On a crisp Thursday morning in September, I scoured my closet for all traces of neon clothing. I was going as an eighties aerobics instructor for Throwback Thursday, a spirit week tradition at my high school, while my friends wore outfits for the other decades—a knee-length skirt and red lipstick for the fifties, round sunglasses and earth tones for the sixties, heavy eyeliner and a flannel for the nineties. One boy in my homeroom even threw it back to the 1350s with a tinfoil crown, hobby horse, and suit of plastic chain mail from Party City.
Our outfits were not historically accurate, of course; rather, they were a language of symbols and exaggerated shorthand that represented decades. Throngs of people didn’t walk around in head-to-toe neon every day in the 1980s, but it’s how our cultural imagination remembers the 1980s now. This exaggerated shorthand parallels how members of the modern extreme right, or alt-right, movement in the United States (U.S.) remember the past.
In John Kennedy Toole’s deeply reactionary 1980 novel A Confederacy of Dunces, the protagonist Ignatius Reilly does not just want to “throw it back” to the 1950s; he wants to “throw it back” to the 1350s. Ignatius is consumed by an alternate memory of the 1350s as a place of assured marriage, provided land, and devout religion—just as the American alt-right is consumed by an alternate memory of the 1950s as a utopia of white picket fences and nuclear families.
On the surface, Ignatius Reilly is an eccentric medievalist who wears “voluminous tweed trousers” with green hunting caps and who is committed to the superstition that the “possession of anything new or expensive…could…cast doubts upon one’s soul.” These traits might seem affably quirky if not for his vitriol towards women and minorities. A girl is a “bold and forward minx of a trollop” and a lesbian is “savage.” Even Lady Fortune is a “vicious slut.”
Even so, this novel received the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—likely due to the prominence of Reagan-era neoconservatism and a Pulitzer jury “eager to tweak the New York publishing leviathan.” Ignatius Reilly was not an aberration; as a lone malcontent wishing for the feudal days on the sleazy streets of New Orleans, he foreshadowed the reactionary literature to come.
I initially came across Terror House Magazine as I was scrolling through the pages of new or niche literary magazines on the Explore page of Twitter, having left the familiar territory of the New Yorker and Granta. I clicked on the profile, then the website of Terror House Magazine. At first glance, it seemed like just another independent literary magazine, but I soon noticed that the stories and poems within read like they had been written by Ignatius Reilly himself, if he had turned his attention from medieval studies to creative writing.
Founded by Matt Forney in 2018, the magazine positions itself in the vanguard of the movement against the “stultifying Beigeism of major New York publishing houses…[and the] endless stream of hack immigrant coming-of-age stories and sterilized Iowa Writers Workshop pieces from pampered white trust-funders.” It purportedly seeks to “cultivate” the “Louis-Ferdinand Célines…of the twenty-first century.”
Céline refers to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the fascist collaborator and antisemite. Céline’s writing imagined a world “in which human suffering is inevitable, death is final, and hopes for human progress and happiness are illusory…a world where there is no moral order and where the rich and powerful will always oppress the poor and weak.” A reservist plans to murder an elderly woman. A doctor observes illness, poverty, and greed in a Parisian slum. Céline’s novels are unyielding, heavy material to say the least, with nothing but cynicism and a disregard for human life at their rotten center.
This is the self-professed literary inspiration for Terror House Magazine, which occupies a significant corner of the internet. Terror House Magazine has about five thousand followers on Twitter, consisting of small personal accounts and the occasional press or literary magazine.
To this collected audience, Terror House Magazine offers a collection of stories and poems with a Célinesque view of humanity as beyond redemption and with Ignatius Reilly’s contempt for minorities and the left.
This is not to say that every Terror House writer is an alt-right ideologue who has tried to launder and rebrand their hatred through the “subjective” lens of literature. There is an innocuous review of the Gorillaz album Saturnz Barz and a poem about the moon in the suburbs, standard small-literary-magazine fare—written by authors who, out of complicity or carelessness, didn’t research Terror House closely enough. But a notable number of Terror House authors are in the business of trying to intellectualize their hate.
In the poem “The Dictator and the Five-Color Ties,” regardless of the titular dictator’s mood, he beheads innocent people. In the story “Blood on her Hands,” the author imagines reproductive rights as controlled by both the state and the subconscious. A nameless woman about to have an abortion dream of being sentenced to death by a macabre, sadistic judge and jury. The story ends after she calls her boyfriend and cancels the appointment. The story “Redneck Riviera” recounts a man’s stream-of-consciousness speech pining for the “good old days”—a time when he could order a “hot dog for lunch” at an American restaurant and not be faced with the option of international food; the narrative quickly devolves into a racist diatribe against multiculturalism.
These stories and poems mean exactly what they depict: the darkness and violence, desecration, addiction, and afflictions of late capitalism. They offer no analysis or interpretation, which renders the litany of horrors utterly meaningless. There are no hermeneutics or erotics; they offer nothing to see, touch, or feel, consigning the website to the red-pilled universe of suffering.
On its about page, Terror House Magazine claims to have “no political affiliations and [to push] no ideological agendas.” However, it is inherently political to publish “Nigh” and “Redneck Riviera” together, implying that they are to be considered equally and seriously, when one is a poem about the moon and the other is a racist monologue. Additionally, as a confirmed male supremacist, the founder and editor-in-chief of Terror House Magazine is far from apolitical.
Constitutionally, he can publish Terror House Magazine and rebut any criticism, including this article. Nevertheless, while general written threats are protected by the Constitution, it is worth highlighting that the objects of the racist and sexist rhetoric in Terror House Magazine are people who face real-life threats, harassment, and violence that goes largely unreported, unnoticed, or uninvestigated.
The oft-used retort that “I have a right to say this!” blocks serious debates about what is right or ethical to say. One could publish the bitter stories and poems that Terror House does—but should they? No.
For example, investigative journalist Talia Lavin, who spent a year in the darkest corners of the internet surveying obscure white-supremacist message boards and forums, wrote that the public must hold this hatred “to the light—this wet, rotting, malodorous thing—and let it dry up and crumble into dust and be gone.”
At the outset, on that day when I was surfing the Twitter Explore page and decided to click on Terror House Magazine’s website and read a few stories, I was fooled. The aegis of “literature” and “culture” and “art” hid the magazine’s reactionary right-wing politics, just as on Throwback Thursday, my neon 1980s outfit hid the actual historical facts of the decade, albeit much more innocently.
I believe we have a duty—as journalists, as readers, as writers, as people—to identify and uncover harmful and hateful speech and do our best to protect communities in this way without the heavy-handed restrictions and perhaps unintended consequences of additional free speech restrictions. See. Look at the cut, style, texture. Here it is.