GARY STEEL embarks on a journey featuring Satan, brazen defecation, porn and strangulation. It’s a hoot.
With the first wintery blast the ragged edges of depression loomed. What better time to embark on a journey into everyday suburban insanity?
I found myself ranging between two murky worlds: one, a documentary series examining the deranged, so-called Satanic murderer Pazuzu in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; the other, a book of stories delving into 12 mystifying deaths, murders and otherwise strange goings-on in New Zealand.
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The Devil You Know (2019) is a 5-part documentary series made by Vice TV and screening on Neon. It tells the story of self-described Satanist Pazuzu Algarad, and anyone flirting briefly with the first episode might go away thinking that it’s a sensationalist attempt to create a Charles Manson-type mystique around a figure who painted himself as something between Marilyn Manson and a freak show exhibit.
Dig into the series, however, and a different truth emerges, albeit one that’s more deeply disturbing than the screaming headlines. Largely through the research work of independent journalist Chad Nance, the series examines Pazuzu’s horrific actions, his bizarre cult and – most importantly – the murders through the eyes of both the victims’ families and a few of the fucked-up friends who stuck with him.
The creeping sense of disgust that builds through the series isn’t so much about the human remains found in Pazuzu’s basement or his abhorrent anti-social behaviour; it’s about a society that rejects a person with serious mental health problems, turns a blind eye to what’s happening, and then paints him as the anti-Christ; it’s about a police force and judiciary that fails to act on reports for years and which is morally culpable for what happened; and it’s about the various other victims – all of them poor and dispossessed – that this fundamentalist so-called Christian society completely ignored until it was too late.
There’s a pall of melancholy that hangs over this story, which is set in a suburbia that’s as ordinary as it gets. We get to hang out with the wife and young daughter of a man murdered by Pazuzu and hear her story, and it’s an American tragedy. When her husband went missing she fell into arrears on the farm they had bought together and the bank foreclosed. She was forced into a series of appalling accommodations and the authorities failed to even register her husband as a missing person until his remains were found years later in Pazuzu’s basement. It’s a heart-wrenching story and makes a change from the typical murder documentary entirely focusing on the grisly crimes.
We also get to spend a lot of time with one of Pazuzu’s old friends and a couple of former followers. The friend’s own story is heart-rending, and the viewer can feel the love he felt for his old friend versus his disgust at what he did, along with his hatred of the system that let it all happen. The young couple are both hopeless junkies and one of the flaws of producer/director Patricia Gillespie’s film is that too much time is spent being a fly on the wall as they shoot up and mumble inanities to each other. Their story is important though, as once again they’re the victims of circumstance and a long chain of consequential, ordinary evil that comes from societal neglect and “old fashioned” so-called values.
Yes, Pazuzu’s lifestyle was shocking, and it’s hard to understand how anyone would want to live like that. Inside his unassuming suburban residence there was a complete lack of hygiene, and perhaps his ultimate act of defiance was to never wash and to defecate all over the house; in other words, to act in a way that nice society found repugnant but which was (mostly) legal.
But what’s more difficult is to understand why this complete fuck-up was spat out and completely ignored by the system. In the most oddly touching yet almost unbelievable scene in the series, the victim whose husband was murdered visits Pazuzu’s mother, who explains that as a child, the killer was diagnosed as agoraphobic, schizophrenic and psychotic, but that she just didn’t have the money to pay for ongoing medical help.
When I wasn’t having my psyche disturbed by this engrossing and somehow profound documentary, I sought light relief in a book about death and murder. Missing Persons is a new collection of stories by Steve Braunias, who (mostly) adapted them from pieces he’d penned for The New Zealand Herald. To many, Braunias is a writer of delightfully idiosyncratic and pin-sharp prose in columns, long-form features and books about many of the things that make us what we are, for better or worse. Who could forget his long-form ode to that long, chicken wing and drumstick dominated Western corridor, The Man Who Ate Lincoln Rd, or his book on, well… birds, How To Watch A Bird.
Those who think of Braunias as essentially a humourist, however, should think again. As the author aptly demonstrated in the award-winning The Scene Of The Crime (2015), he can turn his hand to the grim aspects of life, and is especially great at a highly personalised take on court reporting.
Missing Persons starts with the murder-by-strangulation of a young English woman, Grace Millane, in a downtown Auckland hotel, and ends with the sentencing of Jesse Kempson, the sociopath who strangled her and then watched some porn. Later, he’d fold her into a suitcase and dump her body in the Waitakeres.
Millane’s sad story is too over-familiar from the tabloid-type news media coverage of the murder and subsequent court case, but Braunias squeezes some air miles out of it by finding profundity in the minutiae of the court proceedings, and especially Kempson’s pathetic defence. This is what Braunias does best, and it’s his digging through the detritus – and then thinking about it all – that lifts the often astoundingly sad tales in this book.
It’s not all murder. There’s Dotcom, that large German who seems to have been fighting extradition to America for eons but meanwhile, is planning his end-of-world scenario bunker near Queenstown. And there’s silly old Colin Craig, formerly of the Christian political party, a dweeb who just doesn’t know when to just disappear into the fernery and give it up to the will of the Almighty.
But the stories that make Missing Persons worth buying are about the nobodies who embody the book’s title. There’s the young chap who was always so promising and the life of the party who just slowly faded away. There’s the secretive but sociable old dude who walked everywhere and who perished in an inner-city park during one of these walks. Braunias pieces together their stories by tracing their movements and talking to the people whose lives they intersected with. In these cases, there are endless questions that just can’t be answered, but these stories carefully reveal how lives can slowly unravel. While the piece about the young chap is a tragic reminder of how easily it is to lose yourself and effectively disappear from the lives of everyone you love, the piece on the old dude is something else entirely. Sure, he went “missing”, but the story has a real sting in the tale that I won’t spoil by repeating here.
[One small gripe: the typographical errors! Are there no proofreaders left in New Zealand? I would have given it the old once-over!]
Ultimately, the New Zealand portrayed in Missing Persons is packed with drama, tragedy, deceit and absence, but these are also stories full of people who care, a lot. It’s a much kinder place than the diehard conservative, and dead-cold values espoused by a place like Winston-Salem, USA.
Still, after those two I need something a bit cheerful.
Oh, and this: