Dark Seeker by K.W. Jeter (1987): Subtle and gradually building horror novel about the aftermath of a California incident that managed to combine something like the Manson Family with a psychoactive drug that seemed to create a shared consciousness among those who used it.
The charismatic, insane psychiatrist who ran the drug trial — and created the murderous group — now languishes in an asylum for the criminally insane. Several of the participants who did not actually murder anyone are free, but they need to take a pharmacopia of drugs several times a day to remain sane: the consciousness drug’s effects on the human body are permanent and persistently intrusive.
While the main narrative thread follows recovering cult member Michael Tylers’s attempts to remain sane and build a new life with his girlfriend and her son, other plotlines (all of which will eventually dovetail with Tyler’s story) show us the journalist who made a ton of money with the True Crime book about the cult and a homeless man named Jimmy who’s been enlisted by one of the most dangerous, uncaptured cult members to take care of a mysterious child stolen by that cult member from Michael’s ex-wife, who’s finally been re-arrested by the police after hiding out in L.A. for several years.
Jeter does a nice job of keeping things at least somewhat ambiguous throughout. Those who take the drug believe that they encounter a being they call the Host, which exhorts them to commit terrible acts. But is it real, and if so, is it supernatural (which is to say, some sort of demon), or is it some sort of psychic projection of the shared consciousness of the drug users? From the outside, though, the verdict of the legal system, and of popular opinion, is that everything about the drug is fake, including the shared-consciousness effect. The cult members went bananas. That is all.
Dark Seeker manages to make even the mercenary, grasping journalist sympathetic, at least towards the end, as he finally gets to experience violent events first-hand. Jeter’s characterization of the occasionally unlikeable Tyler, homeless Jimmy, and girlfriend Steff, who’s recovering herself from a life of terrible relationship choices and physical abuse, is both strong and subtle. The Host itself is a disturbing presence when it appears (or seems to appear), and Jeter describes the sensory distortions of the drug with hallucinatory elan. And the book ends with a stunner of a final ten pages.
Problems? I’d have liked some more development of what exactly happened with the cult and its charismatic leader — it almost seems as if some more heavily expository sections were cut so as to keep the page count down. The only other real problem is the title, which really should be something like The Host or The Dark Host. Again, this seems like decision-making at the publishing or editorial level. Recommended.