Soundtrack: Ingram Marshall

I discovered ‘The Bay’ too late. Of all the music I listened to while writing Half WorldIngram Marshall’s album Alcatraz (of which ‘Prelude-The Bay’ is the first part) would probably have been the most thematically and geographically relevant. But it wasn’t until I was in one of the final revisions of the novel that I first heard it––in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which uses a couple of Marshall’s pieces in its soundtrack. 

The first part of Half World takes place on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, which has a direct sightline to the island prison. This section of the book is set during the mid-1950s, when there were still inmates in Alcatraz, and where (as the legend goes) on warm summer nights the sounds of revelers on the Embarcadero carried across the water and into the cells, reminding the prisoners of the world they’d left behind.

A piece for “synthesizers, buoys, birds, fog horns, singing, gambuh flute and cell doors in resonant spaces” (according to the catalog copy), the non-digital version of ‘Alcatraz’ is a collaboration between Marshall and the photographer Jim Bengston, whose images of the island are included with the hard copy of the recording.

Alcatraz doesn’t figure directly into Half World, but it’s always there with the characters on Telegraph Hill—a blunt black mass seen out of a window; a shadow appearing when a head is turned—and Marshall’s piece conjures it perfectly: the island sitting just apart from the city, in the darkness of the bay.

 

Operation Midnight Climax

In one of the more surreal and slapstick moments in Agency history, the 1977 Congressional Committee reveals that the secret San Francisco safe house / prostitute operation was, in fact, called 'Operation Midnight Climax.' 

In this excerpt from the hearings, Senator Ted Kennedy gives us our first look inside the San Francisco safe house, with an emphasis on the mood-setting decor...

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"That is how these were carried out."

In the mid-1970s, the United States Congress conducted hearings into what were known as the CIA's "family jewels" - highly classified documents detailing some of the Agency's most secretive and potentially damaging operations. Among the allegations discussed were whether the CIA had targeted foreign leaders for assassination (they had), surreptitiously opened and read domestic mail (they had), and conducted drug and mind-control experiments on unwitting U.S. citizens (yep). 

That last unearthed jewel, a decades-long CIA experiment dubbed Project MK-ULTRA, included (among other facets) a 1950s subproject where agents in New York and San Francisco hired prostitutes to lure johns back to safe houses. The johns were then secretly dosed with LSD (and other drugs) and observed by the agents from behind two-way mirrors. The agents (and the Agency) were looking for the keys to the human psyche, a magic elixir that could force a man to spill his secrets, or, possibly, even empty a man of his secrets, his personality, his convictions, leaving a shell that could then be turned and sent back into the world with a new, specific mission.

This is where HALF WORLD begins, in an apartment on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, with a small group of men secretly watching another man and a woman in the most intimate of encounters.

In this excerpt from the hearings, Admiral Stansfield Turner, then Director of the CIA, answers some of the first questions about the safe houses.

 

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From the Simon & Schuster catalog copy:

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From its official sanction in 1953 to its shutdown in 1973, the CIA clandestinely conducted methods of mind control on unwitting American and Canadian citizens. This covert and illegal operation, Project MKUltra, eventually made national headlines upon the declassification of thousands of documents in 2001.

Inspired by these events, Scott O’Connor’s Half World is the story of Henry March, a fraying CIA analyst who conducts secret mind-control experiments in San Francisco. With each passing day, Henry’s existence becomes a nightmare, his identity withering as he works over the hapless men lured into his facility.

Struggling between his duty to his country and his responsibility to his wife and children, Henry finally reaches a breaking point, leaving both his project and mind fractured. Amid the wreckage, he becomes the deepest ULTRA mystery.

Two decades later, Dickie Ashby, a young, drug-addled CIA agent, is sent to Los Angeles to infiltrate a group of bank-robbing radicals who claim to have been abused in a government brainwashing operation years earlier. The members of the group know they need to find Henry March and Dickie suddenly finds himself dragged into the stunning legacy of the experiments, tragedy that has destroyed the March family, and which threatens to engulf a war-torn country ready to combust.