Bizarro fiction is not dead and Brett Petersen certainly didn’t kill it. If anything, with The Parasite from Proto Space & Other Stories he may be calmly holding its hand and guiding it back into the frayed absurdity that the genre started in decades ago. In this collection of nine stories, we’re treated to absurdity and craziness that would have to come from another world to make sense to the reader.
The stories read like fever dreams that the reader is addicted to, going back for more and more. Petersen’s writing style complements the absurdity that he’s writing—never does the surreal feel forced but the weirdness happens at such a quick pace that it’s more of a blink-and-you-missed-it. On one page you’ll be learning about a pharmacist, the next another species. These stories vary wildly, not in quality, as they are all consistently strange and well-written, but in the unique place that they take you. Collections often run a risk of being either too varied or too similar, but somehow Petersen makes this work; all it took was a creature from outer space.
One of the biggest things that makes the book work is the level of humour in it. After Petersen’s touching forward to the book, he makes us laugh from the first page onwards. Sometimes it’s highbrow, sometimes we wonder how the characters wound up in their situation, sometimes it’s as simple as KFC being a combination of different drugs. It’s like a child swearing: it shocks you, makes you grin, and you may want to pretend that you don’t find it funny. Reading The Parasite From Proto Space & Other Stories made me think of bizarro fiction circa 10 years ago, when the emphasis was more focused on the surreal, wacky moments that happened on every page rather than on strange concepts tackled with pure sincerity. Petersen places himself in between both movements, his work is jaw droppingly strange—and that is said as a high compliment—without compromising any of the heart that can often be left out of stories. It seems like he was sent forward by previous bizarro writers into the future to make sure that everything is still weird, and by god, he did it.
That being said, Parasite from Proto Space may not be the entry into bizarro fiction that people who aren’t already fans of the weird need. Rather than being the gateway drug, this is the hard-hitting stuff to bring you out of a boring fiction coma. It’s strange; easy to get lost in unless you free your mind to the insanity; it certainly wouldn’t be the book that you’d read out loud at Sunday School, but if it was any of those things it wouldn’t be so special. Readers and gift givers should know what they’re in for, but for its intended audience, it will become known as a bizarro hit. Petersen’s book is a fantastic summary of where bizarro fiction has been, and where it can go. While he may not have been the one to start the craze that he so obviously admires, he may just be the next Olympian carrying the torch onwards.
Jay Slayton-Joslin is the author of Sequelland: A Story of Dreams and Screams (Clash Books, 2020) and Kicking Prose (KUBOA, 2014). Jay graduated with a BA in American Literature with Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey. He lives in Leeds, England.