Scenes from Mantis…sort of

Redford in The Sting

The Sting was on the other night and I felt like I was catching glimpses of scenes from Mantis. What a gorgeous set—the dark alleys and walk-ups, the milk bars, the steam trains, the El. It’s Depression-era Chicago (1936) but it would work just as well for Manhattan 1940… even with the elevated train, which ran through the Lower East Side, where Lucas makes his home soon after travelling back in time.

And sure, no doubt I had The Sting lurking in the back of my mind while writing Mantis. When I was about nine, the local cinema was rerunning the film and my parents took me to it. The plot totally bamboozled me. I didn’t understand the whole con thing—good guys who were also bad guys pretending to be good guys trying to take down worse guys. I kept elbowing my mom and asking her what the hell was going on. But still, I loved the movie, mostly because of Redford. For a couple of years afterward I kept asking barbers to cut my hair just like his. Never quite got the look I wanted. And hey, I’d still give the cut a shot if my hair would cooperate.

If you’d like a peek at what Mantis will look like when it hits the big screen (fingers crossed!) check out these short clips and stills from The Sting.

There’s a scene in Mantis where Lucas and his partner Olivia meet in a milk bar just like one:

Depression-era milk bar

Depression-era milk bar

No cell phones! It’s over rotary phones in booths like these where Lucas exchanges crucial information.

1930s phone booth

1930s phone booth

Love these hump-shaped cars. Makes for a slower chase scene, but no less dramatic.

1930s car

1930s car

4 beautiful photos of the Mantis era

Ship gangway

Something melts inside me when I look at these photos. It’s hard to explain. I want to be there, inside the photos, inside the moment they were taken. To me, they are works of art, the seizing of some perfect second in time. The thing is, these are just ordinary photos—family photos my grandmother collected and saved in a box, one my younger brother inherited years ago.

He brought the box with him when our family got together a few weeks ago to celebrate my mom’s birthday. Many of the photos were from the ’30s and ’40s and were probably taken in Scotland, and as I looked at them while we passed them around the dinner table, I was immediately pulled by these images into a magical place. A history that I admittedly romanticize. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine the reality that informed these pictures—to see the colors. The world in these photos is sepia-toned and exists beyond history. I know that the fear of the Depression or the terror of the war must have been there in these scenes, in the minds of the figures, the person—maybe my own grandmother—taking the photo. But still, it seems better there. There’s beauty in the simplicity of the machinery, the ship’s hull, the tackle and the cables, the physicality of the world—the absence of the digital, the abstract. Just hard steel and people.

Below, my grandfather sits by a kettle on a stove, reading a paper.

Man reading

I have no idea who the man in the hat is in the picture below, nor the woman overlooking the railing of the steamship. But it’s hard for me to believe that it’s a random family photo and not a stunning art photo intended to tell some deep story of the human experience—of separation, adventure, loneliness.

Ship man

Or that this photo, of my grandfather and someone else in the doorway of what I believe to be his Depression-era shop, is just a random moment, and not an emblem of fortitude.

Shop window

I grew up listening to stories of this time from my father. No doubt this lies behind my writing of a book about a man who lost his father to another time.

 

Mantis sighting in Rome

Coliseum AlienHow’s this for eerie? I was in Rome recently indulging in wine, cheese and gelato and scouting locations for one of the Mantis sequels. One of the places I checked out was the Colosseum. While walking around the upper gallery, I was debating in my head whether or not to set a particular sequence in the ruins of the ancient amphitheater. In the midst of my hemming and hawing I turned my head and saw this stone Mantis face. So yeah, maybe the Colosseum will find its way into one of the novels.

Here I am outside the Colosseum, before the Mantis sighting.

Donald Cowper at the Coliseum

 

The best half-song in the world

I’m sure I’m like a lot of writers who, after finishing their novel, start dreaming about the film adaptation—casting it in their heads, picking out songs for the soundtrack. I’ve run the film of Mantis a few times in my head, and one of the songs that features heavily in it is the last half of “The Friends of Mr. Cairo” by Jon and Vangelis. It’s the most haunting, unearthly and heartbreaking piece of music I’ve ever heard.

I first heard it back in 1981 when it came out. My older brother had the record and I would lie by the stereo listening to the second half of the song over and over again. I’d keep picking up the needle and dropping it at the midway mark. Sorry, bro, for wrecking your record, but I never cared much for the first half of the song, even though that’s all the radio stations would ever play.

When my brother moved out, he took his record with him and I never heard the song again till I picked up the CD a few years ago. I’m not sure what had made me think of the song after so many years, but a few of its soaring lines were ringing in my head one day, and so I ran down to the music store. My partner had never heard the song, so I played it for her late one night while driving home together. We played it over and again, just like I used to, driving around the neighborhood—the two of us feeling like something had touched the insides of our souls.

A couple of days ago, I found this video on YouTube—a half-cut of the song with an accompanying video by Ezekielepharcelis. The video is beautiful and it floors me how much—with its darkened city streets, its ’40s-era feel, its lamplights, fedoras and strange lights in the sky—it evokes something quite close to Mantis.

Enjoy… and have tissues handy.

 

The boy who haunts me

Cover of “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout. Broadway Books, New York, 2005.

Cover of “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout. Broadway Books, New York, 2005.

One of the first times I recall seeing one was in the park down the street from my house. He was a boy, about my age—around ten at the time. I was crouched at the edge of the park, near the slope of a ravine. He came walking toward me. I had never seen him before. He asked me what I was doing and I pointed to a baby bird that was standing in the grass, stunned from presumably having fallen from its nest in the tree above. I told the boy I would watch it while he got some water and some grownups to help.

He ignored my suggestion and stared at the bird with a look in his eyes that made my skin crawl. It was an inhuman look, like the stare of a wild predator, a wolf or a panther. He then said in a cool tone that the bird needed to be put out of its misery. It was weak, he said, and a dog or cat would get it soon if we didn’t take care of it. I was confused by his statements and then I sensed danger radiating from him and my heart began to pound. He stepped toward the bird. I started to move in front of the animal, but I was too slow. His foot was already flying through air. I screamed as he kicked the bird hard, flinging it into the ravine.

I burst into tears. When I looked up at the boy he was laughing. A sick, evil laugh, and then he walked off. Shaken, I scurried down the slope in search of the bird, begging that it would somehow still be alive. It took me an eternity to find it and when I did, it was dead. I picked it up and carried it home, sobbing, and buried it behind my house.

In the weeks after this incident, two things haunted me. One, the guilt that I could have done more to save the bird. And two, the memory of the boy who killed the bird. The wolfish look in his eyes and that evil laugh.

During that summer I would see him once in a while in the park, laughing and playing ball with some friends. The sight of him made me sweat and pant and I stayed clear. I would eventually learn from another neighborhood boy that his name was Chris. I would continue to think about him a lot and worry about all the other birds or animals he was probably killing. He was different, different from me and any other boy I knew.   

Some years later I would figure out that what made Chris different was that he had no conscience, that he felt absolutely no remorse for killing that bird. In fact, it gave him pleasure.

He was a sociopath.

He eventually moved out of the neighborhood, but every few years I would get wind of where he was, what high school he attended, what university he went to. A few years ago I learned through an old childhood friend that Chris had become an investment advisor and that he was charged with defrauding his clients out of millions of dollars. I later learned that he’d fled the country and was probably living somewhere in the Caribbean.

I have long wondered if Chris would ever end up murdering someone. Maybe he has, or still might someday, but—so I’ve learned in my reading on sociopathy—it’s equally possible that he’s not homicidal. Not all sociopaths or psychopaths are. But all of them are predators in some form, whether that means they steal someone’s business idea, emotionally torture a coworker, or parasitically live off a partner.

The more extreme and powerful psychopaths are the ruthless corporate sharks, the Ponzi schemers, the corrupt politicians, the mass murderers, the evil dictators that plague our world. They are the ones who make war, who sponsor genocides, who build the systems that separate the rich from the poor.

According to experts like Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, one out of every 25 of us is a sociopath. While people like you and me far outnumber them, the sad truth is that this tiny minority is largely responsible—directly or indirectly—for making life on this planet at times painful, intolerable, unbearable, or impossible.

I recently read a Scott Adams quote—from The Dilbert Principlethat nailed this truth: “We’re a planet of nearly six billion ninnies living in a civilization that was created by a few thousand amazingly smart deviants.”

The sociopath has not only created the world we live in. They’ve written our entire history—our long history of oppressive regimes, of ceaseless war, of torture, persecutions, inquisitions.

I still frequently recall the look in Chris’s eyes as he worked out his plan to kill the bird. Every time I picture that psychopathic stare I get a shiver. That haunting image is one of the reasons why I’ve long struggled with the question of why the human race includes the sociopath. It’s also one of the major questions I’ve tried to explore in the Mantis trilogy, which features various antagonists including the Nazis of WWII, a cauldron of sociopathy.

Milk toast

Cover of “The Great Crash 1929” by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin  Company, New York, 1954.

Cover of “The Great Crash 1929” by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin
Company, New York, 1954.

“We lived on milk toast. It was all we had to eat.”

This is what my father would tell me and my siblings to get us to finish our dinner. It worked for me, too well, unfortunately. Terrified that a time would come when all there would be to eat was milk toast, I stocked up, real good. I would eventually shed my protection gut, but for much of my adolescence I was a chubby kid that worried about the Depression. While that might have been a temporary downside to having an older father and taking his stories to heart, a huge upside was learning from someone whose life stories covered so much history—the Great Depression and World War II included. No doubt his many personal tales of those periods have a lot to do with my setting Mantis in 1940, at the crossroads between the Depression and the war.

In my search for a deeper understanding of what my father and the characters in Mantis would have lived through, I turned to The Great Crash 1929, by economist John Kenneth Galbraith. The book covers the origins and the fallout of the stock market crash of October 1929. Sixteen months earlier my grandmother gave birth to my dad. She and my grandfather would have then been enjoying the Roaring Twenties and must have thought they were bringing their child into a wonderful world. A world that would only get better and better. For, as Galbraith reveals, that was the Zeitgeist of the time— the stock market would go up and up forever and everyone was going to get rich….Hmmmm, kinda reminds me of a few years ago when property values could only go up and everyone was going to get rich…..

In the ’20s the wonderful world ended on October 29, 1929—aka Black Tuesday—when people realized that stocks wouldn’t go up forever. The panicked selling was so furious that day that the stock tickers fell behind by several hours. People who swarmed around the tickers all over the country were left to imagine how much they had lost and, fearing the worst, continued to sell. They would find out later that evening that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen almost 12% that day.

The fall would go on and on until 1932 when shares hit 10% of their former values. In the US unemployment would rise to 25%. Six thousand banks would go out of business. Two million people would become homeless. Middle class families who used to enjoy feasts in fancy restaurants would sup on milk toast in dingy quarters. Living the high life was no longer a possibility. People just wanted to get jobs, to eat properly, to find shelter. This was the world that my father grew up in, and the world that Lucas, the hero of Mantis, finds himself in when he travels from 2012 to 1940.

Below is an excerpt from Mantis—taken from the day Lucas arrives in 1940 and discovers a Manhattan still reeling from a crash that happened more than a decade earlier:

At the end of one block I came across a few dozen hangdog men lining up for a help wanted sign at a restaurant—fry cook wanted—and it dawns on me that for the last eleven years all of these people have endured the fear and hardship of the Great Depression. They’re desperate for security and safety and the last thing they want is to go to war, but by year’s end, many of them—as well as their fathers, sons and brothers—will start dying on the other side of the world.

I’m feeling more adrift with every block I pass and the sun is fading. When I reach Madison Square Park, the park I walk through on my way home from work during the summers, I seize on the hope that a few blocks away my apartment building is actually there and that I’ll be able to walk inside and take the elevator up to my floor, walk down the hall and step inside my apartment, putting an end to this experience.

I hurry east along the wide blocks of 23rd Street. It’s a long journey and by the time the corner of First Avenue comes into view the sun has set, darkening the sparsely lit street with a gloom I’ve never experienced before in Manhattan. I quicken my pace, but as soon as I turn the corner I freeze, all the air going from my lungs. Colossal gas tanks several stories tall stand where my middle-class housing development will eventually be built.

This is not a world I will awaken from.

My hand goes to my pocket, finds my dad’s keys and wraps around them, tight. When I eventually take in air I gasp at the odor of gasoline mixed with putrefying garbage and animal dung. I want a cab now, I want to get to my father’s place, but few cars pass on the road and none of them are taxis.

I start walking quickly along the sidewalk, past worn-down storefronts, notices pasted to their windows. Victims of the Depression. For a while I’m under the impression the street is deserted but soon I manage to pick out figures lurking in the shadows of recessed doorways, their faces lit briefly by the strike of a match or the glowing ember of a cigarette. Farther down the block I find a homeless man, gaunt and tattered, lying on the curb in a pool of weak lamplight. He looks up at me with vagabond eyes and asks in a voice dry as sandpaper if I can spare some change. He smells like a dead cat soaked in vinegar. I hold my breath, bend down and stuff a couple of dollars into his tin cup, then keep going.

In a few short blocks I pass enough rubbies and hobos to go broke, but I ignore them. I’ve got less than a hundred dollars left and I don’t know how long it will last, how long I will need it to last. I don’t want to think about my future, about possibly having to join these men on the street, so I don’t.

The skunk that led me to the Casbah

Why I set part of Mantis in the mysterious and exotic Casbah of Algiers has a lot to do with a little cartoon skunk. His name was Pepe Le Pew and he was one of my favorite Looney Tunes characters. As a kid, I loved watching Pepe—a hopeless romantic with a suave Parisian accent—hit up every female black cat he saw who happened to have a white stripe on her back. The cats would always run from his stench and Pepe would saunter after them through the streets of Paris. In his narcissictic mind, the misfortunately colored cats were flirting with him.

One episode that I particularly loved was a 1954 episode called “The Cat’s Bah”. Pepe, now living in the Casbah, spots a cat visiting from America and immediately dashes off to make his move. The chase that follows takes us through the Casbah with its twisted alleys, narrow archways and Arabian marketplaces. This labyrinthine city fascinated me and I would tune in every Saturday, desperate for a rerun of that episode.

As I grew up, Pepe’s Casbah would linger in the back of my mind as a place of mystery and romance. And so, when I came to plotting out the various settings in Mantis, I chose the Casbah for the finale.

For my visual research I would go a little further than Looney Tunes and turn to the few major films that have been made of the Casbah—The Battle of Algiers (1966), Casbah (a 1948 musical film), Algiers (1938) and Pepe Le Moko (1937, French).

The Battle of Algiers is a critically acclaimed political film, while the other three are variations on the same story about a jewel thief. Casbah, the most recent, is a campy, musical remake of Algiers, which is a great film and near replica of the French precedent, an even greater film. The hero of all three movies is the thief, Pepe Le Moko, from whom Pepe Le Pew gets his name. If you check out the short episode of “The Cat’s Bah”, you’ll spot a reference to Le Moko.

I was eager to see the three films because they include actual footage of the Casbah.  Algiers was of especial interest because it predates the Mantis storyline by only two years. Though rough in spots, Algiers would prove to be a fantastic revelation of the ancient fortress city and its motley population of Arabs and Africans, Gypsies and expats from all over the world. And among them, the pickpockets and grifters, the demimondes and snake charmers.

Hedy Lamarr in Algiers (1938)

Hedy Lamarr in Algiers (1938)

 

Part of the film’s appeal, of course, is the allure of the gorgeous Hedy Lamarr. Algiers, in fact, was the inspiration for Casablanca and Lamarr was originally slated for Ingrid Bergman’s role. But MGM wouldn’t release the actress to Warner Brothers, the producers of CasablancaAlgiers is now public domain. TCM plays it occasionally, but you can see the full film on YouTube. You can also see The Battle of Algiers and Pepe Le Moko in their entirety and a clip of the opening of Casbah.

 

Below is an excerpt from Mantis of Lucas’s arrival in the Casbah. Enjoy.

As our ship blares its siren on approach into port, the three of us stand on the prow with our hands on the gunwale. The salt air blows in our faces while we stare out at the Casbah, a white city glowing under moonlight. An imposing line of imperial buildings—wide flat facades standing on arcaded bases—hugs the shoreline. The Low City, the new city, Nick informs us. Above and beyond it, the ancient High City crawls higgledy-piggledy up a mountainside—minarets and domed cupolas of mosques reach up out of a chaos of crammed and haphazardly arrayed buildings. It is the city of my dreams, the place where Elsa and I are together. My heart jolts.

After disembarking and passing a time-consuming inspection, we make our way out of the harbor on foot, hauling our luggage up an inclined road paved with flat stones. Large civic buildings stand on our right and to our left are shops and eateries, from whose open windows flow various pleasant aromas—of spices, olives, roasted nuts—all mingling with the pungency of human sweat rising off the throngs crowding the street. Half the people are Arabs, men in jubbahs, women in burkas and hijabs, the other half are French settlers and Europeans, many rushing in and out of port. They all move with a distinct agitation, for as in Marseille, the news of Germany’s advances buzzes on their lips.

As we climb uphill through the crowd, we’re all looking out for Black Suits and dictyoptera. Nick has explained to Olivia what the Black Suits really look like and how to spot them. Every now and then I catch her looking in her periphery, her eyes filled with the fear she might actually see the giant writhing insects.

With the aid of a map drawn by Rosa, Nick leads us to a crowded plaza. On the far side looms a large archway, the entrance to the Arab quarter of the old city. We head through that and begin climbing up a winding stepped laneway between stucco dwellings with small lattice windows. Several young boys offer to carry our luggage but we shoo them away. Dozens of beggars, in rags and turbans, sitting crossed-legged, hands outstretched, plead for money, but we ignore them all, as does the rest of the foot traffic shuffling up and down. The occasional musician sweetly playing a warbling wind instrument is a pleasant treat.

Higher up, the lane narrows and flickering torches, some fixed to walls, some carried by hand, light our progress ever deeper into a dark labyrinth that becomes increasingly disordered and nonsensical. Walls jut at every odd angle, second stories are cantilevered overhead, propped up by rows of wooden poles dug into plaster, and steps seem to lead to nowhere as though designed by Escher. In darkened recesses, people lurk, smoking pipes, and whispered voices funnel, amplified, out of alleyways, joining the scattered echo of conversations all around us. Olivia startles as a monkey wearing a vest and a black-tasseled fez whips past her, a large yellow fruit in one of its forepaws.

We enter a tunnel where drainpipes, poking out of the walls, ooze a filthy liquid that swirls down channels at the sides. We all gasp and hold our breath against the overpowering stench of urine and excrement till we debouch on the other side into a public square surrounded by inns and shops and shuttered market stalls. People, mostly Arabs, are about, many standing outside doorways, talking, smoking. A group of teenagers roughhouses around a fountain in the middle. I’m struck suddenly by déjà vu. I’ve seen this place before…

 

Why I have to watch Miracle on 34th Street

Sometime this holiday season I am obligated to see Miracle on 34th Street for the first time. I’m too old to have a good excuse for never seeing this Christmas classic. I can only lamely point to a general apathy toward an old black-and-white about a guy who claims to be the real Santa. But I’ll probably love it. I do love many black-and-whites. Casablanca for one. And Miracle does have a 94% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again so does Juno and that didn’t do it for me. Sorry.

But back to Miracle. I have to watch it as payback for all the 1940s films I made my partner sit through during the research phase for the first book in the Mantis trilogy. It’s not that I actually forced her to watch them with me, but with tight schedules I had to appropriate dozens of our Saturday movie nights to watch films that I had DVR’d off of Turner Classic Movies. In advance of those movie nights I would scour the upcoming listings for TCM, hunting for any films shot in the late ’30s or early ’40s, especially if it was set in any of the cities featured in Mantis—Manhattan, Lisbon, Marseille, the Casbah. I also had my eye out for a few precious movies I had read about that I absolutely wanted to see. I would record whatever I could find. So I always had a slew to choose from for our Saturday nights. My lucky partner!

Many of those films were horribly boring. Sorry, babe. Still, the suffering—from my POV at least—was worth it because the films gave me stuff like fashion and idioms that are hard to get from other media. TCM would also invariably come through on my must-see list, as they did when they aired The House on 92nd Street, a 1945 semidocumentary film based on an actual 1941 FBI sting of a Nazi spy operation.

Aside from providing detail on the FBI’s counterespionage efforts and a decent glimpse of spy tradecraft at the time, the film—one of the few films ever shot on location in Manhattan during the ’40s—gives a rare tour of actual New York streets. Most films at the time, like The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and Citizen Kane (1941), were shot entirely or almost entirely in Hollywood studios.

One of the other few on-location films actually happens to be Miracle, which uses actual footage of the 1946 Thanksgiving Day parade. That’s after the war and beyond the time period of the trilogy—I was very particular about wanting to see early-’40s and not post-war footage—but for the rare glimpse of Manhattan around that time, I will be grateful.

Of course, one old Christmas movie is hardly a fair trade for what I put my partner through. So it’s her choice of movies for quite some time.

While I set off to fulfill my Miracle obligation, you can enjoy a brief clip from The House on 92nd Street. By the way, many of the FBI agents are played by real agents. Enjoy.

On the Cusp of Change: Rebecca Lepkoff takes you back to the Lower East Side of the ’40s

Cover of “Life on the Lower East Side” Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. Text by Peter E. Dans and Suzanne Wasserman. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2006.

From November 11, 2012, till January 4, 2013, you can go back in time and see what it was like to live in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the ’40s—thanks to photographer Rebecca Lepkoff and the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy.

“On the Cusp of Change: The LES, 1935-1975”—an exhibit of Lepkoff’s photographs—is held at the conservancy’s Visitor Center at 400 Grand Street in Manhattan.

I found out about the exhibit recently when I reached out to Ms. Lepkoff to express my gratitude her for book, Life on the Lower East Side, which I drew heavily on as a research source for Mantis. In it, she brilliantly captured life on the Lower East Side during the middle of the last century—a place where, as her camera reveals, pushcarts full of fruit and vegetables crowded the streets, kids of every background played catch, shoe shine boys and butchers and cobblers plied their trades, laundry hung in wide festoons and seagulls flocked fish market stalls.

I should add that the exhibit was originally scheduled to open a week earlier on the 4th of November, but was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately the Conservancy was able to open the exhibit this week. It’s a piece of good news for a part of the world where so many suffered tragic losses. My thoughts are with them and with all who are still struggling to recover their lives.

I encourage anyone interested in Manhattan’s history or photography to attend the exhibit and view this artist’s beautiful work. Below is a short interview with Lepkoff—produced by Jim Epstein—that features some of her startling duotones.

*The Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy accepts donations which support their ability to preserve and honor the Lower East Side’s history, as they are doing with Lepkoff’s exhibit. (Please check their website for information on how to donate.)

And now a brief excerpt from Mantis inspired by Lepkoff’s work. Here the hero, Lucas, wakes up in the new home he inherited from his father, and heads out into an area of the Lower East Side between the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, now buried by a housing development, but fortunately preserved in Lepkoff’s photos as it would have appeared then.

Light. Cold air. Faraway voices. The clatter of a wheel over cobblestones. I open my eyes. I’m in a small sunlit room with an old radio on the floor, a chair, a coffee table, a standing lamp. I have no idea where I am. My legs hang over the arm of a couch. I’ve woken up inside a dream. This is what I think until I see the sketch of a giant man with one ear and realize where I am, that this dream is my new reality.

I look at my watch, my dad’s watch. Six thirty. I don’t know what time Olivia gets to the office, but I want to speak to her as soon as possible. I want to know what she knows and I want to get on the trail of the Beast while it’s still warm.

In my dad’s bedroom I pull out a toiletry case and a shopping bag from Ohrbach’s that I saw in the armoire last night. There are some new clothes in the bag, including a few plain white undershirts, some underwear—Jockey shorts—and socks. Good.

In the bathroom I wash up as best I can at the sink and then with a straight razor I attempt a quick shave. I manage to remove most of my stubble but my face is a bloody mess. Once I’m dressed I fold the contents of my father’s file folder and stuff them inside my jacket, lock up and rush downstairs, out into a street that barely resembles the street from last night. People are everywhere—men in work clothes spill out of the facades, lunch boxes in hand, women wearing kerchiefs lean out of windows talking to each other, and ragamuffin children sit on stoops and fire escape landings. No thin man in a black suit.

The smell of fish is thick in the air as I march down the street, shivering against the morning chill. People look at me, tilt their heads. I’m a stranger in the neighborhood, but somehow vaguely familiar. There’s a pushcart at the curb selling bags of pistachios, Hershey’s Kisses, fruit, bagels, pickles in a barrel. I haven’t eaten since 2012 but I’ve got no appetite. I hurry around the corner past a fenced-in lot, a razed tenement, where a pack of dogs scurries around in rubble and litter. At the end of the lot there’s a stretch of hoarding plastered with movie posters, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford. Just beyond that, I find a set of steps that take me down into a subway station.

 

Blame your parents when the monsters get you

Cover of “Entangled Minds” by Dean Radin. Paraview Pocket Books, New York, 2006.

When I was a kid, I saw little monsters in my bedroom. No one seemed to react when I said as much, though. Most kids see monsters. Actually, it’s probably a little weird for a kid not to see scary stuff in the dark. But if you do, your parents simply tell you what you’re seeing is not real. They might have to keep telling you for a few weeks, months, maybe years, but eventually you’ll stop seeing them, and you’ll grow up to be a normal adult. You’ll go to school, get a job, get married, have kids and tell those kids the little monsters they see aren’t real. If you don’t keep the cycle going, your kids could grow up to be adults who see monsters, and adults who see monsters don’t have it easy when it comes to things like getting a job and finding a partner. So this continual process—this shaping of consensual reality—is good and healthy. Except for one potential little problem—if there ever are real monsters, we won’t be able to see them. We’d be blind to them—not eye blind, but brain blind. And that’s the problem Lucas, the hero of Mantis, has. Even though he can see everything that’s in plain sight—which, as we saw in the previous post, is actually a remarkable genius—he still only sees what his brain accepts as part of consensual reality. It’s this weakness—a weakness that all well-adapted humans possess—that the enemies in Mantis prey upon.

Dean Radin, an award winning scientist who has devoted his career to the study of psychic phenomenon, covers how this brain blindness happens in his bestselling book Entangled Minds. The phenomenon at work is something called latent inhibition, which, as Radin puts it, “refers to an unconscious brain process that degrades our ability to pay attention to stimuli that have had no consequences in the past.” He goes on:

Imagine, for example, that Pavlov’s dogs were exposed to ringing bells without being fed. The dogs will quickly learn to ignore ringing bells because those sounds had no meaningful consequence (i.e. no association with food). Now, Pavlov decides to train the same dogs to salivate whenever they hear a bell by ringing the bells and feeding them. Unfortunately, these dogs had already learned to ignore bells, so they’re going to have a hard time unlearning the old association. Dogs that hadn’t previously heard the irrelevant bells will quickly learn to salivate. This “hard time unlearning” is due to latent inhibition.

That’s what Lucas is up against in Mantis—unlearning the reality he’s been taught all his life to believe in. And that’s no easy feat.

The phenomenon of latent inhibition strikes Lucas hard after he lands in Lisbon just as the Nazis storm through Belgium. In the excerpt below, Lucas, who has just seen the Black Suits kidnap his P. I. partner Olivia, seeks the help of Nick Cap, a Frenchman who seems to know the way to help Lucas.

Half a mile up the slope, I spot a sign for the Hotel Baleia hanging on a slim building tucked between two restaurants. I charge through the lobby, huffing, and ask the concierge for Nick Cap. He calls Nick, says a few words in a foreign language and then hangs up and tells me in broken English Nick’s room number.

Seconds later, I’m standing in a dingy hallway, banging on Nick’s door. He opens it swiftly, a pile of clothes balanced on his palm.

“The Black Suits just kidnapped Olivia,” I say.

“Oh, Lucas, I am sorry.” He steps inside his tiny room and places the clothes into an open suitcase on his bed.

“Are they going to kill her?”

“Explain what happened.”

After I relay the story, he says, “I do not know, Lucas. They could have killed her on the street. They did not. That is good—for now. They only kill if they have to, so it depends if they decide in the end that her death is necessary or not.”

“Where are they taking her?”

“I imagine they will take her to their closest headquarters.”

“Where’s that?”

“I do not know.” He closes the halves of his suitcase together. “If I knew, I would go there.”

“You have to help me find it.”

He lifts his suitcase off the bed onto the floor beside him. “Lucas, I was just about to leave for Casablanca to find the Black Suits.”

“We have to find Olivia first.”

He stares at me with his good eye. “Tell me, Lucas, when your father went missing, what did you think happened?”

“Nick, we don’t have time for this now—I need your help fast.”

“I need you to answer the question first.”

“I had no idea what happened.”

“But there were books, your grandfather’s books that pointed to the answer—is that not so?”

“Nick, please—”

“You saw the books, didn’t you?”

“I saw the books, yes.”

“But you never considered the possibility of other worlds, other dimensions.”

I let out a breath. The clock is ticking. “No sane person does.”

“It is not a question of sanity, Lucas. It is a question of what is real, what is truth. When you think of sanity, you miss things. You missed where your father went. You miss who these Black Suits are. You think you can fight them with a gun and regular bullets. You discovered the truth the hard way—you lost Olivia because of your closed mind.”

My teeth crunch together. “You asked for my father’s watch for some magic bullets, what the hell was I supposed to think?”

“You were supposed to open your mind. I am not, what you call, a snake-oil salesman. I offered you a necessary bargain. The universe works by balance, by bargain, by trade—like the laws of thermodynamics, but at the deepest, metaphysical level. Your grandfather knew about that. There is no… what you call free lunch in this world, or any world, Lucas. Your father’s watch for the method to kill your father’s killer—that was the trade. Without it, even my gold bullets would be no better than what you shot from your gun today.”

“I should have listened to you, yes. I’m sorry. I want to trade for those gold bullets now.”

“You need more than my bullets, Lucas. You need to open your mind. You possess a certain genius—a great memory with extraordinary powers of perception, just like your father and your grandfather. But you are blind, still—by certain prejudices, by certain preconceived notions of the world.”

“I saw my bullets disappear into that bastard’s face. My mind is open now.”

“It is not. And until it is, you’re not ready. You want to rush, Lucas. I understand, but that won’t help you get Olivia back. Your father rushed too. ’e did not wait for me to teach him all I know. He went to the Perisphere without me. He was too impatient. Maybe I could have done more to warn your father, but I will not let you make the same mistake.”

“Then help me get ready, help me open my mind.”

“Okay, Lucas, describe the Black Suit’s face.”

“Gaunt. Sunken pale cheeks. Small dark eyes.”

He shakes his head. “That is what a closed mind sees. You must first understand that as human beings, we perceive everything through five senses. Personally, I believe we have other senses. But whatever you believe, it is true we always filter out a large portion of what we perceive. There is simply too much data. As a Nomi, you, fortunately, do not have this particular limitation. Your brain has the capability to cope with a great deal of information. ’owever, you suffer, as most humans do, from another factor. And that, Lucas, is that we tend to accept only information which conforms to our preconceived notions of the world, shaped by science, by culture, by fear. Children see all manner of strange things—ghosts and so on—and when they report these things to adults we tell them they’re not real. We shape the reality of the child to the acceptable norms. In time, the child learns to filter out whatever does not fit the norms. You must rid yourself of the prejudices you have, of what you expect to see when you see a Black Suit.”

“What should I have seen?”

He pulls a piece of paper from an inside pocket of his jacket and unfolds it on the bed. It’s a pen-and-ink rendition of a revolting monster, a black creature oozing slime that looks partly humanoid and partly like a praying mantis. It has claw-like appendages like Olivia described and its triangular head, with two massive hypnotically dark eyes, tapers to a terrifying chaos of saw-edged mandibles.

“This is what the Black Suits really are, Lucas,” Nick is saying. “Dictyoptera—a unique, supernatural species. Like other creatures in the order of dictyoptera, such as the praying mantis, camouflage is their defense mechanism, but with these dictyoptera, the camouflage is super advanced. A technology unknown to man. It is bullet-proof also—against normal bullets.”

I look at Nick, can’t speak. I can tell he sees the recognition on my face.

“You see something familiar here, don’t you?”

I hesitate before saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this. But I’ve seen hundreds of black mantises in these visions I get at night. I’ve had them for years back in my world and a few here too. Some of the insects are regular sized, some larger.”

Nick’s eyes light up—finally he is getting somewhere with me. “At night when you dream, Lucas, your mind is open. It shows you the deeper reality of the world, things your conscious mind has filtered out. Your subconscious mind must have detected these dictyoptera somewhere and then shown you in your dreams a representation of what they really are with images of mantises. That makes sense, because a mantis insect is the closest norm you have for these dictyoptera. It is a good sign that you’ve had these dreams, Lucas. It gives me hope that your mind could be opened.”