Specious Species, No. 7: Edited by Joe Donohoe, 282 pgs. By Adrian Salas

Apr 19, 2016

The seventh issue of this literary anthology is built around the theme of “California.” Choosing a subject broad as the state could have easily been an exercise in futility based on the sheer geographical size, not to mention the incredibly diverse populations and social narratives that make up the Golden State’s fabric. In the issue’s introduction, editor Joe Donohoe admits that due to logistics and resources there is a heavier emphasis on the San Francisco Bay Area than the rest of the state. Even so, this anthology covers an admirably far-ranging physical and historical area (often informed by a punk perspective), and feels like a text that supplements the study of California’s many unique yet integral historical eccentricities.

Boasting around forty entries, contributions range from comics and poems, to interviews, to exhaustive historical surveys. Joe Donohoe’s impressive historical sketch of pioneering rocketeer and occultist Jack Parsons ties together such seemingly disparate threads as Aleister Crowley, the United States space program, Scientology, and the stately Craftsman mansion neighborhoods of Pasadena (that were walking distance from where I used to live in Northeast Los Angeles). Having personally just finished a program in moving image archiving at UCLA, an interview conducted with film historian and curator David Kiehn of the Essanay Niles Film Museum in the San Francisco Bay Area was particularly absorbing. Much of the moving image history in the United States is centered on Los Angeles, New York City, and the Library of Congresses film holdings, so reading about the one-time prodigious film production in Niles, Calif. during the early twentieth century and the still-robust film archive there was an illuminating addendum to what I studied.

Shorter pieces—such as capsule histories of the Chinese town of Locke, Calif., or the origins of the legend of Joaquin Murrieta—are fascinating glimpses of the more obscure corners that occupy California’s history. Interviews with current/future cult figures such as writer Jerry Stahl, counterculture literary distributor Last Gasp’s head man Ron Turner, and Avengers’ singer Penelope Houston are great oral histories of more recent subcultural movements that have shaped modern California and popular culture in general. The centerpiece of the whole book has to be Donohoe’s astute and extensively detailed biographical and literary survey of the life and works of Oakland’s pioneering author Jack London. Donohoe’s thoughtful and careful analysis of the life and contexts that birthed London’s literary successes and failures serves as a great primer to approaching London’s body of work. London is presented as a complex and often contradictory figure, and as such readily personifies the messy but oftentimes fascinating nature of the state that he called home. –Adrian Salas (Specious Species, 3345 20th St., SF, CA94110, speciousspecies.net)