By Simon J. Berman
Wilson, D. Harlan. They Had Goat Heads. September 27, 2010. Atlatl Press. 135 pages. $12.95. ISBN13: 9780982628126.
Having grown up on a literary diet of Clive Barker, Michael Moorcock and Tom Robbins, I feel that when I say They Had Goat Heads is perhaps the weirdest book I have ever read, I am not engaging in hyperbole. An anthology of 40 short stories by D. Harlan Wilson, it is an assault on pop culture, literature, web speak, and the reader. Do not misunderstand me; on the whole, it is an excellent read, but it is neither accessible nor inviting. In some ways, it is something like what might have been the product of an internet age William Burroughs.
The tone of the anthology is immediately set with its first story, “Six Word Scifi”. True to its name, this story is precisely six words in length and reads like some kind of strange epigraph or as a challenge to the reader. From this page on, the stories increase by length, but not by much. The average story is somewhere around four pages in length and it is clear that Wilson is concerned with saying much with as few words as possible. Indeed, repetition is a key aspect of many of his stories, as is recursion.
His themes center on the subversion of everyday situations. In “Whale – With a Surprise Alternate (Happy) Ending!!!”, a father takes his daughter shopping for a goldfish, and with a nightmarish (and uniquely capitalist) logic, he decides that they “can do better than that.” Visiting what seems to be a pet store-turned-shopping mall, they are offered elephants and brontosauruses before arriving in the “Whale Room”. Once there, no whales are to be had and excuses are proffered. The father is not to be dissuaded and the store’s clerk suggests that his customers use their imagination. The crux of the story, and perhaps one of Wilson’s core beliefs, is revealed in the father’s advice to his daughter:
“Don’t believe that horseshit about imagination,” I told her. “The real thing is always better. That’s why imagination exists. Mostly, people can’t get the real things they want. So, they have to pretend.”
Death and dissolution in a giant aquarium filled with algae-eating fish follow, as does the promised alternate happy ending.
This sort of film or television convention is also recurrent throughout the collection, as are nameless protagonists. These tropes all collide approximately halfway through the book in the illustrated story, “The Sister”. Reminiscent of a hand-printed teenager’s zine, it is a morbid little parable of child mutilations, monster trucks, and fluorescent yellow yarn.
Stream-of-thought passages are another constant. Some stories read as if someone with literary talent and a compulsion-related disorder went on a methamphetamine-fueled Wikipedia binge. I mean this rather literally, particularly in regards to “thot experiment wrtn on ifon”. I can’t say whether the title is indeed true, but it is certainly written in the style of an author attempting to bang out a piece of experimental fiction on his Droid’s keypad, perhaps while driving.
Given the increasing speed with which pop culture adopts and discards its ephemera I suspect many of the references in this anthology will not age well. This may be Wilson’s intention. I suspect many of these stories went over my head, but it is equally possible that some of these pieces have no meaning but whatever the reader should chooses to apply. This is not a collection of stories for most readers. Only those with a love of confrontational and experimental fiction are likely to enjoy They Had Goat Heads. Even so, I’d recommend this book to most. The stories are short enough that even for those of us (myself included) with attention spans attenuated by the internet, it is impossible to feel that one has wasted one’s time. Perhaps that is precisely Wilson’s intention.
You can purchase They Had Goat Heads from the publisher.