Of all of the brilliant, moving, intelligent works humanity has produced, the one I was most interested in reading was an outrageous piece of sci-fi trash filled with gratuitous sex, profanity, mutants, and over-the-top gore. The book–presumably written by an adult but appealing only to teenage minds–was something I came across by chance as a kid. As much as I wanted to read it again, I couldn’t remember the book’s title, author, or the series.
The quest to find this book took me more than a decade and necessitated the help of librarians, sci-fi experts, and visits to bookstores across the U.S. There have been an estimated 63,000 sci-fi and fantasy novels written since 1700, and by the time I eventually found what I was searching for, it seemed like I’d looked through them all. I was thrust back into the world of mutants and saw some pretty engaging things on Earth along the way.
I first came across it when I was eleven, and a good friend of mine gave me a book he said I’d like. The cover featured a human fighting a mutant and someone shooting a gun from the window of a roaring car. The excerpt was a description of a shoot-out in which a mutant’s head explodes. Even with my deep love of mutants and explosions, those few paragraphs caught me off guard. I was surprised that a book – a published book with pages and a cover – could actually contain such graphic, idiotic violence.
Of course, I continued reading, enthralled. As far as I can remember, the story concerned a group of rogue mercenaries fighting their way across a war-torn planet in an attempt to rescue someone. Along the way, they encounter a mutant clone of Elvis, a bombastic musical number featuring the clone of a dictator, countless heads and flying limbs, an intellectual alien named Algernon Waugh, and a ludicrous description of oral sex. And these were just the highlights I could remember. However, I must have lost it at some point, for no matter how many boxes of Mad Magazine I dug through, the mutant book was not among them.
A few years ago, I took a month-long trip around the country for a book I am writing about overlooked U.S. literary history. I made a point to stop at local used bookstores whenever I had the chance to look through the sci-fi section. I tried to find the book at the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico, a facility said to have the largest collection of UFO-related books in the world after the Vatican. Despite this, the book was not there. Two bookstores in Las Vegas were fascinating but likewise offered no help; the Gambler’s General Store sold only books related to gambling and the mob, while Bauman’s Rare Books sold only extremely rare books and signed first editions. (A founding father’s copy of The Federalist was $260,000.) I didn’t even ask the clerk of one used bookstore, who noted that she promptly threw away any books containing “witchcraft” and offered me a free Bible from the stack on the counter.
And so it went. Once in a while I’d resume my search, but nothing ever seemed to come of it.
But one day, a decade after I started looking, the answer presented itself. The revelation was somewhat anticlimactic: I was telling my dad about my search for the novel; he simply googled what I’d been attempting for years and found it as the first search result. My Heart of the Ocean was called Rebel Attack, and it was book 3 of the Mutants Amok series by Mark Grant. I Googled it myself and stared in awe at the cover, which, to my credit, looked pretty much as I’d remembered. As it happened, a review of the book had been published by Joe Kenney on his blog called Glorious Trash, which is dedicated to obscure pulp novels and movies. I evidently hadn’t searched for the book online in a while, and in the time between searches, a discussion of it had been posted that contained all of the keywords I’d previously been using (“mutants sex elvis sci-fi violent algernon Waugh”).
Glorious Trash revealed to me that there are five books in the Mutants Amok series: Mutants Amok (#1), Mutant Hell (#2), Rebel Attack (#3), Holocaust Horror (#4), and Christmas Slaughter (#5). The novels were all published in 1991 by Avon Books, with the first two debuting in March and subsequent volumes appearing every three months after that. (Avon Books was for decades a wellspring of dime-store sci-fi and detective novels, but it switched solely to romance novels following its purchase by Newscorp in 1999.)
The gist of the series is that mutants have taken over and enslaved the human population. All are dumb, violent, and expendable. A band of rebels fights their way through the mutant menace, rescuing people and blowing shit up across the five books. Rebel Attack takes place in “Hollyweird,” in which mutant movie directors use human actors in musical snuff films. Our heroes are tasked with rescuing a human starlet unaware of her fate, and the book chronicles their attempt.
At 169 pages, Mutants Amok is a short read and is probably no more than 50,000 words. Most of what I remembered about the book was correct: there are mutant versions of celebrities, a bunch of sex scenes, and bodily fluids flying around everywhere, as well as more utterances of “fuck” than Pulp Fiction.
Now that I knew what the book was, I was just as curious to know more about it: who is Mark Grant; how did the series come to be; and what standing, if any, does the series have in the pantheon of sci-fi?
As it turns out, “Mark Grant” is the nom de plume of a writer named David Bischoff, 66, who has published no fewer than 80 books since his first story in 1974. Bischoff has lived in Eugene, Oregon, for the past 25 years and writes novels for a living. The pursuit has afforded him time in New York and Los Angeles, where he was living when he wrote the Mutants Amok series.
Bischoff’s works span everything from novelizations of the movie Aliens vs. Predator to “Christian/inspirational” fiction, and he has served as the editor of the vaunted magazine Stardate and a variety of other genre publications. He has written narrative nonfiction, Star Trek scripts, and countless short stories, employing at least 13 pseudonyms over the course of his career, such as “Michael F.X. Milhaus,” “MacDonald Fesler,” and, of course, “Mark Grant.” Bischoff was also an advisor for an MFA creative writing program at Seton Hill University, where he received rave reviews from his students. The University of Maryland, his alma mater, houses his papers: sixteen boxes running 20.95 linear feet.
Historian Hal Hall commented that Bischoff may not be a very studied author, but he is a well-regarded one. For all of its baroque grossness, Rebel Attack showcases the chops of a natural-born writer. The book has particular fun satirizing Hollywood and the British (many of the mutants are culturally very British, with stereotypical affectations and notions of propriety), and the tale as a whole is penned with a self-awareness that indicates a talented author letting his imagination run wild. It takes a certain kind of genius to pull off this kind of literary anti-literary stunt, and Rebel Attack shows that Bischoff inhabits this unusual niche.
Learning all of this, my curiosity still wasn’t sated. I wanted to know more, and so I attempted to reach out to the author himself.
After a series of incorrect email addresses and phone numbers, I finally reached someone who knows Bischoff at the Eugene public radio station, where he hosts a progressive rock program. He said he’d pass my message along.
A few days later, I pumped my fist in celebration when I saw an Oregon number was calling my phone. It was indeed David Bischoff, and at first he thought I was a fan looking for a signed copy of the book. He was surprised that someone wanted to quiz him about the series, as he himself hadn’t thought much about it in decades, but was happy to take me for a stroll down this bizarre memory lane.
As Bischoff recalls, writing the Mutants Amok series happened by chance. He was visiting a friend at Avon Books and got to talking with an editor, who needed an author to write a series he had just developed. Bischoff agreed, as he was trying to move to LA and figured this would help him do it. He was assigned the house pseudonym “Mark Grant” and began writing the series in the summer of 1989.
Bischoff was given free rein to take the series wherever he saw fit. “The editor came up with the basic idea, but I came up with everything else,” he said. “I wrote the plot; the second, third, and fourth were all mine in terms of plotting and craziness.” He wrote the first book in a month, took a brief pause to write the novelization of Gremlins 2, and wrote the next three books in 1990. By the fourth book, he’d had his fill and farmed out fifty pages to a friend to write. Bischoff soon moved on to other projects, and someone else wrote the fifth book.
The subject matter came easily to the author. Mutants were nothing new, as Bischoff grew up in the 1950s when fear of mutation was actual reality. He drew on the comics of his youth and 1960s exploitation movies for the series. On the literary front, his books take cues from action-adventure series like The Executioner and The Destroyer, in which a cynical, violent antihero exacts revenge on those who hurt his family.
I obviously remembered the books because of their gratuitous nature, and Bischoff remembers the editors being surprised at what he turned in. But as they were on a time crunch, they published everything he’d written. “I remember it being pretty over-the-top, but I got no letters about it,” he said. “The editor did get fired, though, but that had nothing to do with me!”
In his estimation, the first Mutants Amok book holds up best. “It’s a pretty good science fiction novel and still an action-adventure story,” he said. Bischoff retains the rights to the series, and he contemplated aloud revisiting the world. It might be the right time, he pointed out; mutants aren’t too far removed from zombies, today’s completely expendable bad guys.
The frustration of not finding the book was handily dispatched like the ruthless mutant director at the end of Rebel Attack. Re-reading the book was a time warp to a distinct part of my childhood, and speaking with Bischoff was watching the behind-the-scenes featurette about a movie you really like. It’s always fun to learn more about something you figured there was finite knowledge about, and that was about as good a resolution as any. Bischoff’s books may not be classics, but they are treasures like any other, impressive examples of the breadth of our (trashy) imagination.