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Guest Post: Gary Jonas on Mind Control

Today, I’m hosting a guest post from author Gary Jonas, whose story “Bluebird Killing in the Dead of Night” appears in Psi-Wars.

Mind control.

Two words that suggest so much more.

Back in the 1950s, the CIA started Project Bluebird, a program designed to develop mind control techniques by using drugs on unwitting subjects. Initially, it was to be used on prisoners of war during interrogations, but soon the CIA was dosing our own troops with LSD to see how they’d react. Eventually, Bluebird became Artichoke, and later MK-Ultra. The existence of the project came to light in 1975 during the Rockefeller Commission. Unfortunately, Richard Helms, who headed the CIA back in those days, ordered the records to be destroyed in 1973, two years before he faced Congress, so we’ll never know the whole truth.

I’d been researching MK-Ultra, Monarch, Naomi, and the various offshoots, as well as Operation Paperclip (where the US government recruited Nazi scientists and brought them to America after World War II) for a suspense novel I wanted to write in which the mind control program wasn’t shut down, and continued to the present day.

I read various books, including The Control of Candy Jones by Donald Bain and the Sinister Forces trilogy by Peter Levenda (which is about a lot more than MK-Ultra, but the program is prominently featured) and many others. I watched some cool movies like The Killing Room and revisited old favorites like the Bourne movies and Conspiracy Theory. Yes, as a writer, watching movies is called research.

One of the more fascinating things I discovered on my deep dive into all aspects of the mind control subject was that in the 1980s, psychiatrists kept running into patients who showed signs of having their minds altered through drugs, hypnosis, electric shock, and who knows what else. I listened to a recording of a doctor who specialized in dealing with multiple personality disorder. A small percentage of those patients showed signs of having had mind control experiments performed on them to compartmentalize them into different people for different things—assassins, spies, sex slaves, you name it. In the lecture, he went through the techniques for digging into the programming to turn off Omega codes (suicide commands) and what to do if a subject had (or believed they had) Theta programming (psychic killers) or worse, Gamma (you’ll have to read the story).

Naturally, that stuff had to go in the book. So I wrote a scene I loved where my protagonist is convinced he’s been turned into a Manchurian Candidate (from the Richard Condon novel, or the two films based on the book starring Frank Sinatra and Denzel Washington respectively) so he goes to a specialist to have the Omega codes removed. After all, if you’re going up against some bad dudes running a shadow government, you don’t want them to be able to just order you to kill yourself. Right?

Real life interrupted my plans to write that book. The thriller was taking too long. In order to keep paying the bills, I needed to write a novel in one of my urban fantasy series. Alas, that book underperformed, which led to me writing several more urban fantasy novels, and somehow I never got back to my thriller, though I hope to finish it one of these days.

Fast forward a few years.

When Josh Viola reached out to me about Psi-Wars, my first thought was that scene I’d written for the thriller. I plucked it out of the partially written book, slapped it into a new file, and realized that I was way over the requested word count for the short story. Novels give you a lot more elbow room. A scene isn’t a story, so I needed an opening and an ending to make it work, but I wanted the bulk of the tale to be about the deprogramming of a government assassin, and the delicate manner in which such things had to be handled.

While I took some artistic license, the techniques in “Bluebird Killing in the Dead of Night” are as close as I could make them to the actual methods used by psychiatrists trained to deprogram the unfortunate souls who suffered through MK-Ultra, Monarch, Naomi, and other programs. The government doesn’t always have our best interests at heart. Who knew?

It’s hard to take a scene from a novel which is infused with character and thematic bits from what has gone before in the book, as well as setting up things to come, and get them to work in a short story. A lot of it had to be chopped out just because of the word count. In the novel, the viewpoint was mostly through a former government assassin, but that wasn’t going to play for the short story because a story works best when you focus on the person with the most to lose or gain, and in this story that was the doctor, not the assassin, so I had to switch the point of view. In that sense, I got to switch lives, something as writers and readers we get to do all the time. A reader going through the original scene would have a much different experience seeing it through a government operative than they would seeing it through the eyes of a doctor worried about getting killed if he plays the wrong mental chord. The same basic building blocks can create a much different life experience.

I began by stripping the scene down to just the dialogue so I could more easily adjust the viewpoint (or change the life). I wanted to use my original introduction to the doctor as well, and initially kept far too much of it. Again, a novel gives you room to play. In a short story, every word has to earn its keep. I managed to cut most of the extraneous words, and because Josh is an awesome editor, he caught the things I missed.

As writers, we have all these grand ideas in our heads, but all that matters is what ends up on the page. Readers aren’t psychic. So the trick is to take the right details, and to dole them out to paint a much bigger picture in the reader’s head. In that sense, the writer is using mind control on the reader. A word to flip a switch here, a suggestion to pluck an emotion there. Using our words correctly can take a reader on a roller coaster ride filled with excitement, emotional catharsis, and so much more. How far down the rabbit hole should we go? Is it safe? Can you escape with your mind intact? Will you find yourself caring about people who never even existed? Do they sometimes feel more real than your next door neighbor? Did you cry at the end of Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows?

And we wonder why writing is so addictive.

And when the writing works, the reading is even more addictive.

One more story. One more book. One more life.

In the real world, we have but one. In the world of books, television, and movies, we have so many more. In Psi-Wars you get to live thirteen lives. And if one is too scary, don’t worry, the next life might be more to your taste.


Gary Jonas is best-known for three urban fantasy series: Jonathan Shade (12 novels), Kelly Chan (5 novels), and The Half-Assed Wizard (4 novels). He’s written novels and short fiction in other genres, including horror, science fiction, crime, and western. For more information, visit him at his neglected website www.garyjonasbooks.com. He might update it one of these days.
From Atlantis to the Third Reich and beyond, these thirteen original tales of cerebral science fiction and horror explore the evils that abound when humanity wields extraordinary minds as weapons, whether to wage war or prevent it. Steeped in psychic savagery, telekinetic combat, and extrasensory espionage, PSI-WARS imagines corrupt governments and daring operatives, gods and soldiers and hackers and spies. The authors don’t flinch when they peer around the darkest, most violent corners of the human psyche. Will you?

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