15: Charles Pengrove

Doctor Charles Pengrove is unsettlingly tall, and looks as if he got that way by being stretched on the rack. Even his face is disturbingly long, with wrinkles that are almost completely vertical. Most of his hair is gone, and what’s left is combed futilely over his liver-spotted scalp. He wears a monocle in an attempt to disguise the fact that his right eye is significantly larger than his left, but it really only serves to ruin his depth perception. He wears cardigans over dress shirts, the sleeves of which he keeps rolled up because they fall short of his wrists anyway. His fingers look like letter openers.

Ugly didn’t sneak up on Doctor Pengrove. Ugly has been with him since he was a boy, and he’s had decades to come to terms with it. His refuge is hypnosis. When he was sixteen he saw a hypnotist do a stage show at the county fair. What hooked him wasn’t the spectacle of the thing – the people clucking like chickens and talking to aliens – no, it was that first moment when the hypnotist put his hand on a woman’s shoulder and said, “Sleep.” With a word and a gesture, he closed her eyes. He made his words the only thing that mattered. And so Charles Pengrove taught himself hypnosis.

He went to college for Psychology. He got his PhD and got a job as a teacher, continuing his training all the while. With hypnosis, he could reach into peoples’ brains and tweak their controls. He could help people to see past prejudices, to be happy around him, to enjoy their lives. But all of that feels shallow now. He has a thick black book full of the phone numbers women have given him. He used to cross them out when he’d fucked them. He could still do it, if he wanted to, but there is no longer anything erotic for him about having sex with a hand puppet. He spends the time he used to spend at bars alone in his office, staring at his stuccoed ceiling, hypnotizing himself. He expands his awareness to the edges of the room, and gradually he formulates a system.

For years he’s used hypnosis as a way to get people to do what he wants them to do, but now he realizes that there is a far deeper array of settings he can adjust. With a carefully planned hypnotic regimen, he can transform an ordinary student into a politician, or an inventor, or an actress. Anything they want to be, he can make them the best at it. By optimizing their minds for the task at hand, by removing all the clutter, he can create the perfect students. And so he does. He trawls his classes for candidates, for students desperate with dreams. He induces trances, and he shows them photographs and plays recordings, and embeds packages of data deep within their psyches. He is the common denominator in all the great figures of his era’s cultural revolution. But just like before, with the women in the bars, no one knows it is Professor Pengrove who is responsible for these things. To know would break the spell.

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