Research Notes · 05/18/2018

This Darkness Got to Give

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Dave Housley writes about This Darkness Got To Give from Pandamoon Publishing.

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My advice for aspiring novelists is specific and hard-earned: if you are writing a book set on real life events, say a string of Grateful Dead concerts that criss-crossed the midwest and mid-Atlantic in a random and herky jerky pattern in the summer of 1995, don’t make one of your main characters a goddam vampire. Goddam vampires, you see, according to the folklore, can only travel in the thick of the goddam night, making their movements a quagmire the reining in of which might require, just as a for instance, a massive color-coded goddam excel spreadsheet.

My first (published) novel comes out in on May 23rd and — spoiler alert — it tells the story of a vampire traveling on the last Grateful Dead tour. There’s more than that to it — the vampire, Cain, has been afflicted by a tab of what he thought was acid, given to him by a stranger in a moment of weakness, a moment that threatens the careful life he’s built for himself on tour with the Dead. As a result, he is reverted back to what the forces in the book call “the natural state” and he carries out a string of what are, to the FBI agents following him, serial murders. Cain finds himself caught between various forces of the government, one trying to solve the murders and the other working to hide what turns out to be the remnants of LSD experiments conducted under the aegis of the CIA’s Project MKUltra in the early Sixties.

As you can tell from the above paragraph, there are a lot of moving pieces. There are elements that are obviously fictional, but the book is set along the real series of dates and places that constituted the last Grateful Dead tour in 1995. The Dead was a real band. Vampires are not real. Project MKUltra was, believe it or not, very real. Did the CIA’s mind control experiments continue after Director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files destroyed in 1973? Who can really know?

The research for this book was, like that 1995 tour, long and meandering. I’ve been a fan of the Grateful Dead since my early days in college, some three decades ago. I’ve been interested in the Sixties for longer than that, perhaps because I was born just before the Summer of Love, April 1967, a mere month after the Dead’s first studio album was released. That interest led me to two seminal pieces of writing about that time, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hells Angels and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, both of which I’ve read more than once and form a kind of foundation for all things Sixties and especially Dead related. The latter beats a direct path to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. And of course, Acid Test also details the early days of the Grateful Dead, as they were the house band for those titular parties conducted by Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.

My book, of course, takes for its setting the band’s later days — the last ones, if you’re defining the Dead as a band that includes lead guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia. I was around for those times and frequently attended shows, but still required a fair amount of googling to secure details for the last leg of the tour, which is often referred to as the Tour from Hell. Those dates were indeed marked by darkness: two fans fell from the upper level of a show in late June, a number of dates were played with the house lights up due to death threats against Garcia, one show was cancelled after gates were crashed at a preceding date, prompting the band to put out an open letter under the title of, ahem, “This Darkness Got to Give.” For a lot of people, that tour represented a real change, an ending to a way of life. I like to think that my book, in its own weird way (it is a vampire book, after all) is also about the end of the Sixties — there is a point when one character, reflecting on a devastating scene in front of her, thinks back on a specific moment in Thompson’s book when he believes he can see “the place where the tide rolled back” on the promise of the decade.

I’ve never let go of the Dead, but I also needed to acknowledge that I was never a full-on, on-tour Deadhead. I went to as many shows as my various situations, in college and then working full time in various desk jobs, would allow, but I was always a part-timer. So to get the vibe right I needed to revisit those days, and for that I leaned on Max Ludington’s excellent novel Tiger in a Trance, which takes place on a Dead tour in the early Nineties, along with the documentaries The Dead Movie and Tie-Died.

I also feel the need to add, because it is completely bonkers and defies reason, that Project MKUltra and the government’s experiments with LSD and mind control were real, and elements of Sixties counterculture and the Dead community very much grew out of those tests. Kesey first tried LSD as a test subject in a government sponsored experiment at a Stanford hospital in 1959 (you can listen to the tape recordings of that session, and watch an animated version created by filmmaker Alex Gibney as part of his documentary Magic Trip). Dead lyricist Robert Hunter was a part of a similar government sponsored experiment at a VA hospital. It’s interesting to wonder what, if anything, would have been different had those experiments not taken place — maybe everything is the same, maybe nothing is the same, maybe the Summer of Love never happens, or happens differently, maybe we have more Kesey novels and less Dead music.

But back to that tour and that goddam vampire and his travel restrictions. My vampire research was limited mostly to what I’ve soaked up through pop culture, as well as a repeated viewing of the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The only vampire book I’ve ever read is Justin Cronin’s excellent The Passage. In the first draft, I named a character in my book “Crabtree” – a significant character and word in The Passage – and left it in as a kind of hat tip. The vampire thing is a Whole Thing and I felt like I had two paths: either dive into what the people in the book call “the folklore,” or keep the Whole Thing at arm’s length. For this character, who has actively retreated into his life on tour, taking solace in the predictability and insularity of life on tour, it clearly made more sense for him to also keep the Whole Thing at a distance. He has no vampire buddies, belongs to no clan, has actively retreated from that world into this other one. This is also, I should note, the easiest possible decision with regard to the Whole Vampire Thing.

And the logistics. First there is the matter of the tour dates. The book opens when Cain arrives at the Dead’s June 24, 1995 show at RFK Stadium in DC and from there follows the band on a short, strange trip from the the nation’s capital through Michigan, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Missouri, and finally that fateful final show on July 9, 1995 at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Finding the dates is easy: since the beginning, nearly everything the Dead did, especially the shows, was obsessively catalogued, recorded, and shared. By the time the rest of us figured out that the Internet was the place to put all our stuff and find everybody else’s, the Dead community had already been there for years, if not decades. Indeed, as this article describing the importance of the internet to the Dead community describes, “it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the Internet is a technology that was created to share Grateful Dead shows.”

I would argue that somewhere in the beatnik/hippie DNA it’s there: the need to document everything, to say this was important, we were there then and it mattered. The research is scattered behind us in Howl and On the Road and Hells Angels and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s all over the internet (as I write this I’m listening to a show from 6/19/76 at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ). The breadcrumbs are everywhere if you choose to find them. Just take caution if you decide to bring a goddam vampire along for the ride.

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This Darkness Got to Give is Dave Housley’s first (published) novel. He is the author of four story collections, the most recent being Massive Cleansing Fire and If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home. His work has appeared in Booth, Hobart, McSweeneys, Mid-American Review, Redivider, and some other places. He is one of the founding editors and all around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse, and the primary organizer of the Conversations and Connections writer’s conference, which is held in DC in the Spring and Pittsburgh in the Fall. Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at @housleydave.