QAnon’s Alive and Bela Lugosi’s Dead: an Interview with Robert Guffey

Robert Guffey is a lecturer in the Department of English at California State University – Long Beach. His most recent books are Widow of the Amputation and Other Weird Crimes (Eraserhead Press, 2021), a collection of four novellas, and a novel entitled Bela Lugosi’s Dead (Crossroad Press, 2021). 2017 marked the publication of Until the Last Dog Dies (Night Shade/Skyhorse), a darkly satirical novel about a young stand-up comedian who must adapt as best he can to an apocalyptic virus that destroys only the humor centers of the brain. His previous books include the journalistic memoir Chameleo: A Strange But True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security (OR Books, 2015), which Flavorwire has called, “By many miles, the weirdest and funniest book of [the year].” His first book of nonfiction, Cryptoscatalogy: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form, was published in 2012.

More recently, Guffey has been involved with trying to decode and comprehend the phenomenon known as QAnon, an oddity which seems to fall under his bailiwick. Guffey has a unique take, treating its myriad emerging characters as akin to fantasy figures who live somewhere between reality and the Twilight Zone. Last August, he published a 5-part series on the origins of QAnon in Salon, and, more recently, he has a follow-on 4-part series on the movement in TheEvergreen Review titled, “If You’re Into Eating Children’s Brains, You’ve Got a Four-Year Free Ride: A QAnon Bedtime Story.

I reviewed Guffey’s Chameleo back in 2015 and had a follow-up interview. Here is my second interview with Guffey on June 29, 2021.

Hawkins:

Robert, you’ve written quite a number of books with unusual subject matter. I’m tempted to refer to them as your takes on unidentifiable alienating phenomena (UAP). I reviewed Chameleo shortly after it came out and was wowed. Invisible and, I daresay, inexplicable spies in proximity swarming to a character that vaguely reminded me of Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad, hepped up on the blue persuasion. The paranoia of Homeland insecurity.  Looking out windows to phantasmagorical cosmic landscapes. What the fuck, Robert? You said it was a “true story.” But you know what, Robert, now that we’re in a world of crazies pouring out of the woodwork with their fractal personalities and holding “insurrections” and disrupting the presidential Electoral College tally and making off with Nancy’s podium dressed in what would be drag, if you were an antelope — your work is just starting to hit home. Are you some kind of seer?

 

Guffey:

In March of 2020, I was talking to an older friend of mine who lives in the Midwest, who I’ve known for a long time. He started talking to me about QAnon. I had known about QAnon previously, when it first cropped up in October, 2017. But I didn’t really pay much attention to it. But [my friend] was not only giving credence to it, but really sort of believing in it in a weirdly non-critical way that I found fascinating. And so when he started sending me links and I started going deep into the rabbit hole, actually looking at the stuff, and having studied conspiracy theories in the early ‘90s, and even earlier, I immediately recognized the source material. When I went around to, say, the Atlantic Monthly, or some of the very few mainstream news sources that were reporting on it, I just got the sense that the journalists were kind of tongue-tied and a little baffled, not quite sure how to write about it.

Q would link to the story and say, ‘See how they’re getting everything wrong.’ And indeed, sometimes they would get things wrong in terms of their interpretation. And so that just fueled the fire of QAnon people looking at it and calling it Fake News. That was the main reason I started writing about QAnon; it seemed to me that the Q people who read my article would at least be able to recognize the fact that I knew what I was talking about and might actually give some attention to it. Then I wrote a new piece for The Evergreen Review, “Donald Trump’s Operation Mindfuck,” as a follow-up to my Salon series.

Hawkins:

At the beginning of Part 1 of your Evergreen series you do an excellent job summing up the prevailing mindset of QAnon membership:

They call themselves “red-pilled,” drawing upon the terminology of The Matrix. In QAnon-speak, to “red-pill” is to accept as unassailable truth the conspiracy theory that occultists are ruling the world from behind the scenes by eating the brains of children and that Donald Trump is the only man who can save us from this evil cabal, while to “blue-pill” is to align yourself with the Democratic Party and become “sheeple” who believe only what mainstream newscasters and scientists tell you is true…these “Christian Patriots” have embraced—as the central metaphor of their new religion—a science fictional concept created over twenty years ago by two transgender women. “Cognitive Dissonance” doesn’t even begin to describe the confused state of mind with which these people must wrestle on a daily basis.

Nice. Cognitive dissonance. The Pizzagate they embrace sounds like a bad group-read of two Stephen King novels — It, with the soul-wounded gutter clown who nabs kids, and 11.22.63, with that secret portal inside the restaurant, leading to the mother of all modern conspiracy theories. Mm-mm.

You know, there seems to be a kind of weird psychosexual kinkiness at play in some of these QAnon types. And the Proud Boys, with their name that’s derived from a song deleted from Disney’s Aladdin that sees an abused, traumatized Mama’s boy promising to make Mama proud if she’ll just give him one more chance. This song ruined the Aladdin vibe and was removed. The Boys had to settle for rubbing their magic lamps until bada-boom the January 6 genie arrived. Sometimes you see this stuff play out and you wonder if you ever came out of that acid trip you took after Jimi died.

Guffey:

You mention the Proud Boys. They were founded by the guy who started up Vice magazine. And he was a stand-up comedian. According to Patton Oswalt, a lot of these weird neo-fascist movements were started by failed comedians. And you wonder about the people behind Q. There’s a definite sense of humor behind it all, but not in the people consuming it. They seem to have no sense of humor. I have a friend who spent a lot of time in Russia and he was adamant that he thought the whole QAnon thing was a Russian disinformation campaign. Who knows?

Hawkins:

The Russians?

Guffey:

But the way I perceive it, the elements of the mythos are still uniquely American. I imagine a team of 33 year old hipsters, a team of culture vultures whose job it was to consume all of this conspiratorial information and then flip it so that it would all come out at the end of the day as one punchline: “Vote for Donald Trump.”

Hawkins:

It’s bonkers nihilism, empty fucking symbolism.

Guffey:

It’s like you pull layers of an onion apart, apart, apart and then at the center — nothing.

Hawkins:

And all that remains are your tears to show for it.

Guffey:

In “Donald Trump’s Operation Mindfuck,” I analyze this pattern of how clearly Team Trump would take something that was previously an anti-fascist conspiracy theory, or some sort of guerrilla warfare created by the left back in the ‘60s, and they figured out how to flip it. For example, William S. Burroughs coined the phrase “fake news” in a book called The Revised Boyscout Manual, just recently published for the first time in book form.

Hawkins:

Let’s talk January 6 for a moment: The Insurrection. At the end of Part 3 of your Evergreen piece, you seem to suggest that what unfolded was more than meets the eyes. For instance, all I saw was a so-called barmy army of emotionally unstable misfits who represented anything but a national fervor or zeitgeist.

Guffey:

I think a five year old would watch it and go, ‘Oh, look at that man inciting a riot.’ I don’t think that it’s really open to debate. It’s obvious Trump’s inciting a riot. You have to look at the whole thing in context. Everything that was said the previous night, pumping up his acolytes the night before. And then the sixth happens. And really, it was only a matter of a few coincidences and synchronicities here and there that prevented that mob from going in, trussing up Pelosi, trussing up Mike Pence. They had cameras on them. The zip tie guys had cameras mounted on their chests as if they were planning to livestream either holding Pence and Pelosi hostage until the election was reversed or executing them outright.

Hawkins:

A while back you wrote a book with the intriguing title, Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as an Art Form. It certainly seems apropos of our current subject. Do you want to talk about the book?

Guffey:

Well, of course, cryptoscatology is a combination of crypto for secret and scatology, which is the study of shit. So it’s the study of secret shit. I wrote Chapter One for Paul Krassner. I gave a lecture at the late lamented Midnight Special bookstore on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. And Paul Krassner happened to be in the audience, and he got my number from the guy who organized the lecture and called me. He said, ‘Hey, I rarely see conspiracy theorists who have a sense of humor.’ We actually had a long conversation about the comedians he had known who were really into conspiracy theories. Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Freddie Prinze, Jr. So he asked me to write this piece for The Realist. Unfortunately, The Realist died before the article could be published in the magazine.

So, I wrote a kind of overview of conspiracy theories. I broke it down into six categories: insanity, disinformation, misinformation, satire, legitimate research, and a sixth category that combines elements of the others. So, I give examples of each. For insanity, I use a book titled Stephen King Shot John Lennon, which was written by a very peculiar man, Steven Lightfoot, who I actually met in Monterey in 1999 outside my hotel, where I was attending the World Fantasy Con. He looks kind of like an aging hippie. He lives in a white van with ‘Stephen King Shot John Lennon,’ in big letters, stenciled on the side. And I asked him, ‘What’s up with this van?’ And he goes, ‘I’ve been driving around all over the United States. No one wants to know the truth.’ And he threw open the back of the van and he had all these stapled little books filling up the back. Then I read it and it’s just utter insanity. He claims that Mark David Chapman is actually Stephen King and that Stephen King shot John Lennon.

Hawkins:

In putting Cryptoscatology together, what was your favorite wacky conspiracy theory?

Guffey:

One of my favorites is a guy named Dr. Peter Beter, which was his real name. He was a professional economist. He wrote a book called The Conspiracy Against the Dollar back in 1971. And then at some point between ‘71 and the late ‘70s, he starts doing what he called “Peter Beter’s audio letters.” They’re archived on YouTube. They start out as being, like, alternative facts about the state of the economy of the United States. Fairly mundane, then slowly they get crazier and crazier until finally he’s talking about the war between the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds. The Rockefellers had this secret base on the moon where this particle beam war was happening. And then it got even crazier. He starts talking about the organic robotoids created by the Soviet Union who were killing off American politicians like Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger. They’d been killed and replaced with these organic robotoids, essentially clones. Just like some of the QAnon people think that Nancy Pelosi, the one that we see today on camera, is a clone while the real one was taken to Guantanamo.

Hawkins:

Let’s talk about horror, for a moment, as a political genre. You’ve just written a book, Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

Guffey:

Bela Lugosi’s Dead has two parallel storylines going on. One is set in the 1980s in Los Angeles with this character named Mike, who is a hopeful young screenwriter obsessed with Bela Lugosi. And so in the first scene he’s at Lugosi’s grave in Culver City. A few headstones away is Sharon Tate’s grave. And so there’s a young woman, a hopeful actress who’s there because she’s going to play Sharon Tate in a movie. And they’re both kind of like communing with their gods. And that’s how they meet each other.

Hawkins:

That’s a really weird storyline. And I think it could only happen in L.A.

Guffey:

Oddly enough, there’s a scene in the first chapter that actually happened to me. Every Halloween my wife and I go visit Lugosi’s grave. It started out as just something we did as a lark in 2007 when my wife was pregnant. And then we subsequently kept doing it every year as kind of weird ritual. So on Halloween we’ll go to Lugosi’s grave and my wife will take photographs. It’s always fascinating to see what people have left behind. Letters, cigars, rubber bats. And this first time that we went, someone left behind a Halloween donut with orange frosting and chocolate sprinkles on it. They left it on a napkin on top of the tombstone.

We took photographs and stuff. And then as we were leaving, we see there’s a priest standing at Lugosi’s grave looking down at it. Now, it was Halloween, so maybe it was a guy dressed like a priest and not really a priest. I don’t know. But he reaches down, grabs the doughnut, and takes a bite of it. He walks away with it. And I thought: ‘Did I just see that?’ My wife was like, ‘You saw that, right?’ Later, someone suggested to me that it’s like spiritual food. Like he’s a psychic vampire, and he was eating the energy of this donut. I don’t know. Either he was a very hungry priest or he was a crazy guy dressed like a priest on Halloween. I’m not entirely certain.

[So, in the novel] there’s a parallel storyline going on, set in the distant past, taking place in the weird, shared universe of the Universal horror films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The initial inspiration for Bela Lugosi’s Dead came about from me reading about this guy named Jean Boullet, a French film critic in the 1960s who was really obsessed with Bela Lugosi. He would make stuff up: that Lugosi dressed like a vampire, even when he wasn’t on stage, and lived in a castle off the 405 freeway. And this guy [Boullet] eventually started dressing all in black and lived in a room painted all black. He slept in a coffin. And eventually he killed himself, perhaps to join Lugosi on the other side or something.

Hawkins:

Hmph. Bela Lugosi’s Dead reminds me of the Moody Blues number, “Timothy Leary’s Dead.” Outside looking in. Some kind of cosmic dream.

Guffey:

Right. And, by the way, Timothy Leary’s Dead is also the title of the documentary that was made by Paul Davids, who also did the film about Roswell with Kyle MacLachlan and Martin Sheen. So it’s the overlap between the UFO conspiracy reality and the psychedelic reality of Timothy Leary’s work. That documentary mixed fiction and fact, because Leary always said he wanted to freeze his head after he died. The documentary leads you to believe that Leary did this, even though that never happened in reality.

Hawkins:

Mmm. The only other frozen head that I could think of is Ted Williams. What if they woke up together in some future space-time continuum. Would Teddy Ballgame still be able to hit the fastball?

Guffey:

Right. They both end up in the psychedelic realms where Terence McKenna went when he took ayahuasca and saw the self-replicating machine elves, some strange astral realm. Did you know Aldous Huxley and Lee Harvey Oswald died almost on the same day?

Hawkins:

I did not know that.

Guffey:

I always thought that was interesting because, apparently, Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly was given LSD when he was in the military. There’s information about this in a series of articles by G.J. Krupey called “The High and the Mighty: JFK, MPM, LSD and the CIA.”

Hawkins:

That’s what Leary alleges in a book I read last year. Oswald was climbing the stairway to heaven during his Marine tour in Japan.

Guffey:

So perhaps Oswald and Huxley met on the astral plane. Getting away from Bela Lugosi for just a second. I do think I know where Hunter S. Thompson came up with the idea for adrenochrome being a recreational drug. Thompson did a lot of reading as a young man. At one point, in his collected letters, he mentions reading Brave New World, so I think it’s not hard to imagine that he might have read Brave New World Revisited, Huxley’s follow up collection of nonfiction essays, which he wrote in 1956. There’s a chapter in which he talks about adrenochrome as a chemical that is manufactured in the human brain. I could see how a young Hunter S. Thompson might misinterpret what Huxley was saying and think that he’s talking about a recreational drug that you could actually take and that it would alter your consciousness. I think that sparked the idea, and that’s how it ends up in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Hawkins:

Mmm. Robert, you are a Freemason. The only other one I know to have been a Freemason was Mozart. How does it figure into your thinking as you probe the underbelly of the fish in the barrel, as it were?

Guffey:

Freemasonry helped me hone my control over the language of symbolism. And Ray Bradbury said that if you know what the central metaphor is of a story, that’s half the battle. If you don’t know what the metaphor is, you don’t have a story. So for me, Freemasonry is all about metaphors. It’s a system of philosophical thought that’s entirely about metaphors. And so for me, it’s actually helped my writing.

Hawkins:

This year we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the towers coming down in Manhattan and the Surveillance State going up. As we move closer to 9/11, do you foresee any ramping up of QAnon activity and conspiracy theory mindsets?

Guffey:

Well, you know, it’s interesting. I have a friend who says, ‘I’m just tired of hearing about QAnon.’ And, you know, I’m tired of it, too. But the problem is that it keeps growing. And I think people were underestimating it before January 6. And I think that they’re underestimating it again. I think it’s really going to grow into a kind of weird secular religion, like a branch of Christianity. I mean, there’s this thing called the Omega Kingdom Ministries, an actual church where they interpret QAnon posts through the Bible.

[On January 6] I think a lot of people had mental breakdowns and realized that they’d gotten taken for a ride [by Trump]. But I think a lot of other people just dug their heels in and doubled down on it, and refused to admit that they got suckered, and are just going to ride the missile down. There are constantly new apocalyptic deadlines, of course. And the next one is August, when supposedly Trump will come back and drag Biden out by the hair. So I see things progressing, getting worse. I think QAnon will eventually evolve into some sort of weird cross between Scientology and the Charles Manson family.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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