Apocalypse Culture is a book that demands an emotional reaction from its readers. From its compilation of pro-eugenics pull quotes to its frank conversations with extreme paraphiliacs, the book offers no cozy quilt of consistent moralizing to swaddle the reader. Graphic and confrontational, Apocalypse Culture is dismissed by detractors as “clumsy,” “pseudo-intellectual,” and “juvenile” while the book’s cover boasts a quote from J.G. Ballard, a luminary of provocative fiction who calls it “extraordinary” and declares it to contain “the terminal documents of the twentieth century.” No one seems to emerge from reading Apocalypse Culture without a strong opinion on it and its editor, Feral House founder Adam Parfrey. The fact that the book remains in print today, thirty years after its initial publication, speaks to its continued resonance.
The poisonous power of Apocalypse Culture is a result of its construction. It is an anthology of essays and interviews on topics meticulously selected for immediate emotional impact, frequently offering its startling material direct from the first sources: necrophile Karen Greenlee discusses the erotic smell of death, body modification pioneer Fakir Musafar scorns the “animal consciousness” of Western people, and selections of writing from James Anubis Van Cleve, a diagnosed schizophrenic, are offered with little framing comment. If anything, the 1990 “revised and expanded” edition of the book presents an even more distilled form of nastiness, eschewing most of the drug psychonaut and reprint material of the 1987 publication in favor of expanded interviews. It’s a misanthropic mélange of extreme personal expression, conspiracy theories, and aggressive philosophies from the most obscure corners of the underground. The uniting thread that runs through the book is a marrow-deep nihilism that—taken as a whole—borders on gleeful. Apocalypse Culture revels in presenting its readership with an unvarnished, anti-Romantic glimpse into the abysses of human thought and behavior. There’s an oppressive psychological weight to the words of so many people from such darkly alien perspectives, all advocating for some form of order that by its very nature necessitates violence, destruction, and upheaval. It’s the sort of book where Greenlee’s expression of the freedom she finds at being “out” in her necrophilia feels like a ray of hope for the human condition.
The book’s malicious glee works as a sort of judo on would-be reviewers, wherein any emotional response becomes integral to the experience of the book, rendering accusations of poor writing and immaturity unimportant. The book concerns itself with presenting ideologies from direct (or otherwise unorthodox) sources, and if those ideas feel poorly articulated or ill-reasoned, it would follow that this is the gut-level response to the atypical personalities responsible for writing them. Parfrey plays the role of curator, crafting a collage of discomfort. If a reviewer is made uncomfortable, then the book has achieved its effect. The unpleasantness of the work is inherent to the work.
Properly contextualizing Apocalypse Culture would be impossible without a discussion of zines and the ethos that developed around them in the 1970s and 1980s. Independently written, designed, and distributed publications are as old as mass printing, but zines were birthed from a very specific spirit that rankled against the orthodoxies of established publishers. Zines created a platform for small communities of writers and readers to exchange ideas, distributing copies via mail or at group gatherings. The zine was defined by its D.I.Y. ethic as much as by its exclusivity—rarely were zines published in runs of over a thousand copies, and most zines were printed in quantities closer to a hundred. This exclusivity meant that creators could express ideas deemed unsuitable—or ignored entirely—by mainstream presses. Though the word “zine” may conjure ideas of anarchist, feminist, and LGBTQ titles, the cheaply produced and distributed format was used by all manner of anti-conformist creators. For every sci-fi fanzine or riot grrrl manifesto, there was a Satanic occult journal, conspiracy broadsheet, or catalog of niche fetishes available for delivery from the publisher’s anonymous post-office box to yours.
Apocalypse Culture shines a spotlight on the most esoteric and often profoundly disturbing corners of zine culture, presenting ideas initially relegated to word-of-mouth communities to be consumed by readers across the English-speaking world. “Sorcerer of the Apocalypse,” an essay on rocket scientist and Crowley disciple Jack Parsons, is a reprint from Starfire, a small-press occult publication. Elsewhere, the notorious magazines created by the Process Church are discussed. There is also a candid interview with Peter Sotos in which he talks about PURE, his zine about the power dynamics and aesthetics of violent crime and serial murder. In a 2000 interview with Salon published to coincide with the release of Apocalypse Culture II, Parfrey notes that 55,000 copies of the first book had been sold. The book has been in print for seventeen years since then, meaning that a highly conservative estimate would put the number of copies of Apocalypse Culture in print at 110,000, a number many hundreds of times that of most zines.
Not every idea is intended for every audience, a point which reader reactions to Apocalypse Culture seem to prove. The sudden exposure of outré ideas intended for consumption by small, self-selecting groups to the world at large results in incomprehension, if not outright disgust. In this way, the book is a thought experiment, an attempt to push the envelope of what can be published and distributed to a wide readership. In spite of the horrified responses and attempts to decipher Parfrey’s own affiliations and philosophies from its contents, this particular brand of envelope-pushing captured a certain slice of the public consciousness. The book offers a world of mental deviancy and even criminality in short-form, non-fiction pieces without the moral undercurrents of true crime or the comfortable distance of history. Apocalypse Culture has its feet firmly planted in the contemporary culture of its time.
Apocalypse Culture is not the first attempt to assemble underground ideas into a single publication. RE/Search made the transition from periodical to book publisher far earlier in the eighties, combining fanzine-style artist interviews with articles on unusual cultural and political phenomena into books like Pranks! and Incredibly Strange Films. These books take a far more celebratory approach to their subject matter, offering it to the reader with a tone that encourages them to seek out these newly revealed cultural artifacts. Apocalypse Culture provides no such positivity. It’s utterly unconcerned with the reader’s enjoyment, sitting at once tantalizingly obtainable on the bookstore shelf while emitting a decidedly confrontational tone from its first pages. Given the difference between these ideological perspectives, it’s probably unsurprising that RE/Search editor V. Vale has publicly criticized Parfrey, going so far as to call him a “racist scumbag” due to his coverage of far right-wing figures and Nazism. That these topics are part of Parfrey’s toolkit is undeniable. The maiden publication of Parfrey’s first publishing venture, Amok Press, was a new English translation of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s novel Michael. What is, however, up for debate in any discussion of creative output is intent and context. It’s not a mistake that Apocalypse Culture offers a frank sampling of eugenicist writings juxtaposed with a dialog moderated by Harry Allen, journalist and Public Enemy associate, on black genocide in America.
For a stronger-stomached subset of Generation X, Apocalypse Culture became something of a revered text. Its willingness to transgress, to discard taboo, and to present bizarre figures in their own words was seen by fans as a bracing alternative to moral scolding from both sides of the political fence. With Reaganism retaining its stranglehold on national politics and the first wave of debates on political correctness just beginning on American campuses, the panorama of potential nihilisms on display in Apocalypse Culture came from a different universe entirely—a counterculture that had tuned in only to be turned off and burnt out now had a text to rally around.
Feral House has carried the spirit of Apocalypse Culture across the decades. The publisher has become a symbol of a specific segment of the underground: provocative, curious, ambiguous, and unapologetically dark. Many of its titles read like book-length versions of essays from Apocalypse Culture: Moors Murderer Ian Brady’s musings on serial murder, investigations into racist skinhead groups, and explorations of twentieth-century vice from prostitution to punk-rock hedonism. Titles seem to be selected not so much for unflinching academic veracity as they are for unique perspectives and compelling styles. The book-length form allows for the thorough exploration of a topic typically shrouded in rumor and misinformation.
While Apocalypse Culture did reveal glimpses of extreme underground culture to a wider audience, the reach of the book was limited to those who were inclined to purchase or borrow a copy. This personal connection meant a certain investment in analyzing and digesting the book’s contents. While distribution of the book outpaced that of zines as described above, this is infinitesimal in comparison to the reach that is possible in the internet age.
Today, individual tweets earn readership far surpassing that of Apocalypse Culture within the course of hours. Round-the-clock news offers reports on superstorms, mass shootings, and epidemics of sexual assault, presented with talking head commentary from so-called experts who often seem like they could have contributed their own essays to Parfrey’s garden of horrors. Add to that the exponential increase in the amount of advertising we are exposed to and there’s a very queasy cultural apocalypse in the offing, the likes of which the book did not anticipate. If the television and the grocery store are agents of sinister influence as depicted in “The Cereal Box Conspiracy” and “Society for the Eradication of Television Fact Sheet,” what would these writers make of the slickly designed spy box known as a “smart phone” carried by more than three-quarters of Americans? And how would they feel when confronted with the fact that the average number of ads a user sees in a month on the Internet alone (11,250 according to a 2017 Huffington Post article) is as high as the number of ads a child sees in a year as cited in Apocalypse Culture’s deliberately fear-mongering anti-television screed? As American society has increased its appetite for information, with highly editorialized news and the bite-sized nightmares of social media posts gobbling up hours of the average person’s time, any interest in nuance seems to have evaporated. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of this constant exposure to yellow journalism and hundreds of other people’s opinions (338 Facebook friends on average, to be precise), but any tolerance for personal discomfort appears to have vanished as well. We’re a culture that’s been thoroughly propagandized by exposure to our choice of media echo chamber. In this torrent of information, no one is questioning why. Brief nuggets of data don’t lend themselves to nuance, and curiosity has become synonymous with complicity.
Apocalypse Culture is a relic of a specific point in the history of underground culture, when censorship was lax enough that it was possible to publish and distribute a book so incendiary but before mass media outlets would concern themselves with covering such a deliberately provocative title. At one point in his publishing career, Parfrey relished the fact that the New York Times refused to review his books. Apocalypse Culture could simultaneously exist on a retailer’s shelf and outside of the consciousness of the average shopper. It exists where the misanthropy of punk, the theatrical darkness of the Church of Satan, and the curiosity of an autodidact anthropologist intersect. It’s a pre-Internet document that in no way anticipates the impact of the Internet, but that manages to retain its notoriety by virtue of offering a savagely bitter pill of experience to its readers. There’s no need to publish a third Apocalypse Culture in 2017: any avenue of human darkness is accessible to anyone, only a keystroke away. How the reader chooses to curate that is entirely in their hands.