Bruce Sterling on Thu, 15 Aug 2002 07:16:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> V-Search and Feral House

*My, how  pleasant to see these barnacled
West Coast weirdos getting such respectful
treatment from the mainstream American press.


From: Dan Clore <>
Date: Wed Aug 14, 2002  11:30:46 AM US/Central
To: "" <>
Subject: [smygo] Feral House & RE/Search

News for Anarchists & Activists:

LA Times

August 13, 2002

Turning Taboo Into Titles

Feral House's catalog reflects owner's penchant for the

By ADAM BREGMAN, Special to The Times

Feral House's catalog reflects owner's penchant for the

On the corner of Spring and 7th streets in a beat-up section
of downtown Los Angeles sits an old pillared office building
that evokes Raymond Chandler and his fictional hard-boiled
private-eye character Philip Marlowe. With its marble
interior, large wooden doors and loud, screeching elevators,
it's easy to imagine various low-life personalities drifting
through its corridors.

Up on the seventh floor, in a cluttered office and behind
many shelves of books, is Adam Parfrey, a rumpled maverick
in the same mold as Marlowe. Parfrey, 45, who smiles like a
Cheshire cat and peers out from behind the thick-rimmed
glasses of an avid reader and researcher, may very well be
L.A.'s oddest publisher. Releasing nonfiction books on
subjects ranging from the unusual to the obscure to the
altogether unsettling, Parfrey's small company, Feral House,
operates according to the mercurial whims and obsessions of
its owner.

In the Feral House catalog you'll find books on Hitler's
Jewish clairvoyant, Erik Van Hanussen; the dark history of
prepubescent pop; and various strange ideas about the origin
of humans, from ancient astronauts to aquatic apes. There's
an investigation into the marketing, art, history and
consumption of pills, a survey of X-rated outtakes from the
Bible and numerous titles dedicated to Parfrey's favorite
book topics: Satanism, anarchism, death, serial killers,
punk rock and paranoia.

In a day and age when publishing often succumbs to the
bottom line, Feral House is purposely uncommercial. It would
be difficult to fill a small room with people interested in
some of the exhaustive books Parfrey has published on
obscure subjects. However, with nearly no advertising at
all, Feral House has managed some successes. The company
grosses about half a million dollars a year and is
successful enough for Parfrey to employ a small staff.

Parfrey's first release, 1989's "Apocalypse Culture," a
collection of essays about the most demented fringes of
outsider society, has become an underground classic of
sorts, selling about 70,000 copies. (Parfrey put together
that collection and a few other Feral House titles on his
own, though most are penned by others.)

Additional Feral House hits include several books from
Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey; the exploitative "Death
Scenes: A Homicide Detective's Scrapbook"; the definitive
work on the Scandinavian black metal scene, "Lords of
Chaos"; and the book that was the inspiration for the Tim
Burton film "Ed Wood," "Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and
Art of Edward D. Wood Jr."

"When there's not one advertisement or major review, it
shows that it absolutely must be word of mouth that sells
these books," Parfrey says as he tears through a heap of
mail. "A book is seen at somebody's house, or a manager at a
bookstore finds one of our books interesting enough to put
at the top of the table. It's mystifying to me how it works.
You just put things out, because the usual promotion methods
don't really work for a house like mine. I'm very bad at
marketing, so I spend all my time dealing with the creation
of the book."

Parfrey entered the book business in San Francisco in 1980
when he discovered a Goodwill store that had dumpsters
filled with donated hardcovers and first editions to be
thrown out.

"I convinced the manager of the Goodwill to drop all those
books in a dumpster I rented," says Parfrey, "and I bought a
pickup truck for $200 to haul them away. I found all these
bizarre old medical textbooks that I was enamored of and
these psychiatric case histories that were astonishing.
There are so many interesting books published that you
wouldn't know about ordinarily if you didn't go through
thousands of them daily. For a while I became the biggest
Bay Area used-book wholesaler. I intended to open up a
store, but I noticed all the used bookstore dealers in San
Francisco were very sour, grouchy men, and I was fearful of
becoming that. So I sold all my books and moved to New

After working a minimum-wage job at Strand Books, Parfrey
worked for a publisher for a short time and later formed
Amok Press with associate Ken Swezey. In 1989 he moved to
L.A. and started Feral House.

"I was going to do a magazine called the Journal of
Unpopular Views," says Parfrey. "And I had collected a lot
of material, from writers like [Jean] Genet,
[Louis-Ferdinand] CÚline and Wilhelm Reich," whose works
covered such topics as outlaw sexuality, psychiatry and
anti-Semitism. "But then I found this really freaky, far-out
stuff, and I was able to put it together in some way that
made sense. That was 'Apocalypse Culture,' which came out
first on Amok Press."

Parfrey's office is stacked with paraphernalia from various
completed and future book projects. There are Osama bin
Laden T-shirts proclaiming "He isn't Terrorism He is
Fighter," brought back from Indonesia. Parfrey says Bin
Laden is as popular there as Britney Spears is here. The
shirts, along with a map of Afghanistan and a shelf of
Islam-related books, were used for research for his recent
book "Extreme Islam," a somewhat random collection of
anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda.

"I think fundamentalism is frightening wherever you
encounter it, Judaism, Christianity or Islam," says Parfrey.
"That to me is the biggest evil in the world."

Parfrey is currently immersed in a project on men's
adventure magazines from the early '50s. "There's never been
a book on men's adventure magazines," he says. "They were
meant for vets and have a patriotic fever that is similar to
the time we're in now. I found that Mario Puzo and Bruce Jay
Friedman edited and wrote for these magazines. It's a
fascinating and forgotten part of American culture. It went
from G-rated magazines like True to spicier ones like Men
and Man's Adventure to truly fetishistic stuff like evil
Nazis torturing women. So they were catering to a
fetishistic element in society using World War II as a basis
for it."

Other upcoming Feral House projects include a book about
Sidney Reilly, who was involved in all sorts of SS espionage
and was the inspiration for the James Bond character; the
story of Russ Columbo, the crooner who died a mysterious
death in 1934; and a book from Reynaldo Berrios, the creator
of the Northern California magazine Mi Vida Loca, which will
be a look at the cholo gang culture from within.

Parfrey plans to continue pursuing subjects that get very
little play in the mainstream press. "Just because something
is not written up in the New York Times or the Washington
Post," he says, "doesn't mean it's not relevant."

RE/Search Goes to Source to Document Fringe Culture

Times Staff Writer

August 13 2002

In a button-down shirt and sweater vest, V. Vale seems a
little too clean-cut to have published books on masochists,
scarification, punk rock and paganism. Mild-mannered and
tattoo-free, he is the antithesis of what one would expect
from the revered independent publisher of such
countercultural classics as "Modern Primitives."

Yet for 25 years, the fiftysomething founder of RE/Search
Publications has been carving out a niche at culture's
cutting edge, independently publishing magazines and books
on subjects that were once deemed unworthy for print and, as
an unintended byproduct, gently nudging them into the public

"I didn't even know I was going to be a publisher," said
Vale, dressed head to toe in black for a recent interview
outside the Andy Warhol exhibit downtown. "[Then] I found
myself at the very, very beginning of the San Francisco punk
rock scene."

All it took was reading a number of derogatory articles that
"reduced punk to spitting and safety pins ... [and] I knew I
had to publish something that was the so-called truth," said
Vale, whose publishing house was once dubbed "the
Underground's answer to Studs Terkel" by the Washington

Though small, San Francisco-based RE/Search is credited with
beginning a fringe publishing phenom, one that includes Los
Angeles publishers Feral House and Amok Dispatch, and Juno
Books in New York, which was founded by former RE/Search
co-editor Andrea Juno in 1996.

Vale's tactic for getting to that truth? Interviews, and
lots of them. All 11 issues of Search and Destroy, the punk
rock magazine he published from 1977 to 1979, and most of
the 23 books he's helped compile for RE/Search Publications,
are in a Q&A format--a format he said was inspired by
Warhol's then-nascent Interview magazine.

"All he printed were interviews," said Vale, who was so
impressed with the publication that he copied the magazine's
design for his first Search & Destroy. "I really believe in
the interview as a format to communicate [ideas] without

"I wanted primary-source documentation because I knew that
would be quoted for years to come," he added. "It wasn't a
writer's theorizing. It was artists talking about what they

Vale's interest in sword swallowers, drag queens and other
fringe characters is influenced by the French anthropologist
Claude Levi-Strauss, who believed that research should be
thorough and structural. Vale's goal in publishing is to
document countercultural lifestyles intelligently,
accurately and from as many different viewpoints as

"Every interview book has been a group project, and actually
you have collectively a much greater intelligence than any
one person," said Vale, who co-edited RE/Search with his
former girlfriend Juno from 1984 to 1995.

"My job is really to be the scribe in the Egyptian sense.
The Egyptian scribe was supposed to transmit every bit of
arcana and detail of Egyptian culture, mythology, whatever,
as accurately as possible. That's what I strive for."

Today, RE/Search Publications, and its academic
presentations of edgy material, continue to be some of the
best reference books on subjects that were once considered
too "out there" for New York publishing houses. And their
early books' impact continues to show in pop culture.

"Modern Primitives," the 1989 book that explored body
modification techniques, is credited with mainstreaming
tattoos and body piercing. When it came out, body
modification was primarily practiced by societal outcasts.
These days, everyone from the kid bagging your groceries to
Shaquille O'Neal is sporting navel rings and tats.

"Incredibly Strange Music," the 1993 guide to novelty
albums, is believed to have sparked a lounge-music revival.
And "Incredibly Strange Films," from 1986, prompted many
otherwise obscure gore and sexploitation films to be
re-released on video.

Those subjects, Vale says, were almost entirely inspired by
living at poverty level. He and his friends couldn't afford
to see first-run movies or to buy new records--thus the
inspiration for Incredibly Strange Music" and "Incredibly
Strange Films." "Modern Primitives" was inspired by a friend
who collected old copies of National Geographic.

"It was all done from lack of money. Everything came from a
thrift store for a quarter," said Vale, who owns 15,000
books and 11,000 records.

"We were always trying to give people the notion that
someone they had never heard of might actually bring a lot
of value to their lives," said Vale, who publishes out of
his home in San Francisco.

Vale never expected to have such wide-ranging impact. The UC
Berkeley graduate had no career aspiration other than
working as a clerk at City Lights Books when he started
Search & Destroy. Vale put together the magazine with an IBM
Selectric II correcting typewriter he used after hours at
the bookstore. Using money he solicited from legendary
beatnik Allen Ginsberg and City Lights founder Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Vale was able to print his first issue but had
to rely on the money he made through benefit concerts to
keep the venture going.

He never made back any of the money he poured into the
project and stopped producing the magazine in 1979.

In 1980, Vale was approached by Rough Trade Records to
launch a similar magazine. A friend suggested he call it
RE/Search. The magazine lasted for three issues before the
English record label pulled the plug. It was losing too much

Two books, including an early work by avant-garde feminist
novelist Kathy Acker, were published under the RE/Search
moniker, but it's the 1982 book about William S. Burroughs
that is generally recognized as the first RE/Search
publication. It featured excerpts from Burroughs' novels,
original photos and an in-depth interview that begins with
the question, "You see Outer Space as the solution to this
cop-ridden planet?"

Like he did with Search & Destroy, in a Situationist act of
appropriation, Vale stole the design from a Rodchenko book,
using everything from the type font and size to the column
width, even the use of black bars throughout the text.

The latest Vale book, "Modern Pagans," is an exploration of
paganism as "the postmodern religious alternative." The
subject was inspired by longtime Bay Area pagan John Sulak,
who also conducted numerous interviews for the book. As with
all RE/Search subjects, the book's purpose is Hegelian.

"If you're not helping in your publishing to somehow
illuminate or map out more freedoms either psychologically,
behaviorally or more in your life," Vale asks, "then what's
the point?"

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