Links by Charles Panati
Berkley Books, 1979
Price I paid: 30¢
They were the first to visit the afterLife and then return, their souls hypnotically “linked” in a dramatic new experiment in temporary death. Then something went wrong. Hideously wrong. And psychologist Ben West was faced with the most awesome terror that had ever been experienced by a living being, as he went after the woman he loved. All the way to the Other Side.
My baby’s got me locked up in links
And they aint the kind
That make any sense
I’m gonna find a quick way to indicate whether a book has a really misleading back cover synopsis so I don’t have to tell you every time it happens. This is another one like that, but it actually went far deeper than a simple lying summarization. For a long time it really seemed like the front of the book was a pack of lies, too. You see, everything about the marketing of this book was based on the idea that it was a journey into the hereafter, perhaps revealing to us that our societal conceptions of heaven and hell are wrong and perhaps much more frightening than we had ever imagined.
What we got instead was a story of a thoroughly unethical psychology professor who tried a dumb experiment.
Our professor is a guy named Ben West. He works at a small university somewhere in Massachusetts and has been working on a way of getting his fiancée, Alison, to stop having nightmares. The thing about this is that initially she wasn’t his fiancée, but rather was just a lady who had nightmares and had come to him for help. So yeah, this so-called professional not only got involved with a person who had come to him for help, but kept running experiments on her, experiments that were untested and not condoned by the university higher-ups.
What a classy guy.
Ben’s experiment involves using Alison and a friend of his, Stan, to hypnotize each other. Specifically, Ben hypnotizes Stan who then, under hypnosis mind you, hypnotizes Alison. At no point does the book tell us how exactly this is supposed to help Alison with her nightmare problem, but apparently it’s working. Somehow.
Alison’s nightmares, incidentally, are caused by repressed memories of her father. She’s got daddy issues. Here’s the thing: she’s not repressing the memories because her father was abusive or anything like that. He was just really embarrassing. He was an alcoholic, too, but mainly her repressed memories involve her father getting drunk and ruining her tenth birthday party. Heaven forbid he had actually done anything of consequence.
While Ben is experimenting on his betrothed, they’re also working on wedding plans and getting moved into their new house. Alison proves herself to be a rather annoying little creature at this time, acting like one of the mythical Bridezillas that stalked the land in years of yon.
Eventually some weird stuff starts happening, and I started to wonder if maybe this is where all the life-after-death stuff starts happening. But no, it turns out that that stuff is waaaaay off.
Instead we get to see some of the things happening in the experiment. Ben has developed a method by which the test subjects (i.e. his future wife and good friend) can tell him how “deep” their trance is. Normal hypnosis tends to give depths of about fifty to a hundred, and only after quite a lot of hypnosis. Alison and Stan are hitting depths of four hundred or so in seconds, and this is apparently both amazing and scary because nobody felt the need to tell me WHAT THE HELL THAT MEANS.
When the test subjects go that far under, though, they start talking about some weird stuff. There’s a lot of cave imagery involved in the mutual hypnosis and the subjects have a hard time coming back out of the trance, almost as if they’re unwilling to come back out. The cave is a recurring theme, and it even gets to the point where the subjects talk in echoes while “in” the “cave,” echoes like
Thiiiiiiis iiiiiis duuuuuuuuuuuuumb
Alison starts having headaches and blacking out. When she does, she gets really really cold, for reasons that I don’t think were ever actually explained but I guess it lends itself to thoughts about ghosts or something. We don’t see Stan, her hypnosis partner for a while, but we meet his wife, Nina, who tells Ben and Alison that Stan has been acting weird too and has actually hit her in the eye and run off.
Up to this point Stan had seemed like a pretty decent guy. Not much of a personality (that is to say, about as much as anyone else in the book), but nothing had indicated that he was a bad person. I suppose the “hitting a woman” thing was supposed to suggest to us that he had turned into a bad person, probably because of the experiments, or maybe he was just a bad person all along and had us all fooled. Who knows?
Ben finds another guy who has done experiments in this kind of nonsense before and hopes that maybe he’ll help him out since things are getting pretty out of hand. This guy, Dr. Stimson, turns out to be what is essentially the only competent person in this whole book. Seriously, Alison’s freaking and blacking out and Ben is a complete emotional mess because he managed to screw up his girlfriend’s brain. Stimson and cool, competent, experienced, and convinced that what has happened is that Alison and Stan have become psychically connected.
Yep, what we have here is a parapsychologist and he’s the only decent person in the book.
Stimson demonstrates that he has hypnotized one of his own patients so many times that he can induce the hypnosis and give orders from quite a distance away. Hooray for humanity! He thinks that Stan and Alison have gotten so deep into each other’s heads that there is a nearly unbreakable bond between them, and even worse, Stan has fallen in love with Alison and wants to…show her something.
No, that something is not in fact his Little Stan, it is in fact THE AFTERLIFE.
I just want to point out that at this point in the book, this is the first time anyone’s brought up the idea of the postmortem worlds beyond. That would be okay if it weren’t fifty pages from the end of the book.
Stimson investigates this by hypnotizing Alison in the regular way and asking her about the cave imagery she shares with Stan. Sure enough, Stan is trying to convince her that she needs to…wait for it…GO INTO THE LIGHT.
Oh, and there’s also people in the cave who also want Alison and Stan to go into the light. So yeah, Stan’s essentially trying to kill Alison, but he’s doing it for all the right reasons, right?
See, we also learn near the end of the book that Stan had an actual near-death experience as a child, and so got to see the cave and the light first-hand. So he has a much better idea of what’s on the Other Side than Alison does, and she’s afraid of it. Stan’s nearly managed to break down her defenses and get her to cross over with him, because apparently the best way to hook up with a chick you like that is about to marry your best friend is to go to Heaven with her for more than seven minutes.
Alison disappears one night and Ben and Stimson find her and Stan going into a trance together for what is supposed to be the last time. The two psychologists manage to put a stop to this attempt, but Alison and Stan are so far gone that they get sent to the hospital. Stimson is so well respected that he gets them a private room and takes over the doctoring so that nobody will ask any potentially embarrassing questions about why in the hell this plot is actually happening.
The test subjects won’t wake up, and apparently their minds are inextricably wound around each other because their EKGs are showing identical readings. Stimson decides the best thing to do might be to provide so much outside stimulation that they come back from the “cave” so he fills a hospital room with strobe lights and subwoofers, hoping that maybe Skrillex will show up and know the cure for mind entwinement. Stimson suddenly realizes that maybe the way to save the day will be to pump dubstep into only one of their heads and hope that the difference in stimulation will cause a break in the connection. It works and Stimson proves himself once again to be the only character who knows what’s going on.
Seriously, our protagonist exists only to set this horrible plot in motion and then freak out every time something goes wrong. In a way I can respect that: he’s probably more realistic than a lot of heroes, but at the same time I want to shake him and tell him to stop being such a weenie.
Alison wakes up and Stan dies. We cut to the funeral and it seems that Alison is doing a little better, until after the funeral she and Ben get in the car. She drives in an effort to prove that she’s strong enough to take care of herself now and then plows headfirst into a tractor trailer and the story ends.
Oh god what a twist that was, right! Right! I’m being sarcastic.
So apart from the thoroughly unlikable characters (except Stimson), what was so bad about this book? For one, it reeked of “ripped from the headlines,” even if those headlines were from a housewife’s version of the Fortean Times. What’s much, much worse is that the back of the book claims the following:
LINKS, by former Newsweek science editor Charles Panati, is based on an actual experiment that was never publicized.
What is it that makes books and movies think they can get away with that? I’ve seen so many “paranormal” media pieces that claim they’re based on a true story that it makes me wonder if anyone can just use that term and not suffer any consequences if they add a whole bunch of stuff about going to heaven because of a mind meld gone wrong. Or alien abductions. Or whatever.
Or wait, maybe there was an actual experiment that was never publicized. It wasn’t publicized because it was ASININE and DIDN’T PROVE ANYTHING OR HAVE ANY RESULTS
Oh, and in case you were wondering if I had a typo in my transcription of the back summary, then yeah, I probably did, but the one about “afterLife” is not mine. That is totally there, verbatim. I don’t know if it was a typo or what, but it sounds like a night club in a far future sci-fi setting, or possibly some kind of drug. It could be both, I guess.
Everything about this book was just awful, but it was awful in a really mass-produced kind of way. I find that it had a lot in common with the old pulp science fiction novels but it also lacked a lot, as well. Pulpy sci-fi has bad science and hacky writing, but it never tries to pass it off as actually true. Pulpy sci-fi, even at its worst, is about telling a story about what is definitely not and asking maybe what it would be like if it were. What this kind of tripe tries to pull on us is the sort of “This is what they won’t tell you!” and “This stuff is actually true!” stuff that people into pseudoscience just lap up and it just sickens me. It’s perhaps a fine line, but an essential one to me.