Tuesday, January 31, 2006

There is No Known Passage

Among our correspondents here at "The Face" is the semi-legendary Fred Spark. His calling card defines him as a "Morbid Archivist," but he's being modest -- not to mention obscurantist. In addition to his hundreds of private investigations and manuscript procurements for wealthy (and anonymous) clients, he has been an archeologist on the Andes plateau; product tester and resident ethicist for the now-defunct Surveillance Technician's Quarterly; crafter of birchbark canoes in northern Minnesota; surveyor for the United States Department of Agriculture; manager of an Associated Supermarket in Redwood City, California; orderly at a retirement village in Ocala, Florida; industrial arts teacher at a grade school in Midlothian, Texas; "tonal consultant" at the Reuter Pipe Organ Factory in Lawrence, Kansas; groundskeeper on the campus of Yale University (where he is rumored to have taken photos of the inner sanctum of the Skull and Bones society); and all-around imp of the perverse. He is also known -- though not publicly -- as the foremost authority on the life and philosophies of James Jesus Angleton, coordinator during the Cold War years of the CIA's crack counterintelligence unit.

I wish you could meet Fred. Like a Nabokov villain, he appears and reappears at will, in wildly divergent forms yet always vaguely familiar, leaving only a scrawled signature in a Motel 6 register or defaced menu from a rural-route diner as evidence of his passing. Those few of us in his orbit exchange excited stories of our encounters. I have met him only once -- a brief, awkward midnight rendezvous by the enormous black cube at the center of Astor Place in Manhattan. Five years later, I am still working the chill out of my bones.

It's Fred's peculiar gift, not to solve mysteries, but to find them -- and then to pass them on, by way of his many media conduits (witting and unwitting), into the general stream of public knowledge. It's long been rumored that his career began in the US military in World War II, that he was a key player in the so-called "Roswell" cover-up, and that most of what we know or suspect about the strange occurrences near Corona, New Mexico in 1947 is due to his leaks of vital information. Other speculations have placed him at or near the sites of most significant post-war American conspiracy theories. Fred Spark is sufficiently elusive to make even the unlikeliest scenarios virtually plausible; still, one knows enough to be suspicious of any theory that claims to encompass everything.

Fred has a different method of alerting each individual on his list of "friendlies." The method he has assigned me is this:

I find on my cell phone a voice-mail message consisting of a music box playing "The Lincolnshire Poacher," recorded from a short-wave radio "numbers" station -- a government-owned transmitting outlet for encoded espionage messages. (I finally discovered that this unvarying piece was actually Track 6 from Disc 1 of The Conet Project; but I still don't know which government{s} is/are involved, or what the message conveyed might be). I then let Fred know I've received his alert by posting a message to the "comments" section of a heavily-trafficked "Sex and the City" fan site -- a message consisting of exactly eight lines of romantic verse from any prominent 19th century English poet. This posting must be unsigned but for a single letter, that being the third letter of the middle name of the poet in question. Fred then sends his message through encrypted lines left in text-file form at an auxiliary mirror site of one of the smaller, less stable file-hosting services. (He employs a basic encryption schema recognizable to anyone who has read Robert Graysmith's book on the Zodiac murders.)

Fred dispatched me this item earlier today. The mansion in question stands a mere 10 blocks south and three west of where I work every Monday afternoon. Fred may be trying to tell me something. I don't know what it is. But I'll be nosing around.

Good to hear from you, Fred.

Stay safe.

Wherever you are tonight.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Something in the Air

About 45 minutes ago, my wife tugged on the sleeve of my T-shirt and sniffed it.

"What?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said, "there's a smell somewhere. It's not good."




"Uh -- no."

"Well, what's it like?"

"A combination of cigarettes, B.O., grease . . . "

We'd just been watching an old "X-Files" episode: one called "Grotesque," from the third season. (I find that it originally aired February 2, 1996, according to Red Wolf's superlative "X-Files" episode guide. That's almost exactly 10 years ago, by an utter coincidence.)

In this installment -- one of the more graphic and disturbing of the series, more akin to Se7en than "The Twilight Zone" -- Mulder is brought in to consult on a case by Agent Patterson, legendary FBI profiler of serial killers. Patterson has just captured his nemesis, a former mental patient responsible for several murders that involved dismemberment, facial mutilation, and ultimately the encasement of severed heads within clay gargoyle masks. The killer admits to committing the murders and acting alone, but insists he was inhabited by an evil force controlling his movements. And now, with the murderer in custody, a copycat is out carrying on his work. The evil spirit, it would seem, has moved on to a new host. Hence Mulder's involvement. He listens to the killer's wild claims, and studies up on the subject of gargoyles.

Patterson is disdainful of Mulder's openness to "alternative" theories of criminal motivation -- but Mulder senses that he and the dour profiler are closer in their thinking than the latter lets on. "Patterson had this saying about tracking a killer," Mulder explains to his partner, Scully. "If you want to know an artist, you have to look at his art. What he really meant was if you wanted to catch a monster you had to become one yourself."

For a while, it looks like Mulder is intent on doing just that. He becomes obsessed with finding and understanding the evil spirit that possessed the killer. Pretty soon he is hunkering down in the killer's lair, studying his dozens of gargoyle sketches, dreaming in his bed, discovering his grisly hidden menagerie of gargoyle heads and their mutilated contents. He wakes in the killer's bed and is attacked and nearly killed by a shadowy assailant, who escapes.

You see the end coming, but it's still disturbing. Patterson the profiler is the one now inhabited by the spirit, the gargoyle, the mutilator and defiler. He's the copycat killer. He's the assailant who attacked Mulder, then let him live -- perhaps precisely so that Mulder could find him out and put an end to the killing. He and Mulder chase and tangle. Patterson is wounded, but will recover. The last we see, he is straining against bars in the darkest dungeon of a D.C. penitentiary, a Medieval hole. He's insane. His eyes are wild, and his cries resound through the hollow corridors: "I didn't do it! Listen to me! It wasn't me! It wasn't me!!"

"We work in the dark," Mulder says in voice-over. "We do what we can to battle with the evil that would otherwise destroy us. But if a man's character is his fate, this fight is not a choice but a calling. Yet sometimes the weight of this burden causes us to falter, breaching the fragile fortress of our mind, allowing the monsters without to turn within and we are left alone, staring into the abyss . . . into the laughing face of madness."

So the episode was at least partly about the mystic surmise that madness is not a disease or chemical imbalance contained in one person, as much post-Enlightenment thought would have it, but a universal trace, something of the body but not limited to it. Like a thick fog that leaves its residue of moisture. Reach your hand into madness, like Patterson or Mulder, and something might very well be clinging there when you pull it out.

"Well, what's it like?" I asked my wife.

"A combination of cigarettes, B.O., grease . . . "

That couldn't be me: I reckoned myself acceptably clean. Besides, I quit smoking more than four years ago.

She sniffed my sleeve again. No, she decided, I wasn't the source.

"It's like mental patients," she said.


My wife is a mental-health professional. In the course of the last 15 years she has spent much time in hospitals and halfway houses and back wards, counseling and treating the mentally ill.

"A lot of mental patients smell like that. Cigarettes from smoking constantly, B.O. and grease because a lot of them don't bathe very often."

"Were those mainly schizophrenics?"

"Schizophrenics, manic depressives, some borderlines."

"But no psycho killers, as far as you knew."

"Well, there were a few taken away because they got violent. But no one claiming to be inhabited by a gargoyle." She still looked puzzled; her face remained scrunched at the unpleasant smell -- which I, meanwhile, wasn't sensing at all. But then I've been snarky and coldish all weekend long. (See, there's a rational explanation for everything.)

"It must be coming in through the window," she said. "Maybe someone's frying fish."

"Mm-hmm. Did you notice it before we watched the show?"


A waft of air came in from the street. I breathed it for some trace of grease, cigarettes, even B.O. Maybe it was there; maybe it wasn't.

My wife shrugged. I shut off the TV and the lights.

"Skeery," I said. That's one of my favorites words: skeery. My wife laughed.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Keep Hearing the Skies!

At New Year's Eve, as 2005 -- our planet's most recent annus horribilis -- passed into mist, we were in the bedroom, at the rear of our apartment on the third floor of an 1870s brownstone, which is tucked quietly away in the normally placid heart of a peaceful Brooklyn neighborhood. The radiators had come silently on, and it was already hot in the room. So despite the near-freezing temperature outside we opened a window and let a bit of chill in. Heard all the noises from the surrounding streets carried in on crisp air, the air of those crystalline cold nights when everything is silent until someone shouts blocks away, or a foghorn blows, or a trashcan lid closes, and you feel the sound could reverberate for infinity, ringing into the sky.

Then, at about 11:30 p.m., a low-flying plane began performing laps over our heads. Now the sound of airplanes is not in itself unusual for us. We seem to be situated in a major flight path, so that frequently we hear, descending from greater or lesser altitudes, jets making their way back to LaGuardia or JFK from points north, south, west, or east. (Impossible to tell which just from the sound, given that circling maneuver employed by pilots preparatory to landing.)

But I don't think we'd ever heard this before: a plane so low it might have been buzzing our antennae, its diesel growl traveling from one ear to the other, going silent for perhaps 30 seconds -- and then flying back towards us, thence to its 30-second oblivion on the other side. And back again. And back again. It wasn't a helicopter, which I've heard in the neighborhood twice, when the police were spotlight-sweeping the area for some fleeing suspect. This was clearly the engine of an airplane moving in a swoop. It continued for easily 45 minutes to an hour.

Someone with more knowledge of aeronautics than myself (i.e., anyone) could posit 15 reasonable explanations for what was going on up there -- why a small aircraft was flying laps at low altitude for such a length of time. But I can't think of one. Not that I've devoted this past week to pursuing an answer.

But the sound was oddly appropriate to our activity just then. As others were popping corks and waiting for balls to drop, we were watching TV -- and getting caught up, to our surprise, in a movie neither of us had seen in years: The Thing from Another World. The 1951 sci-fi thriller concerns an Army Air Force detachment sent to investigate a peculiar discovery at the military's northernmost outpost, near the North Pole. Seems the expeditionaries have found an object of almost immeasurable size lodged beneath the polar ice. Upon investigation it appears to be a spacecraft. No telling how far back it landed, or what crypto-metalloid substance it was made from, let alone the craft's point of origin. Or the identity -- if that's the word -- of the strange-looking creature seen through a transparency in the craft's outer shell, frozen within.

The craft is irrevocably damaged in the process of extricating it from its frozen coverage; but the creature is removed and preserved in its sheltering block of ice. The base personnel decide to thaw it out. The ice thaws. The thing gets loose.

We'd both witnessed the film at younger ages and remembered it as a silly, pre-fab, atomic-era creature feature about an extraterrestrial carrot. It's good to know you can actually get more open, more innocent in a way, as you get older. The Thing revealed itself at greater distance as solid B-grade horror, far better than the '50s average, and undoubtedly a classic of its modest genre. The literate, lightning-quick screenplay, by Charles Lederer and an uncredited Ben Hecht, takes off from Don A. Stuart's creepy short story "Who Goes There?" Though credits list Christian Nyby as director, it's generally assumed that the producer, Howard Hawks, had the decisive influence. (Nyby had been Hawks' editor on Red River, among others.) The film is Hawksian in many respects -- the fast talk, the clean staging, the respect for professionalism in tight situations, the women wearing pants and not taking the macho stuff seriously. There's one great screaming shock, and the rest is absorbing in an efficient, low-key way. The cast is full of familiar second- and third-tier players from noir and sci-fi and exploitation genres of the '50s: Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Dewey Martin, John Dierkes.

The airplane, our own Brooklyn Buzzer, materialized not long after the movie started. There's a preponderance of flying scenes in the early part of the picture -- tight cockpit, jammed cargo bay, exterior shots of the craft. It was strangely appealing and even synchronous that an actual plane should come through just as we were watching planes fly on the TV, the movie soundtrack growling and huffing just like the enormous wasp over our heads.

As the narrative transpires and events get out of hand on the polar airbase, tempers rise and cross-talk multiplies. It was about here that shouts began to reach us through the window -- clusters of people gathering outside, calling to each other as midnight approached.

Climactically, the pilots and scientists must rig a succession of flash-fires and explosions to keep the thing at bay, and finally to kill it. Just as this began to happen, midnight chimed, and fireworks went off all around us: in the street, in the park nearby, in the yards between buildings. We couldn't see, but we could hear. Rockets flying skyward in a spritz of spark, tiny bombs whistling up and cracking open, pinpoint bursts of hot color in a vast and freezing charcoal sky.

The Thing ends with its valiant journalist character (a Hechtian tribute to his old comrades in the ink trade?) dictating his lead to the scribes back home. He ratifies the heroism of the base crew, and warns of the necessity for vigilance against those who would visit violence on us from outside. (That's "us" as in U.S. We won't go into the political implications of that in the early '50s -- or today.) The journalist concludes with words that have become de rigeur in the post-atomic age, the age of conspiracy, the watch-phrase for a generation or two of alien-huggers and hopeless plot-heads:

"Keep watching the skies!"

Or listening to them. You never know when life will imitate art, when the skies over your head will put on a radio play for your entertainment.

Here's to 2006, annus mirabilis.