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Turning Taboo Into Titles

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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.

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“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 York.”

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] Celine 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.”

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