Monday, October 18, 2010

A Town Without Pity

A Midwestern town. You know it's name. You were born there.

It's Halloween... and getting on toward dark. Things are the same as they've always been. There's the main street, the old brick church in the town square, the movie theater -- this year with a Vincent Price double-bill. And past all that is the road that leads out of town. It's black as a licorice whip under an October sky, black as the night that's coming and the long winter nights that will follow, black as the little town it leaves behind.

Those are the first two paragraphs of my Halloween novel, Dark Harvest. And now that the new mass-market paperback edition is out, I'm starting to get some familiar emails again. The ones that ask what part of the Midwest I'm from. The ones that assume I must come from a small town to have written a book populated with cornfields, and two-lane blacktop roads that run straight as the path of a bullet, and plenty of dead ends.

And that's kind of flattering, for a couple reasons. First off, I'm from a blue-collar town in the San Francisco Bay Area. Second, a lot of these emails come from folks who grew up in Midwestern towns and are surprised when they find out where I'm from. They often tell me that I captured the vibe of a small town just right -- at least when it comes to the dark side.

That makes me feel pretty good. As a writer, it means I did my job. Part of the trick to telling stories is learning to inhabit places (and people) that aren't part of your experience. In some ways, learning to do a good job of that is just learning to pay attention -- to people, to places, to everything. There's another part of the trick that is just as important, but I can't quite put a name to it. It falls somewhere between empathy and acting, or at least the facility actors use to and live in a character's skin. And to tell the truth, that's one of those little mysteries about writing that I don't try too hard to understand. I'm afraid doing that might hijack the guts right out of the magic.

But some stuff... it's funny where it comes from. Like most creative folks from the boomer generation, a lot of my first impressions came from television. That includes small towns. As a suburban kid planted in front of the TV, I encountered lots of those -- most notably Andy Griffith's Mayberry. That imaginary corner of North Carolina probably set the template for me on what a small town was. It certainly set the template for what most boomer kids thought a small town should be.

Of course, I encountered other small towns as I grew a little older... some of them on the late, late show. One of those was a fenced-off corner of hell in a William Castle thriller called Macabre, which was probably one of the first "adult" horror/dark suspense movies I ever saw.

People always talk about the gimmicks in Castle's movies, but there was a lot more to them than that. Castle's films always bothered me as a kid -- not so much the monsters, but the people who showed up along with them. As a kid, I couldn't quite figure those people out. The House on Haunted Hill worked that way, and so did The Tingler. I loved the monster in the latter, was scared to death of it. But the people in that movie really bothered me. I didn't understand them, or what they did, or why. As a kid, they were out of my reach, the way some adults were when I heard them talking while they didn't realize I was listening... and that made them scary, too.

Macabre was about a kidnapped child in a small town. An anonymous phone caller claimed the little girl had been buried alive, and the folks looking for the girl only had five hours to find her before her oxygen ran out. Of course, this amped up the suspense to a pretty wild degree. The movie riveted me, and it made me really uneasy at the same time. Because the town in Macabre was the same as all the other small towns I saw on television -- at least it looked that way on the surface. It could have passed for Mayberry. But this town and the people in it were... well, different. As the story progressed, there seemed to be more to each character than I first imagined -- from the doctor whose daughter had been kidnapped, to the rich grandfather, to the crazy blind girl, and even the town cop.

It was the cop who bothered me most. He was played by Jim Backus, who for most of us boomers was forever the Millionaire on Gilligan's Island. In other words, Backus was an overblown blustering puffball. But not in Macabre, he wasn't. He wasn't anything like Andy Griffith, either. Backus played a guy with secrets of his own, and a score to settle, and a gun and a badge that would let him do it. And he could turn from smiling and friendly to mean as a rattlesnake in about on tick of the clock. For me, that was a kind of scary I'd never encountered, and it was just one more thing about the movie that set me on edge (as did the ending, a dark twist which took me completely by surprise as a kid).

I thought about Macabre for a long time after seeing it. It really made me uncomfortable. And it gave me my first inkling that maybe there was another side to small towns and the people in them, a darker side that you wouldn't find in places like Mayberry.

Of course, I was just a kid when I encountered Mayberry and the the town in Macabre. As I grew older, other stories amplified that notion, including Ray Bradbury's darker work and the small-town noir novels I devoured after college. That's some of what I had inside me when I set out to build a Midwestern town with plenty of secrets in Dark Harvest.

But while I knew creating that town was important, I understood that creating the people in it was the primary thing that would bring the town to life. There was my own bad cop (Jerry Ricks), and a kid named Pete McCormick who was on the run with a stolen .45 in his hand, and all the folks trapped in a town they can never escape. The same was true when it came to inventing the monster that haunted every one of them -- the walking scarecrow known as the October Boy. And it wasn't watching television that helped me with those little problems. Living was what gave me the ability to create the characters in Dark Harvest.

That's the only way you really learn about people... and monsters. For me, one of the most important parts of writing effective fiction is learning to trust what you know and trust your worldview, and let that guide your story. Transfer that to paper, and it's what gives the page a heartbeat. That brings a story (and the people in it) alive.

Do the job right, and you can bring a small town to life, too.

Even if you're a guy who's never lived in one.