‘High Weirdness by Mail’: mapping the Twin Cities’ late ’80s fringe

High Weirdness by Mail: A Directory of the Fringe, Mad Prophets, Crackpots, Kooks and True Visionaries” was a guidebook published in 1988 that took a very particular type of interested late 1980s reader – a person “intrigued by the bizarre, the kooky, the kinky,” according to the introduction – through a smart-assed tour of the world of mail-order literature of the era. You can still find copies of “High Weirdness” on Amazon for a reasonable price, and as an archive of pre-digital outsider Americana, it’s pretty irreplaceable.

Written by Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenius, a complex parody religion supposedly founded in the 1950s by a Ward Cleaver-esque salesman, “High Weirdness” focused primarily on organizations providing free literature related to the supernatural, the occult, the political, the radical, and other varieties of non-mainstream American thought. “The key to instant success, mystic knowledge, miraculous inventions and contact with the space brothers is within your grasp,” reads the back cover, “for only a 1st class stamp!!”

If you were the sort of person who found that type of material funny, interesting, thought-provoking or otherwise worth having – if you were terminally bored with or uninterested in the mainstream culture of the day – the idea was that you could make a hobby out of collecting it.

This sort of fringe culture barely raises an eyebrow now. Today, you can find the weirdest stuff you can think of on the Internet without even trying. But at the time, when outsiders really had to work at finding other outsiders to connect with, there were entire hidden networks of mutual affiliation based largely on postal correspondence. “High Weirdness” sought to highlight some of these networks. 

In what was categorized and marketed as a humor book, Stang’s tone is militantly snide – you may vividly remember this type of bad attitude from some of your friends who worked in copy shops and record stores of the era. However, his motivations are actually more anthropological than satirical. He writes in the beginning, when justifying the tone and scope of the project: “Copies of this ‘funny book’ will be floating around for years, whereas more serious studies will be so rare and/or inconvenient to locate as to be practically nonexistent.” And that’s absolutely true. The fact that it’s superficially a humor book masks the deeper anthropological intent.

Even in the Internet era, this age of boundless and accessible information, it’s amazing how few of the organizations Stang highlighted in “High Weirdness” have any presence on Google. For the most part, it’s as though they never even existed. The few references you can find do, in fact, come directly from this book. Most of these visionaries and cranks and zealots really did disappear, and this “funny book” is maybe one of the only records around of what they accomplished in their time. Traditional histories of the Twin Cities don’t typically recognize the contributions of, say, the Warlords of Satan of St. Paul, Minnesota. But they were out there somewhere. 

There are 14 organizations or publications based in the Twin Cities, which is not a bad haul for a metropolitan area of this size. The vast majority of the addresses featured in the book are in California, but Minnesota’s showing is respectable. Maybe the weather makes it desirable to stay indoors part of the year and publish tracts. The large percentage of educational and religious institutions here also probably plays a part. For whatever reason, the Twin Cities seem to have been a minor hub for mail-order miscellanea.

Ten of these are in Minneapolis proper, two in St. Paul, one in Golden Valley, and one in St. Paul Park. The geographic distribution paints an interesting picture of the culture of the Twin Cities at that time – a tour of the non-mainstream forces at work on the fringes.

Unfortunately, if any of these tracts sound appealing to you, you’ll have to find some other way to get ahold of them than U.S. mail. Though some of these organizations remain active nearly 30 years after the book’s publication, none of these addresses are currently active. Here’s a quick overview of the 14 local organizations that made the cut, organized by Stang’s categories:

RELIGIOUS: “Weird Science,” “Jesus Contactees,” etc.

The Christian Dating Club, once reachable through a P.O. Box in suburban Golden Valley, no longer seems to be an active organization. Search and Prove, described by Stang as “down-home cult” primarily interested in astral projection, is the other suburban location in the book. They moved from St. Paul Park to Oak Park Heights, but as of 2007, Jerry Gross still had books and information related to astral projection available on his website.

Of all the 14 publications here, the one that probably had the largest impact on American political and religious culture generally is the one that seems most like an outlier in terms of the culture of contemporary Minneapolis: that’s a creationist organization called the Bible-Science Association.

From the perspective of 2015, it’s easy to imagine a catalog of occult products, artist zines and political commentary tracts coming from Minneapolis. As any regular commenter on the Star Tribune’s website will tell you, Minneapolis is still full of occultists, witches, weirdo artists and political radicals.

Creationists, though? Not as much. However, right in the middle of the present-day Nokomis community, there’s a storefront that probably deserves a historical plaque of some kind, whether you find their work inspiring or infuriating. One of the first and most prominent advocacy organizations for creationism was housed on East 42nd Street beginning in 1978. A history of the organization notes that the storefront housed a small but sophisticated organization by the time of “High Weirdness”: “a computer which has already been enlarged, a mimeograph and a scanner … a copy machine is being rented.”

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Right in the middle of present-day Nokomis, there’s a storefront that probably deserves a historical plaque of some kind, whether you find their work inspiring or infuriating.

All of the precepts embraced today by certain segments of the evangelical Christian community (and which still find a home in portions of the Republican Party) are laid out clearly in the Bible-Science Association’s masthead: “special creation, literal Bible interpretation, divine design and purpose in nature, a young earth, a universal Noahic flood, Christ as God and Man—our Savior, and Christ-centered scientific research.” Creationism was, in some ways, much more of a fringe belief 40 years ago than it is it today. Most of the organizations highlighted in “High Weirdness” were outliers, but it’s surprising which ones made a lasting cultural impact. This one in Nokomis was certainly one. 

“WEIRD POLITICS”

One entry here seems interesting: The Warlords of Satan. The P.O. box was located in the downtown St. Paul post office. “The most disturbing religious / political tracts around,” Stang writes. “A modern secret group of Black Magicians intent on world conquest.” Whoever they may have been, their impact was limited – almost no references to them exist on the Internet these days, except for those that specifically note their inclusion in “High Weirdness.” This leads me to believe the Warlords were probably an elaborate joke, a suspicion that’s confirmed by the fact that the share a P.O. box with a seemingly unrelated group mentioned elsewhere in the book, Conspiracies Unlimited. “Incredible collections of extremist thought from this dimension and others,” Stang promises. “Send $5 for huge sample package.”

JOURNALS

One of the most surprising entries in “High Weirdness” is The Archaeus Project, located in Southeast Minneapolis. Stang describes their work: “Sometimes scholarly, sometime-informal collections of articles on bioenergetics fields – that is, they seriously look into telekinesis, clairevoyance, etc. … certainly a far cry from the usual psychic psychos. For the researcher, not the fanatic.” A quick look on Google finds quite a bit of information on the The Archaeus Project, most notably on the website of none other than biomedical pioneer Earl Bakken. The Archaeus Project met regularly at Bakken’s home beginning in 1983, and according to his website, “the purpose of the group was to discuss, and attempt to assess, the claims arising out of the emerging ‘Human Potential’ movement. The group included professionals with impressive backgrounds in science, technology, business, medicine, and the humanities. … Archaeus Project took no official position on the subject matter, only that Archaeus Project would provide and open forum to discuss ideas, however controversial.” 

CATALOGS

The Worldwide Curio House, based in Nokomis, claimed to be the “world’s largest occult, witchcraft, voodoo supply house” with catalogs boasting “7,000 curios, gifts, unusual items.” Specifically, these included “herbs, barks, berries, witch hats, Tiki god pennants, hex kits, signet rings with keen occult designs, ‘Double Fast Luck Spray,’ crystal balls” and more. You may recall their advertisements from the back of supermarket tabloids like the Weekly World News throughout the 1990s. They seem to have folded sometime in the latter part of that decade.

Courtesy of Llewelyn Worldwide

The Llewelyn Times, however, lives on. Described as a “big catalog of New Age and astrology books of all kinds…ALL kinds,” the address given in “High Weirdness” is a P.O. box at the downtown St. Paul post office. These days, it’s based in Woodbury. The Llewelyn organization has one of the most storied histories of any in its genre. Founded in the early 1900s in California and moved to the Twin Cities in the 1960s, Llewelyn is still a major publisher and distributor of new age, Wiccan and related titles. Their website has a comprehensive history with photos and primary documents. And in fact, Llewelyn’s phone number is even the same, three decades on – you can still get in touch with them by dialing “1-800-THE-MOON.”

ZINES, COMICS AND “WEIRD ART”

Stang’s book is inclusive enough to feature both self-consciously weird or outsiderish artist-made publications projects that don’t fall under the new age / conspiracy theory / political outlier categories. What’s most interesting about the five publications highlighted in these categories – Between the Lines, Puke on the World, Art Police, Roadkill, and Live from the Stagger Café – is their geographic concentration. The latter two originate from post offices near the Warehouse District, then a hotbed for artistic activity. The first three have personal mailing addresses only a few blocks from each other around 31st Street. Eric Kosberg’s Between the Lines (“scavenges dead clips of news and graphics from dying magazines to serve reminder that no matter how ugly our species is, we’re still funny”) is on Holmes Avenue, Puke on the World (“a small zine with something to offend nearly everyone”) is nearby on Harriet, and Art Police is on 1st Avenue. Of these three, Art Police is truly legendary. Described by Stang as “a relentless purge of all things nice by different artists” and “prolific purveyors of disgust, striving to achieve TOTAL REPUGNANCE,” you may have seen some of these back issues in the Walker Art Center’s retrospective of the work of artist Frank Gaard, who along with Stu Mead was responsible for much of the material in Art Police. Only one of the publications in “High Weirdness” can be found in museums, archives and libraries all across the world, and it’s Art Police.

“FUNNY” CLUBS

Finally, we come to the First Church of the Arachnid, located only a few doors down from the Bible-Science Association in Nokomis. “The last remnant of the religion of Great Spiderism,” writes Stang. This is a project we’ll revisit in more depth very soon – it’s too interesting a story to be limited to a few paragraphs. It is, like many of these other entries in “High Weirdness,” a testament to a certain strain of Twin Cities intellectual ingenuity.

Correction: The addresses for the Bible-Science Association and the First Church of the Arachnid are located in the Nokomis community, not Longfellow. The Stroll regrets the error but relishes the opportunity to type those organizations’ names one more time.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Aaron R on 06/22/2015 - 11:23 am.

    I still have my copy in the basement. I mailed off to many of these in the early 90s as a tween. Such a great catalog for enthusiasts of the fringe.

  2. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 07/17/2015 - 08:25 pm.

    Ah, memories…

    Thanks, Andy! I’d forgotten about this stellar tome. Back in the day, Terry Stokke and I used to comb over this publication, eagerly contacting the organizations listed in an effort to build up the nutbar collections at the Minneapolis Public Library, where we both worked. “High Weirdness,” indeed. I think my favorite has always been the Unarius Foundation, a saucer-cult started by Ernest and Ruth Norman – two crazies who look like the friendly old couple who live next door. They’re both long gone, but, interestingly enough, the “organization” lives on.

    I still have my copy of the “Book of the Subgenius” by J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. Not sure why you didn’t name him, Andy, instead of vaguely referring to him as a “Ward Cleaver-esque salesman.” The image of “Bob” is surely still recognizable to many. Bob lives! 🙂

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