Top 10 books about hellraisers

MThe book selections come with two caveats. First, the meaning: As the old Batman TV shows used to say, don’t try this at home. Not if you want to keep your internal organs intact – and hold on to your friends. Secondly, sensitivity: some of these books contain now-unacceptable attitudes toward race, while misogyny goes with the territory. Despite the best efforts of cartoon characters like Tank Girl and some of the ladies from Viz, it’s generally the guys who tick the required boxes of Hell: heavy drinking and drugs; an addiction to danger, often involving high-powered vehicles and long drainpipes; brawling, spreading, and smashing other people’s property; throwing televisions into hotel pools and motorbikes racing around hotel corridors; The shabby abuse of WAG groups, co-stars, fans, and groups. Hellraising is largely the pursuit of males.

Books about hellraisers often focus on “creators” such as Hollywood Hellraisers by Robert Sellers: [actors] Burton, Harris, Reid, and O’Toole. Rock Stars: Stephen Davies’ Hammer of the Gods, on Led Zeppelin. Writers: John Malcolm Brennen Dylan Thomas in America or Jeffrey Wolf Black Sun, about the Lost Generation Avatar of Dorian Gray.

In my own book, several writers stirred up hell when undergraduates in the Hypocrites Club at Oxford, 1921-24. Then leave the childish things behind and settle into a life of sobriety. To some extent.

I find realistic accounts like this frustrating to read at any length (with the exception of Olivia Laing) because one always realizes the sometimes fatal waste of life and disintegration of talent, and collateral damage so great. My choices are therefore mostly imaginary; I think they all provide some kind of context for their characters’ outrageous behavior.

1. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Published in 1824, this attack is a fierce and ludicrous attack on Scottish Presbyterian radicals. God Almighty told his stepfather, the holy cleric Robert Wingham, that the boy was destined to be one of the elect. Because the “justified” by definition has lived a sinless life, then according to Calvinist logic Robert, no matter what he does, I can not commit a sin. And now accompanied by his mysterious companion, who motivates him to proceed further, he decides to use this happy medium – resulting in colossal feats of debauchery, together with the “cutting off” of religious rivals.

2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Heavy on the dichotomy of Manichean good v evil and mind-body, Stevenson’s famous tale from 1886 is a metaphor for addiction, as the drugs Jekyll uses to quit work right up, and his demonic Id, Hyde, begins to take over. As with Dorian Gray, four years later, what exactly he does in his mystical adventures in Soho and the East End is, apart from the violence, not detailed. We are left to fill this table by dreaming of our own guilty pleasures. an indulgence that the more straightforward contemporary hell novels do not provide.

3. The Landing of the Angel by William Hjortsberg
An unusual, strange and original novel. Set in New York in the summer of 1959, the film is a cross between Dashiell Hammett and John Franklin Bardin, with a touch of Aleister Crowley. The story gets weirder and weirder. Then still weirder. It doesn’t add up – but it’s a fun ride. and a hymn to the city.

Albert Finney as Arthur Seton in the 1960 film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Photo: Ronald Grant

4. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitto
We catch “wealthy worker” Arthur Seton chugging 13 pints of beer before pummeling two other pub-goers. Arthur gets paid well for his work on the factory lot: but it drains his soul. And so one Saturday night “the effect of a week’s monotonous factory graft was swept out of your system in a flurry of goodwill.” On Monday, start again. Arthur has stately charm, but is selfish, likable, and fond of other men’s wives. He hates unions as much as he hates his bosses. A Loadsamoney Thatcherite is in the making.

5. A Trip to Eco Spring: About Books and Drinking by Olivia Laing
“There have been many books and articles that stand out in describing how hideous and shameful the behavior of alcoholic writers can be.” This is not one of them. Ling’s book–which doubles as an atmospheric road trip–is a sober, psychologically penetrating account of six American hard-drinking writers: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Williams, Berryman, Schaeffer and Carver. There’s mention of the evil, corrupt phenomenon of hell, but this is essentially a horrific account of a Fausti pact – like that between heroin and bebop. Booze stimulates your typing and then rewires your central nervous system and impairs or destroys your ability to type at all.

6. Genki by William Lee
Published in 1953, Confessions of a Non Recycling Drug Addict was the first book written by William Burroughs, using his mother’s maiden name. He’s an honest journal of his life at this time, a heroin-dealing junkie who steals to make enough money to feed his habit. At one point, while trying to get clean, he nearly dies from alcoholism. An addict’s life isn’t just gray and monotonous—waiting for the guy, from fix to fix—it’s fraught with danger. Prepared by Narcs, dime-drop by dealers and other addicts, always at risk of overdose. And the horrors of cold turkey – “like ants were crawling under the skin” – when you end up in jail.

7. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
The two gonzo antiheroes start off as they’re meant to go, the trunk of their convertible loaded with enough drugs and drinks to knock out the US Navy. It’s a grotesque, wild, angry, hilariously funny at times 100 mph rollercoaster fantasy “journey into the dark heart of the American dream.” A lament for the failure of the consciousness-expanding hippie dream. What Ornette Coleman is to Dizzy Gillespie This book is for Burroughs and the Beats.

8. against nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans
À Rewritten in the original French, this “strangest book” poisoned Dorian Gray. (It was brought up at Wilde’s Trial). The wealthy aristocrat Des Saintes was, he tells us, “a fanatically sophisticated”; “He kept mistresses already famous for their debauchery.” Disillusioned with the hope that “the splendid filth of the poor would stimulate his wavering senses,” he turned neurasthenic, likely bent on indulging, to construct a world of self-indulgent aesthetic excess. Figure 1: A jeweled tortoise. Figure 2: If you eat, you won’t want to know.

Robert Carlyle as Begbie in Trainspotting (1996).
Violent, cocky… Robert Carlyle as Begbie in 1996’s Trainspotting. Photo: Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Sportsphoto/Allstar

9. Trainspotting by Irvin Welch
Most of the main characters – Skagboys – use heroin. The One Who Doesn’t Stand Out: The violent alcoholic and braggart Franco Bigby. The film is set in Edinburgh at the end of the Thatcher era, yet the abnormality and desperation of the central characters, though never heralded, is palpable. In a key scene, Begbie and the protagonist Renton encounter an “old drunkard” at a now-defunct railway station. “What are you doing, lads? Trainsputin, eh?” “Ah I realize that vulgar Begby creed.”

10. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
This is a wonderful account of a remarkable 18th-century Hellenic pioneer. Blessed and damned with personal charisma in spades, Georgiana was a patron and practitioner of the arts and sciences. Her main interest was politics. She was an amazing instructor and spinner. However… Foreman’s book is staunchly feminist. On every other page is evidence of the ludicrous imbalance of power between men and women. But not in dancing, drinking, and gambling all night, followed by an opiate stalker, Georgiana held her own among the Foxite Whig caucus. Her frustrated concern was producing a male heir. But miscarriages – and girls – followed. For Georgiana, raising hell was a performance—it had become expected of her. In her case, the hypocrisy was motivated by deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and a desperate need for approval. Important insight into the game of “hellraising”.

Hellfire: Evelyn Waugh and the Hypocrites Club by David Fleming is published by The History Press. For Guardian and Observer assistance, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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