experience…It seems to run on dream-logic, maybe even stream-of-consciousness, particularly in the blurry line between the two layers, the protagonist watching this madcap silent film and what’s going on up on the screen, and how the two eventually converge. There’s a lot of that dream-logic at work in other tales, particularly All About the Sheriff. It takes a special skillset, to take that approach and retain any readable narrative coherence. You sort of make it look easy. Some thoughts on the relationship between dreams, storytelling, and cutting out the middle-man of it as you seem to do here?
GC: It’s about interpreting dream and seeking out the metaphors that work. We all have our own vocabularies, our own language and glossary and catalog of images. I teach techniques like that in my workshop. It’s not expensive. Folks should take it.
As for TWATHOBH, the transcript/description-of-a-silent-film is a unique approach, or at least it’s new to me. Was that an experiment you’d had in mind for a while, tried before maybe, or did it first suggest/manifest itself uniquely for this piece?
GC: I’ve always liked old timey horror comedies and silent horror. There’s an eerie otherworldliness. But not dragon sex or belligerent metafiction. People deserve dragon sex and belligerent metafiction. I cannot tell if it is humanitarianism or misanthropy that fuels that statement, however.
Brian’s Girl was one of the most uncomfortably sexy things I’ve read in a while, one of the strongest pieces in the book I’d say, yet there’s no mention of it in About the Stories, I noticed. Tell us a bit about that one…or should I be afraid to ask? If so…well, I just asked for it, didn’t I?
GC: Thank you. It’s a pretty literal transcription of a nightmare I had. I woke up screaming and hyperventilating. Described the dream to my girlfriend, who laughed. Wrote it into a story. Some people said it was pornography. Some people said it wasn’t scary. Some people said it wasn’t funny. Everybody was right. That story sucks in all those ways. But that’s also why it works. If it was actually horror or porn or satire as folks know it, it wouldn’t be good Bizarro. Scary Movie is not Bizarro. Showgirls is not Bizarro. More unlike than like. That’s what makes this thing work, if it works and some people tell me it works, so I’m inclined to believe that it did.
I don’t often find straight-up meat-and-potatoes horror stories outright scary anymore…thrilling, disturbing, atmospherically spooky, yes, but I’m sad to say, it’s hard to get that good ol’ fashioned “Lock the doors and look under the bed” jolt out of me anymore. The Granny Crunchbones Gospels got under my skin, though…I think part of it’s how spot on the epistolary voice captures the folks on the message board, and how that dovetails back and forth with the rest of the narrative. It feels like I know these people, this kind of weird, not-quite explained brush-with-something-out-there sort of experiences, and that the author does too…along with just the right spots to cross the “What if?” line, and how far. The effect is the sensation that ‘this could happen,’ even if only while reading the story. Any real-life anecdotes and associations that helped inspire this piece? Change the names of the innocent and the guilty, if you have to.
GC: When I was little, I had a book called Tales of Monsters and Trolls. It fucked me up. Don’t buy it for your kid. It’ll fuck ‘em up.
While I’d by no means call your work religious fiction or anything like that, religious themes and imagery come up repeatedly, with the undisguised active participation of God and Satan, etcetera, with a heavier sense of sincerity than other convenient fantasy/mythological troupes, particularly in Along the Crease. Whether one literally believes in such things or not, or however one feels about organized religion’s effects on society, these are powerful archetypal manifestations/projections of aspects of the human condition. They oughtn’t be taken lightly, and your stories don’t take them lightly. What sort of personal history with religion/spirituality do you draw on, and how would you say it’s impacted your work?
GC: My history with religion is a long and complicated one. There are aspects of Christianity that I love deeply. Aspects that I don’t. But the inquiry is important for me. I am currently a believer in and occasional practitioner of Haitian Vodou. I am uninitiated but it has brought a great deal of peace and satisfaction and insight and power and delight to my life. There’s written between the lines an idea of relating to God, a God that is about the right thing, the good thing, more than about dogma and jealousy, through the higher self and through saints and aspects of God. The idea that none of us walks alone and that welcoming the divine should not be a frightening thing fills me with love and joy. I question any God who we wouldn’t want to show up in our lives, I question a God who you have to appease and who doesn’t want you to be happy or to love. That’s what Along the Crease is about. Through Vodou, I feel the contentment of working for good ideas.
So tell us a bit about some of your other works, and what you’re cooking up for us next. Any fresh, weird thematic territory you’re looking to push into?
GC: I’m right now working to just do more of whatever the fuck I want. This collection should cement in people the idea that I try my best to do whatever the fuck I want. I recently finished a very intense and sad and brutal horror novel that I hope makes the cut. I’m working on a kind of arthouse pulp vampire novel sort of in Criterion colors. Whatever happens, I just hope to come at with curiosity and conviction.