by Lance Duncan
Founded in 1999 in Portland, Oregon, Eraserhead Press is the primary force in the bizarro fiction genre, a genre which the press describes as being something similar to the “cult” section you might find at your local video store. While this comparison is apt, it doesn’t fully describe the typical contents of a book that Eraserhead publishes, because books have endlessly more potential to be weird than films do, and these books really reach for that potential. Take the wildest, most obscene setting and set of characters you can imagine, and bizarro fiction has probably featured something wilder. The authors in this genre are unafraid to experiment with taboos and to push into territory that mixes the mundane with the utterly absurd, often borrowing some of the aesthetics and goals of science fiction and horror and putting them into a literary blender at top speed.
Literature, as we all know, is bound only by the limits of the author’s imagination, rather than being bound by budget, time, casting, and other constraints in the way that films are. A typical Eraserhead title takes full advantage of this fact, using the literary format to combine taboos with extreme imagination and push into realms that often make “weird” cult films seem incredibly prosaic by comparison. One can’t judge a book by its cover, nor by its title, but here are a few covers and titles from Eraserhead:
The very absurdity of these books seems to be enough to justify their existence, but the pleasant surprise is that they often hide real psychological value and depth behind their eye-catching covers, buried under layers of convention-shattering prose. As one reviewer said on Amazon of Carlton Mellick III’s The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2, “After about a hundred and fifty pages of boners, [Mellick] drops some really heavy stuff on the reader. Through the endless sex and gore, (and it is pretty endless, coming from someone’s who’s unfamiliar with [Mellick’s] work or the bizarro genre in general) there really is a message to be told in this book, and when I finished it, I really began thinking about what Mellick had just laid out. Not only was his world engaging, zany, and surreal, it was also, in some odd way, really applicable to the real world, and to life in general.”
I had the same experience myself when I read Violet Levoit’s spectacular I Am Ghengis Cum, published under Eraserhead’s Fungasm imprint. Unfamiliar with the bizarro genre, I was blindsided by the relentlessly taboo subject matter of Levoit’s book, but I found myself really loving it anyway—and not for its shock value, but for the high quality of its prose and the depth of its psychological insight. Despite what I expected, the book was unflinchingly honest and real, telling stories about characters who thought, behaved and felt like real people. Their surroundings were exaggeratedly insane, but the people themselves were authentic and relatable. When it comes to cult films, we often stereotype them as being weird and kitschy—amusing, but lacking in depth. The same seems to not hold true for bizarro fiction, and perhaps that is not surprising when one considers the reason for that often-heard old cliché: “the book was better than the movie.”
As art, fiction tends to compare favorably to film because of its capacity for interiority, for showing us how a character thinks and feels rather than simply showing us their exterior actions and reactions. By creating characters who have realistic human interiors that are thrown into contrast against fantastically taboo worlds that push our readerly tolerance for being forced to squirm, many of Eraserhead’s authors are taking the realm of written fiction into places where it has truly never been before, places that manage to simultaneously be entertaining and intellectually fulfilling. As Mellick’s author bio on Amazon notes, he started out by writing stories that were experimental and surreal, but now tends to “take the most ridiculous concepts imaginable and approach them with complete sincerity.” The inevitable result of this seems to be humor, mental stimulation, and a singular kind of effect that brings out the humanity of characters and stories by contrasting it so vividly with things most of us aren’t even capable of imagining on our own.
Mellick’s The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2 was published under Eraserhead’s main imprint, but the press has over ten individual imprints, all with their own editors. Steven Graham Jones’ Zombie Sharks with Metal Teeth came out under the Lazy Fascist imprint, edited by the bizarro fiction author Cameron Pierce, and as I mentioned earlier, Violet Levoit’s I Am Genghis Cum was published under Fungasm, which is edited by John Skipp, who writes splatterpunk horror and fantasy. The Fungasm imprint focuses on “genre-busting,” combining mainstream genre fiction with the kind of craziness that is standard in bizarro. So far, Fungasm has published Levoit’s I Am Genghis Cum—a short story collection which takes the battle of the sexes to its furthest extremes—Laura Lee Bahr’s Haunt, which combines bizarro with the classic “choose your own adventure” formula, and John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow’s The Last Goddam Hollywood Movie, a satire in which Hollywood executives try to profit off an actual apocalypse just six months after it occurs.
I spoke with Levoit, who lives in Philadelphia, about how she started writing bizarro and got involved with Fungasm, about her general perceptions of Eraserhead and its place within the bizarro scene, and about what it’s like to be a small press author in 2014.
Lance Duncan: What made you want to write bizarro fiction in the first place?
Violet Levoit: I didn’t know about the genre of bizarro when I started. I had started writing fiction that didn’t really fit into any other market, and I’d sent it to sci-fi and horror presses and they just weren’t picking it up. The story with Genghis Cum was after I’d done about four stories and gotten these rejections I just said, “to hell with this.” I come from an alternative music scene in Baltimore, and nowhere in our mind was the idea of like, “oh, we’ve got to get a record deal,” you know, with a label being the equivalent of a publisher. And since I had that paradigm I just figured, “well, I’ll put together a mixtape.” So I did a self-published version of I Am Genghis Cum through lulu.com, and didn’t expect much of it. I just wanted it to exist, you know? I wanted blurbs for the back, so through a friend of a friend I got a copy to John Skipp. He asked me for a hard copy, but said he wouldn’t promise anything, since a lot of people ask him for this kind of stuff. Then he got back to me and said he thought the book was actually amazing, and asked me if I’d consider doing an expanded edition for an imprint he was doing for Eraserhead. I said absolutely! I had four more stories that fit in with the theme of human reproduction, and we kept some of the same illustrations, and that was my first book with Fungasm.
LD: What has your overall experience with Eraserhead been like? Have they done much promotion for your stuff?
VL: No. There are good and bad elements to working with a small press. The good is that you have a lot of leeway to write a very non-commercial book. You have a small group of people who really care about you. I actually just got back from BizarroCon, which is in Portland in November every year, and that’s like the core group of I would say thirty to forty bizarro authors, and a handful of fans. And usually what happens is people come to the convention as a fan, then they come back the next year as an author. It was great to see everyone there again, and I’ve become very close friends with some of them. That’s the really exciting thing about it: you are in a scene. You are in CBGB’s in 1975, you know? It’s a good core group of people doing things that no one else is doing right now, which in the age of the internet is kind of hard to find. It’s kind of hard to get forty of those people in a physical room together.
LD: What are the less positive elements of being a small press writer?
VL: Small presses do not pay advances. I’ve never gotten an advance for any book, and I’ve never gotten more than maybe $200 for any book, other than I Am Genghis Cum, which I heavily sold and promoted myself. I may have made $500 on that one. This was from me buying a box at cost and stumping them everywhere, giving them to friends whose bands were on tour, selling them to my neighbors for $5 each, stuff like that. When you’re with a small press, everything is on your dime. Tours, interviews, preview copies, all that sort of thing. Actually, Eraserhead did send a preview copy to a radio station once, because I asked. I do get a better deal on royalties than I would at a large press, though. And part of all this is just the way the publishing world has changed in general. People who have been authors for a while are saying that it’s not like the old days. It used to be that they would have a PR person assigned to your book, and they would book you on every single, you know, “Good Morning, Cleveland” little local show. Those local shows don’t exist anymore, the person who’s assigned just to your book doesn’t exist anymore, and authors pretty much have to stump for their own books.
LD: But you think it’s worth publishing with a small press, for the sense of community?
LD: Do you have any more books coming out with Eraserhead soon?
VL: I do. Since then I’m working on a second book that I just now approved the proofs for. The new book is called I’ll Fuck Anything That Moves, and Stephen Hawking. The other book was about sex, this one is about death. That’s the theme… It’s about ten short stories. It should be out this holiday season!