Posts Tagged ‘Adam Parfrey’


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 though 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 herein 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 the 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 as perhaps 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 that he’s “in it for keeps,” but that’s only the tip of this unrelentingly malicious iceberg.

In recent years, as one could easily 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.



I’ve got two different theories when it comes to Tim Burton — he’s either at his best when working on movies with the word “big” in their titles (think Pee Wee’s Big AdventureBig Fish, or his latest, Big Eyes), or when he’s  directing scripts that the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszeswski have mined from the treasure trove of interesting stuff put out by legendary subversive publishers Feral House (think Ed Wood, which was adapted from Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare Of Ecstasy or, again, Big Eyes, which leans pretty heavily on Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson’s recent Citizen Keane).

The nice thing about these theories is that they’re not really “competing” so much as working together — both can, and probably are, true. They’re a harmonious pair.

Which is more than you can say, of course, for Margaret and Walter Keane, the couple behind the famous “big eyed waif” paintings that took American pop culture by storm for the better part of two decades beginning in the late 1950s. The art world may still be trying to figure out exactly what it thinks about  so-called “big eye paintings” all these years later — the establishment at the time certainly thought they were pure shit, while various underground and populist quarters have been busily trying to resuscitate their reputation for a variety of reasons ever since — but as far the American legal system is concerned, one thing is certain : each and every one of them was the work of Margaret Keane, and not her husband.


Yup, friends, we’ve got an “art fraud” story here — arguably the single-greatest one ever committed, for while even their fiercest defenders would never go so far as to claim that the Keane paintings are masterpieces, they certainly generated a shit-ton of cash, and were once at least every bit as ubiquitous in American households as velvet Elvis paintings or that picture of the dogs playing poker. They were everywhere, and the Keanes were at the epicenter of multi-million-dollar art empire. When the couple split in 1965, then, there was a lot on the line when the question of who did what came up, and the verdict in favor of Margaret was, and remains, a very big deal.

In light of such high stakes, Burton’s decision to make his biopic on the “two” artists such a personal one is perhaps surprising, but it proves to be something of a stroke of genius, because the hows and whys of such a massive swindle can only be understood by delving into the minds and hearts of the people who perpetrated it. Sure, Alexander and Karaszewski take a number of liberties with the facts here — as they did with Ed Wood — but overall they get the gist of things right, and the performances by Christoph Waltz as Walter and, especially, Amy Adams (who’s doing a lot better work these days now that she seems to have given up her grueling pace of a year or two back when she was apparently determined to be in every single flick being made) are both believable and agonizingly human. In the end it’s Margaret’s story, though (as was the artwork), and Burton manages to frame it perfectly by rooting it in the “women-are-second-class-citizens”  cultural context of its time in a way that overly-“hip” garbage like Mad Men only wishes it could pull off.



Frankly, I’m not even sure that a divorced single mother in the late 1950s, when presented with the extraordinary set of circumstances the at-the-time Mrs. Keane found herself in, would have had any other choice but to play along with her old man’s charade, but I guess it’s worth noting for the sake of fairness that in his later years — something Alexander and Karaszewski bio-scripts are notorious for omitting — Walter still maintained that the big eye paintings were his creation, even though he not only never produced one of them on his own, he never painted anything else either. Don’t ask me how or why folks ever took his word for anything, but apparently at least a few gullible souls did.

All that aside, though, where Big Eyes comes up biggest is in the successful “scaling-down” of its proceedings to a level pretty much anyone can relate to, which not only gives the story a lot of heart, but helps it eschew the easy trap too many filmmakers fall into of becoming drunk on the perceived importance of their work. Yeah, the Keanes pulled off an amazingly huge hustle and kept it going for years, but in the end, these are still just kitsch paintings, and while kitsch is cool and all (at least sometimes), and certainly serves a noble purpose in giving a big, fat middle finger to the pretentious assholes of the artistic establishment, it’s still just —- well, it is what it is, right?


In the final analysis, maybe Burton was the perfect choice for director here because his own work succeeds in the same way that big eye paintings did — just as Margaret Keane was able to use her art to communicate something about the souls of suffering innocent children to the masses of the time in a way that didn’t feel at all alienating or holier-than-thou, our guy Tim has managed to build a staggeringly successful career for himself by packaging images and ideas once thought to be too dark, macabre, or unsettling in a way that the masses of today find to be a bit of harmlessly eccentric fun — as a result, they flock to see his films (well, most of them, at any rate — let’s not forget he’s had a few high-profile flops over the years) in droves, and while Big Eyes might be miles away from his typical blockbuster fare,  he captures the beating heart of his characters, and their story,  in a way that’s positively uncanny,  and the end result is his strongest effort in many years.