Joel Shepherd of the S.F. Cinematheque walks to the podium and surveys the 100 or so people packed into a classroom, a lively menagerie of Gap girls, leather boys, hipster archivists, long-hair rockers, guys carrying guitars in gig bags, and some attention-starved burrhead kid who, for the last 10 minutes, has been riding his little Schwinn banana-seat bicycle around the stage in a moronic fit. It's the three-credit lab session for Transgression 204 -- a combination lecture and book signing by Adam Parfrey, journalist and proprietor of the book publishing firm known as Feral House.
Shepherd introduces Parfrey, who is in town flogging his newest book, Cult Rapture, a collection of his own nonfiction pieces on various hideous subjects, including a sex cult of physically deformed people, the ongoing legal battles over the big-eyed Keane paintings, a Russian mail-order-bride company, a SWAT training facility in Florida, and a Hindu religious group that encourages the eating of burned cowflop, as well as the militia/patriot movements. Rather than read tonight, he has planned an evening of weird videos.
Parfrey describes one chapter in Cult Rapture about the Southern California cult called Unarius -- a banal yet bizarre society based on UFO pseudoscience -- which believes that in the year 2001, 33 spaceships will visit, some as large as a mile wide, and stack atop one another to form Earth's first interplanetary college. An audience member says, "Yay!" and Parfrey nods: "I agree with you. They're my favorite cult, too."
Parfrey rolls a video produced by the Unarians, a self-described "psychic representation" of a visit to the planet Mars, featuring a '70s-era cast of Unarius students. Frequently interrupted by cackles from the crowd, the haphazard story unfolds. Actors in cheap red tunics walk through gardens pointing at flowers, as a soothing voice-over describes life in the underground cities of Mars. The action alternates among crudely rendered drawings of cities and agricultural communities, pilfered stock footage of modern elevators and monorails, images of cheap crystal baubles sitting under small glass domes, and then it's back to the goofball tunics strolling through what looks suspiciously to be a city park somewhere outside Pasadena. Behind it all is shopping-mall Muzak, with the narrator: "The Martians live more from their inner natures, and are at peace. ... We are not desirous of confounding you."
Fifteen unbelievable minutes later, Parfrey shuts it off to laughter and applause, admitting, "It would be torturous to watch the remaining half-hour."
Since the mid-'80s, the 38-year-old Parfrey has infected minds young and old with a startling line of literature, soaked in irrationality and steeped in conspiracy, from cross-dressing film directors to juvenile penal institutions, Satanism, government mind control, '50s cocktail culture, electroshock therapy, pornography, and bizarre cults. Except for a short-lived foray into periodicals, he has always done books. The allure is substantial -- in newspapers and magazines you report the Zeitgeist, but with books you record it.
Along with large underground publishers like Fantagraphics, Loompanics, and, locally, Last Gasp and Re/Search, Feral House is directly responsible for that new Apocalyptic Culture section in the bookstore. But while Last Gasp and Fantagraphics are best known for their comics and graphic art, and Re/Search specializes in long interviews with its subjects, Feral House offers a forum for writers -- in particular, those with unconventional information to share.
"I don't like the idea of Feral House above the title," Parfrey tells me over a limpid breakfast the following morning. "I like books to have their own integrity."
After some formative years in San Francisco in the early '90s, buying bins of used books and reselling them to used-book stores throughout the Bay Area, Parfrey moved to New York and got a job at the venerable Strand bookshop. He helped produce a tony theater publication, then assisted with the start-up of Exit, a noisy and shocking magazine of graphic art. Once relocated back to hometown Los Angeles, he joined up with a small coterie of individuals interested in a new idea of warehousing odd, skanky literature and selling it mail-order. They called it Amok, and used the successful Loompanics as a model. With partner Ken Swezey, Parfrey created an adjunct book publishing arm of the Amok operation, their first effort a controversial reprint of a tract by Josef Goebbels.
As Amok began self-destructing under its own emotional turmoil and business ineptitude, it nevertheless managed to publish Parfrey's groundbreaking 1987 collection Apocalypse Culture, which has since become required reading for young, pissed-off literati. Apocalypse Culture eventually sold over 35,000 copies, and did a yeoman's job of detonating a youth culture bomb and spreading a continuing morbid fascination with death and conspiracy theory. Its highlights include an interview with Sacramento necrophiliac Karen Greenlee by Jim Morton, as well as articles on psychopaths, werewolves, G.G. Allin, Muslims, schizophrenics, Freemasons, Wilhelm Reich, self-castration, and eugenics.
"Things that Mom and Dad wouldn't like, and the missus wouldn't want in the house," remembers Parfrey fondly. With growing success and visibility from the anthology, called "the terminal documents of the 20th century" by J.G. Ballard, he moved out on his own and started Feral House, later reissuing the book under his own imprint. Over 20 books later, he has now relocated to the quieter surroundings of Portland, Ore.