Hi Numinous Friends:
I wanted to share a couple of things with you as we enter the last few days of our Kickstarter campaign. And I'd like you to share these with your friends, and anyone else you may think needs a gentle nudge in our direction.
Firstly, there's a really cool article in Comicbook.com that I think captures the essence of what we're trying achieve with The Numinous Place. Journalist Russ Burlingame fired off some really thoughtful questions about the project, and I did my best to do them justice.
On Friday, I spent a few hours mentoring some great young people involved in the LEAP (Leadership Excellence Accelerating Potential) program. These disadvantaged kids come from all over the world and spend a week in LA being taught goal-setting, effective communication, and the invaluable power of mentorship.
It was an inspirational experience for me to be with such smart, determined and respectful young people. And the questions they asked... They were nearly as good as Russ's for ComicBook.com. They'd all done their homework on me and wanted to know about THE NUMINOUS PLACE and the Bill Hicks biopic which goes into production next year.
These inquisitive kids grilled me about the writing process. How ideas form and where they come from. And it reminded me of something. When I got home, I fired up my old laptop and found the short-story that began it all...
Now, I should mention that apart from having a pretty dumb title, AFTER AFTERLIFE was written around seven years ago. It also hasn't been through the re-writing process that THE NUMINOUS PLACE has. I literally wrote it in one sitting, and somehow forgot about it. I seem to be making a lot of excuses, don't I?
But, for all its faults, this unfinished short-story was the genesis of THE NUMINOUS PLACE. Everything starts somewhere:
by Mark Staufer
I saw Genevieve in one of corridors of the hospital a week after The Return . I hadn’t actually spoken to anyone yet, lots of people I didn’t recognize had been speaking to me. Their lips moved, I heard not a word, I was still in shock.
On that morning, I’d woken early in my white room and discovered myself to be hungry. I was starving. It was the first time food had crossed my mind. I slipped out of my ward, past the sleeping Shadow and headed for the vending machine outside the restrooms. Genevieve was sitting cross-legged on the linoleum gazing at the rows of brightly-colored nutritionally empty trinkets in the machine. She looked as lost as I felt. Our eyes met and nothing needed to be said.
Both of us were completely hairless and bandaged from the fire. We held each other and we wept. Somehow, her presence was the only one that mattered now. Everybody else was insignificant. Then Genevieve clasped my face between her palms.
“Don’t tell anyone, David,” she said. “Swear you won’t tell anyone.”
“But don’t you see?” I replied. “We have to. That’s why it happened.”
“But why did it happen to us?”
I shrugged. I had no idea. I wished it hadn’t. Every time I closed my eyes I was back in that place.
“They’ll torture us and dissect us and dig up our past. They’ll destroy us, David.”
“We have no choice.”
And we didn’t. For some reason yet to be revealed, Genevieve and I had been chosen. We both thought whomever had chosen us was an idiot.
There was anger from the relatives of the other subjects involved. A national newspaper printed our photographs under the headline: WHY THESE TWO?
It went on to ask why a prostitute and heroin addict, and a homeless former marine should be the ones to survive when ten upstanding citizens— including a school-teacher, a fireman, an ex-professional ice-skater, a mother of three, a baseball coach, a children’s party magician and ventriloquist—should have died during the malfunction. This was reason enough to disbelieve us, and that would have probably been the end of the matter if it hadn’t been for the video evidence.
Everyone’s brains had supplied footage, not just Genevieve and me, and it was all the same. It’s just that she and I were the only ones to “come back,” to reanimate after the malfunction. All the rest of them had stayed, their souls (souls?) remained in that place, while ours had returned. I didn’t know until later that Genevieve was the only one who’d gone to the Other Place.
Neurologist Dr. Skylar Bartok was the world’s leading authority on sleep. Someone had once nicknamed him the “Sigmund of Siesta.” His clinic in Carmel was originally under the auspices of the USC, but the controversial nature of Bartok’s research meant that he had been at war with University authorities ever since the clinic had been established in the mid-nineties. After Bartok refused to allow a thorough audit of his research files, the University Ethics Committee had withdrawn his charter. In effect, this had emancipated Bartok. Nearly all his funding came from wealthy benefactors with sleep disorders (evidently the rich suffered more from insomnia, night terrors, apnea and bruxism than those who had less money) and Bartok realized he could now pursue his research without academic meddling.
The main thrust of Bartok’s exploration had been into the electrical waves the human brain transmits during various stages of consciousness. He had developed technology which allowed him to decode the REM brainwaves into a visual representation.
Bartok’s machinery could convert dreams into movies.
“Your REM Movies are completely confidential,” Bartok had told us when we assembled in the clinic conference room that afternoon. “No-one will view them except myself and Dr. Peacock.”
Dr. Peacock was Bartok’s capable assistant who stood smilingly beside him on this cool November afternoon. “This includes the content—the plot, if you will—and all characters. What happens in Dreamland, stays in Dreamland. ”
“Do we get a copy? Like, on video? To, y’know, take home?” It was the Fireman.
“Yes. On whichever format you prefer,” answered Dr. Peacock. “First, though, you’ll watch it with us. So as we can help you deal with any issues that may arise.”
“Issues?” It was Genevieve. Thin, pale, shaking slightly, looking frightened and desperate. I picked her for a junky right off. Just like me, a volunteer more interested in getting paid than being part of neuroscience’s rush to brave new frontiers. “What issues?”
“The average person only remembers perhaps ten percent of their dreams,” said Dr. Bartok. “It can be quite unsettling when you see your REM Movie for the first time. Dreams are your unconscious dealing with issues that sometimes your ego, your waking mind, wishes to forget. It can be confrontational at first. But, ultimately it will provide you with a clear path to healing and long-term mental health.”
“What do we look like in our movies?” It was the school-teacher.
“The movies can be abstract and oftentimes surreal. There’s a slim chance you may see yourself at various stages during your life. Flashback scenes, we call these. Or, rarely, as an imagining of your future-self. Flash-forward scenes. 90 percent of the time, the REM Movie will be from your POV,” explained Dr. Bartok. “Your Point-of-View. As if your eyes are the camera recording what is going on around you, in which case you won’t actually appear in your film.”
“What about nightmares?” asked the Ventriloquist. “Do they turn out like horror-movies?”
“Depends what your definition of a horror-movie is,” answered Dr. Peacock. “If you dream you’re Leatherface in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, well, that’s how it’ll come out.”
“What if you’re the victim?” it was the Mother of three looking terrified.
“They’re your dreams. We’re just here to help you interpret them,” said Dr. Bartok. “Being a volunteer and hooked up to the equipment will not enhance or change your dream experience. It’ll be just like you’re in your own bed. You’re the director of the REM Movie, so to speak, we’re just the schmucks operating the camera.”
“The cinematographer?” offered the School-teacher helpfully.
“I have this recurring dream. It’s kind of embarrassing,” said former Professional Ice-skater. Muffled laughter round the room. I noticed Genevieve and I were the only ones who didn’t find this amusing. Our eyes met for the first time. Kindred spirits, leper outcasts in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
“I repeat. All dreams are totally confidential. You’re not contractually obliged to watch your REM Movie immediately.”
“Will we still be paid immediately?” It was Genevieve again.
“When?” it was me speaking for the first time. Taking the words right out of Genevieve’s mouth, scoring dirty stares from everyone else in the room.
“As soon as you wake up.”
“Well, maybe after you’ve showered and had coffee,” chipped in Dr. Peacock.
“Um, about my recurring dream,” Ice-skater steering the conversation back to her. “It’s just, and I guess I’m not the only one here who has dreams of a raunchy nature.”
There was some agreement in the room, especially from the Fireman.
“It’s just, I have this recurring dream which features myself and a rather famous pro-footballer. Is there, like, rights issues with his likeness and whatnot? He hasn’t signed a release form or whatever. Can I be sued by him for, well, let’s just say these dreams are pretty damn hot. And he’s married. Although, not happily according to E News.”
“No. Although this is relatively untested legal territory we’re entering, he won’t sue you because—unless your REM Movie makes it onto Youtube, which it won’t—he’ll never even know he played a starring role. No matter what sort of hi-jinks you get up to,” said Dr. Bartok. “And don’t worry, we’ve seen it all. Snuff films, fetish, romantic comedies, thrillers, sci-fi. Mostly, however, REM Movies are weird European things. Fellini meets Lars Von Trier. They’re abstract, not very commercial, sometimes dull. No-one’s going to follow the plot except you. The films that come from inside your head are never blockbusters.”
“ To guard against such an occurrence, you’ll see on your documents that any such public dissemination of your REM Movie is strictly prohibited,” Dr. Peacock laid down the law. “Any such breach of contract is a serious offence punishable by prison time. It’s all there in the fine print.”
“But, of course, it’ll never come to that,” added Dr. Bartok. “We’re in the neuroscience business, not the entertainment business.”
“Speak for yourself,” chirped the Ventriloquist without moving his lips. Everyone laughed except Genevieve and me.
I refused to open my eyes until the smoke threatened to overwhelm me.
The black nothingness was sweet relief after what I’d just been through. “God,” I prayed for the first time in my life and meant it. “Please don’t make me go back. I’ll do anything.” And then I opened my eyes to the smoke and death. The 10 corpses charred and sizzling in their beds of fire, sparks flying from the racks of equipment, and Genevieve, curled up like a fetus against the far wall.
The volunteer in the bed next to me—it was the Ice-skater—suddenly burst into flames as if someone had doused her smoking body with kerosene.
And then, they all did.
The dorm was now a raging inferno and Genevieve and I were about to be barbecued. The door behind me opened. Dr. Bartok armed with a fire-extinguisher shot huge gouts of retardant into the room. It was having little affect on the eruption.
“David! Get out of there!”
A few hours before I would have been out the door without so much as a second thought. You don’t live through three tours of Iraq without a fierce interest in self-preservation. But, Iraq was nothing. Neither was this inferno. When you’ve been to Hell and back, doing the right thing comes second-nature so you don’t go back again permanently.
I grabbed the mattress off my bed, used it as a shield and entered the firestorm. As I passed the Fireman burning in his bed, it occurred that he’d be proud of me.
CLINIC FIRE “ACCIDENTAL” BUT LARGER QUESTIONS REMAIN.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA. The fire at the sleep research clinic of controversial neurologist Dr. Skylar Bartok has been ruled “accidental, electrical and inevitable” by the Carmel Police Dept. The blaze three months ago resulted in the deaths of 10 volunteer sleep subjects, who were burned alive in their beds. The deceased were later identified by dental records. Carmel Police Chief Wilson Knottley III said investigations had cleared Dr. Bartok and clinic staff of any malfeasance or procedural negligence. “The fire was electrical in nature,” he said. “Clinic staff did everything by the book. It was an old building. It’s a tragedy, our sincere condolences go out to the relatives.” Dr. Bartok, who established his clinic in Carmel in 1992, was not available for comment. He and clinic staff and the only two sleep volunteers who survived the blaze are rumored to be in Federal custody. “I have no information on that,” said Chief Knottley. “It’s just the fire we investigated. What the Feds are up to is their business.”
Federal authorities seized Dr. Bartok and raided the clinic immediately after the fire. They have refused all comment on the subject of their investigation. “We’d ask citizens to remain calm and not jump to any wild conclusions,” said Carmel Mayor Jennifer Aniston. “We’ve got the Shake-speare Festival coming up, and that’s what I’m concentrating on.” Ms. Aniston and her partner Steven Seagal are playing Katherina and Petruchio in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the Forest Theater.
We had no idea who they were.
We knew they were “Feds,” but that term covers a multitude of shady government operatives. Genevieve and I referred to them as Shadows. They were with us constantly after the fire. Outside every shitty motel door keeping watch, present at every second of interrogation, and our only contact with the outside world. They delivered us cold takeout, newspapers, laundry and sat with us while we watched Cable TV.
The main Shadow was Beckett. A bulbous ginger-headed Alabamian who was generous with his cigarettes and whisky and obsessed with professional wrestling. Genevieve and I traveled together, but were kept in separate rooms. I resumed smoking so as I could snatch extra moments with her in hotel stairwells and motel parking lots.
She had blossomed since the Return. Cold turkey, a regular diet and lots of rest had transformed Genevieve. She had emerged from the cocoon of heroin addiction like a beautifully fragile butterfly. I told her so in a stairwell at a Motel 6 in Omaha.
“Have you seen yourself lately?” she replied. “You’re kinda glowing as well. And not just cos you’re blushing.”
It was true. I did feel transformed. I was sleeping, working out at the gyms, I felt transformed both inside and out.
“Thanks,” I said. “I just wanna get this over and done with, so I can get on with my life.”
We’d been told about the Senate hearing, and they’d promised they’d release us immediately afterwards. We were being held for our own safety until then, Beckett said.
“What’re you gonna do with it?” Genevieve fixed me with a stare that seemed to enter my eyes and scour my brain. “Your life. What’re you gonna do with it?”
“I dunno yet. Thought I might just disappear. I’m not used to all this attention. What about you?”
“Oh, I got a couple of ideas.” Genevieve smiled enigmatically. She’d been doing a lot of that Mona Lisa facial expression stuff lately. Like she knew a secret, which technically she did; we both did. But it was kike she knew a bigger secret than me and wasn’t sharing.
“I just don’t know how I’ll feel after this is over. Especially if they make us watch the, y’know, watch the movies.”
“Oh, they’ll make us watch the movies all right,” Genevieve beamed like she’d just been baptized. “I can’t wait.”
I looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.
“Don’t you wanna relive that?” she asked finally.
I sat down hard on the stairs. Realization coursed through my veins and shook my soul like a baby with a rattle. Now I knew, unlike me, Genevieve had died and gone to heaven and back.
Of course they couldn’t keep it quiet forever.
A reporter at the Carmel Pine Cone newspaper had pursued the story doggedly since the fire. He’d tracked down former sleep volunteers at Bartok’s clinic, gone through University records and spoken to everyone of the Ethics Committee, become the first civilian to watch the REM Movies, and encouraged relatives to use the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to their deceased’s films.
It wasn’t long before the reporter had put two-and-two together. His “A GLIMPSE OF ETERNITY?” article opened the floodgates. He followed that with “THESE TWO HAVE SEEN THE AFTERLIFE (AND GOT THE VIDEO FOOTAGE TO PROVE IT)” and published photographs of Genevieve and me.
“Even the power of the world’s most powerful corporations were no match for God,” trumpeted the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles. But, of course, the church groups thought they had the most to gain from the revelations in the Senate hearing. The churches believed they were all going to be back in business in a way not seen since the Dark Ages, and would soon retake their rightful place as the world’s most powerful corporations. It was rumored the Vatican had begun mass production of relics in China (Vatican-authenticated splinters if the True Cross were on sale outside the Capitol during the hearing) and had convened a Papal committee to adjust for inflation the pricing of indulgences last sold in the 16th century. Seminaries were being dusted off and reopened, Priests sacked during the pedophile scandals were being re-frocked and the Pope was smiling cheerfully from that balcony to ever-increasing legions of fans in St. Peter’s Square.
It was as if the Vatican had discovered a letter from Darwin admitting Natural Selection was a hoax, cunningly pierced every condom at the Trojan factory and posted incontrovertible evidence of Mary’s appearance at Lourdes on Youtube. It was so much more than all the Pope’s Christmases and Easters coming at once. It was so much more than that.
The night before the hearing, Beckett arrived at the Holiday Inn with an armful of newspapers and magazines. “Y’all’re celebrities now,” he proclaimed.
I noticed a new Rolex sliding around on Beckett’s wrist like a gold brick when he handed out the publications. “Jeeze, I feel like I’m workin’ security for Johnny and Rosanne.”
There had been leaks and Beckett had been put in charge of finding out who’d been releasing information to the media. Maybe the extra responsibility had brought with it more pay, hence the new watch. The newspapers and magazines were exploding with breathless exclusives, most of them featuring shots of Genevieve and me. The reporter from the Pine Cone in Carmel had hit the big time. He was now working for the Washington Post. His front-page lead was ominous: DEATH THREATS AGAINST WITNESSES FROM EXTREME FUNDAMENTALISTS. I hid the newspaper from Genevieve. “Don’t worry. They won’t get anywhere near y’all,” Beckett whispered with whisky breath before checking his new timepiece and switching on the wrestling.
It occurred that maybe disappearing was going to be more difficult than I had thought.
“Just hold me for a while. Before you light that,” said Genevieve when we sneaked away into the stairwell for a cigarette.
We held each other tight for a long time, her hair smelled of fresh shampoo and her body felt like the only thing left in the world. We held onto each other like we’d never hold onto anyone ever again.
“I don’t wanna get into all the technical malarkey about how you made this possible. You could go on and on about the decoding of brainwaves until the cows come home. It don’t prove to me that what you say you got, is what you got. How do I know that? For sure?”
Senator Henry Carmichael from Missouri was the chairman of the Subcommittee. He stared down at Dr. Bartok like a bemused owl.
“All this scientific mumbo-jumbo—it’s confusing the hell out of everyone. Speak plain English.” The four other Senators and most of those in the hearing room agreed.
Bartok had lost weight, bought new spectacles and had a trendy new non-academic haircut. The media had been referring to him as “The Man Who Discovered the Afterlife.” In some interviews he’d called himself the “Christopher Columbus of the Hereafter” and he was currently the most famous person in the here-and-now. While Genevieve and I had been sequestered, Bartok had hired a PR firm, hit the public speaking circuit and become Time magazine’s Man of the Year. We sat beside him on the witness table, and wished we were anywhere else in the world.
“I do apologize, Senator,” purred Bartok. “It took me more than two decades to develop and refine the technology. Maybe I get carried away with the science of it. I guess I’m a proud father.”
There were chuckles around the room, I noticed Dr. Peacock wasn’t smiling. She was only ever referred to as “Bartok’s assistant” despite recently appearing in Playboy’s “World’s Brainiest Hotties” edition.
“The brain continues to emit an electrical current for several minutes after death. These Omega-Waves, as I’ve named them, were decoded and recorded by my equipment after the tragic demise of my volunteers in the fire.” Bartok paused for emotional effect which seemed somewhat hollow. Genevieve and I exchanged a glance. “The REM movies of the subjects—the films of their dreams—they were all completely different for each volunteer, as you’ll see. But, the Omega-Wave Movies—the film created by each individual after they had technically died—these are all very much the same. With minor plot and character deviations. The location was the same for all of them. They all went to the same place.”
“Which proves what exactly?” it was Senator Wiener from New York.
Bartok looked over his glasses at Wiener as if the guy was a moron, “There can be only one conclusion. That we all go to the same place after death. That the afterlife exists. All the movies corroborate that.”
“How do we know these films we’re about to see weren’t shot by you?” asked Senator Ashley Francesca from California who had appeared in countless Hollywood action films in her previous career. “It’s just I see you attended a couple of semesters at the American Film Institute. How do we know we’re not watching your home movies?”
“You’ll see there’s nothing ‘home-movie’ about these, Senator,” replied Bartok tracing the speech marks in the air with his fingers. “An amateur could not have produced these Omega-Wave Movies. The production standards are too high, there are thousands of extras, enormous sets, special effects alone would have been prohibitive for all but a major studio. We’re talking Cecil B. DeMille meets Michael Bay. No-one could have shot this on a Super-8 with some school friends on a weekend. You’ll see. And yes, I went to AFI for two semesters. Show me two people in Los Angeles who haven’t attended some sort of film course.”
I didn’t point out that Genevieve and I were sitting right next to him and neither of us had attended film school
“OK, let’s take a look at these...”
“Omega-Wave Movies, Senator,” helped Bartok.
“Sir?” I couldn’t believe it was the sound of my own cracking voice in the room. The Owl looked down at me as an Aide whispered into his ear. I was clearly breaching protocol, and stealing Bartok’s thunder. The doctor frowned at me over his new spectacles as if I was a naughty schoolboy in class. Everyone frowned at me.
“You’ll have your chance to speak soon enough, Mr. Meat,” said Senator Carmichael. “We’re chomping at the bit to hear what you got to say.”
“I understand that, Sir. It’s just, I wondered if I could be released while you watch the films?”
“Released? Why would that be?”
“Sir, I... I don’t think I can relive the experience.”