Reviewed By Julia Service

Gatekeeper By Patrick Johnson, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 96 pages, $16.00

Hired assassins. Human experimentation. Rape forums. And these things only break the surface of the deep internet. The hidden web. The dark web. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s full of the darkest and depraved parts of society. The world seems like an endless resource for criminals and psychopaths. After all, who else would be interested in a world with those kinds of resources–but what happens when an average person joins the scene? Gatekeeper, Patrick Johnson’s debut collection of poetry, explores that question, following an unnamed speaker down the digital rabbit hole where he falls deeper and deeper to a point where his involvement goes beyond reason. Then the question turns into, what happens when they can’t break away from the scene? When their life begins to revolve around it?

As a work of experimental fiction, Gatekeeper explores this technological world by blending poetry with compelling sections of prose. While the prose moves the plot forward, the poetry dives into the deeper meanings of the text with references to Dante’s Inferno and other literature, as well as quotes from modern day artists and serial killers. The lyrical language juxtaposes the heavy subject matter in a way that reflects society’s reaction to the dark web. We hear about cases that occur with sex trafficking and similar horrors, but our focus remains on how it affects us. Johnson describes it perfectly when writes, “In mainstream news articles about the deep internet, journalists explain the process by answering questions that the audience would ask, like ‘How does a person become anonymous?’ ‘Is my information safe?’ and ‘Can the government find them?’—rather than taking on the epidemic of the interface.”

The unnamed speaker is first introduced to the deep internet through a friend, and it’s not long before he becomes an avid user himself. From finding a chart that details an experiment of how long people can last in freezing cold water before they die to reading the transcripts of kids trapped in prison, the speaker experiences the dark web through forums and posts by a user named Anon. If the dark web is the rabbit hole, then Anon is the white rabbit that the speaker follows down into this demented Wonderland. The relationship between the speaker and Anon can only be described as an obsession, and an unhealthy one at that. At one point, the speaker leaves a barbeque to return to his browsing, finding the online world with Anon more enticing than the real one. Through the poems, readers can sense the changes and transformations of the speaker’s thoughts. 

Johnson gives us a glimpse into the horrors of the deep web and what one can find there, like the aforementioned cold water human experiment, but Gatekeeper’s main focus is on the effect that it has on the psyche. How easy it is to fall under its spell. The book is most definitely relevant to the society that we live in today, with all our advancements in technology and how easy it for the average person to access this world of deprivation. Included one of the pages is a screen grab that shows a selection box with the words “Help censored users reach the Tor network.” It can be as easy as that. The collection also relates perfectly how we can feel more known by someone we have never met and lives behind a screen than the people who are right in front of our eyes, with hints at how isolating that feels and how dangerous it might be. In an age where the digital world rules and online friends are less of a stigma, Gatekeeper fits right in.