Lauren Cook's 'Sex Goblin' Is a Work of Alchemy

Lauren Cook's 'Sex Goblin' Is a Work of Alchemy

Jul 08, 2024

For a solid part of 2022, everyone was speaking of going “Goblin Mode.” According to one seminal piece of reportage in the Guardian, “the term embraces the comforts of depravity: spending the day in bed watching 90 Day Fiancé on mute while scrolling endlessly through social media, pouring the end of a bag of chips in your mouth.” The term’s omnipresence was clearly tied to the last dregs of the pandemic, when a sense of feral-craving matched well with a cooped-up population’s endless ability to consume.

A few years post Goblin-mania, we have a text in which to consider the term. Sex Goblin by Hudson Valley-based writer and naturalist Lauren Cook, released by Nightboat Books, refracts the general mode of Goblin-ness and expands upon it via a series of short stories, aphorisms and fleeting poems that have the enchanting rhythm of a late-night scroll online. The “Goblin”-state here is addictive and consumptive, but the vulnerability of abjection of isolation of desire come through in a diverse set of stories. There’s a young boy who decides to go to school in a literal fur suit. There’s an influencer admitting her faults on TikTok Live. There’s a young woman literally fused to her dog, who is embarking on a quest for sexual pleasure.

Written in plain, direct language, Sex Goblin vibrates with a kinetic, buzzy energy, pinging between the depraved digital and the lonely truth of the IRL world. And though there’s a tragic ache to the writing, Cook’s sensibility is felt throughout, which is funny in the way only someone raised within the internet’s crucible can manage to pull off.

Cook, who has been online since their adolescence and has garnered small, yet taste-maker-ey followings on Vine, and later TikTok, has translated their digital community to an ecstatic IRL one. At their book release, which took place in the cramped space of Eckhaus Latta in NYC’s Chinatown (photographed here by Cameron Blaylock), friends and admirers alike snuggled up closely as Cook read from their winding text. The nearby above-ground train shaking the small space was only a small distraction as the crew of listeners leaned in intently to hear Cook’s strange stories. It was a moment to celebrate, listen and consider the Goblin within.

Cook chatted with PAPER a week after their reading to dish about their life online, their newfound love for animals and to consider the internet’s favorite binary: Gay son or thot daughter?

When I got the official copy of your book, I was very taken with the red pages. I feel like there are not enough books on colored paper.

Yeah, I love the way it makes it smell, too. The person who designed the book, Rissa [Hochberger], came up with the idea to make the pages red. I don't remember her exact words, but she was like, “I like how evil it feels while still being kind of playful.” And I'm like, that's pretty true. It does make it feel menacing in this playful way that I like.

I’ve seen the book described as a doom-scroll text. I resonated with that because of the form, which has this enchanting internet quality. Are you a scroller?

Yeah, I definitely would not deny being incredibly addicted to the internet, probably since 2005 on Neopets. But I feel like [my relationship to the internet] is so informed by micro-blogging. I don't think it's as nihilistic as doom-scrolling, which implies this kind of nihilism. But I also think I love “normal people culture,” whatever that means.

When you say “normal people culture,” you mean like: normal, everyday people being the vulnerable and the crazy on the internet?

Yeah, and influencers. For a long time I kind of thought, “Oh, I'm so specific about the things I like,” and that people I interpret to be kind of “basic” are not specific about the way they live their lives. But they actually are, of course, because everyone has a rich inner life. I think there's a lot of references to influencers in Sex Goblin in that I just enjoy that sort of aspect of internet culture a lot.

You were prolific on TikTok for a while, right?

During 2020, when it had a big boom, definitely. But I also had a following on Vine, which then went over to that then carried over to TikTok. I wasn't huge on Vine, but I had 12,000 followers and a couple viral videos. I met a lot of people that way, too. I think those types of short-form video content apps are a way I've made a lot of art world connections. It’s allowed me to connect to these serious people in this context which is goofy. But I'm not built for that — to have a public comment section is actually pretty difficult.

What about the influencer culture on TikTok did you find interesting? There’s one part of the book depicting the ritual of going on TikTok Live. I think you captured the social specificity of those kinds of people so well.

It just has such a specific language and a culture to it, like any other subculture. It's just really fun to engage with, similar to how you do with Real Housewives. So many of the influencers we like or grew up with are just such evocative performance artists that they've made performance art in an institutional setting obsolete. What it mirrors back about our culture is so interesting. On top of that I still obviously, like anyone, have this need to be comforted or live through another person. I can intellectualize it, but I'm still connecting to it in this way where I'm like, “Oh, this person that I've never met is like my friend.”

I’m also interested in the presence of animals in Sex Goblin. Animals are these non-socialized things that reflect our innocence, and that’s really clear here. What's your relationship to animals?

I've always been a plant person. There’s a lot about animals in Sex Goblin because I was just getting into animals for the first time when I was writing it, which is a funny sentence, but it’s true. There's a lot of things they mirror to us that make me feel not alone in a good way. And also there’s so much about universality. There are universal aspects of being a mammal that I find quite comforting, because it's this push and pull between social taboos and this sort of feigned natural order. And that natural order is the sort of this thing that's constructed. We just have a lot in common with animals and it's very inspiring to watch them live.

I know that you're self-described as a naturalist. I didn't know if that meant your general way of being, or a study you engage in?

A little bit of both. I think I refer to it as kind of a general way of being, because I don't actively participate in scientific research anymore. My formal training is sort of limited. I just kind of grew up this way. And I did go to school for biology, but the truth is that I'm not that good at lab work, because it's very difficult. But “naturalist” evokes a lifestyle and references my upbringing, not in a woo-woo way though.

Did that ever feel in tension with your heavy Internet life?

The thing that's amazing about the natural world is that we are so addicted to taxonomy. This is always like this, this is always like this. But there isn't really a consensus like that, because in some places, people will be like, “You will die if you eat this plant.” And then some people are like, “Well, you can actually eat this plant.” I think the internet doesn't lend itself well to that.

I feel like the notion of the “Sex Goblin” could be a bridge between the natural and the digital. I think of the goblin as like this internet thing as in “goblin mode,” but it's also a creature or animal.

That was funny when that happened. Because I wrote the book 2019 to 2021. And then I got the book deal, we were editing it and I was like, “Oh, wow like it is a big year for goblins. We'll see how that plays out.” People also do use the term “Sex Goblin,” which I only found out recently by searching the name of my book on Twitter. It's also interesting to see it exist in other places. I always viewed it as like a different version of myself, or all of us whatever in this universality. But it's true, Goblins are this sort of unidentifiable creature.

The sex part of “Sex Goblin” is interesting because sex is present in the book, but it feels more about sex as vulnerability or love.

I think it’s something about alchemy, like having something happen to you and it transforming something in you. There was something about that that I was really obsessed with at that time. There was a period of time too where I was generally learning a lot more about people's sexuality, and just realizing like, “Oh, you can really sort of alchemize different experiences in different ways.”

And that connects to animals, too. Like you could just have something totally terrible happen to you, and your brain would not alchemize it as something terrible that happened to you.

I have my own experiences with things that have happened to me, and I became very fascinated with that. There's some sort of connection to animals in that, with this lack of recollection and thought mapping that we're capable of.

I met a lot of people in 2019, especially when I started entering gay male circles, where I was like, “Oh, my God! That's actually the craziest thing I've ever heard, and it's so amazing that it didn't cause you any pain at all, because that would have taken me out for probably 6 to 9 months.”

I mean, that resonates for me as a gay man. I know I feel apathetic or nonchalant about a lot of my experiences. But, I’m curious from your perspective, what's the overlap that occurred to you between that mode of being and gay mens specifically?

I was probably at a point in my gender transition where I was assimilated into gay male spaces culturally. That's the thing that happened materially, where I was in those conversations as an equal for the first time. It’s also that Lana Del Rey thing a little bit too. I just feel some sort of kinship or love or respect or admiration for people who put themselves in dangerous situations in order to get their needs met.

But I think specifically with Sex Goblin, just in terms of gay men, I was just like, “Oh, that's a different perspective and a different flavor than what happened to me.” It's a myriad of things, but essentially we’re coping with our world through some form of hypersexuality, or by parroting whatever you think you're supposed to be doing. I just really resonate with people or characters who are putting themselves in danger for whatever that need is. It’s this pseudo-invincible magic: that you can take something on paper that someone would be like, “That’s so traumatizing” and then be like, “It actually wasn't.”

What do you mean by “the Lana Del Rey thing,” though?

Just, you know, “This is what makes us girls.”

I don’t think I understand [laughs].

Like gay son/thot daughter, to be incredibly reductive. Performing some sort of role under the patriarchy like blah blah blah: gay son/thot daughter.

That's beautiful.

We have much to learn from each other.


You can buy Sex Goblin from Nightboat Books here.

Photography: Cameron Blaylock