Books: Intercepts by T.J. Payne

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t usually put a great deal of conscious thought into what books I’m going to read for this series, unless, for example, a friend or trusted reviewer makes a specific recommendation. Most times, I simply browse through whatever is available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited that has a decently high rating and a cover and/or title that draws my interest. Thus was the manner in which I stumbled upon T.J. Payne’s 2019 novel Intercepts. The book actually kept turning up at the top of my Kindle recommendations, and I checked it out a long time ago, but hadn’t got around to reading it until now. The cover looked interesting, but to be honest, I thought it was going to be something like a ghost story about EVPs, or a sort of science fiction thing, maybe about aliens.

Nope on both counts. While Intercepts does have a veneer of science fiction, this is a horror story through and through, and pretty damn gory to boot. I read through it at a lightning pace, eager to see what the hell was going to happen next. It’s a briskly-paced, action-packed thrill ride that not only sucks you right in with the mystery of just what exactly is going on, but then steadily ramps up the stakes and the violence until an utterly balls-to-the-wall ending. It’s also one of the few horror novels I’ve ever read where there are really no all-good guys or all-bad guys, and the reader can sympathize with almost everyone’s perspective, even if they’ve done terrible things. It’s quite a feat, and to me, the moral ambiguity was a real highlight, because it mirrored reality to an uncomfortable extent.

At the start of the novel, there’s a brief prologue in which someone seems to be in a type of limbo state, unaware of who or where they are. They can’t see or hear anything, they can’t feel their body, and their consciousness just seems to be floating out there in the ether.

Then we delve into the story proper. Most of the book is told from the point of view of a middle-aged man named Joe Gerhard, who seems like an amiable sort of guy. He manages a secret government facility hidden in the hills of West Virginia somewhere, and much of the beginning of the story is establishing just how covert this place is and the security measures that have been undertaken to ensure that nobody in the outside world figures out what exactly goes on in there.

The great thing about the story and what makes it feel much more grounded in reality is that despite the super-duper-classified nature of the work that goes on at this place (only ever referred to as The Company or The Facility), it’s clear that the project still suffers from cost-cutting and bureaucratic bullshit; in other words, this is no ultra-high-tech concern like you’d see in a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster. This is an average workplace in which people eat donuts in the breakroom, in which there are idiotic rules that are completely ineffective, in which the higher-ups don’t have any idea what goes on at the ground level, and in which it takes a metaphorical (and maybe literal) act of Congress just to get one broken urinal fixed. It’s simultaneously comforting and horrifying to think that even top-secret government projects suffer from the same workplace inefficiency and disorganization as any other corporation on the planet.

Joe is proud of the job he does at the Facility, though, and he has earned the respect and friendship of everyone who works there; he’s a folksy guy, very down to earth, and believes he gets a lot better results by being warm but firm with his employees, rather than being an authoritarian hard-ass.

So what exactly does this Facility do, you might ask? Well, if you’ve ever read anything about the real-life Stargate Project, in which the Army and the Defense Intelligence Agency were experimenting with remote viewing with a goal of using psychic powers for intelligence-gathering applications, the facility in Intercepts is doing basically the same thing, with a hint of Minority Report mixed in as well. See, the facility houses a dozen men and women called “antennas,” who are imprisoned in cells and given a particular type of experimental nerve gas which suppresses all of their sensory apparatus. Keeping the antennas in this limbo state—in which they can do nothing but roll around on the floor, mumble, shit themselves, and occasionally scream—heightens their senses immeasurably, and when the higher-ups need some information—say, about a terrorist attack or the head of a drug cartel or an arms dealer or something like that—the staff at the Facility can go to one of the antennas and “tune” them, which entails turning off the nerve gas and letting all of their senses come flooding back at once. This produces a wealth of actionable intelligence about whoever the target is, but it also causes the antennas themselves excruciating pain and unbearable mental anguish. Over time, though, the staff have had to train themselves to see the antennas as pieces of equipment, rather than human beings. No one at the Facility knows where the antennas came from or who they were in their former lives, and they’ve learned not to ask. Although it’s protocol to refer to the antennas only by their numbers to further dehumanize them, at this particular Facility, they’ve actually given the antennas names in order to make it easier to identify them; hilariously and also somewhat ghoulishly, the head doctor at the company, Dr. Hannah Chao, has named them all after characters from Aliens (Bishop, Vasquez, Ferro, Gorman, Crowe, and so forth).

Now, back to Joe. So as likeable a character as Joe is, he was also a kind of neglectful husband to his wife Kate and father to his teenage daughter Riley. Several years ago, Kate divorced him, and Riley went to live with her, though she still visits her dad on weekends. He feels bad that he missed a great deal of his daughter’s childhood because of work, but he tries to justify it somewhat by telling himself that he’s doing necessary work for national security, and that by protecting the nation, he’s indirectly protecting his own family as well.

But not too long into the story, Joe gets the shocking news that his ex-wife Kate has committed suicide. Riley comes to live with him, and he hopes that he’ll be able to bridge the distance that’s developed between them over the years. But shortly after Riley moves in, she begins seeing things: specifically, she starts seeing a terrifying-looking woman with deathly-pale skin and greasy black hair, clad only in what looks like a hospital gown. No one else seems to be able to see her, and at first everyone attributes the visions to hallucinations brought on by Riley’s grief at losing her mother so suddenly. However, as the story goes on and strange things begin happening at Joe’s workplace that seem to be connected with Riley’s sightings of the woman, it becomes clear that something profound and very, very dangerous might be happening within the minds of the antennas.

This was a great read, moving along at breakneck speed and getting more and more messed up as it went along. The characters, most of which worked at the Facility doing what are obviously horrible things to helpless human beings, were still sympathetic, as they were just regular working people with their own problems who just had a job to do and tried not to think too hard about the bigger implications or consequences of the work they were doing. You also felt really bad for the antennas, obviously, and completely understood their motivations as well, so the story was really nuanced in that way, not letting any of the characters off the hook for the stuff they did, but also making you as the reader see how they got into the position of doing those things. It was also a really compelling take on how easy it is for evil outcomes to emerge from confused bureaucracies, even if no one within those bureaucracies is necessarily a bad person.

If you’re at all into government conspiracy type stuff, or what could marginally be termed science fiction about secret agencies doing human experimentation in regards to psychic abilities—stuff like Minority Report, Firestarter, Scanners, Altered States, or The Fury, for example—then you’ll probably really like this, though keep in mind that the sci-fi element, while significant, is more in service to the horror. And believe me, this thing does get skin-peelingly gory, so if you’re squeamish, maybe give it a pass. But everyone else should check it out; I thought it was an outstanding story that kept me engaged from the first page, and had a great gut-punch of an ending.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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