go to content

How My Life Was Eventually Changed by a Stranger's Offer to Supply Me With Knives

John Darnielle, author of Wolf in White Van and lead singer of The Mountain Goats, on finding inspiration in his inbox.

Posted on

In the last chapter of Wolf in White Van, there's a sword catalog. Sean, the narrator, orders it from Brazil; he sees an ad for it in a small magazine and it sounds cool, so he takes a chance and sends a couple of bucks off in the mail, and then when he gets home one day, there it is, in a slick envelope with an unfamiliar postmark. Later that day, he has what he ends up referring to as an accident, and he is changed forever.

People ask about "the creative process" a lot, and I'm never entirely sure how to understand the term — I don't have any method I rely on; any given piece I'm working on will be beneficiary or victim of its own chemistry. But one way of thinking about process can involve tracing how the things that got into a song or book got there: when they first germinated, how long it took them to sprout, how they ended up in the row where they ended up. In the case of the sword catalog I can tell you.

But for either sad or great reasons, depending on how you think of things, I will have to tell you from memory: Because when I remembered the spam email I got in maybe 2001 or 2002 that eventually manifests itself as Sean's Brazilian sword catalogue, I thought, Go dig that up, it's got to be around here someplace, you can quote it directly, it'll be cool. Back in the late '90s we had an old iMac — it wasn't old then, it was just an iMac — and it sat in the corner of our one-bedroom place in Ames, Iowa. We had moved to Ames from Colo, Iowa, where our internet was 56Kbps; being suddenly able to check email without watching the beach ball spin for several minutes was quite novel. I'd just put Last Plane to Jakarta, the web version of my zine, online. There was a contact email right there on the "contact" page. The spam influx began within hours of the site going live.

It took years for me to be able to just reflexively delete spam, or filter it so that I never see it at all. I blame the spammers for this; the quality of their work took a sharp nosedive at some point. But during whatever period of the internet's growth you'd call the early 2000s, it seemed like you'd still get some winners: things that had been typed up by a person, sent out to a bunch of email addresses they'd bought or rented for 5 or 10 bucks from the only guy who was ever going to make any money in this particular exchange. Most of them went directly, if manually, into the trash; but once in a while, there'd be one that seemed to earn, at the very least, the minute it'd take me to read it.

The one I'm remembering here was subject-lined SUPPLY OF KNIVES. To me, this looks like the name of a band I might like — maybe some label I didn't know about was trying to send me a promo? That would be badass; I was pretty into getting promos of stuff I hadn't heard about back then, bands with names like SUPPLY OF KNIVES toiling away out there in Torrance or Downey or wherever.

But SUPPLY OF KNIVES wasn't a band. The subject line opened on an all-caps email that boasted, in ornate, antiquated English appealing to the reader's more refined sensibilities, about the high quality of the knives on offer at an external website. You shouldn't click on links in spam email. I live my life on the razor's edge! I clicked the link.

I want to tell you about these knives: They were beautiful. They were weird. They had elaborate designs in the handles, moons or stars of wolf heads, and special grips, and a variety of points. They were made from metals whose pedigrees were described lovingly, and had been struck — smithed? wrought? — via processes I knew absolutely nothing about, but that sounded fantastic, difficult, arcane. It's the joy of specialized language: When you're an outsider to it, it can't help but sound cool.

Of course this is the whole idea of any operation like this. SUPPLY OF KNIVES could well have been, and probably was, a company in Ohio who'd stumbled across an old warehouse full of knives, and knew enough about sales to describe these things in the most exotic terms they could find. I'm pretty immune to pitches: Who likes to feel like he's being pitched? But somebody involved with SUPPLY OF KNIVES had had just enough authorial flair — that, or true faith — to caption each knife's mysterious, blurry accompanying JPEG with a description whose constant recourse to specialized vocabularies seemed to say, "You're not even reading this unless you already know about this sort of thing. Let us therefore speak like the fellow travelers we are."

It was like a trade catalog for roadside bandits in need of knives.

I can't speak for everybody, but I know that when I was a child the life of the roadside bandit seemed like a pretty romantic way to go. I looked at all these knives and read the descriptions and was just generally delighted about the whole thing, so I saved the email in a "memorable spam" folder I used to keep that had maybe two other emails in it. A few years later, Apple came out with this robotic-arm-screen iMac you never see any more, and we were long overdue for a new computer so we got that; and then, after a while, I got myself a laptop, because I was traveling all the time, and eventually both the old iMacs ended up in the basement, and they were both asleep but alive until fairly recently, as far as I knew.

But when I went to check for the email, it was gone. The old blue iMac is dead, bricked, lifeless. Searches on the term "supply of knives" on this laptop and on good old robot-arm-screen find nothing. The backup CD for the blue iMac drive is probably in a drawer around here somewhere, but that's like saying, "The coin I had in my swim trunks' pocket is probably somewhere in the ocean." There is no SUPPLY OF KNIVES. There's only the memory, which, in the absence of its referent, I made a few changes to (it's a paper catalog now; it's from Brazil; swords, not knives), put into a mailbox in Montclair for a young man named Sean Philips to see on the last day of his life before everything changes, and felt happy about, because now it's on a printed page, a type of hardware a little more resilient to time and changes.

***

John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and son.

To learn more about Wolf in White Van, click here.

Every. Tasty. Video. EVER. The new Tasty app is here!

Dismiss