A major similarity can be drawn between the works of Cormac McCarthy and the relationship between Dan Barrett’s Giles Corey book and album. Cormac McCarthy has always been a good enough writer that it was never really necessary for him to do anything different, but as the years wore on his books became a bit more streamlined and easier to read, as if the dross of pretension was smelted away leaving pithy wisdom and a fine sense of humor. His earlier novels plumbed deep into the human psyche and extracted dark things while his later works – starting with the Border Trilogy – are mostly about the good in people. Even No Country For Old Men, whose most memorable character is a representation of pure evil, is more about goodness and honesty than anything else. Someone like Anton Chigurh only serves to make the goodness more apparent. When you read his later works, you realize that that was his theme all along, no matter how he approached it. You could put his later works and his earlier works side by side and try to contrast them but eventually you’d have to just put them all together.
The release of Dan Barrett’s book and album is similar, the obvious and key difference being that they are inherently the same work presented in two ways. Attempts to separate them to decide which is more effective are ultimately pointless, as they are most effective when combined. The album is a sort of dilution of the book, simplified and broken down to raw emotions, whereas the book is centered around storytelling. Specifically, Giles Corey the book is about two things: the author’s attempt to kill himself and a short history of one Robert Voor, showman, demented philosopher, and eventual cult leader. The latter was well chosen as subject matter, given that there is essentially no information about Voor online (searching leads only to links regarding various Enemies List projects, including Have A Nice Life and Navalhr, both of which contain references to Voor). He is one of many shadowy figures forgotten and buried in America’s past, now unearthed by Barrett during months of depression spent buried in books, and then revealed obscurely through his music and, more apparently, through the Giles Corey book. The former is given far less attention, which is understandable considering the album is meant to explain that more fully. It is the subject of Robert Voor that is the most interesting thing here, for several reasons. The first was previously stated: there seems to be no information concerning Robert Voor, his cult, or the “Voor’s Head Device” (a kind of hood used to induce a trance-like state or even a seizure), online. Barrett’s research was conducted solely from books.
To the reviewer, it is frustrating. But to the listener, it greatly enhances the project as a whole. It causes you to read into things that maybe shouldn’t be read into. For example there are a few typos throughout the book that were probably the result of a lack of editing but lend weight to the mythology. Some are fairly innocuous (“angles” instead of “angels”), but one in particular nags. There are elements to Voor’s story that are confusing, not the least of which is the timeline. Barrett starts off by describing Dogtown, a place in Massachusetts where society’s castoffs lived in little more than dug-out pits. That place, at least, was real, and still exists to this day. It is when Barrett describes a second Dogtown (in New York) that things become dodgy. In the very beginning of the book, he says that the first Dogtown existed in the 1700s, and the second in the late 1990s. Near the end of the book, he says that the second Dogtown existed in the 1980s. Again, it is probably a harmless typo but given that I am unable to find any information whatsoever concerning this second Dogtown, the story becomes both creepier and less believable. Barrett also mentions media coverage about the Dogtown cult, evidence of which I cannot find, and he quotes Voor as describing a woman from the original Dogtown as his “great-great-grandmother,” although the first Dogtown existed nearly 300 years prior to the second, long enough for at least seven or eight generations to come and go.
Those things don’t make the book good though, as they say nothing of how it is written, but it is important to note that one of the auxiliary purposes of the book and album is, put plainly, to creep people out. It is certainly possible to dislike like the writing, but no one can claim that the book isn’t effective. Every other page contains full-size black and white photographs, some depicting nothing more than unintelligible scenery but the majority of them are so-called “spirit photographs,” meant to show proof of ghosts’ existence. Seen from far away they might elicit laughter, but most have been turned into unsettling close-ups, where the details become all too real and any proof of fraudulence is blotted out. These pictures are paired with Voor’s theories on the afterlife, which inhabit a large portion of the book; specifically, that there is none, or at least none worth inhabiting. He suspected that when people died, their spirits simultaneously remained in the world yet apart from it. Forever wandering, attempting to make contact with the living but unable to do so.
Barrett’s writing is admirable. There are many subjects interwoven under one main theme, but he is able to craft a coherent narrative while also showing deft flashes of irony as well. Consider Voor’s theorem that ghosts spend their time trying to make contact with the living juxtaposed with Barrett’s wishes to make contact with the dead. The irony does not escape him that he is not able to do so, and one gets the sense that he doesn’t fully believe in Voor’s theories either, although he desperately wants to. Simply, he does not truly believe it, but he does not truly disbelieve it either. There is a beautiful, sad longing present in these all-too-brief sections of the book that contrast wonderfully with the bleak majority. As he delves deeper into Voor’s beliefs, the writing has a tendency to get bogged down and to become heavy-handed, but the book itself is short and so it follows that any muddled sections are short as well. As such, they don’t feel unnecessary despite their occasional incoherent nature. One could even argue that they make the book even more effective, as if Barrett allowed himself to be given over to the mind of Voor, letting him wholly inhabit the writing (something he actually does do at one point, all but saying that the story of Voor’s descent into madness is the story of Dan Barrett’s descent as well).
Ultimately, the book’s short length is its one downfall. Although his writing is solid throughout, some of the ideas seem as if they aren’t drawn to their rightful conclusions by the book’s end. Barrett’s suicide attempt, for example, is mentioned briefly in the beginning but otherwise does not appear except in hints, when Barrett describes his depression. He delves into his childhood as well, telling a story in which he retaliated to bullying by bludgeoning the antagonist’s face with a rock (interestingly, something Barrett does not mention is a similar bludgeoning murder that occurred in Dogtown, Mass., in the 1980s), and one where he seems to posit that the EMT crew sent to bring his father to the hospital calmly let him die. The details are vague and hazy as I’m sure Barrett’s memories are as well, but he says they are the direct cause of his depression, and more nuanced storytelling would certainly lend credence to the anecdotes, which instead ring untrue. But these qualms pale in comparison to what should be the book’s crowning theme but ends up as little more a footnote. There is, at the very end, a faint glimmer of hope, so dim as to almost be invisible, like the slight evidence of a ghost in an old photograph. After an entire book of bleak, depressive writing, it almost seems cheap to add in five words of hope at the end. Obviously, they ring true. Barrett did not bring down the knife into his chest when he woke in his kitchen that one night with no way of knowing how he got there. He lived to tell his tale. And the stylistic choice of having five words of hope inhabit two otherwise blank pages at the book’s end is understandable, but it left me wanting more (it should also be noted that the album contains no such glimmer of hope. Perhaps if it did, the end of the book would work better).
However, real or not, I think that Robert Voor and the denizens of the Dogtown cult would be satisfied with this account. That is what seems most important. Dan Barrett’s personal tale of redemption is interesting enough in its own right, but it is Voor and his black-hooded followers that inhabit the memory after the book is closed. Making their silent progression through dense woods until they reach a clearing, the entire world sealed off behind them and meaningless anyway, as all that mattered was that there in that secluded area, there was a chance that the dead might yet live again, and that the living might say to them what it was they could not say before.