Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief
By Donna Kossy
Feral House (1994)
Review by Karl Wolff
The cult movie Iron Sky has a memorable scene where African-American astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby), dressed like a homeless person, ranting at pedestrians about how "Moon Nazis made me white!" To the average moviegoer, the scene captures the absurdity and camp of the film. But Nazis with moon bases or living in the center of the earth are what one can read about in Kooks: A Guide to The Outer Limits of Human Belief by Donna Kossy. The book is an anthology of Kooks Magazine. Kossy, a former housemate of fellow zinester Pagan Kennedy, plumbs the depths of human belief, discovering a vast underground landscape of conspiracy theories, Ufology, weird science, and other unclassifiable strangeness.
The first edition was published in 1994, with a second expanded edition coming out in 2001. The publication date is key to its importance. In 1994 there was a convergence in technological development. By that time zines experienced a collapse, the cost and effort in making handmade zines fast becoming irrelevant to the new mass medium: the Internet. (On a personal note, I purchased Kooks from the local Half Price Books in the late 1990s, during this very same media revolution.)
In 1994 where would one get this kind of information? Kooks is singular in its mission and scope. Besides Kossy, RE/Search Publications comes a close second in its independent publishing agenda. Before the Internet became a household item, the information explosion, and the immediate accessibility of Wikipedia, the possibility of discovering the background and history of marginal thinkers was slim to nil. Even today, Kossy's subject matter is sorely underrepresented in academia. Although the text could be used for a sociology, anthropology, or history class.
Kossy comes to the material with a sympathy for preservation and accumulation. An earlier book, Ivan Stang's High Weirdness by Mail (1988), covers much similar ground, but plays things for laughs.
Kossy classifies kooks status as "inherently a matter of perspective, relative to history and culture. A kook in the 19th century might become a scientific hero in the 20th." She later goes on to say "We must also distinguish kooks from quacks, frauds, and hoaxers, for kooks are invariably sincere. Their main intent is not to deceive or defraud; to the contrary, they are trying to impart an essential truth. A kook's thoughts rarely turn to profit; some squander personal fortunes to investigate or spread The Word." This book is also important because "There is a tendency common to those who define the boundaries of reality - scientists, religious figures and politicians - to dismiss countervailing beliefs as delusions or hallucination." Despite my own personal animosity towards certain kook-like groups - anti-vaxxers, climate change denialists, creationists, birthers, and truthers - one needs to take a couple steps back. First, from making widespread ideological assumptions and dismissals. The second, from seeing everything from the perspective of "scientism." Meaning, not every human behavior needs to be seen through the lens of the scientific method and the demand of a scientific explanation. Granted, science education is highly, highly important. But Kossy's book falls into the softer, mushier category of sociology and anthropology. Soft and mushy is beneficial in this case, since Kossy wades through some bizarre, contradictory, and occasionally self-contradictory systems of thought. In organizing the book, she faced the challenge of where to put certain individuals. Suffice to say, the book has plenty of overlap. To quote Emerson, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." One doesn't have to worry about that criticism in Kooks.
The book is arranged into several categories: Religion, Science, Metaphysics, Politics, Conspiracy, Enigmas, and Outtakes. The first two essays offer a straightforward history of Anglo-Israelism and Black Messiahs. The two different belief systems have radically different origins, but both dwell on the predictable subject matter of anti-Semitism. As strange as it sounds, Anglo-Israelism didn't begin as an anti-Semitic religion. It remained cordial towards Jews and Judaism until more radical hateful strains overtook the movement and mutated it into what we know as Christian Identity. Kossy explores the variety of messianic religions within the black community. Some adapt the trappings of Islam, others of Judaism. The beliefs range from the mainline to the eccentric. For those seeking an explanation of what drove Randy Weaver to proclaim his war against ZOG and what is behind the number-centric speeches of Louis Farrakhan, these essays will enlighten the reader.
While anti-Semitism remains a dark undercurrent in many of the entries, some defy classification. Kossy covers several hollow earth philosophies. One is Cyrus Teed, a self-made messiah who believed we lived on the inside of the earth. During his lifetime, he became wildly popular. Another individual is Norma Cox. Her anti-Semitism is wrapped up in a system of thought that embraces hollow earth theory, UFOs, and Hitler being alive. It would be easy to write her off as yet another racist, but her theories are so bizarre one has to take notice. Her personal cosmology is as strange and vast as William Blake or Henry Darger. Here is an excerpt:
"Wearing the mask of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the god of Vatican hierarchy is the sungod, Apollo, the Lucifer of Scripture; this, while the moon-goddess, the evil Ashtoreth, the whore of Revelation 17, is paraded as Mary, the mother of Christ. The fraud, perpetrated on Catholics since the time the church took root, has so undetected that CBS, the TV network working the communist side of the conspiracy, boldly displays Sungod symbols on the "Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt" show. Unknowing, Christians attending Sunday church service are paying homage not to their Creator and His Son but to the pagan superman whose Sun Chariot daily rides from east to west. ..."
At the beginning of her entry on Cox, Kossy writes, "A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but it is also essential if one is to explain why the world is a complete mess. It seems that the less you know, the more you can explain, and Norma Cox can explain everything." Kossy, a generally sympathetic accumulator of weirdness, isn't above getting in a good jab.
While Cox's rants possess a bizarro appeal, it is nothing compared to Francis E. Dec, Esquire. His densely-typed screeds had become legendary within the kook community. The writing exhibits that Dec was attempting to sort out his own life, albeit one full of paranoia. Here's a small sample of Dec's "Rant #2":
"Gangster Computer God Worldwide Secret Containment policy made possible solely by Worldwide Computer God Frankenstein Controls. Especially lifelong constant threshold brainwash radio. Quiet and motionless, I can slightly hear it. Repeatedly, this has saved my life on the streets.
"Four billion worldwide population, all living, have a Computer God Containment Policy brain bank brain, a real brain in the brain bank cities on the far side of the moon we never see. Primarily, based on your lifelong Frankenstein Radio Controls, especially your Eyesight TV, sight and sound recorded by your brain, your moon brain of the Computer God activates your Frankenstein threshold brainwash radio lifelong, inculcating conformist propaganda, even frightening you and mixing you and the usual, "Don't worry about it." For your setbacks, mistakes, even when you receive deadly injuries. This is the Worldwide Computer God Secret Containment Policy."
Not too far off from "Moon Nazis made me white!" But while these may be the rantings of a mentally imbalanced individual, the paranoia isn't exactly unfounded. One can look at the personal history of Philip K. Dick. He made a specialty of paranoid science fiction and total government surveillance. Then the FBI broke into his house. More recent developments with Edward Snowden and Wikileaks make one second-guess about the American ideals of free expression and not being spied upon without cause. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after you.
Beyond the paranoia and conspiracy, Kossy visited The House on the Rock, the tourist attraction in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Built by eccentric Alex Jordan, Kossy's essay explores how an idiosyncratic dreamer with vast capital can build his dream house. The House on the Rock is an architectural marvel, perched upon a bluff. Jordan's penchant for eccentricity and collecting makes him a Wisconsin version of Charles Foster Kane or Mad King Ludwig II. Not only is the house massive, but it holds the world's largest collection of world's largest collections. The house exhibits a strange power, driving Kossy to equal parts exhaustion and wonder. It plays a pivotal role in Neil Gaiman's American Gods and is, at root, very American. Few houses display a sincere peculiarity like The House on the Rock. It is like the ideals of American Rugged Individualism and the desire to be the biggest collided into an explosion of kitsch. It is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime. I visited House on the Rock when I was a child. Unfortunately, I don't really remember the visit. But reading Kooks made me put the landmark on the next road trip.
Kooks samples many strange beliefs and systems of thought. The book itself is a delightful hodge-podge of in-depth essays and excerpts from primary documents. The primary documents collected here are especially important, since Kossy provides little commentary. She lets the kook's words stand on their own. It is up to the reader to discern any value.
Why is this book odd? You really needed to ask? In all seriousness, Kooks is emblematic of this entire essay series. It operates as a kind of crackpot Rosetta Stone. We will see certain themes repeating themselves - crackpot messiahs, conspiracy theories, strange writing, roadside attractions - along with serving a real sociological purpose. It remains an invaluable resource for those seeking out the weirder crevices of human knowledge and some of the stranger by-products of the American Experience.
Read even more about Kooks: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley by Neal Thompson