Authors: William Peter Blatty
Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological
William Peter Blatty
The Ninth Configuration
For the purposes of this story, I have taken some liberties with the facts; there are, for example, neither psychiatrists nor medical officers in the United States Marine Corps.
When I was young and worked very hastily and from need, I wrote a novel called
Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane!
Its basic concept was surely the best I have ever created, but what was published was just as surely no more than the notes for a novel—some sketches, unformed, unfinished, lacking even a plot.
But the idea mattered to me, so once again I have written a novel based on it. This time I know it is the best that I can do.
“I have some rights of memory in this kingdom …”
The mansion was isolated and Gothic, massive, trapped in a wood, grotesque. It crouched beneath the stars under clustered spires like something enormous and deformed, unable to hide, wanting to sin. Its gargoyles grinned at the forest pressing in on it thickly all around. For a time nothing moved. Dawn sifted in. Thin fall sunlight pried at the morning entombed within the arborescent gloom, and fog curled up from rotted leaves like departing souls, dry and weak. In the breeze, a creaking shutter moaned for Duncan and a haunted crow coughed hoarsely in a meadow far away. Then silence. Waiting.
The voice of a man from within the mansion carried with firm conviction, startling a small green heron from the moat.
“Robert Browning had the clap and he caught it from Charlotte and Emily Bronte.”
A second man, angry, bellowed, “Cutshaw, shut your mouth!”
“He caught it from both of them.”
“Shut up, you crazy bastard!”
“You don’t want to hear the truth.”
“Krebs, sound Assembly!” the angry man ordered.
Then a military bugling shattered the air, ripping into the fog, and an American flag, fluttering defiance, leaped up a pole atop a spire. Twenty-seven men in green fatigues exploded like shrapnel from the mansion and hurtled out to the center of its courtyard, muttering and mumbling and crooking their elbows, dress-right-dress, in the forming of a military line. Above their denims some affected other dress: one wore a rapier and golden earrings; from the head of another bloomed a coonskin cap. Imprecations floated up from them like steam alive with sparks:
“Hillo ho ho, boys! Come, bird, come!”
“You know, I wish you’d douche; sincerely.”
“Sink the Bismarck!”
“Watch the elbow!”
A man with a shaggy mongrel dog in his arms burst into the center of the line. He bawled, “My cape! Have you seen my cape?”
“Hell, what’s a cape?” snarled the one with the sword. “Just fucking fabric.”
“Foolish fucking fabric.”
“What country is this?” asked a man at the end of the line.
A blond-haired man confronted them briskly. He wore tattered and dirty black Keds, his left great toe protruding through a hole; and over his fatigues he flaunted a New York University sweater: on the sleeve of one arm were letterman’s stripes, and on the other, a NASA astronaut’s patch. “Attention!” he commanded with authority. “It is I: Billy Cutshaw!”
The men obeyed, then stiffly raised their arms in the salute of ancient Rome. “Captain Billy, let us serve you!” they howled into the fog; then they dropped their arms and stood unmoving, hushed, like the damned awaiting judgment.
Cutshaw’s gaze flicked over them swiftly, flashing and mysterious, luminous and deep. At last he spoke:
“You may take three giant steps and kiss the hem of my garment!”
“The hem, Bennish, mind you, the hem!”
Bennish took three steps forward, then cracked his heels together resoundingly. Cutshaw measured him with reserve. “Excellent form, Bennish.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
“Don’t let it go to your fucking head. There is nothing more vile than hubris.”
“Yes, sir. You’ve said that many times, sir.”
“I know that, Bennish.” Cutshaw was probing him with his gaze as though seeking out insolence and outrage, when the man with the sword bawled, “Here comes the fuzz!”
The men began booing as out from the mansion, in angry stride, marched the starched and militant figure of a major in the Marine Corps. Cutshaw scuttled into the line, and over the booing the man with the sword shouted out at the major, “Where’s my Ho Chi Minh decoder ring? I sent in the goddam boxtops, Groper; where the hell’s the—”
“Quiet!” Groper quelled them. His little eyes seared out from a face that was pummeled beef adorned with a crew cut. He was hulking and heavy of bone. “Fucking weirdo yellow smartass college pricks!” he snarled.
“That says it,” muttered someone in the ranks.
Groper paced the rank of men, his great head lowered as though ready to charge them. “Who in the hell do you think you’re kidding with your phony little squirrel act? Well, bad news, boys. Tough shit. ‘Cause guess who’s coming to take command next week! Can you guess, boys? Huh? A psychiatrist!” He was suddenly roaring, quivering with uncontrollable rage. “That’s right! The best! The best in uniform! The greatest fucking psychiatrist since Jung!” He pronounced the J.
Now he stood breathing heavily, gathering air and dominion.
“Finking combat-shirking bastards! He’s coming to find out if you’re really psycho!” Groper grinned, his eyes shining. “Isn’t that great news, boys?”
Cutshaw took one step forward. “Could we knock off this ‘boys’ shit,
Major, please? It makes us feel like we’re cocker spaniels and you’re the Old Pirate in Tortilla Flat. Could we—”
“Back into line!”
Cutshaw squeezed a rubber horn in his hand the size of a baseball. It emitted a raucous, unpleasant sound.
Groper rasped, “Cutshaw, what have you got there?”
“A foghorn,” answered Cutshaw. “Chinese junks have been reported in the area.”
“Someday I’ll break your back, I promise you.”
“Someday I’m going to leave Fort Zinderneuf; I’m getting tired of propping up bodies.”
“I wish they’d clobbered you in space,” said Groper.
The men began to hiss.
“Quiet!” barked Groper.
The hissing grew louder.
“Yeah, hissing you’re good at, you slimy little snakes.”
“Bra-vo! Bra-vo!” commended Cutshaw, leading the men in polite applause.
Others added their praise:
“Splendid, Groper! Splendid!”
“Just one more thing, sir,” Cutshaw began.
“Stick a pineapple up your ass.” Cutshaw looked away. He felt a premonition. “Somebody’s coming,” he said.
It was a prayer.
The trouble had begun with Nammack. On May 11, 1967, Nammack, a captain in the United States Air Force, was piloting a B-52 on a bombing run headed for Hanoi when his co-pilot reported hydraulic malfunction, whereupon Nammack had quietly stood up, slipped off his high-altitude flying helmet and said softly and confidently, “This looks like a job for Superman.”
The co-pilot took control. Nammack was hospitalized and persisted in his delusion that he had superhuman powers and could not be totally cured “without Kryptonite.” Yet psychiatric testing and evaluation yielded the tantalizing conclusion that Nammack could not clearly be labeled psychotic. Up until the moment he had stood up in the cockpit, in fact, all the evidence suggested that his psyche and emotions were remarkably sturdy.
Nammack was the forerunner. Soon he was followed by dozens, then scores:
military officers manifesting sudden mental disturbance, usually involving some form of obsession that was striking and bizarre. In no case was there any history of mental or emotional imbalance.
Government authorities were baffled and grew increasingly disturbed. Were the men malingerers? It was noted that the Nammack case had occurred very shortly after Captain Brian Fay, a Marine who had refused to enter a combat zone, was sentenced to years of hard labor. The war was controversial, and most of the men involved were in combat or scheduled for combat. The suspicion that their illness was feigned was inevitable.
But there were problems with such a conclusion. Some of the men were not involved in a combat-related situation; and many of those who were had been decorated for valor. Why were all of them officers? Why did most cases involve an obsession? The darker suspicion of a White House staff paper on the subject suggested an underground cult of officers whose purposes were unknown but potentially dangerous. In the face of the enigma, it was not hard to entertain such ideas.
To probe the mystery, and-if indicated-to seek its cause and cure, the government established Project Freud, a secret network of military rest camps where the men were hidden from the public and studied. The last of these camps was Center Eighteen. Highly experimental in nature, it was based in a mansion deep in a forest of spruce and pine trees near the seacoast of Washington State. Built to match the medieval-castle home of her German husband, the Count of Eltz, the mansion belonged to Amy Biltmore, who had abandoned it long before she loaned it to the military in the fall of 1968. Now it was occupied by a skeleton staff of Marines and twenty-seven inmates, all of them officers: some Marine Corps; others former crewmen of B-52S; and one former astronaut, Captain Billy Thomas Cutshaw, who had aborted a mission to the moon during final countdown in a manner so extraordinary that only those present believed it.
To Cutshaw and the others at Center Eighteen the Pentagon assigned a brilliant Marine Corps psychiatrist noted for his singular open-mindedness and astonishing success with often novel methods, Colonel Hudson Stephen Kane. Someone answering to that name did appear at the center on March 17, just a few weeks after the recapture of Hue.
Major Groper, the adjutant at the center and temporarily in command, was
confronting the inmates in the courtyard at the time, and when he observed the approach of the staff car whose occupant he guessed must be Colonel Kane, he cursed his fate that it should arrive during morning formation, when the inmates
were always at their worst. Like feverish lice they had raced to the center of the mansion courtyard
all but Fairbanks, the one with the fencing foil, who had rummaged through his options that morning and elected to swing down to formation on a rope that he had fastened to a mansion spire. Now they were playing a game invented by Cutshaw called Speaking in Tongues, each man babbling cryptic madness at the top of his voice, except for Reno, the inmate with the dog. Reno stared straight ahead in a daze while singing “Let Me Entertain You.” His dog looked frightened by the alien shouting.
“Oh, Christ!” Groper spat at the dust at his feet and then roared, “Attention! Shut up, you cocksuckers! Shut the hell up and fall in! Fall in!”
The inmates ignored him.
The staff car halted by the mansion entrance. The sergeant driver opened the door for the man in the back, a Marine Corps colonel who emerged and stood silently, watching Groper and the inmates. The colonel was tall and huskily built, his features rugged yet somehow gentle. Only in his eyes was there any movement: greenish flecks subtly spinning in pools of chestnut brown. There was sadness in them.
“Gentlemen, may I have your attention for a moment?” Groper’s gravelly voice was unctuous.
The inmates continued with their game. The colonel watched them, his face unreadable, then he turned his head to the side. Next to him, in the neatly pressed gabardine shirt and pants of a class B uniform, stood a somber Marine with medic’s insignia and colonel’s leaves on his collar. In his hand he gripped a stethoscope. He was staring at the inmates and shaking his head. “Poor bastards,” he muttered. Then he looked at the colonel. “Kane?”
The colonel acknowledged with a nod.
“I’m Colonel Fromme, the center medic. Sure glad you’re aboard. I can
use all the help I can possibly get.” He looked at the inmates, who once again were out of control. “Jesus, they’re really far gone.”
“Would you please direct me to my quarters?” asked Kane.
“Just follow the yellow brick road.”
“Lieutenant Fromme, fall in!” roared Groper. He was looking at the man with the stethoscope.
“Fromme, you maniac!” came a shout from a trouser-less man striding out from the mansion’s front door. “Give me back my pants and stethoscope, dammit!” He stomped toward Kane and Fromme.
A deadpan sergeant, crisply uniformed, popped to attention in front of Kane and saluted smartly. “Sergeant Christian reporting for duty, sir!”
“And blasted well about time, Kildare!” Fromme greeted the sergeant icily. He pointed a finger at Kane. “God bless it, will you get this man into surgery or do you plan to let him stand here bleeding to death while you and your buddies play soldier! What the hell is this, for Chrissakes, a hospital or a nuthouse?”
Even as Fromme was finishing, Sergeant Christian was escorting him away forcibly. Meantime, the man with no pants arrived, and passing Fromme, deftly ripped away the stethoscope as he shouted at Sergeant Christian, “This time don’t let him wrinkle the pants!” Then he turned to Kane and saluted.
An odd expression passed briefly across Kane’s face and the man uttered, “Vincent!”
Kane sank into his former inscrutability. “What did you say?” he asked.
“You look exactly like Vincent van Gogh. Either that or a lark in a wheat field; I’m not sure which. It’s pretty close. I’m Colonel Richard Fell. I’m the medic.”
Kane studied him. A thickset man in his middle forties with sly, merry eyes in a downcast face, he was weaving slightly and the hand that he held in salute was the one that gripped the stethoscope.
“Colonel Fell, have you been drinking?” Kane’s voice was soft and gentle, void of any semblance of accusation.
“What? In uniform?” Fell glared. “That’s my last pair of gabardine pants he’s got,” Fell explained. “All the others are out at the cleaners, and, Colonel, if you’re planning on my holding this salute much longer, would you please call Memorial Hospital and tell them that the donor arm is ready for the transplant? I expect it to be falling off almost any—” Kane returned his salute.
“Thank you. You’re a prince of the realm, sir, I swear it.”
Another sergeant, heavily freckled, appeared before Kane and popped a salute. “Sergeant Krebs reporting for duty, sir.”
“Would you show me to my quarters?”
Fell belched and murmured, “Probably,” his eyes averted. Then, unaccountably, he turned and left them.
For a moment Kane watched him. Then he followed Krebs, who led him past the inmates toward the entrance of the mansion.
The inmates continued to babble. Groper implored them to come to attention. He’d been passed over twice for promotion; only a rating of “outstanding” on his next efficiency report could possibly save him from burial at his present rank. He glared at the inmates. “For Chrissakes, quiet!” he bawled.
“Groper, you have to say ‘Simon says’!” instructed Cutshaw.
Groper roared, “Simon says, ‘Attention!
The men instantly came to attention and fell to silence, all but the one with the earrings and the sword, who commenced to read Groper his rights: “You have the right to remain silent,” he began to drone.
Kane’s appraisal brushed over each man in the group. Then his gaze locked on the blue, unblinking eyes of Billy Cutshaw, staring intently into his own.
Kane returned Groper’s salute and walked on to the mansion doorway.
There he turned. Captain Cutshaw’s eyes were still on him. Kane’s large and sinewy fingers gently brushed along his face,
tracing a memory, an ugliness, that a Korean plastic surgeon had effaced for him years ago: a scar that had jagged like lightning from his eye to the base of his jaw.
He went inside.
Later, Groper brooded in his office, declining from a rage to a dismal sulk. The eleventh most decorated American serviceman in World War II, many times commended for valor in Korea, he had risen through the ranks, beginning with a battlefield commission during the Battle of the Bulge. His career had held a promise now worn and faded and unfulfilled; and his personal life was a litter of rejections. Nothing within him had grown except anger. Now he hated the inmates. And Kane, before whom he had been humiliated.
Kane. There was something odd about him, thought Groper. He could not exactly put his finger on it. It was something out of place; yet familiar.
It made him uneasy.