When someone dies, it is usually the end of a narrative, but when it comes to active, expressive personalities — artists, writers or publishers — the work lives on. Feral House Press announced via Facebook that Adam Parfrey, its founder and publisher, died Thursday at the age of 61. But what he left behind in the alternative publishing world won't be forgotten; it will continue to provoke and inspire.
I didn't know Parfrey that well, except we were both in publishing. There is a specific type of character who wants to expose the wizard behind the curtain, running the theater or show. A publisher is that type of person, moving the gears and fixing the type, the design and the language to reveal a landscape one could otherwise miss under their nose.
Feral House wrote about things that were unpleasant and often not spoken of in good company. Which is why the press was a fantastic one. It went into the world in the same manner as a plumber walking in sewer shit to do the job. Although I don't personally like to dwell in the world of conspiracies, Charles Manson or Norwegian black metal, I am fond of Ed Wood, French ye-ye music, sleaze sex paperbacks of the '60saa and Françoise Hardy — all Feral House subjects.
To enter Parfrey's world was like being part of a secret society headquartered in a house with hidden passageways behind the bookcase. There is the world that is “here,” and then there's the “other” world. Parfrey was an expert on the “other,” and most of us readers were pleased to have him as our guide.
Parfrey and I are very much the citizens of the publishing world. My press is TamTam Books, which focuses on Paris postwar culture/literature, and Feral House is a specialized press that deals with the undercurrents that are the culture in its many identities. From American hair metal to the dark history of bubble-gum music, the Kennedy assassination to Walter and Margaret Keane — it's the mainstream world turned upside down, and hanging by its pant cuffs facing the pavement many stories below.
His vision was tremendous but extremely focused on the bigger picture, which is apocalyptic culture and all its byproducts, some obvious and some hidden under layers. In this aspect, Parfrey was a great publisher because he could take such a culture and split it into digestible bites. I have met people who only read titles from Feral House. Its ethos is well-defined, and like a spider web it can entrap one into an endless adventure of seeking arcane knowledge. In a nutshell, that is what a publisher is supposed to do, and Parfrey was great in that position.
The other thing that impressed me about the writer and publisher was his focus on his father, the great character actor Woodrow Parfrey. On his Facebook page, he would post, one after another, images of his dad in films and TV shows. I never got a clear picture of who his dad was by looking at his posts, but I found his obsession with his father fascinating, mostly due to my own fascination with my late father, Wallace Berman.
Woodrow was not a movie star but a working actor, and I wondered if he shared his son's fascination with the underworld. Cruelly, the elder Mr. Parfrey died of a heart attack when he was 61 years old. His son died at the same age.
Parfrey was in his 20s when he lost his dad, and I was in my early 20s when I lost mine. Being a young adult and losing a parent is an odd situation to go through. Parfrey started publishing when his father died (first under the Amok name, then Feral House), and when my dad died, I did the same. I never talked or wrote to him about our fathers, but I believe we shared similar feelings about the role our fathers played in our lives.
Both fathers were well known in their worlds — Parfrey as an actor and mine as an artist — yet also forgotten in the bigger world of the arts. We both felt the need to give notice to our dads and their importance to the world. I'm glad to give it to both of them here.
With focus and fervency, Adam Parfrey picked through subcultures like a surgeon working on a patient. As a publisher he unveiled and exposed them for spectators (readers). Among other things, he was a master of that occupation and vision.
Check out Feral House's books and podcasts at feralhouse.com.
Read Doug Harvey's 2005 L.A. Weekly profile of Adam Parfrey, “Feral Child,” here.