Black Ribbon Award



Dear Readers,

After foot-dragging for about the length of one presidential term, I’ve finally sold out and moved house to Substack. Subscribe if you want. Anyway, thanks.

Chris RM


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Note: This is a much more extensively revised version of an essay that first appeared in the fourth issue of Biopsy (winter 2013). This is also one of two Biopsy essays that coincides with similarly themed episodes of Criminal Minds, so make what you will of that.

There is no genre that so dominates today’s publishing industry more than self-help; and no specialized interest that so dominates within that genre more than self-help in relationships. If you are struggling to find love, to keep the love that you have, or even just want to know how to seduce via text message, you will not be wanting in options.

Finding love and having it endure, even when this is not explicit, is the cornerstone of the lives of most sane people. I can only hope that the books meant to make both possible were put together with the greatest care and sincerity, not simply based on demand for a product but out of need for guidance.

Yet this subgenre is also hindered by a significant weakness: it uses language to advise and guide on a matter that no language can adequately assess, let alone control. This is not for lack of trying throughout recorded history and culture. All we have, at best, is words, words meant to articulate and justify what are in the main incredibly base impulses and irrational spasms. And who do we seek to persuade with this language but ourselves, in the wake of the damage we have wrought by our actions? Such effort only end in a fog of futility. But being human, we persist, and seek a higher language, even when a lower, cruder one may suffice much better. And people like me make a killing.

Well, not quite yet. The industry has seen fit not to recognize my ingenuity in this matter. Like any good scientist driven to insanity, I work among the cobwebs, and subsist generally on the proteins of the nearest and gnarliest critters. Whether I mean literal cobwebs or intellectual critters I’ll leave to your fine judgment. What matters are my results, which I’m more or less confident the industry, and my presumed peers, will come around to in good time and maybe with—so it goes—with more fitting language. At least my regimen is a fairly straightforward one.

In my research on love, I have devised a three-step process. Initially it was a simpler two-step process but the more fervent demons of my ambition saw fit to make a more sophisticated system.

The first step is perhaps the easiest: forget everything you know about the correlation between “romance” and “relationship.” Here the limits of language are most apparent. All the books and all the gurus we can offer, and none have done either concept any favors by conflating the two as if they were compatible as you hope to be compatible with that special someone. If you want them to go together, they must be brought together, and made to sit together in close confines. They must learn, as we must learn, to work in tandem, to communicate their unique perspectives, to delight in what is similar, and to compromise on what is distinct. They must also learn to take risks and to set comfort to one side. The romantic relationship is a hybrid art of mutual rapture sewn into mutual trust; it’s play that is work and work that is playful.

The second, and somewhat less simple, step: make yourself sick. Conjuring sickness, the seeming inverse of love, seems highly undesirable at first. But the more you dwell on it, the greater the natural overlap each condition has, quite unlike the preceding pair. Sickness, even mild sickness, debilitates the body, enflames the mind, and drags the spirit over glass and coal. In sickness you’re pushed in all directions by unseen forces and are compelled to fight them. Overwhelming weakness begets oft invisible strengths: a bodily self-awareness heretofore disregarded in healthier times. The sick person suffers; the sick person is by the same token needy and arrogant. Sickness produces enough filth to amass a mountain, which the sick person finds the will to scale and declare themselves sovereign ‘til the cure restores their senses. Such also is love’s arc. And what makes us sick will better clarify what makes us love. And easily enough, it’s always the same thing: the color red. Red is a peculiar disease that courses through us, apparently to some concise purpose, but which also ignites all at once our greatest horror and deepest yearning. It calls us to come out, but we cannot allow it on our own.

Hence, step three: finding your crimson partner and formalizing your bond with them. Here many gurus will offer what they claim are easy routes to this end. They rely on apparent precedents in relationship practice to see you through it. Some will claim that forms of “play” involving restraints, name-calling, salivating, and general pushing around is are tried and true way. The truth of the matter: an old wives’ tale of a very modern sort. Attempts to attain this goal through these means will be quickly aware of their inadequacy.

The slow emergence of sadomasochism from banned literature to clinical papers to Stooges songs and finally into the suburban bedroom is one of consistent degradation, and not the good kind. There is an exorbitant theatricality to it, certainly relative to the minuscule size of the audience. Of course to the participants, the people donning the straps and setting the boundaries, this is hardly performance; it’s closer to a game, but it’s a game of hesitation. Rather than a source of dark pleasure it is a psychological exam with faked punches, testing the lengths couples will go to restrain their monstrous urges, regardless as to whether or not they are actually restrained.

The strongest criticism against kink, then, rests neither on moral nor aesthetic but emotional grounds. Anything that functions on prescribed, simplified roles will only foster distance instead of intimacy. Even if a BDSM session between two trusting people stays within expectations, if the safe words are observed and the established boundaries are respected with a satisfactorily agreed amount of improvisation, the experience hews closer to ballroom dancing than to any carnal thrill-seeking. One submissive participant is not subservient to a dominant one, but each are under the sway of a given form. In so heeding the sway, no limitations are truly explored; no extreme desires are reeled in from psychic depths. No one has any fun. Or when they do it is of an intensity on par with flashlight tag or pinning the tail on the donkey. There isn’t even any opportunity to feel reservations or disgust. How can you know who you are without knowing what repulses you?

Relationships are doomed by holding patterns, even holding patterns adorned in leather, restraints, and studs. The search for intimate extremes is hardly ever found in the elaborate. No bonding experience should rely on any “industry” or hawkers of gadgetry. The most searing, lasting thrills are minimalist. And they are often discovered outside an intimate—or typically intimate—context.

My first encounter with what I shall call epidermal terraforming was in middle school. It was a generally dreary time in my early adolescence, lacking as I was in the political skill required to navigate that microcosm of suburbia that resembles not American republicanism but medieval royal court. My psychological problems combined with my low status that seemed to shift, at a moment’s notice, between serf and compulsory jester caused me no minor amount of anxiety. Pills worked intermittently; provocative, defensive statements and gestures didn’t work at all. I was forced to revert to an animal-like state in order to subdue the indignity of being human. This came in the form of biting my forearms when anxiety rose to a blinding white-hot. It left deep purple-outlined ovals on my pale skin that were visible to all who got close to me. Some were intrigued, though most were unsettled at the very least. I overcame this habit, for the most part, through standard psychiatric treatment and shame, but I never forgot those reactions from my peers, let alone the sensation of losing myself in impulsive bodily violence to escape psychological malaise. Such a value for so compulsive an act was difficult to ignore. To say that it didn’t help me when other more conventional means did would be a lie; and with some fine-tuning it could be a help to others just as lost but with much more to lose still.

If you are truly invested in searching for new sources of excitement in your love life that are more than superficial or artificial, then your only reasonable option may be an exploration along lines similar to the foregoing. There is no precise or tried way in which to arrive at its practice. Where standard fetishism is regimented and choreographed, the act of mutual epidermal terraforming (MET) is freeform in the extreme. Like all good things, MET is simple. Its setup should always be minimal, an object to each participant for their romantic maiming. But that simplicity is also not a little deceptive.

Arriving at the most appropriate mindset is required if MET is to work. It is one that’s close to adolescence. This is not the practice for the nuanced of thought or the graceful of action. Desire places itself foremost above judgment, confidence, and restraint. The first propels the participants—which for our present purposes should be no more than two—while the lesser three keep them in check by cancelling each other out. Once your rational faculties have been dulled and your tastes simplified by half your life, it is time to consider methods more specific to your needs and the needs of your partner.

And what ensues from there is entirely in the hands of both of you. No one interaction is the same as all the others. Whereas one couple might prefer flame- or heat-based objects like lighters or blowtorches another might be more inclined to go with the sharp object like steak knives, hunting knives, acupuncture needles, scalpels, glass, etc. And even then, will the couple start gently at first by tracing patterns, perhaps even words, over the skin as it breaks? Do they want to leave permanent scarring? Or will they throw subtlety in the hamper and go with quick, impulsive strikes?

Think of MET as a dance done while sitting in place; though further away from the ballroom of BDSM and closer to the slow dance to Alphaville with your secret crush at the Valentine’s Day semiformal. One must read the other’s moves, attempted moves, countermoves, mistaken advances, and various tics in order to respond and create a flow. Each action is rooted in instinct: need and want vying for supremacy though collapsing in stalemate. Under ideal circumstances, the result is a new type of orgasm; one that blurs the line between revulsion and sugar rush, with some impromptu interpretive contortions thrown in. Those revolted by the sight of blood freshly drawn will experience an unprecedented turnaround. Just as semen and urine can be inverted from fluids of utility or disgust to fluids of euphoria during a sexual act, so too can blood be inverted. Drawn blood paints the body with dramatic effect; it contrasts beautifully against the surface of the skin, and shows each other that everything indeed is being laid out before one another.

I’ve heard it said that you know a feeling you have is love by how easily your inhibitions fall away as if they cut corners in the building code. What you would rather not be capable of doing by your lonesome seems far easier, even natural, when someone else is in your direct eyeline. Maybe the books this essay follows are useful in that one respect. Love changes you. You feel it already in your nerves and in your pores. Love is more than a complement to sickness, but sickness dipped in caramel. To treat it is to prolong it; and the medicine cabinet of “cures” only expands.

With no restraints and no definite instructions to follow beyond what I’ve laid out here, it is anyone’s guess as to where this shall lead from couple to couple. What can be said with more certainty is that it is all equal with each partner carrying the same weight and burden, and more importantly it is entirely independent of lust. The greatest potential of MET is in its linkage of desire with the most tangible pain, with visible scars, burns, and abrasions. To fool around with handcuffs and whips is to resort to a state of the most cartoonish adulthood, yet to trace spirals on the stomach of a loved one with an ice pick while the red fluid pools around is to relearn love’s definition. After all, if blood were meant to remain in the body nature would not have given the color of romantic delirium.


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From Alexander McQueen’s fall 2009 collection.

“Goths should get their own state,” went a tweet from an account called @ComradeCoolcat. “Like the Mormons did.” The post, which went viral in mid-August, is typical of the disaffected irony you tend to see around that website. There is that faint hint of earnest desire. Goth-seeking behavior has become prevalent on social media to the extent that the goth rock culture, once a very limited subset, is engendering more than a mere revival but has the makings of a popular demographic. But then there is the heavy lacquer of dismissive, tragic unseriousness. Goth-seeking behavior, after all, includes a crippling, self-reflexive mordancy and a lack of organizational capacity. This is to say nothing of the subcultural cousins that did possess organizational prowess stopping well ahead of aspirations of statehood.

Simply put, a goth state is unthinkable in the same way that civil war, nuclear annihilation, and a listenable Vampire Weekend album are unthinkable. But neither is it entirely out of the realm of possibility. People have formalized collectives with worse intentions; and it wouldn’t be very wise to reject the notion of a singular individual professing to be strange and unusual rising from nowhere to marshal a mass of others who are themselves strange and unusual. Faced with that possibility, it is worth considering whether a state so conceived is ideal for goth culture, or whether goth culture can maintain social longevity if a state is established. It requires a reexamination of what goth is, what goth adherents want, and how goth contrasts from the subcultures out which it branches and with which it is sometimes conflated.

What constitutes “goth” is unquestionably iconic. Though it has off-branches like rivetheads, coldwavers, and darkwavers, and can be found in some elements of emo and nü metal, goth itself has remained static in style and emotional range. It is still signified by morose, sunlight-averse people huddled off somewhere, huffing cloves and swilling coffee, to avoid that dreaded prospect of contact with others. Most every comedy phenomenon, from Saturday Night Live to South Park to Tim and Eric to Portlandia to Letterkenny, has commented on it, and many times over. If it is not being confused with punk or generally being absorbed into “post-punk,” it is being trivialized as something closer to an ornate, dismal clown show. This is a natural outcome of a collective nature that is willing to embrace what common mores disdain, and which sometimes go very well together: like camp and being openly, unflinchingly miserable. It proved sufficiently embarrassing to the generality of mankind that mankind was too ready to leave it in pop culture’s trash heap as silly and adolescent. So its reemergence, where it is noticed, will be treated with some alarm. People, it appears, are finding yet another reverse-trajectory to teenagerhood. Though that is to misunderstand the core principles that sustain goth. A reverse course to one person may be an ascendence to another.

In order to make sense of the look and conduct of a given subculture, it helps to look backwards to the ethic its adherents have arrived at beforehand. The original punks committed themselves to confronting the many disappointments and petty effronteries of mainstream society by adopting vulgarity and impoliteness in their behavior and a crude, provocative eclecticism in their dress. Provocative to such an extent, in fact, that the swastika was adopted, at least until the emergence of the National Front made that untenable. Punk’s 1980s successor hardcore was no less provocative but it took on a more minimalistic, militant attitude. On the one hand, fashion was a luxury. The perpetually cash-strapped Black Flag, for instance, relied on Ginn family hand-me-downs and thrift shop remnants for clothing. While the climactically impaired Pacific Northwest could not do much without thermals and flannel. On the other hand, fashion was streamlined for the sake of group cohesion and purity, to assure that all the right people were on the same page.

Goth, however, is distinct from these subcultures in the apparent lack of a guiding ethic. Indeed, as with new wave, there is not even an apparent point of rebellion. It is a pure mode of expression relying on a narrowed set of the human experience—mourning, introspection, melancholy—out of indifference rather than hostility to the remaining spectrum. Goth is a cultivation of perhaps the most decadent emanations Western civilization has to offer: the subjectivity of 18th century Romanticism, the death-worship of the Celts, the sartorial melodrama of Victorian mourning traditions and Spanish Catholicism. Though the actual importance of appearance relative to simple attitude is debatable. The typical goth look can be easily bastardized in the manner that Hot Topic and lesser genres have done for years. Moreover, the music of canonical goth bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division, and most of Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry tends toward the monotonous while similarly themed but less fashion-conforming bands like The Sound, Lana Del Rey, and the Pixies are more sophisticated and have broader appeal. The result is an aesthetic sensibility that, on the one hand, gives way to stereotype and parody, but on the other hand is also free of policing for purity unlike most emanations of punk. You may attribute this as much to goth’s characteristic dispassion, especially about the opinions of others, as to its inconsequential market share. In combination, goth’s politics are every bit as hard to tease out as its ethics.

The internal politics of a subculture can be assessed by the prevalence of citizenship spread throughout its participants. “Citizenship” in this case is not meant to signify an official status distinct from the subcultural participant’s nationality. Though hardcore never attempted statehood, its cross-national chain could not be possible without elements of civic engagement: the duties and mutual trust demanded by logistics. As such, hardcore and its college rock offshoots could preach the merits of individualism for the single listener while sustaining themselves by communitarian practice. Many years would pass before this embrace of contradictory stances would be substantially challenged.

Goth is the punk offshoot (next to pop punk, third-wave ska, and fourth-wave emo) that has close proximity normalcy in terms of its view of society. A goth’s politics, such as they are, are the politics of their nation. Most, I presume, would embrace progressive nostrums; though The Outline found a groundswell of Trumpist goths, even as no single reason for that support is arrived at. Yet when you separate national politics from goth culture and consider it in isolation, you won’t find much cause for citizenship. Its impulses are interior and solipsistic; closer to the imperatives of a caste than to the duties of a community.

Ask any goth to trace their cultural ancestry to the very beginning and you will get a variety of answers. Some, like Edgar Allan Poe or Stevie Nicks, are fairly common. Others break down into more niche but still acceptable examples: Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, Aleister Crowley, Montague Summers, Rosaleen Norton, the creepy woman in John Cheever’s “Torch Song,” the cast of The Craft, etc. Though not many, I suspect, would include Edmund Burke.

This is fair enough on the surface. The Irish politician could hardly be considered inwardly introspective or dispassionate. Indeed, in his day his name was synonymous with torrential hysteria. Yet nothing about Burke was ever simple. Beneath his frantic comportment and Whiggish analytical rigor, were qualities that, taken blind, few goths would deny as foundational to their tenants. Among Burke’s earliest writing was his treatise on the sublime, in which he wrote:

[A]s pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger and pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.

His political rhetoric is filled with images of ghosts breaking out of tombs, of decay at every level, and vivid portents of violence that rival John Donne’s imagery of bodily illness and the dread of eternal damnation that crowd his sermons. Gertrude Himmelfarb found fear and tragedy as present in Burke as it was in Hobbes, all he lacked was Hobbes’s notorious candor in admitting it. For Isaac Kramnick it was less about fear in Burke than a kind of sublimated ambivalence. But it was Conor Cruise O’Brien who hit closer to the goth sensibility of Burke, at least textually. His predominant “Whig” style—analytical and “business-like”—was offset in part by his “Jacobite” style, which was more “Gothic and pathetic.” O’Brien was quick to note that this style was used “sparingly,” yet these passages that erupt into his texts tend to also be this most memorable, in particular the overripe eulogy for Marie Antoinette in the middle of his Reflections on the Revolution in France. In isolation the passage tends either to mesmerize or nauseate, depending on your tolerance threshold. O’Brien attests that readers “miss much of its force, which comes from a change in tone, a catch in the voice, an emotional break through the rational crust.” O’Brien’s Burke is at once a “counter-revolutionary propagandist” and a “subversive” in spite of himself. He was nevertheless a subversive who prized “drapery” over “nakedness” and who bordered on “the pompous” as opposed to “the cynical.” Russell Kirk’s otherwise preposterous Burke fetishism is most tolerable in his mode as a “bohemian Tory,” that “connoisseur of slums and strange corners” who “set at defiance the soft securities and sham conventionalities of twentieth-century sociability.”

It is better to say that goth, like metal, is a moral rather than an ethical subculture. Whereas metal’s morals come from the depths like a rupturing septic tank, goth’s morals are held aloft like fog hanging high among the trees. Its celebration of melancholic subjectivity and its decorous aesthetic betray a leisured respectability and careful behavioral abnegation. That it has aristocratic airs is not its most radical characteristic. Its innovation, rather, is in being an aristocracy not of money, breeding, or rigid hierarchical standing, but of temperament and perspective. It is an aristocracy that most people would prefer to let alone. Its enclaves have all the mannerisms of the Lake District but are confined to the back corners of cafeterias, diner booths, and strip mall parking lots. It is, still more, an open-invitation aristocracy; for an aristocracy rooted in temperament (which is to say, in fact) has no elitist impulse. Typically, not many RSVP. A goth polity in the general imagination is always small, always isolate. It is a short trek from the diner booth to the Jack-o-Lantern-strewn off-road cult compound. Even if that was desirable among goths themselves, it would not unfold in that manner.

The individual’s arrival into goth is not, as it is with punk, a matter of adoption in response to concrete, and adverse, stimuli. It is more a matter of drift: a flowering of one’s seemingly latent and true character, a kind of puzzle on which all the foregoing fit perfectly. It is a leaderless mentality by nature. It needs no Great Men to propel it or justify it—no Joseph Smiths, no Insane Clown Posses. No one cares what Peter Murphy has to say about anything beyond reminding us that Bela Lugosi is dead and that we will one day have the good fortune to join him. Some extra-ambitious types may come along hoping to apply a vision of goth similar to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian republicanism, a more adequate comparison than Mormonism, I should think. That didn’t work for Jefferson, let alone the rest of the South, so it’s safe to say that the goth junta would be equally out of luck. But that, too, would be to derail things before they are built.

I have spent much of this essay showing all the ways goth contrasts from punk. Yet they are similar in one crucial respect: their independence from applicable theory. Any abstract thought relative to those subcultures is retrospective to successive waves of action guided by judgment, whether collective or personal. Goth is not something that can simply be established or imposed as if it was being brought to England by Norman hordes or dictated by fiat. It emanates among a people at its own natural pace.

Social media is making goth tendencies more visible. The remaining question is whether it will also make it more numerous. The non-territorial nature of social media and goth make the conditions of the latter’s perpetuation more possible. As Burke liked to say, “circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.” So it is with cultural schemes. How many more people will find in themselves the feeling of being strange and unusual? Perhaps I am wrong to say that it is a simple matter of latent self-awareness or internal logic. Some people still need to be pushed along by renewed disappointments of mainstream life in order to discover a taste not just for an aesthetic that happens to be funereal, but for a new morality that prizes careful, fixed cultivation over chaotic vagabondage that treats cultures like costumes far more than the seemingly costumed culture under review. Discontent may spread to such a scale that no patch of land could reasonably contain what emerges. What that means going forward, especially with relation to subcultures that are more democratic in character and less patient with decadence, is unclear. But the moment of victory will be clear enough once the aroma of cloves wafts through every oxygenated space. And there is dancing in the streets.



1. No one should give themselves more time and increase their energy by rising earlier, learning new exercises, trading coffee for juice, and journaling 300 or so words a day.

2. No one should be kind to animals. No one should wait for the fox den to leave their yard on its own. No one should brake for geese, deer, and gophers.

3. No one should take respect for others more seriously. No one should work to be more present in other people’s lives while, at the same time, being mindful of when that presence crosses other people’s boundaries.

4. No one should have a clear conception of what a boundary actually is, for general reference.

5. No one should be more spontaneous and flexible. No one should know and be more grateful when they can’t control every variable of a situation. But also, no one should be more reliable and consistent. No one contains multitudes.

6. No one should diffuse a tense situation between mutual friends by telling them that every party involved is equally right and wrong, from which they will surely find peace and move on.

7. If no one wants to dig a hole in the back yard, nothing should prevent no one from doing so and no one is obligated to explain what they do on/to their property. No one’s dreams are too important for the niceties of permission.

8. No one should cultivate their personal tastes as they see fit. No one should be bound by anything other than their own experiences, instincts, and limitations. No one should resist the unsolicited, arbitrary impositions of people who claim to know better. No one should resist doing the same for others.

9. No one should take the hint.

10. No one should speak more deliberately and with greater clarity. No one should mean what they say.

11. No one should reduce the frequency of adverbs in their daily speech.

12. No one’s truth deserves to be heard any less than no one else’s.

13. No one may be considerate of the needs of the disabled; but no one needs to ask if they are just as considerate of their wants.

14. No one should overcome their impostor syndrome and embrace their inherent merit.

15. No one should tell the assholes at the municipal zoning commission to go fuck themselves. No one will dig their hole as deep and as wide as they please.

16. No one should do better to stand up for what is right. No one should believe that justice is good and possible in this world.

17. No one should be forced into a position to have to pretend that this isn’t really happening.

18. Self-control should be no one’s guiding virtue.

19. No one should make time to help others and give their skills freely. No one should become a mentor.

20. No one’s spouse should ask too many questions about their shifting priorities at home; especially toward very costly lawn care projects. It would be better, in fact, if no one’s spouse laid off and kept to their own affairs.

21. No one should say “yes” to zest, whether from lemons or for life.

22. No one should be as welcoming as circumstances allow. No one should be welcome anywhere.

23. No one should learn from history.

24. No one is inherently unique. With patience, no one will be discovered by the right person at the right time.

25. No one should tip fairly and often or vice versa.

26. No one should look at other people’s pet passions—baking sourdough, crocheting, owning a fancy grill—and think of them as being on the same level as their hole. No one should assume that their hole is coveted by others and that their efforts to escape their meaningless existences are comparably unworthy. No one should keep careful watch for these people trying to leap into the hole to poison it with their confirmed mediocrity; to make rancid and dubious what they can’t have.

27. No one should put what is possible before what is ideal. No one should replace what is desired with what is actionable, what is concrete with what is fantastical.

28. No one should allow their depression, anxiety, or crippling fear to guide their reason. No one should liberate themselves from tyrannical emotions.

29. No one should place exorbitant expectations upon the hole relative to the manifest failures of the non-holes in their life to meet theirs. No one should talk to the hole as if English was its first language or as if it can read their emotional cues. No one should pay tribute to the hole with their daughter’s gerbils or vestal maidens who work at Whataburger.

30. No one should have trust issues with their pickleball partners.

31. When no one falls, have faith that no one will be there to pick them up or pull them out.

32. No one should say something when they see something.

33. No one should try to unpack their recurring dream where they are being endlessly swallowed down a dark, moist tube.

34. No one is entitled to a peaceful end to life, with loved ones present and in the full knowledge that all of this basically meant something.

35. No one should hold off on signing any papers from no one’s spouse, especially after having discovered that the hole can sustain itself on their children’s tears alone.

36. No one should think themselves above the petty indignities of what ever “power dynamics” are.

37. No one is the last line of defense of civilization against chaos.

38. No one should lose sleep over whether or not they measure up to the standards imposed by the hole, or whether the hole, realizing their failure, will fill itself back up and appear in no one else’s yard. No one should worry if their emotional collateral falls short of the investment in the hole’s meaning in their life.

39. No one should observe appropriate conduct among subordinates out of respect for their own contributions or to set an example for them going forward.

40. ⚫️⚫️⚫️ No ⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️ one ⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️ should ⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️⚫️.

41. No one should strive to be anyone to everyone in some way that is special to no one else.

42. No one should be the hole that no one wants to see in the world.

43. No one should look into the mirror every morning and think that they are an inspiration for no one else to strive to be their best selves.

44. No one should consider that the hole has disappointed them no differently than those that compelled them to dig the hole to begin with.

45. The earth revolves around no one. The moon and the stars are at no one’s behest for contemplative respite from no one else’s life-draining bullshit.

46. No one is the sum of all things. No one is the catalyst of perpetual velocity. No one is also the integral, irreplaceable piece in the grand cosmic design.

47. No one should go out of their way to bore others, simply because no one is pleased by it.

48. No one has been unfair to the hole. The hole is a metaphor for no one else.

49. No one is on the cusp of their best, most fulfilling years any day now.

50. No one should eat lunch at 10:45.



Note: This is another dredging from the Biopsy archives. This time out of issue three (the blue one) from 2010. Unlike my previous republication, this requires special care for two reasons. First because its contents anticipate trends of online discourse—sex backlash, the accelerated histrionics of the Claremonsters, and IDW logic-chopping—by a few years. Second, because the piece is filled with horrifying stylistic defects born in part out of a need to pad for space but also out of my own expressive overconfidence. A pure repost could not be justified; neither could stealth edits. A total self-lashing was in order, in the most annoying possible form. Within the piece are footnotes I’ve used to point out my various embarrassments and interventions from further embarrassment, if only for my own peace of mind.

With all that said, what value does the essay still have? Even if the prophetic quality is overrated (I don’t think it is, but whatever), it’s still an amusing and formative exercise in “prose that goes hard.” I was influenced greatly by Mencken, though it seems the cadence is closer to Carlyle, which is strange as I hadn’t yet read him at that point. And, moreover, the main thrust of the piece has not been satisfactorily addressed, so far as I can see: that relaxing of sexual standards inflames rather than eases sexual obsession, that any blowback will be a reflection rather than a rebuttal, and that the reactionary preoccupation with personal privacy and public morality has only intensified and may never be completely erased from American life without drastic social change from the bottom up. Make what you will of that.


Iconoclasts come and go in the consistency of a tidal flow and ebb, so often so that very few really leave an impression on the general public that lasts more than a few moments of ecstasy. This of course does not mean that any of them should be negated into the great nothingness; rather they are of a great necessity, if only to remind humanity of their habitual nature. Those who do, however, leave an impact that lasts are the ones that understand two things: 1) humanity is habitual and 2) humanity is cyclical. Whether a certain cultural worldview or trend is ascending or descending it is likely to be a variation on a once familiar theme that was taken out of favor an era or two prior. Change isn’t so much change as it is a detour from one moment to the next in which a movement of seemingly insane sages and/or authority figures seek to rid humanity’s delusions. There will come a time when even the most disoriented, intellectually meager denizen of this earth will see when that detour is about to come around.[1]

Imagine, if you will, a world that is rapt with fear, with underpinnings of shame and humility, gutted of all notions of hope and innocent joy on this earth. People walk the streets in a stiff silence, those who know each other offer greetings in trembles, words themselves offer too much of a willingness to have friends. They wear roughly the same clothing; and hold their hands in the same clasped, restrained position. An aroma of the rich flame-embers wafting in the air would remind some of the holidays had it not been for a signature aromatic additive: licentious flesh[2]. Some might think that this type of world already exists and perhaps it does in some grand metaphor of America’s darker character. But in a literal sense this vision has not been realized, or at least not yet. The sexual revolution stripped America’s Puritan roots[3] of its influence almost entirely, the subsequent escapist hedonism made senseless the ideals of the revolution and, as a result, beckons back a return to form of the Puritan ideal.

Escapist hedonism is the term I use to describe the current state of youth culture that is, in essence, the entire culture. To summarize succinctly, it is sexual and otherwise vicious freedom that is exercised in the convenience of acceptance and tolerance without the ideals that made such tolerance possible, and with much credit given to crass commercialism, it has risen to become the normative behavior of the American and otherwise western youth. One can consider it a kind of nihilism[4] without being singled out as particularly manic. It is a lifestyle that prioritizes constant fun over responsibility, virtue, shame, politeness, self-control, and pretty much every other value which is instilled in people from the very moment they are assumed to comprehend them.

Escapist hedonism follows the idea that could very well have existed in Ancient Greece, but was made popular by the 1960s idealists that to be young is to be in the midst of life’s brilliant spring and summer months followed by the fall and winter months which is everything else and so the spring and summer must be spent as carefree as possible. That hardly seems like a proper basis for revolution but, indeed, before that, actions as simple as kissing and self-abuse were considered bastions of horrible sin, trumping even those of our enemies who committed the Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution, and the Holocaust. The youth following the late-1960s began to take the lifestyle to its logical extremes, at first in a strictly exploratory sense, but as time went on, and pop culture itself began to catch on it became apparent that escapist hedonism had gone into its apocalyptic phase. And who know the antichrist figure would be twins?

The Ikki twins are the stars and hosts of a show on MTV called A Double Shot at Love, a continuation of A Shot at Love and A Shot at Love II hosted by MySpace celebrity Tila Tequila.[5] The general concept is that these two sisters both happen to have the following things going for them: they’re twins, hot, models of some kind, single, bisexual and are looking for “love” from either gender. Going off that list alone one would be stupefied to think that all of those male—and apparently female—fantasies could be compacted into two women, let alone one in Tila Tequila’s case. Right away it’s clear love has nothing to do with anything, it is a festival of flesh, alcohol, special toys, weird costumes, double-entendres (no pun intended) and forced tears. Only some of the contestants are faintly attractive, almost all of them have inner-selves of an Arbusian magnitude, not atypical of most reality show participants. It’s a terrible show off the bat, and though it’s also not the most explicit sex show on television, fictional or otherwise—Bad Girls Club is arguably worse—but it’s an appropriate summary of what kind of sexual freedom we are now dealing with.

The Ikki twins, in addition to Tila Tequila and Joe Francis, embody this nihilism to near-perfection. While they surely don’t consider themselves leaders, they take the opportunity for a leader’s adulation with great zeal. Their job is to act as they want to act which in their exposure encourages others to replicate it. This is not a typical leader/follower situation, these people preach no profound message, the message is already clear and enticing, Generation Y’s ultimate legacy is the ability to either pout for freedom or to wait around until someone else says it’s okay. These leaders, and pretty much the general public are basking in some fierce perversion of moral relativism that is at once acted out in total abandon but also perilously boring. There’s is a world where the human body isn’t so much a temple as it is an exhibit, where polyamory is acceptable, where those worthy of love are fought over, where love itself is spectral if not totally absent, where the sharing and the shared are not mutually inclusive, where homosexuality is a leisure sport conjured up at one’s whim and, hence, making it the abomination the religious right sees it as, where people communicate in forced double entendres that are part Penthouse Forum and part two-minutes hate in their totalitarian scope, where porn chic is preferable to actual porn, where romance is treated with wistful nostalgia as if it has not existed in decades, and where the sloppy, boozy makeout has replaced penetration altogether.

People seem to underestimate the general euphoria one can experience while engaging in activity that can only be described as apocalyptic. While it is widely accepted that an apocalypse is less-than-preferred when compared to the status quo, it is also a final culmination in the end of one world as another takes a starker shape, which offers untold freedoms and inhibitions previously to average people. In this case the escapist hedonism has reached a peak of sorts, in which the very idea of it is readily available to almost anyone. This worldview shall finally cap off all that has been achieved in making sex freer.

And of course the ones who brought it about in the first place, not to be the hypocrites in the situation, tolerate it even without really wanting to comprehend it. They run the risk of looking like the Puritans they once did battle against, it’s rather ironic that that is exactly what is needed to bring about some sort of rectitude. Since any thinking person can detect that little will improve with this movement, if it can be called that, it is only necessary to have a revolt of sorts to taper excesses and, in the long run, remind those of what it was that brought about those freedoms in the first place.

Some may confuse Puritanism with the evangelicals who spend too much time walking the line between white hot extremism and white bread popular pandering for the sake of credibility. Their aesthetic and personality are so garish, so obsessed with trying to compete with pop culture’s flashiness[6] that they come very close to confusing a megachurch with a Vegas brothel. Puritans in the classic form care not for such pretenses. Rather than kowtow to the general public with flashy presentation and hot-button issues to win their support, Puritans come with an unflappable worldview that insists that the public align with them for salvation, and if my instincts do not deceive me, Puritans will find little to be exempt from their salvation. While that seems like a dramatic scaling back of progress, it could have been just that if the hedonistic counterrevolution didn’t already accomplish that.

Puritans had what one may call simple beliefs about God and humanity’s relation to God that was sincere in its purity as well as in its extremes. They believed firmly in the existence of original sin, for which the primary culprit is none other than Eve.[7] They also believed that other, more established religions, namely the Church of England, were not going far enough in curtailing the decadent influences that put man in positions most compromising to their own salvation. At its peak, Puritanism was largely concerned with activities like dancing and the theater, both of which they abhorred and abstained from. Theater, one can deduce now, is more an annoyance than a threat, and to a lesser extent neither is dancing. But no one can deny that the influence of modern pop culture, though on the surface highly cheap entertainment, can still do a good deal of damage to the well-beings and good natures of those dumb enough to allow such things to slip with such ease, which is most people[8]. That having been said, though I’m not much of a man of God myself, I see little defense from having a major revival of old-world Puritanism with ministries and theocratic town councils popping up everywhere.

The shame of humanity will, from that point on, in whatever manner each church or tribunal sees fit, rain down with the strength of God’s authority, overtaking everybody. The youth will have to retreat back their families which will serve as their source of authority. Their alcohol intake will have to be reduced to tee-totaling, their sexual activities are to be allowed clemency when they have been married, which will not be determined entirely on their own. They will not dance; they will not watch television. Within a span of no shorter than two years they will be reciting even the most obscure scriptures in the Holy Bible.[9]

One might ask how the youth are to obey these new restrictions on their once fruitful lives. How is up to the individual and the family, all I know is that they’ll have no choice. But who’s to say that their lives will be less fruitful under Puritanism than they are now? To be free and without considerable care does not necessarily mean that life is fruitful, joyful or otherwise worth celebrating. Yes, the youth and everyone else will, indeed, be subjected to rigorous standards better known in some nations that we are trying to free, but with what can be considered significant toil comes the rare opportunity to reach what can loosely be called transcendence. To have an understanding of what it is to be on earth in relation to God’s greater kingdom beyond earth which, I can assure you, they’d really rather be.

There are of course the drawbacks that everyone will no doubt bring up when an idea such as this one will be proposed. What of dissenters? What of women? What of people who aren’t Protestant or Christian? These are all valid questions, but none I can answer with certainty. If I had to guess, based on what we know from history, women will have less influence than they have now and that influence will likely not extend outside the home. As for dissenters of the new order of things, and those who aren’t even Christian to begin with, that is a hairier question, the elephant in the room even. The Puritans have had their idiosyncrasies when it came to dealing with threats against them. Some of them were considerably benign, while others had a graver tendency. But for me to determine what those methods will be exactly is not for me to say. Those with the authority will choose the methods they feel will get the job done, and if that means burning craven sluts and lascivious perverts alive at the stake, labeling them of their crimes, weighing them down with rocks or drowning them, then that is how it shall unravel. Nevertheless, all punitive measures can be summarized thusly, regardless of their extremity, by Jonathan Edwards:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.

Again, such things are not for me to determine, but the tone of Edwards’s oratory is a probable reality if we were to face this world. All I can do is propose an idea, accept its dangers and let it off into the air to let it go in whatever direction it is taken, much in the same way that the sexual revolution took off, and look where that got us. The extremes of the situation cannot be denied, but if everyone decided to take the middle ground no one would move, no one would change. Is it better to die standing still or in front of a crowd in excruciating pain? Besides, who knows what benefits may come of this. People will rediscover sex in a few generations, though the generations thereafter will no doubt destroy that in a tantrum as well, but so goes the cycle, the future is dead anyway, the here and now is a far more precious gem for our experimentation. It was, after all, the same Jonathan Edwards that said, “Almost all men, and those that seem to be very miserable, love life, because they cannot bear to lose sight of such a beautiful and lovely world.”

To those who say that I’m some kind of sadistic necromancer for bringing repressive and cruel ideas back from the dead[10], let alone in such a ham-fisted fashion, and, in the process of doing so, can’t see the hell that would be unleashed if such ideas were reintroduced into the culture, I have a few counters.

Firstly, it’s not hell that would be unleashed on the earth, just earthier earth. Belinda Carlisle was the paragon of false prophecy for insisting that heaven is already with us, and it was that kind of utopian thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Most stricter religions know that earth is a primer for later salvation, for humans to ascend to a better purity.[11] If that had not been the case all this anxiety for cleanliness and control would be needless. For, secondly, dirt and anxiety about dirt are the true stuff of life. Neither the prospect of freedom nor the prospect of relaxation that the sexual revolution engender are so much in us that we can withstand them guiltlessly for the duration. We can never relax. We walk on eggshells and lay on pins. We are always vigilant about the nearest person; they are always vigilant about us. Our stomachs turn more severely as flames go higher; but our collective conscience is clear. Fire is Pepto-Bismol for the soul.


[1] [jerk-off motion]

[2] Toned down and reworded from “spiked with the torched flesh of some trollop.”

[3] Expect nothing intelligent beyond Menckenian theatrics from this usage.

[4] I remain as drawn into and repulsed as ever by Claremonster-ese.

[5] This is the first of a few attempts at cultural criticism by way of MTV’s trash heap. I’m not proud of it, and amazingly this is not the worst of it. And I had entirely forgotten about this show until I returned to this piece.

[6] Seems also sort of ahead of its time, tbh.

[7] LMAO

[8] Weirdly (or not?) I take this more seriously now than I did when I wrote this.

[9] Honestly, I don’t think this goes hard enough, especially in light of Jordan Peterson’s haughty pronouncements that dance around these very logical outcomes.

[10] New wording, just FYI.

[11] Everything after this sentence is completely new. “Anxiety” was not in my vocabulary in 2010, despite being on meds for it at the time.


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Woodstock ’99 was not the most significant event of the 1990s. It wasn’t even the most significant event of 1999. Though it provided striking images and opportunities for rhetorical hand-wringing in the immediate aftermath, it could not equal the gravity of the Columbine shootings that preceded it in April or the Seattle WTO riots that followed it in October. By the following year it was pure trivia. And yet it also laid dormant, as all traumas do, for nearly two decades until a trigger event (the Fyre Festival) made us 15 again, watching Kurt Loder and Serena Altschul gaze grimly upon ever-multiplying lakes of fire in the sea of bodies on that dismal July night.

Woodstock ’99 was surprising in the moment. In a time and place of relative economic abundance and minimal prospect of protracted war, when issues of supply chain disruption, plague, and techno atomism were all but unthinkable, nothing could have been more incompatible with the national mood than the total destruction and virtual lawlessness that ended the third and final Woodstock. It was very easy to look upon the smoldering husks of exploded trailers, the flipped cars, the vast stretches of trash and human waste, and the remains of raided ATMs in mortified astonishment and fuming indignation. There is at its heart a kind of psychic appeal, as though it was a culmination toward something in the final year of the millennium and in the waining days of America’s vacation from history. It was fair, in that mood, to go out like hooded vigilante in search of blame. And everyone had their favorite scapegoat: the artists, the organizers, and the audience.

Blaming the artist was actually a very popular reflex in 1999. It attended the Columbine shootings when the media had erroneously linked the shooters to the “trench coat mafia” and their industrial rock tastes. Marilyn Manson was condemned by congressmen. KMFDM shirts were blacked out. This carried over into Woodstock ’99 which, in a bid for both relevance and maximum ROI, dipped heavily into the glut of nü metal and related rock radio acts. The Offspring, Korn, and Bush played on Friday. Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, and Metallica played on Saturday. Limp Bizkit in particular were at their peak, they were inescapable if you watched MTV or listened to KROQ enough. Their set reflected this momentum with Fred Durst working the 250,000-strong crowd into a frenzy, to the point that they ripped plywood off of a sound tower and crowd-surfed on it. Though it hardly constituted a “riot,” at least compared to the following night, Durst’s populist bluster was a magnet for critics.

The recent documentaries on the festival, on HBO and Netflix, are less eager to make that claim. In part because it’s not a good look, but also because there’s plenty of evidence to counter this. Many of the nü metal acts had played together on the Family Values tour around the same time, the only hiccup of which was Rammstein being arrested in Boston for being German lewd and lascivious behavior. And while those bands still (amazingly) make for good copy, they represented a only fraction of the otherwise eclectic roster, which included DMX, Dave Matthews Band, Los Lobos, and The Tragically Hip. Moreover, the actual bonfires that preceded the riots happened in the crowd of the comparably mellower Red Hot Chili Peppers, while the concurrent Megadeth set on the lesser stage was more or less unperturbed.

The organizers are the easier culprits, specifically the figureheads Michael Lang and John Scher, who represent the different expressions of the baby boomers’ Janus-faced personality. Lang, the 1969 organizer, beamed with idealism and naivety about rock n’ roll’s power to change the world. Scher countered Lang with his pragmatism, cynicism, and unwavering commitment to making a profit. Most of the literal and figurative accelerants of the festival’s breakdown derive in some way from decisions they made. For instance, Lang wanted a humane, relatively non-imposing security staff, which Scher assembled from anyone he could find regardless of experience and with a loose certification process. Couple that with the tarmac-laden airbase venue, the subcontracted amenities, the rupturing toilets, and the contaminated water, these accumulated undertakings created an environment that was exorbitantly expensive, unsanitary to a level unprecedented by first-world standards, and bound by few if any rules.

But it was the audience who were let free. And it was the audience who made all the damage, which far exceeded even reasonable riot expectations. Woodstock ’99 attendees have been subject to as much diagnosis as blame. They were overcome with an End of History-style malaise, with no great cause to direct their immense energy, while at the same time they were exhausted, physically and mentally, by the rigors of the festival. Scher keeps referring to “knuckleheads” who are afraid of adulthood egging on the crowd to greater extremes. Lang was disappointed that the kids were not “able to embrace the social issues of the day” he handpicked for them (gun violence). Today the assessment only complicates. Not many are interested in letting the predominantly white male crowd off the hook for shifting its tenor a certain way. But the extreme conditions, the poor or pricey amenities, and the almost passing concern for safety managed to render undomesticated pretty much anyone unwise enough to stay the full three days.

Apportioning blame only matters if you can convincingly show that the disaster in question was anomalous. Perhaps there is a version of Woodstock ’99 that doesn’t have a body count or go down in literal flames. But much happening around it would have to be different in order for that to be the case. Vast environmental factors far outside the festival grounds were at work in order to assure that Woodstock ’99 both existed and took a certain course. It would be melodramatic to say that events and attitudes over four decades in advance had “led up to” the festival; rather it is better to say that the festival was the most logical outcome of those attitudes. It is like the fiery period of a run-on sentence proclaiming the death of hypocrisy.

Of all the projects undertaken by American postwar liberalism, ending hypocrisy was the most sweeping and perhaps the most ambitious. It demanded nothing short of the reform of the national personality and it required a generation of pioneers bold enough to claim that that national personality was far removed in deed from its professed principles. These pioneers saw the American spirit fall from its moral high ground into a pit of decorum that enabled both repression and extreme violence. Those pioneers are made of several civil libertarian heroes and martyrs: Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce, Abby Hoffman, Terry Southern, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, and so on. They believed that a society that was more honest about its baser impulses (which, of course, were natural, not base) would in turn be freer, happier, more just, and more at peace with itself. Their approach was negative, using shock tactics to avert the United States from the fate that befell the United Kingdom a century earlier. It was the subsequent generation, Michael Lang included, for whom ending hypocrisy became a creative endeavor. With the repressive neo-Victorian decorum safely dispatched, in came the liberating neo-Romantic authenticity.

One of the repeat criticisms of Woodstock ’99 is how far removed its spirit was from the original festival. Obviously because the musical environment had widened significantly in that 30-year span. Punk broke and was broken; Spin put Fred Durst on its cover and Rolling Stone put Kid Rock on theirs. To add to that, Scher spared no effort to cover the military-industrial wreckage in corporate logos. And the rising generation, a cross-section of later Gen X and early millennials, was coming of age in a different world, in which boomers were the people in power, no one was getting drafted, and the fervor for revolution was as low as it could possibly get. Performers made explicit references to the 1969 festival during their sets. Wyclef Jean performed the “Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar à la Jimi Hendrix and set it on fire; Creed featured Robby Krieger of The Doors. Though it is assumed that these references were lost on the audience. Fred Durst put it succinctly when he implored any nostalgists in the crowd to “take your Birkenstocks and stick them up your fuckin’ ass.”

In truth there were probably more nostalgists in the crowd than would be assumed. You don’t grow up with The Wonder Years and classic rock radio without developing a perfectly natural, if misguided, wistfulness for a fake past. And the boomer backlash would not crest for another decade, when it was clear to us that they didn’t ultimately have our best interest at heart. But nostalgia is the not the same thing as a spirit, which carried over across those three decades with no degradation, it had only to assimilate.

Michael Lang could bemoan how the young people had not lived up to his own expectations after they destroyed everything he’d built. But he could not, at the same time, have said that he failed to accomplish the broader goal. The audience, whether they realized it or not, had perpetuated the values set forth by the generation of the original festival. They had sought to participate in a free, uninhibited communal experience. And they did. The 1999 attendees rejected hypocrisy and repression as their predecessors had done. And they exerted radical candor in doing so. They were several measures more aggressive in its expression, of course. They were vulgar, nihilistic, willfully stupid, and cruel to one another. But they never lied to themselves in the course of doing so. They were entirely without shame, reservations, or anxiety. There was no past they cared to pay mind to more than they had to, nor was there much of a future. They were in the moment. The moment was awash in skin, noise, and shit.

The documentaries that make this discussion possible have come out in a time that is fraught with anxiety and filled with people almost too ashamed to function and who have, at best, a clinical attitude toward skin and shit. Everything depicted is cast in an unfriendly light. What is actually to be done with this understanding is left unsaid, though perhaps not unthought.

If the late-1990s were marked by a higher measure of candor than usual, that candor did not automatically engender those other outcomes the pioneers of destruction thought were necessary to carry society forward. It did not make people freer, or it did not distribute that freedom equally. It did not make them better citizens; a cheapness of morals had out-priced respect and peace leaving only tolerance and indifference within range of affordability. Only honesty was absolutely free; and by simply being honest, you could do whatever you want and everyone would have to tolerate what you did. Rather than propel society to new heights, it put it in a holding pattern. Late-1990s America was the most boring dystopia until the crowd at Woodstock ’99 took a torch to it. But once creators fall back into destruction, the creation phase starts anew.

The purest conservatism is always accidental, always innate, and morally uncomplicated. Though both the documentaries, with different levels of emphasis, plead for progress and equity in the face of the many wrongs committed at the festival, there is just underneath them a humming sort of desire for a specially skewed, manners-based conservatism. There is the tacit admission that the war against hypocrisy had taken too great a toll on the citizenry. Engorged on authenticity, they became somewhat ugly, they reverted to adolescence, they ate ice cream for breakfast. Honesty, when you come right down to it, is fucking gross. Soon you come around to Jonathan Swift in one of his more earnest moments, promoting, without success, the moral reform of his own age:

[U]nless it should be thought, that making religion a necessary step to interest and favour might increase hypocrisy among us: and I readily believe it would. But if one in twenty should be brought over to true piety by this, or the like methods, and the other nineteen be only hypocrites, the advantage would still be great. Besides, hypocrisy is much more eligible than open infidelity and vice; it wears the livery of religion; it acknowledges her authority, and is cautious of giving scandal.

Dishonesty preserves civilization and promotes the good. Honesty may be morally correct and may make you feel good; but it only gives you license to behave worse.

This civic dishonesty could not be called “conservatism.” Not simply because its proponents are put off by conservatism proper but because the main current of that conservatism is closer to Woodstock ’99, having embraced a kind of combative vulgarity that sees manners as not being sufficiently based. The only difference is that they do not appear to need $4 bottles of water to burn things down if it came to that.

Woodstock ’99 was the final collapse of the Millsian “experiment in living.” People in 2022 are too burnt out to want to be free. They will willfully give any freedom they have to the lowest bidder. No one knows for certain what they want; or they will not admit what they want. Secretly desiring order, they will settle for the perception of order, a lazy, suburban kind of order that puts the Leviathan in a Fred Rogers cardigan.

At least the shit will stay where it is supposed to stay, and only the best Woodstock ’99 would be possible: one that never happens.



Taken from here.

It should be evident at this point that anything I’ve written about punk—and there is a lot of it—is neither definitive nor entirely recognizable to punks of any generation. My only real virtue here is that what I write tends to be more interesting on average than competing punk musings. You may attribute this to the astounding number of liberties I take with the concept. You can, in fact, spend hours teasing out scores of suitable stand-ins that should rightly go in place of “punk” had it not been for many fateful glitches in my human, moral, and intellectual odyssey. In that frame of mind, what I write is not about punk, but about a life that, by all reasonable accounts, was never supposed be lived.

But even I have to desist from what is fun and interesting and do a little housekeeping. For I know just enough to interject into the wider discourse, where so many greater but less interesting errors flourish, to offer necessary clarification and course-correction. The purpose of this humble, imprudently assembled essay is to offer just that and to prevent many and repeat renderings of punk by more prominent voices in ways that are not just wrong but boring. I have done this by assessing three distinct types of punk (the critic, the devotee, and the marginal) and matters related to these types (polemic, censorship, and gatekeeping).

To be sure, these are not to be considered as rigidly separate. A marginal punk is by necessity also a devotee punk, though not a critic. A critic can be a devotee but not a marginal for the same necessity. A devotee can be all three at once and still basically function. I have also avoided the “rock journalist” tendency of being encyclopedic. This is not out of any desire to be more helpful; but I will let the curious reader determine what model I have taken up in its place. This should set the record straight as well as anything else can, though.

The Critic
The first gesture a punk makes, once it is made clear in themselves that that is what they are, is a rude one. They take an assessment of their surroundings and find much to be rude about. Many of the nascent punk’s entry material—Sex Pistols, Green Day, Ramones, Stooges, and even some Clash—reinforce this initial impulse. There is nothing worth giving a fair hearing that won’t hear you to begin with. The early punk is brash, impetuous, and disorderly. They are decadent in their tastes and polemical in their style of expression. In every sense, they are critical.

Even the self-harm the early punks engage in is an expression of outward hostility to a culture that made them and wanted to exert total control over their bodily integrity. Danger, disregard for manners, simplistically radical politics, and general existentialist if not fatalist thinking drives the punk critic. Punk criticism presents itself loosely, though the punks themselves, out in the world but more intensely among their peers, practice that criticism to a high degree of purity. A punk learns—or perhaps intuits—early on that the punk’s only true vice is compromise. Yet on the whole, this mode does not last but a few years. Some punks, long on excess for its own sake, will die out of it. Some punks will exhaust themselves into retirement. Others will ascend to a more sophisticated understanding.

Even so, the critic is the platonic ideal of the punk. It cuts closest to pre-existing countercultures and, not unrelated to that, pre-existing marketing strategies. Its crude formulation easily latches on to echoing youth-centric emanations that seem every bit as awkward and as aesthetically distinct from its contemporary mainstream as critical punk was.

Critical punks can replicate widely, but they degrade the more they multiply. Antiauthoritarianism is their only consistency, which, never clearly expressed to begin with, tends to degrade as well into sheer solipsism and perpetual, directionless antagonism. The punk critic always risks delinquency on the one hand and indolence on the other.

A Digression on PolemicsArgument alone may not separate man from animal, but rigorous and spirited argument might. Anyone so educated can point to examples of polemic of greater intricacy, erudition, and intensity than that which is offered by punk. Punks are not one to indulge in sophisticated discourse bespeaking of nuance and a desire to persuade. Nor are they any more willing to embrace deliberate rhetorical conceits that suggest satire. (Satire is not unheard-of in punk, but it is not natural to its stronger impulses.) Punk does not engage in argument properly so-called.

Punk polemic is undomesticated polemic: instinctual, immediate, reactionary in the strictest sense. It disdains grace and does not find virtue in patience. It feels no camaraderie with its interlocutors. It prefers to hound its opponents into silence. It resisted the discipline of democratic and representative process. Even Jacobin rhetoric in the National Assembly appears liberal by comparison. It is too moral to be tethered to procedure. It is too anxious to arrive at consensus. Its end is to arrive at clarification against the obscurity of the culture punks are resisting.

There is something pre-modern in its character; moved by a logic that many thought was rightly extinguished in the march of progress. If punks are humanist in principle, they carry it through the mouth of the barbarian, and the inquisitor.

The Devotee
If a punk matures without lapsing out of it, they become committed. Commitment instills devotion. Devotion reorients how they think about and act within punk. The net-positives of punk become more concrete with the solidifying and more sustained connection with the punk community. Devotees are less inclined to recklessness. Inarticulate and directionless destruction (in deed and in rhetoric) decline in their appeal. Devotees see perpetuation of a good as the better method of resistance to societal evil, even as good and evil are not usually in their vocabulary. They move to create; where they can’t create, they shore up the creations of others.

Devotees assume a protectiveness, even a territoriality, as a result, and can easily reconcile themselves with impulses not typically or happily associated with the punk mentality. A devotee can, in the name of their community and its creations, assume the role of guardian or censor. They can, if need be, “pull rank” in order to undo disruptions or get ahead of any threat of disruption. Punk devotion is authoritarian in the main. Punk devotees defer to higher figures as readily as they assert their force over anyone perceived to be lower; though how that lowness is arrived at is never clear or consistent across scenes. But the will of the collective carries; and ethics are handed down by decree.

Consider Fugazi, who had decreed that a punk should no longer have to define themselves by the pain they endure or inflict on other punks, by imposing limitations on the behavior of the audience. Moshing and similar outbursts were forbidden while they played, and no exceptions were made when they occurred. No punk was free who took a cavalier attitude toward the space of others. These acts were beyond the limit of tolerance, even when dealt with humorously and reluctantly on the band’s part. This mentality carried the day throughout the 1990s and the early-2000s.

The peak of the devotee collapsed as the 2000s gave way to the 2010s and the internet gained in influence over mass culture. The devotee is a humanist, pre-digital type. It is, moreover, anti-irony and anti-detachment. People affect a stance or style of devotion without the responsibility or intimacy that gave it substance. The critic has reasserted itself but has not matured. Without physical spaces, there is nothing concrete to maintain and no people with whom to cohere in any meaningful sense. Post-digital punk deals in rhetoric and signal.

A Digression on CensorshipNo one in their singular conscience believes themselves to be capable of censorship. Certainly not the censorship they imagine, handed down across the decades like civil libertarian lore. No one wants to reflexively suppress ideas they find repugnant. No one wants to ban pornography, violent video games, obscure perfectly natural nudity, or edit out swear words. They would never, in the words of Allan Bloom, “bolster corrupt or decaying regimes.” Even the sympathies that attend account suspension and other combat tactics against “disinformation” seem half-hearted and barely real. These are the self-soothings of people with no apparent communal obligations beyond carpooling, let alone any serious beliefs. People, in other words, who would not last long in punk.

Punk is not, in spite of popular conceptions, a mere label. You cannot affix it upon select attitudes as one would affix a USDA label on meat. You cannot attach it to utterly anodyne activities (like voting Democrat; or Republican for that matter) like a proxy baptism. Punk is a peopled collective. And like all peopled collectives on the face of the earth, it is rife with conflict, dissension, and chaos that goes beyond mere performance. It is brought together under the shared conviction of its rightness. But punk is not, at the same time, a constitutional order with articulated rights. Its “ethics” are duties by another name. Application of those duties manifest differently within the collective. The community and the individual are sometimes at variance in this process. This puts onus on the community to achieve its own cohesion and to clarify the proper ethical approaches. Under such solemn auspices, censorship is punk as fuck.

The Marginal
A subculture takes shape when enough people escape from a social center and into its margins. The margins are a dark place where new styles and customs may assemble themselves as resources and imagination dictate. Punk is no different from other subcultures in this respect; yet its understanding of margins within its own community takes a different, indeed, more functional and fundamental understanding.

The punk space is identified by its own kind of center: a mass of furious activity in which custom and instinct are intwined. Both for those in the moment and those looking at a certain remove, the center is the culmination of punk, the total and purest expression of the freedom for which punks make constant claim through more rhetorical means. Even when, as mentioned before, that freedom is put under restriction, it is no less a significant conveyance of punk culture. It is spontaneous and uninhibited to degrees both envied and feared.

But punk has its own margins, to which many punks sequester themselves on their own accord, either out of temperament or out of some greater need. Those of the former camp will more easily notice the wall that the latter camp form around the more vola

An Interruption on GatekeepingGatekeeping and censorship tend to be conflated as at least coming from the same kind of mind. Censorship and gatekeeping go together like vinegar and oil. But in truth they are not only distinct concepts, but entirely opposed. Unlike censorship, gatekeeping appears good on paper, demonstrating courtesy and sensitivity toward the needs of others. Diversity is not a light issue to the gatekeeper; quite the opposite, it must be handled with the greatest delicacy, which is to say, an exacting vetting process. Gatekeeping, purely conceived, is a kind of custodial duty. In practice, of course, gatekeeping is too localized, too arbitrary, and too petty to meet proper custodial standards. The gatekeeper’s idea of custodianship is to cover any mess with sawdust and power up the buffer to move in randomized patterns. Gatekeepers are insecure; they exert an influence that is mostly pretended against outsiders while they themselves feel like they are barely accepted in the community they keep clean. As such, they hold to a level of purity that is impossible to exist outside the imagination without a series of freak historical opportunities falling into place at the exact right time. Gatekeeping is a sweeping, savage, yet simultaneously imprecise anti-migratory policy, policing one set of values while overlooking other, often more malicious, factors in the community.

tile activity. These form specific functions to better accommodate the mass they surround. They tend the doors, they man the merch tables, they provide security, logistical support, financial and labor support, and other managerial tasks on which the center depends.

The marginals are not limited to the show venues themselves. They are on the album liner notes, in the press releases, in the contracts, and other paperwork and attendant materials that keep scenes running. This, even to me, is the most boring part of this essay. But punk should be a place where boring people—or people who can tolerate doing boring things—should be welcome. Punks can’t do without systematizers, bookkeepers, and chaperones. Should it ever reach a place where it can do without them, then it has reached a point past its own humanity.

An Appendix on Death
When I was 19, I got knocked on my ass in Philadelphia. It was 2004; my college friend Ryan and I drove down from our quaint steel town campus to see The Dillinger Escape Plan play at the Trocadero. This incident took place before Dillinger had even got on stage. We were still enduring The Locust’s set when a burst of energy erupted from the crowd in our exact direction. Ryan was standing directly in front of me, and we hit the floor like dominoes.

I recovered from the shock fairly quickly, but it was shocking. We were standing at the far back edge of the crowd where I had assumed we would be more or less unperturbed by the maelstrom at the center. But when I peered over the people in front of me, I could catch glimpses of the manically flailing bodies in hooded sweatshirts with bandana-obscured faces, and that safety seemed rather tenuous. It was indicative enough at the other end as well. At some point in the set, Locust singer Justin Pearson stopped the show to direct his attention square into the pit. “I just want you to know that everyone here thinks you’re a bunch of assholes,” he said. The cheering crowd drowned out the rest of his chastisement. They resumed playing to no discernable change.

Even in my naïve sense of security I knew any intervention into the crowd violence would proffer next to no results. Perhaps it was because The Locust is not the kind of band you can enjoy while sitting still, if at all. Perhaps it was because Pearson was haranguing the crowd in a bug costume made all the more ridiculous by how it accentuated his rail-thin frame. Perhaps it was because it was Philly, and Philly shows are like that. The year before at a matinee show at the much smaller First Unitarian, American Nightmare flat out left the stage because multiple, and seemingly very personal, fights kept breaking out in the pit.

Or perhaps it was because the moral authority The Locust was trying to exert over the crowd was already a spent force by that point. Mid-2000s rock culture was struck with an anxiety that vacuums left in the previous decades needed to be filled by the next available substitute. Everything that seemed spontaneous and anarchic at the time—such as Aaron North of The Icarus Line smashing a case in the Hard Rock Café containing Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar and trying to play it—looks now like recitations of ritual. Homages to the past—such as Bob Mould performing at a tribute to himself with No Age, Ryan Adams, and Dave Grohl—seemed to double as auditions. But each failure only widened the vacuum. And every gesture was expended as if from a carpet emporium during a going-out-of-business sale.

It is typical to cope with these changes by accepting their Spenglerian inevitability and to rationalize to the point of fawning every fashion that is ascending in their place, whether irony or the digital age or a new generation or just progress qua progress. To mourn what is lost and irretrievable is barely thinkable. Mourning is arrogance. Becoming a corpse is nothing to be proud of. But sometimes a corpse just wants to say “Fuck you.”



NOTE: This essay appeared in the fourth and final issue of Biopsy (winter 2013). I have made light edits to smooth over some easily reversed blemishes while doing absolutely nothing to broaden the limits of the maturity under which the piece—influenced more by Maggie Nelson on cruelty than any appreciation for, or even sufficient knowledge of, the movement arts—was written. Incidentally it was the last piece in the issue, and an appropriate jumping-off point to all that followed.


Though conscience, emotion, and language are all cherished attributes among a whole swath of humanity, it’s really the body that gives them a sense of reality and purpose. Man, many believe, is nothing without his body. This is not solely due to the fact that the body encases what makes him conscious, but because he believes in its architecture, he believes that organic life is no more perfect in design than the human design. To nearly all humans, a well-toned body, whether from birth or from effort on his or her own part, is an affirmation, a prize even, for his or her own existence; whereas a largely imperfect body is cause for damnation. This is the popular sentiment and it is marketed as such, and as it has been with every other status quo sentiment, this too must be subject to hatred soon enough by the malcontents of the creative class.

And yet so revered is the perfect human form that it seems impervious to the jaundiced eye of artists Jenny Saville and Diane Arbus. Francis Bacon, to his credit, worked with well-toned bodies but managed, through intention or instinct, to degrade them into ugliness, so far as I can see. Perhaps, though, their mediums are insufficient. If one is to make the case that the toned body is every bit as breakable as the flabby body, it is only sensible that it be done in a form less passive and silent than painting or photography

Elizabeth Streb thinks of herself less as a choreographer and more of an “action architect.” To her she is not merely an orchestrator of dances but a builder of movement, her primary building materials being the human form. As insufferable as that description sounds no one can deny its essential truth. Streb and her company of performers have lent themselves a staggering reputation for pulling off complex acts of movement, often given the audience the idea that some of her performers can walk on air. But then again so can the Cirque de Soleil, and so can the more traditional acrobatics.

What, then, truly draws people to Streb’s work? Her performers for the most part do not where costumes outside of uniform tights, the machinery she uses impresses in performance but would merely confuse if left dormant. All Streb really has to work with is the human body and the many ideas she has with which to take it to the absolute extreme of physical exertion, and perhaps beyond.

I am, I should note for safe measure, not privy to the workings of Ms. Streb’s mind. It is more than evident that she is a professional as well as artist who has a firm knowledge of dance, acrobatics and so on, which certainly informs her work. That being said, though, not all choreographers can boast her creative or coordinative abilities, in fact very few can. We are given the impression, through films like Black Swan, that all choreographers and directors are sadistic and perverse; they reconcile their sadism and perversion with arrangements of grace, romance, and tradition, but with a dash of “passion” on par with most trailer park dwellers. Streb counters these notions with an exposure of the sadism of staged dance.

The key to seeing how Streb uses the body is in the way a perfect body presents itself. Those with perfect bodies—that is, with fully developed muscles and minimal fat—are wont to flaunt their figures whenever possible. On the surface its language is one of affirmation. “I’m beautiful,” the body says, “this is my merit.” And this is what registers to those with the bodies and those who see the bodies. But as with every gratuitous exhibition there is an underlying negative language that, while not readily acknowledged by the fit bodied, beckons to those who can detect its call. “Destroy me,” it begs, “I can go no further than this form, I feel nothing at the sight of it, so tear me apart.” People have answered this call before of course, people like Ed Gein and especially Jeffrey Dahmer have ably dismantled the human form in impressive, if not exactly legal, ways. Similar Streb’s lack of restraint may be to Dahmer’s and Gein’s efforts, it is altogether distinct for its equal lack of crudeness and plethora of subtlety.

Like the bodies themselves, Streb’s work offers an interior and exterior message. The exterior message deals with notions such as man’s desire to defy and overcome gravity. The interior message, though, addresses and wages war on man’s delusion of physical perfection. She elaborates on this by using bizarre and complicated arrangements that stretch her dancers’ bodies to the utmost limit of their abilities making both physical harm and mental dysfunction not risks but conditions of the job. Dancers lie in a circle and duck a rotating steel bar; dancers leap and dodge swinging cinder blocks; dancers contort in boxed-in spaces; dancers run into invisible walls; dancers climb onto, into, and over massive gauntlet-like machines, one of which a dancer admits has a “guillotine” effect in the event of even a slight misstep. Every movement wears the performers down, as if they were being dismantled cell by cell, tissue by tissue. What ensues, if one looks past one’s own awe, is not so much avant-garde choreography but torture, a torture to which the performers willingly, whether out of masochism or out of not knowing any better. It is a torture that is both far more enhanced and far subtler than the type of transgressive performance art being undertaken in America’s military and clandestine prisons. And like the generic methods of torture, much of the creative center of Streb’s work is derived every bit as much from the conceiving of such tortures as it is from the carrying out of them.

When we step back and really look at Streb’s place in performance history, it seems better understood when compared to the British in-yer-face theatre of Sarah Kane rather than the ballet of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. There are no delicate princesses with dark sides waiting to be unleashed, but slabs of electrified meat which Streb takes hold of and prompts in whatever direction, stance, or position she chooses. The amount of control she exerts over the players should be considered as much a part of the show as the players themselves. It is a testament either to their absolute obedience or their open-mindedness (possibly both) that they allow this otherwise intrusive dynamic to take shape. The control is so overbearing that the only option of rebellion is bodily injury, which happened at least once in 2007 when a dancer fractured a vertebra during a performance of STREB VS GRAVITY. It’s a rather pyrrhic rebellion in any case. Even if control is wrested away from Streb it still gives her the desired result.

This is the ideal fate of a Streb dancer. But even if nothing along those lines occurs either in the long or short term, there is still the message her choreography sends to the audience. Some of them, to be sure, will still be purely stricken with awe by the spectacle like adolescent lovers, but others will take the hint. The era of the body-as-temple is over. Anybody as fit as those they saw on stage must be in constant vigorous activity to be of any use, activity that must put their very fitness at risk if they want to justify that fitness. In this new era the “hard bodies” of our society deserve only punishment, either self-inflicted or provided by someone else. Anything more is gratuitous; anything less is ugly.

Streb drives the point home all the more with her signature performance—strangely it is her simplest one as well. In Wild Blue Yonder (2003), seven dancers stand atop a platform high above the stage, and one by one they dive off onto a mat below. They are each in a stiffened, horizontal position resulting in a hard, facedown landing. Everything that makes Streb’s work so fascinating and perverse is rolled into this one number. She might as well be pushing them off herself, like throwing chum into a black ocean. Some in the audience are likely to be enchanted, while others might be perplexed or unsettled, but it is doubtless that a few remaining audience members will be disappointed that the platform wasn’t set higher.



NOTE: The saga, against all odds, continues.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the urge to undertake schemes of mass death, whether for policy or pleasure, is not naturally born in women. And if the historical record says otherwise, you can be assured that the more brutish gender is not far off prompting the heinous acts. But it is worth repeating that once the gynopocene is established, this will no longer be possible. All violence, in fact, will be obsolete. For it would take a stroke severe mental illness, something that will also be nonexistent, for a woman to see another woman as an enemy.

I had laid this truism out pretty straightforwardly. Or so I had thought. Lately the sisters have begun to stir. And like hatchlings in a nest, they chirp and chirp for me to vomit my wisdom into their mouths.

The question that started it all, at one of our lunch meetings, was this: is it possible to “go nuclear” after the fall of men?

A matter relating to personal experience, I thought! I could recall a good handful of times, at least in the last year, in which I had “gone nuclear,” usually at the coffee shop, when my cup bares the incorrect name, and contains the incorrect order. But as I was relating this instance and how it bears upon the gynopocene policies regarding names and coffee, the sister posing the question clarified that she was being a bit more literal. A discourse ensued of such confusion that I was forced to reschedule a manicure.

“How,” asked the sister, who shall henceforth remain nameless for more reasons than that there are no names in the gynopocene, “how will we deal with nuclear weapons after we have dealt with those who made and kept them?”

After a moment of perplexity, I spoke. “I shouldn’t think they would need to be dealt with at all. Conflict will be so rare as to be beyond the interest of whatever ‘law enforcement’ emerges or of statisticians. And when it does, it could never rise to the epic masculine-normative proportions. ‘Going nuclear,’ if that is even an appropriate term for the emergent womanhood, will never be more intense than a game of Uno … or Sorry.”

But it was clear the [REDACTED] was not satisfied by my answer. And her surrounding sisters were no less stirred.

“So, okay,” I continued. “I think I know what you’re trying to get at. We women being naturally incapable of causing wide-scale slaughter would be just as naturally indifferent to minding the toys of wide-scale slaughter left behind in the wake of the marginalization of their makers and primary users. Without the proper means of disposal in the near term, and with even the few remaining servile men not being trustworthy enough in this instance to keep watch over them, a vulnerability of exceptional irony is created.”

Here I saw the [REDACTED]’s point. “I suppose it is not unthinkable that a sister of sufficient purity could happen upon one of the country’s derelict missile silos and, being mesmerized by so alien a sight might feel as if she’d been transported to a different, decidedly more phallic, dimension. In such a state it is fair to assume that her faculties, maybe never so sharp to begin with, may dull further. She would become careless in her surroundings. She may push the wrong button or just knock over a chair and set something she does not understand into motion. The annihilating hardware comes to life, soars up and out, condemning an unfortunate section of our community to total devastation. The trauma would be without equal, I’ll give you that. But to what extent do we punish this sister for her crimes of butterfingers and childlike wonder?”

“I don’t know, to be honest,” the [REDACTED] answered with the confidence of the least-contributing member of a group project.

“Of course you don’t know,” I said. “None of us know. Negligence of this sort would be easily prevented in the gynopocene with the power of education. It is a matter of setting proper boundaries. All women are free in the community, but some parts of the community are less free than others. This we have to instill in everyone. No exceptions.”

“Instill or coerce?” [REDACTED] asked more sharply.

“There’s nothing wrong with a little coercion,” I said. “Anything can be coerced if you make it fun.”

I’d hoped that would put an end to [REDACTED]’s concerns. But as I was about to leave for my fast-approaching nail appointment, [REDACTED] threw everything into chaos.

“Shouldn’t we … I guess … learn to control them?”

The Panera dining area fell silent.

Humoring [REDACTED], I asked “Why would we do that?”

“Well, I just think it would be good to do on the safe side of things.”

“I and I’m pretty sure the rest of us are still a bit lost here. No one will have the desire or need to use them. Women will never sink to that level. The sex that does will not be around to use them. They are not even worth being made a special example of compared to other things—like porn, football, Unitarianism, and all that.”

“So … speaking of the men—”

“What about the men?”

“If I can just offer a hypothetical.”

“You have the floor.” The sisters nodded in agreement, however timidly at this point.

“I’ve been thinking about your point about the men. How, once we’ve gained dominance, or at any event when their weaknesses can no longer be concealed, that they will be easily cordoned off; and once they’ve been cordoned off, they will degenerate as if by some habitual, instinctual clockwork. You conceive them as the type of animals that are attuned to their own superfluity and carry out their own extinction accordingly.”

We all nodded and begged her to continue.

“What I’ve been thinking about is … what if they are not that type of animal?”

“What type of animal would they be?” I crossed my arms to accentuate my impatience, though [REDACTED] seemed unperturbed by it.

“The types of animals that don’t necessarily do that. Say, again hypothetically, that they just adapt. Like maybe their brains don’t really improve, taking on the texture, size, and flavor of a boiled dumpling. But what if their physical strength and collective resourcefulness heighten in direct proportion to their mental degeneration? They could be total morons in isolation, but together they could be quite formidable. Like adult-sized bipedal locusts. It wouldn’t be impossible in this state for them to escape from the confines we put them in and overrun our cities—or communes or covens or whatever. Conventional defenses may be ineffective. And no man so enslaved by us may be that willing to go out of his way to fend them off, if not out of solidarity then certainly out of cowardice.”

Over the course of this explanation all the sisters present began looking to me with panic boiling under their faces. I was left watching as [REDACTED] filled their minds with nightmares in real time. I do not remember exactly what was said at this point as I tried to tend to these unfortunate witnesses. But [REDACTED] trailed me around the tables with follow-up questions about launch protocols and possible deliberations that go with deciding when and where to launch. Will they be done by a special council or entrusted among the whole population?

By this point I had adjourned the meeting and sent the sisters tearfully off to their humdrum pre-gynopocene existences. Meanwhile, I kept the [REDACTED] on as I walked down to Starbucks. I linked my arm with [REDACTED]’s and through my sudden headache I told [REDACTED] that I was grateful for [REDACTED]’s candor and bold thinking. The post-male era would be dead-on-arrival without [REDACTED]s like [REDACTED]. I said that we were, in fact, assembling a kind of central council to undertake these momentous decisions, that it was in the formation stages as we spoke, and that I’ve decided that [REDACTED] should be taken on as a moral consultant. [REDACTED]’s face beamed as I ordered my venti mocha frappuccino. I told [REDACTED] to go to the parking lot of the Helping Hands Mortuary on I-65 at half-past midnight. We embraced; I think I missed my name.

[REDACTED] was nothing short of well-meaning. But those who are well-meaning are very rarely well-acting. This has been the man’s way for all time. Once they get away with being well-meaning once, they will coast on it for epochs and epochs. Being well-meaning betrays a latent masculinist mentality.

I felt my cranial pressure lighten with the thought of two people knowing the full measure of “going nuclear” as I, Eva I. Coke, and not Suzie Connolly, Shelia Baker, or Randall Yamamoto, prefer it.



Michelle’s last memory of Erika played back in her mind like a damaged tape. Damaged and arbitrarily recut out of sequence. Each replay delivered a new sequence, perpetually confounding the proper order of events if not also their meaning and context.

She knew she was home for her first spring break from college, Erika was just out of rehab, or some similar kind of treatment, and it was after 11:00 PM. Yet she always remembered the last part first.

Michelle woke up the following afternoon. There was a yellow envelope on her desk with her name on it in Sharpie and a skull design that Erika would draw on any surface. Holding it in both hands she already knew what it was.

“Here,” she said to her brother. “Take it.”

“What is it?”

“Something I— … Something Erika found last night. I don’t want it.”

“Really, where?”

“That hospital by 22.”

“The one near Sante Fe Tavern? You went there with Bag Lady?” he said taking the envelope. “She didn’t try to kill you, did she?”

“Do you want it or not?”

Her brother opened the envelope and examined the picture. His eyes widened.

“Woah, creepy.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Ah come on; it’ll be a neat dorm poster I bet.”

“Whatever,” she said as she shut his door behind her.


Brett ventured toward the faint glow that throbbed from the den, where he saw his older sister in a familiar state, splayed on the couch before the television, one which she’d held without error since she returned home. A stack of Blockbuster DVD cases was placed on the end table in such a careless fashion that the slightest draught could send them tumbling to the carpet. Brett took them in his hands, assembling them more neatly and examining each title.

Disturbing Behavior, Wolf Creek, Saw II, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, Human Centipede.”

Michelle nodded indifferently.

“Which one is this?”

Darkness Falls,” she said, and pointed to the opened case on the floor before the DVD player.

“Funny how things work out.”

“What’s that?”

“I remember pretty clearly you interrupting Evil Dead to tell me that the only people who like these movies are dickless man-babies who refuse to grow up. I think it was Christmas break. 2005.”

“Must’ve been pretty savage for you to remember it so vividly.”

Brett snickered bitterly.

“But turns out being a dickless man-baby isn’t so bad.”

“Only these movies are far worse than what I watched.”

“I’m on a learning curve. Do you need something? I’m a little preoccupied”

“Only to tell you I’m going to Starbucks to study.”


“So I’m taking the car.”


“But Mom’s 10-speed is in the garage.”


“I know you’re going through … a thing … of some sort. But it would do you some good …” he stammered and cleared his throat, “it would do you some good to get out for a bit. Get some air. Otherwise I think you’ll just sink into the couch at this point.”

“Well if that’s the case then you’ll have everything to yourself again.”

Brett chose not to acknowledge the flagrant self-pity and made his way to the stairs. In a more defeated tone told her, “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Michelle gave a limp wave he likely did not see.

Brett’s continued resentment of Michelle’s return had instilled in Michelle a continued feeling of having newly arrived, but only now did it occur to her that the leaves were changing, the air was smoky, the wind stung in the cheek, and pumpkins and gourds were lying on doorsteps. She had showed up unannounced the month before with only a roller case and a very substandard explanation for an extended Labor Day. The event planning firm that employed her as an administrative assistant did not need her assistance in administrating much of anything. And her studio in Park Slope, to say nothing of most of the objects she put in it, no longer suited her. Officially she was “housesitting” while her mother traversed the western United States, enjoying the fruits of retirement. Though unofficially she was herself in a state of retirement.

Michelle ruminated on the idea of being ingested by the worn tan faux-leather couch. That would have given her some comfort at 19. Only now she was 29.


Erika struggled to widen a gap in a chain-link fence knotted with vines.

“My arms are getting tired, Erika,” Michelle whined, holding the flashlight, shivering in her JV field hockey sweatshirt, regretting having turned down watching any of her girlfriends faceplant on the mechanical bull as they undoubtedly were to help Erika achieve her long-held dream of breaking-and-entering into a condemned building.

“Sorry,” Erika grunted back as she pulled out a reem of vines. “Explorer Forum only said that this was a security blind spot. It was pretty vague on the rest of the details.”

“But they’d seen the place, right?”

“Well, if the pictures don’t match the inside, then we’ll know,” she paused to pull the fence further out.

“Kinda makes it more fun.”

“When did this place close?”.

“1980 … 1981, maybe.”

“Before we were born.”

“And it will outlive us.” She pulled another vine out and faced Michelle, catching her breath. “When we’re gone, when all this,” she gestured outward presumably to all of civilization, “is gone … this will remain. This will be our ancient ruins. This and Sears, I guess. And Arby’s.”


In all her time in New York, Michelle had never received more unsolicited epithets than in the space of time she was lodged between incoming and outgoing rush hour commuters on the stairs of the Brooklyn-bound train. She had not realized the sheer variety of style and timbre in “Pick a lane, you dumb bitch” before that moment. The courtesy one receives when trying not break their neck lugging a box of their official belongings.

Before she could even rest herself against the wall on the platform for a moment, her Blackberry was abuzz. After digging it out from within her now useless desk contents, she audibly and dramatically growled at the message: “can u plz come back to office? u forgot to turn in ur blackberry. thx Aimee @ hr”

Michelle looked around for any sign of commiseration at her anguish but found only a platform full of commuters similarly fixated on their own devices. She considered doing what the message politely demanded of her, as if she was still employed, but was stopped in that thought by the appearance of the one human that did seem to acknowledge her: a burly, unkempt older man, clearly homeless, his thick hair in a hopeless matted tangle, his cheeks smudged with soot, and whose odor became more putrid, almost corpse-like, the closer he approached. His gait was agonizingly slow at that. Michelle braced for another unwanted intervention into her space, and for money that she now very dearly needed. But the man said nothing, and passed by her as if she was a bad car accident. His mouth was agape in a vacant smile, that were it not for the four of his remaining yellow teeth emitted no indication that anything but darkness was inside of him.

And while time had felt elastic in that moment, he passed her, and went seemingly onto better things. Until he moved in front of a woman in a dark blue pantsuit 10 feet or so away from Michelle, who as if in a spasm swung her handbag at the man’s head, immediately knocking him down on the platform. Though of notably smaller build than the man, she was able to pin him down, straddle him, and press both hands on his mouth. The man struggled but appeared more inconvenienced than alarmed.

“I can’t let it out,” the woman said through grit teeth. “I can’t let it out.” Her face darted around the station, everyone on the Brooklyn platform cleared from her, everyone on the Manhattan platform gawked from afar. “Night sickness! HE’S GOT NIGHT SICKNESS,” she screamed out as if she was alerting her fellow commuters to a commonplace notion. This continued until a male cop, a female MTA employee, and a male civilian in a fleece and loafers, converged to attempt to pull her off the man. Her strength was not any less subdued by this force, and Michelle could swear that she nearly knocked the cop onto the tracks just swinging her arm at him. They got the better of her when she stood up and appeared to want to gouge the man’s eye out with her stiletto heel.

“Don’t let him go!” she yelled. “He’ll darken us. He’ll darken everything.”

Michelle had never understood what was meant by “blood-curdling” screams until she heard that woman’s inner-torment reverberate into her veins. The three held her until the next train arrived, where they shoved her into the nearest car. “Walk it off lady,” the MTA employee advised as the door closed. As it passed by Michelle, the woman was no less calmed, banging at the window like a captured animal.

Everyone moved on as if nothing had transpired. Except for the homeless man, still lying on the platform, his head craned back at Michelle, laughing.

When she arrived at her apartment, she resolved to get her affairs in order. The first matter being to toss the Blackberry into the East River.


With only a night sky over them and a single flashlight beam ahead of them, Erika led Michelle through a campus of disused, boarded up, heavily marked buildings. In that darkened state they hardly feel built, but natural. Curious rock formations, an earth-made labyrinth.

Erika had less trouble entering the side door an anonymous stranger on the internet had told her to enter. They walked through an auditorium, an exercise area, a hall of classrooms with some hand-shaped cutouts still tacked over the chalkboards, a games and recreation area with a busted TV hanging from the wall and dust-covered folding chairs scattered in disarray.

“Yeah … yeah, they weren’t kidding,” Erika mused to no one in particular.

Michelle had only seen the Blackstone Sanctuary for the Infirm from the road on the way to some lesser amusement. From the several hundred-foot distance it was hard to grasp the immensity of the hospital’s sprawl. Sitting a mile out of town, on a 145-acre island cut out of the earth by three roads linking the area’s major highways, Blackstone was one of New Jersey’s largest centers for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments, many of their patients being children. Since the ‘80s, though, the complex was a husk, battered and decrepit. At a certain time of day, when the sun shone down on it, the full scale of the decay was revealed like a grand exhibition. Michelle remembered being not especially pleased to see it on the few occasions she was cognizant of it. For Erika, who Michelle thought had a talent far above anyone else in New Jersey for finding the uncanny in the most mundane of spaces, it was a fixation.


Michelle hunched over her plate of leftover macaroni and cheese, sloshing her fork in a downward-spiral motion to mix the very hot parts at the edge with the very cold parts in the center. At that moment she had escaped her earthly identity of a self-exiled urban woman into a Father of Lies in yoga pants, preparing to transfer to additional toil the souls entwined and writhing beneath her in molten damnation. For that is what the microwave had rendered what was a mass of congealed fat and rubbery carbohydrates in the refrigerator. The searing heat of those souls did much to disabuse her of that fantasy. Her view from the kitchen table did the rest.

Erika’s house had eluded her gaze since she came home; or rather she had not allowed herself to consider it much. After all, the house was never much to look at. The wood panels were painted a pale blue, but the acquired grime rendered it a sickly, ashen grey. The brick work had faded from a fresh red to brittle pinks and browns. Some had simply fallen out of place, suggesting the rest could come crashing down in with them at any moment. The only lawn furniture was a folding chair in the middle of a concrete patio, from which Erika’s mother, draped in muumuus of indistinguishable floral patterns, smoked and stared up as if lost in some meditative trance. Possibly considering the state of the uncleaned gutters. It was lived-in, but not strictly livable.

Yet it was also an appropriate habitat for someone who painted her nails black with sharpie, dyed her hair red with Kool Aid, wore jeans with legs many sizes wider than her waist, and who wore long-sleeves regardless of season, under a short signifying a grammatically improper band. Shabby, dark, and awkward. It was a stable presence at the top her and Michelle’s streets where they waited together for the bus.

Michelle had no exact word for the nature of their interactions, rooted in and largely limited to their residential proximity. On school grounds, even in classes they sometimes shared, they were virtual strangers. Michelle and her friends referred to Erika and her friends as “the whippits,” for the trail of the little cannisters of the inhalant they reliably left in their wake wherever they gathered. Erika specifically was “Bag Lady” for her constant presence at the end of checkout counters at ShopRite. If Erika had any name for Michelle’s neater crowd, she was never told. Erika never seemed very interested in others, which could account for a self-centered aloofness, only that Erika never exhibited it with her before school. Michelle credited Erika for instilling her early smoking habit, offering her drags of her cigarette with a neighborly lack of transactional solicitation that she could not refuse. Their conversations, when they happened, were loose and unburdened by herd expectations. In those moments Michelle thought that must be what it was like to be an adult in the best sense. This would disappoint her in time.

“I can’t wait to get my license,” Michelle said, taking a drag of Erika’s cigarette and handing it back to her. “But I think if I could drive to school, I wouldn’t actually stop. I’d keep going till I couldn’t go anywhere else.”

“Where would you go?” Erika asked.

“I don’t know, the East Village? That’s where it ends, right?”

“You could cross the bridge into Brooklyn.”

Michelle chuckled. “Brooklyn?”

“I had a great uncle who lived there. Never met him, but he was a taxi driver,” Erika took a drag, dabbed out the ashes and passed the cigarette back to her.

“Cool,” Michelle paused to take another drag. “Where would you go if you could go anywhere?”

“Well, I’d have to take more shifts to buy a car.”

“I think you’d have to carry over into another location to get more shifts.”

Erika laughed with such force she coughed up some phlegm.

“I’d also have to pass the written test one of these days.”

“Okay so if you had all those things taken care of …”

“Well,” she turned her backpack around to her front to take out a creased copy of Weird New Jersey. She turned to one of its pages. “I’d want to go here.”

Michelle leaned in and scrutinized where she was pointing. “The Devil’s Road? Where’s that?”

“Somewhere in Bergen.”

She looked at the accompanying photo: a narrow, black triangular opening between overgrown shrubbery, and scattered with discarded beer cans and fast-food containers at its entrance.

“I think it led to an old sewage treatment plant or something. If you stand just outside the entrance of the road, right under the blinking street lamp, and at 12:34 in the morning, you’ll hear the wails of the children.”

“What children?”

“The disappeared children.”

“Disappeared how?”

“Uh … taken somehow. By a secret cult.” She took a long drag and stubbed the cigarette with her Vans. “Sacrificed and all that. And if you stand on the road—past the light—you can see one of the children. Faintly. I’m told.”

“Who told you?”

“Some guy on Explorer’s Forum.”

“And you think you’ll find something if you go?”

“Something there is better than the nothing that’s here.”

Michelle could not wrap her mind around the logic of practicing child sacrifice at a sewage treatment plant. But Erika’s enthusiasm was singular. It seemed more like a power of projection. If a place looked grave enough or felt unseemly enough, it fired Erika’s mind, no matter how functional that place’s purpose used to be. The Overbrook asylum was as near to them as anything else in those magazines, and bore a much darker glamor than Blackstone’s tubercular colony, but Erika seemed especially awed by Blackstone.

Michelle wondered what Erika would have made of her own house, now unmistakably deserted sometime in the seven years she’d lived in Brooklyn, if not before that. The windows were boarded up. The grass, yellow and spiky, had overgrown and formed a perfect wall against her own property. Indeed, the two-story house, almost a glorified cottage, was dwarfed by the increasing number of mass-produced remodels surrounding it. It was doubtless a bane to anyone who cared deeply about property values, which was everyone. But Michelle also relished the added irony of it. In time, Erika’s cherished hotspots would disappear. Blackstone was bulldozed to make way for an office park and a luxury gym. Overbrook would probably be condos in due time, and even the Sears became a megachurch. The golden age Erika hoped to be memorialized by these ruins had been done over in uncompromising plastic.


There was Erika, Maglite in-hand, in the room with all the filing cabinets. All various shades of green, so far as she could tell then and now, though most were darkened by rust, some were knocked over, some were piled on top of each other, as if graffiti artists were using them to tag high walls. Their contents spilled all over the floor, as if an explosion had occurred, revealing relevant data on patients long ago dead, either in that location or, she hoped, after discharge and entirely unrelated to why they are on file in the first place.


Brett returned home at dusk expecting Michelle to be in the same position as she was when he’d left, assuming his prediction of her being subsumed into the furniture had not come to pass. To his surprise, however, she was back at the kitchen table, still looking out through the sliding glass door onto Erika’s darkened, overgrown property. When Brett approached the table, he saw laid before her the group photo of the Blackstone nurses Erika had gifted to Michelle against her wishes.

“Where’d you find that?” Brett asked.

“In the crawl space in the basement.”

“What was it doing there?”

“Clearly you put it there, I was looking for your cigarettes.”

“That was your stash space if I remember correctly,” he said as he rifled through the fridge. “Why would I hide my smokes where you can find them? Where’s the mac and cheese?”

“Inside me.”

Brett let a “fuck” out under his breath, took out a water bottle, and took a seat at the table. “So what, you’re taking up smoking again. Is that how you’re coping?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Most people just go to therapy.”

“I put my therapist in self-storage with everything else.”

Brett took a long swig of his water and thought for a moment. “What …“

Michelle’s eyes darted nervously to Brett’s causing him to shift his wording more delicately.

“What brought you here? Really.”

Michelle sank in her chair and stared coldly at Brett as if to transmit a clear, sharp memory from her consciousness to his. It didn’t work.

“Well …” he said breaking his gaze, and appeared to drop the matter.

“When did that happen,” Michelle motioned outside.

“Bag Lady’s house? One day it was basically normal-looking. Then at some point it wasn’t.”

Michelle looked absently at the photo.

“No one really noticed when she just stopped coming around. I thought maybe you’d know.”

“I didn’t have a psychic connection with her,” Michelle said with a hint of defensiveness.

“As far as I can recall, you might have been the only person she actually talked to. Have you seen her talking to anyone else, even in her peer group?”

“How do you know I was the only one she talked to; you were never around.”

“I remember seeing both of you chatting it up in the back yard.”

“I don’t remember that happening.”

“I’m just telling you what I saw.”

“You’re my caseworker now?”

“How could you forget so much about your friend?”

“And I didn’t forget about Erika. I just put her out of my mind.”

“What are you going to do with that?” Brett motioned at the photo.

“I didn’t even know this was still here. I have no interest in it.”

“Maybe they are interested in you.”

“That’s not funny,” she got up from her chair and took the photo under her arm. “Where did you keep your cigarettes?” she said standing at the kitchen entrance. “Just out of curiosity.”

“I think last time I taped them inside my bottom desk drawer.”


Erika smiled like a dad holding a widemouthed bass at a lake, only she was emerging from a corridor ensconced in darkness save her pale gaunt face, white long john sleeves, the faint red of her ShopRite t-shirt, and her hands holding a dusty leatherbound book about the size of one of their high school yearbooks.


“So do you like people?” the teenager working the checkout register asked Michelle, standing stiffly at the bagging station.


“Y’know, what are your feelings on the human race? Do you want to push it collectively into the ocean or are you fine with it?”

“I never thought about it. Maybe in certain moods.”

“Fair,” the teen said, not listening very intently. “It’s just that it helps for this kind of job. To not like people very much.”

“How so?”

“You’ll be less disappointed.”

Michelle thought this was wise if not especially hard-earned counsel from a girl in a nose ring and racoon eyeliner, and whose acne took on a viral aspect under ShopRite’s fluorescent lighting.

“But you don’t need to worry about it too much on the vampire shift. We don’t expect much from anybody, and they don’t expect much from us. And everyone who is here … belongs here, even Doug.”

Doug had been surveilling Michelle throughout her first night shift from the customer service counter. Michelle sensed he was younger than she was a good margin, though it was hard to tell. His face was boyish with smooth, swollen cheeks, but offset by a baldpate and an ill-managed stubble on his chin. He was like a boy trying to will himself into middle-age. If things looked a little too relaxed for his liking he would walk at a sustained, almost charging pace, an intense presence somewhat reduced by his pleated Dockers, and monitor Michelle directly.

“You’re double-bagging, right?”

Michelle nodded in affirmation.

“It’s our policy to double-bag even if they don’t ask.”

“I think she knows, Doug.”

“Keep an eye on her, Brianna,” Doug decreed solemnly and returned to his post confident that what little chaos he could prevent had been kept at bay.

“I don’t know if he’s an actual demon,” Brianna wondered, “or if he’d just really enjoy Hell if he ever went there. I’m not even sure which would be more interesting.”

The “vampire shift” did not merely signify the span of time between 4:00 PM and 10:30 PM that Michelle had been assigned by the general manager to work in the store for three days out of the week, but also a sort of grace period for the less valued customers to be served by the less valued employees.

She recalled sitting across from the general manager in his office as he inspected her application like an untranslated sacred text, muttering observations about her as if she was not present. “Administrative assistant … takes direction well.” He did not ask uncomfortable questions pertaining to her pivot from white collar city work to hourly wage suburban work. He only glanced at her with a rapidity that looked at first like a reflexive twitch. “I don’t want to sound un-PC or anything, but please wash your hair before coming onto the premises.” He went into the corner filing cabinet and took out a label-maker. “Now is that ‘Michelle’ with one ‘L’ or two? You wrote it both ways.”

Brianna took out a cannister of Altoids from her apron and held it out to Michelle.

“Not my flavor.”

Brianna helped herself and swirled it around her mouth.

“You’ll get the hang of it. Pretty soon you’ll start having dreams about the place. This one dream I had I kept getting the same old woman and she kept buying Pepto Bismol. Only it was shaped like other products …”

Michelle forced a chuckle and turned to look out the front window. The orange twilight had all but faded, leaving a black reflection of the storefront for her to look at. Brianna was still talking and didn’t notice that there was a woman waiting at their checkout. But when Michelle turned to alert her, it was apparent that the woman was only in the reflection. Her face was distorted, but her white nurse uniform was unmistakable.

“… like rotisserie chicken-shaped Pepto Bismol. Stuff like that.”


Erika and Michelle found an office in the main administrative building where they laid the book on the desk to examine its contents. In it were names of patients, with their admission dates, their release dates, notes on their symptoms or condition, and whether they died in treatment.

“It’s a ledger,” Erika said.

“Look at how young some of these people are. I can’t imagine having to keep track of this.”

“Yeah.” Erika took a more leisurely scan of the office and spotted something of interest in the corner. “Here we go.” She approached it and picked it up. “Check it out,” she said handing Michelle the object. It was a photo of the nursing staff from the early half of the 20th century. All dressed in white, with prim hairdos, and severe expressions. “Take it.”

“Take the picture?”

“Yeah, as a souvenir.”

Michelle looked down at it more closely and winced. “I don’t know, it doesn’t feel right.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“I know … I just … I went with you, I’m here, I don’t want to do much more than that.”

There was a tense pause between them. Erika was holding the flashlight upward against her face that shaded her eyes and mouth in darkness.

“Fine, I just thought it’d be cool.” She took the photo back and put it in her bag. “Maybe I can auction it or something.”


Michelle sat at the edge of her bed holding the group photo of the nurses, looking at it more intently than she ever had since it was left to her. Though she did not know what she was hoping to find by doing so. The more she looked at it, the more benign it seemed, as it was designed to be. In the decayed complex from which the photo was removed, the expressions of the women took on an eerie aura that, under the natural lighting of her bedroom, looked professional. It felt wrong to fall into Erika’s habit of imposing the sinister on what was merely sober. A necessary sobriety for the task of treating people with what used to be a dreadful disease.

She hoped that whatever she saw in the store window’s reflection the night before had appeared to her by some error. Its intentions, she reasoned, had been scrambled and only gave unease by some inference or unchecked prejudice on her part. Haunting is a matter of perspective. There were plenty of photos hanging at the edge of her own mirror that had more apparitional merit than some healthcare workers, some of whom were probably not even dead.

For some reason she never thought to remove the youthful photos. It being easier to, in Michelle’s words, put it out of her mind, and let things fade at their own pace. It almost worked. Looking at them for the first time in over a decade gave her the feeling of having broken into someone else’s room. She was a voyeur of her own past. The significance of the bond she had with Jenn, Lacey, Helene, and, she wanted to say, Emma had since left her. She pulled one photo down that was taken during the senior trip at Dorney Park. She and the other girls were shot linking arms around their waists before the Steel Force ride, and wearing matching pink “Class of 2002” t-shirts. Michelle cringed at the gesture, as matching commemorative t-shirts were not provided for the rest of the class. If any of these girls, let alone her younger self, had appeared in the store she would have dove headfirst through the window.

Michelle felt a distance from that version of herself yet also fell into a state of brooding to which that version of herself was often prone and which only had one remedy.

Michelle dug into the bottom drawer of her desk and found her Walkman in what seemed like passable condition. The Used CD left inside of it was not ideal but it was her only viable option so far as she was willing to go in relitigating her forsaken taste for her atmospheric needs.

The afternoon was chill and gray as she set on foot down the pristine row of her neighborhood. This, too, she could only consider at a distance, as a guest or a charity case or some other indentured object whose privilege was of being there rather than living there. Though inwardly she always felt more entitled to that environment than she would ever admit. She could imagine herself returning to it properly, like a good citizen does, with a mortgage, and improving upon its past errors of taste and maybe even morals. Passing these houses, they took on the shape of zoo cages. She could peer into the wide front window of each house, most of which were fitted with wall-mounted televisions that blasted the searing colors of cable news, and find plenty to deride and judge with the superior air of a pornography viewer.

But coming to one such “cage” she noticed it had undergone a significant remodeling that was as unusual in its downward aesthetic direction as it was by its rapidity. She better remembered the three-story plaster house painted a soft yellow, with Spanish tiles on the roof, and decorative light fixtures edging the backyard patio. She had not known its occupants, but understood the house to be no less lively than its neighbors. Maybe more so given its elaborate Halloween display, with a Styrofoam cemetery, an inflatable ghost, and an inflatable Dracula. Only now, all evidence of festivity or habitation had been entirely undone. The yellow paint was now a faded grey, the windows were either broken or boarded up, the grass was rough and unruly. Only the home model remained the same. Otherwise it was a near-exact replica of Erika’s house, yet achieved in a far shorter time span.

Michelle turned off her music. A breeze rustled dead leaves across the pavement. Children yelped and laughed in all directions. Life had not just stopped at this location, but had been removed. And yet it had no effect upon the surrounding ambiance. It was as if this one section of town had been torn out and taped over by something new and worse, but made to seem utterly mundane, even natural, like a rotted tree no one notices for years. Michelle wanted to take a closer look, and even felt compelled, like something was taking her by the shoulders, but her inner logic, the very impulse that kept her from thinking more of these realities of existence than required, had not fully failed her. But the more she considered the house, the less benign it seemed.


Erika placed the ledger book into her trunk. “Thanks for giving me a hand,” she remembered her saying with an extra touch of earnestness. “Let’s hit the diner. My treat.”


It was still dark when Michelle awoke in the den. The only light sources came from the digital clock on the wall reading 3:17 AM and the glow coming in from the high window, a faint but still intrusive brightness emanating from somewhere in the backyard. She emerged into the kitchen; the light was brighter through the slits of the blinds covering the sliding glass door.

When she split two of them apart, she saw that a floodlight on Erika’s house had turned on, beaming a perfect circle onto her former neighbor’s ragged grass. At its center stood a figure that Michelle could not make out, shrouded as a silhouette. But the broom-like shape, slender at the top and wide at the bottom, was familiar enough. It was standing in complete stillness, like a figurine. Though obscure, Michelle took the figure to be looking in her direction, waiting for her, specifically, to come out, to meet or to follow.

A layer of frost had accumulated on the deck. Careful not to slip, shivering under the ShopRite uniform she forgot to take off after her shift, she approached the figure, which was resolute both in its frozen, shadowed state.

“Hello?” Michelle whispered, seeking to deny the figure’s obvious personhood for as long as her reason could sustain it.

As she neared the edge where her yard met Erika’s, the figure should have been coming into clearer view, but it retained its abysmal aspect, and as Michelle moved into the overgrown grass, the figure moved out of the light and toward the house in a glide, as if it was not touching the ground.

“Wait,” Michelle said, “don’t go.”

But it went, and Michelle could do nothing else but to go after it. She touched the back wall of the house and found an open door to continue her pursuit.

She had never seen the inside of Erika’s house, but Michelle was certain that it was nothing like the long, tiled hallways of the Blackstone Sanctuary. Yet that is where she seemed to be, only it had returned to its original functional state. Everything was clean and habitable and the hallways were adequately lighted. Not that they seemed to go anywhere. Each turn Michelle made just led to a new, longer passage. Doors did not open and she found not a single patient or staff member. She heard the echo of footsteps clacking, but they came from all directions, as if the shoe-wearer could walk through walls or be in two places at once.

Michelle started to panic and began to run through the increasingly labyrinthine corridors that served no apparent purpose but to trap her. She was lost, in her work uniform no less, with no possibility of escape.

She came to an exchange that led out into several additional hallways. She dizzied herself trying to make what was surely to be a futile decision only to be stopped by the screech of static coming from the one hallway with no light whatever. With better judgment suspended for the duration, she charged into the blackness. The static became louder and she ran deeper. Soon there was evidence of light. A white outline of a door from which the noise was emanating. She opened it to find an office, or in any case a wooden desk and chair under a flickering florescent light in a room painted green. On the desk was an intercom and a book she’d seen before: the ledger book Erika had taken from the hospital.

Standing before the desk she turned the book toward her and opened. But rather than the entries of admitted patients she expected to find, she found only one entry repeated in every column, page after page, in elegant cursive: “You did fine.” Michelle was engrossed flipping the pages, reading and rereading Erika’s last words to her, when the intercom jolted her out of.

“Do you want to come with?” the voice said under a howl of feedback. “Do you want to see inside?”

Michelle looked back down at the book and saw drops of a black, inky fluid accumulating on the paper. She looked up to determine its source, and found the burly bearded man she saw accosted on the subway platform standing inches from her face on the other side of the desk, greeting her with that familiar, unsettling smile oozing the dark fluid. She let out a shriek that resounded back out into the corridors she ran through to get to that moment.

Michelle woke up back at the den in daylight and gasping as if a boot was pressing on her throat.


Erika sat across from Michelle at the diner, sipping weak black coffee and picking at a plate of disco fries with a tremor in her hands. Her hospital bracelet slipped out from under her sleeve.

“It’s funny that you just got out of the hospital only to go into another one,” Michelle said.

She didn’t remember her response.


Michelle came home from her shift with the urge to watch The Last Exorcism, purely for research purposes. A notion had crystalized in her mind on her bike ride home that an exorcism was going to place the following afternoon, in the middle of Starbucks, and she was to play a significant part. Though the assignment of roles as to who was possessed and who was exorcising was less clear to her. She only knew that Jenn’s appearance hours before at her checkout station had an occult air around it. Or anyway it felt very contrived.

The high-pitched astonishment in Jenn’s voice as she looked up from unloading her shopping cart onto the conveyer belt, the musical intonation of her name, “Mich-elle? Is that really you?” carried the sound of rehearsal, possibly on the drive over. Word had likely gotten out that Michelle was back in town and Jenn, who had never left, was bound to hear about it. The feigned surprise was unnecessary even if it, at least in Jenn’s mind, was more polite. Still, Jenn’s ingratiating charm, conveying an easy friendliness that was more charitable than social, had not lost its potency, and when Jenn inquired if Michelle had time to spare tomorrow “for coffee and to catch up” though everything, at least in Michelle’s mind, seemed pretty self-explanatory, she could not say no.

The exorcism analogy was difficult to sustain in her mind as she considered it. It was rather the feeling of release that most fixated her. This forcible expulsion of a burden or of being freed from bondage. Michelle thought that this could have applied as much to Jenn as to her. Though she never saw fit to say it, she always thought Jenn was a loser. She was a curious specimen, an obvious extrovert who was best suited to enclosure. Anything that taxed her comprehensive limitations or that was beyond her immediate control could not excite much interest in her. She was a fount of energy, the driving force and focal point of their clique yet inert in almost every other human respect. Michelle pictured a lever: Jenn who was incurious on one end, Erika who was infinitely curious about nothing on the other, and she the fulcrum on which they pivoted, having lost the capacity to learn anything new long ago. Pop culture had no lessons to impart beside the fact that characters trapped in exorcism narratives hardly ever reached the end of it entirely unharmed. Release came at a steep price. Michelle despaired at having to face the horror of the ordinary.

It had rained in the morning and Michelle biked cautiously around puddles and over slick pavement. The sky had not cleared and cast a dismal coating upon everything she passed. Thought it was not to such an extent that it could camouflage the increase of homes, and even business properties, that resembled Erika’s in its neglect and silence. A trend in living had captivated the town. Trends of all kinds move at a pace and by a logic that no individual witness to them can easily grasp. It is only clear that they are intent to perpetuate widely and any single gesture of resistance is both pointless and deviant.

Michelle spotted Jenn in the far corner of the Starbucks, sipping from a steaming latte, wearing a sweater with a Jack o’ Lantern in the center, her hair restrained in a tight ponytail, and staring down at an iPad. Her relaxed nature and her prim appearance bore a strong contrast, one Jenn herself could not help but react to nonverbally when drawn up from her screen, to Michelle’s disheveled appearance of straggly hair, damp tennis shoes, and her ever present employment apron. Nevertheless, Jenn rose to embrace her like the old friend that she still was, at least in spirit.

“Are you working today?” she asked noting Michelle’s attire.

“No,” Michelle said meekly as she sat down.

“Oh … well, I didn’t know what to get you so I just got what I got. We’re matching!” she said handing her the latte. “I hope it’s still warm.”

Michelle took a small sip. “It’s fine, thank you.”

“I have to say it was a surprise to run into you yesterday. But I did hear through the grapevine that you were around. I didn’t think it was permanently.” Jenn stopped herself in that thought, having over-assumed. “Or, I guess, for an extended time?”

“I can’t say exactly at the moment.”

“Well, I think it’s nice you came back.”

The one thing Michelle always had over Jenn was that she knew Jenn at her least ideal. The Jenn that she knew was prone to vomiting like her life depended on it. Vomiting by the dumpsters of the Sante Fe Tavern after several ill-gained shots and a session with the mechanical bull. Vomiting behind the bleachers at the homecoming game. Vomiting in Terry Greco’s parent’s bidet. Vomiting into the jousting arena at Medieval Times. If Michelle hadn’t known any better, and of course she did not, she’d think Jenn had something of a drinking problem. And yet any evidence of that past appeared entirely expunged from this version she was now facing, whose comportment embodied every broad characteristic of “adult” she’d formed from childhood. She was pleasant and curious; a little patronizing but with a generous, patient spirit. The kind of spirit one might gain from having two children, Jayma (age four) and Preston (age two), whose images she showed Michelle on the iPad she cradled very much as she would a baby.

“I’m not keeping them from you, am I?”

“Oh no, they’re with my mom … who says hi, by the way.”

A vague version of the Jenn she knew appeared soon enough, in her anodyne inquiries into New York life; or rather into life in Midtown and the financial district, of which Michelle went out of her way to understand as little as possible. It always amazed her privately how people she met in New York and people she knew in New Jersey each saw the other either as being on distant planets with utterly backwards conceptions of physics and social custom or has each possessing different versions of the same highly repulsive disease. Jenn, however, boasted a special kind of sheltering that made her seem better suited to Ohio, a tourist in what was ostensibly her own home. Michelle fell into a kind of fugue state gesturing affirmations at Jenn’s various conveyances of selfhood: her large ugly house that looked more like two houses fused together, her husband’s Taco Bell franchise ownership, her dream vacation to Hawaii, and other details she was boiling in her tepid verbal soup. Until one comment snapped her out of it.

“You know what I hadn’t thought about in ages? Erika Knight.”

Michelle sipped her now-cold latte and mumbled something.

“The Bag Lady. Jeez, what were we thinking? I guess you sort of reminded me … if that makes sense.”


“You had some interactions with her, right?”

“A few. We kind of lost touch.”

Jenn’s cheery expression shifted downward to one more skeptical. “So it seems.”

“I don’t really know what happened to her. Do you?”

“Well, not really. I’d always heard she’d run away or moved out. I’d heard some people say she OD’d on something. But that was just the safe assumption.” Jenn’s face turned grave a she looked out the window, but finding nothing uplifting, turned her gaze back to Michelle with a smile that was at best serviceable. “I guess we didn’t treat her very well … Erika.”

“Why do we always do that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why do we always admit those things long after they happened, and especially when someone is dead?”

“I never said for cert—”

“It’s like an easy out. Like debt forgiveness for forgiveness.”

Whatever remaining charity Jenn had for her friend had been vaporized in that instant and her look settled on a chiseled severity.

“And so what is all this?” Jenn said, gesturing her arm in a circle around Michelle. “Is this you paying your debt? Leaving your career in flames? Spending all your time with a new generation of paint thinner addicts?”

“I’m not spending all my time with them,” Michelle protested, having felt that her solitary movie marathons and the intrusions of the otherworldly upon her space had been unfairly overlooked.

“You know I could never put my finger on you for the longest time. Then I went to FDU and majored in psychology, and learned about this thing called compartmentalization. And suddenly it was all clear. You like putting things in their own containers and keeping them very separate. I guess that’s how you cope. It made it hurt less when I stopped hearing from you after freshman year. Or when my wedding invitation went unanswered. Or my Facebook friend request.” Jenn choked up and stopped herself again. “I really wanted not to bring this up.”


Jenn held a finger to her while she composed herself. “Maybe in a couple of years none of this is going to matter. Maybe this is just a late-20s thing.”

Michelle felt a weight drop in her chest upon realizing that the truth of Jenn’s observation was almost certain.

Outside the Starbucks, Jenn waited, draped in a bright yellow raincoat and matching goulashes, as Michelle unlocked her bike.

“I can give you a ride,” Jenn noncommittally suggested. “I can probably make space in the jeep.”

“That’s okay.” Michelle removed the lock and approached to receive a parting hug.

“It was good to see you … really,” Jenn said with a slight but meaningful smile.


“You know, wherever you’re going, I hope it’s right where you need to be.”

“Is that on your wall at home?”

“No … it’s just something people say when they have nothing else to say to someone.”

Michelle rode home absently wondering who the demons they each let loose in the Starbucks would latch onto next, and if they would be just as merciless.


Erika drove her back home. Nothing was said between them. Michelle leaned into her window in the driveway of her house.

“You’ll be okay? You don’t need anything?”

Erika looked at her, her face still earnest but blighted of the bright sense of accomplishment of an hour before. “You did fine.” She rolled up her window and drove away.


“Have any dreams about this place yet?” Brianna asked Michelle as they sat on the floor of the frozen foods section.

“In a matter of speaking,” Michelle replied, looking above Brianna as a nurse’s reflection pulsed in and out of view in the frozen peas right behind her.

“One time I had a dream where I left this place, but the music came with me,” Brianna gestured above to the speakers blaring a limited playlist of contemporary easy listening. “Like it followed me wherever I went. Even if there wasn’t a speaker to play it. Like it was in the air. Can you imagine a Train song playing and refusing to leave you alone? Like it’s stalking you.”

“Actually, I kind of can.”

“It’s so fucked, right?”

They chuckled at each other.

“What the hell are you two doing?” Doug asked charging toward them. “Get back to the register.”

Brianna groaned petulantly and rolled her eyes. “It’s 10 after 10, Doug. No one’s coming in here except depressed bachelors, armed robbers, and old people who are sundowning. If anyone’s coming here, they are the least-essential people on earth, and they’re almost certainly not coming here to supply themselves.”

“What are they coming here for since you know so much?”

“I don’t know, to exist?”

Doug shook his head. “That doesn’t change anything.”

“I know it doesn’t,” Michelle flatly added. “But you can still join us.”

“What?” Doug said, the walls of his defenses, for once, crumbling to earth.

“Have a seat.” Brianna slapped the floor.

Doug put his back against a freezer door and slid down to the floor next to Michelle.

“What if someone wants,” he looked back quickly, “what if someone wants breakfast sausages?”

“That’s not our adversity to overcome,” Brianna said.

Doug sat with his legs outstretched like a discarded mannequin. His head darted in all directions to find something to focus on. He, too, looked above Brianna and pointed.

“Ah, frozen carrots are 40 per—”

Michelle waved her arm to lower his. “Just … be in the moment.”

Doug stilled himself but could not suppress his natural fidgetiness for not even 30 seconds.

“Nope,” he said rising up. “Screw the moment. I gotta keep moving.”

They both looked nonplussed as their superior speed-walked back to his comfort zone. At one time Michelle could pity Doug in that blandly snobbish way she could pity anyone else she could not bring herself to respect. Now she envied his ability to find solace in claustrophobia. Doug, she thought, was worse than Jenn. Even the town was too much world for him.

“Where does Doug live?” Michelle asked Brianna.

“I’m not sure. A condo maybe. Though I had a dream he was living with his mom. And that I was his mom.”

Michelle laughed so loud the whole store must have heard it.


Michelle peered through the sliding glass door that led out to her back deck, where the back of Erika’s house, on the adjacent street, could be seen through the still-leafless trees. She’d never been inside of it but always presumed the top left window, the one whose shade was always drawn down, was hers. And it was on as she looked at it that night. A figure crossed past it. Then it went dark. She got a Mountain Dew from the fridge and turned on Cinemax in the den.

She held up her can in the general direction of Erika’s house. “Spring break,” she droned. “No rules.”


Michelle knelt before the object hunched over in the couch of the den and considered at first that a prank had been pulled on her overnight. The object was equal in size and in figure to Brett. It bore his clothing style and his facial features. Though the face had notable differences. Prominent wrinkles had appeared under the eyes and at the side of the mouth. The flesh was coarse and pallid. The eyes themselves had been removed and replaced with only a stark blackness. The mouth was agape with the same condition, free of teeth and tongue and all that followed.

Brett had no aptitude for pranks or humor. There was no other evidence of him in the house. His phone was on his night table. His car was in the driveway. She held the object’s hand in hers, feeling its cold clamminess, its limp muscles, its collapsed veins, and was forced to conclude that this was her brother, in a lifeless state, a literal shell of his former self; but not, she hesitated to accept, dead. She sat up against the television and ran through the scores of dead relatives she had seen: some great aunts and uncles, two of her grandparents, her father, and tried to place Brett’s condition against theirs and found it unequal. This seemed an entirely distinct condition brought about by an unnatural process. The body presented itself not as having been killed or deteriorated by any disease, however rapidly, but rather that it had been abandoned, foreclosed on, evacuated. It was more akin to the derelict condition of the houses around town than any corpse. We don’t mourn what is simply left behind, and Michelle could not bring herself to do so here.

Standing in the front yard, she saw that the trend that began so modestly before had now become ubiquitous to the point of being total. Every home on her street was entirely deserted and disused, as if they had not been lived in for decades. In that moment she realized that she had just left her own home for the last time. So took to the street without bothering to look back.

The condition was no different in the rest of the town. Everything had been abandoned, boarded up, broken down, layered in ashen decay. She presumed that everyone else was inside in the same condition as Brett’s. Walking down the middle of the road she felt neither the urge to call out nor the urge to investigate more closely. She only kept moving to the place where anything made sense anymore, even as she knew that the ShopRite would not be spared. It may have, in some covert way like the carrier of the virus, been the seed of the phenomenon. In any case she was not going inside, choosing instead to sit upon a row of shopping carts in the middle of the parking lot. The day was clear and mild, but carried with it a feeling of airlessness. The natural atmosphere was hanging on by threads, waiting for permission to give out, once a task was complete.

Michelle looked out at the expanse of the shopping center and found evidence of movement. A figure was approaching her at a casually paced gait. The whiteness of its attire was clear enough. The nurse had finally decided to materialize, to make herself fully dimensional. She was walking straight in Michelle’s direction before she stopped 10 feet before her. It was not quite what Michelle had expected, but it was familiar. The woman was as she was in the photo: stern, professional, sober, but not menacing. Her face bore no distinguishing characteristics of a phantasm or something that was otherwise dead. She was a person, albeit a person from another time.

“I don’t think we’re open for business,” Michelle said drolly.

The nurse did not speak, but held her arm out directing Michelle to follow her. And Michelle complied, being taken back up the road and out of town. Though it had been the afternoon when they met, Michelle noticed that a darkness was covering the path they had already walked in as unnatural a succession as any of the preceding events. It was evident where the nurse was leading her, pictures of the same ground being covered a decade before, under complete darkness and from the passenger seat of a rickety used car, came to her in flashes.

Soon she was led through two stone columns that served as the main street entrance to the Blackstone Sanctuary, which along with the rest of the sprawling complex had reappeared as it was erected more than a century before. While the entire town was falling silent and emptying out, this structure was returning to its original glory. As the nurse led her to the high point of the property, just before the administrative building, Michelle looked back from where she came and nothing, just absolute darkness, not even the far-off lights of the city or the highways. As she stood on the only source of light in the foreseeable expanse, she had a strange thought, that New Jersey had darkened, and spread itself beyond its legal territory.

The nurse approached Michelle and delicately placed her hands on her shoulders to turn her away from what was no more and faced her towards the front steps of administration. Walking up the steps, Michelle looked back one more time to see the last remnants of the nurse dissolving into the darkness herself, and for the first time that day, or in many days, she was saddened.

The interior was as pristine and as empty as it was when she dreamed it. But the urge to be frantic had subsided, having given way to an acceptance that there was not better place to be, at least in comparison to literally anywhere else. She walked up to the front desk and rang the bell, whose tone resounded down every corridor like concentric circles of water. In a moment the clacking of shoes could be heard, but more focused and determinate this time. Michelle backed away from the desk and saw a new woman approaching from one of the hallways.

She was not nurse as such. She was wearing a white lab coat over a red dress. Her hair was done up in the same neat vintage style. She was carrying the ledger-book in her arms. Though her composure was more assured and authoritative than the awkward shuffle Michelle was more accustomed to, not to mention the lack of hygiene and traditional makeup, the woman bore the exact likeness of Erika. It was as if she had not aged from the moment she was last seen at 20.

“Hello, Michelle,” the woman said.

Michelle said nothing.

“Welcome to the Blackstone Sanctuary. You’ll be taken good care of here.”

Michelle stammered momentarily then asked “Am I sick? Do I need help?”

The woman smiled with an unnerving sweetness Michelle had only seen Erika smile once before.

“There’s no sickness here.”


“Peanut M&Ms, Mountain Dew, Pringles. I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but Healthy Choice isn’t all that healthy.”

“Do you do this to every customer?”

“Only preferred customers.”

“Do I get a discount?”

“Only Excellent Customers get a discount. And they don’t exist.”

“Ha. Ha.”

“So you’re off to a rip-roaring spring break.”

“Uh … yeah. I was originally supposed to go to Florida, but that … uh … didn’t happen.”

“Left behind?”

“Not really. Jenn and others are going back to Sante Fe, but I’d really rather not. It already feels old. So you’re mobile now?”


“Have you gone out to Bergen yet?”


“The haunted sewage plant or whatever.”

“Ah, nah. I lost interest.”

“Ah well.”

“But … I was thinking of going a little closer to home. You know what I’m talking about?”

“The hospital?”

“Yeah. I looked into it and found a way good way in.”

“Oh really.”

“Yeah, should be interesting. Hey, do you want to come with? Do you want to see inside?”

“I don’t know, it doesn’t sound exactly safe.”

“Spring break in Florida does?”

“How long do you think it will be?”

“20 minutes. Enough to get some cool stuff.”

“You know what? Sure.”

“Awesome, I get off in 20, I’ll swing by your place right after.”