The Strange Vancouver Visitation of Philip K. Dick

In 1981, taking the form of a goat, the Devil made an appearance at Stanley Park Zoo. There was at least one witness to this event: the science fiction author Philip K. Dick.

Some nine years earlier, Dick arrived at YVR clutching an old suitcase and a Bible. This visitation, too, had its witnesses, a number of whom caught the legendary writer at one of the receptions held in his honour at the 1972 Vancouver Science Fiction Convention, where Dick held forth on one of the major themes in his career. His speech was called “The Android and the Human”.

Even in a field populated by brilliant weirdos, Phil Dick was no ordinary sci-fi author. Born in 1928 as Philip Kindred Dick, his short but extraordinary life was haunted by the spectre of a twin sister, Jane, who died in infancy from malnutrition. Dick never forgave himself for surviving and he never forgave his mother, Dorothy, for what he believed was fatal neglect. When he passed in 1982, Philip K. Dick also believed he’d encountered God, or possibly an off-planet artificial intelligence—or maybe something even more outlandish than either—in a series of life-altering visions that threw an already unruly life into near-permanent disarray, eventually bestowing on Dick a kind of awesome grace.

But we’ll get to that.

The man who arrived in Vancouver from California on February 16, 1972 was merely a well-respected practitioner inside a not-that-well respected field. He was also a speed-freak and a charismatic, outsized mess of a human. Phil Dick yearned for recognition as a mainstream novelist, but for 20 years had supported (barely) a super-chaotic personal life pounding out wild stories for pulp magazines and downmarket paperback publishers like Ace Books, smuggling his metaphysical obsessions—principally the question what is reality?—into vibrantly funny and compassionate sci-fi potboilers.

The best was yet to come, but Dick had masterpieces under his belt like The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), and Ubik (1969). Published in 1968, the slim but elegant Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? would emerge in June 1982 as the movie Blade Runner. Phil Dick didn’t live to see its opening day—he died in March of that year, age 53—nor could he imagine, as he churned out story after story in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that the paranoid Phil Dick cosmos would all come to pass, with its haywire governments, unhinged machine intelligence, unstable phenomenologies, split personalities, forged universes, and simulated human worlds overseen by demented demigods. Screen and TV adaptations aside, he seemed to compose an actual future. There is nothing more Phil Dick than a blandly terrifying company like Google, the false consciousness of social media, or a billionaire charlatan with his own space rocket (take your pick, we have more than one.)

There’s a fascination around Phil Dick’s Vancouver getaway, which lasted until late April. Declaring that he wanted to make the city his new home, Dick first spent time living with Province journalist Michael Walsh and his wife Susan, with whom, true to form, the author fell madly in love. After they kicked him out, Dick found an apartment on Cornwall Avenue, where he made a somewhat half-hearted suicide attempt. Eventually, Dick found his way into the radical drug treatment program X-Kalay, hoping to finally beat an amphetamine addiction that had recently cost him a marriage and a daughter, and had reduced his Santa Venetia home to a crash pad for addicts, strays, and more than one hired killer. “Truly vicious people” is how he characterized at least some of his running mates in a letter written in 1973. Dick assumed it was the feds, however, who broke into his house, trashed the place, and stole all his files after blowing his safe wide open with plastic explosive. Others wondered if the real perp was the author himself. These experiences would be fashioned into another masterpiece, the sad but wickedly funny A Scanner Darkly, published in 1977 and later adapted into a fine Richard Linklater film starring Keanu Reeves.

So this was the Phil Dick who escaped to Vancouver, bringing his problems with him, and then hurried back home to pick up the pieces. In a 2017 BBC radio interview, Michael and Susan Walsh recount his dazzling brilliance and his destructive complexity. She wonders, in conclusion, if Dick was a psychopath. That’s a stretch, but all the same, we’re left with a sense of the man’s ferocious meatgrinder personality.

Less well known is the sweet interregnum Dick shared with another Vancouver resident, a photographer of some renown, in part due to her chronicling of the city’s punk era. But when Philip K. Dick met Bev Davies, she was a radical hippie art student living with her one-year-old son in a cosy house on Third and Yew. Here, it seems, Dick was soothed by an alluring vision of domestic peace and the one core value that sustains across his entire body of work: simple human kindness.

There was some commotion in 2009 when Davies auctioned a letter, received from Phil in May 1972, in which he rhapsodizes over their brief friendship in Vancouver. “I needed the money. I went through a dealer in Vancouver that dealt with rare books,” she tells me from her home in Delta. Chuckling softly, she adds: “It’s also really selfish, because I just wanted to be part of the story.” However much celebrity he enjoyed back in 1972, which wasn’t that much, Philip K. Dick has become a major figure in American literature and the subject of obsessive fandom. The letter was tucked inside a copy of Ubik that Dick signed and gave to her, with the envelope and his return address in Fullerton, California fully intact—a detail that takes on more significance when Davies drops a minor bombshell later in our interview.

Davies had never heard of Philip K. Dick when she caught a radio interview with the author on CFOX. She was instantly enthralled. “He was talking about [Robert A. Heinlein’s] Stranger in a Strange Land,” she recalls, “and he said that if you took it and smoked it, you still couldn’t get off. I thought that was hilarious.”

What did he mean by that?

“That it was a long, boring book!” she roars.

Between that and a very Dick-sounding bit about “showing photographs on the radio,” Davies was moved to call the station for an on-air question session. She doesn’t remember what she asked, but she’ll never forget what happened next. Within hours, Philip K. Dick was knocking on the front door of her Kitsilano home. “Evidently he was fairly impulsive when it came to young women,” she remarks.

There’s no dispute about that. Indeed, the Dick mythos is overcrowded with partners, platonic and otherwise, frequently much younger than the author, just as frequently locked into some mad whorl of extreme emotion. The fabled “dark-haired girl” is a constant in Dick’s life, across five marriages (and three children.) In his letter to Davies, Dick is candid about his latest obsession, “a black-haired groovy spaced-out foxy chick” named Linda, waiting for him in Fullerton like “destiny in a miniskirt.” But the 44-year-old Philip K. Dick who took the twenty-something Bev Davies for a steak supper at a “quaint little restaurant” on Denman Street? He was all gentleman.

“I didn’t feel any lechery on his part,” says Davies. “Whether he wanted it or not, I don’t know, but I didn’t feel he was infringing, or setting stuff up, like, ‘I can’t go home, it’s too late, I’ll have to stay’—that kind of stuff.”

It’s possible that Dick had to meet the requirements of X-Kalay, where he was staying at the time. “He didn’t tell me that. All I knew is that he had a curfew and he didn’t live with his mom,” she laughs. “There was a kind of mystery about it.” Just as likely is that Dick found an oasis of familial calm and simplicity at the Davies home. In his letter he writes: “I remember so vividly your living room, the TV set, the overstuffed chair I sat in, you drinking tea, your bathroom with the weird soup ad, your little boy. Is all that still there? I hope so.”

Davies reckons that Dick showed up, planted himself in that chair, and pondered that soup ad around half a dozen times in total. “He went into my bathroom and started laughing, and laughing, and laughing, and then was saying, ‘Cream of Yerlec? What the fuck is Cream of Yerlec?’” she remembers. “We’d sit around my living room and talk, and then he would take whatever the conversation had been about and just tweak it a little tiny bit and turn it into something strange. We talked about it, my boyfriend and I, about how much fun it was to have him do that. You held your breath and waited to see what he added to the conversation you just had.”

He was a champion fabulist. Friends were never sure what exactly was real with Phil, although he’s remembered as outstanding company; a galaxy-brained, stand-up philosopher whose improvised raps on any subject were as mind bending and funny as anything Dick ever put on the page. “Well, he was a writer,” shrugs Davies. “That permeated all levels of his encounters with people, whether he was writing the book in his head or he was communicating parts of a past book. In some ways, looking back, I didn’t really understand how all-engrossing his career was to him. I figured, you know, on weekends he wrote books. And I don’t think I really understood what a star he was.”

Davies also declares “that all of my life I’ve been strangely attracted to paranoid schizophrenics,” and it needs to be addressed that Dick himself wondered if schizophrenia might explain his last decade on earth. She never heard the story, but Dick told others that he was abducted at one point by some goons who fired questions at him while they drove around Vancouver in a black limo. In March 1974, now remarried in California with a young son, Dick was seized by the first of a series of visions that continued till the end of his life; religious ecstasies and divinations that deepened his ontological quest for the true nature of God and reality, and that he subsequently wrestled with in over 8000 pages of a handwritten document called The Exegesis.

But schizophrenia, or something like it, doesn’t quite explain the lucidity of Dick’s remaining years or the practical advice he received, usually from a pink “phosphene” light beamed directly at his head. Most famously, Dick was warned of an invisible birth defect threatening his son’s life. Rushing the child to the GP, it turned out to be true. There were witnesses to other wild anomalies. In Lawrence Sutin’s biography Divine Invasions, then wife Tessa confirms the tale of a radio that stubbornly continued to play after it was unplugged, although she didn’t, significantly, hear the spiteful messages it was spouting at her horrified husband.

In his greatest work, 1981’s VALIS, Dick casts himself as both Philip K. Dick and the character Horselover Fat, semi-fictionalizing what he bluntly terms his “encounter with the living God” and the rending of his psyche that ensued. In his subsequent novel, The Divine Invasion, also from 1981, the Stanley Park Zoo becomes the location of Philip K. Dick’s personal and passionately realized Gnostic gospel, complete with the fallen angel Belial, who appears as a goat. He describes Vancouver as “the most beautiful city in the world.”

In his letter to Davies, Dick states “you were nicer to me than anybody else I met in Canada, and I’ll always remember that.” It ends with the plea: “Put your arms around me, Bev. Hold me. Nobody else ever will.” Davies never replied, and didn’t even realize that Dick had retreated back to California. The story might have ended there, if it wasn’t for this: “I have something that I haven’t told anybody else,” she says, softly, as we wrap up our call. “I have a second letter somewhere.”

Say what?

“Every time I go through an old stack of correspondence, I think, ‘I’m gonna find it now.’”

It turns out that shortly after selling the first letter, Davies stumbled on a scrap of envelope with Dick’s return address on it. Unless the first envelope had managed to reproduce itself, there was only one explanation: “It slowly sunk in. I was looking at it, going, ‘Shit! There’s a second letter!’” We’ll let that further sink in with the marketplace of collectors and obsessives affectionately known as Dickheads. A second letter. And we’ll leave Bev Davies here, searching through her kipple—that was Dick’s invented word for all the junk we accumulate in life—as she clutches something like a tantalizing fragment of a holy relic, not yet unearthed.

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Post Date:

February 9, 2022