Crawling through Heaven's Gate, one page at a time.

How quickie books can cure your unhealthy news obsessions.

Published April 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

they wrote the book in six days; I bought it for five bucks; I read it in three hours. And, frankly, that's the way it should be.

What I'm talking about, of course, is "Heaven's Gate: Cult Suicide in San Diego," a quickie book pulled together in less than a week by Bill Hoffman and Cathy Burke of the New York Post. The book -- all 333 pages of it, plus its "exclusive 8-page photo insert" -- hit the bookstores Monday, and I had it in my greedy hands the next day. "We're the Mario Andrettis of journalism," Hoffman told the New York Observer. "We had intravenous lines from Starbucks coming in."

The quickie book genre -- of which the Heaven's Gate book is merely the latest, and not even the quickest, example -- is a symptom of the way in which the news has given way to a slow parade of obsessions. Crimes, disasters, scandals -- they don't simply vanish once they've fallen from the front pages; they linger on, becoming the focus of strange and persistent obsessions. The stories with the real staying power -- O.J., Flight 800, JonBenet Ramsey -- remain in the news long after they've ceased to produce any news to speak of. We grab at the slenderest threads -- some pilot saw what he thinks was a missile; a new handwriting sample is produced -- and we weave them into elaborate, emotionally resonant fictions and conspiracy theories. We don't discuss issues so much as pick at scabs, endlessly rehashing the details of those stories that tug most insistently at our unconscious.

In last Sunday's New York Times, Michael Wines suggested that the country had gotten itself trapped inside a perpetual slow news day. "News stopped happening, oh, a good two or three months ago," he wrote. "Most of what you read now is cleverly recycled from old news articles." Well, yes, but not for a lack of real news to report. We just prefer the reruns.

But if the quickie book is a symptom of the new obsessionism -- for every obsession needs a book or two, or a dozen, to meet our need for detail, detail and more detail -- it can also serve as a sort of cure. You can't get past an obsession by simply ignoring it, hoping that it will quietly and cooperatively slink off to some unused portion of your id. No, you must saturate yourself in it, absorbing every little nuance. In short, you need to read a quickie book or two. And if two or three hundred pages of bad prose and unprovable insinuations isn't enough to cure you -- well, then, you're a hopeless case.

For whatever reason, Heaven's Gate has become my O.J. case. And until the book came out, I had nowhere for my obsession to go. I'd already downloaded tract after tract from the group's Web site; followed the case in four or five newspapers. I'd read Time's "Inside the Web of Death," Newsweek's "Secrets of the Cult," People magazine's "Before the Cult," even the Star's collection of "Heaven's Gate Shockers" (in the issue with the cover photomontage juxtaposing leader Marshall Applewhite with "Star Trek's" Patrick Stewart). And that wasn't enough. But now that I've plowed through the Post book, I think my obsession has lost its momentum at last.

Even by the standards of quickie books, "Heaven's Gate" is a shoddy job. Compared to it, Time Warner's quickie Unabomber book, "Mad Genius: The Odyssey, Pursuit and Capture of the Unabomber Suspect," is a model of insight and writerly grace. "Heaven's Gate" -- catchy title, that -- is badly written, badly organized, badly edited, badly proofread, badly designed, badly bound; even the "exclusive" photos, which don't look terribly exclusive to me, are blurry and poorly printed.

Clearly aiming at an audience as ridiculously obsessed with the gory details of Heaven's Gate as I have been over the past three weeks, The Post Two throw in every bit of information that seems even vaguely relevant to the topic, along with some that clearly isn't -- from a description of Lon Chaney Jr.'s encounter with Charles Manson's "family" in the late '60s to a list of the cast members of the original "Star Trek" series. The authors repeat themselves endlessly -- in some cases copying entire paragraphs nearly word-for-word from one chapter into the next.

It goes without saying that the book is riddled with typos, grammatical lapses and other crimes against language. And in a series of blatant errors that take us to The Level Above Mere Sloppiness, the book manages to include a great deal of information, based on very early speculation about the cult, that's just plain wrong -- and so obvious are the errors it's clear someone at HarperPaperbacks simply forgot to edit them out when the book passed from rough draft into proofs. "It's not at all surprising that the cultists were young," The Post Two remark on page 288 -- forgetting, apparently, that the bulk of the cultists were in fact middle-aged, as the authors might have remembered had they examined the "roll call" of the cultists that's printed not once but twice in the book.

Much of the book's verbosely melodramatic style -- no clichi is left unturned -- is clearly the result of a concerted attempt to fill out the page count, much as Homer (the poet, not the Simpson) filled out the meter in "The Iliad" with stock poetic phrases. The Post Two can't simply refer to "the Hale-Bopp comet": to them, it's "the famous Hale-Bopp comet that has thrilled hundreds of millions of spectators around the world with its bright, sparkling tail." The cult becomes, variously, "the weird UFO cult," "the Do and Ti traveling road show," "the rag-tag group of UFO cultists," "Marshall Applewhite and his UFO-obsessed computer geeks" and "Marshall Herff Applewhite and his flying saucer freaks." Applewhite, for his part, becomes "the bald, wrinkled leader," "a sexually tormented, castrated opera singer," an "aging, raging eunuch."

Still, not even the most desperate demand for copy can quite excuse a passage like this, describing the initial foray by two hapless sheriff's deputies into the Mansion of Death:

He turned [the doorknob] and pushed open the door.

In a split second, it slammed into them like some foul, unstoppable creature. A sucker punch of the overpowering smell of death. The horrifying odor was instantly everywhere, blasting their bodies like a wind from hell. It pummeled their nostrils, whipped into their eyes and reached down their throats and into their lungs.

Both officers instantly stepped backward as the heavy gaseous odors of decaying human flesh and internal organs blew out of the house as if being propelled by a fan on full blast.

"Whew," Gacek said, whacking her hand to her nose to see if it was still there as the stench continued to wreck [sic] havoc with her senses.

It goes on. I won't. Nothing can quite account for prose like this. Like the mystical visions of wacky gay bald castrato cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite and his weird computer-obsessed Nike-wearing flying saucer freaks, the prose of The Post Two is likely to remain a level or two beyond human comprehension.

Nevertheless, one can learn much from such a book. Facts about history: "California has the reputation of being the nation's flakiest state, having nurtured a mind-boggling array of kooks and killer over the years." Facts about astronomy: "Hale-Bopp certainly had clout, a lot more clout than many other comets, there was no doubt about that." Facts about the inner workings of Hollywood: "The [Cult's] script was certainly fantastic, but it didn't seem to be geared enough towards a general audience."

The "general audience." What a quaint notion. Any truly savvy marketer (or cult guru) will tell you that broadcasting is over, baby -- narrowcasting is where it's at. Demographic slicing and dicing. Niche micromarketing. And that's what these quickie books are all about. An obsession for every taste; a quickie book for every obsession, delivered hot and steaming like a turd in the snow.

The horrifying odor is instantly everywhere, blasting our bodies like a wind from hell! Get your copy today!

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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