Roadkill: A Love Story

This cat, Michael Hames explains, isn't prime roadkill. Dead cats are a dime a dozen; this one's old and dehydrated, in one piece, and there's not much blood. But it is flat. Flat's a plus.

Michael snaps his usual three photos, one close up, the others further back and from slightly different angles. To get the face and teeth in all the shots, he stands downwind and tries to ignore the stink. Faces and teeth are good, too.

I nod; I see where he's going. More than most adults, I'm in touch with my inner 14-year-old. I refuse to buy a minivan. I sing with the car radio. And, God help me, I still understand the subversive thrill of disgusting pictures -- the dare-you-to-look, can-you-believe-it, doesn't-get-any-nastier-than-that photos. The kind that have made Michael, at 24, the rising king of Internet gross-outs.

Plenty of on-line entrepreneurs sell some form of sex, but Michael focuses mainly on the other Big One: death. On his two web sites, goregallery.com and houstonroadkill.com, he posts photos of Marilyn Monroe's corpse, of squirrels lying dismembered by the side of Texas 288, of an epidermoid carcinoma of the anal canal. As the site itself brags, it's "the Internet's # 1 site for the disturbed!" And: "All the stuff your mother didn't want you to see!"

Heck, I don't want my kids to see that stuff.
And Michael feels the same way.

I'm a little worried about meeting Michael. I'd sent e-mail to someone named zombie@GOREGALLERY.COM, TELLING HIM THAT I'D HEARD HIS SITE WAS BASED IN HOUSTON AND WOULD LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT IT. MICHAEL CALLED BACK. HE SOUNDED NICE ENOUGH ON THE PHONE, BUT ISN'T THAT WHAT THEY ALWAYS SAY ABOUT MASS MURDERERS? I LEAVE A NOTE WITH HIS NAME AND ADDRESS IN CASE THE COPS NEED TO FIND ME.

AT THE MOBILE HOME PARK, I'M NOT SURE I HAVE THE RIGHT ADDRESS. THERE'S A HOMEY STRAW WREATH ON THE DOOR, WRAPPED IN A PERKY BLUE RIBBON. I KNOCK ANYWAY, AND MICHAEL ANSWERS. HE DOESN'T LOOK DANGEROUS -- PALE, YES, IN THE WAY OF ALL COMPUTER GUYS, BUT BABY-FACED AND ROLY-POLY IN A WAY THAT MAKES HIM LOOK EVEN YOUNGER THAN HE IS. HE INTRODUCES ME TO HIS WIFE, ROSIE, OBVIOUSLY THE FORCE BEHIND THAT WREATH.

IN A LESS DIRECT WAY, SHE'S ALSO THE FORCE BEHIND GORE GALLERY. THREE YEARS AGO, MICHAEL WAS ABOUT AS FAR FROM A LIFE OF GORE AS YOU CAN GETo He was enrolled in a seminary, at the Houston Bible Institute (now the College of Biblical Studies). He says he made straight A's, even in the hard classes like Greek. He did inspirational speaking, and people seemed to like it; his Sundays were booked full of gigs at homeless shelters and treatment centers. And for a while, he volunteered with the chaplain's office at TIRR, the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research.

To make ends meet, he had a part-time job at an answering service, and it was there that he met Rosie, who worked at another service on a different floor. She was pretty and, like him, a tad shy. She was also four years older than he was, had been divorced and had five kids. Michael didn't care. He wanted to get married.

He'd occasionally been irritated by the bureaucracy and politics of organized religion. But Rosie was the last straw. When his advisers at the Bible college urged him not to marry her, he dropped out of school.

He got a tech-support job at Access, a little Internet service provider that paid him $1,500 a month. Business was slow; for eight hours a day, he sat staring at a computer screen, looking for ways to entertain himself till it was time to go home. He played on-line games. He surfed the Web. He exchanged jpeg files with denizens of newsgroups such as alt.binaries.pictures.grotesque. And finally, in early '98, he built his own web site, goregallery.com.

The site looks appropriately grungy and homemade, as though it could in fact be the product of some basement-dwelling twisted mind. Michael receives most of its photos electronically -- pictures scanned and e-mailed to him by other aficionados, stuff not copyrighted by someone else and preferably not available elsewhere on-line. He posts medical photos, pictures of famous corpses, of mutilations and weird piercings. One category he calls "Perverted," another "Diseased," another "Just Sick." He's particularly proud of his new "Serial Killers" sections; several Gore Gallery-goers have chosen to adopt their own serial killers and maintain web pages in their honor.

Soon after Michael began to offer such nastiness, his audience found him. The site logged 200 visitors a day, then 500, then 1,000. He sold ads, first for $12 a day, then $20, then more. He found himself immersed in the world of click brokers and link exchanges. Lurid, XXX-rated porn sites became his best clients; one, Church Sluts, now pays him 70 percent of what's spent by any Web surfer who clicks there from Gore Gallery. Others pay 13 cents per click. On an average week, he says, he grosses around $1,000.

When the site began paying more than his job at Access, he quit the job and set up shop at home. At first, his desk was wedged into the master bedroom. Recently, he remodeled the bathroom off that bedroom, taking out the whirlpool to tuck a tiny office behind the shower. Even so, he sees it as only a temporary setup. He wants to move Rosie and the kids out of the mobile home park, maybe into The Woodlands.

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