With the rise of the World Wide Web and alternative media, a cottage industry of publishing houses, Web sites, and TV shows have sprouted forth to alert bored and paranoid individuals of the bizarre and abnormal place our world has become. Once the province of homemade fanzines and renegade booksellers such as Amok and Loompanics, your favorite conspiracy theory or crackpot philosophy now informs the plots of The X-Files and the publicity stunts of Marilyn Manson. Much of the blame can probably be laid on the doorstep of Adam Parfrey, the underground publisher and essayist who helped start the commodification of the underground with 1987's Apocalypse Culture. In that collection of essays, Parfrey not only threw such societal taboos such as Satanism, child pornography, and radical environmentalism at the reader, he did so without the easy moral loopholes usually provided by the mainstream media when covering these subjects.
It's 13 years later, and while Parfrey duly notes in his preface that the world hasn't ended yet, it's still coming apart at the seams. And amazingly enough, he and his able team of contributors--including true-crime writers Sondra London and Colin Wilson, actor/director Crispin Hellion Glover, and Unabomb patsy (at least that's how one essayist here sees it) Theodore Kaczynski--are still able to outpace and out-weird the competition.
In "The Pornography of Romance," Parfrey exposes the world of "Slash" conferences, where middle-aged women gather to trade explicitly detailed literature and magazines depicting straight-male TV personalities (Captain Kirk/Mr. Spock, Starsky/Hutch) as homosexual lovers. And Robert Sterling's "Uncle Ronnie's Sex Slaves" examines the underground genre of "sex slave victimization" exposés, in which born-again women explicitly testify to their sexual abuse at the hands of such Black Magick adepts as George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jackson, and Henry Kissinger.
Not all of the essays here offer such new revelations, and some, like "Roadkill," Jim Goad's foolish glorification of smashing his girlfriend's face in, are just plain wrongheaded. But this excess also allows for "Prime Time," Peter Sotos' horrifyingly brilliant and cryptic analysis of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. By examining JonBenet's media exploitation from the pedophile's point of view, Sotos cuts closer to the awful truth underpinning child molestation than any cowardly talk-show host reaching for the moral high ground ever could.
Overall, Parfrey's freewheeling editorial policy and good taste still sets him apart from the attitudinal hipster fools and tabloid sensationalists who now pollute fringe culture. He even has the good sense to lighten the proceedings with some hilarious found bits of lunacy, from the Islamic Marriage Council's illuminating explanations of the dangers of oral sex to a White Power rereading of Don McLean's "American Pie." It all makes for perfect bathroom reading for a world eternally spiraling down the toilet.
Justin Hampton writes for Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared.