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The Unnatural by Alan Nayes

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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Creepy

If you like medical thrillers, be sure to read Alan Nayes’ second novel, The Unnatural. When I reviewed his debut novel, Gargoyles, two years ago, I called attention to some shortcomings in his writing style. The Unnatural is a better book, and in my judgment, considerably more enjoyable to read than the recent novels in this genre from Robin Cook. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, pp. 132-140:

 

The two-story mansion at 357 Roseview Place, its Bermuda lawn, gardens full of Josephine coat and Olympiad roses, and guest house sat on an acre of high-priced Southern California real estate in the area known as Elysian Heights. The lot’s perimeter lay in the shelter of tow­ering eucalyptus trees in the front and thick, vibrant sago palms in back. The entire estate was surrounded by a ten-foot-high wrought-iron fence with an electric sliding gate at the entrance.

 

A black Mercedes backed out of the four-car garage onto the concrete circular drive. The man behind the wheel sipped coffee and savored the smooth rumble of the finely tuned engine. Dr. Wesley Kovacs was a big man at six foot four and although his cholesterol topped 260, as did his weight, he drank at least eight cups of caffeine a day. His sixty-three-year-old frame was literally addicted to the drug’s energizing ability.

 

To hell with heart disease, arteriosclerosis, cerebiovascular accidents, even diabetes and cancer. In another hundred-and-fifty years the medical community would have developed cures for many of mankind’s afflictions and if Kovacs’s plans played true to his scientific theories, he would be around to see it.

 

Kovacs set the coffee cup in a plastic holder on the dash and shifted the car into reverse. As he backed out and swung around a small fountain in the center of the drive, he took a few moments to admire the morning sunshine falling on the lush landscaping and neatly manicured yard. It seemed as if his two-month sab­batical to Arizona had never taken place. But it had. And with a modicum of success. He and a small group of investors had pur­chased a fifty-thousand-square-foot facility that would work out just fine for the foundation. In another month, the transfer of all equipment, records, and clients would be complete. And the seemingly endless string of clashes with city, county, and state agencies would lie in the past.

 

Kovacs slowed as he approached the heavy gates. He looked to his left at the large eucalyptus tree. Two nights ago, during a rain­storm, he was positive he’d seen a raccoon or some other large rodent shielding itself in a hollow at the tree’s base. It held his interest not because he claimed to be an animal lover, but because Kovacs would gladly submit any such creature to one of his sci­entific experiments. Just ask Tom and Jerry, a pair of twenty-plus-year-old rats. The hollow, or perhaps the ravine behind the guest house, would be as good a place as any to set a trap.

 

Kovacs waited impatiently as the gate slid open on its metal runners. He’d planned on working in his lab all day, but after being informed of Vicki Zampisi’s unexpected visit, Kovacs realized his once-trusted assistant had become more than just another nuisance.

 

Melting into the morning rush-hour commute, Kovacs cradled his cellular phone in one palm and dialed a number.

 

A woman answered. “Evergreen Manor.”

 

“Johnny Devlin, please.”

 

“He’s not available yet. May I leave a message?”

 

“Yes. Have Mr. Devlin call the foundation as soon as he’s avail­able. He has the number.”

 

Kovacs disconnected and dialed a second number. He waited for the pager to activate, keyed in his car phone number, and hung up.

 

Sixty seconds passed, giving Kovacs a minute to dwell on the bizarre pieces of data he was receiving back on the Tom and Jerry rat experiments. Of course, the entire picture was not yet com­plete, so forming any type of conclusion at this early stage would be premature. Regardless, his concern for possible severe adverse effects during the preservation process had increased substantially since reviewing the initial results.

 

His cellular phone rang.

 

“Case, I’ve made a decision,” Kovacs said.

 

“And?” A male voice waited.

 

“Ms. Zampisi must be convinced it’s in her best interests to return to Seattle.”

 

“And if she’s not so easily convinced?”

 

Kovacs delivered his prepared line. “Under no circumstances will the foundation abide interference from anyone.”

 

The caller took only a moment to absorb the inference. “Understood.”

 

 

 

Kovacs locked his car and entered the one-story rectangular structure. The front third of the warehouse consisted of the administrative section, which was vacant with the exception of several pictures and four pieces of out-of-fashion furniture. Kovacs crossed the small reception and paused at another door. This one was locked. He hurriedly opened it. It led down a hail with two offices on either side, and an additional room which held a copy and fax machine. Kovacs found his office, the first one on the right, the large one, and shut the door behind him.

 

At the end of this hall, a double door led to the large labora­tory area and its spacious workstations. A constant low-pitched drone echoed monotonously from the intricate network of alu­minum and PVC piping that crisscrossed the ceiling. These pipes were not for the air-conditioning system, but they were used for cooling nonetheless.

 

The nondescript warehouse was, until only recently, wholly owned and operated by the Phoenix Life Extension Foundation. However, the real story had begun more than a quarter of a cen­tury earlier.

 

In 1975, Dr. Wesley Kovacs was a thirty—six-year-old clinical psychiatrist who’d just completed two years of post-graduate swdy in low—temperature molecular biology. But it was actually two years earlier, in the fall of 1973, when Americans were still burning their draft cards and the nation was locked in the midst of the Watergate scandal, that the Phoenix Life Extension Foun­dation was actually conceived.

 

Two scientific articles were published that year, one in the Journal of Nature and the other in the British Journal of Medicine. The Nature article described how rats were conditioned to fear the sound of a bell when the bell was consistently accompanied with au electric shock; subsequently, they learned to leap off the shock pad when only the bell rang, even though no electricity was involved. This was called an operant conditioned fear reflex and this fear reflex usually lasted ten to twenty trials without the shock before it would wear off or, in the parlance of the study, become extinct.

 

However, if the rats were subjected to an abrupt and pro­longed decrease in body temperature for a finite period of time (one hour in this particular trial), this extinction process occurred much more rapidly with fewer “false” bells. In fact, after being brought to near-freezing, it only took exposure to a single bell minus the electric shock to completely abolish their fear reflex. It was suggested the cold played some role in the abolition of the neural reflex arc transmitting the reflex. The article ended by indicating that further studies would have to be conducted to further clarify their results.

 

The second research paper, published in the British Journal of Medicine in their 1973 October issue, described how an English terrier named Pesky was nearly frozen alive for almost an hour— fifty-eight minutes to be exact—in a liquid nitrogen chamber, then subsequently thawed successfully.

 

Over a very short period, Pesky’s core temperature had been lowered to thirty—eight degrees Fahrenheit and sustained at that temperature for fifty-eight minutes. Then, using warmed intra­venous saline lavages and warming blankets, she was brought back from the brink of death to a normal core temperature of one hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

 

This feat, lowering a subject’s core temperature, was nothing new. It was used, to a degree, in cardiothoracic surgical proce­dures. What made the trial so special was the length of time and degree of low-temperature exposure undertaken.

 

Although both these published reports seemed related only in their experimental lowering of a subject’s core body temperature, the young practicing neuropsychiatrist and part-time staff physi­cian at California University Medical Center immediately began to envision the potential uses of low-temperature therapeutics in medicine, especially in the treatment of mental illness.

 

If the rats’ brain circuitry involving the processing and perceiv­ing of an emotion as primitive as fear could be manipulated and eventually abolished with low temperature, why couldn’t the same results be achieved in humans?

 

Dr. Wesley Kovacs believed they could. In fact, he believed so strongly in the potential therapeutic effects of low temperature on psychiatric dysfunctions such as depression, mania, and schizo­phrenia that he took two years off from clinical medicine in order to complete an intensive research fellowship in low-temperature biology called cryogenics. He studied under the well-known cryobiologist of the time, B.J. Luyet, at the prestigious cryolab on the University of California at Berkeley campus.

 

It was during these two years that his fascination with cryonics, the science of freezing and reviving animals, became almost an obsession. He always kept a copy of the British Journal’s Pesky paper within easy reach. If a dog could be nearly frozen for fifty-eight minutes, why not two hours, or a day? Or a month? Or even years?

 

In June of 1975, Dr. Wesley Reginald Kovacs earned a PhD in cryobiology. For his doctoral dissertation, he anesthetized a rhesus monkey that answered to the name of Cheetah and replaced Cheetah’s blood with a 1.4 molar saline-buffered alcohol:glycerol solution. The primate’s body temperature was lowered to zero degrees Fahrenheit, some thirty-two degrees below freezing. The cryoprotectant solution flowing through Cheetah’s veins acted as a sort of antifreeze, thus preventing the formation of lethal ice crystals in the monkey’s cells. Exactly twelve hours later, the pro­cess was reversed and Cheetah was revived with no adverse side affects. Five years later, Cheetah was alive and well, the official mascot of the cryolab at Berkeley.

 

With a PhD postscripting his medical doctorate and an ambition bordering on the fanatical, Dr. Kovacs returned to CUMC, rented space in the basement of Old Red, and unofficially founded the Phoenix Life Extension Foundation. Officially he called it Community Psychiatric Center, specializing in the treat­ment of mental disorders. The year was 1975.

 

Ahead of his time in a psychiatric profession that still clung to the beliefs of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, Wesley Kovacs was convinced that every mental illness could be explained by minute deviations in the brain’s neurotransmitters. These large and small molecular-chain proteins with names like serotonin and norepinephrine were responsible for the psychic makeup of individual personalities.

 

His hypothesis, which stemmed from the cold rat experiments and ran against the scientific grain of every mental—health or­ganization in the field, theorized that cold could be used to induce changes in the brain’s neurotransmitter levels and these changes could be used to therapeutic advantage in treating men­tal illness.

 

Two problems. First, the research technology of the late sixties and early seventies could not measure neurotransmitter levels in individual brain neurons unless the subjects were sacrificed first— an impossibility, even for the driven Kovacs.

 

Second, the biotechnological ability to freeze animals was not yet at a stage conducive to long—term survival.

 

Kovacs tackled the second problem first. If he were to be suc­cessful in proving his hypothesis, he first had to perfect a method of freezing whole—bodied animals in a way from which they could be successfully resuscitated. And he tackled this problem with all the fervor of a 1)r. Jekyll or a Dr. Frankenstein. After a full schedule of seeing manic—depressives, insomniacs, and schizophrenics during the day, at night he’d close the doors to his Com­munity Psychiatric Center and sequester himself in the basement amongst the Erlenmeyer flasks, insulated canisters, liquid nitrogen vats, and various derivatives of alcohol/glycerol solutions.

 

He started with tadpoles and amphibians~ usually toads, of which there was always a plentiful supply behind his small house in Vernon, and soon progressed to small rodents, rats, and mice, eventually succeeding in freezing cats and dogs. All this required time and money. Fortunately, Kovacs’s clinical practice grew at such a rate that he could hire three full—time psychiatrists and a battery of clinical psychologists and social workers to see the patients, thus freeing him to devote all his time to his “mission.”

 

By 1977, Kovacs owned five clinics under the Community Psychiatric Centers’ name and employed more than a hundred people, including thirty full-time and per diem psychiatrists and twenty psychiatric nurses. Each mental—health clinic func­tioned as a gold mine, generating millions of dollars in rev­enues and accumulating more resources to support Kovacs’s cryonics research.

 

Over time, the administrative hassles, family leave, sick leave, malpractice insurance, employee health coverage, and retirement plans also took their toll, so in 1978, Dr. Kovacs sold a seventy_ five percent interest in his medical enterprise to California University Medical Center for twenty-five million dollars. The match was perfect for both parties. CUMC maintained use of the Community Psychiatric Centers’ goodwill, gaining easy access to a high—volume patient referral source for its new, state—of—the—art Psychiatric Hospital. Kovacs became a multimillionaire.

 

One clause of the clinic’s sales contract, though, stipulated that Kovacs relocate his research laboratory The regents of the Cali­fornia University system had not been eager to maintain an affiliation with the doctor whom certain esoteric, quasi—science magazines described as the man who could wake Rip Van Win­kle from cold storage.

 

Relishing the freedom from prying bureaucrats, Kovacs promptly plunked down three hundred and fifty grand for a forty-thousand-square-foot warehouse at 225 Pacific Boulevard. He spent another hundred-thousand dollars converting the one­time food-storage facility into the most advanced cryolab on the West Coast. It surpassed even the research laboratory at Berkeley, had those at Berkeley known, but initially Kovacs remained secre­tive about his work. From humble roots in treating mental illness, the psychiatrist quickly realized his research could one day touch every field in science and medicine, from organ transplants to space travel. The race was on. The sky was the limit and Kovacs had the greatest head start. Once he successfully cryofroze a human, he’d be awarded the Nobel Prize for science.

 

He didn’t even put the name of his investment on the door, although Kovacs did file a D.B.A. license with the city of Huntington Park as Phoenix Life Extension Foundation. The clerk fil­ming the name figured it was some sort of religious organization and no further investigation into the workings behind the walls of the nondescript warehouse would take place for more than two decades.

I’m not the best judge of whether the science in The Unnatural is accurate, but I found this novel to be a perfect summer reading distraction: an enjoyable, creepy story.

Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2004

 

ă 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the August 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Unnatural.htm

 

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