I recently had the pleasure of interviewing an author I really admire, MP Johnson. MP writes bizarro fiction, which, by its very nature, is hard to define. It’s the kind of stuff you should seek out if you’re bored with the mainstream. Her books are filled with creatures and sentient things that should not be sentient, reading just like punk rock–Fast and loud! Horror elements with flourishes of pop culture and pure madness make her bizarro novels important to readers like myself who crave originality. She creates the type of art we should be paying attention to: Non-recycled and intriguing works of passion.
I first met you peddling your books at a horror convention in Indianapolis. What is your relationship with horror, and how does it relate to your work in the bizarro scene?
Growing up, I would watch horror movies with my dad. Everything from the old Universal Studios stuff to obscure low budget flicks. That has stuck with me. In fact, I’ve been haunted by a movie that I watched with my dad one Sunday afternoon that featured a murderous severed hand. For years, I’ve been searching for that movie. There are a lot of murderous severed hand movies! I only just recently rediscovered it. It’s called Demonoid and it is insane. Anyway, horror movies led to horror comics and horror books by the likes of Clive Barker and Richard Laymon.
Over the years though, I came to learn that what I was really most interested in was monsters and weirdness, not horror in general. Home invasion movies may be horror, but I find them tedious, no matter how many tricks the film pulls to make it seem clever. I’m not super into slashers either, except for the ones that get really bonkers. I would rather see the lowest budget puppet monster jumping out at people and eating their faces than see people killing people.
That’s also what I prefer to write about. Monsters and weird shit, often without any actual scary elements, but sometimes using set pieces common in horror. That’s not what horror is though, as I learned through many rejection letters from horror publishers. At one point, I got a few rejections from horror magazines that said, “Hey, this is fun, but we don’t publish bizarro.” I was like, “What the fuck is bizarro?” I researched and discovered people like Carlton Mellick who were making weird ass books, and my stuff really seemed to fit in. I’m glad it did, because the bizarro scene is a blast. My stuff still sometimes tilts closer toward horror than bizarro, like in Cattle Cult! Kill! Kill! or Lake Lurkers, but then it goes right back into full on bizarro territory with something like Drag Queen Dino Fighters, my next book.
The atmosphere in your writing is very palpable, with glimmers of the 80’s, punk rock, and b-movie horror. Is this the world you live in?
For sure. The ‘80s was my childhood. It was a time filled with crazy toys like MUSCLE guys, who I give a nod to in my short story collection, Berzerkoids. There could be a cartoon about a massive bio-chemical conspiracy like Spiral Zone, and it was just no big deal. And then as I got older, I started listening to the Misfits and watching Troma movies on USA Up All Night.
The level of creativity was always maxed out during that time period. I absorbed it and channeled it in my own writing, which I started doing as soon as I could hold a pen. I think there’s still a lot of that insane creativity out there, it’s just a little harder to find between all the art that thrives on irony or attempts to reproduce old stuff.
There’s a lot of that creativity in the bizarro scene. Anyone who used to read trashy horror paperbacks from the 80s and misses the days when Full Moon dominated the video store shelves really needs to take a look at the stuff being published by the likes of Eraserhead Press and Bizarro Pulp Press and Rooster Republic Press.
Your work also challenges gender “norms” and identity. Could you touch on that a bit?
This is becoming increasingly important to me. I recently came out as transgender, but I’ve been slipping gender commentary into my work for a while. I’ve been using characters who are trans or nonbinary or crossdressers or drag queens. I don’t know that I’ve been challenging anything. I’ve just been trying to show these characters’ experiences and how their gender identity does or does not come into play when they are, say, fighting giant scab monsters.
Later this year, I’m stepping into unfamiliar territory with a book called Nails. It’s creative nonfiction. It addresses the sad and funny hijinx that I got into trying to figure out and come to grips with my gender identity. I think even people who like my more bonkers stuff will like it, because the tone is pretty light, even though the events described are pretty heavy. It might help people understand what some people put themselves through as a result of this culture’s heavy handed enforcement of a really outdated and inaccurate concept of gender.
Who is Maddy Manslaughter?
Maddy Manslaughter is my drag queen alter ego. I perform as Maddy, do readings and such. And sometimes just go out to drag shows and have fun. I am obsessed with the art of drag, from the technical elements – the makeup, the fashion, the choreography – to the seemingly effortless challenging of gender norms. I will never claim to be on the level of most pro queens. It’s an art that I only mess around with, but it’s an art that I love and respect so much. I think that love comes through pretty clearly in books like Dungeons & Drag Queens, which won the Wonderland Book Award for best bizarro novel, and the upcoming Drag Queen Dino Fighters.
You founded Weirdpunk Books! Do you view this press as a natural progression from your zine, Freak Tension?
It all swirls together. Freak Tension showcased my love of punk rock over its 15-year, 15-issue run, and that’s evident in the Weirdpunk Books output as well. And not just in subject matter, but in ethos. It’s all very DIY. Late last year, I put together a Freak Tension greatest hits collection so to speak. It’s something I’m very proud of, because it sums up something that I devoted such a huge chunk of my life to. But alas, zines do not sell. So somebody explain why I’m currently working on a zine about drag and gender identity called Drag Mess? I guess because I don’t give a fuck about sales, or I wouldn’t be doing any of this.
Weirdpunk has been doing well though. It fills a niche. There’s such a perfect overlap between punk rock and weird books, horror and bizarro books, and nobody is doing that. So I thought I should do it. Started with Blood for You: A Literary Tribute to GG Allin and moved on to Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to the Misfits. Now we are working on a punk rock zombie anthology called Zombie Punks Fuck Off.
There seems to be a real community in the bizarro scene. How would you describe that? Is it essential to the DIY landscape you roam?
I come out of the punk rock scene, where the social element is hugely important. Just like punk is not just about the music, bizarro is not just about the books. It’s also about camaraderie and working together to create something that is exciting and pretty far from the mainstream. I’m still blown away at the friends that I have made by being involved in bizarro fiction. I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but it’s valuable and really empowering.
I have recommended your book Cattle Cult! Kill! Kill! to many people because it really jives with my horror sensibilities, but if you could recommend any one of your books, which would it be?
My personal favorite is Berzerkoids. It represents all of the things I love to write about, from punk to drag to monsters to slime. It’s gross and funny and heartfelt, and I’m super proud of it. That being said, I feel like one thing I’ve done well is put out a consistent but diverse body of work. Cattle Cult is definitely the go-to for horror fanatics. Lake Lurkers is pure horror too. If you like fantasy, you have to check out Dungeons & Drag Queens. If you like science fiction, you’ll probably dig Drag Queen Dino Fighters, which is about drag queens fighting dinosaurs from outer space. I’ve got a book called Lonely Tentacle coming out later this year that the Lovecraft nerds will really dig, as long as they’ve got a sense of humor.
What is your proudest accomplishment to date?
I’m proud that I’m still writing. This is a very trying business and shit is flung in your face at every turn. Even writers who do fairly well are lucky if they make a living wage off their books. But it’s been almost two decades since I put out my first zine and I’m still able to sit down and come up with a story and get super excited about it. Every day I see writers resorting to gimmicks and bullshit to try to sell copies, and every day I see writers disappear because they didn’t hit whatever they think the big time is. I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere.
And finally, just for fun, if you could invent a new slasher villain, what would his gimmick be?
He’s an everyman with a kind face, a face that you immediately empathize with. Like, you see the smile lines and you know that he’s smiled through some hard times. You feel comfortable that he’s not going to hurt you. He is going to hurt you though, just not the way you think. While you stand nervously in front of him, he pulls out a knife, or a machete, or a harpoon gun. You can see in his eyes that it’s not meant for you, but there is malice in that look, somewhere. He turns the weapon on himself and the next thing you know, you are coated in intestines and brains and PTSD. You never forget that smile and the way it was destroyed in front of you. It haunts you, until you can’t take it anymore. You take all the sleeping pills. You put razor to wrist. You wrap things up, never knowing that he is still alive. He never died. He never dies. But he has left a trail of suicides behind him.
Thanks to MP Johnson for the interview. Find her on social media to stay up-to-date!
Twitter and Instagram: @freaktension
Official site: https://freaktension.wordpress.com/