Demons: The Answer Book (1993)

Lester Sumrall
Whitaker House

Satan is real.  These are the end times.  The Devil seeks to dominate America in particular.  Demons prowl around in search of bodies to occupy.  Occasionally horses and dogs host demons, as can be seen when they inexplicably "go berserk."  Crime = demon.  Adultery = demon.  Sodomy = demon.  Depression = demon. 

Demons are particularly attracted to big cities.

"Evil spirits seem to be drawn to the cities.  Since they apparently are not satisfied until they dwell within a human body, they congregate in places where humans are numerous.  Their strength is most evident in cities that, for some reason, have little of the light of the gospel.  Paris, New York City, Hollywood--these cities I believe are under the devil's ruling power."

Author Sumrall came to believe in demons after seeing a girl in the Philippines who manifested spontaneous "bite marks" from some invisible being, which proved to be a demon.

A Diet of Treacle (2007)

Lawrence Block
Hard Case Crime
(Originally published as Pads are for Passion by Sheldon Lord  -1961)

For those still harboring disgust over the navel-gazing entitlement of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, here's a worthy antidote.  Anita is a nice girl, going to school and engaged to a decent enough guy.  But rather than go on a carbo binge in Italy to find herself, she instead takes the subway down to the Village where when she meets Joe, a Korean war vet and college drop-out.  Soon she's shacking up with Joe and his pot-dealing roommate, Shank, who eventually drags all three of them into the deadend life of crime and claustrophobic despair that befalls so many pulp protagonists of the era.  Happily, Anita's slide into the dark mysteries of the village is not treated as a morality tale nor as an indictment of Eisenhower anomie (despite the title) --it's just something that happens because, you know, life sucks and fate is a bitch.   Similar in tone to the doomed dramaturgy of David Goodis from this period.  Best of all, no one is saved through gelatto and meditation.

Should be of interest to all pulp readers, of course, but also those just fascinated by how central the mythos of the Village has been in crime fiction over the past 50 years.  I still have about about a half-dozen of these titles on my shelf unread, in addition to The Case of Village Tramp from a post last year.  And this mythos hasn't changed much even with the gentrification of the area.  Back when NYPD Blue was still on the air, Sipowitz and his rotating partners often ended up in the Village to bust upscale addicts and "perverts."  Same crimes as the early '60s basically, but perpetrated by people with more money and "weirder" tastes.  It was one of their favorite plots, right next to murdered NYU professors found in some type of cross-dressing bondage predicament.

The Devil Made Me Film It!

A new devil movie comes out today, The Last Exorcism, which should be cause for great rejoicing among those hoping to genuinely frighten themselves at the cinema.  Will it be any good?  It doesn’t really matter in that Satan flicks remain the one genre where, in the back of even the most soberly materialist mind, the real terror resides in a suspicion that one might land in some form of supernatural trouble just through the act of watching the movie—be it good or bad.  The act of self-selecting to see a devil movie in the first place is to tempt damnation.  For example, it’s easy enough to watch a vampire movie and not worry about encountering a vampire, or more recently, regressing into some form of freakishly celibate teenager.  Even the crappiest devil movie, on the other hand, plays on a few thousand years of guilty superstition that the Dark One might be in the theater with you, in spirit at least, looking to throw a demon into some random idiot (i.e. you) for no other reason than said idiot willingly attended a movie about demonic possession. 

After The Exorcist came out in 1973, there was a “documentary” that PBS would run from time to time that featured a post-exorcized young man discussing how Satan had stumbled into his life.  “At midnight, I looked into a mirror and said aloud three times, ‘Satan, come to me.’”  And that’s what Satan did.   Even though this testimony is just a variation on the “Bloody Mary” ritual performed at countless slumber parties of yore, I still believe that guy’s devil story.  If you think you don’t, go try it tonight in your bathroom.  Sure, the horned one probably won’t materialize on your bath mat.  But over the next week you might start noticing a change: irrational anger, brooding irritability, an inexplicable desire to break a drive-thru window over a botched McNuggets order.  Before you know it, a team of orderlies are holding you down cramming you full of Thorazine; or alternately, a team of farmhands are holding you down while Brother Zachariah dowses you with Holy Creek Water.

From the ad campaign, it would appear The Last Exorcism is the latest effort by the movie industry to revitalize a classic horror subgenre by mobilizing the “fake documentary real,” a once innovative device that has itself  become somewhat of a “classic” over the past decade or so.   The Blair Witch Project (1999) started this current cycle and remains the undisputed champion.  That film rather brilliantly took advantage of the brief historical moment when the eras of William Castle and the Internet temporarily overlapped, indulging perhaps the last audience in history capable of maintaining any affective investment whatsoever in determining the status of the image.  It was obviously all a fake.  But for those so inclined, conditions were never better to pretend to entertain some degree of dubious conviction, even if one was only pretending to pretend.   (side note: as those with truly despicable taste are well aware, Cannibal Holocaust actually pioneered this conceit way back in 1980 when a producer accidentally happens upon a stack of film canisters left behind in the Amazon rain forest documenting an NYU anthropology team’s slow-roasted date with a rotisserie).

Cloverfield (2008) took a slightly different approach, retooling Godzilla (1956) according to the ADD aesthetic of cyborg-youth thought to so dominate the sensibility of the industry’s primary target market.  The movie was a real vomit-launcher for anyone over the age of, let’s say 35, not so much for the insanely over-vertiginous “real time” camerawork (I know everyone was scared of the Cloverfield thing and all, but the cinematography on that movie looked as if the DP was trying to film everything while a badger burrowed its way out of his stomach), but more for the rather maddening conceit that it is more important to document your pals being shredded by extraterrestrials than it is to simply run like hell in the opposite direction of the screaming.  After all, it’s not like the movie’s plucky 20-somethings needed to document the reality of the situation for posterity.  Every single man, woman, and child in New York City realizes Manhattan is under existential threat from a seriously gruesome space beast.  Before nausea forced me to leave the theater (not snooty critical nausea, but garlic-laced puttanesca + "we have no tripod" nausea), I couldn’t help but wonder if these characters were in the same movie I was watching.

This brings us to Paranormal Activity (2007), which one-upped Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982) by not only moving the Victorian ghost story into a more banal domicile, but also by matching the banality of haunted nightlife with the banality of home DV technology.  While the film has its highs and lows, this commitment to underwhelming imagery was certainly laudable.  After all, Poltergeist was perhaps the greatest ghost movie of all time UNTIL the unfortunate scene when JoBeth Williams descends the staircase to announce that she just “felt” her daughter Carol Anne’s spirit pass through her—the precise moment, almost to the second, that you can also feel the film passing through Tobe Hooper’s body and back to Spielberg the screenwriter/ “adviser.”  Signaled by Spielberg’s patented strategy of generating fake emotion through a simultaneous dolly-in/tilt-up camera move, we know at that point purely through film style that everyone’s going to get through this unharmed, just like with the truck, shark, and alien movies that came before, and that our dreams of seeing an entire suburban family blasted into ectoplasm will just have to wait.

What will The Last Exorcism add to the “faux documentary real” game?  Again, I probably won’t see it, what with the threat of even more Satanic contamination of my soul at stake, but from the ad campaign the film’s strategy seems pretty clear: use the mediating device of a documentary video crew to re-enchant our now jaded response to the proliferation of CGI “magic.”  In other words, by capturing the Charcot-on-steroids iconography of devil manipulation through a putatively “low tech” camera, the film looks to distract us from the fact that almost all movie images, no matter how “spectacular,” and are also now equally unimpressive.  While Paranormal Activity did this in true low-budget style, assuming (correctly) that mysterious sheet disturbances filmed in low lighting would elicit a creepy response, The Last Exorcism appears to take the more paradoxical approach of disguising rather expensive effects-work behind the illusion that no one had time to get to a Pro Tools station before we get to see the devil’s chiropractor subject this poor girl to a series of very painful adjustments.

How many more of these films can be made?  Like any stylistic device, the “faux documentary real” can probably generate a few more titles before completing losing its “power” to suspend belief and/or disbelief (not really sure which applies here).  Unlike the spread of other narrative forms, however, this one seems a bit more inflected by a general panic over the status and future of all narrative cinema.  When every story form is known to the point of exhaustion, and every image technique demystified to the point that any teenager can render 300 on a home computer, how will the “fiction” film maintain any kind of hold?  No doubt the industry will have to continue devising new strategies to convince us that something is at stake on the screen, like when The Break-Up (2006) generated fleeting interest by seeming to reference Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan’s actual collapsing relationship; or more recently, when the pleasures of intensely hating Eat Pray Love (2010) depend on knowing about author Elizabeth Gilbert’s “real world” publishing deal. 

This is why, from Stroszek (1977) to Grizzly Man (2005), we may one day look back to Werner Herzog as the most significant filmmaker of the past half-century, all because he had enough sense to get out of the fiction game (mostly) before it became completely dead.  The only true horror films to be made in the future will be artfully edited compilations of tapes taken from someone who really believed he had a ghost in his house, a devil in his soul, or a weird alien living at the edge of his property line.  Without someone somewhere actually making me believe that they believed it was real, what's the point?


Sunday morning remains one of the last fallow fields of television; in fact, in a more sane society, we might actually just let all of broadcasting go dark for those few hours, not out of any deference to Christian tradition, but just to see what it might be like--psychologically, sociologically, biologically--to have a brief window each week when the media would just shut the hell up.  Of course, this will never happen as long electricity still exists, and we can all look forward to the media continuing to proliferate exponentially until the Sun explodes and the planet finally loses service once and for all.  

Historically in the United States, Sunday morning is where the networks bury their public affairs programs like Meet the Press and Face the Nation.  Local broadcasters have done the same, typically even earlier in the morning, pitting the back-up news anchor against a city council member to debate the mayor's new wastewater bond initiative--the type of program vigilantly monitored by area cranks before they fly a Piper Cub into the local IRS facility.  Cartoons and church figure in the mix as well, of course.

For much of broadcast history, Sunday morning was also one of the first blocks to trade in "lifestyle" programming, although its target audience would have been loathe to think of it that way.  In addition to religion and politics, Sunday morning has been a traditional home for those who enjoy shooting animals, fishing fish, and fixing various things around the house.  In homage to noted gender psychologist "Larry the Cable Guy," we might call this "git 'er done" television, whether "gittin' 'er done" means shooting and field-dressing a wolverine, replacing the downspouts on the garage, or building a doghouse in the backyard for Rover.

Trucks!, currently running on the Spike network, continues in this fine tradition, targeting its audience prey with a rather elegant narrative formula that speaks to the most uncomplicated aspects of male psychology:  "Hey, let's find an old truck, fix it up, and then drive it around." On other occasions, the plot is more of a masculine dare: "Let's hook that truck up to something really heavy and see if we can tow it." In another episode, an old beater shows us just how much abuse a truck can take at the demolition derby but still keep going.  Simple scenarios with rather limited stakes, you might say, and yet within these parables of men and machines operate a complex network of deeply felt emotional issues about contemporary masculinity.

Like most "git 'er done" television, Trucks! appears to target a demographic slightly older than the 18-24 priapic males that Spike usually seeks to impale.  I would hazard to guess that the prime demo of Trucks!  is married and somewhere in the nebulous region of the middle-aged.  As Nick Browne's canonical article on the TV Supertext would tell us, this herding of paunchy mortgage holders to Sunday morning is wholly to be expected.  This demographic's week typically breaks down thusly: Monday through Friday = paid labor; Saturday = errands and general leisure; Sunday = attending to various "masculine" chores around the domicile (with televised sports used as either a temporary time-out or as the day's ultimate reward).

Of course, as those in that demographic well realize, whatever it is that needs "gittin' done" typically doesn't actually ever git done.  Trips to the mall supervene.  Kids break toes.  The Bears go into overtime.  But the male fantasy that things should and might git done remains strong.  In this respect, these Sunday morning lifestyle programs speak to that vestigial remnant of the male superego that still imagines itself capable of and indeed vital to performing useful labor around the house, or more broadly, the nation.  It's the same impulse, sadly, that can be exploited to make men vote for Republicans simply by circulating pictures of candidates clearing brush, hammering fenceposts, or punching a horse.  In this scenario, men do the difficult and frequently unpleasant things that need doing, chores that women and Democrats, what with their inferior upper-body strength and delicate constitutions, are incapable of doing--hard jobs like chopping wood, disposing of dead animals, or dismantling the welfare state.

Trucks! is a part of something called Powerhouse TV, a production company that also churns out  Horsepower, Muscle Car and Xtreme 4x4.  Judging by their website, I would say the other three shows skew a bit younger, attracting those viewers interested in enjoying muscles, power, and X-tremeness (like the guy above who looks to be shredding on an air strut).  Trucks!, however, is particularly suited to an older demographic since older men so easily identify with trucks.  Both are solid and sturdy, roadtested work-horses, ruggedly handsome, bearers of burdens large and small, a bit dented and weatherworn, perhaps, but still looking down the road with a lot of miles left on the odometer.  One episode of Trucks! is called "Second Chance Silverado," a title that could refer either to restoring an old Chevy or to a 50-something gunfighter who has to shoot a couple of young punks for playing their goddamn honky tonk music so loud when decent folk are trying to sleep.

In the episode I watched the other day, the hosts had just finished refurbishing the 1966 Chevy C-10 pick-up truck pictured at top.  I don't know how old those guys are, but for anyone in their 40s, 50s, or older who actually has a memory of those trucks on the road, this image cannot help but conjure a certain nostalgia for an era when it seems like it was much simpiler to be either a man or a truck.  Back then, if your truck's suspension went out, you fixed it with a wrench and copious cursing, not by taking it to the dealer to run a "diagnostic" of the on-board computer.  By the same token, men of that era usually had enough sense to drop dead before their prostate turned traitor or they could no longer yank the pullchord on the lawnmower. Also at work, no doubt, is the fantasy that manly men used to work with tools and actually make things, way back before computers and consumerism made guys more concerned about software updates than keeping the septic line properly snaked.

It is a variation on the same fantasy that makes Don Draper such a perverse role model for the early 21st-century, recalling a time when men fixed the TV by kicking it or kept a mistress in check by dragging her into the coatroom and grabbing her crotch.  Like so much popular memory, most of this is bullshit.  Still, even for those who do not necessarily hunger for the days when straight white guys had a mechanical and ideological answer for everything, seeing an old truck lovingly restored obviously provides a great opportunity for a little self-reflection on one's own mileage.  You know, if I cut back on the fried foods, got some more exercise, and started on the Rogaine,  I would probably look and feel ten years younger myself.  No time like the present.  It's Sunday.  I guess I could get a good start on the exercise by cleaning out the attic today.  Somebody's got to git 'er done, and Lord knows the wife or the boy aren't going to crawl up there in this heat to start sorting through all those old boxes.  Yep, I'll get to it right after the next commercial.  zzzzzzzz.

Rat Pack (1974)

Shane Stevens
Pocket Books

Billed as "an American Clockwork Orange," but actually something even more disturbing.  The book follows four black teenagers on an overnight spree of rape and robbery in "white" Manhattan (i.e. not Harlem).  Within the first 30 pages we see them roll a gay John at a public toilet, stumble upon a covert porno shoot in Central Park, and threaten to rape the film's underage actress (a crisis resolved only when the gang's "leader" decides he'll just whip it out and masturbate instead---yes, it's just that gritty).  After that it's a night of wandering through the Financial District, Chinatown, Union Square, and other neighborhoods in search of a "big score," culminating in a rather gory finale on the Upper West Side.

Author Stevens covers himself by opening the book with a poem from Langston Hughes to signify his sympathetic perspective on all the mayhem, and he also makes a few nods toward contextualizing the extreme poverty, poor education, and total lack of opportunity facing his protagonists.  Still, the book reads for the most part as borderline racist exploitation, portraying the "rat pack" as lacking any shred of empathy, self-reflection, or conscience as they beat, stab, rob, and molest their fellow citizens.  A reminder of the "bad ole days" when NYC was so supremely screwed-up both in reality and in fiction.

It turns out Rat Pack is a fairly rare and sought after book.  A basic reading copy in paper appears to go for about $30.  So if you see one at Goodwill, buy it.  You don't have to read it, and if you feel bad profiting on a book designed to scare white people shitless by implicitly, hell explicitly, equating black youth with the vermin that infest their Harlem tenaments, you can always give the money to the charity of your choice.

Bieber Beatdown


Past-Life Therapy In Action (1983)

Dick Sutphen and Lauren Leigh Taylor
Valley of the Sun Publishing

Your life is a mess and here's why.  You operate according to a certain "viewpoint," one established either in this life or, more likely, in a "past-life."  Sharon doesn't want to have kids.  Explanation: "As a nanny in 1800s England, Sharon looked after the seven-year-old daughter of a wealthy family.  When the child died, the mother had a nervous breakdown and never fully recovered.  The father became sullen and withdrawn."  Howard thinks he's destined to become a big name in Hollywood.  Why?  "He spent his life seeking money and notoriety as a writer.  Just before the publicatio of his first book, he died."  And so on.  A mix of Hinduism and Freud presented as the transcript of an unfolding seminar.  What's the point of it all?  The authors can't say what might happen in the future, but getting your past-lives in order will at least make you less screwed up in the here and now.

Sheppard Lee (1836)

Robert Montgomery Bird
NYRB Classics (2008)

A truly odd and interesting novel from antebellum America.  Through laziness and neglect, Sheppard Lee loses the farm he inherited from his father. Thrown off his own land and with no place else to go, he fortuitously discovers that he has the power of transmigrating his soul into recently deceased bodies.  But he can find neither rest nor happiness as he moves through a series of diverse bodies and social situations in and around early 19th century Philadelphia.  Wonderfully deadpan and ironic in places, it reads very much like an American Thackeray.  Said to have been an influence on Poe ("The Gold Bug"), Melville ("Israel Potter"), and Stowe ("Uncle Tom's Cabin") in its day, the novel appears to have been all but forgotten in the 20th century.  This new edition is the result of efforts by UCLA English Professor Christopher Looby to bring the book back into print. He also writes the introduction.

The Possibility of an Island (2005)

Michel Houellebecq 
Knopf Books
Because evolution is still basically the strongest force behind all human behavior, identity and culture remain wholly subordinate to an ongoing quest to secure younger sexual partners.  This process tends to drive middle-aged men and women increasingly insane, albeit for different reasons. If you think having kids and throwing yourself into parenting saves you from this fate, you're an idiot.  Cultivating an asexual culture based on absolute segregation and antiseptic cloning may seem like an appealing solution to the brutal horror of existence, but this too has its complications.  Dogs are awesome because they love you no matter how old, pathetic, and decrepit you become. 

An Old-Fashioned Marxist Diatribe

There is a commercial now in heavy rotation that is well worth complaining about.  


The spot comes from Traveler’s Insurance and is apparently titled “the Watering Hole.”  As an insufferably cheery band plays a new take on “We’re Going to the Zoo,” various links in the African food chain frolic around the water in peace and harmony.  Zebra and lion drink side-by-side.  A meerkat, fresh off inflating his Q-scores with Meerkat Manor, dives into the pool from atop his friend the giraffe. “When you’re not worried about potential dangers, the world can be a far less threatening place,” observes a human, probably from a safe distance.  And then the tag line: “Take the scary out of life.”   It is a vision of the world straight out of a children’s pop-up book, or that conflation of Isaiah that eventually became a Genesis album. 
Recently the term “ideology” has been starting to come back into circulation after a prolonged exile atop the scrapheap of structuralist naivete.  And it’s about time, I say, as the current media environment is practically begging us to reengage in a didactic and even painful program of radical demystification, one that might possibly strain our friendship with television and its audiences, but is nevertheless crucial in our duty to keep alive the flame of critical inquiry in the dark days that lie ahead. 
As a rule of thumb, anytime you see animals doing something other than eating, sleeping, or shitting, ideology is most likely at hand.  In this case, we might begin by asking how exactly this scene of animal harmony came about.  Either Jesus really has returned and brought with him the fabled “Peaceable Kingdom,” or an economic miracle of some type has removed all thought of material necessity from the Veldt.  Perhaps a cargo plane accidentally dropped a huge mountain of K-rations nearby and all the animals agreed, given this new plenitude, to quit wasting all their time and energy chasing and eating each other.  In either case, secular or spiritual, these animals have clearly achieved some form of socialist, perhaps even communist paradise.  With all of their needs now apparently all equally met, these beasts are able to cooperate in a new golden age of swimming, grooming, and self-actualization (although let’s check back, shall we, when the pond begins to evaporate). 

Travelers Insurance would have us believe we too can live in blissful peace among our fellow citizens if only we buy their product, thus taking “the scary out of life.”  But consider what “insurance” actually is – a commodity we purchase that (we hope) protects our other possessions from theft and/or damage and ourselves from “liability.”  Our “scary world” is linked to economic anxiety, where “eat or be eaten” has been replaced by “sue or get sued,” and where at any moment an economic disaster can utterly destroy us both socially and psychology. While leopard and antelope may have worked it out, we still live in a “dog eat dog” world of unrelenting alienation harnessed to the machinations of property and power—with no “safety net” and an audience that is increasingly eager for neighboring nations, states, counties, and even zip codes to drop dead.  
Rather than examine the foundations of this terrifying system (okay, I’ll say it: capitalism), we are instead encouraged here to inoculate ourselves from its horrors through insurance.  But while this promises to “take the scary out of life,” insurance only buries us deeper and deeper into the very system that enslaves us. 

The dancing animals are happy because somehow they’ve found a way to abandon exploitative relations of power (as in, I need energy and so now I will eat you).  They don’t own anything and are free to pursue whatever activities they see fit.  The only way for humans to achieve this would be to abandon relations of property and power and live in true collectivity—something that is of course antithetical to the interests of private insurance, which at best serves as a kind of precarious battle-shield in ugly disputes over property, damages, and liability.  And, as anyone who has ever filed an insurance claim knows, a policy doesn’t take the “scary” out of life—it becomes just one more commodity to worry about in that we know our carrier will not let us jump off its head meerkat style into a cool, refreshing pond, but will most likely fight us tooth-and-nail to minimize the payout. 

It’s the classic ideological switcheroo:  rather than question why the world has to be “scary” in the first place, buy another product that will give you the illusion of making it less scary. 

All in all, I greatly prefer the Progressive Insurance ads featuring break-through corporate icon “Flo,” the ebullient insurance clerk now giving the Geico lizard a run for his money.  These ads feature various insurance shoppers wondering around what looks like a Walmart in limbo, a white room filled with shelves of insurance commodity boxes.  Ever upbeat and helpful, Flo guides them toward the appropriate coverage. 

The connotations should be clear:  These poor idiots are all dead and now have to buy insurance in heaven, perhaps to protect their cloud from lightning damage or in case they accidentally rear-end Gabriel’s chariot on the expressway.  Worse yet, they probably died without having sufficient insurance back on earth, thus leaving their families destitute.  The message: buy this insurance now before it is too late; in fact, buying our insurance will not only protect your property, it might even make you immortal should you actually be in a horrible accident of some kind.

Associating insurance with Catholic limbo is a brilliant strategy as not having earthly insurance is very much like living in a state of dangerous purgatory.  Sure, your house probably won’t flood in the next year…or two…or five.  But you never know, at any moment fate might intervene and all will be lost.  Best to give “Flo” a call now and “save” yourself before occupying the property of the damned!

Now watch this excellent video, which uses animals in a way much more befitting our current historical predicament: 


Insane 18th-Century Baby

From Annals of Insanity (1808)
William Perfect, M.D.

Perfect's Annals is one of the earliest volumes to collect a number of case studies involving "maniacs," "lunatics," and the otherwise "insane." In the midst of Perfect's meticulous descriptions of symptoms, treatments, and outcomes is this rather extraordinary "whopper," which he presents in a footnote as absolutely "true"--even though he did not witness it personally.

A physician notes "that he himself knew a case of a child having been absolutely born mad.  A woman of about forty years of age, of a full and plethoric habit of body, who constantly laughed and did the strangest things, but who independently of these circumstances enjoyed the very best health, fell about twelve or fourteen years ago, after a severe and tedious labor, in which she was delivered of a daughter, into a a very great weakness of understanding.  This gradually increased, and during the last war she one day entered the forest with her daughter, and destroyed her in a shocking manner.  A short time before her husband's death, she became pregnant, and on the 20th of January 1763, was brought to bed without any assistance, of a male child who was raving mad.  When he was brought to our workhouse, which was on the 24th, he possessed so much strength in his legs and arms, that four women could at times with difficulty restrain him.  These periods either ended with indescribable laughter, for which no evident reason could be observed, or else he tore in anger every thing near him, clothes, linen, bed furniture, and every thread he could get hold of; and we durst not leave him alone, or he would get on the tables and benches, and even attempt to climb up the walls; afterwards, however, when he began to have teeth, he fell into a general wasting, or decline, and died!

Freedom of Rage

What a great week for rage-o-philes.  First, Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater makes headlines by telling off a rude passenger over the P.A. system, grabbing two beers from the galley, and then deploying the plane’s emergency slide for a quick getaway.  Slater instantly becomes a “folk hero,” we are told, for doing what so many of us dream of doing—quitting a stressful, thankless job on the spot and then going out in a blaze of glory.  Plugging the “funny” news-hole at the end of the hour, meanwhile, was Melodi Dushane, a 24-year-old Toledo woman captured on videotape smashing a McDonald’s drive-thru window because she couldn’t get her Chicken McNuggets.  Rather predicatably,  Slater’s tirade provoked endless references to the old country standard “Take This Job and Shove It.” Dushane’s violent outburst, on the other hand, inspired various comedians--professional and otherwise-- to make jokes about just how much she must really, really love her McNuggets. 

Such moments of public "rage" are inherently fascinating because they speak to certain tensions and even an impending breakdown of the social order.  Most of us have a vested interest in making sure society "works" at some level, but at the same time there's always a fascination for these moments of acute dysfunction.  In this case, it’s interesting and perhaps even meaningful that these two “outbursts” should happen on both ends of the commercial equation—one by a worker at work, the other by a consumer attempting to consume.  Slater is a “folk hero,” I guess, because it’s just assumed most everyone hates their job—work is work and work is no fun, a distillation of Marxist alienation that even non-Marxists can appreciate. Dushane, on the other hand, is a comic freak and potential nut-job because she threw her fit on the consumer side of the equation, and over something as trivial as McNuggets (what would press reaction be like if Dushane were an information worker throwing a huge hissy fit at the Apple store because her iPad didn’t come in?)

If you somehow missed Dushane's tirade, it can be seen here:

Personally, I find Dushane’s outburst the more inspiring, and would much prefer to see her achieve “folk hero” status over Slater.  If nothing else, Slater’s exit from the Jet Blue payroll seemed a little too rehearsed (while I'm not prepared to call "Balloon Boy" on him quite yet, his friends do describe him as a bit “theatrical” and Slater himself has admitted he contemplated such an exit for some 20 years).  Dushane’s fit, on the other hand, has the look of actual, uncontrollable rage, an authenticity that compels us to go beyond mere comic dismissal to consider what possibly could have made her so desperately furious in that particular moment.  Somehow I bet McNuggets were the least of her problems.

How much of this disparity in rage recognition has to do with the fact that when we work, we almost invariably have some sense of being “disempowered:” in other words, we recognize that we work under the supervision of authorities (“bosses” and institutions) invested with the power to control our time and bodies.  Thus, when someone “acts out” like Slater, there is the familiar crowd-pleasing narrative of standing up to a power that we acknowledge seeks to control us.   

As consumers, however, we are taught to believe the exact opposite—that we are free, autonomous, and empowered to make our own decisions about what commodities will make us happy (be they McNuggets or iPads).  Seeing Dushane so obviously enraged at the point of consumption is thus much more disturbing as it contradicts this ideology of happy, free choice.  Slater’s outburst is "heroic" because he confronts recognizable oppression (even if this is only a rude passenger and an anonymous corporate structure).  But Dushane’s outburst is comically infantile because, after all, she’s “free” to move on to Wendy’s, or Burger King, or some other fast-food emporium.  There's a thousand crappy places to eat in this country.  What’s her problem? 

In this respect, I think it’s a mistake to say Dushane was upset because she couldn’t get her “beloved” McNuggets (I mean, really, who could be that upset over McNuggets?)  I’d like to think her rage is more the product of having to live in a world of McNuggets, an explosive protest against the social conditions that make McNugget consumption possible and necessary.  If we must live in a world where constraints of time and budget, brought about by a person’s labor/economic status, compel millions to consume pulverized chicken by-products dipped in 4 varieties of sugar sauce…if we must transform the most basic human act of eating into a weirdly distorted symphony of animal torture, creepy mascots, and deep-fryers…if we must live in a world where millions are told “I’m lovin’ it” as they try to scrape together enough nickels from under the floor mat to exchange for a grease-glob on the dollar menu…if we must persist in denying that our lives as consumers are often just as humiliating as our lives as workers, and that we can be just as "oppressed" by consumer "choice"…if all of this is to be the way of the world, then hell yes, those goddamn McNuggets had better be ready!  It's bad enough I have to eat cheap mass-processed calorie units in my car on the way to my shitty job, now you're telling me I can't even have the cheap mass-processed calorie units I find least objectionable? 

Laughing at Dushane because she so “over-reacts” at her seemingly banal moment of consumer choice overlooks, I think, the obvious structural stressors that brought her to that drive-thru in the first place. That outburst clearly goes way beyond disappointment at being denied a menu selection, and speaks to some darker sociological truth, one that's much easier to dismiss as comic.  And in the end, how “heroic” is it to get in a fight with one rude passenger and then make a flashy, probably rehearsed exit (if anyone has a right to quit, it's the valiant McDonald's employee here who, for minimum wage, does all she can to keep Dushane from getting through the window and murdering the entire shift).  Dushane’s rage, on the other hand, is at the entire machine, man, deep-frying and otherwise.

The Loafers of Refuge (1965)

Joseph L. Green
Ballatine Books

In the future earth is a shit-hole (surprise!), so bad in fact that all of New Zealand is now covered with 80 story apartment buildings and people all over the globe are drafted for off-world service.  On the planet Refuge, off-worlders grow peanuts to feed to "fatbirds" that are then slaughtered and teleported back to Earth.  Main adversary on planet is the dreaded "flying cat."  Story centers (somewhat) on the first human born on the planet, Carey, who heavily identifies with the planet's indigenous population, the Loafers.  Humanoids covered with a soft, downy fur, the Loafers survive by "controlling" animals telepathically (but humanely). Overall a rather disjointed series of adventures involving human/Loafer interaction.  Extended segment in which a young human girl with telepathic powers befriends a plant and learns the secret of live teleportation.  Eventually one Loafer wonders if all the humans coming to Refuge is such a good idea.  Should be of interest to anyone still sad they can not live among the Na'vi in Avatar. 

McNugget Sundowner


Alienation, rage, humiliation, and Gordon Lightfoot. 

Sock It to Me Zombie! (1968)

F.W. Paul
Lancer Books

Bret Steele is "the man from S.T.U.D.," some type of top-secret insurance company that uses Steele to solve delicate situations of a sexual nature.  Here he is charged with flying to the Caribbean to get a famous actress to sign a new movie contract.  "Highlights" include a smutty version of the crop duster scene in North by Northwest, a weird jungle psychiatric facility where women take out their hostilities on caged men, and a movie shoot using actual zombies for extras because they are cheaper.  At one point Steele's companion hypnotizes him and he has sex with a gorilla, so that's pretty funny.  All and all, you would expect more of a book that promises "chicks began rising from the grave with nothing on but smiles of welcome!"  That happens, kind of, but luckily the "man from S.T.U.D." has enough sense to avoid becoming a full-on necrophile.

Humanoid Real Estate

Old World Charm at Mondrian Towers
When not servicing the Dromescapes in sector Alpha-73, Alvax R-71 enjoys relaxing in his 2 br/0bth apartment in the city's famed Mondrian Towers.  Only minutes away from the theater, fine dining, and Humanoid recharging temple 7A, this unit combines the excitement of big city living with the ease of quick power reboosting.  Excellent views of sector Delta-15 magnesium fires.  A steal at 458,000 credits.  (Call x7566 at Mollotron Realty, ask for Marge).

Condo Near Helix Center
The sudden re-assignment of Malron R-68 to an ice tender in sector Gamma-87 is your opportunity for the condo buy of the season.  3br/0bth Condo overlooks the Helix Center, putting you close by the city's premiere venue for concerts, shows, and level-6 mutant-baiting.  Proximity to new monorail extension makes for an easy commute to all parts of the city.  Priced to move at 520,000 credits.  No board approval.  Cats and synthetic dogs welcome (Call Marvex at x8854/Century 27 Realty) 

Bohemian Life in Newly Reclaimed W. Helix District
With radiation levels returned to acceptable levels for both mechancial and biological life, the West Helix District is quickly becoming the City's fastest growing neighborhood for the young and bohemian.  Looking to be "in rapport" with a human?  No better place than Salvock Manor, brand new construction near the former Reclamation Center for Inert Gases.  Enjoy a progressive life with other "open-minded" units like Galzor R-84.  1 bedrooms with human-appropriate elimination chamber start at only 310,000 credits.  (call Tony at x9921/New Horizon Reality) 

The Complex World of My Thoughts (1985)

Ernest Andia
Todd and Honeywell, Inc.

Self-published book collecting a retiring psychiatrist's 2673 aphorisms, apparently scribbled down in between sessions over the course of his career.  One thing is clear about Andia's "world of thought"--he hated hippies, psychoanalysis, communism, zoophilics, and atheists.  I imagine if you were a communist hippie seeking his help in the early 1970s, you most likely would have ended up in a State Hospital.  He also appears to have a certain fascination with cows, as well as the occasional complete non-sequitor.   Among his gems:

37.  RESIGNATION  is the portrait of a cow's face.
156.  TREES do not speak but moan when the wind punishes them.
171.  TEENAGERS are the apostles of schizoidia.
286.  WHEN cows disappear from this planet we will return to cannibalism.
412. DOGS or cats plus children or teenagers means LEUKEMIA
507. PSYCHOANALYSIS is a noxious influence to the normal brain.
572. IN old guys, a falling drop from the nose in always prevalent.
685. "GOD is death"-said Nietzche.  "Where is Nietzche?"- asks God (apparently misread off a bathroom wall).
828.  SOON, helicopters will replace bicycles.
898.  PICCASSO is a glorifier of his own mental retardation.
1087. INTELLECTUALS are the asses saddled with a title, on which their slaves mount.
1111. HADES smells like corpses.
1130. ABSTRACT words are like bubbles of champagne tickling the funny noses of stripped girls.
1166. EVERY hippie thinks his hair is marvellous when uncombed.
1203. PEOPLE do not smile when they defecate.
1363. WHY is Jennie not a nice name for a good secretary?
1479. THE modern tele-operative robots will overcome man whose brain is worn out.
1528. HOMOSEXUALITY, drug addiction, and delinquency are the components of a magic table of three legs.
1530. MEN have a vacation from women's blabbings only once a year, for one or two days, in February.
1546. WHY, when a little girl discovers she is not a boy does she weep?
1733. THE mental retarded and demented people are the best friends of dogs.
1961. IF the dogs talked, men would bite them.
1987. ANY activist is a telecontrolled moron.
2659. ZOOPHILICS die barking at God.
2671. A dog or a cat plus a child means leukemia; plus a woman means hysterectomy; plus a zoophilic means mental deficiency with sexual perversion.

2673. HE who does not think, discuss, judge or write as I have done till now, will never have problems.

As we get to the later aphorisms, Andia's "complex thoughts" become increasingly racist, sexist, and homophobic--which provides what is perhaps the book's most valuable lesson: be sure to investigate your analyst thoroughly before beginning any sessions!

The Sacred Feather (1942)

Francis K. Judd
Berkeley Books (1961 edition)

I bought this book assuming it was some form of campy bondage sleaze from the 1960s. Teen debutante with her arms tied behind her back and a flaming pot of oil between her legs.  A masked man clad in black brandishing an exotic feather.  The entire spectacle unfolding in a space that looks like Gidget’s bedroom transported within the walls of Versailles.  The sacred feather?  I mean, come on, look at the cover—how could this book have not arrived in a plain brown wrapper? 

Turns out The Sacred Feather is one of eighteen stories in the “Kay Tracey” mystery series, originally published between 1934 and 1942. Here’s how the book jacket describes Kay’s scene:  Meet clever Kay Tracey, who, though only sixteen, solves mysteries in a surprising manner. Working on clues which she assembles, this surprising heroine evolves the solution to cases that have baffled professional sleuths. Written by a team of women under the pseudonym Frances K. Judd, Kay was essentially a knock-off of Nancy Drew and appears to have shadowed her in reprints through most of the 20th century.  This particular S/M iteration of The Sacred Feather is the 1961 paperback edition published by Berkley Books.

Like most mid-century fiction pitched at teens, the Sacred Feather is very good at avoiding any cultural references that might later date the books to a specific era—making their generational reprinting that much easier.  Although, given that the Kay Tracey books were last on the shelves in the 1980s, I would imagine any future attempts to bring her back will necessitate replacing her frequent phone calls with fingers-aflame texting  (OMG-BDSM guy brought a feather! LMAO).  She also has a friend named Wilma who likes to interject whatever couplets of obscure verse she finds appropriate to a given situation, but these nuggets of wisdom could probably be rewritten and reattributed to a Taylor Swifty character of some kind.  And adding a vampire or two probably wouldn’t hurt, especially a sexy, sexy vampire who stands longingly under Kay’s bedroom window all night, hands jammed in the front pockets of his drain-pipe jeans, mumbling dark poetry to himself until at last running off into the woods to suck a raccoon dry.

Despite the lack of topical references, there remain a few clues that give away The Sacred Feather’s origins in depression era literature—like the very first scene.  Kay and her mother are cooking dinner one night when they hear a knock on the back door.  It’s a tramp!  An honest to God tramp--going door to door in search of food, no less.  Equally charming, Kay actually invites the tramp in for dinner.  And no one worries for even a second that this drifter might disembowel them all and dance around the living room with their entrails draped around his neck.

I don’t know how often backdoor hobos got fed in real life during the Depression, but as a story convention it certainly survived for many decades as a sign of basic American decency.  A man comes to your door hungry, you feed him. Don’t mention it pal, you’d do the same for me.  Based on the documentary evidence of Leave it to Beaver, however, I think this convention was beginning to wear a bit thin by the late 1950s or early 60s.   You might remember that Beaver, home by himself for the day, once let a tramp into the house who quickly ate his way through the Cleaver pantry.  Then the guy went upstairs, took a long bath, and stole a suit and new shoes from Ward’s closet.  No one got too mad at the Beav, seeing as he never was the brightest rodent in the burrow to begin with, but you also got the sense that the next tramp wandering through Mayfield might be met with shotguns and torches.

But Kay’s tramp isn’t an ordinary tramp, he is, as the chapter title says, “picturesque.” In this case that means he’s from Egypt.  Kay’s mother offers him a bowl of soup, prompting the book’s first eruption of effusive “Egyptian-speak:"

Soup! A plebian name for one of your magnificent American dishes.  A mixture of the commonplace and the sublime.  Madam, if I might say so…Ah, yes, it would warm not only the inner creature, but the soul as well.  It would induce a divine peace to descend upon my humble spirit, I assure you!"

Like other exotics prowling the teen imaginary of the era, “Abou” speaks with the gloss of a colonial British education and yet with the undertone that he is awaiting an ancient God to return and turn the world’s oceans into sand.  In this respect, the book echoes the equally stilted and bizarre discourse of Fuad Ramses, the Egyptian caterer in H.G. Lewis’ Blood Feast (1961) who also finds himself entangled in the uniquely American customs of teenage girldom.  Only in that case, Ramses' offer to prepare “the feast of Ishtar” for a young debutante really does mean disemboweling her and dancing around the living room with her entrails draped around his neck.

But I digress.  No sooner does Abou finish his “commonplace but sublime” soup, Kay’s friends arrive with big news: the city library is on fire!  Not only that, but a strange looking tramp was seen in the library’s “Egypt Room” not an hour ago, and that is exactly where the fire started!!!  You might suspect that you’re not supposed to suspect Abou because he is so obviously suspicious, and you’d be right (congratulations, you have just outwitted a 13-year-old girl circa 1942).  Just to make sure, though, Kay’s caretaker, her older cousin Bill, tells her as much later that night.  “Purely circumstantial evidence,” cousin Bill declared, “The fellow shouldn’t be condemned on hearsay. If I were you, Kay, I would say nothing about it to strangers until we’ve had an opportunity to investigate."

But let’s back up. The Egypt room?  What a wonderful fantasy of a bygone era that never existed in the first place, when even a humble little library in an imaginary crapburg like Carmont had its own Egypt room. Personally, it brought a tear to my eye imagining girls and boys on the way home from school stopping by the library to check out a darkened room full of jewels, mummies, and sarcophagi, perhaps followed by a round of root beer floats at the maltshop and excited speculation over the possibilities of an ancient curse creeping through the town.  Sadly, public libraries long ago became little more than a refuge for flashers, peepers, and people too old and technically incompetent to steal music and movies out of them Internet tubes, so this detail would also doubtlessly require updating should Kay sleuth again in the new century.

Abou still seems like a good fit for the fire, and soon libraries and other buildings are burning down every other night in all the communities surrounding Carmont.  Then, in another rather stunning turn of orientalism, a new batch of suspects arrive in the mix:  the Iran family!  The Irans are a really loud and combative clan that live in the poor part of town, speak only Arabic interlaced with pidgin English, and are somehow trying to swindle an estate away from one of Kay’s best friends.  In one of Kay’s many hare-brained ruses, she and her friend dress up as door-to-door jewelry salesgirls to spy inside the Iran home.  Like any other vaguely Araby-Persianish-Gypsylike-middle-eastern woman, Mrs. Iran is utterly bedazzled by the sight of a stupid rhinestone Kay has brought along for the performance, prompting Mr. Iran to yell abusively from the kitchen, “Go way. No money.”  So we hate the Irans because, unlike Abou, they have bad taste, lots of snotty kids, and can’t be bothered to learn proper English. 
But in the end, even they are not the real culprits.  That honor goes to the eponymous “Sacred Feather,” a cousin of the Irans who works at a theater in a nearby town as a magician and sword-swallower.  He also has a penchant for disappearing in fiery puffs of smoke, which is suspicious to say the least.  In the exciting conclusion, he finally catches up with Kay and her friend in an old warehouse, knocks the friend out, ties Kay up, and then tries to burn down the building—and yes, like on the book cover, he has a big feather with him, the sacred feather of an Ibis bird, which somehow figures in his exotic shenanigans.

Here’s the final Scooby-doo:  The “Sacred Feather” is a total pyromaniac, or as the police chief says later, someone who “has an insane desire to start fires.”  Worse yet, he practices pyromancy, which means he believes he can “learn things from heaven by means of fires of sacrifice” (word for the day!).  Somehow two local crooks found out about Mr. Feather’s proclivities, and then decided to exploit his pyromania so that they could disguise themselves as workers “rescuing” valuable items from his various fires.  Case closed.

There’s an excellent website on Kay Tracey from which I have cribbed some of the background here.  As the site says, these stories are much weirder than the Nancy Drew yarns and “part of the fun in reading the stories is seeing how bizarre the plots are.”  I would have to agree.  A typical day for Kay, at least based on this one story, might involve cracking a secret code before breakfast, going to school all day, seeing a fire on the way home, hiding in someone’s trunk to see where their hideout is, jumping into a river to save a little girl with absolutely no relation to the plot, helping Mom chop celery for dinner, going to the school mixer with “Ron,” exchanging barbs with her nemesis “Ethel,” tracking suspicious figures lurking behind the school, discussing the case at home with Bill, hearing a strange bird-cry outside her window, and then going to bed to start all over again the next day. Proof once again that ADD is a complete charade perpetrated by the pharmaceutical industry.  Teenage brains have always been addled by the overexcited emplotment of daily life.  

Cupid Computer (1981)

Margie Milcsik
Archway Paperbacks

When the principal announces the next school dance will match couples through the "cupid computer" (actually, surveys on likes/dislikes completed by the students), Toni decides she will do everything she can to get matched with the dreamy Kevin.  Her scheme involves modeling her behavior after famous movie stars, consulting astrology tables, and praying to St. Anthony.  When the big "match" announcements are made, however, dreamy Kevin is paired with Toni's supposed "best friend" Kate.  Worse yet, Toni must go to the big dance with some guy nicknamed "Soup."  But by the end of the dance, Soup proves so compatible that she forgets all about Kevin.  More evidence of how young girls of the 70s were encouraged to erase their own identities in order to attract boys all the while considering every friend to be a potential rival.  Incredibly, as part of the "computer survey," each student is asked to evaluate their physical appearance on a scale of 1 to 10.  Promises to be a tie-in with emerging period interest in computer dating, but the only "computer" in the story is a paper-mache prop built for the school assembly.

Letter to Julia

Let us begin with the frame, which as we know is never neutral.  We see Julia Roberts at a distance, surrounded by a series of architectural markers that tell us she is in Europe—cobblestone, marble, stained glass, intricate latticework.  To the right a nun has been cut in half, allowing her to anchor the image in Italy while not distracting from Roberts as the focal point of the composition.  Here one of America’s most iconic actresses basks in what Barthes once termed a state of Italianicity (a fact already known to the many readers of Eat Pray Love).  By framing her in a long shot and surrounding her with quaint signifiers of the “old world” (like Catholicism!), the shot better foregrounds Roberts (and her character) as an exemplar of white, urban, privileged, modern, American femininity.  Her attire is fashionable yet practical: ballet flats, jeans, a tasteful leather coat and colorful scarf.  In her lap sits a functional but still stylish satchel, the type of “backpack” an upscale tourist takes while “bumming around” Europe (during extended day-trips in between nights at the Four Seasons).  Her highlighted hair is pulled back, both for practicality and in respect for the apparently “holy” venue where she has chosen to rest and contemplate for a few moments. 

Surrounded by the sober charm of this European mise-en-scene, Roberts consumes a gelato, holding the blue plastic spoon in such a way as to draw attention to both her mouth and the confectionery itself.  Note too that half-nun has been positioned so that we see she is also enjoying a mid-afternoon treat, suggesting a universal “sisterhood of the sweets.”   The ideology of gender tells us that all women--be they brides of Jesus or globetrotting cosmopolitans “finding themselves” courtesy of a $200,000 book advance--love ice cream, chocolate, and other decadent treats!   It is, dare we say in the presence of a nun, so “sinful” to partake of such a caloric indulgence, a stolen pleasure of sensual delight. (“My no carb left behind experiment” she announces in the trailer. “I’m having a relationship with my pizza!”) As the nun is older and celibate, she simply shovels the gelato into her mouth in ordinary fashion.  But as this is a true “indulgence” for Roberts who, even though she is clearly coded here as alone but independent, is ever mindful of how such a momentary excess might impact her figure, even as she is—as the tag line dares both her and us—letting herself  “go.”   

Thus the ambiguity of her expression, the focal point of the overall composition.  It seems slightly sexualized and naughty as she leisurely plays with the spoon, and yet also a bit coy and perhaps even awestruck.  What is she looking at so furtively?  Is it a masterpiece of Italian sculpture across the square?  A whimsical Italian street scene (perhaps an organ-grinder chasing his mischievous monkey)?  Or is it a man, a handsome local or a fellow tourist, also on a journey of self-discovery?  A man who, in mere seconds, will soon take a seat in one of the two strategically symmetrical spaces to either side of her?  A man who understands and shares the delight of simply wandering through the city with no particular plan, taking in the theater of life and then stopping for a few moments for the simple pleasures of a tasty gelato.  They will flirt.  Perhaps it will come to nothing.  But then again….

Whatever she might be thinking about or looking at, her expression tells us she is “in the moment” and taking “time for herself.”  All of this—the streets, the buildings, the nuns, the art, the food, the jet fuel—exists only for her at this magical moment.  As she says in the trailer, “I want to go someplace where I can marvel at something.”  And so her life is renewed, not by considering her relationship to the social world around her (at home or abroad), but instead in allowing her stores of surplus wealth transform other lives and cultures into a vast stage for her looking-inward, getting “in touch” with who she really is, restoring her “appetite” for life.

Soon she will be on an ashram in India, turning that diverse and storied civilization into an orientalist signifier of higher “spirituality,” using her advance money from Viking to take a yoga “field trip” that will be the envy of every salon on both Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue (three months of meditation and exercise to lose all those calories from Italy!).  And then on to Bali, because Bali is even more of an Orientalist mystery to Americans than India—perhaps she will find love there, or God, or enchanting perfumes and spices, or a really great diet/exercise regimen.   

Eat, pray, love.  In the end, that just about says it all, doesn’t it? The body, the spirit, and our most cherished relationships—what more is there to life, especially for those who have the luxury to worry about the palate, self-actualization, and romantic love? Perhaps she will take a candlelight bubble-bath when she gets back to the hotel this evening, eating a few bon bons as she leafs through the pages of the Bhagavad Gita. 

Look for the sequel next summer--Digest, Work, Exist-- in which our heroine goes broke and loses her New York penthouse, forcing her to move to the Midwest where she experiences the magic of Italy by working at a local Olive Garden, finds God in a $1000 scratch 'n' play lotto card, and ends up marrying the father of her child so that she and the baby don’t have to keep living in that shitty one-bedroom by the Interstate. 

(with apologies to Godard, Gorin, and Fonda)