Horror writers love an insanity moment. Evolving from the Gothic insane asylum movement, horror writers have deepened insanity as a literary device in a way that reflects back to us and our own definitions of sanity.
One of the most famous (viral?) stories about insanity is CreepyPasta’s The Russian Sleep Experiment. In a way that very few novels have, this story has stuck with me like a piece of chicken between my teeth after a big roast dinner. That last paragraph, and those extremely disturbing words ‘Have you forgotten so easily?’ messed me up.
The gore and violence shown throughout the story are gruesome, but that line shifts the blame slightly. “Have you forgotten so easily?” implies a greater relationship between humans and insanity than most people would be willing to admit. The onus of the story shifts towards ourselves and the madness that so many writers have written that lurks within us all.
I also found it fascinating that it was the “Russian” sleep experiment.
Throughout the Cold War and beyond its collapse, there’s a sense in western culture that barbarity and inhumane treatment were not limitations to Soviet testing. Whereas the US and its allies were corralled into caring about their citizens and their welfare – the Milgram Experiment comes to mind – the Soviets were able to delve deeper into human experimentation, and therefore had an edge in the arms race between the US and USSR.
Intercepts is a horror novel that disregards this entirely. In the name of US security in a post-9/11 world – anything goes.
Synopsis for TJ Payne’s Intercepts
In the novel Intercepts Joe Gerhard is the man in charge of a secret US facility that sedates the captives within permanently. This is done through cells with a consistent flow of gas that keeps them in a state of sensory deprivation. This deprivation is only lessened during “Tuning Sessions” in which the captives go through a form of art-therapy-with-extreme-pain like session in which they describe everything they can see, hear, and feel.
After subliminal bombardment for a prolonged period of time, what they are able to see, hear, and feel is a target of interest to US national security.
While these captives are used as state-of-the-art spy technology at her father’s facility, Riley Gerhard has to move in with her father close to the secure site due to her mother’s suicide. From the minute she steps into her father’s house, Riley is haunted by the vision of a woman with long dark hair that only she can see. As the novel progresses, the woman comes to whisper and show Riley things she shouldn’t possibly know.
I won’t spoil the novel – it is genuinely terrific – or it’s ending, but will say that the unknowability of the captives powers begins to unfold and torment Riley in a way that pushes her father to the brink of insanity himself.
Intercepts and Wider Horror Movements
Some of you horror aficionados might be feeling a little Déjà vu at the subject matter discussed above. Stephen King released a novel in 2019 called The Institute in which the basic premise – and I mean this at a very base level – is reminiscent of what T. J. Payne wrote about in his novel Intercepts. In his own novel, Kig establishes a secret facility in which children are harboured for their psychic powers to aid in US national security.
The novels differ significantly from this point onward, and as both novels were published in 2019, there’s more to be said about the environment that surrounded horror authors at the time that influenced both writer’s work. The US’s national identity is firmly rooted in its military capabilities and how these capabilities outstrip every other nation on earth. However, as time has progressed, new and more challenging areas of national defense (cyber, terror, etc) have arisen that threaten the American military structure – and therefore how America sees itself within the world.
Horror tackles these issues with a speed and efficiency, I’d argue, is more reflexive than other genres. Payne has taken a legacy product of the Cold War (human testing, especially testing in terms of psychic abilities) and modernised it for contemporary times. Victor Aminov, a Ukranian national, becomes Payne’s metaphor for these concerns. Although this is not a novel that focuses on Aminov, the main concern is Riley and her father, he is a fantastic utility for the wider concern of how America can continue to dominate every space of offensive military capabilities in a world of new competition.
Insanity and Intercepts
It was the cognizance of the captives within the novel that struck me with the greatest aplomb. On the few instances we get to glimpse into the mind of Bishop and the other subjects of Gerhard’s facility, their ultimate objective is not to return to the live they were stripped from, or to gain any semblance of normality. Their goal is to die.
And that resonated with me.
The impact of so much pain, of enduring such visceral torture, and then being plunged into a sensory deprived abyss, only to know you will be pulled to the surface again soon, reduces all instincts of humanity to negligible levels. The human capacity for pain is so finite that, once reached, there is no life to return to. The captives within the novel Intercepts understand this. It reminds me of a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she first talks with the First Slayer.
“Death is your gift.”
As all the captives in Payne’s novel fought to die, to be free of the torment they were being put through, I thought back to The Russian Sleep Experiment and the last words of the last living subject, or the madness that has taken command of his body… “So… nearly… free…”
Is that what insanity is?
Perhaps death is our gift, and we are all just waiting to be free.
Last Updated on September 17, 2021.