Stranger Things and MK Ultra: Digesting an American Atrocity

America, like most nations, is built from conspiracy and atrocity. Our history, like more histories, attempts to fit these bloody materials into a shape that makes them coherent, even necessary. Of all the known chapters of American history, the Cold War is one of the most surreal. From exploding cigars to cats with radio-skulls, CIA documents from this era read like cartoon fever dreams. Project MK Ultra, one of the most infamous dips into the surreal from this era, has recently found a new audience in the form of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things. By pushing these events into the realm of the fantastic, Stranger Things allows us to better digest them, dissolving historical shame with nostalgia.
 
The MK Ultra project is an essential component of paranormal activity within the Stranger Things universe. For those unfamiliar, MK Ultra was a government investigation into mind control using sensory deprivation and surreptitious doses of LSD. Many test subjects had limited or outright fabricated knowledge of what was happening and why. It has been alleged that at least one man involved with the project was later assassinated to keep its secrets. Though the project itself is mentioned only briefly, its DNA is evident across the activities of the series’ central conspiracy. Dr. Brenner’s lab is more than willing to mistreat its subjects and to assassinate anyone who gets too close.
 
Stranger Things also mediates huge portions of its story through the characters’ and audience’s fantasies. The topography of the kids’ world is written in cultural references to D&D, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, and that world is depicted to the audience through allusions to the works of artists like The Clash and Stevens King and Spielberg. The Upside Down itself seems to be a dark mirror of our world, with many of the same pieces shaded by unearthly falling ash and eternal darkness. We access it through the deepest parts of our minds, and sometimes something terrible can break through to wreck us.
 
Armored in layers of nostalgia, the Stranger Things kids are the perfect foils to the shady conspiracy of The Upside Down. In their conflict we see the struggle between two different views of our history. On the one hand we have the threatening atrocities of our pasts, pointedly represented by government agents and disappearing friends. On the other hand we have our own idealized childhoods, rich with levels of adventure, camaraderie and competence rarely exhibited by actual children. These are the latch-key kids Baby Boomers dream of having been, up against nakedly evil, basically faceless enemies.
 
Anyone paying attention to the populist rhetoric of the American right should recognize some of these themes. The Duffer brothers beautifully illustrate the tension between the narrative that the American government is innately evil and the narrative that America was once great. I doubt anyone involved in the production of Stranger Things is a Trump supporter, but the show does play with one string on the right wing’s Fascist banjo. When Trump’s most immediate prototype, Sarah Palin, refers to “real America,” many in her audience likely picture a place similar to Hawkins, Indiana. To whatever extent they think of America’s historical atrocities, they either simplify them to justify the resulting status quo, or castigate them as unAmerican intrusions into a patriotic ideal.
 
Ultimately, Stranger Things’ depiction of the past mythologizes it. Wicked and maddening events, like MKUltra, are sublimated into science fiction, blending seamlessly with the paranormal elements invented by the creators. Regular citizens are depicted as plucky heroes in natural opposition to the corrupting influence of the outside. Crucially, the audience is allowed to imagine itself as innocent, and to quarantine any disruption of that innocence within the fantastical realm of The Upside Down.
 
Now, it would be silly to allege that the Duffer Brothers are intentionally trying to obfuscate the reality of the MK Ultra project. Their own claim, that they wanted to root their fantasy in something plausible to give it weight, rings true. But narrative, and fantasy in particular, performs many functions in our minds and one of those functions is to ease anxiety and structure a world of conflicting inputs. This gives us clarity and comfort at the expense of smoothing over some of reality’s rough edges. It’s perfectly natural that this narrative catharsis would mirror the rhetorical catharsis offered by the right wing. In both situations the audience has a need to see itself as pure and good while dwelling in the shadow of history.
 
We must transform our past into narrative in order to contain it in our minds. This is a dangerous opportunity; writing history requires  us to rewrite the past, just as accessing a memory corrupts it. In this transformation, we can pretend our childhood friend groups were more capable, more charming, more loyal than they actually were. We can tell ourselves that we listened to all the coolest music right as it was coming out. We can rewrite our histories until we emerge as their heroes, and reclassify as fantasy those atrocities that we cannot accept.
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Review: The Filing Cabinet of Doom, by Madeleine Swann

You could design an hors d’oeuvre for each story in Madeleine Swann’s The Filing Cabinet of Doom, and most of them would involve sweet pickles. Like hors d’oeuvres, the entries in this anthology leave you with a burst of flavor and feeling, free of filler or distraction. They’re short enough to binge in one or two sittings, and mysterious enough to justify a re-read. You can turn each one over carefully in your mind, or gobble down the lot of them for a rush of sheer novelty. Swann achieves this by glossing over the unnecessary details that can bog down speculative fiction- the whats, hows and whens- to leap right into the struggles her characters are living.

There’s a light satirical element to most of the anthology, gentle enough to avoid being didactic but too familiar to ignore. Swann doesn’t editorialize. She finds the fault-lines in daily life- shitty boyfriends, jobs that consume your life, the inexplicable urge to be destroyed- and then lets these struggles speak for themselves. She doesn’t seem to diagnose the world’s ills so much as present the symptoms in their full complexity and mystery.

Swann’s characters are frequently inhuman but never dehumanized. In just a few short pages she makes it feel entirely natural that a Frankenstein’d mermaid would subject herself to experimental surgeries to be with her boyfriend. One barely pauses to wonder why anyone would want to fuck the douchebag Marzipan King, because he’s familiar the moment you see him. Her depiction of the grotesque is enchanting rather than lurid. Her monsters are beautiful the way a gas slick is beautiful: distantly entropic but alive with color. At the same time a healthy sense of the mundane grounds most of the stories, moments both cozy and embarrassingly familiar bringing the monstrosity closer to home.

At times her aesthetic reads as if Lewis Carrol had grown up reading EC Comics and Sylvia Plath. Swann’s stories are painted with equal parts dissolving bodies, fairy tale whimsy and Hammer-style monstrosities. With some creators (like, say, American McGee or Tim ‘some of my favorite movies are Black’ Burton) this kind of mash-up can quickly turn into self-conscious gothic diarrhea. Swann comes by it more honestly. In The Filing Cabinet of Doom, the subversive and the sweet feel less as if they’ve been crudely laced together, and more as if they’ve sprung naturally from a mutual source.

You can pick up a Kindle copy of The Filing Cabinet of Doom for one measly dollar on Amazon.

MP Johnson’s Berzerkoids (review)

I just got done reading MP Johnson’s Berzerkoids anthology, and I feel like my brain is going to crawl out of my ears to get a hot girlfriend and a hip new job, like a barista for orphaned stars or maybe a fluffer for alien pornographers. Wowzers.

Berzerkoids is high-energy and wryly zany. Its plots are largely dream-like, often feeling improvisational until the details fall into place and a fuzzy outline of the story’s logic emerges. Like a good joke or serial killing, Berzerkoids is rarely predictable, yet each piece feels inevitable in the after math.

The prose is crisp, at times even melodic. Reading Berzerkoids out loud is a delightful experience, rhythmic and percussive, like Tae Bo for your lips and glottis. At times, I’d have to re-read silently after getting sucked into Berzerkoids’ phonetic fury, consciousness disappearing in the wet bellows of my mouth.

MP Johnson’s monsters are truly beautiful, in language if not in visuals. Bodies become their own kind of vocabulary. MP Johnson warps and wields the human body like a sommelier enabling winos. Maybe deep down you’re just a sadist with a loose grasp of reality- but when you read Berzerkoids, you see everything that can really be! The people of Berzerkoids are unlovable, doomed, misbegotten and messily mutated… yet even as they’re torn to bits by the jaws of reality, there’s a sense of triumph in hearing their stories.

Occasionally, through all the anus-faced action figures and otherworldly caterpillars, real melancholy bubbles through. Most of the perspective characters in Berzerkoids are bent inside, and Johnson pulls you into their viewpoint just enough to cringe in recognition. At times Berzerkoids goes along for several pages, crafting a character so sympathetic you actually just want them to get the boy/girl and settle down somewhere nice, as if you were reading one of those boring books where people are well-adjusted and nobody gnaws off any of their own appendages. At other times you’ll find yourself rooting for the characters even while their shortcomings rage around you. “Sure, he turns small mammals inside out,” you might find yourself saying, “but I want him to be the best at turning small mammals inside out.”

Berzerkoids is a taut, cleanly articulated hellscape of hideous beasts and heinous shitbirds. More than anything- more than gore-glee, sexy eyebrows, or refined appreciation for a well-realized demon, Berzerkoids sucks you into the space between nostalgia and promise. Its characters are haunted, hungry and trembling. The past is inaccessible, the future obscure, and guts pulsate in the middle.