Isolation: A Suspense Writer’s Best Friend
A curtain of silence over the city. Empty streets criss-crossing the landscape. Shuttered storefronts and pedestrian-free sidewalks. Furtive, nervous looks from the scattered few venturing out in the open.
A scene from a Stephen King novel? An episode of The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling lingering in the shadows, solemnly narrating the worldwide catastrophe that’s just transpired? Unfortunately, folks, no.
This is the world we actually live in as of this writing (April 2020). National leaders warning their citizens to hole up at home. Medical professionals running the gamut of opinion over the global health crisis, from overblown, borderline hoax to prophesying the end of the status quo. Life will either return to normal very soon; or nothing will ever be the same again.
What to believe? Take your pick. Your mileage may vary.
So, in such uncertain times, what do people do? How do people respond to insecurity on such a massive scale?
Well, I can’t speak for other professions. Perhaps clergy and philosophers and economists have particular outlooks beyond my purview. I can’t even speak for most writers. We’re not some bloc of group thinkers that all cast ballots to see where we fall on some spectrum of thought.
But I can tell you what I do–how I think, how I feel–during such bleak times, as both a writer of dark fiction, and a human being. The crime-slash-suspense-slash-horror writer deals with bleakness every time he or she sits in front of their keyboard, or, if a bohemian streak runs through them, opens the notebook and takes up the pen.
Waking to silence for me puts me in mind of the detective walking up to the murder scene for the first time. Or the witness stumbling upon the knife-wound scarred or bullet riddled body. That heavy quietude when bearing witness to death recently delivered.
The empty streets and abandoned business plazas brings to my mind’s eye the deserted alleys or vacant lots after a shootout between lawmen and criminals. When the rogue seeker of justice has tracked his quarry to their shadowy den of lies and deceit.
For the true writer, the profession isn’t just a hobby. The mindset isn’t something to be turned on or off with the flip of a switch. It’s always on. The imagination is always working, the gears always turning. There’s no other way to function. It isn’t a choice. It’s hardwired into you. Something deep set, biological, like a genetic coding.
The vengeful parent looking for retribution after the judicial system has failed them; the world-weary homicide detective bending the rules for the very same reason; speak to you whether you want them to or not. And, so too, the villains. The human trafficker; the murderer; the cartel or mob enforcer.
The suspense writer’s mind attracts these characters with an inexplicable magnetism as ever present and eternal as the earth’s own gravity. You pull them to you–or is it them pulling you their way? Is there a difference? Either way, the result is the same.
Whether self imposed isolation or that of external circumstances, as we’re all experiencing today, the suspense writer finds himself in the presence of a friend. Maybe not a friend you were expecting. Perhaps not even a friend you particularly wanted to see. But they arrive on your doorstep all the same.
And you open the door…
And you let them in…
And the story comes to you. You give in to it. You allow this grim world to blossom darkly to life around you. The thief and the killer come to you. But, also, following them, the fighter, the survivor.
With their struggles is also a light. Dim at first, but with vigilance and nurturing, like a campfire stirred by flint and sticks, capable of growing brighter. A spark, then a flame.
The writer of dark fiction understands this. In fact, he or she knows there is no escaping it. There’s no use running from it. Run, turn a corner, duck behind a tree. It doesn’t matter. The dark stalker will find you. Brandish their weapon–gleaming knife or dull, heavy gun–and commit their crime.
So, instead of running, why not turn, face the relentless pursuer, and embrace the struggle? Fight the good fight, whether you win or lose.
I believe it was Stephen King who once said, “Life isn’t a support system for art, it’s the other way around.” That’s as true now as it’s ever been. In isolation, there’s potential. For the writer, and for everyone.
To get to the light, you have to brave the darkness.
As in fiction, so too in life. The greatest story of all.
Seth C. Adams is the bestselling writer of the novels IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS, and ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? (5/5/20) published by HarperCollins. Raised on Marvel comics, horror fiction, The Twilight Zone, and other genre entertainment unsuitable for an impressionable young mind, Seth knew he wanted to tell stories at a young age. With a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Riverside, and a Master’s in North American History from Arizona State University, as an adult he’s learned that real life is indeed often stranger–and more frightening–than fiction. Currently residing in Arizona, he is always working on, or thinking about, his next story.