Desert Voodoo

“I couldn’t help thinking about Vicki. We’d had some great times in Palm Springs – making love under the clear desert sky, romantic dinners at the Biltmore, cocktails on a yacht on the Salton Sea and “Two Sleepy People” playing endlessly on the hi-fi. All those memories started getting to me. That’s the trouble with the Springs — something in the atmosphere of the place does weird things to your emotional state, and that desert voodoo was hitting me big time…”

Palm Springs Cocktails

A few seconds of eternity

“It had been a clear summer night, about a year before, and I was heading back from Vegas with a chorus girl I’d met that weekend. We were doing 70 mph on an empty stretch of road just outside of Barstow, when suddenly the darkness was blasted away by a brilliant flash of light. For a few seconds of eternity, everything was stark white with harsh black shadows. And then there was a clap of distant thunder. Carol had been almost asleep when the midnight sun struck. She grabbed my arm and screamed and then it was night again. I thought the Russians had finally done it. No four-minute warning, just BOOM! But the world hadn’t ended, it was one of our own A-bombs being detonated somewhere out in the desert. They said later, on the radio, that it was the biggest ever tested, about twenty times bigger than the Fat Boy they dropped on Hiroshima. I tried calming Carol down but she was almost hysterical. “Don’t worry, nuclear war will never happen.” I kept saying, but my heart was pounding and part of me knew I was lying. It could happen anytime. And when that time came, it would be sayonara everything. Goodbye cruel world.”

From 1951 until 1962 over one hundred Atomic weapons were detonated above ground at the US Military’s test site in the Nevada desert just outside Las Vegas. 148The mushroom clouds from the bombs could be seen at a distance of almost one hundred miles away and “bomb-watching” became something of a tourist attraction in Vegas itself. The radio-active fall-out from the tests drifted away from the city and were borne by the prevailing winds over southern Utah, where, tragically, increases in many types of cancer were reported from the mid-1950s through the 1980s.

She looked like a sleek, golden animal…

She relaxed half a notch. Even nervous, she was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever laid eyes on. She had glossy red hair pulled into a pony-tail but it wasn’t the kind of red you see on white-skinned Irish girls. This was a tawny color that accented the pale honey tan of her skin. Her face was angular with full lips and almond-shaped eyes. She wore high heels, skin-tight Capri pants on long, long legs and a white blouse tied up at her slender waist. The skin of her belly was firm and tanned. She looked like the French actress Agnes Laurent. She looked like a sleek, golden animal. I wanted her.”

During the time I was starting to conjure up the character of the book’s femme fatale, Justine, I went to the PCC swap meet in Pasadena and picked up a dozen or so vintage Playboy Magazines from the late 1950s.

As luck would have it, one of them was dated July 1958 – the very month and year that “Ritual” takes place – and there was a pictorial on a beautiful French actress called Agnes Laurent.

Agnes Laurent, Playboy
Spread from Playboy, July 1958, featuring Agnes Laurent.

Ms. Laurent was one of a handful of French starlets who were briefly touted in magazines like Playboy as the “next Brigitte Bardot” – she may not have been that, but her photos would certainly have made an impression on a lot of American males at the time.