:: Article

Of Monkeys and Monsters

By Erik Hoel.

An excerpt from Hoel’s debut novel, The Revelations, which is out now from The Overlook Press.

In the evening half the Crick Scholars, including Kierk, are scheduled for a tour of the primate research center at the basement level of the Center for Neuroscience. There eighty monkeys are housed underground on the edge of Washington Square Park, a kind of surreal inversion of the constant stream of pedestrians above. So Kierk, Atif, Alex, and Jessica assemble in the glass room that serves as an annex to the main animal lab. There is the thick musk of primates, dung and souring grapes, biscuits soggy with piss, cut carrots and stale green beans.

All four of them finish shrugging on soiled lab coats and strapping on face masks, pulling on thick bite-proof gloves, hopping on one foot to fit the little blue booties over their shoes. Soon Norman Bennett is leading them amid the veterinarians and technicians, yelling over the clanking and grinding.
“They’re rhesus macaques, of which we have forty, and then twenty bonnet macaques, and a smattering of different species. We ‘chair them’ to move them up to the electrophysiology rigs upstairs for experiments. The chairs are those rectangular glass boxes that you’re right next to, Atif. Their heads poke out so they can look around. But we can also fix the tops of their heads so they only look straight ahead at whatever task they’re doing. They can be devils to get in.”

Amid the cages and occasional hiss from their occupants it is Atif who moves with the most certainty, a knowing look in his eyes, coolly surveying equipment. He’s worked in a primate lab the last several years and knows fundamentally they’re all the same. Mostly he spends time eyeing the other Crick Scholars, especially Kierk. Before the program had started Atif made a point of reading all the other Crick Scholars’ work. He’d been particularly impressed by Kierk’s attempts to develop an actual theory of consciousness; last night after reading a paper by Kierk he had gotten carried away late into the early morning with his own musings. Atif feels a competition brewing: which of them will get the tenure-track positions at one of the best research universities in the world, in one of the best cities in the world, at such a young age? No more being shipped around countries and programs, showing up in some strange city to work in a lab for a year before heading to the next, participating in the great global migration of postdocs. If this is indeed a competition Atif wants to know the other players and is already forming a ranking in his mind.

“. . . telling you now because that group is dangerous, and they do target individual researchers. They might threaten you, or try to scare you by coming to your apartment. One time a researcher was ambushed at night and chased by someone in a creepy costume. Some shamanistic monster outfit. We’re sure it was them. This SAAR, the Students Against Animal Research, they’re real and extremely serious. It’s not a legal student group anymore but they still picket outside a lot of our talks. They have a real fetish for neuroscience. It started when PETA filed a FOIA, a freedom of information fishing expedition. We happened to be developing a new surgery at the time, something for Professor Melissa Goldman. The surgery was done on one of the macaques here, whose name was Double Trouble. And unfortunately Double Trouble got an infection in her skullcap from the surgery. We’re not going to waste a brain so of course the vets decapitated Double Trouble and made brain slices. Pictures from the surgery were exposed when PETA filed the FOIA, which really got SAAR all riled up. So then of course both PETA and SAAR went crazy and accused us of killing Double Trouble. PETA even requested OLAW at the NIH to do an official investigation for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. This continued until SAAR actually distributed the addresses of some of the veterinarians and Melissa. PETA officially backed off, but SAAR didn’t. A few lab members were threatened personally. Then the chase by the monster, the costumed guy. Real serious horror-movie stuff. But what finally allowed me to get the president of the university to come down hard was what happened to Melissa Goldman. She found a bunch of supplies outside her house. Her child actually found them in the morning. A little girl. All these household items piled up in the driveway, things like orange juice, laundry detergent, baking powder and so on. Turns out it was all the ingredients you need to build a homemade bomb from scratch.”

Jessica gasps. “Her daughter found it?”

Norman sighs wearily. “SAAR’s funding was cut. PETA officially broke ties with SAAR and publicly condemned the group but it didn’t matter, because SAAR still holds meetings.”

“Did they catch who did it?” Jessica asks.

“No, and it got very political. The student body was really riled up. You know how they are now. This is why you cannot take any pictures, ever.”

Cages line the wall stacked on top of one another. Most of the monkeys lay unmoving, enervated and sunken. Almost all have recording apparatuses attached to their skulls—after being anesthetized the monkey is scalped, the top of the head removed to bare the skull. Then the skull is softened, a portion removed, and an open grating is installed through which the scientist can peek in at the brain. Finally this grating is sealed from above with a removable cap, to provide easy access, and a kind of plastic concrete is spread over the naked skull to cover it and support the recording chamber. Eventually electrodes can be lowered during behavioral experiments to listen to the pop-pop talk of neurons. The monkeys thus wear crowns of concrete, often with blood or pus ringing the annulate barrier where the skin meets the installment, with little plastic caps at the summit like miniature chimney tops that can be unscrewed.

“What are those?” Kierk asks, pointing to reams of crumpled tinfoil in several bins.

It’s a veterinarian who answers. “The city is always generating electromagnetic background noise. To keep it from influencing the data we wrap their heads with tinfoil during the sessions.”

“You make them wear tinfoil hats?”

“How come some of the monkeys have problems with their hands?” Jessica asks, and Kierk notices what she’s talking about—the monkeys palm the floor with flat hands, try to scoop up their toys with their wrists.

It’s Atif who answers from across the room in his deep voice—“Because the recording chamber is at the top of their head. Often right over their primary motor cortex. And since you keep moving a needle down through it . . .” He makes repeated stabbing motions.

“Oh!” Jessica’s eyes widen.

“Anyway, as I was saying, some of these monkeys share cages . . .” Norman continues as Kierk and the others move about the room. In the far cage-cleaning room, through the door, Kierk can see powerful hoses operated by undergraduates foolish enough to sign up for research credits spray animal feces, fur, drool stains, pus, and food remnants from empty cages into a wide drain in the floor. In their cages the proto-humans squat around him, alien in their familiarity and the uncanny valley of their dark beady eyes, their imploring hands held palm out for food in a manner that is disturbingly human. They stare out at Kierk like things before language, guttural expressions begging for meanings, all of them lined up with ebony eyes turned toward him. He imagines them in their natural state as dark rustling shapes in the forest of home, in a play of chiaroscuro and canopy, with their mischievous haired limbs turning over logs and leaves and rot and excrement, all dug through with black nails, the echoing screech of excitement, defending, offering, proffering, the curved kowtow of submission, the occasional portentous spark of altruism, the small fingers stripping a dirty avocado of its broad peel, and in the twilight of the jungle floor a small creature is looking with its black eyes at him, hunching its back, what is that in its arms?—recognition—it is cradling a baby rhesus that has been dead for days . . .

Jessica nudges Kierk, who has been looking lost into the dark of a cage. She enters a single gloved finger slowly through the mesh. On seeing Jessica’s finger the macaque, which had been curled up in the back, lopes curiously up to the front, then turns to face the opposite direction and presses its back up against the mesh, its fur now sticking through the grating in tufts. Jessica scratches the small patch of exposed skin, and Kierk follows suit. Their smiles show in their eyes above their face masks, scratching away to happy grunting. Then the macaque whips around viciously, banging the cage, causing Kierk and Jessica to jump back and Jessica to quiet a shriek behind her face mask. With the same immediacy the monkey resumes its previous position, waiting to be scratched. Kierk shakes his head at it and turns to a pair of the smaller bonnet macaques that glare at Kierk with red eyes from their shared cage. One erects himself in his cage above the other, his little sex hanging in the air. He looks Kierk straight in the eye and begins to piss in a long stream as Kierk jumps back, avoiding it. The other macaque in the cage, servile and slinking, hunkers down in front of the pissing one and in a quick motion takes the stream and the organ itself in its mouth. With his thick glove Kierk taps Alex on the back to get his attention.

 

Instead of sleeping Kierk is out grabbing beers at a bar, sitting at the open window in the breeze and watching the late-night groups of people walk past in fits of laughter or discussion. Then he’s out to join them, meandering past the bright lamplights and shuttered store windows of New York City at night. To be a scientist again, to be working on consciousness again—he can’t believe it. He is a secular priest once more. In this he feels the possessor of a great secret, a thing unknown to everyone he passes, a thing that buzzes inside him and keeps him from bed. No longer is he on the outside looking in. It is happening again. He is a man catching fire. Eventually this feeling grows until his path becomes directional, purposeful. He can now enter where others cannot. Stalking through the darkened trees of Washington Square Park he veers sharply toward the CNS.

The building stands as a dark windowless tower, which he approaches in the night. A single light is on from somewhere far above. The ID card he’d been given makes the door flash green and he enters the cool artificial air with the smile of one entering a sanctum. He wants to see again the familiar sights of the graduate student making a midnight dinner, the postdoc mid-experiment listening to music, the long rows of waiting workstations, the nocturnal mice now up to play while the scientists sleep.

But in the dim lobby everything is silent, and his fingers linger on the handle, the glass, the empty lobby desk. Where is the guard? Kierk had thought entry to the building was constantly monitored, even this late. He goes to drink at the water fountain but bending down the water never touches his mouth. The metal under his hand is vibrating subtly but forcefully. He puts his palm on the cold tile of the wall. There it is stronger, almost a hum, and he can feel it moving through his entire arm now. Moving a few steps, hand still on the wall, he finds it increasing in intensity. There’s some sort of incredibly loud droning vibrating through the entire building’s foundation. Maybe there’s construction in the basement?

Following the hum through the dark corridors, he passes no sign of anyone else on his way to the stairwell. As he descends, the metal railing shudders perceptibly under his hand. At the very bottom he finds himself back at the door to the primate labs, the annex of which is illuminated only by red light. The hum is no longer just a hum but has become an alien sound vibrating through his skeleton like an ocean of white noise. The locus is beyond the annex. Above it he can now hear what sounds like a jungle of screams and cries, howling, shrieks, the clatter of cages as the monkeys inside go mad.

Fighting the urge to clamp his hands to his ears in the dim red light Kierk gropes wildly for the light switches beside the glass door. On finding it the main primate room beyond blinks into medical brightness, and at the same time it is as if all the sound in the world shuts off. The overpowering sound is gone. The vibration is gone. Everything is still. His heartbeat now the only sound.

Kierk walks cautiously into the long room. In the stacked cages on either side the monkeys all stare at him. As he moves forward they track him, silent and totem-like. Around him the various stations of scientific equipment have been trashed. Something is so wrong but he keeps moving like a dream to the other end, past the broken glass, the shattered slides, the twisted monitoring equipment, the lab chairs that seem violently torn by some immense and impossible strength. It is as if a great force has destroyed everything. The normal musk of the animal room is present but also something sickly sweet like rotten flowers.

At the end of the area is the closed door to the cage-cleaning room, its glass portal pitch-black. The lights are still off inside. In the eerie silence he hears movement, as if some great bulk is shifting inside the darkness. There is some kind of grunt, or exhalation, but at a monstrous register, and then a low drawn-out hiss that ends abruptly, followed by a slithering of something being withdrawn. Then there is a clanging so loud it makes Kierk startle. A distant sound recedes. Slowly, extremely slowly, he reaches out to flip on the light switch outside the door. With a click he finds himself staring through the portal into the bright cage-cleaning room, which has only rubber hoses and overturned empty cages on the floor, bare walls on all sides. In the center, with the floor sloping toward it, a gigantic metal drain glistens and drips.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Hoel received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a research assistant professor at Tufts University and was previously a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Hoel is a 2018 Forbes “30 Under 30” for his neuroscientific research on consciousness and a Center for Fiction NYC Emerging Writer Fellow. The Revelations is his debut novel. He lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 6th, 2021.