Saturday, July 14, 2007


Resurrecting Val Lewton Horror

by Nick Zegarac

“What monsters we would see walking among us if people wore their true faces.” Carl Gustav Jung

In the spring of 1937, the story editor at Selznick International marched into David O. Selznick’s office with a copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind tucked firmly under his arm. Selznick, a literary purist – but more than a little wary that civil war pictures had recently been judged ‘box office poison’ by Variety - awaited his editor’s critique. “Mr. Selznick,” the editor declared, “This is nothing but a piece of ponderous trash and you’ll be making the biggest mistake of your life if you try to film it!”

That man was Val Lewton, and although time has proven his snap assessment to be something of a gross oversight, no one could deny that in the pending decade following GWTW’s triumphant premiere, Lewton made few such errors in judgment away from Selznick.


Born Vladimir Leventon on May 7, 1904 in Yalta Crimea, Val Lewton derived his innate ability as a story teller from an upbringing fostered in the arts. His mother had been an accomplished piano player and writer. His Aunt Adelaide, with a name change to the more exotic Alla Nazimova, was the toast of Berlin, then Broadway – and finally, silent films in America. But the young Lewton’s formative years were mired in familial upheaval. Val’s mother divorced his father when he was only two and, following her sister’s lead, moved Val to America to seek her fame and fortune. Mother and son eventually settled in Port Chester New York to be near Adelaide.

Influenced by the strong women in his life, Lewton’s education was dedicated to studying the classics in literature. These books imbued Lewton with an appreciation for great writing that he eventually parlayed into a not so successful career as a journalist. In his spare time, Lewton also dabbled in poetry, but his real love was weaving lurid tales of the macabre. To pay the bills he worked for several newspapers and was promptly fired from Connecticut’s Darien-Stamford Review when it was discovered by his editor that a story he had written about a truckload of prostrated kosher chickens during a heat wave had been a complete fabrication.

By all accounts, the young Lewton was not terribly prepossessing about the direction of his future. Nor did he particularly care about his early writing in any capacity beyond a pay check. However, at the age of 21 Lewton published his first novel, No Bed of Her Own which Paramount Studios eventually bought as a film vehicle for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in 1932. Nine years later, with a new job in MGM’s New York publicity Department, Lewton could lay claim to being the author of a dozen such pulp fiction books – lurid tales, written with great imagination. One, The Bagheeta (first published in the anthology ‘Weird Tales’ and the story of a woman capable of transforming herself into a cat), in retrospect, seems to foreshadow Lewton’s first film hit at RKO: Cat People (1942).

In 1934, David O. Selznick was preparing an adaptation of Taras Bulba. Lewton’s mother, Nina – a Selznick employee in the story department was advised to assemble a writing team of Russian talent to aid in the research and development of this property. Unbeknownst to Selznick, Nina slipped in the name of her own son. Lewton was promptly hired. Though Selznick’s plans for Taras Bulba eventually fell by the waste side, Lewton quickly acquired a toe hold in the writer’s department, eventually rising through the ranks to become Selznick’s story editor. During his tenure with Selznick, Lewton was responsible for putting into development Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Gone With The Wind and Rebecca. Yet Lewton’s mind was generally not on his work during this tenure. His own contemporary slant and affinity for racy fiction clashed with Selznick’s verve for the established literary classics, and Lewton was quite open to friends and family about his ‘misery’ while working for Selznick. As fate would have it, Lewton’s luck and fortunes were about to change with a chance meeting that would ultimately transform his career.


In 1941, struggling studio RKO had courted the most popular young talent of the radio airwaves, Orson Welles to a studio contract with unprecedented power and prestige. Welles had been given unlimited resources and virtual autonomy to produce whatever projects he desired. Although his first film, Citizen Kane (1941) had been judged a critical masterpiece – its controversial subject, unorthodox cinematography and a very public clash with newspaper magnet, William Randolph Hearst (on whom the character of Kane shared more than a passing resemblance) had resulted in a limited theatrical engagement and overwhelming loss of profits for the studio. The sordid subject matter of Welles’ follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) so disturbed the executives at RKO that Welles was publicly dismissed from the project after a rough cut had been assembled. Instead, the film was recut with a tacked on happy ending and, predictably, failed to find its audience at the box office.

In the meantime, Val Lewton arrived at a Hollywood house party in which RKO studio mogul, Charles Koerner was also in attendance. Koerner had been directly responsible for Welles’ dismissal. He also harbored an affinity for Universal Studios lucrative exploitation horror films; Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, et al.

So the lore of Hollywood goes: under the new studio edict of ‘showmanship – not genius’, Koerner asked a friend about Lewton. Reportedly, the friend told Koerner that Lewton was the author of ‘horrible stories’ – a comment that Koerner misinterpreted as ‘horror stories.’ Koerner promptly approached Lewton with the prospect of leaving Selznick to work for him. Though Lewton had his misgivings about quitting a lucrative and secure position with the most successful independent producer in films, he left Selznick with the promise to produce his own movies at RKO in March 1942.

To say that Lewton was embraced by Koerner as the valiant successor to Welles upon his arrival at RKO is an overstatement. Where Welles had been given every opportunity and any budget to realize his vision, Lewton had instead been assigned pre-tested titles and curtailed in his spending and duration of shooting schedules. The pressure imposed on Lewton’s creativity must have seemed stifling to many on the outside. But Lewton reasoned that he had only two choices to consider: either succumb to these limitations or rise above the B-material and transform it into A-list thrillers.
Lewton chose the latter option, employing cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca to evoke highly stylized high contrast lighting. Composer Roy Web (above) was brought on board to underscore Lewton’s films with vintage period music and lilting lullabies – hardly the accepted or expected cliché for horror films of their day. Although Lewton would rely heavily on skilled writers like DeWitt Bodeen – the final draft of virtually all of Lewton’s classic horror films was rewritten by Lewton himself, though he staunchly refused to accept co-screen credit for his efforts.

To direct his first feature at RKO, Lewton turned to gifted artist, Jacques Tourneur whom he had worked with as second unit on Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities (1936) at MGM. Tourneur’s handling of the storming of the Bastille had developed into the signature sequence for that film and Lewton knew that he could rely on Tourneur (a man whose taste and affinity for dark stories was akin to his own) to see his vision through.

Given the title ‘Cat People’ and the premise that the film be based on Algernon Blackwood’s Ancient Sorceries, Lewton instead favored a contemporary story about fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) – a woman who marries architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), but is unable to consummate their relationship for fear that it will unleash a disturbing animalistic urge that transforms her into a murderous panther. Cat People (1942) was the first in a new breed of horror films; a psychological melodrama in which fate – not monsters or masks – tap into the audiences’ fear of the unknown. The film is also quite sophisticated in its sexual undertones, most notably and perversely played out through the relationship between Irena and her randy psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway).

A runaway sleeper hit, Cat People is justly famous for two key sequences. In the first, Oliver’s work partner (and soon to be sympathetic love interest) Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) is seen walking home alone at night through Central Park. The mood is somber, foreboding and almost entirely void of sound as Alice becomes more and more suspicious that she is not alone. At the moment when the audiences’ paranoia is on par with the heroine’s, director Tourneur draws attention to the left of the frame, seconds before a bus suddenly enters with a powerful hiss and screech from the right side. The shock value of this sequence proved so effective at frightening its audience that even today all such copycat sequences in horror films are referred to as ‘the bus’ – a subtle homage to Lewton and Tourneur’s (right) debut.

In the second sequence, Alice is seen taking a swim in an underground pool when the overhead lights are suddenly turned off – leaving Alice isolated with only the underwater reflectors to guide her way. A few ominous cat growls and violent screams from Alice echoing through the darkened area are all that the film provides to hint at Irena’s transformation and stalking of Alice – yet the mood of that moment is pervasively diabolical and spine chilling.

RKO had expected something quite different from Lewton – a conventional horror film with slinking cat creatures devouring their unsuspecting prey. But no one could deny that what Lewton had created instead was a powerful piece of cinema on a grossly modest budget of only $200,000, and an 18 day shoot. He had relied heavily on Van Nest Polglase and Albert S. D’Agostino’s wizardry in the art department to generate evocative and disquieting secret corridors of sublime chills. The results rang true at box office registers around the country and Lewton was branded by RKO’s marketing department as “the sultan of shudders.”


If audiences were convinced that they had seen a woman morph into a blood-thirsty panther in Cat People, Lewton was determined to make them believe in the occult of the undead with his next – and arguably, best filmic masterwork; I Walked With A Zombie (1943). The story is actually Bronte’s Jane Eyre updated and teleported to a voodoo cult in the West Indies. The film begins with the arrival of amiable nurse, Betsy (Frances Dee) to take medical charge of the very ill Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) – a woman trapped in a state of hypnotic trance. Holland’s fiancée, Wesley Rand (James Ellison) is convinced that his lover has succumbed to the occult – something neither Betsy nor Holland’s brother, Paul (Tom Conway) believe in.

Once again, mood became paramount to telling the story; the manufactured cane fields and village locales – all standing sets on the RKO backlot - introducing audiences to a stylized visual poem of imagined frights. Lewton’s son recalls that during preproduction on the film, his father could be heard ambitiously typing away on his Royal typewriter in the family’s living room, working tirelessly into the wee hours of the morning on revising the script by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray.
Though I Walked With A Zombie was yet another colossal success for RKO, some executives at the studio exercised concern over the lack of ‘star power’ in both it and Cat People. To this end, the studio encouraged Lewton to pursue and woo Universal’s master of the macabre – Boris Karloff (right) for Lewton’s next project, The Body Snatcher (1943) – a tale of grave-robbing that eventually escalates to murder. Karloff, a witty, adroit and quiet man in real life, had somewhat tired of the Universal brand of monster mash by this point in his career. He welcomed the role of Cabman John Gray, a spurious provider of medical cadavers because it afforded him the opportunity to play a ‘straight’ role and not a supernatural monster.

In the film, Gray’s failure to produce affidavits to go with the bodies he provides ruthless scientist, Dr. Wolfe (Henry Daniels) eventually result in the discovery of a series of murders by his assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) and by Joseph (Bela Lugosi) the Cabman’s naïve and greedy butler. The film also marked the first association between Lewton and director Robert Wise.

Wise had served as editor on Citizen Kane and had also been forced by the studio to truncate, recut and reshoot the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. After paying his penitence for the failure of the latter, Wise was promoted by Lewton in the director’s chair on The Body Snatcher.
Although the film remains a bleak and brooding portrait of human greed and ambition – it is not quite up to the caliber of Tourneur’s work on Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie; perhaps reason enough for Lewton to return to Tourneur for his next film: The Leopard Man (1943).
As the most successful horror creation of the 1940s had been Universal’s The Werewolf, RKO reasoned that a man transformed into a leopard would be just as effective for their studio. Instead, Lewton chose to provide an even more brilliant adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s classic tale about occultism and religious fervor, peppered in dark ambiguity and truly haunted recesses that had made Lewton the envy of higher budgeted horror aficionados. When nightclub performer, Jerry Manning’s (Dennis O’Keefe) leashed leopard escapes, people in the tiny Mexican hamlet begin turning up mauled. However, as an all-out hunt for the exotic animal ensues, Jerry grows more convinced that his cat might not be the villain everyone is looking for.

Once again, Tourneur’s direction brought an unparalleled stark vision of terror. In the film’s most celebrated sequence (a direct rip off of Alice’s walk alone in Cat People) a Mexican girl returning home late at night under a train trestle is chased by the escaped leopard. She pounds on the door of her mother’s home, begging to be let in.
Nothing of the girl or the leopard are seen, but a series of wild cat grunts and a loud thud against the front door are capped off by a thin trickle of blood sliding between the cracks of the wooden floor boards. The Leopard Man marked the last time Jacque Tourneur would helm a Lewton film. The powers that be at RKO had assessed that a separation of these two creative titans would result in even more amazing works done independently.
Lewton’s next pair of offerings was among his blackest and most grotesque amusements: The Seventh Victim and The Ghost Ship (both shot and released in 1943). In the first, Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) leaves the cloistered atmosphere of her boarding school to search for her elder sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) – a woman who has gone missing somewhere in New York. Directed by Mark Robson, the film unravels a Satanic worship cult responsible for several brutal homicides and human sacrifices, each leading up to ‘the seventh victim;’ Jacqueline, whom the group believes has betrayed their faith and trust. Unrelentingly dark and bleak in its message of death as a plausible salvation for a wasted life, The Seventh Victim began Lewton’s slow decline in popularity, both with audiences and his bosses at the studio.

Lewton’s next endeavor, The Ghost Ship (1943) was cause for even more consternation. The film stars Russell Wade (left) as Tom Merriam a third mate working under Captain Stone (Richard Dix). At first there is a mutual bond of respect between these two men. But then the body count on board begins to rise, causing Tom to ponder: is Stone merely uncaring or is he a maniacal psychopath? The Ghost Ship became the subject of litigation after a charge was levied against Lewton; that he had plagiarized whole portions from an already published work. Rather than pay the nominal sum requested – and thereby admit that he had pilfered the work in totem – Lewton chose to withdraw the film from circulation. For decades, The Ghost Ship remained a lost Lewton classic until Warner Home Video wrangled the legalities and reissued it on DVD in 1998.


By 1944, Lewton and RKO were ready for another super hit. The studio believed that revisiting Lewton’s past success would be the answer. Hence, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) was slated as a continuation of the chills Lewton and Tourneur had evoked in Cat People. Initially, Gunter von Fritsch had been assigned to direct the film. But his meticulous pacing and slow output forced Lewton to replace him with Robert Wise midway through production.

However, those expecting another fright fest were instead shocked to find a rather morbid – but light – fairytale in its place; one concerning the daughter of Alice (Jane Randolph) and Oliver (Kent Smith). Amy (Ann Carter) is a sad and friendless child. But her prayers for a playmate are answered by the reappearance of Oliver’s first wife, Irena (Simone Simon); this time as a ghostly, but benevolent spirit from the great beyond.

This narrative however was inexplicably interrupted to provide a rather feeble parallel between the lives of aged dowager Julia Farren (Julia Dean), a recluse who lives with but is estranged from her own daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). Simone Simon did not want to do this sequel. She acquiesced as a favor to Lewton, then quickly became displeased when wardrobe provided her with a rather revealing – if ethereal – gown. Today, the film has acquired a patina of respectability from the psychiatric community who view it as a text book example of behavioral science. But at the time of its release, The Curse of the Cat People was a disappointment to both audiences and studio expectations.

Fearing that their hottest producer was nearing burn out, RKO granted Lewton the opportunity to depart the horror genre for two lighthearted films: Youth Runs Wild, and, Mademoiselle Fifi (both made in 1944) – neither was a critical or box office success.

It took Lewton nearly a year to come back with his next horror project: Isle of the Dead (1945) – a film so bleak and unrelenting that when Lewton was asked by executives “what is this movie saying?” Lewton bluntly replied, “It’s saying that death is good.” The story is one of a deadly plague that breaks out on a secluded island in Greece. The people are trapped under quarantine at the behest of world weary general, Nicholas Pherides (Boris Karloff) who begins to suspect that Thea (Ellen Drew), the charge of a superstitious peasant, Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig) is a ‘vorvolaka’; a suedo-vampire/demon, sucking the last remnants of life from the town’s folk.

By this point in his career, Lewton had suffered a minor heart attack and his health – never what one might have considered good – was failing him. Though his greatest fear following the debacle on The Ghost Ship had been getting fired from RKO, by the time Isle of the Dead wrapped up production, Lewton had succumbed to an inner darkness in which he confided only to those who knew him best that his greatest fear was that his own death was near. It was a prolific prediction.

Bedlam (1946) marked the end of Lewton’s cycle of horror at RKO. The film stars Anna Lee as Nell Bowen, the head strong, yet oddly angelic protégé of wealthy patron, Lord Mortimer (Billy House). Crusading for improvements to the conditions of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, Nell is placed in direct confrontation with Master George Sims (Boris Karloff). Sims has Nell wrongfully committed to his institution in order to silence her. At first terrified by her surroundings, Nell soon discovers a crew of wrongfully imprisoned inmates – and a few truly nutty ones – waiting to rebel against Sims. Eventually, the inmates rise against Sims – entombing him alive in the walls of his asylum.

For all intensive purposes, Bedlam also marks the end to Lewton’s contribution to film making. Though he began an association with former RKO alumni Mark Robson and Robert Wise toward forging an independent production company, Robson and Wise eventually excised Lewton from the equation – a move that personally and professionally hurt Lewton’s chances for securing work elsewhere in Hollywood. Lewton’s final years in the business were unsuccessfully spent trying to eschew his reputation as “the sultan of shudders.” He died on March 14, 1951 of a heart attack – a broken genius at the age of 46.
Today, the legacy of Val Lewton is considered just that - formidable genius. His films have arguably withstood changing tastes and the oft’ bastardization of his originality into stock cliché in countless films and several lack luster remakes of his own works. Each of Lewton’s films offers an unsettling ode into the deepest, darkest insecurities of the human condition; fear of the unknown and death.

While horror before Lewton had been a genre removed from the everyday, a place dedicated to the supernatural and quite separate from the real world at large, Lewton’s vision of the apocalyptic brought horror into what scares us most about real life. It changed the way we perceive the ‘scary movie’ and arguably matured the genre well beyond what anyone might have expected before the likes of Lewton had thought it possible.

@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).

Apocalypse in Pennsylvania: A Chapter from "Saint George and the Dragon," A Novel of the Sixties

Salvador Dali's Cubist Crucifixion

Apocalypse in Pennsylvania: A Chapter from “Saint George and the Dragon,” A Novel of the Sixties

“Apocalypse in Pennsylvania” is the climax of my novel Saint George and the Dragon; it’s the story of Justin’s crucifixion. In the Sixties, comparisons were often made between the hippie movement and primitive Christianity. Both groups wore long hair and sandals, both preached peace and love, and both were radical rebels and social outcasts who were brutally persecuted by the Empire (both Roman and American) and fed to the lions for the amusement of the masses.

National Guardsman at Kent State, May 1970

Dirty Harry (1971), hippie-killer: the redneck killers with shotguns at the end of Easy Rider become the new American heroes

As a budding teenage novelist in the late Sixties (born in 1955), I thought it would be a fascinating idea to take that idea one step further and create a Christlike hero who was a student revolutionary. What if Jesus had become a Weatherman? What if he had a group of followers who were much like the primitive Christians? And what if you told his story from the point of view of the Roman centurion who slew him?

In New Testament lore, his name is St. Longinus, and he’s the fabled centurion who pierced Christ’s side with a spear while Jesus was writhing on the Cross; he later became an ardent convert to Christianity.

He’s obviously a symbol of the cruel Roman Empire that morally reforms and learns to embrace the very faith that it’s been persecuting—we saw a version of him vividly portrayed by Richard Burton in the overwrought Hollywood Biblical epic The Robe (1953), which was shown religiously on TV every Easter in the Sixties.

In this case, my protagonist and narrator, George Oldman Davies, a bitter, twisted, psychopathic, tormented counterinsurgency officer of the CIA, is St. Longinus. George represents the American Empire, and just as Ah Q represents the old pre-revolutionary China that must die so that the new China can be born in Lu Xun’s classic short story, The Story of Ah Q—the craven, cowardly China that spits on the poor and weak and kisses up to the powerful and corrupt—so George represents the America that must die before this country can heal and move forward.

When I was about 13, I read Leon Surmelian’s Techniques of Fiction Writing, and in it Leon proposes a fantastic creative writing exercise for any young writer: write your story from the viewpoint of the Devil. Everyone loves to castigate the devil, Leon says, but from the Devil’s point of view, what he does is very reasonable. Why not let him present his side of the story? In the Sixties and Seventies, American public life was dominated by two very visible Devils—Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—but in their own way, they were tragic, self-destructive figures and very reflective of the American character.

LBJ, defeated by Vietnam and himself

I’m a twelfth-generation Puritan, and the bedrock of my faith is belief in man’s Innate Depravity. Man is basically fallen, weak, and evil—let’s face it, we’re baboons with machine-guns—and before you castigate the evil in others, look in the mirror and recognize your own fallenness. I could see a lot of my own flaws in LBJ and Nixon. LBJ and Nixon weren’t The Other; they were what we could easily turn into if we were drunk on power, subject to temptations, and beset by terrible personal insecurities and flaws.

A neurotic, brilliant abused child lashes out and destroys himself

The challenge in creating George was to show that this evil in America isn’t something alien and strange; it's something that is an integral part of human nature. Prof. John H. Marks at Princeton (see my Gilgamesh post) once explained Original Sin this way. If a cashier accidentally gives you an extra $20 bill with your change, maybe 99 times out of 100 you’ll return it. But one time out of 100 (maybe you’re dead flat broke desperate), you might be inclined to keep it. That’s Original Sin—the fact that as noble as we try to be, there’s still a part of us that’s inclined to be selfish, self-serving, and corrupt.

I've always imagined George as Lee Marvin--the personification of the American Empire in the Sixties, imposing, brutal, and terrifying

I received one of the greatest compliments in my life from William Goyen, who was my senior thesis advisor at Princeton in 1977; a 200-page excerpt of St. George constituted my senior thesis. Considered one of the premier short story writers of the twentieth century and a beloved creative writing teacher, Bill had been the mentor of Flannery O’Connor at Iowa in the early Fifties, helped get her first book Wise Blood published by Farrar Straus, and wrote a rave review it for it the New York Times Book Review that cemented her reputation as a serious American writer.

Bill was an intimate friend of Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, and Frieda Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence’s widow (he lived with Frieda in Taos for years), and as part of the New York cultural scene in the Fifties, he counted among his close friends Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Leonard Bernstein. When I met Bill, he was happily married to the noted Texas actress Doris Roberts, who won an Emmy for her stellar work on St. Elsewhere.

Bill was struck by the Biblical imagery in St. George—for all his wonderful avant-gardism, he still was a rock-ribbed Baptist from Texas, see his 1974 chapbook A Book for Jesus—and after reading St. George, he gave me a woeful look, shook his head and said: “George is so very, very fallen.” He understood what I was trying to get at.

My novel Saint George and the Dragon is the story of a domestic operation of the CIA, a Che Guevara-style manhunt in the United States.

The project’s code name is Operation Saint George and the Dragon, and it’s a government pilot program to see if the powers that be can essentially bump off anyone they want to in the United States, in the event of escalating social and political disorder (or unpleasant political disagreement). It takes place in early June 1976, a month before the Bicentennial, and the government (read: the White House and the CIA) decide to pick an assassination target that nobody will miss: a former Weatherman chieftain turned revolutionary terrorist named Justin Wertham.

Justin broke away from the Weathermen in May 1970 after Kent State when he figured the Weathermen weren’t radical enough; instead, he created an elite cadre called Thunder (“When the weather gets bad, expect Thunder”) to bring horrific Algerian War-style terror to the United States, as punishment for Amerika’s murder of three million Indochinese between 1962-1975, its hideous oppression, murder, and abuse of poor and minority groups, and the fact that the government has been trying to hunt him down and kill him (along with many other radical leaders) since 1968.

The government suckers George Oldman Davies into taking the assignment. George, a 45-year-old counterinsurgency officer for the CIA who served in Vietnam and Latin America for many years, has been inactive for several years (in 1976) because of the “freeze” in black operations, owing to all the intelligence abuse scandals. George’s boss, Frank Carson (think Henry Fonda), cons him into believing that Justin and Thunder are going to try to assassinate President Gerald Ford when he delivers the commencement address at Parker College in New Day, Pennsylvania, a noted liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia that’s clearly modeled on Swarthmore. It so happens that George’s estranged daughter, Angie, is about to graduate from Parker.

From the beginning of the assignment, things go badly for George. He’s been promised airtight security by Frank, but when he returns to his DuPont Circle apartment after his briefing by Frank at Langley, he gets a threatening phone call from a Thunder operative. How the hell did they get his phone number? When he arrives at the New Day train station, two of Justin’s enforcers are waiting for him—Vietnam veterans who claim to have murdered a former Weatherman confidante of Justin’s, Timothy O’Toole.

George fights off the two Thunder enforcers and finds his contact, Cindy Bishop, waiting for him downstairs in the train station waiting room. Cindy is a Parker senior and campus informant who works for the FBI (she’s a “fink” and a former undercover high school nark), and Tim O’Toole had contacted her with news of some terrible act of terror that Justin is planning, but Tim disappears before they can meet; it’s assumed he’s been murdered by Thunder.

The Columbia University student riots, May 1968: violent confrontation between reactionary and radical students

George drops in unexpectedly on his beautiful daughter Angie at her dorm and is shocked when she turns on him. She hasn’t seen him in years (she’s half-Mexican, and her parents divorced in Fifties), and she’s coming to realize, from all the strange postcards she gets from her father from around the world, that her father is a contract agent for the CIA. When you keep getting letters postmarked Retalhuleu, Guatemala (site of Trax Base, the CIA training camp for the Bay of Pigs in 1961), Vietnam, and Chile, you start to wonder.

Angie turns on him and screams at him how much she hates him, and by the way, she hates him so much that as a act of rebellion, she goes out and fucks every guy she can lay her hands on, picking up guys at the Student Union, banging their brains out, and then kicking them out in the morning. George is freaked out—he’s also somewhat turned on by his beautiful young daughter, who is a spitting image of his gorgeous Mexicana ex-wife, whom he met while a private at Fort Bliss, Texas just before the Korean War—and he leaves her dormitory incredibly shaken. The war is coming home.

Local radical organizations are sponsoring a fundraising concert at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium for the Elmo Lincoln Legal Defense Fund. Elmo Lincoln is a Black Panther leader with close ties to Justin (Elmo Lincoln was the name of the first actor to play Tarzan), and it’s expected that some Thunder personnel might be attending the concert surreptitiously. Cindy suggests to George that if he wants to meet Thunder people so he can flush out Justin, they should go.

After the concert, George and Cindy go to Parker College’s student center, the Beer Hall. There George meets three 28-year-old veterans of the Sixties: PJ Winter, a handsome, sarcastic California surfer-dude type who taunts George, his beautiful girlfriend Sue Novak (a Berkeley graduate), and Steve Roz, a muscular, bearded Ukrainian-American Vietnam War vet whom George immediately takes a liking to. George also becomes instantly infatuated with Sue and her dazzling beauty; he wants to recapture his youth, and she might remind him of his daughter Angie.

What George doesn’t realize is that all three are Thunder agents. They’ve come to scope out George and see what kind of threat he really poses to Justin. When George returns to his hotel room that night, he’s ambushed by PJ, Steve, and three other Thunder goons; they beat up and shoot him up with LSD, hoping the LSD will terrify him so much that he’ll leave. As he begins tripping his brains out in his hotel room, they warn him that if he doesn’t return to Washington the following day, they’ll kill him.

George undergoes a terrifying acid trip, but when he recovers the next day, he’s determined to nail Justin and crew in revenge more than ever. With Cindy’s help, he locates Sue, who pretends to be shocked to learn PJ is a Thunder enforcer and a former member of the late Sixties revolutionary youth “action” (violence-oriented) groups the International Werewolf Conspiracy and the Motherfuckers (which really existed; you can’t make this jazz up).

PJ (Jan-Michael Vincent)

Pressured by George and threatened with arrest and prison time, Sue agrees to show George and Cindy where PJ is hiding: at a commune in the forests of north-central Pennsylvania in the wilderness of Potter County known as the Sanctuary, which is in reality a Thunder safe house. George decides to keep this information to himself, rather than share it with his colleague William Schaeffer of the FBI, because he wants the tough-minded CIA to steal the glory in this important, experimental domestic operation, not the weak-kneed FBI.

That night George drives Sue and Cindy out to the Sanctuary and is greeted by LSD guru Dr. Paul Murphy, who’s clearly modeled on Timothy Leary. (The Weathermen freed Leary in a daring prison break-out in 1971, hoping to gain the support of the counterculture.) George finds PJ, all right, but this is a trap, and George is captured. He’s thrown into a jail cell.

The following morning, George meets Justin and is captivated by his charisma. It’s the encounter between the revolutionary and the secret policeman, between the old America and the new. Justin justifies his use of violence to make America pay for its sins and points out that George uses violence freely too to crush the aspirations of Third World people. George and Justin might be more similar than they realize.

Justin was based on my charismatic boyhood friend Lou Lupin

Justin assures George that he’s not going to execute him, but instead he’s going to release him so we can return to his Washington masters and they’ll see that since their best man has failed, it’s futile to try to stop Justin. Justin next turns George over to Sue. At lunch, Sue gets George stoned on hash brownies, and they go horseback riding in the woods, where she ends up seducing him in a clearing.

Sue (Ali MacGraw)

This is all to set up George for a much harsher comedown. At dinner that night, Justin subjects George to a Red Chinese-style public humiliation session—he is “struggled against” by Justin’s Thunder diehards, they beat and kick him, they spit on him, they scream at him and repeatedly humiliate him. The trauma triggers an acid flashback, and he suffers a nervous breakdown. That night they throw him back in his cell, and he’s devastated by his helplessness and shattered nerves.

In the original version of the novel, George manages to escape the following morning with Cindy and returns to the Parker campus just in time for commencement, where President Ford is speaking. Through his radical agitation, Justin has created a Kent State-type riot, and he plans to instigate a massacre of the rioting students that will be blamed on the National Guard. The massacre will further polarize the nation between Right and Left and will give Justin an excuse to escalate his terrorist violence. In a horrifying scene, George tortures former Black Panther leader Elmo Lincoln to find where Justin’s team is set up and then goes and annihilates them with hand grenades and machinegun fire.

If I ever revise this novel, I think I’ll change this section, because of the unrealistic melodrama (as if my plot isn’t melodramatic enough!). I think it makes better narrative sense to have George freed the next morning when the FBI, following up on George’s leads, raids the Sanctuary farmhouse, with the help of the Pennsylvania State Police and local law enforcement officers.

As our story begins, George has just arrived at the Sanctuary, and he has one objective in mind—and that is to complete his assignment and kill Justin, his Conradian secret sharer, his spiritual alter ego.

George Segal's masterful sculpture, "Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael," about Kent State, which now stands in front of Princeton's Firestone Library as a stark reminder of the war of the fathers on the sons in the 1960s

[Literary In-Joke Dept.: the Black Rapids River in this chapter was clearly inspired by the Black Rapids Coal Company in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (see my posting on The American Apocalypse). What else could the Black Rapids Coal Company be but a subsidiary of that wildly successful interlocking conglomerate known as Hell?]

* * * * *

A beautiful Crucifixion by Chinese artist He Qi, emphasizing the rebirth of hope represented by the Resurrection

24 24 24 24 24 : Apocalypse in Pennsylvania 24 24 24 24

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: the 1890 massacre

When I arrived at The Sanctuary at 5:30, after the armed police roadblock passed through my U.S. Forestry Service car, the place looked like Wounded Knee after the U.S. Calvary cleared up the Ghost Dance silliness; in the aftermath of the bloody siege, it was all over but the shouting. Winding up the gravel drive, I could see that a score of the bullet-riddled corpses of Justin's troops were still strewn over the grass in front of the farmhouse.

Justin's army was crushed, we had devastated them; the assault force had taken a heavy toll. The whitewashed facade of the great farmhouse was so Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes it resembled a gangster's car trapped in a Thirties FBI ambush. It looked like we had unleashed everything on it but fucking flamethrowers. Our troops must have hit that place with firepower like nothing you ever saw.

Bonnie and Clyde's car, post-FBI

The drive running around the lozenge of grass was clogged with law-enforcement vehicles; the scene was one of tense activity and a throbbing racket. In the somber pre-twilight light, there were parked before the blasted-out farmhouse five U.S. Army trucks—personnel carriers—with canvas roofing, plus seven black-and-white police cruisers, whose cherries revolved, flashing. Behind them five tan sedans bore the gold-and-blue FBI insignia.

Business-suited FBI men leaned against their cars chatting with SWAT troopers while angry cops with twelve-gauge riot guns herded demoralized Thundermen and -women into the dozen black paddy wagons. Medics in white were working out of three ambulances; there were a considerable number of casualties on both sides. A great many gunshots were in evidence, inflicted, I was happy to see, largely on the other side. I had even missed the mopping-up operation.

How the West was won: Wounded Knee

I parked behind a prowl car; from its open doors, garbled messages, interlaced with static, were issuing from the police-band radio. When I got out, three hard-faced cops with riot guns were standing over a dozen or so pale-faced handcuffed Thunderpeople who were bending over and vomiting violently on the grass. The assault force must have used pretty powerful tear gas to flush Justin's defenders out, I thought; then I detected a trace of the pungent fumes that still lingered in the air, and recognized it immediately. CB, we used it all the time in Vietnam, a devastating nauseating agent. Ass-Blasting Gas, we called it.

The only good Indian...: Wounded Knee meets Treblinka

I smiled with pride as I strode up the incline for the farmhouse. We had really come through this time. Justin's ass was whipped. Look at them, they're a bunch of scared kids, they didn't know this kind of shit storm could descend on them. I passed the frizzy-haired Jewish girl with the aura of strong sexuality I had sat across from dinner the night before—a look of utter horror had invaded her face—and she recognized me but was too stunned to respond on the way to the paddy wagon. She had been one of the kids who had jeered at me, crawling on my hands and knees, this morning. The snotty smart-aleck loud-mouthed kids had been throwing rocks at the picture window and we had tossed a fucking stick of dynamite into their sandbox.

Student flee intentional National Guard gunfire at Kent State, May 1970

I nearly tripped over Crazy Ralph. He was sprawled on the grass, buckskinned arms and legs outflung, head thrown back. His face had been blown off with a blast of .00 buckshot from a twelve-gauge shotgun; his features were a bloody obliteration. Gore clotted his wild hair spraying out around his skull and was beaded in the tangled strands. His doeskin vest was soaked in blood. The necklace of Indian beads he had been wearing was scattered behind him in the grass.

In St. George, Crazy Ralph, based on Yippie Jerry Rubin, is Justin's John the Baptist; later Jerry became a Wall Street stockbroker, and tragically he ended his life by walking into Los Angeles traffic deliberately--the contradictions overwhelmed him, God bless him

A beautiful Byzantine painting of the fate of John the Baptist: don't be too far ahead of your time

"He was the first to go," an authoritative voice said. I turned around and a thirtyish SWAT trooper was standing behind me, a strapping six-footer wearing a flak jacket over his camouflage uniform and carrying an automatic rifle. He tipped his khaki cap back on his cropped head, squinted and said, "We'd just crashed the gate and we were barellin' up the drive here when he was the first one we encountered. He was the first to see us, and as soon as he did he turned his ass around and started runnin' for the house, caterwaulin' about a surprise attack. Tryin' to warn the others I guess. First guy to jump out of the truck pulled on him and pow! he went flying back." He tugged his cap down. "Just can't understand it. Why didn't he stay put? He musta known better."

"All told how did the siege go?"

"They put up a considerable fight. I was surprised at the quality of their firepower, I must say. They were pretty good in there for a while. But they were no match for us. No way."

The 1993 FBI assault on Waco

"Well, you did a fine job," I said. "Congratulations."

The January 1923 Rosewood, Florida massacre, where the KKK phoned in volunteers from neighboring states to murder an entire town--over 100 innocent black people

I went around back to the patio of Justin's study, where the cops at the gate had told me I could find Schaeffer. The plate glass of the sliding doors was starred by a string of bulletholes from an automatic weapon. One of the glass doors was open. A breeze blowing in stirred the drapes. Sweeping them aside I stepped inside.

Schaeffer was sitting behind Justin's desk, feet propped up on its top, addressing Agents Tom and Chuck, who sat in armchairs before him. When I entered Schaeffer was struck speechless. I was entirely unexpected.

A lynching party at Rosewood

"I got here as soon as I could," I said. "Where's Justin?"

"George." Schaeffer rose from his seat. "How did—"

"Goddamnit, where's Justin? I've been looking for him all week! Did you get him?"

The monstrous April 1914 Ludlow massacre, where the Colorado National Guard murdered 25 striking Colorado miners in their sleep in a tent city, acting for the silver mines

"No." Chuck's handsome face was morose. "He got away."

"What? You let him slip through your fingers? Again?"

"Hey look here George, now cut that out. Wertham left sometime before we arrived."

Probably as soon as he learned I'd escaped. "You've begun interrogating prisoners?"

"Yes, and we're looking for him high and low," Tom drawled. "We have roadblocks set up in the area and search parties combing the entire vicinity, in addition to an interstate all-points bulletin."

"So it's only a matter of time before we catch him," Schaeffer said.

The notorious 1937 Memorial Day River Rouge massacre, where cops and Ford goons brutally attacked and murdered Ford strikers; newsreel footage was suppressed by Hollywood moguls afraid outrage might trigger an actual American insurrection

"Did they tell you how he escaped, by car or motorcycle or what?"

"No," Chuck said. "No one saw him leave."

"What about PJ and Sue? The last I heard they were here. Have you apprehended them?"

Schaeffer consulted a handwritten list on his desk. "Winter and Novak. She's in this too? No they're not here. But we can put an APB out on them too if you like."

The horror at River Rouge

"Fine. PJ is Justin's chief lieutenant, and Sue, his girlfriend, is one of Justin's people too. About how many prisoners did you take?"

"Roughly a hundred," Schaeffer said.

"What's the score?"

"They lost twenty-seven, we lost two," Chuck said. "Eighteen of theirs wounded to eleven of ours."

"How big was our assault force?"

"Thirty-five SWAT troops, nineteen local police, and eight of us," Tom said.

"George, how did you get here so quickly?"

"I flew." From New Day I had rushed to Philadelphia International Airport, where I used my VIP status to commandeer a private Cessna as well as a police pilot who whisked me pronto to the Williamsport airport, where by prearrangement a local forest ranger was waiting for us with an official car. I had dumped the Ingram (wrapped in oilcloth) in the back and sped off to The Sanctuary. "Sorry I missed the party."

Quaker FBI agent William Schaeffer (Gene Hackman): like his Quaker counterpart in Moby Dick, Starbuck, Schaeffer is the only one in the book who'll stand up to Ahab (George)

"I just got a report from Parker," Schaeffer said. "It was pretty unclear, but it seems there's some kind of commotion going on there, some kind of trouble broke out. Would you know anything about it?"

"When I left things had calmed down."

"I was told Elmo Lincoln was found. The report didn't specify, but the intimation was that he was found in slightly used condition. What did you do to him, George?"

"Look, he's a little banged up, but he can still sing basso profundo parts, if that's what you're worried about." I lit a cigar and drew on it so it caught fire. "He'll live. Which is a lot more than would have been said for a lot of people if he and Justin had had their way."

"What did he tell you?"

"He spilled. About Justin's projected operation."

"What? And you didn't make any move to pass the information to us?"

"There was no need to. The operation was called off."

"How do you mean?"

"It was cancelled. Look, I'd love to hang around and chew the fat with you boys, but I'm going to see if I can make myself useful around here. And let me know if you receive any word of Justin Sue and PJ, okay?"

"George," Schaeffer said as I headed for the door, "stick around, okay?"

"Where would I go?" I said and left.

As I went back around the house, I thought bitterly, Boy, for that, cunt, you're gonna pay. Just wait till tomorrow, Schaeffer. I'll show you to pull this take-it-easy-George shit on me.

On my way back to the car I saw that most of the raid was wrapped up, nearly all of Justin's people were safely packed away in the paddy wagons and ambulances; and with the breaking of tension, almost a kind of party atmosphere was taking shape among the veterans of the raid, cops and SWAT troops and FBI men, comrades all. Not only were jokes being exchanged and chuckles and guffaws punctuating the air, but good-natured practical joking was going on too.

As a passionately red-faced girl was being led into the paddy wagon, she began screaming at the sworn officers of the law, shrieking they were pigs, Gestapo, murderers, and a grinning cop mooned her out a prowl-car window and everyone cut loose with wild gales of laughter. An intense-looking boy with dark hair falling over his eyes broke free while being taken in tow and tried to butt the cops, and instead of shooting him, the men tripped him and shoved him around, mocking him and laughing uproariously. Finally when he tried to kick an officer, a SWAT trooper knocked him on his ass with a rifle butt. Fallen on his side with his hands cuffed behind his back, the boy wanted to cry but held back.

Opening the car door I tossed my jacket in the front and rolling up my sleeves I got the Ingram out of the back and dropped the extra clips into my back pockets. Loping back to the farmhouse in my military gait, I ejected the clip from the magazine, ran a check on the machine pistol to make sure it was in perfect working order, and jacked the clip in. I was humming "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to myself and smiling. I strode through the failing light and back around the farmhouse.

I knew where Justin had gone. He could cut out while his loyal followers gladly stayed behind to hold the fort and stave us off while their beloved leader made good his escape—but he would never leave without Sue and PJ. For several reasons. Not only because Justin knew he was safer fleeing with two trained bodyguards than traveling alone—they could not help but escape together because of Justin's special bond with Sue and of course her intimate relationship with PJ; together the trio functioned as a tight unit, a perfect Gestalt. And I knew Justin had to be running with Sue and PJ, because as Sue had unwittingly revealed to me as we were out riding, she—and only she—knew the best escape route, the one that avoided all roadblocks. She had taken them into the woods.

When I entered the cool gloom of the stable, I saw I was right. Three stalls were empty; and there were fresh bootheels imprinted on the dirt leading up to them. If I hurried I could catch up with them. An extraordinary creature caught my eye in the end stall—a beautiful cream-colored horse, a speckled stallion—and he seemed to be the best steed of the remaining lot. Holding the Ingram with the barrel pointed at the wooden beams of the rafters, I opened his stall and led him out. A noble beast. I had just saddled him up and I was just about to mount him when Schaeffer walked in. He took one wary look at the Ingram and said, "I thought you'd promised to stay, George."

Gripping the saddle horn I swung myself up into the saddle. I was fitting my booted feet into the metal stirrups when Schaeffer, standing in front of me, said, "They went into the forest?"

"It looks that way. Three horses are missing—for Justin, Sue, and PJ."

"We have search parties combing the woods."

"You'll never find them. The girl, she knows these woods like the Los Angeles freeways."

"What happened back there on campus anyway?"

"You'll read about it in the papers."

"You went ahead and stopped Justin's operation single-handed, didn't you?"

"George cleans up another dirty job. Let George do it."

"And now you're going after him. To do what?"

"To do what should've been done a long time ago." I slipped the extra clips into the flaps of my breast pockets for easy reloading.

"What's that Ingram for?"

"Sometime I'll have to tell you what he did to me. Remember what I was like that morning in the motel room? It was like that." My steed snorted and dipped his head. "Only worse. Lots worse. He murdered me."

The laundry room of the Villegrande, Bolivia hospital where Che's body was displayed

"Is that what you were sent here for? To 'take care' of him?"

"No Schaeffer, I was sent here to capture a dangerous terrorist who's already killed a dozen policemen, bombed numerous pieces of U.S. government property, and threatened the life of the President of the United States, and rehabilitate him into a useful citizen."

"Now why don't you get off that horse and calm down, George?"

I chuckled and shook my head. "You know, Schaeffer, if people like you had been in charge, American civilization would have halted on the banks of the Ohio."

Schaeffer opened his arms to block my way. "I can't let you go out and kill that boy in cold blood."

A stunning Byzantine crucifixion

"Stand aside."

"I'm not going to let you go there and murder him."

"How are you going to stop me? With liberal platitudes? Vote for McGovern, Schaeffer, but do it on your own time."

"You're not going past me."

"I can see I should have left you back at the campus to bandage Elmo Lincoln."

"I'm sorry I gave in to you."

"No you're not. You were relieved. Now they already have a head start on me, don't hold me up."

"No George. You're not responsible for your actions, but all the same, that's no excuse for murder."

"Out of the way, asshole."

"Uh uh, George, I can't let you."

I lowered the Ingram and aimed at his chest.

"Don't you point that thing at me."

I slipped the safety off.

He glanced from the barrel leveled at him to me; his eyes hardened. "You would, wouldn't you?"

I nodded. "Out of my way."

"I want to let you know, George, that normally I wouldn't do this. Only you give me no choice."

"I understand."

He stepped aside.

I nudged the stallion's flanks with my stirruped heels and he started for the door. "If it's any consolation," I said as I brushed past Schaeffer, "this is no insane vendetta of mine. It's included in the assignment. And I have full authorization."

"May God have mercy on your soul."

"I don't need God behind me." I tossed a grin over my shoulder. "Just the White House."

"I hope he gets away," he called after me.

"I'll get him," I vowed. At the door I said, "And just don't send anyone out after me. Because I'll kill them." And I rode out.

Fleecy clouds sped across the dense field of the sky like the fleeing sheep of a shepherd in rout. As I cantered down the bridle path leading to the wood, holding the barrel of the Ingram aimed at the heavens, I could see, on my left, the multiorganizational veterans of the paramilitary assault force packing the last of the beaten Werthamites into the paddy wagons in the gathering dust. A few saw me, and at the sight of something not seen in this country in sixty years, since Pershing's incursion into Mexico after Pancho Villa—an armed man sallying forth on horseback—hailed me with upraised arms and ready grins. I rode on.

Once I entered the forest, I immediately picked up their trail. Fortunately the forest path, still moist from the rains of the night before, recorded their hoofprints like a plaster-of-Paris cast; the imprint of their trail was fresh. Urging my steed into a steady gallop, I pursued at top speed.

Plunging into the forest, I warded off the boughs slapping at my face with the upraised Ingram. The sun hurtling overhead burned through the treetops. My mount's hooves drummed the earth as he carried me in hot pursuit. Full-tilt I charged down a faint towpath that must have taken fully two hundred years to wear through the wilderness.

For a good hour I tore through the forest like that, like a demon, with all stops out. I didn't know how far a lead they had on me. Their spoor guided me like breadcrumbs dropped in a fairy tale. Along the way, I startled a good deal of wildlife, barreling along the trod as I did. A frightened deer broke and fled into the obscurity of the gloaming wood, its white tail gleaming in the gloom; I thought for a moment it was a pure white hart, but it may have been my imagination.

A hutch of terrified hares bounded across the trail before me and melted into the underbrush; once a host of squirrels scattered as I thundered past and scurried in all directions. Whenever I passed, panicky birds exploded out of trees and darted up to the reaches of the canopy above for safety. I saw birds of all kinds, crimson cardinals, bluejays, woodpeckers, once even a kingfisher.

Flying ahead I could see myself as a direct descendant of heroic frontier Indian-fighters stretching back to Captain Benjamin Church, the captor of the warrior Annawon in Rhode Island during King Phillip's War, and Lieutenant Colonel William Butler, who as the commander of a colonial punitive expedition tracked down the native chieftain Joseph Brant in 1778. Back in Columbia while researching my thesis on the roots and genesis of American counterinsurgency techniques, I had been amazed at the extent to which U.S. Army experts had drawn on frontier Indian-fighting methods; and now, careening down this forest trail in north-central Pennsylvania in 1976, green tree branches shooting past on either side, the muddy ground below a brown blur, a fresh rain-washed smell rising up off the forest floor, now I was following in their footsteps.

At the end of the wild headlong ride my steed was exhausted; after an unbroken hour of strenuous exertion—of my riding his ass off—he was lathered in his own sweat, and as I dismounted he was trembling; he had never been ridden like that before. I dismounted not only because I didn't want to kill him; by pushing my mount all out I had narrowed Justin's lead enough so that if I continued any further on horseback, I might be in danger of advertising the fact I was catching up with him. From this point on I would be wiser to continue the chase on foot.

As I tethered my pale horse I was struck by how like Vietnam it all was. I could well imagine the thrill that coursed through the U.S. Expeditionary Force when it entered the rioting jungles of the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, the same thrill of adventure that had attacked their ancestors when they discovered this great teeming American wilderness. It was easier for them, really; they had come fresh from the pacification of the West.

Today it was much harder; my generation had been born into a nation of civilized cities and tame small towns, and in my generation the superhighway and the suburban development and the chain store had conquered most of the forest primeval that remained, we had forgotten the old ways, so that now we had to grope through dim half-forgotten memories; but the old blood still remained.

I soon came to a grassy slope surrounded by all sides by woodland. Another good reason to have abandoned the horse; if the terrain was changing, I could hardly risk exposing myself while guiding the beast over awkward territory. As the last rays of the declining sun washed over the mount I could see the tufts of grass that the hooves of Justin's horses had only recently disturbed struggling down the incline. I knew then I was hot on their trail.

As I scrambled down the grassy hill, Ingram held aloft, I could sense I was closing in on him, it was a concrete sensation I could feel in my blood. I had not come through all this, shit and hell and tidal waves, just to lose him now. I was going to get him. I was going to get him.

For the next half hour I chased Justin through the trackless wilderness, tracking him down by the clearly-defined hoofprints his horses left in the mud. Sweat poured down me—my shirt clung to my back—and I silently cursed the giant flies and mosquitoes buzzing around my head, and my arms ached from carrying the heavy Ingram, but strange to say I never tired, my legs never ceased to surge with energy as I pounded down the by-now barely-discernible forest trail. I guess the adrenalin was pumping into my bloodstream. Or perhaps I was fuelled by the legendary strength of a madman. I was acutely aware of everything that going on around me.

Close to seven the trail changed and I knew where I was headed. For some reason Sue was leading them to the river. When I saw I was closing in, I slowed and proceeded with caution, on the lookout for an ambush. While I stalked their spoor I stopped to scout out the way ahead; but as far as I could tell I was entering a deserted area.

On approaching the Black Rapids River I sighted three chestnut horses, with rifles snugly encased in their saddle holsters, tethered to the clump of thorn bushes marking the entrance to the stretch of grassy riverbank Sue had brought me to yesterday. I dodged behind a tree and waited. The roaring sound of the river was very close. Nothing moved. Heart pounding, slippery hands gripping the steel stock and metal grip of the Ingram, I peered around the tree trunk with probing eyes for a fast look around.

No one here. I stepped out, and guarding my rear I turned slowly, sweeping the forest with my dissecting gaze. The coast was clear. Dropping into a crouch behind a clump of bushes I scrutinized the break in the thorn bushes where the horses were tethered, waiting for Justin, Sue, and PJ to emerge.

Why had they stopped here? Had they deserted the horses and gone ahead on foot? Were they lying in wait to ambush me? Both were impossible. How could they imagine that in an hour and a half I'd be able to catch up with their four hours of riding? And their only safety lay in the fact that they had to keep on running. They had a good twenty miles to cover before they got out of these woods.

I waited but no one emerged. The horses continued to raise and lower their handsome heads and switch their tails. I realized it was a matter of Mohammed and the mountain. And besides, I hadn't come to wait for them to come to me, I had come get them. So rising from my crouch I made sure the safety of the Ingram was off and I struck off to finish the job I had been given.

I crept up to the clump of thorn bushes, all the while shooting quick, nervous glances around me, but I was unobserved. Only the horses noticed me, and from the mild glances they gave me, evidently they were used to people sneaking around with guns. Behind the bushes I squatted and wiped the perspiration dripping down my brow, pausing to reassess the situation with a few searching glances. I was still alone. Then I heard the tinkle of Sue's laugh over the rumble of the river, and I snuck a peek around the break in the bushes.

Justin was standing with Sue at the edge of the riverbank; their backs were turned to me. Justin had his arm around Sue and her face was turned to him, smiling and radiant with inexpressible delight. Whatever it was that was so charming or endearing or witty he was saying to her was drowned out by the thunderous voice of the river rumbling in the background. Swollen and strong from the thunderstorm the night before, the Black Rapids River swept past them in a mighty brown-and-cream rush. The crashing white water was fearsome in the silver air of twilight.

Where was PJ? I didn't know and I didn't care. All I knew was I had the bastard and the cunt in my sights right where I wanted them and this time they weren't going to get away. A murderous rage seized me and from then on things happened so fast it was as though we were all acting on cue with split-second timing.

What happened next I had no control over. At the sight of them together the full fury of my being stirred and the next thing I knew I found myself rising and with a graceful gliding motion I stepped into the break in the thorn bushes. With the eager Ingram cradled in my taut arms I kept my left index finger curled around the trigger; the barrel was leveled at their midsections. The better to chop them in half. At this range I couldn't miss.

A soothing voice said, Wait. I waited. Turning their heads—totally oblivious to my presence at their backs—Justin and Sue calmly followed the raging river's course as it swung around the rocky bend.

You can't shoot him in the back. Give him fair warning.

"Hey Justin!" I bellowed. "Look alive!" I roared and came crashing through the underbrush.

With her head turned to Justin, Sue was the first to see me. While he was still swinging around, she was facing me. In a split-second, her mind gathered up the essentials of the situation, and without missing a heartbeat or interrupting the arc of her sandaled feet as she swung around, she flew at me, waving her arms frantically. Her eyes bulged with horror but still she came at me windmilling and crying in a wrenching voice, like the manner of a watchtower who has been caught off-guard,

"Justin! JUSTIN!"

What followed occurred automatically. Assuming a firing stance, feet planted and legs braced, I squeezed the trigger and fired from the hip. The sudden explosive rattle of the Ingram blasted the calm air asunder.

The first burst of gunfire ripped across her hips. As the devastating force of the bullets smashed her back like a swinging sledgehammer her sandaled feet jumped off the ground and she did a comic somersault in mid-air. While she was still on the wing I blasted the second burst across her chest. She flung her arms out and her loose-jointed body tumbled to the grass. She landed on her back, arms and legs akimbo, and then she was staring up at the sky. In the process she had kicked her sandals off.

Ladies first. In the moment that followed the silence rang in the still air like a tolling bell. The cordite, stinking like scorched celery, clogged my nose.

I was swinging the smoking barrel around to aim at Justin when a low moaning roar of anguish rose behind me and to my left accompanied by the thud of boots. PJ. Sweeping around just in time I rammed the stock of the Ingram into his midsection. As he folded over I smashed the butt against his jaw, knocking him to the earth.

He was just rolling on his side when Justin hit me with a flying tackle that swept me clean off my feet. He collided with me snarling with fury, his dark face twisted like a Tibetan demon's, and the Ingram flew out of my hands. I was airborne—he had slammed into me so fast after a running start he knocked me off the bank. In a sickening rush in which I knew I was surely insane, we were flying, and then we were hurtling together into space, Justin with his arms wrapped around me in a murderous embrace.

My head the rocks going to smash against the rocks

Tucking in my chin I twisted around in midair hoping to overshoot any rocks arrayed along the bank, and then we were plunging headfirst into the chilly water. The rushing river swallowed us both in one gulp. A murky turbulent void engulfed us. Kicking free I shot up to the stormy surface while holding my breath. Thank God I have big lungs.

On breaking surface I treaded water and shook my head until I could get my bearings. My water-filled boots were dragging me down like anchors. Drawing a deep breath I dunked myself and yanked them off.

No sooner had Justin bobbed up sputtering beside me than the overwhelming current began sucking strongly at my legs. I turned over on my back to catch my breath and the river pulled me along with terrifying force. I got alarmed.

Ten feet away Justin was dragged away with me, his wet hair slicked black over his skull. We both tried to fight the pull of the current, but it was overpowering. The roaring white water carried us around the bend. I did my best to avoid the rocks that abruptly shot into prominence.

Once around the bend the rapids swept us along. No wonder. After the bend I spotted the falls.

A mile ahead the Black Rapids River just ended. Where it vanished the smooth water rushed the color of cold rolled steel. From below, the boiling water threw up a fine mist. The roaring wall of water smashing against huge rocks produced an interminable deafening sound of rolling thunder.

Justin and I sighted the crashing cataract at the same time. Justin took one look at it, and then at me, and then like a surfacing whale he shot up out of the violent water, and throwing out a veined arm he clamped his hand on my ankle. He was yanked downstream and I was jerked with him. Cold water splashed my face. I booted him in the face. Releasing me he went down, slipping into the swirling water (stunned?). When he popped back up, he went spinning away, borne off by the rushing river.

I turned my energy to the matter at hand, lest I share Justin's fate. Breaking into my best Australian crawl, I breasted the surging current and made for the closest bank. I hadn't essayed two strokes when the savage rapids slammed into me and I went tumbling further downriver, the chaotic white water sloshing over my head. The rapids shuttled me closer to the rumbling falls.

I panicked and went temporarily bananas—kicking and thrashing wildly—but for all my hysterics all I did was splash, all I got was a mouthful of water and closer to the falls. I had decided to give up and cease struggling—I was utterly exhausted—when I looked up and was stunned to see I was practically halfway there; the thunder of the waterfall—blasting like a great unending explosion—shook the bones in my ears. At that instant an icy self-control tightened its clamp on me. Because I realized that if I lost my head again, I would die. It was as simple as that. I reminded myself not to let myself get scared; because it will never do you a damn bit of good in the water.

Braving the mindless current once more I plunged into the drink and tried to cut across the roaring water, but the mad rapids only smashed against me and I was sent spinning downstream. A great black rock reared up before me and I threw my hands out to catch myself. The driving current slammed me up against the rock but no bones were broken. The rapids tried to tear me way from the rock to fling me downstream but I clung to it desperately in the purling water and cutting my hands and banging up my knees I crawled up its slippery surface madly. When I had pulled myself up to the top, free of the roaring water, I went limp, panting, and tried to gather my strength.

When I raised my head I couldn't see Justin being swept downstream—had he made it to the bank? impossible!—but he could have been obscured by the logs and branches hurtling over the white water on their way to the crashing falls. It was only fifty feet to the right-hand bank, but with the raging current ramming through inbetween, it might as well have been fifty miles. There was no way to fight the rapids. And with those rocks hulking up out of the water between here and the bank... I could just see myself carried off by the rapids and suddenly the back of my skull pounding against a rock. Christ on crutches. I hadn't come here to go white-water canoeing without the canoe.

But I couldn't cling to this rock all day. If I wanted to cross the current and get out of this alive, now was the time. Within minutes night would fall and I wouldn't stand a chance flying downriver in the dark with all those rocks. Scrambling to my stockinged feet and trying not to slip, I stood up on the rock, facing the bank, and strained my eyes in the failing light. The angry white water roared all around me. I could see no other rocks in the area, but who knew? With a fatalistic shrug I dove into the churning white water.

The shock was immediate. The freezing current plowed into me and I was flying downstream. But this time I was fighting it. With the distance covered by my dive I was now that much closer to shore. Meanwhile the thundering water blasted all around me.

Goddamnit, George, I told myself, battling the current, you can make it. You've lived this long on borrowed time. You didn't go through forty-five years of unmitigated hell just to die washed over a crummy waterfall in a river in Pennsylvania nobody ever heard of, a joke of fate. No no, you old faggot Death (slipping it to little boys and grown men and old women alike), you're gonna have to do better than this, I didn't survive this far along in this goddamn assignment to die here, as an afterthought. When I go it's gonna be the main event. They tried to kill you on this job, but were they able to? No, so come on, George, you can make it. Stand back folks, 'cause George Oldman Davies as acomin' through.

But I was tiring. My limbs were fast growing heavy and I was beat. Across the rushing water the muddy bank rose wet and brown, impossibly far away. Suddenly my leg caught on a concealed rock underwater and the rapids threw me back and I went down. When I came up, sputtering, the current smashed my back against a big rock that came rocketing out of the water. I was afraid I broke a rib. As the water flung me around I threw my arms out around the rock and hugged it for dear life. I was a quarter-way there and now the accelerating rapids were more devastating than ever.

I treaded water and tried to hold on against the wrenching tug of the speeding current. I sagged and closed my eyes, feeling the smooth powerful frigid current flow right through me. I would have cried if I'd had the time. I was about ready to give up. What was the use of fighting a river? Especially a maniacal one like this?

Then I saw myself tumbling over the rumbling falls and my skull smashing against the jagged black rocks and my body flopping into the boiling pool and the image jolted me. It was only then it hit me I was trapped in the Flood dream, only a thousand times worse. It was real now. If I gave up the waters wouldn't peacefully close over my head, restful oblivion wouldn't claim me—my body would be shattered into splinters and in my last moment I would be overwhelmed by naked terror and searing agony.

A Hebrew Golgotha: Marc Chagall's Crucifixion emphasizes Jesus' Jewish roots, thank God

Not daring to glance downriver to see just how perilously close the falls were now, I shut my eyes and flung myself into the midst of the current. The rapids buffeted me around somewhat, but now I was fighting back with everything I had, goddamnit. I was battling my way across the fucking river on sheer willpower. I personified the river, I turned it into a tangible opponent for me to attack and overcome. I kicked and pounded it as if it were a giant I could defeat with my burning hate alone. Kick and stroke, kick and stroke, that's the way for the U.S.A.; kick and stroke, Davies, kick and stroke. When I felt my strength ebbing I just told myself this wasn't the Perils of Pauline, because I knew no hero was going to come along and rescue me.

The bones of Che Guevara: the reliquary of a twentieth-century saint

Thirty feet. The bank was nearer. I was half dead but I drove myself on. Come on, George, you gotta make it home. They're waiting for you, they're giving you a hero's welcome, a tickertape parade down Fifth Avenue, a Roman triumph for the man who saved the United States of America. We had led the patrol and survived the ambush and now we were almost safe, just through the jungle and up the mountain and we were home.

When I raised my head above the tossing tempestuous water the bank loomed fifteen feet ahead I estimated. The current was still dragging me down along with it but I was successfully struggling across it. From time to time I lifted my head from the water and turned it to one side, in my crawl, to suck in a long gasping breath. The cold frothy water kept slapping my face. I was dead beat but I pushed on. I had gotten all of them, I wasn't going to let them get me.

Ten feet. Almost there. My heart lifted and I burnt up my last burst of energy in a furious drive home. At that point I would have let nothing stand in my way. If the Archangel Michael himself had barred my path, I would have grabbed him by the balls and knocked him flat on his ass and taken his fucking flaming sword away from him, so help me God.

Emile Nolde's striking 1912 Crucifixion

A long time later I planted my feet on the rocky river bottom. I was too fatigued to feel any real joy, but with my dull brain I did experience a grim sense of triumph. I was a survivor. I staggered in, slipping on the slimy rocks, the cold swirling water rushing between my legs, and splashed through a shallow pool. As soon as I stumbled onto a dry flat of gritty brown sand and chalky pebbles, I collapsed. The dun-brown earth and the purpling sky tilted, and I crashed on my back.

Laid out like that, I let my eyes close and panted. My heart raced wildly. A survivor. A crazy grin made my face ache. Blood throbbed at my temples. Bruises, cuts, lacerations and abrasions covered my body, and every part of it hurt terribly. But a victor.

From downstream a wild cry, more a shout than a scream, rang out, piercing the roar of the rapids. I stirred; I was not a hundred feet from the cataract. Raising my pounding head, I struggled up on one elbow to see what was going on.

Another amazing Dali Crucifixion: God's point of view?

Justin was meeting his fate. For a brief moment I caught a fleeting glimpse of the Lamb of Wilmington as he shot over the crashing falls in the deepening dusk. In that second his rippling body was perfectly outlined against the violet twilight. His arms were flung out in a generous embrace, like wings outspreading. Head thrown back, he was still belting out his exultant cry—a rebel yell, almost a joyous alleluia! That moment is forever imprinted in my memory. I will never forget the wonderful sight of Justin rushing to his death, unafraid, triumphant. That's how I'll always remember him—rearing back, poised on the brink of the waterfall, like an ecstatic Cowboy astride a bucking bronco he has just broken. Then the stop-action frame jerked and he vanished and the rolling thunder of the water swallowed him up.

Genius at work: Picasso's Crucifixion

In my mind I could picture it clearly. He would plunge head first down the drop. When his magnificent head struck the massive black rocks jutting out of the pool of seething water at the bottom of the cataract, it would explode and his beautiful brilliant brains would burst out of his skull and scatter like popcorn. The white water would sweep him off and slam him against the hulking boulders rising out of the rapids, and then, battered and bloody, he would rush on, down the river.

A plaintive cry split the air, and a swift bird—a kingfisher, I think—executed a graceful power dive over the edge of the falls, swooping down over where Justin had just plummeted; and then glided out of sight, swallowed up by the purpling dusk.

Darkness fell as abruptly as if the sun had come crashing down from the heavens. Sooty black thunderheads rolled across the sky like a fleet of anchoring battleships. An ominous rumble of thunder filled the heavens, and a wet gust of wind blew over my sopping-wet clothes; I shivered. A jagged bolt of lightning blasted across the sky, pealing like the crack of doom, and the angry firmament rent open above me. The freshening wind picked up, and a light thundershower began to fall.

Closing my throbbing eyes I sank back against the hard sandy bank. I felt dead. "It's darking," I said aloud, like I used to say, watching the summer dusk descend, when I was three, when I was fearful of the dark. "It's darking."

Turning over onto my belly I rested my cheek against the cold pebbles and I broke down, pawing the sand and the stones. I tried to cry but I was dry. Only choking sobs would come out. As the warm rain drenched me Justin's death cry was still echoing in the forest. The dark night crept over me.

* * * * *

The Ghost Dance song: the dying last hope of a devastated, crushed people

The four martyrs of Kent State

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