Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 novel Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream documents a narcotic-fueled trip to Las Vegas where, under the influence of LSD among other drugs, the protagonist Rauol Duke experiences hallucinations such as people are turning into lizards in the neon-lit bars of the casinos and insane, violent behavior is displayed by the protagonist and his ‘attorney’ Dr Gonzo. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a treatise on the failure of the 1960’s counterculture. The characters undergo a sort of self-prescribed insanity where the boundaries of morality and common sense become obsolete.
My own literary wandering into the narcotic seems to follow the same path. In my short story The Acid Lounge, and my recently released novel Bad Acid, the protagonists drop LSD and the madness begins. This is where any similarities between Thompson’s world famous work and my own obscure indie novel end.
Unlike Thompson I didn’t take a load of hallucinogens and go into Las Vegas. I did once spend a weekend at Stow-on-the Wold horse fair with a group of new age travelers who thought that the horse fair was a rave so bought a hundred acid tabs with them to sell to the thousands expected to turn up to this illegal weekend of music. Instead they found a groups of gypsy families in old horse-drawn wagons sedately sitting round camp fires brewing tea in copper kettles in scenes are reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s work rather than anything written by Hunter S. Thompson. They were a bit miffed them they couldn’t off load these drugs to the gypsy families that set up camp in the field just outside the town.
My novel, Bad Acid, tells the story of a guy called Lloyd Weller who parks his caravan by a stone circle called the Whichford Stones. Threatened by local thugs, he decides to throw in his lot with a group of new age travelers based a few miles away. The group gather in the stones, take acid to commune with beings from ‘The other side’. Soon Lloyd joins them and finds the acid having a detrimental effect on his already fragile mental health.
The form for this story had been knocking round my head for years. When I was 24 I left home and went to university. Whilst there my parents moved to the village of Great Rollright where the famous Rollright stones are located. (note, this move was not to get away from me) It’s an eerie place; the stones are made from granite not found locally as in that part of the country soft limestone is common and the nearest source of hard granite is to be found a few hundred miles west in Wales. The granite stones are laid out in a circle on a hill and cannot be counted twice. I’ve tried many times and come up with a different number each time but maths was never my strong point. To the south there are three stones that lean against each other as if whispering conspiratorially. These are the ‘whispering knights’. To the north a large stone overlooks the village of Long Compton. This is the `king stone’ which stands alone. Legend has it that the circle is actually a circle of knights turned to stone by a witch along with three whispering knights and the king overlooking the village.
The Rollright Stones are also famous for being the chosen filming location for the 1978 Doctor Who story The Stones of Blood. Now that is cool.
When I was younger my friends and I would sometimes drive up there at night. A couple of times we’d meet some new age travelers and share a joint with them, conversation turning to conspiracy theories, spirituality or drug taking experiences. On one of these nocturnal sojourns we met a group whose number included this slim girl with long blonde dreadlocks who walked the inside of the circle juggling fire brands. That was quite freaky but visually quite stunning. Another traveler who lived in the little hut located in the wood by the stones says that he regularly heard horses galloping through the stones at night. Umm…really? What had he been smoking?
At this time, throughout the 1990’s, it seemed that you couldn’t move for new age travelers. This was the age of illegal raves but travelers made their presence known around town or up at the stones. The group I’d mentioned earlier, the ones I’d spent a weekend with when I was 22 in Stow-on-the-wold, had come up from London. My friend, Penny, had met them bunking up on the train that she was on. She’d got off on the stop before them, rang me and we’d driven over to meet them. We spent the weekend in this field around the fire dossing with them. I’d like to say that it was pleasant and mind-freeing like a Levellers song. It wasn’t. These people were bloody scary.
There was a large Scottish guy who introduced himself by staring at me and saying nothing. There was another guy who came across as defensive, aggressive and just totally insane. He preached in a self-righteous manner that exuded hostility. He also reckoned that, when tripping, he could actually fly and feel his ‘brothers and sisters’ in a flock beside him. I was with them when we went into the sleepy touristy town of Stow-on-the-Wold as they intimidated shop keepers and were openly rude to tourists. This was the experience that cemented my view of travelers as a collective that are a bit unhinged.
Aside from this one experience I also met other travelers up at the stones on our visits. One midsummer evening we said hello to a group of them sitting around a fire at the king stone and they just stared at up at us, their eyes and facial expressions communicating a hostility that verged on the psychotic. We left very quickly.
A also heard a story about a local woman who lived in an isolated house. One day a traveler knocked on her door to ask if he could fill his water can. She obliged him and he left the house. However, when she looked out of the window there were a large group of them sitting silently in a semi-circle on the lawn staring up at the house.
These experiences were useful when portraying the gang of new age travelers that Lloyd meets in Bad Acid, led by albinoesque nut-job, Monster. The gang have all dropped out of the society and come from colorful, sometimes criminal, backgrounds. They are portrayed as scary and defensive, something I picked up from my real experiences and twisted into fictions and, I admit, exaggerated. Let me just clarify; I also met a lot of nice, friendly new age travelers as well.
So, this book is called Bad Acid. It’s about taking LSD and the taking of that drug is used to trigger the character’s journey to the psychedelic universe I’ve named ‘the other side’. As I’ve twisted real experiences into this story you might be wondering if I’ve ever dabbled in taking drugs myself. Well, yes. I’ve taken LSD twice in my life. The first time was when I spent the weekend with the travelers at Stow-on-the-wold.
In my early twenties a lot of my peer group had taken LSD and I felt left out. They made it out to be some essential mind-expanding experience that all creative people or left-field thinkers should explore when they were young. Taking it was something of a disappointment. I actually expected to leave my body and talk to God is some multi-coloured, multi-dimensional parallel universe. Instead my fine motor feedback was compromised; hard objects felt floppy and everyone seemed to be talking in a Scottish accent. Hardly talking to God face to face. The second time I took it much the same thing happened but I spent paranoid afternoon believing that I was going to hell when I die, possibly a contributing factor in my conversion to Christianity the same year.
The experiences described by Monster and the others are preconceptions of what I thought LSD might be like, not how it actually was. Unlike the characters in the book I took a tiny drop of the stuff on dried litmus paper, I didn’t take 5 to 10 ml from a pipette straight into my eyeballs as the characters in the book do.
Taking LSD is dangerous. Fact. My mental health wasn’t permanently damaged by my experience but a few years later I worked as a carer in a psychiatric unit and saw first-hand the damage drugs can do to the fragile human mind. I met guys my age and younger who had dabbled in drugs and were now permanently damaged, plagued by voices and delusions, their condition barely controlled by the prescribed medication they were taking. These unfortunates were locked into a chronic pattern of mental illness that never seemed to resolve. They never told you that in the just say no adverts in the eighties when I was a kid. Let’s be clear, I do not advocate the taking of drugs. Bad Acid is a morality tale of sorts. The clue is in the title, Bad Acid.
So, to conclude, unlike Thompson’s work, Bad Acid isn’t an examination of the failure of the counter culture. Yes, there seemed to be lot less travelers around at the end of the nineties when the story is set but Bad Acid is a psychedelic horror story with lots of violence, scary scenes and a supernatural element. Obviously the book means a lot to me and I sometimes revisit the stones if I’m in the area. There are no new age travelers there now and the feel is more National Trust then new age traveler. I still can’t count the stones. Or maybe I just can’t count.