By Karina Wilson
Thanks to a spate of lurid headlines (Cannibals! Zombies! Demonic Possession!) over the last few weeks, drug-induced psychosis is clawing its way back into public consciousness as Social Evil No.1 – if it ever really went away. We may never know what caused Rudy Eugene to chew off 75% of Ronald Poppo’s face in Miami on the 26th of May, but the collective media finger of blame has been jabbed at “bath salts”, the street name for concoctions of amphetamine-related compounds sold as personal hygiene or cleaning products under innocuous-sounding names like Ivory Wave, Red Dove, Blue Silk, Cloud Nine, Ocean Snow or Vanilla Sky.
Bath salts have provided a convenient bête noir for outraged tabloid reporting for the last couple of years, a way of making connections between those anomalous “Man Bites Dog” (or Man Dressed In Bra and Panties Kills Goat) stories that would otherwise get lost in the ‘Random WTF’ files. Whether users are car surfing naked, eating their roommate or ripping out their own intestines and throwing them at police, the presence of bath salts in their system makes them part of a collective trend, shared time and time again on social media, and fuel for a growing moral panic.
As a society, we find it difficult to accept that people do crazy things. That has unfortunate implications for our (lack of a) mental health care system. It’s much easier to believe that people only do crazy things on drugs, tipped over the edge by psychosis-inducing substances they have willingly ingested, despite all warnings to the contrary. Before bath salts led the pack in the blame game, crystal meth, crack, PCP, LSD, reefer madness, cocaine, opium and gin have all had a spin on the scapegoat carousel. Historically, of course, none of these drug menaces has actually destroyed society, or even a generation, but they generate great copy and headlines, and over the centuries, have provided the narrative spine for some extremely lurid books.
In fiction, writers have always reached for the “drugs made me do it” device when it’s time for an otherwise rational character to do a crazy thing. It’s quick and easy. From the magical flower juice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that causes a queen to fall in love with a donkey to the amyl-based hallucinogenic cocktail in Hannibal that compels Mason Verger to slice off his face with a shard of mirror and then feed it to his dogs (“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time”), drugs are a convenient way of making a character behave out of character, with maximum dramatic effect.
For the aficionado, however, there is also a whole sub-genre of popular fiction that acknowledges that there is nothing quick or easy about a drug fix, and that addiction is an integral part of a character’s essence, rather than a temporary aberration. Part confession, part cautionary tale, part panegyric, these books feed into readers’ desire to learn about the boundaries of human experience from the safety of the middle. We may not be prepared to risk our own health and sanity in the pursuit of the ultimate high, but we sure like to read about those who did, and who, ideally, lived to tell the tale.
On one end of the spectrum is the refined, scientific prose of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1953), his account of a fine May afternoon spent in West Hollywood under the influence of mescaline. He admires flowers in a vase, browses art books in a drug store, listens to classical music, and has a nice sit down in the garden. Huxley’s experience is all about accessing a higher consciousness, using the influence of the drug on his normal sensory perception to open himself up to greater truths. It’s all very intellectual, all very noble, and about as far from naked cannibalism on the MacArthur Causeway off-ramp as it’s possible to get.
At the other end of the spectrum are the self-proclaimed Bad Books, the ones that go deep into the dirty nasty. Mostly autobiographical, they’re front-line dispatches from the war on drugs declared long before Nixon signed it into law in 1971. Salacious, sensationalist and sometimes very sad, these books tap into the damaged psyches of users and abusers, offering up a plethora of perverse pleasures to the armchair tripper. They take us through garbage-strewn alleyways, piss-smelling staircases and into the fetid apartments only an addict would willingly frequent. They put us in dangerous, stupid and criminal situations only an addict would voluntarily risk. And they hint at the paroxysms of ecstasy only an addict can aspire to (“Take yir best orgasm, multiply the feeling by twenty, and you’re still fuckin miles off the pace” – Trainspotting). Here’s a Top Ten of those mucky puppies, definitely to be handled with latex-gloved care. You know only too well the kind of filth and degradation these stories have been through.
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