Matt Forney
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The Carnivals of Life and Death: My Profane Youth by James Shelby Downard

the-carnivals-of-life-and-deathIt’s a real talent to take a story of anal rape, child abuse and secret Ku Klux Klan conspiracies and make it as enjoyable as a visit to the dentist, but James Shelby Downard managed to do it.

Well okay, maybe that’s too harsh. This first volume (and only one, as Downard died before completing the second) of autobiography has its definite ups, flashes of brilliance that will shake you to your core. But as a complete work, The Carnivals of Life and Death simply doesn’t mesh. Downard grabs you by the neck, shoves you face-first in the depravity that was his life… and then leaves you there so he can go jerk off in the corner.

But just who is James Shelby Downard, and why would anyone give a crap about his autobiography?

During his lifetime, Downard was a well-known conspiracy theorist, known for the lucidity of his writing and the left-field nature of his beliefs, which made him a stand-out even considering the insane nature of many tinfoil hat writers. His most famous work is “King-Kill/33: Masonic Symbolism in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy,” an essay that alleges that JFK was the victim of Masonic conspirators. That essay appeared in the original edition of Apocalypse CultureFeral House, who published that book, is responsible for The Carnivals of Life and Death. There’s also a foreword from Feral House impresario Adam Parfrey himself:

Around Shelby Downard, things are never what they seem. Having read a number of his essays full of recondite factoids, I expect his library to be filled with thousands of obscure books. Instead there’s an old set of World Book encyclopedias, a dictionary, an abused set of Man, Myth and Magic, and a couple dozen tomes that could probably be found in any large used bookstore. Downard does not rely on many secondary materials for his research, but instead upon topographic and city maps to prepare for personal visits to sites of arcane and personal significance. Downard had a batlike intuition for navigating dark and hidden terrain that sometimes amazed experts.

Carnivals covers Downard’s early life, beginning with his childhood in Ardmore, Oklahoma, a town straight out of a David Lynch movie: wholesome on the outside but hiding deep dark secrets. Downard repeatedly finds himself in the crosshairs of both the Freemasons and the Ku Klux Klan, always managing to escape from their secret rituals and sadistic tortures in the nick of time:

Before they left, they tied a slip knot between my ankles and my neck so that when I tried to relieve the tension in my back muscles the rope would choke me. As soon as they left me to go into the house I began to rub the lower part of my face on the ground to get the gag and bandanna loose. I knocked over the topmost dynamite box. Squirming as best I could, I picked up a stick of dynamite in my teeth and wiggled to the doorway. It hurt me to get there, as I had to twist and turn over sticks of dynamite and was continually being choked. I discovered that by pulling on the rope that tied my wrists to my ankle with my arms, I could keep it from choking me. I felt sure that as soon as I was out of the chicken house, I could roll to the house with the men. For thirty minutes I lay there with a dynamite stick under my mouth, peering out; then I started the painful process of rolling to the house.

On a technical level, Downard is a good writer; his prose lurches forward with frightening clarity, painting a vivid picture of all his disturbing encounters. The problem is that he never goes beyond mere recitation. He does little to contextualize the various episodes of his life, instead stringing them out one after the other at a breakneck pace, giving the reader no time to catch a breath:

As I approached, a man who must have been near the door threw it open violently. Inside, I could see two other men and a woman. An array of bottles on a table indicated that the men were probably intoxicated. The disarrayed woman, about nineteen or twenty and pretty, seemed sober but had been accorded some rough treatment. Astoundingly, I entered the house, definitely more out of heedless insensibility to the danger than bravery. I noticed three lethal-looking lever-action rifles propped against the west wall. The men were wearing deputy badges, which was not really too unexpected, given the fact that every sort of riff-raff was accorded legal authority back then. Or the badges were costume props that could be purchased for two dollars each from the pawnshops that dotted Bloody Elm Street like open sores. Frightened and not knowing what to do, I blurted out, “Are you men going hunting?”

While I was initially captivated by Downard’s story, I eventually got sick of the nonstop depravity and just skipped through the last third of the book.

The other problem with Carnivals is that it ends suddenly, without building up to any kind of climax or resolution. This isn’t Downard’s fault, seeing as he died before it was finished, but the book comes to a screeching halt with “The Chicken Caper,” another disturbing tale of good ol’ boy anarchy down in Alabama.

The Carnivals of Life and Death has a lot of good points, and if you’re a conspiracy buff, you’ll definitely get a kick out of it even if Downard’s repetitious writing doesn’t appeal to you. At the end of the day, though, this is one you can skip.

Click here to buy The Carnivals of Life and Death: My Profane Youth.

Read Next: The Smell of Pines: A Long Walk with Death by James Druman