When I came out of the jungle I went for breakfast in a café on the malecón of Iquitos. It was early morning. The hustlers had finally gone to bed, the street vendors would not set up for another hour: the city was unrecognizable as the one I had arrived in late the night before. For a week I had been staying with a family of shamans on the Ucayali River. Their medicine was still in my blood. My flight back to Lima wouldn't leave until the evening; I had the day to myself. I sat in the café, watching the light change over the Amazon and taking notes on the ceremonies I had taken part in. What you ask for comes to you, I wrote. And it comes in two waves: first as experience and then as understanding. What matters, I wrote, is not so much the reply that you receive as the rhythm that its repetition begins to make discernible underneath the noise of your existence.
The train of thought ended. A few tables away, two men and a woman were talking quietly. I had barely noticed them, but suddenly I was possessed by a desire to speak to them. I found myself getting up and walking over to them. Hello, I said; may I sit with you? There must have been an utterly crazed look in my eye. The men took the opportunity to pretend they had been just leaving, and made their excuses; but my impulse had been right: the woman had things to tell me. She took me to another, cheaper café, far from the view, and gave me her messages.
Earlier that year I had ordered a book called The Films of Kristen Bjorn, a set of interviews with the director of Vampire of Budapest, The Caracas Adventure, Carnival in Rio, and other classic gay porn movies from the late eighties and early nineties. As Bjorn would tell his interviewer, in the early eighties he had left San Francisco for Brazil, where he lived for the rest of the decade, sending an astonishing twenty or twenty-five portfolios of photos back to the U.S. each month to be published in the pages of gay magazines like Advocate Men, Inches, and In Touch. It was seeing some of these photos that had made me order the book, for they stood out sharply from the work of the other photographers whose naked pictures filled the magazines: first because of their unmatched formal beauty, and second because none of the other photographers were working in South America. The photos had a kind of ethnographic quality, and this, as I learned, was in no way incidental. For this is what Bjorn had to say about his aspirations as a young man, before he became a pornographer: “What I wanted to be was a photographer for a magazine like National Geographic. I wanted to travel across the world and photograph people. I was really very interested in different cultures.” And what had he made of himself if not a kind of anthropologist, sending back to the U.S. his records of the naked inhabitants of the tropics?
Kristen Bjorn, "Torrid Zones," Playguy January 1986
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955
I read The Films of Kristen Bjorn with great interest. But nothing in it could compare to one of its reviews on Amazon, which I came across while looking to see if there were any other books on the subject. The review, posted by "A Customer" on July 27, 1998, under the title "pure beauty," may well be the most hermetic text I have ever encountered. It read as follows:
The more times I read this review the less sense it made. Googling anything it mentioned led me nowhere except back to the review itself, and its description of the contents of the book bore no relation to the book itself. Even if there were an inspirational bi-weekly called The Dove, I found it difficult to imagine that it would commission a review of The Films of Kristen Bjorn. In any case, Bjorn never made a film called Passion Play, in 1991 or otherwise, nor could I find any trace of such a film directed by anyone else. Perhaps needless to say, Bjorn says nothing in the interviews about stirrings that would lead him to the church, let alone his studying for the priesthood or his having a mentor called Father McCord. His supposed remarks about the effect on his career of "Dario Ipanas classic 'butt packers 4'" appear nowhere in the book, and, it will come as no surprise, there is no such director as Dario Ipana, nor any such film as Butt Packers 4, as far as I was able to determine.
I could not decide if "pure beauty" was an elaborate joke (the reviewer had to watch the porn three times before realizing that its purpose was not to titillate?) or evidence of some poor soul's complete insanity. Or, when I was feeling paranoid, if it was rather a kind of encoded message left for me to decipher.
In the transcription of excerpts from the interview that appears in the post, the singer mentions his friend Bill Bartel, explaining that "he was in White Flag and he's friends with Red Cross and he’s a very nice guy, he has a mustache." These remarks are the occasion of the post, for, as brown velvet points out, the white flag and red cross are "codes of some description," codes that seem also to have been used by Roman Polanski in Rosemary's Baby, a still from which brown velvet had included a link to as well.
I kept googling various combinations of proper nouns from the review. Months passed. Finally some set of search terms, which I have forgotten but which must have included the name "Bill Bartel," as the reviewer signs himself, led me somewhere so strange that it seemed like it might not be unrelated. What I had stumbled onto was the seventeenth page of a forum devoted to the topic "Cobain Murdered by CIA." A post by "brown velvet" included a link to an interview Cobain had given to Zeca Camargo on January 21, 1993, while traveling in Rio de Janeiro, of all places.
In fact, what you can see at minute 2:34 of the Brazilian interview, according to brown velvet, is the emergence of a young alternate personality of Cobain’s (he has “at least one”), and the adult Cobain's recovery of himself some twenty seconds later. The interview is proof that Cobain was the victim of a plot that, I began to understand as I read through the hundreds of other posts on the forum, consisted in the ritual abuse of children by a shadowy group intending to produce sleeper agent sex slaves. The membership of the group appeared to include George H.W. Bush, David Crosby, Kenneth Anger, and the father of JonBenét Ramsey. For it turned out that everything was connected: Nirvana, MKUltra, the Hudson's Bay Company, the Illuminati, the death of Princess Di, Renaissance Faires, the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, and (I wondered) perhaps Bill Bartel and Father McCord and The Dove inspirational biweekly, too. Could the Bill Bartel who was Cobain’s friend (or, as brown velvet seemed to be suggesting, ritual abuser) be the same Bill Bartel who had written the Amazon review of The Films of Kristen Bjorn?
It certainly seemed like he could. Because the plot in question, I was discovering, extended far beyond Cobain and the CIA, farther even than the Illuminati and the Mamas and the Papas. The forum I was reading was only one of dozens and dozens of user discussion boards hosted by the website of David Icke, a BBC television sports presenter who, as Wikipedia informed me, had held a press conference in 1991 to announce that he was a Son of the Godhead who had been placed on earth in order for the spirit world to pass messages through him to humanity. Those messages, as they emerged in the books and videos he would put out in the following decades, revealed not only that many public figures are in fact satanic pedophiles engaged in mass mind control, as I had gathered from the forum, but that some of those public figures are not even human. They are, instead, a race descended from reptilians (the "Anunnaki") from the Draco constellation, sometimes called the Babylonian Brotherhood, who have created the rest of humanity in a breeding program. Indeed, our apparent reality is actually a dream world broadcast from the moon, which is itself really a hollowed-out planetoid transmitting signals from the rings of Saturn.
For a few hours I thought I might be about to understand it all. Kristen Bjorn must play some part in the secret war of the Babylonian lizard sorcerers against humanity—but what? Then I got tired; it was late. Even paranoia exhausts itself eventually. I took a bunch of screenshots, closed my browser, and half forgot about David Icke and Kurt Cobain and the rest of them, too.
It was three months later that I met the woman in Iquitos. After her companions had left us and we had made our way to the second café, talking about this and that, I ordered us coffees and toast. Then she began her explanation. “The idea that Atlantis was peaceful is a New Age lie,” she said. “The pleasant nonsense of the New Agers is a velvet glove around an iron fist.” In fact, she told me, the Atlanteans were brutes who practiced a fearsome witchcraft consisting in ritual sex and blood drinking. Before their continent sank under the sea, they had worked a black magic on the peoples of South America, of which the European conquest was the terrible result. And not only had the enchantment persisted, but so had the enchanters. The most powerful of the priests and priestesses of the Atlantean cult had performed certain rites that had allowed them to reincarnate as the same person for tens of thousands of lifetimes in a row. “By this spell they have accumulated enormous power, but because they do not switch back and forth between male and female incarnations, they have fallen radically off balance. In our own time,” she continued, “their blood magic has taken a new, technologized form: they cast their spells through the music that blares from our speakers”—she nodded toward a black box on the wall of the café—“and the images of naked bodies that fill our billboards and televisions and computers. The musicians and pornographers of the present day, enslaving us with hypnotizing rhythms and poisonous sex, are the reincarnated priests of ancient Atlantis, and it is they who have invented the new sorceries of our mass media.”
This sounds strangely familiar, I thought. A friend of the woman’s came over to our table, and while they spoke to each other I stared out the window at the motorcycle taxis racing past, thinking about what she had just told me. The internet forum and Amazon review I had been obsessed with months before came back to me. Finally it all made sense. Kurt Cobain had gone to Brazil for the same vile reason Kristen Bjorn had. Bill Bartel, whoever he was, had been right: Bjorn had studied for the priesthood, but for the priesthood of the Atlantean sorcerers. Father McCord was the ciphered name of whatever ancient hierophant had exposed him to an occult porn movie called Passion Play, and thus initiated him into the cult. And he had gone to South America to take photos of the enchanted inhabitants of the jungle, photos that would, by some arcane law of sorcery, transmit the spell to the rest of us in turn—“getting the massage out there,” as Bill Bartel would write.
And yet I could not convince myself, quite, that Bill Bartel was either blind to the evil intent of Bjorn’s films, having fallen victim to them, or—worse—a priest of the Atlantean cult himself. For what was his Amazon review but a declaration that while Bjorn seemed, indeed, to belong to a group of “neo pegans with the devils touch,” careful attention revealed something altogether different? I began to think, while the woman spoke to her friend, that if anything the pornographer was working against the ancient priests, spreading a new gospel of aesthetic redemption with Bill Bartel as exegete apostle. And what had seemed obscure to me in the review now seemed perfectly intelligible: encoded in the body positions of Bjorn’s models was a formula that could undo the mind control of the ancient priests. Bartel had cracked the code and found the message: inside is what God’s outside is all about.
I realized that the woman had begun speaking to me again, and turned back to her. “Here’s the important thing, though,” she was saying. “There is a technique by which you can break the spell of the Atlanteans. You just have to join your smallest two fingers to your thumb in a circle, and extend your third and index fingers out straight. When you've done this with both hands, join the corresponding fingertips together, and point the whole shape outwards toward the source of the spell.” I asked her what this hand position was, and where it had come from. “It is a ritual gesture of theirs that can be turned against them,” she told me. “This is our task, to break the spell of the warlords who have enslaved us. We have the means of doing so. And we will destroy them. The meek shall inherit the earth.”
That was last summer. We walked back to the malecón, the woman gave me her email address, and I went to my hostel room to pack my things. I have thought of her often in the last year. Then last week I happened to see, in a portfolio by Kristen Bjorn called “Satisfied” that appeared in the June 1988 issue of Torso, the proof that it had all been true.