Inspired by true events, Donald S. Murray’s disturbing new novel is a harbinger of our pandemic moment
Since the eve of the Victorian era, writers have taken their gnarled knowledge of human instincts and funneled it through imaginative tunnels that go boringly into the future, each author thrusting themselves into a kind of Delphian trance hoping to glimpse a impending darkness.
It’s a particularly rich tradition in Britain: in 1816, Mary Shelley had a nightmare about the maimed and mutated horror that could arise from reversing death through science, which she infused into her transgressive novel “Frankenstein ; or, The Modern Prometheus. Seventy years later, weak and feverish Robert Lewis Stevenson was driven from his sickbed by a vision of a chemist altering his mind and body in unnatural ways. Startled by the grotesque face he had conjured up, Stevenson began writing “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Six decades later, George Orwell foresaw how new beehive-like technology could erase historical facts and neutralize the concept of truth, lulling entire societies into barely noticed forms of mind-enslavement. This warning, which is becoming more validated by the day, was the centerpiece of Orwell’s dystopian book, “1984.”
These wordsmiths exploited prophetic possibilities that now seem to be little more than inevitable confrontations for our species. Donald S. Murray’s new novel “In a Veil of Mist” explores a similar existential crossroads, though it takes the opposite route to get there. The Scottish writer’s cautious look at biological tinkering comes not from a doomed future he dreamed of, but rather from an all-too-real and disturbing piece of history.
“In a Veil of Mist” was inspired by a very wrapped up British military mission in 1952 called Operation Cauldron. It was a covert Cold War effort to study plagues as potential weapons – and it nearly sparked a pandemic in the rural Hebridean islands where Murray grew up.
The author has not forgotten.
“In a Veil of Mist” is a poignant meditation on loneliness, self-questioning, and the wider blankets of apprehension that sometimes descend upon the world.
Readers in the UK were already familiar with Murray’s gift for evocative passages, as he was an accomplished writer on culture and nature even before the publication of his first novel “As the Women Lay Dreaming” three years ago. This tale was inspired by the tragic 1919 sinking of HMY Iolar, which happened in the same windswept corner of Scotland that so fueled Murray’s writing. the iolar was transporting First World War veterans to their home on the Isle of Lewis when it hit a rock near the harbour. Murray’s reimagining of how Lewis handled seeing 200 souls swallowed by the wrathful waters drew praise from the UK to the US
‘As the Women Lay Dreaming’ is a Hebridean story with universal ideas, but Murray knew there was another saga associated with the beaches and bogs of his home that offered the same – and it too involved a British military ship. . Operation Cauldron was a covert effort to hone germ warfare by deliberately infecting monkeys and guinea pigs with brucellosis, tularemia, and bubonic plague. These experiments were conducted on the transport ship Royal Ben Lomond, which was hovering in the waters just off Lewis. As this part of the Western Isles has some of the least populated coasts of Scotland in Cornwall, the by Ben Lomond the risky activities – and the chilling accident that happened on board – remained secret for decades.
But Murray told SN&R that doesn’t mean the islanders themselves are completely in the dark.
“I heard the story at school,” he said this week. “More whispers than enlightened comments. Despite this, there was a realization that something strange had happened at that time on the outskirts of our community. Nothing, after all, is really private or secret in a small town… The answers were vague enough to pique my interest and curiosity.
Digging into the episode, Murray began writing “In a Veil of Mist” before the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold. He was well into the final chapters of the book when the extent of the world situation became clear.
It’s evident from the novel’s opening that Murray isn’t trying to suddenly capitalize on the headlines: his scenes bear the mark of an artisan carefully threading a believable sense of mystery through lucid, intimate portraits of loneliness and deprivation. The book’s characters are deeply drawn, while the open, untamed landscape they inhabit is brought to life through effortless poetry within the pages. These settings and these people seem to put a natural wind force into Murray’s sentences, but it’s a step he takes without ever idealizing how difficult it was in the 1950s to live along these wild landscapes of Atlantic.
“I hope readers will understand how small communities existed at this time in history and how they dealt with the events that marked and marred their recent past,” Murray said. “They had, after all, suffered two world wars, a terrible maritime disaster that affected them for years, and a period of economic depression and emigration. Yet despite this, they managed to cope and carry on, drawing strength from their own faith and culture. »
Given the indomitable streak of Lewis’s people, it angers Murray that the British authorities chose to put them in danger during Operation Cauldron. His vivid rendering of the characters who live on the island put a human face on what could have been Cold War collateral damage. It’s ultimately what elevates “In a Veil of Mist” to achievement far above a novel that came just in time for a pandemic.
“Governments will often use areas they consider ‘remote’ for deadly experiments like these,” Murray noted. “It’s as if they consider life – whether human or animal – to be cheap and worthless in such places.”
In recent weeks, as more and more scientists and journalists have begun to openly re-examine the possibility that COVID-19 was triggered by an accidental lab leak in Wuhan, China – and made even more dire by research controversial US-funded novel that enhances viruses in order to predict their behavior – Murray acknowledges that it will be hard for readers to ignore the parallels to his novel, whether the lab theory remains a hypothesis or not.
“But again, it’s accidental,” the author admitted of the timing.
Accidental or not, the fact remains that research into unexplored viruses is dividing the scientific community at the moment – see journalist Josh Rogin’s new book “Chaos Under Heaven” – and it involves work originally carried out of the current pandemic. Questions about what did or didn’t happen there two years ago are progressively less haunting than those about what could go wrong there in the future. In this regard, Murray’s artfully told story is both a study of the human condition and a look at the conditions that could ravage humanity.
Scott Thomas Anderson is also the host of the “Drinkers with Writing Problems” podcast, Episode 2 of which features an interview with Donald S. Murray about his previous work. The series is available on iTunes, Audible, Pod Bean and Stitcher.