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Slap Shots 

Wednesday, Nov 22 1995
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Transgression 204
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.

"The thread that rides within Apocalypse Culture, which continues with Cult Rapture, is fin de siecle," says Parfrey. "The mentality of the end of the line. The anticipation of change through catastrophe. In Cult Rapture, the stuff had to keep my interest, whether it be pathos, ultra self-delusion, whatever. And usually it turned out to be the most bizarre aspects of the middle-class mind."

Even if you don't agree with Adam Parfrey, there's not a damn thing you can do. He owns his own press. Which means that his books are bound to infuriate people.

"I do not lie in the way that Clinton lies," he says. "Clinton will get up in front of a podium and say, 'Oh, I feel for you people.' If I go up in front of a podium and say, 'I don't feel for you people ... you're all fucked up ... you're not the same ... there's no such thing as egalitarianism ... everyone is different,' people get very angry, because it's closer to the truth. The closer to the truth you are, the angrier they get because they're trying to push it away from their reality base. You're confronting them with facts that they do not want to confront."

And whether the reader is confronted with Bo Gritz, Aryan murderers, or chain-smoking, physically disabled sex addicts, the material is primarily just the facts. Parfrey's essays can be barbed, but the interviews maintain a distinct, evenhanded reporting tone.

"What does it serve you, to start imposing your morality on people you're interviewing?" he says. "You're trying to get what they think out of them. You're not there to confront them. You're there to get them to expound and to tell you what they're about. And then it's for the reader to make up their mind. It doesn't make sense at all to act as moral arbiter when you're an information-gatherer."

Would he ever do a cookbook?
"Jeffrey Dahmer's," he smiles.
Adam Parfrey may be the logical product of too many books and an increasingly ugly world that nobody can deny is sliding further into the abyss, but throughout it all, he keeps a remarkable, if sly, sense of humor. On the dedication page of Cult Rapture appears a photo of his late father, a Hollywood character actor who poses for the camera on the set -- in full Planet of the Apes costume and makeup.

The next video shown is a peculiar one Parfrey shot himself, a hand-held VHS document of two fundamentalist Christians from Oklahoma in their 50s, who have traveled to Los Angeles to save its soul. Parfrey tracks them as they walk down the sidewalk, their conservative suits standing out against the defiantly gay district of West Hollywood. The men grow increasingly dour and tight-lipped, surrounded by such sin. Asked their impressions of the neighborhood, they express their belief that all gays will meet their judgment in a holocaust fire that will occur "by the end of this year." (From the rear of the classroom, Parfrey shouts, "This was four years ago.") The two visit the City Clerk's Office, brochures in hand, intent on alerting the city of Los Angeles that it must either get itself in harmony with God's law "or else it will be destroyed." A female clerk accepts the brochures, and they immediately leave, mission accomplished.

With such odd interests, you can imagine Parfrey is swamped with strange mail and psycho information passed along by helpful fans. After the lights come up and books are signed, a small group ventures forth to a cheap North Beach restaurant. After dinner, as our party gets up from the table, one guy with a thin beard solicits Parfrey's attention and tells him about his friend Paul, from a Los Angeles band called the Imperial Butt Wizards, who has been "doing a lot of things" with a disabled children's school in Southern California. "He donated a lion to the school, exchanging correspondence back and forth. I think it's really funny." He pauses. "If you're interested."

"Oh, sure," says Parfrey, collecting his things. "Send it to me."

Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8152; e-mail: Slapshawts@aol.com.

About The Author

Jack Boulware

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