Publicist: Patty McCrystal
ABOUT JOSIAH HESSE
Josiah Hesse is an author and journalist from Denver, Colorado, whose work has appeared in Vice, Esquire, and The Guardian. He is senior editor of the arts and literature magazine, Suspect Press, and author of the psychological horror novels, "Carnality: Dancing On Red Lake and “Carnality: Sebastian Phoenix and The Dark Star." His work focuses on the childhood trauma inflicted by evangelical Christian culture, seasoned with a bit of humor and pop-culture wisdom.
Composed in the former home of Hunter S. Thompson in the mountains of Colorado, Carnality: Sebastian Phoenix and the Dark Star is the second installment in a historical fiction series revealing the corruption, greed and sexual repression of Evangelical Christian culture.
After escaping a life of harsh labor and religious fundamentalism on his father’s farm, Jacob is discovered by an ambitious youth pastor who turns him into a teenage evangelical pop star, where he warns the youth of America that Hell awaits those who succumb to drugs and “same-sex attraction.” But when the incessant throb of Jacob’s own body betrays the chastity and sobriety of his ministry, his fear of eternal damnation is eclipsed by carnal desires for another boy—driving him ever deeper into supernatural madness.
Josiah Hesse is an author and journalist from Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Vice, The Guardian, Esquire and Politico.
PRESS FOR CARNALITY 1
Article on Colorado Public Radio: How A Childhood Fear Of The Rapture Led To Josiah Hesse's New Book, 'Carnality’
Article in Westword: Josiah Hesse on Carnality and the Weird History of Evangelicals in America
Article in the Colorado Independent: Denver author Josiah Hesse launches debut coming-of-age horror novel ‘Carnality’
MEDIA REACTIONS FOR CARNALITY 1: DANCING ON RED LAKE
“Josiah Hesse is a uniquely creative ex-evangelical voice and a pioneer in the exploration of deconstruction from evangelicalism in literature.”
— Christopher Stroop
“Carnality explores the dark side of evangelical Christianity and the horror that can result when faith and delusion become indistinguishably merged. Hesse is a gifted writer who has great empathy for his characters, and he perfectly captures the anxiety and insecurity that comes with living in constant fear of the Biblical end times.”
— Christian Nightmares
“The characters are vivid, the story compelling, the homespun similes are priceless.”
— Sarah Kernochan, director of the Academy Award winning documentary, Marjoe
“Terrifying. Mixing childhood nostalgia, nightmarish surrealism, and pop history, Hesse traces the lines between revolutionary, drug-addled ‘60s subculture, and the right wing, evangelical movement that has defined the last 50 years of political strife in the United States.”
— The Colorado Independent
“An expertly crafted debut. One of the finest novels to come out of Denver’s burgeoning arts scene.”
— Jim Norris, Mutiny Information Cafe
7 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CARNALITY AND JOSIAH HESSE
Josiah Hesse was born into the culture of the evangelical Christian right in rural Iowa, where he attended a fundamentalist Christian school, engaged in some church event nine times a week, and feared he would be tortured for all eternity for his sexual transgressions.
The Carnality series is largely based on Hesse’s childhood experiences, but also contains stories from friends and family members he grew up with, as well as the hundreds of ex-evangelicals he’s encountered since.
Carnality’s fictional town of Red Lake is based on the real tourist town of Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens played their final show and died in a plane crash. (It was also the town where Hesse lived for 22 years.)
The plot and pacing of Carnality owes much to the novels of Stephen King, while the whimsical language is inspired by Tom Robbins, the literary devices come from JT LeRoy, and the character development is in the vein of Zadie Smith.
Throughout Hesse’s journalism career, he’s extensively covered politics and culture of evangelical Christianity—as well as the movement of former believers struggling with PTSD, colloquially known as “exvangelicals.”
The Carnality series touches on themes of apocalypse theology, psychotropic drug use, childhood trauma, anti-government survivalists, sexual politics, Christian rock music, mental illness and its influence on religious texts, dog psychology, the death of the sixties, the Jesus Freak movement of the seventies, Native American genocide, and showtunes.
Josiah Hesse still listens to DC Talk.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” Patti Smith sang into my ears as I jogged around Red Lake one hot August afternoon.
Cameron, Sebastian and I had all started running together, every morning, around the beginning of the tour. The idea was mine. I thought it would be a nice bonding experience for Cameron and Sebastian (who rarely spoke to each other outside of rehearsals), and it would keep us in shape for our shows each night. But Cameron dropped out after less than a week (saying he had “bone spurs,” or something, despite being able to dance just fine whenever Ginger Rogers was on the TV) while Sebastian came out intermittently for around a year, but lately he’d become more and more insistent on sleeping in.
He was becoming more like Zach every day.
Always up all night with loads of energy.
Always grumpy and sleeping late each morning.
I preferred running alone, anyway.
Whenever I felt overwhelmed by the sensation to touch myself (or someone else), I’d strap on my sneakers and go run for ten or twelve miles. Music helped. MxPx, Five Iron Frenzy and DC Talk were always great for putting a smile on my face and keeping my legs pumping. But that humid afternoon in 1997, I was sick of smiling. So much personality was asked of me on stage, at meet and greets, in interviews—always expected to reflect the joy of living for the Lord. But I didn’t feel that way, inside.
In my head I was terrified, and I wanted music that reflected that.
I wanted music that made me feel like I was being chased.
I wanted music I could channel a panic attack into, putting all of that confusion, rage and desperate need into my legs. Patti Smith’s Horses album was great for that. I’d listened to the rest of the album (about a hundred times) since being introduced to the song “Land” by Sebastian the night we met, including the opening track that begins with the blasphemous lyrics about Jesus dying for somebody’s sins but not Patti’s. So I obviously knew that it wasn’t a Christian rock record. For a while I convinced myself that I was listening to it the same way Cameron and I did any other secular record: Looking for ways to translate the music and style into a vehicle for spreading the gospel. And it certainly was a big influence on our show in that way. But I found myself slipping the cassette into my Walkman so often, sometimes four or five times a day, eventually I had to admit that I was listening to it simply because I liked listening to it.
The ascending rhythm of the guitars was so spooky, it made you feel like something was coming up behind you. Which was a fantastic sensation (so long as nothing actually was coming up behind you.)
I was jogging along the southern stretch of the lake, down a gravel road that ran alongside the wetlands; the same swampy, uninhabited stretch of land where Cameron discovered me five years earlier.
Have I grown up since then? I wondered.
I could read now, and I was famous, making loads of money . . . but staring at those miles of dark trees, knowing the dark bogs of snakes, spiders and coyotes that lie within them, I recalled where my head was at when living there half a decade ago.
Terrified of being left behind in the rapture.
Terrified of my own body.
Adrift in a world of chaos with no one to talk to.
It seemed like not much had changed since then.
I guess there was Cameron. That’s one thing I never had on the farm. Someone to comfort me, someone to check in on me, someone who genuinely cared if I lived or died. I’d never even had a hug before I met him, let alone someone to serve me hot soup in bed when I was sick.
And I had Sebastian, for good or ill.
There was definitely no Sebastian on the farm.
Though he was there in the wetlands that hot day in 1997.
Sebastian was the reason I was jogging down a gravel road, passing through a mosquito festival in humid, 95 degree heat. He wanted to meet me at a dock on the south end of the lake, but wouldn’t say why.
His behavior had only been getting weirder in the last few months. At first he was only grumpy and distant when Lizzy Simpson started hanging around, but then he started getting jumpy and paranoid.
He’d have these periods of intense inspiration, where he’d write two or three sketches for our show in a single night, or he’d work up a whole new instrumental arrangement for the band . . . but then he’d sleep all day, or multiple days, irritable and disoriented, unable to even rehearse before a show. (Just like Zach in his later years.) The color was slowly disappearing from his face, as his eyes seemed to recede into dark caverns of his sockets. After a while I stopped wanting him to come jogging with me; he looked so skinny, and was eating so little, I didn’t think exercise would be good for him.
He never let it affect him on stage, though.
Just like me, he could snap out of anything with the sound of a cheering crowd.
This morning he’d appeared on the bus before sunrise, looking sweaty and nervous. (As a compromise to in the custody battle between Mom and Cameron, everyone agreed to let me and Samson sleep in the tour bus so long as it was parked outside Mom’s house—which, in a court of law, would technically mean I was still living with her.)
“Meet me at the old dock on the southeast corner of the lake at 3 p.m.,” he said, grinding his teeth, pacing back and forth while peeking out the bus window. “Just you. Not even Samson. Don’t be late.”
Then he disappeared.
It was a very big day for us.
After years of planning, fundraising and construction, Jacob’s Camp was about to have its grand opening later that night, with a big performance by me and Sebastian. Some of the bunkhouses were still under construction, but the amusement park and the chapel were finished. And there was a Hell House built near the lake, which would be open to the public closer to Halloween, but was operational for the grand opening.
I was happy to go on a long run and blow off some steam before the show, but I wished Sebastian hadn’t asked me to leave Samson on the bus. Not because I was worried about him. It was air conditioned and I knew he felt safe in there, but I didn’t feel too comfortable running around Red Lake without him. Not with the Speedy Devils (aka John, Chad and Tyler) out there. I could only imagine how excited they would be to come across me, alone, miles away from town, my mom and my dog.
Jogging along to Patti Smith, I didn’t have any trouble rousing the fear I desired, pumping it into my legs and pounding it into the ground with each my feet.
Since the south end of the lake was more or less deserted (most of the city was on the north end), it wasn’t hard to find the old dock Sebastian was referring to. I had to walk across some fallen trees to avoid the mud and ponds, but I eventually found him, standing on a small pontoon boat tied to the dock. I felt like twenty pounds had been lifted from my chest once he appeared. Being alone in the wetlands was giving me spooky flashbacks.
The boat looked vintage, like something the Brady Bunch would vacation on, which I absolutely adored. “Ahoy captain!” I shouted, merrily. “How’re the seas today?”
But Sebastian didn’t respond.
He just stood there, silently, as the tiny waves bobbed him up and down, his long white hair blowing in the summer breeze. As soon as I hopped in Sebastian hit the accelerator and the pontoon sped away, still not saying a word.
“You know, I’ve lived here my whole life, but I don’t think I’ve ever been on a boat in Red Lake before,” I told him. “Swam in here plenty of times, but no boats.”
Again, Sebastian didn’t respond. He just kept driving and staring off into the horizon.
The motor chugged along, waves lapping at the bottom of the boat.
I took a seat opposite Sebastian, and supposed I’d just wait for him to speak to me. Which, eventually, he did.
“Many centuries ago, long before this land was called ‘Red Lake’ or even ‘Iowa,’ there were a tribe of people named Suka, and this was their lake,” he said, pronouncing the word like shoe-kuh. “You won’t read about them in any history books, because the Suka tribe were almost never seen by anyone, and certainly didn’t give interviews to historians. They didn’t trade with other tribes, or even war with them, they were completely self contained—and hidden from all outsiders. They lived in underground huts with grass roofs so strong and camouflaged, you could walk across them and never know a whole family of people were beneath your feet. Other tribes feared them because they only came out at night, and were known to descend on small groups of travelers from the trees, or spring out of the middle of the lake onto unsuspecting boats. They’d be painted white from head to foot, playing loud musical instruments that sounded like the death-screams of a large animal, jumping in people’s faces and scaring them beyond their senses. The whole thing would last no more than five or ten seconds, then they’d disappear into the night, laughing hysterically. They’d never rob or kidnap anyone. They weren’t looking to pillage or hurt anybody.”
Sebastian was looking confident as he steered the boat, stronger than I’d seen him in a while. In the distance, I could see the ferris wheel of the Jacob’s Camp amusement park, slowly turning for the first time.
“But . . . why?” I asked. “What was the point of it?”
“The Suka were tricksters. They believed in the healing power of laughter, and sought it out whenever they could.”
“Even if it meant scaring people half to death?”
The wind continued to blow, moving giant clouds over our heads.
“Trickster mythology is usually all about hedonism,” he said, putting on his professorial voice (which never once came out the whole time). “Every culture around the globe has some kind of trickster myth, and they usually involve some character—like a raven, or a fox, or a god, or a human—doing something rebellious for their own selfish reasons. Tricksters despise authority and get off on breaking the rules. Sometimes the trickster is trying to steal food, or have sex, or sometimes the trickster just likes to cause trouble. Typically, though, this mischief leads to some greater lesson for everyone.”
“What lesson could you possibly learn from being terrified?”
Sebastian turned and looked at me for the first time that day, a patronizing grin on his face. “The most transformative sensation of all: To believe that you are about to die, but then you live. . . . We pay good money to have this experience today with bungee jumping, scary movies or hot sauce—we want simulated dangers with no actual risk. When the Suka tribe would descend on a small camp at night—silent as a creeping fog—and then scare the shit out of everyone, their victims would be certain they were about to die. For a few seconds, their brains would resign themselves to this being the end of their story. And then, when they were still alive, it felt as though they were given a second life.”
I stared off at the horizon, at Jacob’s Camp, seeing a tiny roller coaster far away in the distance. It dropped down a steep descent of tracks, then speed back up through a double loop, the cheering voices carried miles across the lake by the summer breeze. They sounded pleasantly terrified.
Then I gazed down at the murky water of the lake, imagining what it would be like if a team of painted ghosts rose up out of the darkness and stormed this boat, screaming and blasting loud music at us. To be honest, I felt that kind of terror all the time, every day, and never considered myself better for it. But I didn’t want to be rude while Sebastian was telling his story.
“The name Suka comes from the Lakota word for coyote. The coyote is the most common trickster in all Native American mythology. The Suka were descended from the Lakota tribe, but only in part. They had the same dark skin that all native people had, but also had cotton white hair and blue eyes, which came from Nordic explorers to this land in the 10th century, many of whom stuck around the area and raised families with the Lakota.”
I looked at Sebastian.
He just nodded once, then kept talking.
“They were Lakota and Viking, so they worshiped both the coyote trickster, and the Norse trickster god Loki, who you could say was a kind of transgender shapeshifter. Loki could be male or female, or both at the same time, a concept that made sense to Native Americans. Nearly every Native American tribe recognized people of multiple genders, considering them holy shamans. Whether you grew a baby in your belly, or slayed a buffalo with a spear, neither of those made you a man or woman. What you were carrying between your legs didn’t matter either. There were multiple factors at play, and multiple genders—most of which was determined by the person themselves, and their journey with the gods.”
Sebastian’s story was making me uncomfortable.
Animal gods that were both male and female?
I don’t remember them being mentioned in the Bible. And if they were in there, they most likely weren’t the angels of Heaven, which left only one other option. Were there really people here, on Red Lake, a thousand years ago who worshiped such evil things?
Why didn’t anyone tell them about Jesus? I wondered.
And if no one ever did tell them about Jesus, did they all go to Hell when they died?
Because that wouldn’t be fair.
Were there a lot of people around the world who’d never heard of Jesus?
Were they all in Hell right now?
My head was beginning to feel overwhelmed with questions, requiring me to work overtime to keep them at bay. I had begun to think of it like the Space Invaders video game I once played in a Texas gas station: Questions about why Sebastian and mom were filming me, about whether the Noah’s ark story made sense (two of every animal in the entire world on one boat?) or about why I wasn’t attracted to girls, would pile up in the sky of my brain, and I’d have to quickly shoot these alien thoughts out of my head before they got close enough to do any real damage.
I’d been staring at the rippling surface of the water for some time, playing this cerebral game behind my eyes, and when I finally looked up I noticed Sebastian had been steering the pontoon toward a giant island in the middle of the lake. I’d seen it plenty of times before while swimming, and had heard about the hotel that was once there, which burned down before even my parents were born. It was always too far to swim to, and I would’ve felt too guilty anyway for taking time away from chores to go explore some burned down building as a kid.
I could see the remaining shell of a building poking through the trees the closer we got, eventually seeing the words Hotel Fyodor in brick letters once we got close.
Sebastian was able to drive the pontoon right up onto the beach.
Once there, a veritable curtain of mosquitos greeted us.
Sebastian lit a dried stalk of sage when as we walked onto the sand, which smelled sweet when it burned. It also made the mosquitos back away from us like vampires to a crucifix, and we were able to walk onto the island unmolested.
Once there, Sebastian continued telling his story, saying “Loki once turned itself into a mare and then proceeded to seduce a giant stallion, which resulted in Loki giving birth to an eight legged horse. . . . That doesn’t have anything to do with the Suka tribe, but it’s pretty neat, eh?”
He was carrying a large picnic basket as he kicked off his shoes and walked across the sand. I was eager to explore the hotel and the rest of the island (how have I lived here for seventeen years and never set foot on this island?), but Sebastian laid a giant red blanket on the beach and motioned for me to come sit down next to him. He unscrewed the lid of a mason jar and poured a dark green liquid into two paper cups, handing one to me. He quickly knocked his back and I did the same, grimacing at the bitter, earthy taste of the drink.
“What was that?” I asked, my face all twisted up.
Sebastian pretended not to hear me.
“The Suka were a peaceful tribe,” he said. “A lot of tribes had beefs with one another and were constantly raiding or warring.
Same thing when Europeans entered this area in the seventeenth century; some traded with them, some even bred with them, others terrorized them or were terrorized by them. But the Suka never interacted with anyone outside their own tribe. They were nocturnal, hunting only at night, and could hear human footsteps from miles away.”
I could see faint traces of fireworks exploding in the sky, barely visible on this sunny day. The folks over at Jacob’s Camp were testing them for the party tonight.
I laid back on the blanket, enjoying a cool breeze on my sunburned skin.
“Do you know why this is called Red Lake, Jacob?”
The question took me by surprise, not because it was unusual, and not because I didn’t have an answer for it. I was surprised that I’d never even wondered about why this lake—and the town—were called Red Lake. It was like I’d lived my whole life without any curiosity for the world around me.
I shook my head no.
It was like I’d lost weight, or that gravity had shifted somehow.
The sun on my skin felt extra tingly, and Sebastian’s voice sounded farther away than it should.
“For a few months nothing pleased the Suka more than sneaking into these Christian villages in the middle of the night, dressed in loud colors with ‘666’ painted on their chests and pentagrams on their forehead, shouting ‘We the armies of Satan will swallow you whole!’ They terrified the people to no end, bringing them to tears, screams and even vomiting, praying for their God to protect them, shouting Bible scriptures and firing their guns blindly into the darkness. No one would ever be hurt, and the Suka would run back to the island, where they’d laugh about it for days.”
I thought of Benjamin and the band on their tour bus, laughing about slapping the church congregation with paddles as they confessed their sins. Was all that just a joke?
And if so, what else was just a joke?
Pew-pew! I laser-blasted the questions out of my head.
“But after a few months of satirical terror, it stopped being funny. Instead of feeling cathartic that they’d lived through the night, these Christians were only getting more scared. The Suka figured that if they did it often enough, and no one was ever hurt, the white people would eventually realize that they had no harm to fear from demons. But the Christians started accusing each other of inviting the demons to their camp, accusing the women of having sex with Satan, the men of casting spells, and suddenly a quarter of the settlers were hanging from trees with a rope around their necks.”
I found myself so engrossed with this story, my heart began pounding.
The gentle waves lapping up on the beach sounded like they were growing louder.
I looked at Sebastian’s picnic basket, wondering what that stuff was we just drank. I’d been so thirsty from my run I just knocked it back without even asking.
“The Suka felt sorry for the Christians, and for the first time they decided to reveal themselves to outsiders,” Sebastian said, leaning back on the blanket and resting his hands behind his head. “A dozen Suka elders approached the settlers camp, without body paint or masks, walking slowly and loudly to announce their presence. Speaking in English, they explained to the Christians what they’d been doing, that it was just a prank, that they only wanted to frighten them because they thought it was funny. They weren’t demons, they didn’t even know about Satan until the Christians arrived. And do you know what the Christians did?”
“No. What did they do?” I asked, my eyes wide and jaw slack.
“They killed the Suka. Shot them with guns, stabbed them with knives, threw rocks at them, hung ‘em up in a tree.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Because they didn’t believe that the Suka were what they said they were. With their white hair and eyebrows, they thought that these were possessed Indians and needed to be put to death. One of them, badly injured, was able to get away. The Christians followed his trail of blood to the lake, and saw him swimming to the island, the place they’d been warned was haunted by an evil presence. The Christians surrounded the island, pouncing on the Suka from all sides. Because they were never fighters, they were helpless against the settlers. There they slaughtered thousands of Suka, even the children, even the babies inside their mother’s bellies. Many were tortured slowly, crushed, dismembered, burned and impaled to death, because the Christians wanted the demons to suffer before they were forced out of the bodies they’d possessed. They wanted the demons to be afraid of returning to their camp. Then the dead were thrown into the lake, where the Suka were left bloat and rot on the surface, slowly being pecked at by fish and birds. White settlers who witnessed this massacre from the shore said that the lake had been filled with so much blood that it had turned a dark red. And from that day on, everyone knew this area as Red Lake.”
A great nausea swirled in my belly, and with no warning I leaned over and threw up.
Embarrassed, I buried it in the sand and turned back to Sebastian, who was now sitting up and looking at me. “Yeah, that’ll happen,” he said. “It passes, though. Once you get past the vomit stage it starts to feel amazing.”
What is he talking about? I wondered. What starts to feel amazing?
But I was too dizzy to speak. My sense of direction started to waver up and down, and I laid myself down on the blanket, feeling like I needed to hold on or I’d spin off the earth.
“A couple hundred of the Suka managed to remain hidden in the tunnels beneath the island, or swim deep beneath the boats to safety. From then on, for centuries, they were nomads that wandered all around North America, from Canada to Mexico, never settling in one place for very long, and never allowing themselves to be seen. Because they never fought the white settlers, or even traded with them, they were never slaughtered and imprisoned in reservations like the other tribes, whose children were taken from them, their hair cut short, their language and their rituals outlawed, eventually erased from history by Christians who couldn’t see any culture outside of their own as anything but evil.”
There was suddenly so much rage and disgust in Sebastian’s voice.
I looked around at the island, imagining what it was like to hear thousands of people being murdered all at once, then turned to the lake, wondering how much blood it would take for the water to change color, and how badly it must have smelled for weeks, even months afterward.
I threw up a little bit more, but not much.
After taking a few deep breaths, I noticed that Sebastian was right, I was starting to feel better. Fantastic even. Every color around me appeared brighter and in focus, every sound amplified. The trees swaying in the wind seemed to be breathing, as if they were alive. I could suddenly hear birds flying through the abandoned hotel behind us, their songs echoing through hallways and large rooms. It was if I could feel the earth beneath me with just my mind; the island, the lake, the town, all of it was within the bosom of my brain.
How long had we been on this island?
I looked up and noticed the sun dipping into the western half of the sky.
We would be expected at the camp soon. Our show started at 7pm.
But I wanted to hear more of Sebastian’s story.
“So did the Suka just stay in hiding forever?”
“Not exactly,” Sebastian said. His pupils looked enormous. “The remaining survivors of the Suka tribe were changed by the massacre, and that trauma was passed down through the generations. In some ways, they were the same as they’d always been: isolated, nocturnal, silent trackers, dark skin, platinum blonde hair. And they still worshiped the trickster gods Loki and the Coyote. But the tricks they played were no longer innocent fun. They still lived to laugh, but the laughter was now fueled by revenge.”
“Revenge against Christians?”
“But wouldn’t that make them evil?”
Sebastian crawled across the big red blanket, looking like a cheetah stalking its prey, his eyes seeming to glow an icy blue, his long white hair whipping in the wind as he approached me, bringing his face within an inch of mine.
“Perhaps,” he said, and then he kissed me.