American Odd: The Manson File, by Nikolas Schreck


The Manson File
By Nikolas Schreck
Amok Press (1988)
Review by Karl Wolff

The era commonly known as The Sixties ended with three notorious events: the My Lai Massacre, Altamont, and the Tate/LaBianca murders. The Age of Aquarius ended in spattered blood, a concert gone awry, grisly murders, and a military atrocity. Lieutenant Calley participated in a war crime but was later pardoned, transfigured into a hero for the Silent Majority. Charles Manson, another icon, became a symbol of a Counter-culture now slavishly devoted to murder and evil. The literature and pop culture ephemera centered around Charles Manson is voluminous. It’s no secret America possesses an endless capacity to co-opt and repackage any atrocity, natural disaster, or personal calamity. Another phenomenon also occurred with Manson, he became a punch-line. The cult sketch comedy show, Mr. Show The Ben Stiller Show ran a sketch called “Manson.” It parodied “Lassie,” starring Bob Odenkirk as Charles Manson. This time Manson became the faithful family pet, always helpful to his family. (Mr. Show also had a sketch about downtrodden Hitler clones.)

Of all the various books about Charles Manson, very few actually plumb the depths of the man himself. The Manson File, edited by Nikolas Schreck, seeks to explain the man by giving the reader a look into his work. The book, published by Amok Press, collects his court-room testimony, poetry, music, a novella, and art work. (This essay will focus on the Amok Press edition, not Schreck’s more recent expanded re-issue.) Unlike killers in American culture, Charles Manson did not kill anyone. His charge was “conspiracy to commit murder.” Schreck, a musician, artist, and author with Satanist street cred, asserts Manson was railroaded. He regards Manson as a martyr of a botched justice system and as a modern gnostic philosopher. If only. The intent of this essay is to neither praise nor bury Manson. It’s less about Manson, the figure, than about The Manson File, an oddity of American literature.

Manson, like Gary Gilmore, spent most of his life in and out of prisons. Unlike Gilmore, Manson possesses a dark charisma. Comparisons to Hitler aren’t out of place. There’s something about him that draws us to him, whether in awe or disgust (or a combination of the two).

The Manson File is a fascinating collection, frightening and comical, sometimes on the same page. During the trial Manson became a rallying point for both the Right and the Left. The Left abandoned Manson when it became apparent he was a racist and Anti-Semite. The book traces his connections with the Process Church, a pagan cult worshiping both Christ and Satan. We learn about Manson’s connections with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Included in the book are several songs Manson wrote. While Manson’s musical tastes centered around bluegrass and country, there exists a yawning abyss in his words:

This town is killing me
Got to put an end to this restless misery
I’m just one of those restless people
Can never seem to be satisfied
With living in this sick old sick old
Sick city

(from “Sick City”)

On occasion, Manson has flashes of gnostic brilliance. Collected under “Philosophy,” Manson comes across like a psychopathic William Blake or a cheapened Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Paycheck whore wears a dollar bill gown to the funeral of hope and love.”

“The truth is a knife and cuts sharp.”

“The government of the U.S. is at war with their children and the powers of nature and God, and have grown so far above their own judgments that the Waffen SS are coming back from space left over in dreams.”

“All the churches of all the religions of the world are NOT thoughts in God’s mind. I use the word “God.” Hitler was Christ. A coming and a going. Humans need gods, gods don’t need humans.”

Manson’s justifications for his acts involve the acronym ATWA: air, trees, water, and animals. His philosophies converge with environmental fascists. The war to save the Earth’s ecology will also be a holy race war. Schreck includes two letters from James N. Mason, member of the Universal Order, an American Neo-Nazi group. Mason’s tag line was “Where Rockwell stops, Manson begins.” George Lincoln Rockwell was the head of the American Nazi Party and later assassinated in 1967.

While Charles Manson has become a cliche, The Manson File remains an odd little book. But it serves an important educational purpose, allowing readers access into the mind and zeitgeist surrounding Manson. The book brings together disparate strains of American culture, from Nazis to the occult to pop culture. For any interested in Manson as pop culture phenomenon, the final section on “The Merchandising of Manson” is informative. When it comes to murderers, terrorists, gun-toting racists, and violent cults, the best thing we can do is let them talk! By talking, they incriminate themselves, but they also reveal motivations, philosophies, and the underlying systems of thought.

Coming next: California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture, by Jim Heimann

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