Having observed the tranquility of a rest and recreation center during the most furious days of the First World War, E.M. Forster wrote to friend Lowes Dickinson: "Why not a world like this -- its beauty of course impaired by death and old age and poverty and disease, but a world that should not torture itself by organized and artificial horrors?"
That phrase "organized and artificial horrors" could well be the epigraph to Carolyn Banks' brilliant novel, "The Darkroom," which deals not with war on the battlefield, but with the reckless, unlawful, allegedly scientific experimentation conducted for a period by the CIA in dozens of our most prestigious university laboratories. And whose unwitting guinea pigs were not enemy nationals but citizens -- one might ironically make that citizens and taxpayers -- of the nation whose government was supporting the experimentation.
We forget easily, we forgive carelessly. We have a vague memory perhaps of the nausea induced by the disclosure that Nazi scientists used living victims for their most agonizing experiments. We may have even vaguer memories of the disclosure that our CIA, through conscienceless scientists of every degree, used selected victims for the testing of mind-altering drugs without informing the victims of the process they were undergoing or ever explaining to them the devastating changes in personality they suffered in consequence, or, where suicide resulted, ever offering the victim's family the true reason for it.
All this is now a matter of public record, and Carolyn Banks has drawn from that record to set forth a story which is the more effective because it is not accusatory. There are no charges made here, no bills of particulars drafted. And, I rejoice to say, there is no turgid combination of fact and fiction in the hollowly awesome mode of recent Capote ad Mailer, where fact is used to bolster fiction, and fiction used to color fact.
What we do have is the intimate account of a man's life under the influence of mind-bending drugs he didn't knew he had been fed by the CIA. William Thomas Holland is a mid-level State Department officer, a competent, hardworking, ambitious, if not very shining star in the department. He lives sedately with his wife, three sons and mother in a Washington suburb. He has, unfortunately for him, components in nature and background which make him an unknowing candidate for experimentation. And one day, as an unforeseen climax to the experimentation, he butchers the five members of his family and, as far as authorities can make out, disappears from sight. Of course, in his present Mr. Hyde form he is a deadly danger to anyone who may impinge on him, so the CIA especially is anxious to unearth him. But distorted as his perceptions are, he is clever enough, under a newly adopted identity, to avoid capture. And what the novel focuses on is the course he is now taking toward the kind of family relationship he has already been driven to bloodily destroy.
In counterpoint to the steady pelling away of the layers of his personality is the presentation in depth of the CIA agent most concerned about him. Al Amatucci has his own reasons for his passionate interest in Holland, not the least of which in a dreadful way stems from the snob Ivy League tradition of the agency, against which a roughhewn, blue-collar type like Amatucci must always contend.
Finally, there is Carol Neal, the lonely divorcee afflicted with a pair of troublesome sons, who sees in Bill Holland, this gentle, reclusive stranger, the possible answer to her loneliness. I have read few works lately in which the portrait of the divorced young mother trying to cope has been more sensitively limned. This also creates a dramatic tension in the narrative from start to finish as Carol refuses to acknowledge warning signs from Holland that we have already come to recognize, and as Amatucci moves on a maddeningly slow and erratic course toward his objective.
"The Darkroom," plausible, compelling, penetrating in its characterization and in the light it throws on one of those organized and artificial horrors we inflict on ourselves, is a book whose time has plainly come, that time being marked by CIA Director Stansfield Turner's recent notice to us that, despite all lessons of the past, his agency intends to use American journalists, academics and clerics for covert operations whenever so moved. Those who may feel that paranoia, whatever colors drape it, is no substitite for conscience will find in Carolyn Banks' novel the most dramatically telling argument for their increasingly unpopular position.