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“I always wonder how crazy people think,” says Billups Allen, staring intently at an invisible dot on the far wall of his Shaw apartment.
“Let me re-explain this: How would I know if I’m not crazy? Am I the way crazy people think? It’s a real idiotic high-school concept, but it’s one I never got over.”
On the table in front of Allen is his first novel, Unfurnished, a bloody tale of crazy people run amok in a D.C. apartment building. Within arm’s reach is a wall of solid vinyla testament to both six years of work at Georgetown punk mecca Smash and 15 years of playing in punk bands.
A year or two ago, when Allen was still banging bass for the death-metal group Darkest Hour (or maybe screaming into a mike for Minutemen stylists Shoutbus), he was thinking crazy thoughts. Often on the Metro.
“You have to sit there quietly, so your mind starts wandering,” says the 33-year-old Allen. “You start to think, you know, Somebody on this train probably killed somebody….Or, like, What if, for some reason, you could only restock society with everybody who’s on the train? What would the kids look like?”
Allen started recording his “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” mindfucks in notebooks and on restaurant napkins. Soon, he was funneling the ideas into lyrics. (A good stanza would combine one gruesome fixation or another with a reference to a horror or sci-fi movie: “I’m probably the classic TV baby,” Allen says.) Last year, though, the DIY spirit moved Allen to create something with more literary cred. “Punk bands taught me so much about looking to bigger things,” he says. “In the real world, I’m probably a bit of a novice to be publishing books, but why get hung up on that?”
For inspiration, he watched more TV. He sat in his apartment, ruminating on the building’s character. He observed street people wandering through the back alley and passing out under his balcony. He also thought about what a neighbor had told him: that the apartment building’s cryptlike basement had been home to knife fights between certain unspecified figures. Eventually, Allen birthed Unfurnished, which D.C.’s Schematics Records will release on Oct. 30.
“The book is really a thinly veiled homage to [Twilight Zone creator] Rod Serling,” says Allen. The charactersresidents of the Serling Apartmentsfunction normally enough away from home. Behind locked doors, though, they’re building guillotines, striking deals with the devil, and watering plants with the blood of slaughtered vagrants. Despite its corpuscle count, though, Unfurnished is less a horror story than a collection of wry observations about social alienationa sort of blown-up Billups Allen punk song, in fact.
Allen has two other novels planned: one about students stealing organs to pay for med school, another “about a confused 35-year-old punk musician who’s getting frustrated with his life.” He’s pursuing a media degree at the University of the District of Columbia, and, for a while at least, he is no longer making music.
“I miss it, but it’s just not easy: It’s hard to collaborate,” he says. But writing”You don’t have to wait for three dudes and a bunch of amplifiers to do it.” John Metcalfe
Allen reads from Unfurnishedin conjunction with a explanatory photographic slide showat 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30, at Smash, 3285 1/2 M St. NW. For more information, call (202) 337-6274.