Bizarre Fiction and Its Inspiration: A Conversation with St. John Karp
One has to love bizarre, comical fiction. A talented writer can send us on a wild ride, while an amateur can send us flying to the ground. Sometimes an established world needs a tilt on its axis to reveal a bizarre, peculiar nature. Our reality is so weird that we need that tilt to provide perspective.
Thanks to a few lovely people, I received a copy of the novel Skunks Dance by St. John Karp. The tale blends Wild Western weirdness with adventure, a mystery, and odd fauna. Two teens, Amanda and Jet, put aside a childhood rivalry to find a lost treasure. Rather, Amanda blackmails Jet into helping her, but Jet hopes to find the treasure first to gloat. Other people want the treasure as well, however, and are willing to kill for it.
From Beginning to End
“I started with the idea of the town statue that mysteriously acquires a head,” St. John explained to me. “The rest of it ran from there — I mainly make things up as I go along to keep myself entertained. Because if I’m bored writing it, why should I expect readers to like it?”
The novel indeed remains entertaining from beginning to end. Jet has to contend with his little sister tagging along, and his father facing a harassment lawsuit. Amanda steams from the loss of her car, and the hopes of finding her family’s legacy. In the meantime, we get the tale of Spivey Spillane, who finds a man impersonating him in the Wild West. Spivey follows the impersonator, in hopes of locating a treasure.
“The stuff in the Old West was completely random,” St. John said. “I never even intended to write that half of the book. I just wrote a prologue about Spivey Spillane doing some old-timey shenanigans and I was having so much fun I didn’t want to let him go. So I kept writing and coming up with more and more absurd, humiliating, and demeaning scrapes for him to get into. It’s no wonder the bad guy turned out as demonic as he did. Where else can you go after you’ve put your male protagonist in a tutu?”
Spivey suffers more than one such humiliation. The tutu certainly provides humiliation. Yet he always has the choice to back out and go home. All the characters do. Amanda and Jet similarly could put their petty rivalry and common goal aside, to live as normal kids and enjoy their summer. They decide to persist even as the stakes go higher, and until they can’t leave the hunt.
Such vibes remind one of Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Sam Vimes from the Discworld series. Dent and Vimes have to handle their worlds constantly changing, and to rise to the occasion; in Dent’s case he loses his house and then his planet before the story starts. Jet has a much harder time, due to his youth and impulsiveness as well as the threat of jail time. He doesn’t put thought into his actions, or consider long-term consequences. Amanda in contrast thinks her actions through but has to contend with outside forces conspiring against her.
“Oooh, I know this one — the treasure hunt was inspired by a real life mystery called the Beale ciphers. The ciphers were published in a pamphlet in 1885 and claim to describe the location of a treasure buried somewhere in Virginia. Of course the bits that actually describe the location have never been cracked. The only part of the ciphers that we can read is about what’s in the buried treasure — how convenient. But as you can imagine, this stuff is catnip to treasure hunters and conspiracy theorists who’ve taken their shovels all over town and been arrested for digging up people’s private property.”
Again we get that tilt on reality. Conspiracy theorists make the world stranger than fiction, and treasure hunters have existed throughout time. They have raided shipwrecks, trespassed on property, and probably have dug under several highways.
“Tilt” is the key word here, however. Skunks Dance makes it clear that the stakes remain high, and that the protagonists play with fire. Jet freaks on thinking a deadly spider bit him, as one example. Both teens scream on finding a dead body. St. John reminds us that danger goes with the adventure’s fun. Money makes people do terrible things, as does treasure. I’m relieved that he tackles this point, since other bizarre fiction ignores the possibility of the characters dying.
Skunks Dance isn’t afraid to show teen vandalism at the beginning and kidnapping at the end. It also shows the perils of confusing Batman for Wolverine, and of letting your sisters tag along to save your butt. I enjoyed the ride from beginning to end, and hope others do as well. Sometimes we need that perspective when the world spins out of control around us.