Last summer Ann Sterzinger asked me to participate in a podcast with alt.right writer Andy Nowicki in which we discussed incels. “Incel” is a portmanteau that combines the words “involuntary celibacy.” Incels, mostly young, alienated men, had (and have) been in the news due to several deadly rampages committed by young men with links to or assumed to be part of incel culture. This conversation took place shortly after the Santa Fe high school shooting, wherein a young man shot and killed ten people. Sometimes the media got it right – Alek Minassian, the man who ran a van into a crowd in Toronto, was undeniably part of incel culture. The affiliation was far less clear with Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the young man who shot up the high school in Santa Fe, Texas, even though one of his victims was a girl who had refused to be his girlfriend. Either way, both attacks were presented as incel rampages in the press and suddenly all across the Internet people were talking about incels, as each month seemed to bring a new attack committed in the name of incel-ery.
The discussion with Andy dealt more with the macro of incel-ery, the big picture of how it is we’ve ended up with a group of unhappy and often unstable young men who loathe women, successful men, feminism, and the modern world. I tend to focus on the micro, the individuals who make up movements, so I’m unsure how much I added to the conversation. I wish I had been more on the ball because Andy Nowicki asked a very good, very humane question that this article is going to attempt to answer.
Andy wanted to know why it is that people find it so easy to mock and deride incels when they share what for them is very real, very tangible pain regarding their role in the modern world. We laugh at these young men in a way we would not laugh at women who share their own pain. Though there are a lot of ideas that “incel” covers, the primary issue often boils down to men who are angry or sad that they cannot have the sorts of sexual relationships they prefer with the sorts of women they prefer.
However, when you look at the whole of what fuels this sort of discontent, you see a group of human beings who feel like the modern world has stripped them of all dignity, decent employment prospects, and possible family life. Plenty focus their anger on the lack of sex that named the subculture but they also speak in depth about humiliations they experienced or perceived when just trying to talk to a woman, apply for a job, speak in class, go to a gym, pay for cigarettes and on and on.
It’s a litany of human misery and it’s interesting that among leftists who decry “toxic masculinity,” those very people find it easy to mock men who report crying when being rejected or rebuffed, who reveal vulnerability when they report their inability to reach basic cultural milestones. It’s a question worth asking – why do we mock these particular men who reveal their weaknesses?
There are several answers to this question. Among them: chivalry isn’t dead yet and we live in a culture in the West wherein we punish emotional response in men while rewarding it in women. But it’s curious that many still mock incels even after seeing the harm these disenfranchised young men can do.
Initially, when people see the entitled whining some incels engage in online, people mock them because if you aren’t experiencing youthful angst yourself, reading it wears thin and can seem ridiculous. But we continue to mock them after seeing incel mass murders because there’s something inherently ridiculous in the idea that anyone would consider sex such a natural human right that they could justify murder in the name of libido.
This is a very long article, tl;dr on a grand scale. The rest is under the cut.
I’m currently working on a new book (new, as in I have an OLD book and you should probably go buy a copy because my publisher deserves money for enduring my head-casery) and as I research I keep finding interesting alleys off the main street of my reading. So many little snippets that likely won’t have a place in the larger story but are entertaining enough that I want to share them.
My upcoming book will be a look at personal manifestos and their role in shaping particular parts of contemporary culture as well as serving as at times unintentional autobiographies of the people who wrote them. Less Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and more Elliot Rodger’s My Twisted World. Some of the manifestos I am analyzing are quasi-political, like Valerie Solanas’ The SCUM Manifesto or Anders Behring Breivik’s 2083, but most of them are analyses of the self that also stand as a statement or declaration of social or political aims. One such manifesto is Carl Panzram’s autobiography, wherein he discusses how he came to be shaped into a multipurpose psychopath and why he felt entitled to engage in the mayhem that saw him imprisoned multiple times and ultimately executed. As I researched Carl Panzram, I came across Panzram: A Journal of Murder by Thomas E. Gaddis and James O. Long, editors, and an unexpected look at how the politics of the death penalty played out among the condemned.
Before he was The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud was The Birdman of Leavenworth (which actually makes more sense as a moniker since he was never permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz).
But bear in mind, if Carl Panzram, dream date of late-child murderer Ian Brady, was a one-man-mayhem-machine, Robert Stroud, had he stayed out of prison longer, would have been his peer. Though he spent decades nursing birds and researching cures for avian diseases at Leavenworth, Stroud was also a pimp and a murderer, and once imprisoned he was the instigator of many fights and eventually killed a prison guard. That murder landed him on death row at Leavenworth, but his sentence was commuted and he spent 1918 through 1942 in solitary confinement at Leavenworth (which sounds much different than what prisoners experience in solitary in the USA today). It was in solitary confinement in Leavenworth that Stroud “met” Carl Panzram.
Oh, and in case you were wondering how Stroud ended up in Alcatraz, the Birdman was caught using the equipment a benevolent prison warden gave him for his birds to make alcohol and sell within the prison. Upon discovery of this side hustle, he was transferred to Alcatraz.
Carl Panzram was a life-long criminal and an utter psychopath whose crimes ranged from audacious financial exploits on oil rigs in Africa to child rape to murder. A victim of the harsh practices in reform schools and even harsher practices in prison, all attempts to rehabilitate him made him even worse. He’d been in several prisons before ending up in Leavenworth, often under false names. Panzram in prison was a man who just wanted to be left alone. It’s hard to be left alone in prison and Panzram, in Leavenworth, became a pot waiting to boil over. He reached his limit and started a prison riot when he killed the foreman in the prison laundry. That earned him the death penalty and he was kept in solitary during his trial and the time during which he was awaiting execution, in the same solitary block as Robert Stroud.
(There’s a funny story about the end of the riot, too. Or at least it was funny to me. Panzram beat the prison laundry foreman to death with a pipe and rampaged through the prison with it in his hand. When he reached a wing that a guard, Red Ballard, locked down anticipating his arrival, Panzram shouted at him to open the door. Ballard, terrified and shaken, said, “I will never let you in with that in your hand.” As if he forgot he was holding it, Panzram tossed the iron bar away and declared that this must be his lucky day. Ballard called for assistance and, presumably, opened the door.)
During the trial, Panzram was clear that he wanted to be executed. Many anti-death penalty groups tried to intervene on his behalf and in response Panzram essentially told them to take their do-gooder notions and go fuck themselves. He was set on execution, not only because he was tired of the misery of prison life, but also in the spirit of telling the state and the penal system that since they created this monster, they needed to kill it. A sort of slow-motion suicide by cop.
This attitude alarmed Robert Stroud to the point that he intervened. Or at least he tried. Despite both men being in solitary confinement, there is ample evidence that Stroud and Panzram managed to effect some sort of communication, and that communication focused on one aim: Stroud wanted Panzram to kill himself.
Stroud found himself on Leavenworth’s death row for the same offense as Panzram, for killing a prison employee, but his sentence was commuted to life. Stroud to the end felt that Panzram’s yearning for execution was a bluff, that he would, like any reasonable man, want to cheat the executioner, even if it meant dying by his own hand. But Stroud also felt very strongly that the death penalty – either through the state of Kansas or through the federal government – should never be performed on Leavenworth soil. He even went so far as to give money to a campaign to prevent another solitary inmate from facing the death penalty for murdering a fellow Leavenworth prisoner. There had been no executions at Leavenworth and Stroud, as well as many other death penalty abolitionists, did not want a death penalty precedent set. From his isolation cell, Stroud could see the gallows being constructed and it fired his resolve that Panzram should be encouraged to kill himself to avoid being the man who brought the death penalty to Leavenworth.
Interestingly, Stroud managed to get information to Panzram regarding ways to end his life, and Panzram, afraid his death sentence might not be carried out, made a genuine suicide attempt. From Panzram, A Journal of Murder (228):
Stroud began long disquisitions to the guard Red Ballard, to the orderlies and to Ono Manuel [another inmate] in a clear, loud voice, hoping that the information would reach Panzram. He talked about how simple and painless it would be to end it all: press two fingers into the groin until the throb of the femoral artery can be felt, work the fingers back and forth until the artery is brought against the skin, and cut it with a long thumbnail or a chip of a razor blade. Death would come in minutes. This artery, Stroud explained in loud tones, is the only one which can be easily reached, yet cannot be tied off. He also spoke of making a paper quill, opening a large vein anywhere, inserting the quill and blowing a bubble or two into the vein. Or, he added, simple tap water would do it.
Ballard said nothing. He closed the wooden door to Panzram’s cell and cautioned Stroud to lower his voice.
Red Ballard kept a very close watch on Panzram but he could not prevent the suicide attempt Panzram made on June 20, 1929 (the one year anniversary of beating the laundry foreman to death). He had hidden a plate of beans he let go bad, making them poisonous. He ate those beans and then opened a six-inch gash in his leg using a sharpened button. Had he just slashed his leg he might have succeeded because it was the sound of him vomiting up the tainted beans that alerted the night guard that there was a problem in his cell.
Once the execution date was firmly set and no appeals were made, Stroud was still convinced that Panzram was bluffing, that he really did not want to die at the hands of the state and that he had simply been too incompetent to carry out his prior suicide attempt. Since Panzram feared that the state might consider him too mentally unwell to execute, which was the impetus behind the attempt, there may have been some truth to the notion that he was inept with fear. Stroud may have been correct on that front because if there had ever been a man who knew how to kill, it was Panzram. Still, a failed suicide involving bad beans and a button might help the case that Panzram was too mentally ill to execute and surely Panzram knew this. It seems very likely that Panzram engaged in overkill with his methods of choice rather than failing due to incompetence. As the execution drew closer, Stroud upped his game and Panzram, in the end, showed his genuine intent.
Two weeks before the execution, Stroud saw his opportunity. He wrote his earlier instructions on a slip of paper, broke a new Gillette blade in two and wrapped the paper around the top halves of the broken blade. Having found an old tube of watercolor gray, he painted the package the same color as the concrete floor. He then persuaded a new short-term prisoner, who had been made an orderly in the isolation section, to throw the tiny packet into Panzram’s cell the first time the guard, Red Ballard, turned his head. The orderly agreed […].
The packet was dropped into Panzram’s cell without incident […]. 238-239)
Stroud had some hope that Panzram would use the blades and take his own life because Panzram held onto the blades until two days before his execution, and then turned them over to guard Red Ballard (who really needed to be paid far more than he was for dealing with all he endured during his tenure at Leavenworth).
“Where did you get these?” Ballard demanded.
“None of your damned business,” said Panzram. (239)
Stroud may have been onto something because why else would Panzram have held onto the blades for around ten days, turning them in so close to the execution. Was he wavering until the end, perhaps mulling over how he wanted to die? Did the packet with the blades sit unseen on his prison floor for a while, so well camouflaged by Stroud’s watercolor? More likely he wanted insurance in the event the state decided on a last minute pardon and commuted his sentence, one that carried a better chance at success than rotten beans and a shaved-down button. It’s hard to say why Panzram kept the blades for so long, but in the end the state did execute him. He had the option of slashing his wrists or neck or groin but went to the gallows instead.
And of course, the statement Panzram is most famous for occurred on the gallows. He sneered at his executioner, saying, “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard. I could kill a dozen men while you’re screwing around.”
He probably could have, too. But he didn’t. Nor did he kill himself.
I admittedly knew very little about Robert Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz, before I read about Panzram, and what I knew was very fluffy, redemption-oriented sort of quasi-knowledge. While I could have guessed a man like him would be anti-death penalty, I certainly didn’t anticipate him being so keen on enabling a suicide he considered more ethical in the macro and having more dignity in the micro, nor did I expect him to be so knowledgeable on methods of suicide. Child of the media that I am, I now have visions of Burt Lancaster encouraging James Woods to commit suicide.
The things you learn when learning about other things…
Why Do You Consider This Book Odd: It shows the charm and marginal merit of a film that I initially felt had neither but could see once I read Brunell’s take on the film.
Availability: Published by Chaotic Words in 2017, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve begun to despair of the horror genre as of late, and it may be because I’ve reached the age to where there is very little that’s new under the sun. It’s not helped by the fact that so often genre films are endeavors where those with marginal talents do the bare minimum necessary to get a film together, as evidenced by many of the anemic offerings on NetFlix. For every Babadook or It Follows, there are a dozen miserable titles that one shouldn’t bother to remember because they all tell the same story, poorly acted, with little spark.
But perhaps I’m being an old crank. Well, actually, I am being an old crank, at least where the horror genre is concerned and I needed to be reminded that sometimes the desire to see only that which is wholly new, unconventional or somehow rarified can cause us to overlook films that might be interesting if only paid attention.
Enter Doug Brunell’s look at little-known films.
I came across Doug’s work after he read my compendium TL;DR and introduced himself on Twitter. I looked up his work and was delighted to see that he was a fellow traveler in the bizarre and fringe and had written analyses of the cinematic corollaries to some of the books I discuss here. I saw the title Crypt of the Living Dead, and thought it had something to do with zombies. Nope, this is a vampire film. (Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters links zombies, werewolves and vampires together as monsters conjured by mass fears of overpopulated cities, disease, especially diseases caused by bodily rot, and though that is certainly not relevant to this discussion it was interesting to see all three monsters represented in this film, as it features a vampire who turns into a wolf and the title leads modern audiences raised on George Romero films to think of zombies.) I decided it would be interesting to watch the film first and then read what Brunell had to say about it.
Though Mr OTC and I agreed that the film might have gone down better had we been watching it with a space janitor and two wise-cracking robots, it wasn’t wholly bad. In fact, I found myself uttering Yogi Berra-worthy statements as I watched it, like, “This film would be pretty good if it wasn’t so bad.” Because there were moments in it that were entertaining, and most of those moments were entertaining because they were so weird.
A quick synopsis, and here be spoilers but I don’t think anyone will be watching this film with an eye toward creative storytelling or unexpected plot twists (but I will try to minimize them): An older man, who came to a small, almost inbred European island to study their customs, is crushed under the crypt topper of a woman called Hannah, who died in 1269. He is crushed because a wild man (a literal wild man who resembles a cave man with an eye patch) and a robed man knock him over, shove him under the crypt, and knock the supports out from under it, crushing him, effectively decapitating him. The man’s son, Chris, comes to the island and is greeted by the man in robes, Peter, who lives on the island with his sister, Mary. We don’t know what Peter’s game is but he seems very helpful to Chris, helping him navigate the stand-offish islanders who are slow to welcome newcomers. Mary is a schoolteacher and the kids are suitably creepy, as are the islanders, especially the fishermen who won’t even speak to Chris. We find Chris has come to the island to get his dad out from under the crypt – the islanders were just going to leave him there, minus his head, because the tomb was too heavy to lift, evidently. So Chris, with Peter’s help, organizes the fishermen on the island to try to go underground and lift the tomb and though they are divided on whether or not they should be messing around with Hannah’s tomb because, as you probably know, she was interred as a vampire and to mess with the tomb risks letting her out, they ultimately try to help. Mary and Chris “bond” and Peter seems excited at the prospect that his sister may leave the island with Chris. But nothing goes easily because Hannah has gotten out, she preys on the islanders and everything ends rather poorly for many of the islanders and, of course Peter, who was in thrall to the undead Hannah. And it all seems okay at the end, once Hannah has been dealt with in a rather pyrotechnic manner, but alas, peace will be short-lived because evil now infests this little island.
As I watched the film, the deficits, which were funny rather than infuriating, were what I noticed first. Here are the best of the “WTF” moments:
–When Chris’s dad was exploring the catacomb area, he walks under a sacrificed goat that has been strung up high and is bleeding out. He feels the blood drip on his face and looks up and stands there staring at the bleeding goat as it spills blood all over his face. When he finally starts walking again, he doesn’t bother to wipe the blood off, but instead wanders the catacombs with goat’s blood all over his face and head.
–Chris is such a dead ringer for notable porn actor John Holmes that it was distracting.
–Inexplicably, the only person who saw Hannah in her wolf form was, I am not kidding, completely blind.
–Mary, who taught in a one-room school house, forced one kid to stand in the corner ALL DAY because she found him playing in the cemetery because that is a totally reasonable thing for a grade school teacher to do. The entire classroom is filled with children who would need a bath and a complete set of chromosomes to qualify as extras in Children of the Corn.
–Hannah, the person for whom the film is named and who ostensibly should have at least been a peripheral character, never says one word in the film. Instead she writhes about in her tomb, wanders about in a filmy white dress, and generally looks kind of pretty but is basically just a piece of animated scenery.
–Chris and Mary hook up and Peter, who I may remind you is Mary’s brother, watches from outside. Okay, sort of gross, right. Then the next day when he sees them he is super pleased and overly enthusiastic about Chris nailing his sister and immediately demands that Mary leave the island with Chris because nothing says emotional security and trust like a stranger having sex with your sister within days of meeting her even though he’s supposed to be trying to haul his dad’s carcass out from a vampire’s tomb.
There are other moments that left me wondering what on earth was at play but mostly I focused on the silly plot points because the movie seemed very simple and the details of the film seemed secondary to the gentle mockery that made up most of my reaction. But then I followed it up by reading Brunell’s analysis of the film and it changed the film for me. Of course, the film isn’t suddenly rendered amazing after seeing it through Brunell’s filter – and Brunell himself points out the movie’s many flaws – but the efforts the filmmakers put into the film, as well as details that went completely over my head, combined with the themes that Brunell saw in the movie, certainly rescued it from the mental file where I had placed it alongside Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Book:Vampire or Gods: The True Stories of the Ancient Immortals
Author: William Meyers
Type of Book: Non-fiction (sort of), supernatural, paranormal, alternative history
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: If you were to substitute vampires for aliens in some of the more accessible “alien intervention” conspiracy theories, you’d end up with something like this book. Also the dude on the cover who is eating grape is… unsettling.
Availability: Published by III Publishing in 1993, it’s out of print but you can still get a copy from second-hand sellers on Amazon:
Comments: Halloween looms so what better time to dig out and discuss this relic. It’s strange at times to consider the enormity of weird information available to us and how normalized such weirdness has become. That’s been a boon for people like me, and presumably anyone reading this, but it’s fun to revisit books that predate the rise of the Internet. This book is a hoot and there’s a reasonably good chance that even ardent readers of this site may not have heard of this title. As time permits, hopefully I can discuss more hidden, somewhat Halloween-ie media that may appeal to those looking for creepy stuff with a nice fringe. We’ll see, I can’t even believe Halloween is this week. I don’t even have pumpkins yet. Time is not so much slipping into the future, to paraphrase Steve Miller, as it is hurtling into some quantum physical state wherein time speeds up and keeps speeding up. Someone tried to explain “Schuman Resonance” to me once and it was like trying to teach a dog stoic philosophy so enough about that. Let’s discuss some vampiric high weirdness.
This is a book that is easy to summarize but very hard to discuss in depth. The concept is easy: William Meyers believes that the old gods, and the new, were actually real people who once lived very long lives, thousands of years in some cases, and they were so long-lived because they were/are vampires. He thinks the historical record, as well as common themes that run through world religions, points to vampirism being a part of our world since human beings organized enough to need or appreciate governments and spiritually dogmatic beliefs.
I walk a fine line when it comes to conspiracy theory. It’s very subjective as to whether or not something like this is harmful. Martin Gardner would think so and we can all agree he was way smarter than me. But I am not bothered by this as much as I am the recent “false flag” trends that cause cretins to harass the families of dead children and deny the existence of bomb victims. This is not as horrible to me as shady purveyors of “non-Western medicine” who convince hopeless cancer victims that medical science is evil, driven only by profits and making them sicker via chemo, and then sell those cancer sufferers very expensive crystals or pyramids or instructions for miserable regimens of coffee enemas out of the goodness of their hearts.
This book is entertaining conspiracy, a form of alternate history that shows how creatively human beings can weave together disparate ideas into a larger tapestry that tries to tell the story of humanity. And it seems to do little harm. I don’t see holy wars or anti-vaccination screeds or weird instructions on how to mutilate the genitals of children springing forth from this theory. And that’s not just because this theory requires both a belief that mythological gods were once living beings AND that vampires are real, something that will require a huge leap of faith in the average reader. Rather, this attempt to explain interesting correlations in religious stories and how they all point to a world shaped and ruled by vampires is not a dogmatic belief system.
It’s the dogma that gets you. It’s always the dogma. And without dogma we’ve got ourselves a fun, sometimes bizarre, interpretation of recorded human history. (And to be perfectly honest, I review this book with the mindset and influence of Mac Tonnies, a brilliant examiner of alien-oriented theories for whom the conversation was as important as the “truth.” I may not believe much but I still find myself examining theories like this with Tonnies in mind, willing to muse about the idea as much as its validity. Well, I do that when it doesn’t seem too harmful, but even so I still cut conspiracy theorists a lot of slack. That I let them leave comments here at all is a testament to the legacy of the importance of discussion that the late Tonnies fostered.)
Just in case anyone thinks that Meyers is just positing and not endorsing the notion that vampires are real and that Set and Cybele and Dionysus and many others were all vampires who actually walked the earth once as humans or humanoids, let me disabuse you of that notion:
…there is the possibility that we are not dealing, in the case of vampire-gods, with humans at all. Perhaps they are a distinct species, related to man as man is related to gorillas. Or the gods were a result of a mating between immortal beings and ordinary humans, as is claimed in the stories of Dionysus, Hercules, Jesus Christ and others. Perhaps the rash of women claiming to have been abducted by UFO’s in the past two decades will find that their children are immortal or have unusual abilities.
One informant who claims to know real “vampires,” humans who do not age or age only slowly, says that while they are not sure what causes their condition, a common theory is that it is simply a rare and recessive gene or set of genes. This could explain why most immortals chronicled in this book were the result of some sort of sexual liaison that today is considered incest.
Yep, Meyers believes gods were living beings and even goes so far as to try to explain their origins. What makes this so awesome for me is that as he tries to offer explanations for these gods, he invokes mainstream science in the form of evolution and recessive genetics AND marries his theory with other stories of external beings manipulating mankind. Alien intervention, alien abduction and possibly even the biblical stories of Nephilim and giants mating with humans can stand alongside Meyers’ vampire-god theories. I love this sort of synthesis, a combination of all the ways of interpreting and explaining the world around us.
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, flash fiction, bizarro
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Increasingly I wonder why I continue with this explanation for each book. If I am discussing it here it’s odd, that’s a given. But I think, for the time being, you should consider this book odd because one story features a landlord strapping thick books to his head and goading his tenants into punching him when rent is due. Also a house gets cancer, and the cancer isn’t a horde of stray cats moving in and destroying everything the humans love.
This collection also contains the line: “Hank walks home with the neck of his guitar shoved up his ass.” You need to buy the book to find out why this happened to Hank.
Availability: Published in 2018 by Nihilism Revisited, you can get a copy here:
Disclaimer: Ben Arzate is a frequent commenter on this site (and I should return the favor but I sort of suck lately, you know how it is), and I consider him an e-friend. We’ve never met in person but who does actually meet in person anymore since the Internet has come to ensure we can have friends without ever leaving the house? At any rate, you run the risk of being called a shill if you don’t disclose such things so be aware that I e-know Ben and approve of him as a person.
Comments: Ben Arzate is a very good writer, but in addition to being favorably inclined towards him because he keeps my morale up over here in Hell’s Half-HyperSpace, I really like this collection because it is filled with the kind of strange little stories that have made me a fan of Hank Kirton, Jon Konrath, and Andersen Prunty. These stories cover a lot of literary and psychological ground in very few words – 33 stories in 104 pages of text. I find such stories remarkably detailed because their spare nature causes me to fill in any blanks with my own life, sort of modifying them to fit my experiences. I do that with everything I read, to an extent, but it’s all the easier when writers like Arzate give me a perfect framework upon which to build my own literary reaction.
Most of these stories are flash fiction, more along the lines of vignettes. A few of the stories are longer form, like “Meth-Lab Nursery,” which sadly does exactly what is indicated in the title, and “The Arranged Marriage,” a strange story about a young couple forced to marry by their intrusive parents. The couple eventually find a way out of their predicament when they meet the girl’s ex-boyfriend, who works for a side show because he has what sounds like a cinematic form of progeria. We also get snippets of the miserable, post-apocalyptic, life of Alex, a protagonist who, in the course of three stories, gets coffee at a terrifying cafe located in an utter hellscape, is forced to fetch his mail from a locked cuckoo clock, and watches what appears to be the televised version of Best Gore punctuated by ballet performances. They’re unnerving stories, the Alex tales.
My favorite story in the collection is “The Rent is Due.” A lunatic landlord wakes all his tenants on the day rent is due. At 3:30 a.m., he lines them up, uses a belt to attach a large book to his head, and forces his tenants to punch him. If they don’t punch hard enough, he makes them hit him again. I don’t know why this story delighted me so much. Another of the shorter pieces I appreciate features a man dying after eating literal doughnut holes – like he has regular doughnuts but does not eat them but eats instead the void in the center. It kills him.
The above stories are all entertaining, but evoke less of my verbose need to fill in the blanks. Not the case with “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye,” a story that spoke directly to my largely unexplored animism. I am that person who is sure the pair of shoes she never wears feels slighted, or that her carpet is sad because the cats have been puking a lot lately. The last time a story pinged this tendency to imbue the inanimate with spiritual and human traits happened during S.D. Foster’s bizarro story about a piece of fruit that never gets eaten. In Arzate’s story, a house literally gets cancer. It’s an old house, and the owners kick themselves for not getting it checked out sooner, making sure it was healthy before the lumps formed on the stairs and under the carpet. Maybe they could have prevented the cancer, and they struggle in much the same way a person might when the dog they’ve had since they were a child becomes terminally ill.
There are things I don’t like about our house, and I hate saying any of it out loud because I know the house can hear me. It’s not the house’s fault that the cats have wrecked the carpet and baseboards, that Sally (whom we have to nebulize in a weird crate Mr OTC made out of stuff he got at Home Depot) has coated every surface from the knees down with snot, that Boo Radley has scratched large chunks of frosted glass off the front and back doors as he tries to catch moths outside the house and on and on. So when I criticize the house or complain about the amount of time I spend crawling around with a magic eraser in one hand and enzymatic cleaner in the other, I am certain to make it clear to the house that I don’t blame him for all this mess. I also worry that when we finally move or die the house will be bereft. It has had a weird time in its short life and I sense it is sort of happy with us living here. The dude who lived here before us sold DirectTV things, you know, those gray disks people install on their roofs? Our garage was full of the boxes when we moved in, and all the boxes were empty except for a ton of gecko carcasses because those things infest this house and yard. The garage had been turned into some sort of indie-band sound studio and that’s my most optimistic guess. I am 90% certain porn films were shot in there. Dozens of electrical outlets still remain along the ceiling and we will never be able to mask all the surround sound speaker mounts in the TV room. We could replace the drywall entirely and they would still be there. The whole house is covered with scars, and I know the house doesn’t like these scars. These are not the sort of scars that chicks dig. Neighbors seemed visibly relieved when a quiet-looking couple bought the house. So you can imagine how our house felt.
And let us not mention the… weird stuff that happens in this house, the almost Lovecraftian entities we are certain inhabit this space. I brought it up discussing Konrath’s fine lunacy, and you may have thought I was exaggerating for comedic effect, but seriously there is something living in this house that makes me certain it will kill me. The stairs have already come for me, and I now have a limp every time the temperature dips into the sixties or below, so in addition to worrying about my house’s feelings, I also fear it. Or rather I fear the things living here I cannot see. The house does, too, which is another reason I will feel really bad if we move. Our house doesn’t have cancer. It has PTSD.
My reaction to this story is longer than the story itself, I think, which is the real magic of the sort of writing Ben presents us with in this collection. Some of his stories really are a foundation upon which you can build your own cat-infested snot hole that will one day kill you or maybe just leave you feeling guilty about the messes that your slovenly pets make along with the certain knowledge that all the cleaners you use give you your own tumors to deal with.
But it’s not all “fill in the blanks.” In “My Church” I didn’t need to descend into a near-psychotic analysis of my house to appreciate the story. A kid attends a dismal church held in a basement and the best way to describe the philosophy of the church is Pointless Aggression Theology. After prayers they turn off the lights in the basement and beat each other with hymnals that were accidentally printed in Russian. I love the reason the pastor gives for these book beatings but I’m gonna keep it to myself to keep from wholly spoiling the short story. (It’s also interesting that this collection features a character who wants to be beaten by a book via the punches to the tomes he straps to his face and a religious group who smack each other with books written in a foreign language none of them can speak. I want to psychoanalyze Ben but I’m currently using my powers for evil.)
The book ends with “Love: A Parable.” It may seem like a jaded, cynical look at love, but at the same time it is a kind look at the nature of some sorts of romantic love, a perspective that can become very sentimental if not kept in check. It’s strange to say that a story can be both cynical and sentimental but here we are.
This book contains some rough and/or gross content: a neighborhood descends into really uncompelling group sex, a war criminal recites a nauseating soliloquy, weird angels wreck cars when they fall from the sky, and similarly unnerving content can surprise the reader unprepared for this sort of bizarro-ish splattery writing. Luckily I was prepared. You should be, too.
I find it interesting that a style I find intolerable in other writers works to Ben’s advantage. I’ve spoken before about the tiresome, emotionally-removed, flat style that caused me to rebuke books from Tao Lin and Stephen Elliott, yet found myself enjoying from Sam Pink. And now I can add Ben Arzate to the very short list of writers who use this style well. In Ben’s case, this flat remove is needed because you really can’t create a strong emotional attachment to characters in stories that are often two paragraphs long. Nor would you really want to. Additionally, extremely violent content can often be better appreciated at a certain emotional remove. It’s a variable that I now realize I have to solve on a case-by-case basis. I used to think I detested the style. Now I think I simply dislike when it is not done well.
This style is especially well-married to the stories Ben tells. Absolutely dystopic in almost all cases, yet often tempered with a bit of affection for the story or a little serving of hope. Such stories need a simple, direct method of story-telling. Too much emotion would clutter up these spare tales. As would too much detail. Ben achieves a sort of spartan reserve that lets him tell outrageous stories without crossing over into the false wackiness and pointless gore that eventually turned me off so much bizarro.
I want to leave you with this line from “Deep Sea Diving Suit” because I relate on an almost spiritual level to the protagonist Jeff’s decision to live his life in a deep sea diving suit:
He is so used to spending time in an environment hostile to his survival that he finds himself unable to leave his protective suits despite the fact they make existing in a welcoming environment difficult.
And now you know one of the many reasons why I cannot hold a day job.
Adam Parfrey died on May 10, 2018, and his death has been a mild devastation to me. I never met him in the flesh but had some online interactions with him wherein he was both very professional and very kind to me. I keep wanting to discuss his commitment to freedom of speech and to the dissemination of ideas that were guaranteed to make some readers uncomfortable – given recent societal determination to ban and censor all thought that makes anyone feel uneasy, losing Parfrey seems all the greater a loss.
But if you know who Parfrey was, you already know this. And if you don’t know who he was, the best way to explain why Adam Parfrey was so important is to just to let you see, quite literally see, why he matters so much to me and to other people dedicated to experiencing strange and frightening ideas, to supporting freedom of speech in public and private realms, to shining light on that which is hidden. I said on social media that creating I Read Odd Books, which eventually morphed into this current site, was in no small part influenced by Adam’s works: his own writing, his work with Amok books, Feral House and Process Media are present throughout OTC.
My site and my own life’s works are a small leaf growing on a twig growing from a branch on the tree Parfrey planted and cultivated. Almost every non-fiction shelf in my home has at least one title that is in some way associated with Adam Parfrey. This is just a sample of what I found in five minutes or so, glancing at my shelves.
This really is just a sample. There are likely a dozen more, at least, that I didn’t hone in on in my quick survey of my books.
Despite the clear influence Parfrey has had on my book purchasing habits, it seems a bit mawkish to me to be so upset about the death of a man I never met in the flesh. But, as I think of it, it becomes clearer why I am so sad. When I look at various elements of my tastes, I can see Adam Parfrey’s influence, even if it is a circuitous route to get from A to B. For example, I listened to black metal before Lords of Chaos was published, but the book encouraged me to seek out a few musicians mentioned because I wanted to include them in a book I was working on at the time, a book that became hard to work on after 9/11 and was ultimately abandoned. Reading that Feral House title led me to an interesting, decade-long correspondence with one of the musicians in the book. That has happened with other Feral House titles, strange friendships forming after the authors saw my discussions of their work.
Parfrey also indirectly led me to Ulver. My favorite album of all time is Ulver’s Perdition City. I only listened to Ulver after reading about them in LoC. I may have eventually given them a try but Parfrey’s willingness to publish such a book certainly got me there quicker.
I don’t know if I would have a book published were it not for Adam Parfrey. Of course my book discusses titles from Feral House and Process Media, but my discussions of such works brought me to the attention of my publisher, Nine-Banded Books, in a particularly bizarre and even more circuitous way. My site attracted an unstable young woman who tried to file false DMCA claims against my original content. When that was quickly decided in my favor, she also tried to get me in trouble with my then host by claiming I was publishing obscene content, including child pornography. She flagged my discussions of some books discussing sex, including Jim Goad’s Big Book of Sex, published by Feral House. One of the authors whose book she mentioned spoke to Chip Smith about what had happened to me and Chip contacted me about it. That led to a friendship and a decision to publish a brick of a book containing some of the more interesting discussions I wrote. My book contains several Feral House and Process Media titles: The Covert War Against Rock by Alex Constantine, Strange Creations by Donna Kossy, two passes over The Gates of Janus by Ian Brady (the second reaction clocked in at around 20,000 words), The Carnivals of Life and Death by James Shelby Downard, and Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson.
Parfrey delivered complex, interesting, creepy, inspiring and fascinating voices to those of us willing to explore roads not familiar to us. He published content he thought needed discussion, knowing full well that doing so would ensure labels that did not describe him accurately would be foisted upon him. I will always appreciate his courage to publish that which the purveying moral arbiters consider evil in some manner, raising the ire of bluenose prigs and puritans on the left and the right. I owe him a lot. God speed, Adam.
Art Bell has died. On Friday the Thirteenth. Of course he did. Because he was Art Bell and we should have expected it.
So many people will be offering up eulogies of this man who, in my estimation, heralded in the current “reality TV” obsession with the paranormal and supernatural through his radio show, Coast to Coast AM, that I don’t know how much I can offer that is unique. I’ve mentioned several times over the years that Art Bell has influenced me in strange ways, from introducing me to the works of former priest/fallen man of faith/potential conman/charming Catholic Malachi Martin to making me wonder how many pieces of modern music he influenced.
Mostly I adored him for suing the late Ted Gunderson for defamation when Gunderson insinuated that Bell molested one of his sons and was involved in child pornography. My low opinion of Ted Gunderson should not be belabored in this short paean to one of the most notable purveyors of weird, but I love that Art Bell did not tolerate such slander. He prevailed in a civil suit against Gunderson and Gunderson’s cohorts, and the details of the verdict are sealed so we don’t know how much Ted Gunderson had to pay out for making such base accusations, but the moral victory was more than enough for Bell fans.
Every year I listen to Art Bell’s Halloween shows called Ghost to Ghost, where he takes in calls from people who had paranormal and frightening experiences. It’s going to be a bittersweet listen come this October. I hope now Art knows if there’s a bottom to Mel’s hole and what is down there if there is, if Oswald was a lone gunman in the Kennedy assassination, was there really a frozen little green man in Jonathan Reed’s freezer, and if John Titor Timetraveler was really a load of horseshit. I hope his afterlife is as weird as he deserves. Rest well, Art, and know that your death, in maybe a few weeks, will likely have a very strange conspiracy theory surrounding it. We all know you would have wanted it that way.
Are you in Baltimore? Because Atomic Books is selling TL;DR. I feel a strange thrill knowing that the store that receives fan mail for John Waters is selling my book, and by strange thrill I mean I will likely be mentioning this fact for years to come.
If you are in the Chicago area, Quimby’s Bookstore is carrying TL;DR. No direct link to the book yet but go ahead and shop there now. If I’m not on the shelves, get a few ‘zines and go back later, because that’s what I’d do.
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I spent at least a dozen hours investigating the “Search” suggestions on pages 101-108 and didn’t even make it through the first page due to all the horrible yet interesting rabbit holes I found myself falling down into.
Availability: Published by Harper Perennial in 2015, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I read this book last summer but my overall disorganization as of late worked in my favor for once because some of the content in this book is rather topical right now (I really need to start discussing books the day after I finish them but we can talk about how much I suck in another entry, I promise). The #metoo and #timesup “movements” have brought institutionalized sexual violence and harassment in the entertainment industry into a sharper focus than I could have ever thought possible. The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has been absolutely surreal to witness, but it helps explain why Mira Sorvino sort of disappeared from movie screens after winning an Oscar. I always liked her and now I know Weinstein systematically blocked her from access to high profile roles because she preferred not to have sex with an aggressive ogre of a man. The sentencing of Larry Nassar has lit up Twitter with people cheering as a man who molested at least 140 gymnasts was dressed down by the judge in the case. No matter what the industry is, if it is fueled by young, fit, attractive people, you can count on the industry attracting predators.
But predation can take many forms. A parent, a manager, a director, drug dealers, a world that devalues older women. As topical as this book is in many regards, the women Amber Tamblyn discusses in these poems aren’t exclusively victims of sexual predators. The women who inspired the poetry in this collection experienced a variety of miseries in a world that chews people up and spits them out for all sorts of reasons. Tamblyn took the stories of these girls, teens, and women who achieved some fame, however small or fleeting, and showed the damage done in a way that, strangely, honors humanity as much as revealing interesting and at times salacious stories.
My interest in books is mainly prose – I am not as learned in poetry as I am in prose fiction and non-fiction. But there are still poets whose words speak to me. I focus on specific poems by those poets, seldom embracing their bodies of work as much as the poems that contain those lines that mean something to me. Wilfred Owen (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning…”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“It is the blight man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for.”), and EE Cummings (“Olaf (upon what were once knees) does almost ceaselessly repeat ‘there is some shit I will not eat'”) are great examples of poets who produce specific lines that resonate with me deeply, and Tamblyn manages to create lines that similarly resonate. One in particular I will discuss in a moment.
This collection reminded me in many ways of Mikita Brottman’s short story collection, Thirteen Girls. I found myself curious about all the women in this collection, as I did when I read about the women who fell to serial killers in Brottman’s penetrating look at victims and the ways they are remembered. The titles of the poems are the names of the women they are about, and there were enough stories of women and children whose sorry tales I knew before reading this book to ensure I felt the power of the poems Tamblyn crafted to portray them. Seeing the most troublesome parts of their lives depicted in poetry forced me to rethink my attitudes towards some of the people Tamblyn wrote about.
Types of Books: Fiction, potentially asshole recovery manuals if taken somewhat seriously
Why Do I Consider These Books Odd: Eh, they aren’t that odd in and of themselves but considering them together shows me how enjoyable shitty people can be when they know they are shitty and just accept it.
Availability:The Deep Whatsis was published by Other Press in 2013 / Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published by Gallery Books in 2006 and you can get a copy of both here:
Comments: Analyzing these two books together, because one hits the mark with me and the other doesn’t, might lead one to believe that one of these books is somehow bad, or at the very least lacking. That’s not really the case. Rather, reading these two books around the same time showed me something very interesting about myself: I like unrepentant assholes. Don’t get me wrong – redemption arcs have their place and can be enjoyable, but after a while I tire of the trope of callow men with some measure of success deciding that their lives are empty and meaningless and that their chosen work is unsatisfying and that maybe, just maybe, they can be better men. If the catalyst for change is the presence of a manic pixie dream girl, all the better for the formula.
It’s jaded to think that this formula got hijacked from the early successful Palahniuk novels but, yeah, many books told from the perspective of a male protagonist who is sick of his immoral job, who meets an outsider woman and experiences a strong philosophical shift have the aura of Fight Club about them. I mean, it’s a common trope but perhaps I see it clearer after Palahniuk did it so much better. The Deep Whatsis doesn’t have a Tyler Durden twist and is almost 99% non-violent, but it follows the script and at the end left me feeling like I really needed the protagonist to burn something to the ground because otherwise this book is more or less just a version of several George Clooney movies, like Up in the Air, where the lovable rogue discovers he’s an asshole and learns from the experience and it’s all really heartwarming.
And that’s well and good to a point but sometimes you just want a self-aware asshole to suffer without trying to become a better man.