Taking Trash Culture Seriously: Kerekes and Slater’s Killing for Culture

Now this one, guys, this one was weird. An well researched, well written, investigation into the so-called death on film focusing primarily on the “mondo” films phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s. If you’re of a certain age, you remember these collections of deaths and other gruesome scenes, allegedly caught on film. This stuff was huge with kids in my high school who would constantly talking about the things they’d seen in “Faces of Death” the American version of the Italian Mondo films. Lots of gruesome stuff, like suicides and horrific accidents, with some corny “satanic black masses” and “cult orgies” thrown in for good measure.

It was catnip to a particular kind of adolescent mind and I have to admit, I watched my fair share.

But was this stuff real? Well, occasionally, but much of it was also staged, and Kerkes and Slater dive deep into the material to figure out what was what. They figure out the directors and producers, the sources for much of the footage, and more. Its really an impressive work of pop-scholarship on what was, a very trashy cesspit of exploitation cinema.

Also included here is a well-researched attempt to get to the bottom of the idea of the snuff film. Kerkes and Slater begin by specifically defining the term to mean a film in which an actual murder takes places and, critically, where the motive for the murder was to film it. Then they go about trying to find an actual example. They pick apart numerous legends and pranks, and find that (at least at the time of publication) there were no instances of an actual snuff film ever being made.

It’s all extremely interesting to a certain kind of reader. I read this book a long time ago, and its stuck with me. That says something for it. I’d never read something like this today. While the young me was always searching for the new and shocking, old man Sean of today stays away from this kind of stuff like the plague. But if weird film criticism (or good help you, Mondo cinema) is your thing, you’ll greatly enjoy this book.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

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Sensory Deprivation Tanks, Talking Dolphins, and Aliens: Remembrances of reading John C. Lilly

The Scientists: A Novel Autobiography

Simulations of God: Science of Belief

Programming and Metaprogramming of the Human Biocomputer

John C. Lilly

Lilly was a well know and respected scientist who, like many in the late sixties, kinda start going off the rails. Did young Sean read the works of science Lilly produced early in his career? No, he did not. Young Sean read the woo-woo stuff. Like lots of other people, I because interested in Lilly because of the film Altered States, which is (very, very) loosely based on Lilly’s works with sensory deprivation tanks. That deprivation tank work is what interested me in him, and when I moved in California, his books were all over the used bookstores. The books never did anything for me, but his work did inspire to give a tank a try. An experience much more worth while than the books.

I wrote about my experience in a sensory deprivation tank here. 

With the sensory deprivation tanks of course also comes communications with dolphins, new agey self-help, and a lot of other twaddle much of it dressed up as science when it really wasn’t. Unlike Robert Anton Wilson, I never really like Lilly’s books. I just kept picking them up thinking there’s eventually be something worth read in them. For me, at least, there wasn’t.

Not recommended.


Ginsberg, Leary, and Lilly — trifecta of drugged up post hippie culture

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A Bit Dark, Kinda Cynical, But Still Pretty Woo-Woo: My Remembrances of Being a Young Dude Reading Too Much Robert Anton Wilson

Prometheus Rising

Quantum Psychology


Cosmic Trigger Vol. 1

Cosmic Trigger Vol. II: Down to Earth

Chaos and Beyond the Best of Trajectories

Robert Anton Wilson

It’s probably just best to come out and admit I’ve read pretty much everything Robert Anton Wilson wrote up to about 1995. After that, nothing. Much of Wilson’s writings does not stand up. It’s representative of a certain strain of out-there Esalen Institute, drugged up hippie witchcraft that was big in California in the late 1970s and 80s. Not quite New Age, but rubbing shoulders with it. A bit dark, kinda cynical, but still pretty woo-woo. I’m more than a little embarrassed by how into this stuff I was when I was 19-20, but here we are.

In my defense, it was another time, and exploration was limited by what was carried in the book stores. In my case, Tower Books on Lafayette and East Fourth, which had a huge “alternative” section and where I worked from 1994-1996.  Kudos to Falcon Books, the publishers of Wilson at the time, they knew how to get their shit distributed in the East Village.

Anyway, Wilson’s nonfiction work* is a hodgepodge of western esotericism (Crowley, Spare, et. al) American takes on Buddhism, California drug culture, conspiracy theories, and, kinda remarkably, the writings of the now largely forgotten mystic/charlatan G.I. Gurdjieff. The books are a mix of memoir (notably the Cosmic Trigger books), wacko self-help (Prometheus Rising) and, source materials from across the woo-woo world.

Wilson’s project, presented often with humor and self-depreciation, is a sort of cobbled together world view of self-discovery through introspection, drugs, and self-work in the Gurdjieff style. In the end, it doesn’t amount to much in itself, but it did turn this uneducated white boy on to a lot of very out there and enjoyable stuff. For that, I’m thankful, though I’m sure I could have gotten the same pay off having read only one or two of these.

A final anecdote on Wilson – while working a Tower, a young woman came up to me one day and asked for Cosmic Trigger. She appeared lost and uncertain and when I asked if she was interested in Wilson, she responded “Not really, but my boyfriend was reading this book and now he’s gone insane”. Boyfriend clearly had troubles beyond his tastes in reading material, but he was like a lost kids who, like myself, were drawn to Wilson. Glad I got out in one piece.

Not Recommended.

*I’ve read most of Wilson’s fiction as well, I’ll review that separately at some point.

Robert Anton Wilson

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Review: The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

(trans. Joscelyn Godwin)


Here’s one of the problems for the autodidact who follows his bliss this way and that, from one book to another, reading what he wants. He can end up, at 18, reading one of the foundational texts of western hermeticism without any real context, or real idea of what he is supposed to make of it.

That was me, dear reader, when as a very young, very uneducated man, I picked up the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, one of the three keys texts of the Rosicrucian order of the middle ages, and tried to make sense of it.

Rosicrucian’s (in this first iteration) were: (a) one of the many masonic-like secret societies which developed in the early days of the enlightenment or (b) a couple of wing nuts with access to a printer, and/or (c) a fake or to give veracity to the, quit likely bullshit texts they produced. Or perhaps something else entirely. No one really knows. If memory serves, this is the story of “Rosenkreutz”’s marriage, which functions as an allegory for his finding of certain esoteric knowledge. The book is purposefully incredibly obscure, full of symbolism and allegory. When I read it, I wasn’t remotely prepared to understand it. I was so uneducated even the explanatory notes went over my head. Did I gain something? Yes. Would I have gained more reading this in a more academic, focused, environment. Abosolutely.

Writing this review today I’m almost tempted to go back and reread the damn thing, but life is too short to read renaissance magic books twice, right?

Recommended for the enthusiast?


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Review: Mondo2000’s Users Guide to the New Edge

Mondo2000s Users Guide to the New Edge

R.U. Sirius, Rudy Rucker, Queen Mu

Friends, now-a-days, it seems hopelessly naïve that the birth of the internet age would bring with it a techno utopia of virtual reality, direct democracy, and extensive leisure. But in the early 90s, to a certain set of California techno-utopians (and the small town kids, like me, who picked up their books and magazines), all this and more seemed possible. We were entering a glorious age of discovery and play! New modes of thinking were developing! The way we organized society was changing! Everything would be different, and better!

We hoped for a future free of toil, we got cat videos.

This is a book collecting the writing centered around that early magazine of “cyber” culture, Mondo2000. I read it in 1994, so my memories a bit vague. I do recall lots of talk about virtual reality, transhumanism, and smart drugs. In fact, it was after reading this that I started taking massive amounts of B-12 in the hopes that it would make me smarter. I stopped when my high school girlfriend complained I was starting to smell like a vitamin. I was no smarter.

*edited* While one of the authors of this, Rudy Rucker has had a long career as a scientist. Perhaps Mondo2000’s utopian dreams weren’t all for naught. Through the wonders of cyberspace I’ve gotten in touch with one of the guiding forces behind the project, R.U. Sirius. He’s active on twitter (@StealThisSingul) still writing and generally being weird.  Queen Mu is still around, but, apparently, not online.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read this now, but for a kid stuck in a small town, it was an insight into a strange weird world. I am forever thankful for that.

Recommended for the enthusiast.


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Review: Charter’s The Portable Beat Reader

The Portable Beat Reader

Ann Charters

A collection of excerpts from many of the most important beat works and writers including Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy, and Ginsberg. I read this as a teenager eager to learn about the world outside the small Connecticut town in which I was raised, and boy did it deliver.

Back then, there was no Wikipedia, Kerouac and crew were just cultural references in the magazines I read, citations in the songs I liked. I’d puttered around a bit in some of their works (I think I’d taken a crack at On the Road) but I knew almost nothing about their work, and even less about their lives, before I read this.

For a kid like me, finding this in the store at the mall was, frankly life changing. I write this now at a remove of more than twenty years, so the specifics of what I thought of the book have vanished. I do remember pouring over the biographical material, and I remember adding scores of books to my “to be read” list.

The internet’s great and all, but there’s something to be said for having to figure it all out on your own.

At 17, this stuff like a drug, sending me off imagining a world much bigger, more dangerous, and more exciting than the life I was then living. Of course, now my view of these writers is far more critical. I see the rampant sexism now, the often clumsy writing, the chauvinism in all its forms, but then it was exciting, and new… at least to me.

Recommended for the enthusiast (and the teenager, circa 1992)

This was the cover on the edition I had.

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Literature Reveals the World: Some Quick Thoughts on Finley’s The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus

M.I. Finley

A stunning work of social history which uses what we know about the historical time period which produced the Iliad and the Odyssey to help understand these two classics. We need to remember that even to homer, the events of the Iliad and Odyssey were ancient history. His codification of these myths tells us then about his time times, as well as about how his peers viewed their ancestors.

Like all literature, the Homeric myths are not just stories to pass the time, they are the means by which a culture explains itself: its morals, its family structure, its economy. Read closely, and literature reveals the world.

Finley uses archeology and anthropology, philology and the history of ideas to inform his thoughts on the world of Odysseus, but in the end, this is a book of hyper close reading. Nothing gets past his eye, not a variant in god description, nor telling bit of dialogue. All if informs is understanding of who the ancient Greeks were, why they wrote these stories, and what they’re trying to tell us. If only I were half the reader Finley was, these books reviews would be much more worth illuminating.

Very, very glad I read this right after finishing a re-read of the two classics. Finely gave nuance and new meaning to what I just read, making me think more than once, “why didn’t I see that?”


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