The Gantry Episode by June Drummond
The Gantry Episode (1968) by June Drummond was published by Victor Gollancz. One of a host of novels published in the late 1960s, which all had LSD being pumped into a local water supply as their major premise, this particular one manages to stay well clear of any lurid hippie exploitation, and gives the reader a thorough-going crime mystery narrative. June Drummond (1923-2011) was a prolific South African author of crime and thriller novels who had her first book, The Black Unicorn, published in 1959, during a six year stay in Britain.
The Gantry Episode is a crime novel set in the fictional town of Gantry, an hour’s drive from London, and follows Inspector David Cope, former narcotics agent, who is called away from a fishing holiday to the town. When he arrives, Gantry is in military lock-down under the command of Colonel Mobbe because the town’s reservoir had been spiked with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). A number of deaths had already occurred due to an out-of-control bus with a spiked driver at the helm, and while many of the residents had been safely removed from the quarantine zone, the infirm and a variety of interested parties remained.
Gantry, like the rest of the world, was an emotional mess, freaking-out on a dose of materialism, crawling with panic in an age that tried to live without moral or ethics. A world not of men but of jelly-babies. (167)
Indeed, it is the interested parties which make for the mystery. The town has a Science College in which LSD is both studied and manufactured—the principle scientists and college heads remain. The local wealthy folk, including the long-standing matriarch of the town and relative city newbies who throw regular shindigs in their large houses, also remain. Not to mention, a number of interested politicians from both sides of the House who wish to avert a national crisis, and who are keen to keep the press in the dark. Suffice to say, a web of intrigue centred on the familiar tropes of love, jealousy, and professional integrity is uncovered by Cope. Throw in a morphine addicted girl, and a homeless drunk having visions of angels and divine intervention, and the question of who spiked the water supply becomes an intrigue par excellence.
One of the most fascinating facets of this novel is that it largely veers away from typical hippie-orgy-party-madness that characterises much of the popular literature concerned with LSD during the late 1960s. There are, of course, touches of acid parties, and a relationship with the narcotic trade, but Drummond also introduces a more dangerous thread centred on the pursuit of science. In many ways, it reflects the reality of LSD leaving the clinic and entering the everyday world, through the behaviour of scientists, much more accurately. There is no one problematic group of people, rather there are people with problems and hang-ups who are caught within the pressures of life. In this respect, the novel is a much clearer vision of society, and also the history of LSD.
And that, thought Cope, was the real danger. Normality. A world over-crowded, without peace, without moral patterns. A world so terrifying that ordinary people tried to crawl into a bottle of brandy, or float away on a big bright bubble of lysergic acid diethylamide. In a mad world, people looked for sanity in strange places. (224)
LSD being used to spike water supplies is by now a well-trodden motif, and is of course impossible due to the chemicals added to drinking water. The historian Andy Roberts examines it in the article Reservoir Drugs: The Enduring Myth of LSD in the Water Supply. In it, Roberts cites an interview with Desmond O’Brien, co-founder of the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea, London, and published in London Life (19 March 1966), which quotes O’Brien as saying they could take control of the Capital in less than eight hours through this method. It was, of course, an irresistible plot line for authors, with a host of novels published in the course of just a few years employing it in their narratives.
Of the character of LSD in the novel, a number of interesting comments can be made. For instance there is a weird reversal of the usual path of the gateway myth. Cope notes: “LSD can be a useful kindergarten where you pick up the suckers for real addiction” (89)—such as cocaine, morphine, marijuana, and really weirdly, hyoscine. The image of LSD as a divine gateway has been quite interestingly turned on its head, as a gateway to addictive drugs, and covered by the fact that users were frequently told that it was not a drug! Whether or not one believes this, it is quite a novel approach to the motif.
To my mind, the author either displays a deep understanding of the psychiatric understanding of LSD as stimulating unconscious processes, or had some sort of experience herself—maybe both. When the town’s matriarch Mrs Price describes her accidental trip, she said: “[…] it was as if something had climbed into the shell of my body, and taken over. Some creature cold and vast and without a soul occupied my living space […] For the first time in my life, I know that demonic possession is real” (103). Cope dismissively replies that the demon was simply LSD, but she quickly shuts him down: “No.’ She focused her eyes on him. ‘LSD is only the door. The demon is much older, as old as Hell, as old as guilt. He watches, waits, and when the door opens…” (103). It is an extremely intense moment in the novel and feels like it belies a deeper reading of the LSD experience—especially as it’s practically the only account given in the whole novel.
When I started reviewing these late 1960s books that utilised LSD in their narratives, I thought it was unlikely that I would ever recommend reading one. In this case, however, I would. Drummond displays not only the ability of a skilled writer, but she treats her topic with a certain amount of detachment and realism, which is something very few writers about psychedelic substances manage.