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The world of pop celebrity has allowed room for scantily written, heavily illustrated autos and bios about the likes of Dominique Moceanu, Tara Lipinski, Leonardo DiCaprio (at least four), and each of the Hansons—including the ugly one, for the girls who missed the Ringo era. They’re not quite nonbooks, which are books that shouldn’t exist but do; they’re unbooks, which are books that should be about something but aren’t. They presume sympathy and record carefully selected fun facts to enforce it.

Performance-rock front man and bane of family-values think tanks Marilyn Manson could easily have tacked together such an unbook for the Goth club kids who form his fan base—the miserable facts of his life up to stardom, plus a few of the half-glib, half-soul-searching lists that form the well-needed central break here, lavishly stippled with onstage photos and wacky-doomy candids. But Manson, along with Rolling Stone writer Neil Strauss (who may be doing some of the best writing of his career), has written a true autobiography—expansive, intelligent, alternately horrifying and rollicking, with beautiful illustrations (mostly of internal organs) and glossy pages of Manson himself suitable for framing or clipping into convenient pentagram shapes.

One might raise the question of why anyone would pay $24 for a book by and about Marilyn Manson, but since it’s a New York Times bestseller, it hardly matters. One of the best reasons to read it is the prurient appeal of the book’s midsection, which, as has already been noted in family newspapers that refuse to so much as sketch the anecdotes, recounts the backstage frolics of Manson and his debauched crew. They do things with drugs and groupies that are literally unimaginable—or were to me, anyway—and these antics speak better for his creativity than do the Goth-metal-industrial-intestinal-fetishist-Satanist-sci-fi crunchings of Marilyn Manson, the band.

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Born Brian Warner in Canton, Ohio, Manson was sent to the nondenominational Heritage Christian School to learn the terrifying precepts of his religion, Episcopalian, which he calls “diet Catholic.” If the school and his family had together designed a program for turning an impressionable child into a society-hating, religion-distrusting, sexually twisted mutant, they couldn’t have done a better job. Heritage kids were taught that the UPC code was the mark of the beast from Revelation; a local reverend, who had given himself the evocative monicker “Ernest Angley,” worked fake healing miracles in a church festooned with murals of the Four Horsemen riding through a small town (“not unlike Canton,” Manson notes dryly), “leaving a trail of slit throats behind them.”

Home away from home was grandma’s house, with a chamber of horrors in the basement filled with the accouterments of grandpa’s secret life: a red enema bag hanging from the rafters; spools of mail-order bestiality films in old paint cans; encrusted suction-cup dildos and anal plugs; latex finger cots; feminine deodorant spray; copies of Watersports; and ancient, disintegrating wigs, bras, panties, and bustiers. Thrilled and scared, little Brian and his cousin Chad made frequent, fascinated trips to this freak play land, trying to figure out what all this stuff was for.

But if these are seeds of the later Manson, they don’t tell the whole story. Nor are they meant to; Chad, after all, went to college and married the mother of his baby. Manson’s sharp, observant mind continually separated behavior from intent, and the sexual and religious hypocrisy around him only strengthened his disdain for unquestioning belief. If he came away with anything besides inspirational imagery from the school and the cellar, it was the determination never to be a follower. Even in later years, when his admiration for Church of Satan leader Anton LaVey led him to LaVey’s sanctum sanctorum, the cult leader’s vague prophecies about Manson’s confusing relationship with ex-porn star Traci Lords disappointed. “It sounded more like the result of fifty dollars and five minutes spent calling the Psychic Friends Network,” he sighs. “But I pretended like I was grateful and impressed, because LaVey was not someone you could criticize.”

Suspicious and beset with memories of betrayals, Manson is on to other people and their reactions to his admittedly disconcerting presence. Describing his first girlfriend’s brother, “a walking contradiction,” he writes: “He was a perpetually drunk pickup-truck-driving redneck who was also into hip-hop and b-boy culture. Theoretically, this meant he should be beating himself up.” But anyone with a bone-deep jones for Dr. Hook can’t take himself too seriously, and Manson doesn’t. He embraces his teenage geekhood, pointing out, “If every cigarette you smoke takes seven minutes off of your life, every game of Dungeons & Dragons you play delays the loss of your virginity by seven hours.”

Whatever you think of his methods of exploring it, Manson’s dedication to personal freedom isn’t hypocritical; he’s tolerant to a fault, exploring boundaries on his own terms with anyone who wants to play, and far less interested in spitting in the faces of the normal-formals than they are in crucifying him. So he comes across as a faithful friend—except for the time he set out to kill a meddlesome girlfriend—naively wishing fuck-up bassist Brad would lay off the pot while everyone else tries to explain what heroin is. His tone is wry, direct, and amused, however lush or hysterical the proceedings described. He doesn’t dis other rock stars, writes of Fiona Apple with a little swoon in his tone, and recounts with respect and a little diffidence his relationship to direct antecedent Trent Reznor, who spends much of the book quietly disgusted by the Manson crew’s childish dissolution.

The titillated reader will not be disappointed; for anyone who reads in-recovery confessions for the good stuff, Long Hard Road far surpasses either Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on My Grave (“He asked if I’d ever had cocaine up my ass. Thus began my sickest relationship yet”) and Boy George’s sublime Take It Like a Man. Even Pamela Des Barres’ worst memories of her first true love, Jimmy Page—the whips in his suitcase “coiled likes snakes,” his confession to being excited by the sight of blood and semen mixed—seem like dabbling.

But while pop celebrity breeds such behavior, Manson’s rowdiness isn’t mere too-much-money, too-many-chicks Hammer of the Gods acting out. It’s true decadence, informed and historical; he can draw a straight line back to literary antecedents whose express interest was in pushing the boundaries of human experience for the sake of personal freedom: J.K. Huysmans and Lautréamont, Céline, Aleister Crowley (who merits hardly a mention), Oscar Wilde, and particularly Charles Baudelaire. The Manson gang doesn’t just tie groupies up backstage, they construct, with the help of a conscienceless prankster named Tony Wiggins, a “sin-sucking machine,” in which willing repenters are trussed painfully in such a position that any movement will tighten a rope around their necks. Even Manson, with his woeful childhood and ever-unspooling limitations, hears things from the freaks and runaways and sad girls laced into the apparatus he wishes he wouldn’t.

Manson only backs part way out of the depths of degradation; as of the book’s ending, it sounds as if exploiting both flesh and substances is still on the menu, providing the band is functioning artistically. (It was Reznor’s need to get back to work that made him linger at the edges of much of the Manson madness.) The man himself, being less a musician than an instigator of inchoate methodology, has fewer artistic urges. What tips him off to the untenability of his lifestyle is the realization that he hasn’t been exorcising childhood demons but summoning them—he has become his grandfather, a depraved, lonely creature self-respecting people fear and despise.

The book never indicates that music qua music is Marilyn Manson’s primary goal; to the casual observer they’re Kiss (one of Manson’s childhood heroes) with a death wish. The group, as personified by its front man, makes records the way Dadaists wrote poems or shot themselves in the head: as part of an artistic spectrum that proffers ideology by example. That may be the reason that music is the weakest expression of Manson’s not-unappealing extreme democracy—by keeping their parameters narrow and their art focused, similar counterculture Pied Pipers like Reznor (and even Perry Farrell) demonstrate better aim, concentrating as they do on a spectrum of jarring-but-recognizable pop images, from Joel-Peter Witkin to absinthe to flower children.

The Long Hard Road Out of Hell is tricked out with amusing puffery. There are unhelpful but funny lists of ways to tell if you’re a drug addict (“11. You live in New Orleans”), a homosexual (“27. If you’ve ever put Band-Aids on your nipples as a fashion statement”), or cheating (“14. If the girl has a tattoo with your name on it, then it’s just common courtesy to have sex with her”). Manson includes some blood-soaked short stories from his teens that were rejected by horror magazines, plus two cocaine-fueled interviews that never saw print because the magazine (now folded) paid for the fuel, and he trails off with absurd anti-Manson affidavits and unedited diary entries from late 1997. Strauss has done a fine job smoothing out the narrative and linking the anecdotes, but the diaries indicate that the book’s tone—amused, frustrated, keenly observant—is all Manson’s. As for the one experience that leads a member of the group to actually confess, “This is sooo wrong”—it starts with a leashed, deaf groupie coated in a raw-meat suit of armor—you’ll just have to get the book.CP