The ferociously eccentric Silver Lake bookstore, AMOK, is a retail outlet that can haunt your dreams. How many others can you think of?
"This country's twisted in so many ways," says AMOK co-founder Stuart Swezey, "that I think it's valid to just document that, and to be very blunt about it."
Blunt is right. Swezey and his partner, Brian King, cast a wide net for twisted merchandise for their retail, mail-order and publishing operations--shoestring concerns that net each of them about $600 a month. "Sourcebook of the extremes of information in print," proclaims the creepy cover of their catalogue and, for AMOK, it seems no extreme is too extreme.
The plain board shelves of their walk-in-closet-sized, mural-adorned shop on Hyperion, near Sunset, embrace French anarchist treatises, hard-core surrealist screeds, brass-knuckled cult/pulp fiction (Philip K. Dick, Jim Thompson), libertarian do-it-yourself guides to smuggling and tax evasion (not to mention torture and assassination), racist and fascist propaganda tracts, even medical and forensics textbooks (and videos!) full of stomach-churning documentary imagery of bullet wounds and oral tumors.
The store is inconspicuous and tiny and, despite its necro-punk atmosphere, inevitably a little disappointing to anyone familiar with AMOK's almost 400-page current catalogue, the so-called "Fourth Dispatch." Leafing through this veritable Bad Earth Catalogue--past subheads that include "Sleaze," "Mayhem," "Neuropolitics" and "Scratch & Sniff," past ads that offer tomes on everything from porno and serial killers to Situationism (4,000 items in all)--can be like tiptoeing through a minefield. The illustrations aren't always keyed to the text, and you never know when you're going to turn a page and be confronted suddenly by a gaping war wound or a Chinese execution by dismemberment.
AMOK seems to have been conceived (whatever you think of the result) as a conceptual art work in its own right, a retail installation in which the odd juxtapositions suggest underlying kinships you've never sensed before.
"It was a genre-busting idea," King agrees. "The idea was a place where you could present someone like Philip K. Dick not in a ghettoized science-fiction section but just as an important author. Or where you could put a forensics textbook on the same shelf as a Jim Thompson novel. Now this sort of low art/high art idea seems to be more accepted; all these things aren't as separate as people think."
King and Swezey have been known to haunt John Birch Society and black-nationalist bookstores in search of product, and King says AMOK never has been turned down by a fringe publishing operation that doubted their bona fides: "All these guys, from the UFO people to the rabid, right-wing Christians, just want their books distributed. We don't deliberately antagonize them. We don't send them dispatches or rub their noses in the new context we place things in."
For all the heavy-duty Left Bank literature and philosophy on display at AMOK, it's the heavy-duty gore that first catches your attention. Why, one has to ask, is this stuff worth looking at?
"People in this country think of death as taboo," Swezey suggests, "the way they thought of sex in Victorian times. They don't want to see it, they don't want to know about it, they don't really want to understand it. And that's why people come to us, because we show them the goods. Maybe one way to live life to the fullest is to erase the mysteries of death."
In fact, that may not be a bad answer. Probably there are very few of us who aren't at least a bit curious about death--and I don't mean what it will feel like, which goes without saying, but just plain what it looks like. Think of it this way: If you had a relative who was a medical examiner, and were offered a chance to take a peek behind the scenes, would you risk it? Some of you certainly wouldn't, but a fair number surely would--or would at least be drawn to the idea even if you couldn't quite stomach it. (This reporter falls into the latter category; although I think about it a lot, I still can't bring myself to pop that tape of "Basic Autopsy Procedures" into the VCR--not even for research purposes!)
The AMOKsters obviously have stronger constitutions than most of us. Swezey was promoting punk concerts and King was a student at CalArts when they started this strange business, making a business of strangeness, in 1985. There's still something earnest and collegiate about them, as befits a couple of warped American bad-dreamers who have transformed youthful fixations into a career.
"The gap we saw in the market," Swezey explains, "was (the lack of an outlet for) the kinds of books we ourselves like to read and collect. We didn't have the money to open a store at first, so mail order was a way to still make these materials available. The first Dispatch was 30 pages long and we had no inventory, so when people ordered, we would turn around and order from the publishers. We gradually accumulated enough inventory to open a store."
And as their stock expanded, Swezey adds, so did their theoretical sophistication: "You can't dismiss the extreme material as a marketing ploy we use to sell the other stuff, because we started with that. When we started, we didn't know anything about Jean Baudrillard--but I knew who (mass murderer) Ed Gien was! But then I came to realize that Baudrillard and Foucault could be the philosophical underpinnings of our true-crime section."
Swezey and King seem to believe strongly in their avowed mission of making "forbidden materials" available, and AMOK's publishing operation is a clear extension of their retail philosophy. AMOK Press released a popular collection of fringe tracts called "Apocalypse Culture"; the novel, "Michael," by Joseph Goebbels (yes, that Joseph Goebbels); a blood-chilling criminal memoir from the depression, "You Can't Win"; a long-lost (if contested) volume by Friedrich Nietzsche, "My Sister and I," and several others.
The recently refurbished publishing wing is now called AMOK Books. Major new projects include King's "Lustmord," a collection of "the writings and artworks of murderers," and Swezey's AMOK Journal, a fat quarterly that will reprint articles from forensic and medical journals, and publish new research into tasty AMOK topics like auto-erotic strangulation and amputee fetishes.
There are people who contend that AMOK itself is morally tantamount to a White Power bookstore, just because it peddles that sort of material. L.A. Weekly columnist Michael Ventura, for instance, believes that the AMOKers "collaborate with a lot of the crap they sell." For Swezey, "It's missing the entire point of what we're doing to say that some ways of looking at this stuff are acceptable and some aren't, and that he gets to decide which is which."
They also acknowledge, with some distaste, that they owe a portion of AMOK's success to the fact that the trend winds are blowing in their direction these days: "Interest in death can be a fashion statement now," King admits, "like wearing a lot of black clothes."
How about the notion that a lot of this material is socially "dangerous" in some way? "Real perverts are set off by all kinds of seemingly innocuous stuff," Swezey insists, "nothing you can predict. Usually it's an image that was ingrained in them in childhood. I just read the autobiography of a guy who did autoerotic strangulation, and the fetish image that he goes into most of all was a murder scene from an old 'Matlock' episode."
No AMOK undertaking has brought all these complaints to the surface more violently than an art show that King conceived and staged last year to showcase the sinister clown paintings by John Wayne Gacy Jr., a convicted serial killer of small children. Outrage erupted from several quarters, including the National Enquirer, at the very notion of giving this human monster a public forum.
King insists that Gacy's art really is interesting, "although it might not be good to the naked eye if you didn't know that he was a murderer. The only people who got pissed off about that show were people who would never go to it. People who looked at that art got something out of it. It's a combination of honesty and mystification, and totally in its own way, as opposed to a lot of the art dross that's fashionable now. That's why I'm editing this book, 'Lustmord,' because even though a lot of the writing's abysmal, it is interesting."
The AMOK partners insist that while they have no taboos, they do make "aesthetic judgments." Although several of their best-selling books examine vintage pornography, they carry no hard-core sexual material, claiming to find it boring. And they say they won't carry Brett Easton Ellis' slash-art bestseller, "American Psycho," because it's "badly written"--although when pressed it seems that what disturbs them most is Ellis' (perceived) "insincerity."
Sincerity is a value I recognize, and I recognize it in King and Swezey (in Ellis, too, but that's another story). But is this stuff reprehensible or not? To put it another way, what's the dividing line between an obviously serious but graphic book like Michael Lesy's "The Forbidden Zone," a first-person look at the raw data of death in America, and an operation like AMOK--and who gets to draw the line? Are there some things (as the scientists in '50s horror movies used to intone) that human beings were not meant to know?
Temperamentally, I tend to doubt it. But for some reason, I still haven't watched that tape.
The current catalogue, "AMOK Fourth Dispatch," is sold at bookstores or can be ordered from AMOK, P.O. Box 861867, Terminal Annex, Los Angeles, Calif. 90086-1867. (213) 665-0956.