The Acid Nightmare by M.E. Chaber
The Acid Nightmare (1967) is by the pulp and science fiction writer Kendell Foster Crossen (1910-1981). Written under his pseudonymn M.E. Chaber, the book is his second novel dealing with the psychedelic substance d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a decade after 1955’s The Splintered Man. In between, he also penned a short story entitled ‘The Twisted Trap’ that utilises LSD, which appeared in the magazine Bluebook (June 1961, Vol. 100, No. 5). As with both previous works, the psychedelic is employed within a crime/mystery genre, although rather dealing with the secret services and/or medical context, The Acid Nightmare is principally set within the social context of late sixties Greenwich Village, New York.
The story is narrated by the character Johnny Blake. It begins several months after the tragic death of his parents and, without any remaining family, he has moved to Greenwich Village, from his hometown in upstate New York. Without many friends, Blake is doing menial jobs while waiting to go to the Vietnam war, having recently been drafted. Lonely, he strikes up a friendship with the wealthy and over-confident Ray Perry in a bar. ‘Father Perry,’ as he describes himself, takes Blake home and initiates him into the world of LSD. Having only read about LSD in local newspapers, Blake vaguely remembered it being used by ‘juvenile delinquents’ and it making them go crazy. Licking the substance from an envelope, Perry tells him that you can take it anyway, but that envelopes, cubes, and sucking it from clothe are methods harder for the cops to detect.
‘The first trip was a good one,’ Blake tells the reader. ‘I liked it. I saw things and felt things I never knew about. I liked it because it made me feel that Johnny Blake was somebody, I’d never felt that before’ (7). When his eyes were closed, ‘It looked like July Fourth fireworks. But I had never seen colors like that. The balls came together and changed into circles, squares, and triangles. They were followed by some kind of figures I’d never seen’ (13). Eventually he went ‘swimming … swimming … swimming’ on the music in the room, and finally coming down off the experience, ‘I had the strange feeling that what I had gone through was the real world’ and that the sober world seemed ‘pale and lifeless’ (16-17). While this experience was an exquisite one for Blake, it presages the story’s development by observing that LSD makes one question reality—indeed, this is this central effect on which the book’s mystery arc hinges.
Not long after, Perry takes Blake to an ‘acid party’ to try the drug again and to meet with a girl he likes called Nancy. A sense of the ominous precedes the party as discussions about LSD guides for bad trips and police busts ensue. Blake is introduced to Mickey Hare, an LSD dealer for the parties, who works out of a candy and toy store, but who never takes any substances (including alcohol) himself. He also meets the owner of the flat where the party tales place, Dick Sands. There, the acid party becomes the acid nightmare. Crossen’s ability to describe a bad trip through a sequential turn of events is masterfully done. A moment of jealousy quickly becomes anger as Blake is irritated by Perry talking to Nancy, and everyone’s faces become judgemental at his outburst, turning ugly, animal-like and grotesque. Then the bad trip becomes nightmare. Blake hears a bang and comes out of a trance into an estranged scene. He notices a pistol in his hand, seemingly writhing as a snake, and a man lying on the floor. Men rush in, he attempts to fight them, but is knocked out. A question about the reality of his experience is thus posited: did Blake murder somebody?
It is worth mentioning a strange aside here. Crossen has an uncanny ability to describe the real world of LSD use in his novels. In The Splintered Man, the story revolved around the drug’s nefarious use by the secret services under the pressures of the cold war. This, of course, turned out to be true years later when information about the CIA’s MKUltra and Artichoke projects came to light. You may have noticed that Mickey Hare and Dick Sands are names incredibly close to Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead drummer who joined the same year the book was published) and Nick Sand (contemporary underground LSD chemist). While it appears incredibly unlikely that Crossen knew them, particularly Sand as very few people would have been aware of his alchemy in 1967, the coincidence is certainly weird.
When Blake awakes in the Bellevue hospital, in the psychiatric division of the prison ward, he learns that it was Perry who was shot and killed. Eventually speaking to an undercover policeman called George Lyman, Blake learns that Perry was working for a criminal narcotics-dealing organisation called The Syndicate, whilst simultaneously working as a police informant. Not only did Lyman believe that Blake was innocent, he believed Hare (a career criminal) was to blame. According to Lyman:
The Syndicate controls most of the narcotics sales in the country. When LSD was still legal, almost anyone could buy a simple chemistry set and make his own. Then they didn’t pay any attention to it, But when it became against the law, a lot of people became afraid to make it. Prices started going up. The Syndicate began to move in. And they started pushing it as hard as they could (62)
Aside from the belief that making LSD was easy (I am told making high quality LSD is quite difficult!), Crossen has included an interesting critique of the drug laws in the text, one which is still wielded today. Namely, that by putting substances outside the regulatory framework of law, they are used for generating money in the black market, and become embroiled in more nefarious operations. Lyman is the axiomatic voice of social critique here. Blake later asks him whether kids using acid and pot should be arrested, he replies, ‘I don’t know whether the laws are right or not. It’s not up to me to judge that. In the meantime, right or wrong, kids are breaking the law. People like Mickey Hare take advantage of it to make money,’ charging $5 when it costs ‘about a penny’ to make (93). Contrary to the first statement here, the two prior quotes taken together appear to point towards a belief that the laws are indeed wrong i.e. they fuel criminality. Earlier he tells Blake that if he wants good people as cops, judges, and lawyers, he needs to vote for them, to which Blake replies: ‘“I ain’t old enough to vote […] But I’m old enough to go out and fight for something that someone else voted for”’ (92). This reads as a criticism of those who criminalize and militarize young people who had no say over those decisions; the legality of LSD nor the war in Vietnam.
Lyman hatches a plan to throw The Syndicate off by making it appear that Blake has a high powered lawyer, a court appearance, and is let off on bail. Several chapters are devoted to this operation, and they focus on Blake’s brief return to his hometown, exploring notions of trust and community. There, for instance, Blake is able to trust in his friends to continue the ruse and help throw off The Syndicate’s tail. Eventually, back in New York, they both arrange with Hare to go to another acid party. Lyman’s plan is to surreptitiously slip Hare some LSD: ‘I would guess that there are a number of things on Mickey’s mind that bother him. So under any circumstances it’s a good bet that he might have a bad trip. On top of that, I’ll bet he’s afraid of the stuff. If I can get the acid to him, and we push him a little, I think he might fall apart’ (115). Of course, the plan works and as Hare becomes increasingly unsettled by being high, Blake accuses him of the murder, while Lyman mimics the prior party by lying on the floor with (fake) blood coming out of him. Unable to grasp the reality of the situation, Hare crumbles and confesses all.
The role of LSD in The Acid Nightmare reveals two fascinating understandings implicit in the author’s description and use of the substance, ones employed with great effect in the book. Firstly, the drug’s action. This follows from a psychotomimetic reading that was prevalent in the 1950s, which described hallucinogens, such as LSD and mescaline, as producing a temporary or model psychosis in its user. There are two aspects of this; that it is able to produce a kind of madness (or confusion over reality), but simultaneously also model particular experiences (mimetic). LSD’s madness producing quality is described as a questioning or disillusionment of one’s own reality in the book. This essential confusion is then used to model certain other experiences. Psychiatrists and psychologists by this point had indeed been modelling both mystical experiences and the reliving of childhood ones in such a manner. In the novel, however, it is the reliving of the murder of Perry by Hare, orchestrated by Lyman’s ruse as the dead man.
The second understanding centres on authority, which is touched upon by Lyman when he discusses the substance’s place outside the law. In other words, if LSD’s action is perceived as a stripping away of personal agency (via the cultivation of confusion), it establishes a new authority over the experience of the user. Derived from confusion, it is enacted by the person (or people) executing the experience for somebody else i.e. the agency over set and setting. This is aptly illustrated when one juxtaposes the two group LSD experiences in which a similar trick is used. Firstly by Hare, in whose hands the drug has been placed by the law and who uses the confusion to make it appear that Blake is the murderer; secondly, by Lyman who is working on behalf of the law, and tricking Hare in his LSD confusion. The lesson from both is that LSD is a powerful substance for confusion and modelling, thus it begs the question: which authority should wield it? If, as Crossen seems to describe, the law is a higher moral agency, then why did it hand over LSD’s power to society’s criminal elements in the first place? A mystery within a mystery.