Jerry Bumpus, Special Offer (Carpenter Press, 1981)
My last experience with Carpenter Press was Robert Fox’s Destiny News, which landed solidly on the Worst I Read list for 2013 (at #12). So when I noticed that Jerry Bumpus’ Special Offer was published by the same press, I approached it with some trepidation. I still cracked the cover; it’s slim, it’s short stories, and had it been as bad as Destiny News, I would have thrown it to the wolves after the fifty-page rule. Special Offer, however, is, in a phrase, everything that Destiny News is not.
The book opens with the title story, and for the first two or three pages, I was wondering. Then, Bumpus lets loose, in his strange tale of a furniture store no one ever visits, and the travelers who decide to stop in. It’s weird, but there’s more than that, especially when you look at it in the light cast by Robert Fox’s pale characters who do nothing; Bumpus’ characters have sex (and not just sex, but weird sex), they don’t talk in a monotone even when disagreeing, they eat and smoke and buy and sell and fuck and spray one another with water (or, sometimes, acid) and in general act like real human beings. And Bumpus, in story after story, puts them in the weirdest imaginable situations.
Ultimately, this is the book’s biggest problem; while Bumpus published it some thirty years before the Bizarro movement became A Thing(TM), if Bumpus is not one of the movement’s spiritual fathers, it’s only because he’s obscure enough that Bizarro’s best writers just haven’t heard of him yet. The downside is that, like much of Bizarro, Bumpus’ stories often feel like there’s no real anchor for all the weirdness; it just exists because Bumpus thought “what if I put these characters in THIS stupid situation?”. A little of that tends to go a long way, and a couple of stories here go so far off the rails they might as well be set on other planets (“The Angel Business” stood out in this regard, as did “The Fudgers”). Bumpus’ stories work better when the realism he often clings to actually makes sense; the characters seem sharper, the situations more relatable. The anthropologist who narrates “With the Mory Bot” is the kind of absurdly wonderful person you love sharing a beer with at the bar; the nutcase at the center of “Pizeop” is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measures.
But if you’re going to hunt a copy of this book down—and you should, even if it is far harder to do thirty-odd years later—you’re doing it for two of the stories here. “A Very Modern Home” is the closest thing to a traditional story you’ll find here. It’s a horror piece (many of these can be cast that way in the proper lighting), but it’s a horror piece a la Shirley Jackson rather than A. Merritt. A real estate agent, recovering from a stroke and possibly developing Alzherimer’s, finds herself in a position of having to show the house she was showing when the stroke hit her. The other, “Mrs. Bell and Her Dog”, seems mostly normal—the diction is a touch off—until you get about halfway through, and then Bumpus broadsides you with the book’s only major twist. And it’s perfect, and it turns the story into the kind of heartbreaker you knew he was capable of while you were reading the other ones.
One other note: if you’re not a fan of, shall we say, ambiguous endings, this book will drive you up a wall. Even if you are, a couple of the endings here may make you want to burn it. (The ending of the aforementioned “With the Mory Bot” is probably the most gratuitous of these, but “Mr. Spoon’s Visit” runs a close second.) So while there are quite a few things here to recommend it to the discerning fan of weirdness, it’s also a minefield. I found it worth traversing, but the individual reader will need to be the judge on this one. ***