October 29, 2006

The Proudly Wicked Read Aloud

“Mr. Dead Guy,” David said, “this is Jim. Jim, Mr. Dead Guy.”

      “Hello,” I said, shaking his cool hand.

      “Hello,” said Mr. Dead Guy. Then he sat down next to me, saying nothing more. Although I couldn’t see him, Morgan told me later that in place of a head he had a one-eyed skull. He also wore 18th century funeral attire and a top hat. He seemed like a very nice fellow, as well as a snappy dresser.

      Normally I avoid public readings like the plague, but this was different. First, I was being asked to read someone else’s work (which, oddly enough, dispels an awful lot of the pressure). More important, though, it was part of an event taking place at the greatest bookstore in the world.

      New York may have it all, but you won’t find anything approaching Philadelphia’s Germ Books—a small indie shop specializing in conspiracy theory, UFOs, the occult, cryptozoology, weird science, cultural pessimism, science fiction, and alternative history.

      In short, Germ Books has all the answers.

      Germ also doubles as a gallery for artists working in the darker corners of the psyche, a meeting place for people whose ideas and opinions, you might say, take several large steps beyond the merely “alternative;” and—on nights like this—a performance space.

      The store is owned and operated by two old and dear friends: singer-songwriter David E. Williams and artist Jennifer Bates. When they asked me to take part in an event they were hosting, I couldn’t very well say no.

      Although the reading was the ostensible excuse for the trip down to Philly, Morgan and I were really there to see David, Jennifer, and a few other folks we hadn’t seen in quite some time.

      The notion behind the event itself was much more attractive than your typical “I’m going to read you my latest poems” crap. Instead, “Readings from the Abyss” gathered together a group of local musicians, magicians, writers, and weirdies, asking each to read a brief selection from an author considered by most to be, well, evil—or at least one who celebrated wickedness in his work. It wasn’t a Halloween event, either, but merely an expression of Germ philosophy.

      The store was appropriately lit only with candles (which is why I never saw the dead guy sitting next to me). Dark ambient music filled the air. On a desk, an alien fetus bathed in a sickly green light floated in a jar of formaldehyde. Three television monitors in front of the podium played intercut snippets from Rosemary’s Baby, The Night Porter and Beat Girl, together with footage of intestinal parasites, Josef Goebbels and Anton LaVey. Jennifer had composed the video, explaining that, while it really meant nothing, it would give the audience something to look at, allowing the words to enter directly into their brains.

      “This has got to be the weirdest reading I’ve ever been a part of,” whispered Mike Walsh, who was now sitting to my right. Mr. Dead Guy, to my left, still hadn’t said anything. Then again, neither had I. What do you say to a dead guy?

      Now, Mike was another old friend from Philly—a writer who’d created the seminal humor magazine Expresso Tilt back in the ‘80s, and the missionCREEP website in the ‘90s. He’d been part of some awfully strange performances over the years, but yeah, he was right—nothing quite like this.

      A man wearing red sorcerer’s robes stepped up to the podium and began reading an incantation from Aleister Crowley.

      We are all going to hell, I thought. But I guess I knew that already.

      Now, I’m generally of the opinion that a little Crowley goes a long way. That being the case, a lot of Crowley goes an awfully long way. Each of us had been instructed to keep our reading brief—three or four minutes at the most, to help move the evening along, but this guy in the robes just kept incanting and incanting. Every time it seemed he was finally finished, he’d turn the page and keep reading.

      It was the longest three minutes I’d ever experienced. Every time he turned another page, Mike would sigh heavily to my right, I would slump a little lower in my chair, and on my left, Mr. Dead Guy would emit a quiet groan from beneath his skull mask. (At least I think it was a mask. It was warm where we were sitting, and if indeed it was a mask, that poor guy must’ve been sweating something fierce.)

      The man at the podium finally stopped reading, and the three of us simultaneously exhaled in relief.

      “Now I would like to read an excerpt from “The Hymn to Pan,” the man in the red robes said, and I began fantasizing about leaping from my seat and tackling him.

      “Pan, Pan, Pan, Pan!...Oh, Pan!...”

      Then, just as the fantasy was becoming a definite plan, he stopped reading and stepped away, not knowing how close he had come to having a blind guy jump on his back. I mean, he seemed like a very intelligent and earnest fellow, but criminey.

      The store was packed. All the seats had been filled, and there were people sitting on the floor in front and standing in the back. Those who couldn’t get in were milling about on the sidewalk out front.

      It was comforting in a way to know that in an increasingly safe, bland and sterile world—a personality-free world of chain stores, so-called “reality” television, and computer-generated pop music—that an event which celebrated intelligent expressions of the contrary, the threatening, and the culturally obscene (and I mean “obscene” in its original sense) could still draw an appreciative crowd. And depraved as these people might be, they were very polite.

      Subsequent readers—who all kept things short and snappy—recited bits from Dante and DeSade. A skinhead read from a manifesto released by a right wing Italian terrorist group. Mr. Dead Guy read a short piece by Ambrose Bierce which, appropriately enough, dealt with a funeral gone wrong. David read two poems by W.D. Snodgrass. Mike Walsh, whose delivery can (and has) made menus funny, read the Hell Sermon section from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, and made that funny, too.

      As the evening drew to a close, I finally got up and read a few pages from Celine’s Fable for Another Time (which I’d been practicing at my kitchen table for weeks, to the profound concern of my neighbors). On account of the darkness and my eye troubles, David stood next to me with a flashlight, shining it on the magnified words.

      The neat thing about reading Celine aloud is that his prose consists mostly of insulting sentence fragments, exclamation points, and ellipses. So even if I did lose my place (which was a distinct possibility), all I’d need to do is shout a string of epithets until I found it again, and no one would be the wiser.

      After I finished reading and everyone began milling about, I began looking for Morgan. Before I found her, though, I was cornered by one of Them.

      There’s one at every show—the crazy nut with a whole lotta nothing to say and an agonizing life story that’s not nearly as interesting as they might believe. They always seem to want something, but never make it quite clear what it might be.

      “I had a religious experience in the early ‘70s,” he began, and I felt the muscles in my face go slack.

      As he droned on, I found myself staring at the floor saying “uh-huh, uh-huh” a lot.

      “So...” this guy said, after not making a whole lotta sense for a long time, “maybe you’d like to come over and see my house?’

      “Oh, no, that’s not gonna happen,” I said. But then, realizing that it might not be wise to be too rude to the insane, that it might prompt him to reach for the straight razor, I tempered it a bit by adding, “Morgan and I are catching a real early train in the morning, and umm . . .”

      In the end, he jotted his address down on a piece of paper (“in case I wanted to get in touch with him”) and handed it to me.

      “Yeah, umm . . . great,” I said.

      Morgan rescued me and led me outside, where I could get a smoke, and where a few coherent types had gathered.

      I’ll tell you this—most of the people who showed up there that night, both performers and audience members—these nihilists, Satanists, pornographers, and witches, the politically frightening and spiritually outcast—these enigmatic, pessimistic extremists who look into the abyss and are glad the abyss looks back into them—are some of the nicest, most intriguing people you’d ever want to meet. So Morgan, I, and a few of these other supposedly “evil miscreants” walked a few blocks down the street to a bar, and it was a very pleasant night.

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