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.
Extreme Islam was produced primarily to get across an idea that wasn't disseminated widely in American culture—to show how strong the [fundamentalist Muslim] belief system is and how unmanageable it is, considering there are tens or possibly hundreds of millions of people sharing these ideas. America has to come to grips with the intensity of their beliefs. Any conflict with them will not be resolved by simply saying we're great guys, we believe in democracy.
I believe Osama bin Laden, if you examine the Koran, is closer to the Koran and the prophet Mohammed's beliefs than the hope that Islam can be democratic. It's not a very democratic belief system. To say that it is comes out of a wish that has nothing to do with Islam. It comes from the idea that everything good has to do with democracy or democratic ideals. Well, there are different ideals at work in the world, and we need to come to grips with that.
Reason: People sometimes make comparisons between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity. Maybe the ideas in Extreme Islam are no more representative of Islam than fundamentalist Christians are of Western culture.
Parfrey: There is something to that, I think. You're talking about three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There is a belief by some Christians and Jews that Islam is "undeveloped." That's what they say when they are being nice about it. They say that Christianity and Judaism have had many more years to "progress." I do think that all fundamentalisms have something in common. Each one believes in the deficiency of other beliefs and the ascendancy of their own beliefs over everyone else's.
The situation in east Jerusalem, at the Al Aqsa shrine, indicates this. The Al Aqsa shrine in east Jerusalem is thought by Jews and some Christians to be the site of the Temple of Solomon. Let's say the Orthodox Jews and Zionist Christians actually do what they wish and destroy the Islamic shrine and then rebuild the Temple of Solomon. You're talking about a world war situation these people are fooling around with. But they would wish for it to happen. That's what's scary. It's not like they don't care—they want it! I discussed that with a Time magazine writer, who ended up writing a story that discusses that specific problem. It's watered down a bit from what I had said to the writer, but nonetheless it's a very disturbing situation in the Middle East regarding the Temple Mount, and these democratic well-wishers just refuse to talk about it.
Reason: How do you choose what to publish?
Parfrey: The intent is to interest me personally. It's a small business, and I started it by thinking that things I was interested in would also interest others. It's fully dependent on sales. There are no grants, no awards, no rich daddies. It's totally dependent on word of mouth also, because I can't afford to be put up at the front table at Barnes and Nobles or Borders. That sort of placement costs too much for me.
Before starting Feral House, I worked for a small avant-garde publishing house in New York City. The way they worked was to get grants from academia and elsewhere, and that kept them going. My interests are considered offbeat, weird, whatever you call it. People accuse me of being sensationalist, and I'm not sure how to react to that. Some of my interests are sensational, I suppose, but they are interesting. Certainly there are very provocative things in some of the books I publish, but there are also things with academic credibility as well, some even written by college professors.
I realized that if I went the grant route, my interests would have to coincide with material that was less penetrating of people's emotions. I couldn't have people saying, "Oh God, what's that horrible thing?" I'd rather have the bottom line question be, "Will enough people buy that book?" rather than, "Will a few people in the ascendancy of academic culture be offended by it?"
Reason: It might be said that Feral House has an unsavory obsession with evil: Satanism, serial killers, Nazis….
Parfrey: Some books, not the majority of books, but some. Major New York presses do a lot more on Nazism than I ever have.
Reason: What do you say to people who think you concentrate on inappropriate topics?
Parfrey: Like books about the Church of Satan and brutal crimes? There are things that are certainly dark that I've published, but I published a book on bubblegum music too (Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth). My publishing books by and about Anton LaVey [the founder of the Church of Satan] was a business decision. Here's a guy whose book The Satanic Bible sold over a million copies—and he had other, out-of-print books. I knew that I could begin a press and rely on those as backlist titles. And I was right. It was a good decision to make. Whether that tarred and feathered me—that was a choice I had to make and it was worth it to me. As far as true crime, I've been interested in and done interesting books in that genre. It's still a small percentage of the books I do, but I have done some pretty amazing books in that field.
Reason: You've also done a fair number of strictly political books recently as well.
Parfrey: I was interested at one time in doing a politically oriented press called "None of the Above." I'm not a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian—I don't like joining parties, though I sympathize with libertarianism as a political philosophy more than any other. The political books I publish are beyond parties.
A couple of years ago, I commissioned and published Snitch Culture: How Citizens Are Turned into the Eyes and Ears of the State, by Jim Redden. There was more and more going on in the Clinton administration regarding loss of privacy, and I was personally upset by these ideas. Hillary Clinton said privacy was overrated—what's going on here? Students were being instructed to tattle on other students. What my father's generation had been told was the right thing to do is now turned on its head. You're supposed to be a rat or a snitch, and that's a good thing. You can perhaps prevent a Columbine from happening.
A lot of this is going on in relation to the very sorry drug war. People are creating problems for innocent people because they find that snitching gets them a less dramatic prison sentence if they turn in others who may be innocent. That is a very bad situation, created as a result of the advocacy of snitching. It has become a social problem and a political defect.
Other political books Feral House has done include THE REVOLUTION®: Quotations from Revolution Party Chairman R.U. Sirius, which came out in 2000. Sirius is a prankster; he calls himself a "cyber-terrorist." Especially in an election year, I thought it would be amusing to put out a book that questions the system as it exists politically and to put it out in the format of Mao Tse-Tung's Red Book. Not that it was a communist tract, but to get people's attention and make them interested in what he's saying. The humor element is usually totally removed from politics, and I wanted to put that back in.
John Zerzan's Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (2002) is another one. He's a leftist, but he sees the problems with that as well. I'm not a fan of that kind of political structure or belief system, but I am a fan of John Zerzan's writing. He's a provocative writer on contemporary problems with technology. He's an anti-technology anarchist, and for some reason he was picked up on by these anti-globalization kids who threw chairs through the windows at Starbucks franchises.
Also, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, wrote to him. Kaczynski was influenced by John's work, and I found that remarkable too. I don't even believe in most of what Zerzan is saying, but he's a provocative and interesting writer. I think it's a problem when people dismiss or do not want to read something they don't think they would abide by 100 percent.
Reason: Do you think that the work Feral House does is marginalized?
Parfrey: I'd like to indulge myself by saying I've pushed the envelope a little farther and some things are discussed in certain ways more than they would have been if I were not there. But I'm pushed into a pigeonhole called the "underground." I don't consider myself underground. My books go into the same bookstores as ones from Random House. My books sit side by side in chain stores with books published by Judith Regan. They aren't sold like old erotica, under a coat. They're in bookstores, man! I have business meetings. I'm this middle-class guy who deals with the same system that the mainstream goes through. But some of the books are just considered "too much" to deal with, yes, even if they are ordered by major stores and in every Barnes & Noble and Borders.
Reason: Why do you think that other publishers tend to avoid the more controversial and sensational topics Feral House covers?
Parfrey: There are several reasons. They don't want to be tied into material that does not look beneficial to their reputation and standing in this small world of publishing. Doing weird, offbeat stuff doesn't necessarily make them look good. It might be that they don't even recognize there's a sales interest in it. Another reason might be a career fear on the part of an editor: What if your boss doesn't see the value of a more controversial book idea?
Reason: How does it affect you being in Los Angeles, away from the center of the publishing industry in New York?
Parfrey: Not being in New York hurts my ability to get reviews. But it helps being outside that world in the sense that I'm not caught up in the mechanism of it. What happens in the publishing world is that a lot of middle management people steal from each other. They always use the phrase "what's hot"—what does that mean? It's what people are stealing from each other at that moment.
Reason: How have the past decade's changes in the book business affected you?
Parfrey: The big chains have opened up the possibility of selling more of certain titles. Few titles break even, but a few titles do better than break even. It's a bipolar situation. I try to put books out that are good as books—that aren't necessarily going to have the same effect if read on the Internet. I'm interested in photographs and books with a lot of illustrations that assist the text. I'm more interested in design now than before. I have to think about what makes a book different from the Internet, about what makes it compelling to own this thing.
The Internet provides so much more reading matter for everybody that people feel overwhelmed. So in some ways the Internet has not benefited publishing. But in other ways it has, because it gets the word out on our books more prominently, both good and bad. We get a number of orders through our Web site from people who wouldn't be able to find these books in the middle of nowhere. But it's not good if people feel overwhelmed with data smog and can't even bear to look at another sentence.
Reason: Have you found the free market to be good for culture and ideas? Obviously, a lot of leftist thinkers don't think it is.
Parfrey: The free market is the least censorious mechanism to put out material. I think it's the best way myself, obviously so. I'm the living example of it.
Reason: Markets leave judgments to the world at large, while academia and government leave it to…
Parfrey: A tiny minority, yes.