Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
    Book Description:

    From the cultural criticWiredcalled "provocative and cuttingly humorous" comes a viciously funny, joltingly insightful collection of drive-by critiques of contemporary America where chaos is the new normal. Exploring the darkest corners of the national psyche and the nethermost regions of the self-the gothic, the grotesque, and the carnivalesque-Mark Dery makes sense of the cultural dynamics of the American madhouse early in the twenty-first century.

    Here are essays on the pornographic fantasies ofStar Trekfans, Facebook as Limbo of the Lost, George W. Bush's fear of his inner queer, the theme-parking of the Holocaust, the homoerotic subtext of the Super Bowl, the hidden agendas of IQ tests, Santa's secret kinship with Satan, the sadism of dentists, Hitler's afterlife on YouTube, the sexual identity of2001's HAL, the suicide note considered as a literary genre, the surrealist poetry of robot spam, the zombie apocalypse, Lady Gaga, the Church of Euthanasia, toy guns in the dream lives of American boys, and the polymorphous perversity of Madonna's big toe.

    Dery casts a critical eye on the accepted order of things, boldly crossing into the intellectual no-fly zones demarcated by cultural warriors on both sides of America's ideological divide: controversy-phobic corporate media, blinkered academic elites, and middlebrow tastemakers. Intellectually omnivorous and promiscuously interdisciplinary, Dery's writing is a generalist's guilty pleasure in an age of nanospecialization and niche marketing. From Menckenesque polemics on American society and deft deconstructions of pop culture to unflinching personal essays in which Dery turns his scalpel-sharp wit on himself,I Must Not Think Bad Thoughtsis a head-spinning intellectual ride through American dreams and American nightmares.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8141-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. Foreword: I Must Not Read Bad Thoughts
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    I have read every mark dery book ever written, including, of course, this one. I find them exceedingly practical, concrete, and useful works.

    Mark is always willing to venture to the fringes, the edges, the frontiers. He marinates himself in the sensibility of the locals. He never lies about what he finds. He performs a great service.

    He scorns all candy wrapping. He abjures branding and triangulation. He makes the unthinkable lucid.

    Since I’m a novelist, and an entertainer by nature, I rather enjoy some good fantastic flimflam. I’ve got a soft spot for sense-of-wonder razzle-dazzle. However, there are some...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    At some point during my long march throughthe dream of the Rood, The Faerie Queene, and the metaphysical poets—a protracted agony relieved, for English majors in the early ’80s, by such thrillingly up-to-the-minute fare asThe Great Gatsbyand, still crackling with the Shock of the New, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”—I rose to object, in class, to a curriculum dominated by the Greatest Hits of the Late Cretaceous.

    It was the ’80s: Why weren’t we reading, say,Naked Lunch? After all, the Burroughs novel was published in the year of my birth (1959) and written by the grand...


    • Dead Man Walking What Do Zombies Mean?
      (pp. 11-17)

      In our day of the (living) dead, the reanimated are everywhere, fromPride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s inspired mash-up of the zombie myth and Jane Austen’s Regency novel of manners, toThe Walking Dead, a graphic novel about humanity reduced to Hobbesian brutishness in a postapocalyptic America overrun by the undead, to the splatterpunk video gameLeft 4 Dead.

      The zombie is a polyvalent revenant, a bloating signifier that has given shape, alternately, to repressed memories of slavery’s horrors; white alienation from the darker Other; Cold War nightmares of mushroom clouds and megadeaths; the posttraumatic fallout of the...

    • Gun Play An American Tragedy in Three Acts
      (pp. 18-26)

      A week after jared lee loughner—accused multiple murderer and, in the words of theNew York Times, “curious teenager and talented saxophonist”—went on one of those shooting sprees that Americans seem to regard as the price we pay for our god-given right to an armamentarium straight out of the NRA–wet-dream gun showroom inThe Matrix, it was business as usual at the Crossroads of the West gun show at the Pima County Fairgrounds.¹

      The seat of Pima County, as irony would have it, is Tucson.

      Tucson: where, on January 8, 2011, at a meet-and-greet outside a supermarket...

    • Mysterious Stranger Grandpa Twain’s Dark Side
      (pp. 27-34)

      Reports of mark twain’s resurrection are greatly exaggerated.

      Still, with luck, the publication of the three-volume, 500,000-word, unexpurgated edition of Twain’s autobiography will revise the Twain enshrined in the popular imagination—the twinkly-eyed rapscallion with a gently pricking wit—along more accurate, which is to say more mordant, lines: Grandpa Walton as Gawker blogger.

      In the four years leading up to his death at seventy-four on April 21, 1910, Twain unburdened himself of his unvarnished opinions on God and country and the human ape, dictating to a stenographer. Fearful that too much blunt truth would blow a sawed-off shotgun blast...

    • Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightning Bolt Back. On Lady Gaga
      (pp. 35-47)

      “How not dumb is gaga?” asked the new yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones in the first flush of Gagamania in 2009.¹ Years later, well into the Gaga Belle Époque, his question still furrows the American brow. Okay, I’ll bite: Not? As in: Not in the least not dumb?

      After a close study of Frere-Jones’s apologia for Our Lady of Perpetual Pantslessness, I still can’t help but read his headline as Protesting Too Much. Iknowit’s a textbook example of what lit-crit geeks like to call litotes, a figure of speech in which an affirmative is expressed through the negation...

    • Jocko Homo How Gay Is the Super Bowl?
      (pp. 48-56)

      Every super bowl season, that great event in the history of Our Times is preceded by an interminably drawn-out drum-roll of breathless speculation, ESPN stat porn, and news-anchor joshing about who’s going to be whose daddy. For what seems an eternity (at least to those of us who would rather undergo a transorbital leukotomy with an ice pick than the protracted brain death of pregame hype), our cultural conversation is preempted by a live feed from the jock unconscious of Team America.

      It may come asPiss Christblasphemy to many, but there are some who Truly Do Not Give...

    • Wimps, Wussies, and W. Masculinity, American Style
      (pp. 57-63)

      In april 2007, nbc announced that the shock jock don Imus, whom the network had hired to provide “irreverent” and “controversial” drive-time comedy, was getting the bum’s rush because of his irreverent and controversial characterization of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” a remark that NBC News president Steve Capus deplored as “deeply hurtful to many, many people.”¹

      The smoking crater where Imus used to sit afforded a pleasant view for those of us who never understood the appeal of his grizzled-codger shtick, which always sounded, to this writer, like Rooster Cogburn readingThe Turner Diaries. But...

    • Stardust Memories How David Bowie Killed the ’60s, Ushered in the ’70s, and, for One Brief Shining Moment, Made the Mullet Hip
      (pp. 64-70)

      When did i stop wanting to be bowie? too recently for a Man of a Certain Age is the short but sufficiently mortifying answer.

      Weirdly, there may be thousands like me—living fossils from the Class of ’73, the year Bowie retired his Ziggy Stardust persona before a traumatically shocked audience, not to mention his thunderstruck band, all but one of whom (guitarist Mick Ronson) had walked onstage without the shadow of a clue that they were about to be slam-dunked into the dustbin of history. How many late boomers came of age in front of a bathroom mirror, blow-drying...

    • When Animals Attack! An Aesop’s Fable about Anthropomorphism
      (pp. 71-80)

      Do you, like me, rejoice in the knowledge that you could eat an adult mouse whole, if you wanted to? As Gordon Grice helpfully notes, in his endlessly entertainingDeadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals, the rodent’s bones are “no more troublesome than those of a catfish.” In medieval England, “a mouse on toast was thought to cure colds.”¹

      Grice is best known as the author ofThe Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators, a cult classic about black widows, brown recluses, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas, among other things. The book launched a new genre: natural-history gothic, or, if you...

    • Toe Fou Subliminally Seduced by Madonna’s Big Toe
      (pp. 81-86)

      Heavy-breathing devotees of subliminal seduction, start your engines.

      Is that an unnaturally well-hung big toe Madonna is sporting in her 2005 ad for Versace? Or an ordinary digit, digitally inflated to Jeff Stryker proportions? Or am I just having my own clam-plate orgy here?¹

      Maybe so, but toe cleavage is at least subliminally erotic, alluding (if you squint hard enough) to butt crack, crotch, and décolletage, all at once. The phallic big toe only adds to the polymorphous perversity. Of course, foot fetishism is as old as the Golden Lotus (brought to you in the eleventh century by Chinese foot...

    • Shoah Business
      (pp. 87-93)

      There’s no business like shoah business, to borrow the Jewish historian Yaffa Eliach’s mordant one-liner.¹ InSelling the Holocaust, Tim Cole’s critique of the branding and blockbustering of the unspeakable, the historian argues that “at the end of the Twentieth Century, the ‘Holocaust’ is being consumed.”² (No denier he, Cole frames the term in quotes to distinguish between the Holocaust as conjured for the mass market, in movies likeSchindler’s Listand museums like the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the historical reality of the Shoah—the assembly-line murder of millions at the hands of the Nazis, a...

    • The Triumph of the Shill Fascist Branding
      (pp. 94-100)

      On january 13, 2005, the world learned that england’s irrepressible Prince Harry had pulled another madcap stunt: attending a costume party for A-listers dressed in Desert Fox drag (the Afrika Korps uniform worn by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, topped off with a swastika armband).

      The vultures of Fleet Street descended in the usual Hitchcockian frenzy. A flurry of buzzwords, the raucous cawing of columnists fighting over the juiciest morsel, and then they were gone, leaving nothing but a bloody tuft of carrottop and another damage-control migraine for the royals . . .

      Now that the carrion-feeders have fled, the Department...

    • Endtime for Hitler On the Downfall Parodies and the Inglorious Return of Der Führer
      (pp. 101-112)

      “He was on again last night,” eleven-year-old denise tells her dad, Jack Gladney, in Don DeLillo’s novelWhite Noise. “He” is Hitler; Gladney is a professor of Hitler studies, the academic discipline he founded, at the proverbially named College-on-the-Hill, somewhere out in a midwestern stretch of the Great Flyover.

      “He’s always on,” says Gladney. “We couldn’t have television without him.”

      “They lost the war,” Denise fires back. “How great could they be?”

      “A valid point. But it’s not a question of greatness. It’s not a question of good and evil. I don’t know what it is.”¹

      Good question. Whydoes...

  6. MYTHS OF THE NEAR FUTURE: Making Sense of the Digital Age

    • World Wide Wonder Closet On Blogging
      (pp. 115-121)

      Why blog? first problem: the word, second only to “org” in its mortifying dorkiness. (Speaking of which, isn’t an “org” the seafaring enclave formerly headed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who according to the cult’s official website hightailed it to the high seas “to continue his research into the upper levels of spiritual awareness and ability,” far from the distracting attentions of the IRS?)¹ “Blog” sounds like an unhappy hybrid of blob and flog—a portmanteau for some clammy new fetish, best left undescribed. Yeah, I know it’s short for “weblog,” but who calls journals “logs,” anyway, except grown...

    • (Face)Book of the Dead
      (pp. 122-134)

      Swinburne took comfort in the knowledge that “no life lives for ever / That dead men rise up never.”¹ Obviously, the man lived in the age before Facebook.

      Just when you thought the past was happily entombed, the curse of social networking is conjuring it up. More often than not, that knock on your Inbox door is the risen dead from your high school yearbook, classmates you thought you had safely buried in the boneyard of forgotten things with a gentle shovel-tap on the face.

      The uncanniness of the thing is squared, in my case, by the ’70s Southern California...

    • Straight, Gay, or Binary? HAL Comes Out of the Cybernetic Closet
      (pp. 135-145)

      Now it can be told: hal, the psychotic supercomputer in the sci-fi classic2001, failed the Turing Test.

      Not Alan Turing’s classic blindfold test for artificial intelligence, which the ultraintelligent machine could pass “with ease,” as Arthur C. Clarke notes in the novel on which Stanley Kubrick based his movie, but the test that Turing himself failed (albeit deliberately): that of passing for straight.¹

      Turing was a British mathematician who helped create history’s first working electronic digital computer, Colossus, and whose vision in 1936 of a “universal” computing machine made the PC possible. He was also a publicly exposed (though...

    • Word Salad Surgery Spam, Deconstructed
      (pp. 146-150)

      If only tristan tzara had lived to read spambot subject lines.

      As Bruce Sterling—futurist, sci-fi novelist, and Shaolin Master of Texas slacker cynicism—noted in a post on his blog Beyond the Beyond, spambots are “evolv[ing] into . . . Surrealist poet[s]” in order to fool spam-zapping programs. “Spam is now forced to mutter eerie magic charms as it routes its way past the growing host of armed spam guards to my mailbox,” wrote Sterling. “‘No, no kill me, I am not spaaaaam. . . . Would spam speak of ‘Orinoco Apocrypha’? Would mere spam muse on ‘brutal Prussia,’...

    • Slashing the Borg Resistance Is Fertile
      (pp. 151-158)

      Inscience friction, mechanical reproduction is strictly X-rated. The Toronto-based queer fanzine is devoted to campy, technoporn burlesques ofStar Trek: The Next Generation’s “Borg” episodes. (For non-Trekkers, the Borg are the implacable man-machines who periodically imperil Truth, Justice, and the United Federation of Planets on ST:TNG.) Produced by Glenn Mielke, Nancy Johnston, and Miriam Jones,Science Frictionfeatures panting tales of Robo-Copulation, pornographic “Sonnets from the Borgugese,” and “heart-stoppingly explicit illustrations,” spiral-bound and sealed in a “plastic splash guard cover” for your one-handed reading convenience.¹

      Science Friction, whose battle cry is “If Paramount can’t give us that queer episode,...

    • Things to Come Xtreme Kink and the Future of Porn
      (pp. 159-166)

      Recently, while websurfing in search of xtreme kink (a carnival-midway activity that the sexpert Susie Bright calls “pornographic rubbernecking”), I stumbled on the Neck Brace Appreciation Klub, a “small but dedicated group of regular folks” who just happen to be into “recreational & artistic neck and back bracing.” (Love those ironic quotes!) From there, I meandered over to the unintentionally hilarious Big-Gulp to savor the tongue-in-cheek pleasures of homemade porn in which anonymous models and celebrities, from Madonna to Lou “Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno, gobble up wriggling Lilliputians. Imagine an X-ratedAttack of the 50 Foot Woman, remade by Dino De Laurentiis...

  7. TRIPE SOUP FOR THE SOUL: Religion and All Its Works and Ways

    • Tripe Soup for the Soul The Daily Affirmation
      (pp. 169-174)

      “Every day, in every way, i’m getting better and better.” That gem of greeting-card wisdom, worth its weight in cubic zirconium, was unearthed by the French pharmacist turned psychotherapist Émile Coué (1857–1926). Coué’s gospel of better living through self-hypnosis (expounded in his 1922 bookSelf Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion) was all the rage in Jazz Age America, where his upbeat mantra harmonized nicely with the bull-market optimism of a nation whistling “We’re in the Money.” It was and is the perfect novena for the secular religion of success that is America’s one true faith. (Coué even advised practitioners to...

    • Pontification On the Death of the Pope
      (pp. 175-181)

      Swiss guards in renaissance finery; solemn monks holding candles; a male choir chanting in the occult tongue of Latin; the anguished faithful, wracked with grief, clasping their hands in prayer or seeming to clutch at the passing bier; and, at the center of this deeply pagan drama, the dead pontiff, caught in midflight between the mortal and the marmoreal, the all too human and the already hallowed. Marilyn Manson, eat your heart out: nobody does High Gothic spectacle like the Vatican.

      Borne from the Apostolic Palace, through Saint Peter’s Square, and into Saint Peter’s Basilica on April 4, 2005, the...

    • The Prophet Margin Jack Chick’s Comic-Book Apocalypse
      (pp. 182-187)

      Chick tracts are ammonium nitrate for the soul, an incendiary mix of blood ’n’ guts Bible-thumping, paleoconservatism, millenarian visions in theLate Great Planet Earthmold, and what conspiracy scholars call “fusion paranoia”—that altered state in which history’s unsolved mysteries suddenly resolve themselves into a unified field theory of fear and loathing.

      If the name Jack T. Chick draws a blank look, the sight of a Chick “illustrated gospel tract” almost inevitably inspires the shock of recognition. They’re those ubiquitous little comic-booklets, not much bigger than a playing card, that fundamentalist Christians have been using to booby-trap park benches,...

    • 2012 Carnival of Bunkum
      (pp. 188-192)

      I like a good apocalypse as much as the next american, which is why I’ll be braving the Stepfordian horrors of the local mall for the opening of2012, Roland Emmerich’s latest exercise in disaster porn. The trailer is awesome. It’s got John Cusack in a puddle-jumper plane dodging collapsing skyscrapers, John Cusack in a car playing dodgeball with a meteor shower, and John Cusack squealing around a corner on two wheels, yelling, to no one in particular, “When they tell you not to panic, that’s when yourun!” Plus, it’s got every New Yorker’s idea of schadenfreude-gasm: California barrel-rolling...

    • The Vast Santanic Conspiracy
      (pp. 193-202)

      Christian soldiers, marching as to war in the pitched battle for the meaning of Christmas, worry that Santa is a tool of the vast Satanic conspiracy. To be sure, the similarity of their names, identical but for one transposed letter, is provocative. Didn’t Mia Farrow use a Scrabble board inRosemary’s Babyto expose her grandfatherly neighbor with the flyaway eyebrows for the warlock he was, shuffling the letters of his name to reveal his true identity? Could the Religious Wrong be right, just this once? Is Santa the Deceiver’s way of hijacking the Christ child’s birthday? Kriss Kringle is...

  8. ANATOMY LESSON: The Grotesque, the Gothic, and Other Dark Matters

    • Open Wide Dental Horror
      (pp. 205-211)

      Recently, while submitting to the fond attentions of a dental surgeon, I found myself musing idly, in an opiated haze, about the symbolic weight of teeth—musings disturbed only by the surgeon’s resolute yanking on the offending tooth, a yanking that came to me only distantly, as a not entirely unpleasant tugging, punctuated by an occasional squeaking, reminiscent of the sound of a nail being pried out of a floorboard. Maybe it was the Novocain, but I found myself wondering if the widespread fear of dentists is at least in part a subconscious, perhaps even archetypal, fear ofteeth, or...

    • Gray Matter The Obscure Pleasures of Medical Libraries
      (pp. 212-218)

      Remember that scene incitizen kanewhere the reporter visits the imposing Walter Parks Thatcher Memorial Library to examine Thatcher’s unpublished memoir? The scene is a study in secular ritual, from the stern mother superior of a librarian who admonishes him to read pages 83 through 142 and pages 83 through 142only, to the shadowy sanctum of the reading room itself, where the reporter reads in a shaft of glowing, otherworldly light, hemmed in by darkness.

      The New York Academy of Medicine Library, a literary reliquary tucked away on “museum mile” (a stretch of Fifth Avenue flanking Central Park...

    • Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head
      (pp. 219-233)

      Although (or maybe because) i grew up in sunny southern California in the ’60s and ’70s, I was a morbid child, much given to Poe, Hammer horror films, and lovingly embroidered visions of a premature death—revenge fantasies in which my grief-crazed parents had to be physically restrained from hurling themselves into the grave as shovelfuls of earth thudded on my little coffin (“Bury me with him! Why, oh,why, sweet Jesus, didn’t we get him that Mattel Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker he begged us for!?!”).

      Such scenarios were all in good, mean fun. When I was truly depressed, bummed by...

    • Been There, Pierced That Apocalypse Culture and the Escalation of Subcultural Hostilities
      (pp. 234-239)

      The way he tells it, adam parfrey—the ron popeil of fusion paranoia, pop Satanism, bad art, cannibal killers, Jews for Hitler, and fecal black magic (okay, make that brown magic)—hadto become America’s most mondo publisher. It’s an ugly job, but somebody had to do it. Mainstream houses wouldn’t touch the stuff he was drawn to—beyond-the-pale subject matter that makes the minds of most readers curl up like slugs on a hot griddle. “If other people weren’t going to publish what I found intriguing, then I had to do it,” he told a Salon writer. “I couldn’t...

    • Death to All Humans! The Church of Euthanasia’s Modest Proposal
      (pp. 240-244)

      What the world needs now is suicide, abortion, cannibalism, and sodomy. That, at least, is the Church of Euthanasia’s modest proposal. A tax-exempt “educational foundation” dedicated to the proposition that all men (and women) are created superfluous, the Church has staked its claim on the far fringes of the negative population growth movement, alongside neo-Malthusians like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and deep ecologists like the Gaia Liberation Front. According to a Church spokesperson, “The Church is devoted to restoring balance between humans and the remaining species, through voluntary population reduction.”¹

      The Church, which claims “hundreds” of card-carrying members as...

    • Great Caesar’s Ghost On the Crypt of the Capuchins
      (pp. 245-251)

      In the dream life of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, Italy and the Gothic were conjoined twins.

      The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’sCastle of Otranto(1764)—a spookhouse ride whose oubliettes, subterranean passageways, and doors that slam shut by themselves still stock the Gothic prop room—is set in medieval Italy. In fact, the first edition purported to be a translation of a sixteenth-century manuscript by an Italian cleric named “Onuphrio Muralto,” rediscovered in the library of “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.”¹ Ann Radcliffe’s hugely influentialMysteries of Udolpho(1794), which provided seed DNA for all...

    • Aphrodites of the Operating Theater On La Specola’s Anatomical Venuses
      (pp. 252-259)

      “Why have we not developed an aesthetic of the inside of the body?” wonders one of the twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg’sDead Ringers. He speaks for Cronenberg, who took up the thread in an interview with me. “We have contests in which we decide who is the most beautiful woman in the world,” said the director, “and yet, if you were to show the inside of that woman’s body, you would have a lot of grossed-out people. Why is that? We should be able to have a World’s Most Perfect Kidney contest, where women or men unzip to show...

    • Goodbye, Cruel Words On the Suicide Note as a Literary Genre
      (pp. 260-264)

      People who need people in the obsequious, barbraesque sense of the word may be the scariest people in the world, but people who have never contemplated suicide are close contenders, in my book.

      And my book isThe Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s jagged little pill for girls who dream of sticking their heads in the Easy-Bake Oven. As every undergrad knows, Plath’s autobiographical tale of a bright young overachiever’s dizzy plunge into suicidal depression when her white-picket worldview falls apart is also a scarifyingly funny evisceration of the peppy vacuity and mind-cramping conformity of the Eisenhower era. Posthumously canonized as...

    • Cortex Envy Bringing Up Baby Einstein
      (pp. 265-278)

      Cortex envy—the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be smarter than you are—was my birthright. When I was little, my mother (last seen protesting her high IQ to a gerontologist, just before Alzheimer’s hit the delete key on her mind) liked to tell me my Marvel Comics origin story: how she acquired target on my future father because she knew he was bright, she knewshewas bright, and it only stood to reason, therefore, that do-it-yourself eugenics would produce a wunderkind.

      My parents divorced shortly after I was born, but what of it? Decades before the Nobel...

  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 279-280)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 281-314)
  11. Publication History
    (pp. 315-317)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 318-318)