Luke O’Neil’s World Is Hell, and He’s Sharing It with Us

The writer and Boston contributor's new book debuts this week, and we wanted to make sure he's OK.

Photos provided

I worry about Luke O’Neil sometimes. Possibly more than any of the writers covering the million horrible things in the world right now—innocent children who become casualties of war, desperate people resorting to GoFundMe campaigns to pay for healthcare—he has a way of internalizing the sorrows of the news cycle, presenting its most troubling themes alongside his own struggles and weaving it all into a grand narrative about decay and despair. Reading his popular, semi-weekly newsletter Hell World is a lot like staring deep into O’Neil’s soul, and it’s often a pretty dark place.

Hell World is unusual, to say the least. It’s a mix of reporting, essay-writing, memoir, song lyrics, music videos, tweets, and whatever else appeals to him in a given week, all of it written in a stream-of-consciousness style that eschews commas, leans into run-on sentences, and is often thousands of words long. It can get grim, but it’s incisive in a way most other newsletters aren’t. And it’s found an audience: Right now it has about 7,000 subscribers, 1,100 of whom pay for the privilege.

If you’re not one of them, you may know him from the handful of times he’s made headlines of his own in the last year, like when the Boston Globe, under pressure from conservative commentators, fired him over a column professing his desire to piss in Bill Kristol’s salmon, or when a piece he wrote about the damage Fox News does to families got widespread attention. He has also written for Boston magazine about topics ranging from Boston’s bar culture to the digital remnants of loved ones who die. His work has also appeared in Esquire, The Guardian, and a host of other outlets.

O’Neil’s new book adapted from the newsletter, Welcome to Hell World, comes out this week. So it seemed like a good time to check in on him, and make sure he’s doing alright. We talked for a bit on the phone this week to talk about what’s going on in his head these days, and whether he’s found a way to wring joy out of the internet’s ceaseless inferno.

What’s the thinking behind Hell World, would you say, and  how do you decide what to put in it?

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and reading the news pretty much all day, and when I’m reading story after story that comes down the timeline of the terrible things going on in the world, it puts me into this weird sort of feverish hypnosis in a way. It can’t be good for our brains to be having this constant whiplash back and forth between a natural disaster here, a shooting here, you know, some sort of terminal illness-type story there. I started to feel that more frequently, and last year, when I started doing the newsletter I just sort of naturally slipped into this weird state of mind. I didn’t invent the concept of stream of consciousness or anything by any stretch, but it kind of all blended in together into what I hope is a unique and affecting thing.

It’s really not that hard to find these types of stories—stories about, you know, institutional corruption or police violence, rapacious capitalist scum mistreating their workers, or health care nightmares that people go through because of our terrible healthcare system. It’s actually harder for me to decide what not to write about. Alongside the other people’s problems, I’ve also sort of documented my own, whether it’s some chronic injuries I’ve been trying to deal with or mental health stuff, or addiction issues. They definitely all sort of feed into one another.

I just kind of keep a running tab of stories that I’m monitoring and it’s like, Oh, yeah, that’s Hell World right there. And then a lot of the time people send me things now.

It seems like you’re internalizing all of this constantly. Is it exhausting?

I 100 percent need to step away sometimes from reading the news or reporting on some of these stories because, you know, my own mental health is is pretty fucking tenuous as it is before we even get to any of this other stuff.

At the same time, I want to be clear that compared to a lot of these people that I’m talking to or writing about, I still lead a pretty fucking charmed life, you know? No one I know or in my family has been murdered in one of our regular gun massacres, and the police aren’t as of yet ruining my life. So while I do, for sure, take this all internally, very much so I still do it with the recognition that I’m pretty fucking lucky all things considered.

I guess I do worry about you a little bit. What’s your message for people who read your work and are like, Is he alright?

I do get that a good amount, and I don’t know if I am or not, to be honest. One of my best friends asked me that once, like, Are things for you really as bad as you say sometimes?” And I don’t know. It’s something I talk about with my therapist a lot. I’m not in imminent danger of hurting myself or anything. But thank you for your concern.

In a way, it’s very therapeutic. It makes me feel better. I’ve been a musician for much of my life and I would always write pretty harrowingly sad songs. I guess that’s always just been a way I process things. I am the guy who runs Emo Night Boston [a monthly party at the Sinclair that features emo music]. So it’s always been in my nature to be drawn to things that are depressing and sad in a way, and not to wallow in them in the case of Hell World, but to keep these things in the forefront of people’s minds. I don’t think it probably has any real effect on the real world and isn’t solving any problems. But I certainly think it’s good to help people keep perspective on exactly what kind of country we live in.

The infamous Fox News piece connected a lot of people who’d had experiences losing family members to the channel’s programming. I’m guessing that helped them in some way.

People write to me all all the time saying, like, “Reading this makes me feel better.” “It feels like I’m not alone” and shit. That’s about as good a thing as you can hear if you’re a writer in my opinion. And I don’t know, maybe there should be a next step where we can turn it into sort of concrete and beneficial action. I just haven’t really figured out what that is yet.

The Boston Globe, famously, fired you after the backlash to your column about wanting to piss in Bill Kristol’s salmon. Have you moved on from that ordeal yet, do you think?

I don’t really care about it anymore. I never wanted to really do the column in the first place. I pretty much knew going into it that I was gonna get fired, but I figured it was gonna be for something I tweeted, not something that I actually wrote in their paper. I wrote about that in Hell World once. Like, go read my Globe column while it’s still there, because they’re going to 100 percent fire me.

But I don’t really care. Part of the thing about doing this newsletter and trying to make a living off of it is that I’m so sick of having to deal with that sort of shit from institutional places that don’t understand the enormity of the moment we’re in, and still don’t understand the people that they’re up against. Right now as we’re speaking, a bunch of New York Times and Washington Post reporters are sharing this story that Beto O’Rourke kicked out this Breitbart guy from one of his rallies. And they’re all like, ‘You can’t do this! This is bad!’ And it was like, I cannot believe that these people we’re supposed to trust to explain the world to us are falling for this shit. It’s like they’re refs in a WWE match and one side has a folding steel chair and they’re hitting the other guy over the head with it. And the ref is like looking the other way and has absolutely no control of what’s going on. It just really bums me out.

When something like the Bret Stephens “bed bug” thing comes around, can you get joy out of that? Like something that’s just as profoundly funny as that?

I gorged myself on that for about 24 hours, and then I kind of got sick of it like you do with anything on Twitter. It’s fun to see a guy like that get his comeuppance, but I would rather that these people weren’t in their positions in the first place. He’s still gonna be a New York Times columnist, he’s still gonna be rich, he’s still gonna be invited on cable news all the time. So it doesn’t really make me that happy to see, because what’s actually going to come of it?

It certainly was very fucking funny. “Come meet my wife and call me a bedbug” is like one of the all time, you know, Mad Online meltdowns I’ve seen in a long time. It’s like lightning striking. But no, I do still have fun online from time to time. I’m not Robert Smith or whatever. I’m not some goth walking around always miserable. I am pretty much always miserable. But you know, I can laugh and have fun.

You’ve also written a lot about bars. Where are you drinking these days?

Mostly I just drink at home now. I live—well, actually, I don’t want to say where I live because Nazis are trying to kill me—but I live outside of Boston and the past year or two I haven’t kept up on all the new places anymore. My wife and I, to go out, we can’t justify spending $150 on dinner or something. But the Sinclair is my go-to spot and that’s where I do Emo Night. And, you know, Charlie’s in Harvard Square. Those are my mainstays.

What’s it like to be doxxed by Nazis?

There’s some Nazi site where they doxx people so you can SWAT them, so I had a whole thing where I had to go down to the police department and be like, ‘If somebody calls and says there’s a shooting at my address, can you just like double check with me before you come in?’ So yeah, that’s kind of a bummer. Hopefully if anyone calls in a shooting at my house, they’ll maybe not take it seriously. That’s the trick of it, though, is because what if there was an actually shooting at my house, and now it’s like a boy cried wolf situation?

Yeah what if those guys just decided to show up one day?

I don’t really think anybody hates me enough to kill me, to be honest. Thousands of people hate me, but I just don’t think it’s gonna happen. It’d be good for book sales, probably.

Any tips for people thinking about starting a newsletter?

Do it now. Because it’s going to be like podcasts pretty soon. I’m worried it could be get oversaturated at some point. I just tell people to unlearn whatever it is you’ve learned from what you’re doing as a freelancer, because it can literally be anything. It could end up being something that’s pretty unique—unique to your personality, unique to your talent. I’ve never been very good at being a good worker in a way that bosses or management want you to be, and I’m sure a lot of people feel that way, too. I don’t think I’m some sort of unique fucking talent, like anybody could do what I do. I just happen to have decided to do it and got lucky in some ways. Then again this whole thing could collapse in like a year, and then I’ll be back with my hat in my hand asking, Please can I freelance for you?

But in the meantime, fuck no!

O’Neil is a regular contributor to magazines including Boston and Esquire, and hosts a radio show on Indie 617 and Emo Night Boston at the Sinclair. His book is out now, and you can find it here.