Supplementary notes originally included in an earlier draft of the Manson essay prepared for Transgressive Culture.
In 1982 David Toop wrote an article for Collusion, ‘Surfin’ Death Valley
an investigation of the connections between Manson and The Beach Boys. Writing
in 2003, Toop noted that in the years following the text’s initial publication,
new information appeared on the subject ranging from “a profile of Bobby
Beausoleil written by Truman Capote” to “a skip load of post-apocalyptic Amok –
type sleaze on Manson and the Family”. He comments that one reader wrote in
response to the article expressing “an unhealthy interest in snuff movies”.
Compounding his tone of lamentation, Toop speculates that said reader probably
“went on to write for Creation Press”.[i]
Here, Toop is referencing two idiosyncratic publishing houses, Amok Press, and Creation Books. Both have been instrumental in developing Manson’s ‘cult’ status. Amok published Nikolas Schreck's The Manson File, amongst others, whilst Creation’s Manson list contains Death Trip (1994 / 2009), a book that shares material with Schreck’s volume. Whilst these references acknowledge the extent of the Manson catalogue, the construction of a spectrum moving from Truman Capote to undifferentiated “sleaze” draws Amok, Creation and by extension the critical discourse that valorises Manson into a negative value judgement. The implication is that considerations of the Manson milieu that move beyond condemnation or attempt to extrapolate significance from “banal” coincidences of “geography, money and show-business” constitute a discourse that is itself problematically transgressive: “unhealthy” and sleazy; immoral, dishonest, disreputable.[ii]
Arguably, this point has some validity in the case of Tuesday’s Child naming Manson ‘Man of the Year’ in 1969. However, it is too simplistic to suggest that subsequent considerations of him as either “monster” or “prophet” inversely correlate with good / bad modes of analysis.[iii] This narrow binary distinction is not representative of the strategies that have characterized 40 years of cultural production and in particular the framing of Manson at the turn of the millennium. That is to say, when considering the metaphor of Charles Manson, it is not sufficient to unambiguously oppose such a phenomena. Instead, it is important to adopt a mode of analysis that assesses the diachronic metamorphosis of Manson’s emblematic status. Whilst he has consistently retained a symbolic currency, this is not a position – whether presented negatively or positively – that has existed in the absence of historical development. As such then, an evaluation of the particularized cultural artifact that is the Amok / Creation Manson requires consideration of the strategies underpinning its construction.
Amok Press was formed in
New York in 1986 by Adam Parfey and Ken
Swezey. One of its earliest publications was the manifesto-like Apocalypse
Culture (1987) an attempt to analyse the forces “lurking behind” the “mass
delirium” of the late 20th century, the belief expressed on the part
of “occult prophets, nihilist kids, born agains and liberal humanists” that a
“global catastrophe” was imminent.[iv]
In practice, this investigation took the form of a series of mondo-like essays
considering fringe thought and the extremes of human behaviour. In contrast to
this subcultural anthropology, Creation Books, formed in London in 1989 by James Williamson and Alan
McGee began mainly as a publisher of “imaginative extremes”.[v]
Their initial manifesto, “the crucifixion of modern literature and the
resurrection of the imagination” was realised through the publication of
fiction and poetry by James Havoc, Alan Moore, Jeremy Reed and .[vi]
Creation offered work that was “hallucinated and anatomical”: violent and
sexually explicit in content, nominally ‘avant-garde’ in form.[vii]
During the mid to late 1990s the company diversified into non-fiction, mainly
covering cult film and countercultural art, but as Williamson has described,
their initial stock in trade was “Poetry, pornography, pulp and plagiarism”.[viii] Stuart Home
Despite these generic differences both publishers used the ‘underground’ status of their authors as markers of their own marginal position as cultural producers. Parfey identified the contributors to Apocalypse Culture as “folk artists and folk researchers”, claiming that they acted as “more worthy cultural barometers than the often more clever but intellectually and emotionally corrupt professionals”.[ix] Similarly, Williamson presented Creation Books as an antidote to the “sexless confines of corporate publishing formats” and its material as a challenge to notions of “literary value”.[x] In this respect, the projects of Amok and Creation can be described as ‘transgressive’ as the term is understood in its primarily “disobedient”, contra-normative sense.[xi] That is to say, the intention informing their publishing programmes is one of “symbolic inversion”, the attempt to, by example, “present an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values and norms”.[xii] In the case of Williamson and Parfey, such “values and norms” are those proposed by ‘mainstream’ publishing, (“Penguin and their obsolescent ilk”) and the disciplinary boundaries of professional academia.[xiii] It is through this lens of oppositional alterity that that the emphasis placed on Charles Manson, particularly by Amok Press can initially be understood.
In the opening essay in Apocalypse Culture, “Latter Day Lycanthropy” Parfey provides a short cultural history of the struggle to either repress or release “the animal in man” and the apparent late-20th century shift towards the latter in art and culture.[xiv] Given his emphasis on contemporary shamanic performances and Transactional Psychology, Parfey’s essay could be seen to occupy the collection’s purported anthropological stance, expressing an interest in what Stuart Swezey, writing in the Amok Journal: Sensesurround Edition calls “the pursuit of a neurobiological basis for mystical and ecstatic experience”.[xv] However, the article also includes an illustration of a lycanthropic Charles Manson drawn by Nick Bougas for The Manson File and quotes the ‘manifesto’ of Radio Werewolf, a performance group led by Schreck that ‘celebrates the lunar force of animist apocalypse as a reaction against directionless humanity”. The implication is that within the cultural sphere represented by Amok, Manson acts as an exemplary figure of amoral misanthropy. He exhibits the necessary “psychic preparation for the millennial calamities which are thought to lie ahead”.[xvi]
Radio Werewolf performed alongside Boyd Rice’s Non at the ‘8/8/88 Rally’, a concert and ‘Satanic’ gathering that included Parfey, Anton LaVey and a screening of Frank Howard’s Manson film The Other Side of Madness (1970). Prior to this Schreck had made the “revisionist documentary” Charles Manson Superstar (1987) that operated as something of a companion piece to The Manson File.[xvii] In addition to making what Jim Morton describes as “hyperbolic statements about Manson’s relative innocence”, its opening narration attributes a conspiratorial importance to the dates of Tate-La Bianca murders.[xviii] Schreck describes how August 8-9th corresponds with other ‘significant’ events in history such as the detonation of the nuclear bomb over
(1945), the birth date of serial killer Ed Gein (1907) and the LAPD announcement
describing the activities of the ‘Night Stalker’ Richard Ramirez (1985). From
this perspective, the 8/8/88 rally acts as a further iteration of this occult
trajectory but one that centralizes Manson within the web of significance. The
concert was not promoted as a celebration of the panorama of occurrences and
figures referenced at the outset of Schreck’s film but specifically as a
“reaffirmation of the ‘riding forth’ ritual conducted on the eve of the Tate
murders in 1969”.[xix] The
event thus seems to develop the image of Manson from that of celebrated
misanthrope into an emblem of an almost archetypal ‘force’ of violence. By
extension, the lycanthropic theory that Apocalypse Culture outlines is
extended into the event’s ambivalent practice that oscillates between ritual
and actualization. The rhetoric of ‘reaffirmation’ carries the sense of both
commemoration and repetition as if to point to the memorialization of a
previous act of violence as well as its reactivation through violence yet to
This attitude of overt confrontation can be read in terms of Aesthetic Terrorism, which as George Petros describes in Art That Kills (2008) represented a key impulse in American underground art between 1984 and 2001. Jesper Aagaard Petersen has described this ‘movement’ as “a combination of rationalist Satanism and more expressive forms of post-punk”.[xx] In an analysis of Petros’ “portrait” Peterson observes that he attempts to elide religion and subculture through the discursive integration of Satanism’s “reactive transgressions” and “an avant-garde aesthetics” [xxi] We are told that in practice this takes the form of the “subversive use of past clichés, knowledge and home truths being flung out of joint” as an expression of “frustration with politics, big business and mass entertainment”.[xxii] An associated discourse, John Aes-Nihil’s Aesthetic Nihilism codifies this subversion further as a reaction against society and mass culture through “the creation of art so extreme it verges on destruction”.[xxiii]
This framework of critical provocation offers a potential negotiation of the difficult territory that this work inhabits. The recognition of a symbolically violent artistic ideology could be seen to allow for a differentiation between “transgressive play and problematic politics”.[xxiv] Certainly, if its ‘satirical’ component is accepted, such negativity could be viewed in terms of a reflexive critique. However, the residue of ‘problematic politics’ remains insofar as the emphasis placed upon individuality, self-realization and self-empowerment (man into wolf) within Amok publications and their associated events could be seen in terms of an aggressive Social Darwinism. Ideas ranging from the cultivation of a millennial resilience to the creation of ambiguously “intense” work appear to connect social and artistic development to the exercise of personal ‘strength’. When mediated through the emblem of Manson, it is hard to perceive this antinomianism in terms other than an idealization of physical violence.
In the case of Creation, although the company published Art that Kills, the situation regarding their representation of Manson is less politically vexed. However, it nonetheless remains problematic mainly due to the extent to which he is repeatedly fetishized across their publications. In ‘celebration’ of the 40th anniversary of the Tate-La Bianca murders, Creation re-published Adam Gorightly’s The Shadow Over Santa Susanna (2009), a text that repeated Schreck’s conspiratorial claims whilst connecting them to further nodal points. Gorightly is a writer concerned with ufology, Forteana and conspiracy research, subjects that are not the specific preserve of Creation Books. However, the text can be seen as an appropriate publication choice as its mapping of the Manson web is indicative of the manner in which. Creation texts often seem to revel in the aura of Manson’s infamy and the range of culturally resonant connections extending out from the murders. ‘Mansonoid’ allusions are present in Creation’s early fictional publications especially by flagship author James Havoc. His short story ‘Zipper Fox: A Synopsis’ (1996) has characters “cruising the night sands in one of Charlie Manson’s old dune buggies”. In his foreword to Havoc’s Butchershop in the Sky (1999), Williamson attempts to cultivate a correspondingly ‘Luciferean’ persona for the writer.[xxv] Describing Havoc’s life in
Williamson parodies Ed Sanders’ prose style used in The Family to recall that “one young woman was encouraged to take
LSD and lured back to find his flat literally draped in fresh meat. Oo-ee-oo.”[xxvi]
In addition, Creation’s initial ‘sampler’ Cease
to Exist (1991) took as its title the Scientology mantra that Manson used
as the basis for one of his songs, later recorded by The Beach Boys as ‘Never
Learn Not to Love You’.
In subsequent publications this fascination is maintained not so much by the contents of the often very different books, but in the language of the paratextual material used to market them. With a nod to Sonic Youth, Charlie’s Family (1998), an edition of Jim VanBebber’s screenplay for The Manson Family (2003) is described as offering an “uncompromising cinematic portrayal of the exterminating angels of
Death Valley ‘69”.[xxvii] Death Trip is “an iconoclastic study of
Manson as Psychopathic God”,[xxviii]
whilst the blurb for Gorightly’s text
merges this fatalistic energy with an appeal to the transgressive consumer,
calling it “an illustrated kill-bible for the coffee-tables of all
self-respecting true crime buffs, counter-culture freaks and teenage
Recent publications such as Jack Hunter’s Surfin’ with Satan (2010) and Confessions
of Psycho-Cat (2010) take this movement towards commodity fetishism one
step further. Printed in single runs of only 69 copies they materially exploit
the talismanic significance of 1969 to produce objects of high-value scarcity.
In each case, whether the promotion of Manson is figured as a means of cultural subversion or cultural commodification, it is a promotion that seemingly negates the human cost at the centre of the case. The resonance of the murderer is celebrated in the absence of a consideration of those murdered. As result, to use a phrase frequently included in Creation’s marketing, this artistic ideology appears somewhat ‘terminal’. It ostensibly reiterates a “cultish fixation” that does not cultivate value.[xxx] Whilst the individual cultural products participate, as highlighted in a level of critique, their surrounding publishing discourse works within a rhetoric of destruction that does not leave recognizable space for the subsequent development of the forms that such work seeks to deconstruct.
[i] David Toop, ‘Surfin’ Death Valley
The Beach Boys and ‘Heavy’ Friends’, Collusion February-April 1982.
Reprinted in The Sound and the Fury
ed. by Barney Hoskyns and David Pringle ( London:
Bloomsbury, 2003), pp. 399-407.
[ii] Toop, p. 402. Synonyms from Collins English Dictionary (
Glasgow: Collins, 2009), p. 213.
[iii] “Monster” and “prophet” from Swezey in John Gilmore, The Garbage People (USA: Amok, 1995) p. ii.
[iv] Adam Parfey (ed.) Apocalypse Culture (New York: Amok, 1987), p.13.
[v] Alan McGee was head of Creation Records and the publishing company, Creation Press, was set up as an adjunct to this main enterprise. In 1994 Creation Books became an independent entity under Williamson’s editorship. There was an interesting cross over between the two projects during the early stages. This included the company’s first publication, Raism (1989) by James Havoc and the accompanying album, The Church of Raism featuring Havoc backed by members of Primal Scream. See James Williamson, “Introduction: Apocalypse 451” in Dust: A Creation Books Reader (London: Creation Books, 1995), pp.i-ii.
[vi] Ibid, p.i.
[vii] Ibid, back cover copy.
[ix] Parfey, p.13.
[x] Williamson, p. i.
[xi] Part of the OED definition of 'transgression'.
[xii] Barbara Babcock quoted in Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London, Methuen, 1986).
[xiii] Williamson, p.i.
[xiv] Parfey, ‘Latter Day Lycanthropy’, in Apocalypse Culture, pp. 17-27, p. 17.
[xv] Stuart Swezey, Amok Journal: Sensurround Edition (USA: Amok, 1995).
[xvi] Parfey, p. 26.
[xvii] Jim Morton, ‘Manson Movie Madness’ in Jim Van Bebber, Charlie’s Family (London, Creation, 1998), pp. 164-185, p. 167.
[xx] Jesper Aagaard Petersen, '‘Smite him hip and thigh’: Satanism, Violence and Transgression'
[xxi] Quoted in Petersen.
[xxiii] The Archives of Aesthetic Nihilism place a significant emphasis upon Manson.
[xxv] James Williamson, ‘Foreword’, in James Havoc, Butchershop in the Sky (London: Creation 1999), pp. 7-11, p. 11. ‘Zipper Fox’, pp. 201-203, p.203.
[xxvi] Sanders references are also present in Havoc’s obscure 8 mm film Crimes Against Pussycat (1989).
[xxvii] Van Bebber, Charlie’s Family. Back cover.
[xxviii] 'Johnny Satan', Death Trip. Back cover.
[xxix] Gorightly, Shadow Over Santa Susanna. Back cover.
[xxx] Simon Dwyer, ‘The Plague Yard’ in Rapid Eye vol 2 (London: Creation, 1995), pp. 137-238, p. 197.