Bizarro Fiction 101: Reviews of Works by Carlton Mellick III, Gina Ranalli and Athena Villaverde

In The Haunted Vagina, Steve is in love with his girlfriend, Stacy, and he loves having sex with her. But it disturbs him that he hears voices coming from her vagina. She tells him not to worry, that her vagina is haunted, that it’s been haunted for many years. No big deal.

Then, one afternoon, while Steve and Stacy are having sex, a life-size skeleton with a bad attitude crawls out of Stacy’s vagina. In a panic, Steve cracks its skull open with the nightstand and the creature dies on the bedroom floor. Freaked out, Steve is finally coming to the conclusion that it might be time to say adios to this babe. But Stacy doesn’t want him to leave.

Now any modern, politically-correct dude has legitimate concerns about involving his penile member in an unsafe sex act. And since Steve has literally seen an angry skeleton come climbing out of Stacy’s vagina, we can’t blame him for feeling that a Trojan simply won’t provide much protection.

Then Stacy tells him that when she was a little girl she had an imaginary friend that used to come out of her vagina regularly to play with her. Now Steve’s intrigued. What else is in there? Demonstrating to Steve that her labia are extraordinarily stretchy, Stacy convinces him that he has to crawl inside her to explore and see what he can find. As she puts it: “I think my vagina is a gateway of some kind … The entrance to another world.” (And isn’t this how women have hooked men since the beginning of time?)

This is where the story gets weird.

Against his better judgment, Steve crawls in and ascertains that there really is another world inside of Stacy. There’s no sun, but there’s a purple sky and a forest and strange voices in the wind. (The author was no doubt hitting the blotter when he wrote these scenes.) Steve makes multiple spelunking trips to learn about this new world (neglecting to tell Stacy about the naked girl he sees in there).

The plot starts twisting seriously when he meets the girl, Fig, who turns out to be Stacy’s imaginary friend from her childhood. Fig’s still living in there, though she’s now grown up and sexy as hell. She’s not quite human; she has red splotches on her skin, no nipples, and ram’s horns growing out the sides of her head. Still, she’s a major babe. (See cover illustration above. That’s Fig.)

Despite Steve’s good intentions, his emotions get the best of him and he finds himself falling in love with Fig. But he’s in a quandary. How can he tell Stacy that he’s decided to settle down and live inside her pussy, so he can raise a family with her imaginary friend? (You think you’ve got girlfriend problems? Compared to Steve, your troubles don’t amount to much more than a minor Jerry Springer episode.)

So, what does The Haunted Vagina have to offer, besides a crazy, gimmicky plot? That’s the question my wife asked me when I described the basic story to her, and I suspect it’s a question most women would ask. Most men, on the other hand, would say, “I’ve got to read this book. I hope they make a movie out of it.”

The reason I’m reviewing The Haunted Vagina on this site—besides the fact that I like it—is that I think this book is a great introduction to the bizarro fiction genre, a relatively new genre of writing that’s becoming more and more popular with young writers (and readers). I find the whole bizarro movement exciting. It’s so steeped in anger and frustration with the status quo that it contains some of the best social and political satire happening today. If you’re unfamiliar with this genre, which has only been around for the last decade or so, it’s an offshoot of fantasy and horror, with an emphasis on weird. In a bizarro novel, anything can occur, and none of it needs to be explained. Weird shit just happens. The reader must relinquish his normal adult hold on reality and let the author take him into adventures that are, on the surface, beyond the possibility of human experience.

The closest popular art form to bizarro fiction I can think of is children’s cartoons, where animals talk and inanimate objects start running around, where a rabbit can paint a black hole on the side of a mountain, then run through it as if it were a tunnel, and where Popeye can get flattened by an anvil, then jump up and start fighting again. Basically, these types of cartoons are an extreme form of slapstick comedy and a lot of bizarro fiction could be categorized as a literary form of slapstick comedy. But bizarro fiction doesn’t often concern itself with the fantasy worlds of children. Quite the opposite. Bizarro fantasies are often filled with sex, violence and horror. You’ll rarely see a bizarro title on a shelf in a bookstore. Barnes and Noble won’t carry a book titled The Haunted Vagina (in their brick & mortar stores). And if the title of a bizarro book isn’t outrageous, the cover art is. These are books you have to find online and get through the mail (or download as ebooks). Bizarro fiction has a cult following. It’s pretty much ignored in the mainstream media because—like the underground comics of the 60s and 70s—it’s genuinely subversive.

In Gina Ranalli’s Suicide Girls in the Afterlife, the narrator/protagonist is a young woman who’s just committed suicide and finds herself being escorted to the Sterling Hotel in Purgatory, where all the recently dead souls go, because “…Heaven and Hell are undergoing some renovations…”

Ranalli has a wicked sense of humor. In one scene, Katina, a teenage girl in the hotel lobby, is arguing with her “escort” (a large black woman) that she should not have to go to hell for committing suicide, because her death (by drug overdose) was, in fact, just an accident. Here’s how the escort responds:

“Honey,” the woman says to Katina, “There are no accidents. Almost every-damn-body is a suicide when you get right down to it. Those are just the rules. You smoke and die of lung cancer? The big boy upstairs says suicide. You eat at McDonald’s every damn day of your life and your heart turns into a little ball of cement? Suicide. You get drunk and drive into a tree or turn your liver into jelly? Suicide. Don’t matter how long or short it takes people. Fact is, most people kill themselves and it’s no use arguing about it. Like I said, those are the rules.”

The punchline comes a couple pages later, when the escort explains who gets to go to Heaven:

“Rich folks that could go to their fancy-ass gyms, buy the best organic foods, get the best medical care. Those are the folks that are in the luxury suites right this very minute…”

So, God’s a Republican. The rich go to Heaven. Everyone else goes to Hell.

Ranalli describes Lucifer as a Goth dude wearing a black see-through net shirt, with heavy black eyeliner and spiked hair. The Jesus character, in his frayed jeans and t-shirt, never stops smoking doobies. Neither are portrayed as particularly good or evil, but more like just a couple of casual residents of the hotel, outgoing and sociable, hanging out and killing time with everyone else. Lucifer goes by “Lucy,” and Jesus is called “Jay.” Katina, the fifteen-year-old girl who insists her death was an accident, thinks Lucifer is “hot,” and starts flirting with him.

One of the ways bizarro fiction differs from normal fantasy/horror fiction is that the characters in bizarro worlds quickly accept the most absurd, impossible, and sometimes even horrifying scenes as normal. Oh my God, it’s Lucifer, very quickly becomes: Big deal, it’s just Lucy. While normal fantasy and horror fiction reinforces social norms about where evil lurks, bizarro more often challenges the good/evil myths that serve the status quo and redirects your attention to the real villains.

Athena Villaverde’s Clockwork Girl, is a collection of three novellas. The title story is about a young child, Pichi, whose parents are so poor they can’t afford to feed her, so they sell her to a toymaker, who surgically transforms her into a mechanical doll. As is the custom in the bizarro world that Villaverde creates, the toymaker sells Pichi to a rich family, as rich little girls like to play with these new “living dolls.”

The clockwork girl truly loves the little rich girl who now owns her, but eventually, the little rich girl tires of playing with toys and leaves home to go to school. Now, Pichi is at the mercy of the girl’s mean brother, who threatens her and scares her and abuses her, when all she wants him to do is wind her up so she won’t die.

Villaverde’s beautifully written romantic fairy tales are among the few bizarro works that are suitable for children. In the same way that Walt Disney created fairy tales for children that helped them deal with difficult fears—such as the loss of a parent—Villaverde affirms something for children in our time that they already suspect—that the poor are treated heartlessly in a world that’s made for the rich. This is a story that should be read in our schools (where children are told so many lies).

Carlton Mellick III, the author of The Haunted Vagina, is the main man in bizarro world. His first novel, Satan Burger (2001), developed a cult following that has grown as he’s now written more than 30 novels. Even the titles of his books are fun to read. Some of my favorites: The Baby Jesus Butt Plug, Adolf in Wonderland, The Cannibals of Candyland, The Morbidly Obese Ninja, I Knocked Up Satan’s Daughter, The Menstruating Mall, The Faggiest Vampire, and Ocean of Lard. He’s been churning out bizarro novels at the rate of three or four per year, though technically, most of these are novellas, not full-length novels. The Haunted Vagina is 83 pages.

The level of emotional involvement the reader can expect in Mellick’s brand of bizarro fiction is about the same as the level of emotional involvement you can expect from an R. Crumb comic or a Marx Brothers movie. (In fact, I could see Crumb illustrating The Haunted Vagina.) If you only go to films or read books for feelings of deep emotional involvement with the characters, you wouldn’t care much for Groucho or Mellick or Crumb. But if you like slapstick—and most guys do—what you’ll discover in The Haunted Vagina is that Mellick deals with so many aspects of the male sexual experience—and at such a primal level—that the book could be used as a textbook in a sexual psychology course.

There really isn’t a lot of information available about the normal male sexual experience and this is because men have been deliberately hiding their nature from women for the last bazillion years, probably since Adam first got the hots for Eve. Chad Kultgen’s Average American Male (review here) was trashed by many women as misogynistic garbage. The way I see it, he deserves an award for courageously pouring his heart out. He makes men laugh because he makes us look at ourselves. Most women are oblivious to the esteem that many men have for Kultgen for having the guts to say it like it is, because most women don’t realize how “average” Kultgen’s American male is. Who was the stand-up comic who said that every guy has a secret stash of porn—not just some guys, but every guy? All men know this is true. But every other Dear Abby has some wife or girlfriend crying because she accidentally found her man’s porn. Do all of these women think they’ve actually found the only guy on the planet who doesn’t enjoy porn somewhat regularly? Okay, so I admit there could be some guys who don’t enjoy porn… maybe Rick Santorum … (but I wouldn’t put money on it).

But whereas Kultgen (who is not writing in the bizarro genre) described the average guy’s mental workings literally, Mellick uses exaggerated fantasies to achieve the same effect. There’s an incredible amount of humor in The Haunted Vagina that will have guys cracking up. How many times have standup comics done routines on the theme of my-wife-caught-me-kissing-her-sister, or my-fiancée-caught-me-in-bed-with-her-best-friend? Mellick takes it a step further. He has an affair with his girlfriend’s imaginary friend from her childhood. Now that’s cheating taken to a new level!

As for a guy climbing into a vagina and deciding to live there, literally returning to the womb, can you come up with any literary metaphor more Freudian than this?

Despite Mellick’s over-the-top imagery, the basic story in The Haunted Vagina is classic: the typical male/female disjunction. The guy’s afraid to get too close to the girl. She wants him as close as close can be. He cannot resist her wiles. But what happens when he gets inside her? She wants him out, but can’t get him out.

Satan BurgerMellick’s first book, is a comparatively difficult book to read. Some might label it sophomoric. Granted, Mellick has a rebellious attitude toward the conventions of English grammar; Satan Burger is full of “typos” (purposeful—a point of rebellion) and lots of made-up words. But, like Charles Bukowski’s prose, some of Mellick’s prose in Satan Burger is sheer poetry (a very bleak poetry):

The train yard. It has less people in it than the street. The train still moves through its belly. It never stops. It never leaves either. The railroad tracks have been reconstructed into a crooked circle, screaming round and round. It’ll keep screaming round and round forever.

This book is regarded by many as the real beginning of the bizarro fiction movement; it had that classic bizarro element of the characters emotionlessly accepting the relentless surrealism as normal. Robert Devereaux’s Santa Steps Out (see review here) was written a few years before Mellick’s classic, and is now categorized as bizarro fiction, but Devereaux’s characters were far more emotionally connected to their weird world, populated as it was by Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. By contrast, Mellick’s Satan Burger narrator repeatedly states that he has no feelings about anything. Neither do the characters he talks about. Here’s Mellick:

Once the rest of the citizens of the world found out about the walm causing an overpopulation problem, they just stared at their walls and shrugged.

Nobody cared then, nobody cares now, not even the New Canadians care and they are the victims of this situation.

Nobody cares in the least bit about anything anymore. It’s like there is a drug in the air that makes everything seem unimportant, no matter how important anything is. A mother will witness her own child convulse and die, right in her chubby lap, and all she will do is stare at her wall and shrug.

Then she’ll say, “Guess I’ll have to make another one.”

I’m mentioning Satan Burger in this review because it’s Mellick’s most famous novel and as such, you might be tempted to start with it. Assuming you can tolerate the deliberately rebellious editing job—and I suspect it was self-edited, or non-edited—Satan Burger is still a hard book to read. You can rarely get through more than two pages—and sometimes only two paragraphs—before you have to stop and do something else while you try to digest the insane visions the author just dumped on your brain. It’s a cartoon. Inanimate objects come to life. Dead people walk around. Satan’s operating a burger stand. Why is Satan operating a burger stand? Why are people going in and out of another dimension called “the walm”? Why does the novel end with fewer and fewer lines (more empty space) per page? There’s no plot. It’s just one nutty surreal scene after another. But that’s the point. This is the novel that set the stage for the bizarro movement.

If you’ve read, or tried to read, Satan Burger, you might have passed on the rest of Mellick’s work as too difficult, even if you admired his screwball creativity, or the horror of some of the scenes he creates. But many of Mellick’s later novels, like The Haunted Vagina, and I Knocked Up Satan’s Daughter, and The Morbidly Obese Ninja, are easy reads, like comic books without the pictures. He tackles extremely bizarre situations and in his subversive way, he always delivers. He always keeps you wondering where the hell the thing is going, and continues to surprise. His editor for his later works, who must be the Maxwell Perkins of the looney artist set, is to be commended.

Years hence, when all reputable universities offer courses in bizarro fiction, Satan Burger will be an advanced studies elective, the Finnegan’s Wake of the future. Lit profs will be arguing over Mellick’s reasoning behind his decision to say “where,” when it seemed he meant “wear.” But if you’ve never read any bizarro fiction, I wouldn’t advise starting with Satan Burger, as much as I admire it.

The Haunted Vagina would be a much easier introduction. Mellick addresses a lot of serious issues that men are afraid to talk about with women or even with other men, but he does so allegorically, in a sort of “secret code” that, for the most part, only men can comprehend. (Which is not to say that Mellick doesn’t have female fans. He does. There are women in this world who get it. My wife says that any woman could understand men if she would spend just three days in a small house with an unneutered German shepherd male and an unspayed German shepherd female in heat.)

I greatly admire Carlton Mellick III for trying to get the message out without involving actual animals.

See Carlton Mellick III vs. Thomas Aquinas: The Grudge Match for a review of Mellick’s I Knocked Up Satan’s Daughter.










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3 thoughts on “Bizarro Fiction 101: Reviews of Works by Carlton Mellick III, Gina Ranalli and Athena Villaverde”

  1. I find it interesting that after four decades of literature departments determinedly bringing out the voices of writers of every social group outside of white males, it turns out we never heard the actual voices of all these males in the first place.

    Regarding Satan Burger, I like the way Mellick opens the novel with a discussion of the universe, and the earth’s place in it as a whining child–he literally traces the source of the emotional detachment you describe to the state of the universe. It reminds me of the opening of Terence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life, which is a contemplation of the way a single human’s tragedy is sourced in these ginormous forces of the universe. It seems to me that Mellick and Malick are two of the very few artists starting to get a grip on the actual horror of this point in human history, where we have overrun the planet and are in real trouble.

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