Publishing's Feral Child

Adam Parfrey sheds light on the dark sides of life.

Not many book publishers have been lauded as "equal parts P.T. Barnum, Rod Serling and Hegel," but that's how Salon glowingly characterized Adam Parfrey, the force behind the eccentric Los Angeles-based publishing concern known as Feral House. ("Feral House" because, as its slogan says, it "refuses to be domesticated.") Parfrey founded the company a dozen years ago and has carved out a comfortable market niche by specializing in strange and often uncomfortable material. Feral House's stock in trade includes journalistic and scholarly looks at serial killers, Satanists, and conspiracy theory.

As befits an L.A. publisher, the Feral House book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr. was made into the well-received 1994 Tim Burton-directed movie Ed Wood. Three other Feral House books recently have been optioned by film production companies:Lords of Chaos (about the criminal shenanigans of "black metal" musicians and fans), The Octopus (about the mysterious death of Danny Casolaro, a writer investigating a government conspiracy), and Sex and Rockets (the life story of Jet Propulsion Lab founder and occult adept Jack Parsons).

Parfrey says his goal is to act as "a facilitator for the important and overlooked." Yet he bridles at being written off as "underground." Indeed, the wide open feel of the contemporary cultural scene makes distinctions between the margins and the center less and less important. And larger, more mainstream culture has long noted what Parfrey has accomplished.

Along with likening him to the eclectic threesome of Barnum, Serling, and Hegel, Salon called Apocalypse Culture, a 1987 anthology he conceived and edited before starting Feral House, "a prescient anticipation of millennial times, focusing on many subjects soon to become dear to the hearts of Gen Xers and assorted underground types: body play, occultism, secret societies, Armageddon, man-as-machine, the writings of Hakim Bey....The tome was adopted by freaks everywhere as their bible." (Amazon.com calls the same volume "a fixture on the bookshelves of every Tom, Pierced Dick, and Harry.") "We need publishers like Feral House," implored novelist and critic Gary Indiana in a recent Los Angeles Times piece -- "quirky, brave (and maybe just a little bent)."

Feral House has grown from a one-man bedroom operation to a firm occupying a suite of offices in downtown L.A. with three full-time and three part-time employees, and ever-growing media attention and sales. It is a vivid example of how a free market in culture multiplies opportunities for authors and readers alike. Beholden only to its owner and audience -- not to commissars in the public, nonprofit, and high-culture sectors -- Feral House provides information and viewpoints that may alarm or even disgust many. It is able to thrive (or not) precisely to the degree that it provides entertainment or edification for all who care to partake.

Parfrey, 45, grew up in Los Angeles. He's the son of character actor Woodrow Parfrey, who appeared in Planet of the Apes and, as a member of Clint Eastwood's informal repertory company, in movies such as Dirty Harry and Bronco Billy. Prior to launching Feral House, Parfrey was co-founder of the short-lived Amok Books.

Parfrey has said that "upsetting people is a beautiful thing. Because it gets people to think beyond their last visit to 7-Eleven. There's a lot about this world to be upset about." Among the most recent things to be upset about was radical Islam's explosive arrival on the domestic scene with the 9/11 assaults. This inspired Parfrey to assemble his latest collection, Extreme Islam, which reprints primary documents and commentaries from a wide variety of Islamic figures and organizations. The book explores the dark and disturbing sides of pan-Islamism, the Palestinian cause, the Khomeini revolution in Iran, and the Taliban. It paints a picture of an often violent and radically anti-American worldview that -- though not necessarily representative of Islam as a whole -- is frightening, fascinating, and vitally relevant to Americans.

Associate Editor Brian Doherty, whose work appears in the recent Feral House anthology Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth, interviewed Parfrey in June.

Reason: How did you become interested in the Islamic fundamentalism you explore in your new book Extreme Islam?

Adam Parfrey: Ever since the Khomeini revolution, I've been intrigued by Islamic text and graphics. When the Iranian revolution started, I began to see things that came over from the Middle East -- strange collages, the Echo of Islam magazine, and then a book collection of those magazines that came out in English. It featured things like amazing posters of Jimmy Carter as a satanic figure murdering young women -- not what people in the U.S. would expect or think Jimmy Carter capable of.

That's where my interest started. After 9/11, I brought out old Echo of Islam magazines and went on the Internet and found there were many jihad, basically terrorist, Web sites that were shut down shortly thereafter. Even Google cache files disappeared.

I'd noticed in the U.S. press that the old Chamber of Commerce idea of the world still dominated: Everybody's a nice guy. Everybody means well. Even if the Koran is really, truly a book about destroying the enemy, you'd hear the media say, "They don't mean total destruction of the enemy. If the enemy goes along with their religion and converts or pays a poll tax, a humiliation tax, then that's OK, they won't kill them."

I found it astonishing that those aspects of radical Islam were ignored by the major newspapers and even the alternative weeklies. I thought I could use [the Islamic extremists'] own propaganda to reveal the substance of their thought, and that should be a troubling thing. And I found it was. Not all Muslims are as extreme or as interested in jihad, but let's say only 10 percent are. That's 120 million people worldwide -- a significant number of people.

Reason: What can we learn from the material in Extreme Islam?

Parfrey: One lesson is that we need to ask, what are the consequences of putting American troops in Saudi Arabia and keeping them there? Some Americans might think we should be able to put troops anywhere we want. But it's arrogant to believe there are no consequences to those actions. Or, if there are consequences, that we should just knock anyone who objects senseless.

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