A book -- subtitled "A Directory of the Fringe: Mad Prophets, Crackpots, Kooks & True Visionaries" -- written by the Rev. Ivan Stang and published by Simon & Schuster in 1988. It is significantly dated in a number of ways, but if you can find it, it's still worth reading, both as a historical artifact and as a wonderfully fun and funny book.
To understand this book a bit, you should keep a few cultural/historical elements in mind. First, this was before the Internet -- or at least before the time of widespread use of the Internet -- and communicating with people through the mail was still something people did. Yes, there were telephones. Yes, there was television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and books. But the mail was a good way to communicate with friends and family -- and people you didn't know at all. Sending off a self-addressed stamped envelope (or SASE) to a company or organization so you could get a free pamphlet of some sort was not unheard-of.
Second, this book landed just before the peak of the so-called Zine Revolution. Small fan-created magazines had been around for decades, but around the '90s, zines were everywhere, fueled in part by the Riot Grrrl movement. There were still lots of zines for science fiction, but there were more than ever for music, particularly punk rock. Along with that came an explosion of personal zines, sometimes crafted by one person, sometimes by several, focused on art, news, politics, literature, comics (and comix), queer culture, and much more. There were even zines about other zines -- the venerable "Factsheet Five" had dozens of pages of zine reviews in every issue.
And finally, there is the Church of the SubGenius, a joyously deranged parody religion focused on satire of American commercial culture, mid-century UFO conspiracy theories, wild art mashups, and their messiah, pipe-smoking salesman J. R. "Bob" Dobbs. The author of "High Weirdness by Mail" is also the founder of the Church of the SubGenius, and the church's style of evangelical anarchy is present throughout the book.
So with all that in mind -- what is "High Weirdness by Mail?" It is essentially a collection of people, organizations, and publications with non-mainstream beliefs, complete with point-and-laugh commentary and addresses so you could contact the organizations and ask for your own copies of whatever madness they were offering. Essentially: "Hey, want some mail from crazies? Send a couple bucks to these people, and they'll send you magazines about aliens or Jesus or orgone energy or what-have-you."
The book was divided into 20 chapters, usually self-explanatory but often overlapping with other categories:
- Weird Science: Flat Earthers, Hollow Earthers, Breatharians, antigravity, Tesla death rays, and much, much more.
- UFO Contactees: The Raelians, the Unarians, and plenty more flying saucer cults. Includes a surprise appearance by German rocker Nina Hagen, a UFO fan.
- Jesus Contactees and Other "Channels": Everything from people who say they've talked to Jesus, entity channelers, the Children of God sex cult, and televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, and Jack Van Impe.
- More Weird Religion: Odinists, Rosicrucians, Eckankar, Warlords of Satan, the Philip K. Dick Society, Dionysians, the various feuding spinoffs of Ordo Templi Orientis, and... the Church of the SubGenius. Also the labels of Dr. Bronner's soap.
- Health/Self-Improvement and $chemes/$cams: Vitamins, anti-fluoridation, lottery scams, luck scientists, and, of all things, veterinary homeopathy. Includes an anti-circumcision crusader who got busted by the cops, who declared his gruesome photos of babies getting their foreskins snipped qualified as child pornography.
- New Age Saps: Pyramids, cosmic consciousness, syrupy feel-goodism, and crystal-powered pants. Includes a sub-section on "People We Don't Want to Insult," like Habitat for Humanity, the Planetary Report, Handicap News, and others.
- Cosmic Hippie Drug-Brother Stuff: Probably the shortest chapter. A little stuff about drugs, a little stuff about hippies. They put the Discordians here. (helpless shrug)
- Respectable Weird Publications: Forteans, cryptozoologists, psychic researchers, and skeptics -- but they approach their fields with level heads and scientific research. Includes a sub-section on "Wild News" -- publications that focus on compiling lists of strange news and factoids.
- Religion vs. Religion: Mostly religious groups who are mad at other religious groups, but includes a number of anti-cult resources.
- Weird Politics: Howling right-wingers, gibbering left-wingers, and lunatics who don't fit on the grid at all, along with watchdog groups and a short sub-chapter on "High-Tech Subversion" that includes an entry for 2600 Magazine -- at the time, only a newsletter.
- Groups You Love to Hate: White supremacists, Nazis, Catholic haters, LaRouchites, Chick comics, and a few megalomaniacal psychotics with dreams of world conquest and personalized genocide.
- "Funny" Clubs: Parody/satire organizations, like Ladies Against Women, the Up Uranus Society, the Church of Beaver Cleaver, the John Dillinger Died for You Society, and the Association to Save Madonna from Nuclear War.
- Weird Art: Everything from beautifully rendered art collages focused on the despair of late-'80s culture to jagged crap cartoons focused on the despair of late-'80s culture.
- Rantzines: If you want to read people who are goddamn mad as fuck and willing to go on about it for-fucking-ever, well, the rantzines are probably where you'd go.
- Comics: A variety of underground comix, some good, some bad, most forgotten. It's interesting which ones Stang enjoyed that have stood the test of time -- Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor," epic lowbrow painter Robert Williams, Bob Burden's "The Flaming Carrot," and bizarrely, Frank Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."
- Great Badfilm and Sleaze: Publications about bad movies, psychotronic film, camp cinema, and the lowest of the lowbrow Hollywood trash. Includes Joe Bob Briggs!
- The Audiocassette Revolution: In a way, the most dated chapter of the book -- no one distributes music on cassettes anymore! But almost all of the bands listed in this chapter can be found online! Negativland, Zoogz Rift, Ken Nordine, G.G. Allin, and plenty more are profiled.
- Rudeness and the War Between the Sexes: Weird porn, sex toy catalogs, a scholarly journal devoted to swearing, X-rated party records, and a lonely and likely frustrated crusader opposed to all sex.
- Great Catalogs: Starting with the late, lamented Loompanics catalog of outlaw books, this chapter covers catalogs for New Age, UFO, and occult books, paper ephemera, gore makeup, educational biology supplies, inflatable Godzillas, monster stickers, academic T-shirts, rubber stamps, clerical garb, monster model kits, and so very much more.
- The Great Kook-Finders: It's a collection of sources to find even more High Weirdness. Factsheet Five, Whole Earth Review, Murder Can Be Fun, The Stark Fist of Removal, and others.
There's a lot of mockery, seesawing from insulting putdowns to more oddly affectionate putdowns. Stang has built his career as the founder of a parody religion, so he's got long-standing interest and fondness for people with weird and extreme beliefs, particularly the ones that don't really harm anyone. If you're a hate group, he has no patience for you. But among the rest, it's not unexpected to find some of the craziest organizations described with respect, admiration, and compassion, even with the heavy mockery.
The biggest weakness of the book is how dated it is. It's over 30 years old. Very few of the publications and organizations profiled exist anymore. A few years ago, Stang posted a list of online links to a number of the groups from the book -- but even these are already out-of-date. And it's also dated because it's a downright antiquated way to go looking for weirdness. Stamps are more expensive than ever -- and you can find a billion gibbering lunatics on Twitter for free!
I love the book because it's funny, it gives me a nice twinge of nostalgia
, and because, like Stang, I'm fascinated by people who have significantly strange beliefs. But I also wonder if I should be looking at this book as a dark preview of our modern world, where unhinged conspiracy theorists and madmen control the government and the media...