This entry represents the first in a semi-regular series of book reviews that I’ll be doing for this site whenever the mood strikes me. The sheer number of comic reviews I’ve written over the past few years have already guaranteed that the “Trash Film Guru” name is well past its sell-by date, but rather than narrow my focus back to films alone (remember the good old days?), for some reason in recent weeks it’s seemed like a good idea to annihilate my original premise for this site completely and just write about whatever the hell I feel like. And there’s probably no better way to kick off our new “Trash Literature” sub-section than with a write-up on perhaps the most relentlessly extreme piece of literary violence I’ve ever come across. BE WARNED, though — things get real ugly real quick here, and if you don’t have the stomach for it, then do yourself a favor and move along before you’re left with some mental imagery that you’d love to shake, but can’t.
For the past couple of years it’s been sitting there, on my bookshelf, never opened — a silent dare.
There are some things that can’t be unread.
I knew who Peter Sotos was/is when I bought Tool. (yes, the period is part of the title), of course, as well as what he was all about — and frankly, I can’t imagine anyone picking this up without any prior knowledge of the author’s history and “M.O.,” but for the uninitiated out there here’s a brief rundown of the particulars : in the early ’80s, Sotos’ self-published ‘zine, Pure — a visceral literary cumshot that extolled the supposed “virutes” of rape, murder, child molestation, and even Nazi death camps — caught the attention of local authorities in his hometown of Chicago, who duly raided his apartment convinced that he must be involved in doing the kinds of things in “real life” that he wrote about with such near-reverence on the printed page. No evidence of criminal activity was found, but one magazine discovered on the premises — an underground European import bearing the charming title Incest IV — was enough to get him busted for possession of child pornography and ensure that the next decade or so of his life would be spent digging out from under a mountain of legal bills that one can imagine the salary from his day job at a meat-packing plant could scarcely begin to cover . As soon as he safely could he began publishing another ‘zine — this one with a more critique-oriented focus — titled Parasite, but during his legally-necessitated hiatus he indulged in writing of a more immediate and disturbingly personal nature, presumably with no “end users” in mind whatsoever, and those works eventually saw print in the form of a series of eight first-person-narrated vignettes under the title of Tool., the first selection of which — an imagined monologue from notorious British child murderer Peter Sutcliffe aimed in the direction of one of his victims, Lesley Ann Downey —was unleashed upon a world in no way prepared to deal with it in the notorious fourth issue of Jim and Debbie Goad’s Answer Me! (the so-called “Rape Issue”), bearing the none-too-subtle header of “Quality Time” and accompanied by a series of remarkably unsettling illustrations by Trevor Brown depicting a little-girl doll in various states of physical and emotional — uhhmmm — distress. To say that it permanently scarred the psyche of any number of readers (myself included) would probably be a profound understatement, and even those of us who “knew what we were getting into” (most likely due to the interview with Sotos that appeared in the pages of Adam Parfrey’s seminal Apocalypse Culture, which is where I — and probably many — self-styled connoisseurs of the extreme and heretical became aware of the man and his work) were effectively eyeball-raped by the searing verbal assault that came our way. We knew, right then and there, that this guy wasn’t fucking around and that he utilized words as a near-deadly weapon. Blisteringly hateful and harrowing passages such as (and, by all means, SENSITIVE READERS SHOULD TURN AWAY IMMEDIATELY) :”You’re going to die. I’m sorry. You cunt. I said I’m sorry. You filth. You female. You dog. Bark for me. Dry your face and go home. Let’s go see mommy. Wanna see mommy? Wanna go bye-bye in the car? Nope. I want to ram this chair leg in your ass first” were more than enough — understandably — to make a lot of folks downright physically ill, and to make even those with the most hardened constitutions have to digest what we were being “offered” in small chunks rather than all in one go. I can only speak for myself, but I felt like I had found the very bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the barrel of human depravity transcribed without sentiment, apology, or anything even marginally resembling quasi-redeeming contextualization. When the Goads later published an omnibus edition of Sotos’ then-extant writing under the entirely appropriate name Total Abuse, Jim put that very thought into words when he said in his introduction that Peter Sotos represented “the outermost limit. Beyond him there is only darkness” —a description that I think (hell, I hope) still applies to this day.
The entire contents of Tool. are available in the just-mentioned product of the former house of Goad, but even though I’ve got the book, “Quality Time” has always remained the only part of that particular section I was ever able to make it through. Pure was, without question, unsettling in the extreme (and is almost certainly even moreso in its original form, with the news clippings and other collage pieces missing from Total Abuse accompanying Sotos’ words), and Parasite is no walk in the park either, but both have the narrative “voice” of an outside observer commenting on events, perhaps even that of — not to be too glib — an over-enthusiastic fan of sex-murder waxing celebratory over his most favorite crimes. Granted, you can’t divorce any discussion of the writer’s own mindset from the events he’s delineating for you when he’s describing the most depraved horrors imaginable (and many that honestly can’t be imagined by most) in not just an approving, but a downright euphoric, way, but we still weren’t “in the mind” of the person or people doing these things — just “in the mind” of somebody who thought it was great that they were being done. Which, sure, is an ugly enough place to be, but it still leaves a certain level of distance between author and act.
Tool., by contrast, offers so such “safe harbor,” and when Nine-Banded books issued it in stand-alone form for the first time (it having also been collected in Creation Books’ Sotos “bumper-volume,” Proxy) in 2013, complete with an immersive-yet-in-no-way-reassuring introduction from publisher Chip Smith (anyone else out there remember The Hoover Hog?), any and all reification attached to these writings was obliterated as surely as a shotgun blast to the head. You were either in, or you were out. No turning back.
I clearly wasn’t ready to digest and absorb the contents of this admittedly-slender volume back when I bought it, but operating under a “well, I probably never will be” mindset, I did finally sit down down to read it a few nights ago, only to discover that I was right — indeed, I probably never will be. In these pages we find sickening “victory letters” from lust-killers to the mothers of their victims, “glory-hole” patrons who get off on dehumanizing whoever’s on the other side of the wall, unrepentant child molesters/slaughterers, johns drunk on their own psychosexual pathologies, aging queens who find respite from their own self-hatred only when hating some hapless rent-boy even more, and not a single instance of “narrative distancing” to make it somehow more palatable. The entire grotesque panorama of mankind’s (and yes, the narrators here are always male) sexual degeneracy is here in all its gory detail. The first segment probably still stands as the most stomach-churningly brutal, but from a psychological standpoint the piece where Sotos “answers” questions posed by a court-appointed therapist after his own arrest, and shifting-focus final vignette wherein a killer addresses the mother of a victim that goes from male to female to pre-pubescent to of legal age to straight to gay, thereby making it clear that he’s in it for the sadistic “pleasure” of raping and killing and that anyone available will suffice for that purpose, rank perhaps as the most — and I don’t use this term lightly or even necessarily as a compliment — unforgettable. And just when you think you can get up off the mat and take a mental break, the work is appended by the text of a “visual lecture”-style piece that Sotos gave in Paris a couple of years ago called “Mine/Kept” —a YouTube link to which I’ve included at the end of this review — that makes clear, in no uncertain terms, what he’s in this for. I’d say he’s in “in it for keeps,” but that’s only the tip of this unrelentingly malicious iceberg.
In recent years, as one could predict, various First Amendment advocates of the “uncompromising” and “absolutist” variety (which is probably the only kind worth being) have risen to Sotos’ defense, as have braver quarters of the art world, and their actions have congealed to form something vaguely approximating a legitimizing membrane around his writing that, from what I can gather, the author himself has no interest in helping to facilitate — his meticulous transcriptions of porn star (and Sotos “fan”) Jamie Gillis’ cruel and degrading interactions with prostitutes in the pages of the book Pure Filth presented as some sort of convoluted but still logically consistent statement about the absurdity of so-called “sex offender registry” laws notwithsanding . Whether on the printed page, where he’s been reasonably prolific for the past couple of decades (although his output remains, generally speaking, as inaccessible as ever), or as a (now former) member of the pioneering and justifiably controversial “power electronics” outfit Whitehouse, Sotos, in his post-Tool. incarnation, seems bound and determined to deliberately strip his work of anything that could be used as an argument either for or against its very existence. He doesn’t write about this stuff in order to push the envelope of free speech to its furthest point; he doesn’t write about this stuff in order to cast an uncomfortable but necessary light on the deepest recesses of the disturbed mind; and he doesn’t even seem to write about this stuff in order to communicate with anyone else what he is thinking. He writes about this stuff because it’s what he’s into, because it’s what gets him off, and because he wants to and he can. That sort of unfettered self-honesty doesn’t make for much of an argument as to why his writing should exist — and it certainly doesn’t make any argument for why it needs to exist for anyone other than himself — but exist it does, and the sort of things it concerns itself with, like it or not, are every bit as real as cute puppies and beautiful rainbows. If you can muster up the resolve to be forced into thinking about a whole lot of shit that you probably don’t want to, and feel that you can withstand the abyss not just gazing but roaring back, well — Tool. is probably the mightiest test of your endurance you’re ever likely to come across. For anyone else, pretend you’ve never even heard of it and go on your considerably more merry way.