Have you ever felt like you were being watched? Or felt like evil was hanging around, waiting for you?
Last week I finished the edits on a short story, Five Revelations Concerning Jenny L. As Told to Maura C. by a Compassionate Angel, that will appear in Surreal South 2009. For days afterward, I was both reluctant to leave the house and afraid of staying home alone.
I’m not so easily spooked. Sure, I never leave belts or dry cleaning bags lying on the bed because someone might employ them in my death. And at night I jump into our bed from three feet away so nothing can reach out from beneath it and drag me to hell. But I don’t usually spend my days and nights fretting about the activities of the supernatural dark side of the universe, the prankster demons, ghosts lying in wait to exact revenge, or haunted houses. That’s the stuff that I’m compelled to write about. I get to imagine it and have some modicum of control over it. When one of my characters commits murder or some other heinous act, my heart beats faster and I tend to giggle with perverse delight as I type–I never freak out or worry that what’s happening on the page could happen to me.
Not so with Five Revelations. It’s not a true crime story. It is, however, loosely inspired by the horrific home-invasion murder of an entire Virginia family. (Several other innocents were also killed during the murderers’ six week “spree.”) My characters definitely are not meant to resemble either the perpetrators or the victims of that crime. It’s the senselessness of the crime that struck me. The randomness.
If you read crime news at all, you know that most murders are committed by family members or people well-known to the victims: estranged lovers, maintenance or repair men, teachers, sons or daughters. They are–by some stretch of the imagination–predictable.
It’s randomness that will get you, though. It’s the PCP addict looking for something, anything, to sell. It’s the young gangbanger looking for cred. It’s the woman willing to kill another woman just to get the child in her belly. You never see that stuff coming. It just happens. It lives in the realm of statistics–Either you’re lucky or you’re not.
The Virginia murders happened in Richmond in 2006, just months before we left Roanoke. At the time, I didn’t want to know the minute details of the crime. But I thought about it and fretted about it long after the murderers were caught. It sank into my subconscious and waited there until it metamorphosed into something besides a tragic event that had happened a little too close to home. The grain of the story combined with a thousand other things and became something new in the world.
I was able to handle the horror of the original crime while I was writing the story. For me, a story is about listening. It’s not a process I can explain well. I see stories–as well as most things I conceive or plan–as having physical parameters, definite shapes. I simply discover what those shapes are and follow them. (Yes, I know that sounds a little crazy.) It’s almost like following an unfamiliar map. I’m usually too busy following the map to worry over the blood splatters along the way.
When I finished Five Revelations, I wanted to go back and look at some of the specifics of the actual crime just to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently named the people involved similarly. But when I Googled the story, I fell into it completely. I read everything available on it. My characters weren’t similar at all, and I discounted that worry quickly. Still, I was hooked. I couldn’t look away until I had read every terrifying detail.
I nearly scared myself to death. Why? Because it easily could have been my family. I wanted to know the facts so I could protect myself and the people I love. I wanted some control over the chaos. There’s a theory that says we’re drawn to stare at highway accidents because they can teach us how not to die in a fiery crash. We ostensibly learn from others’ mistakes. Sure, we can learn. But ultimately we have no control over random occurrences. They’re equally likely to get either of us.
In writing the story, I had to plug into random, thoughtless evil. There’s a reason I don’t usually mess with Ouija boards or fortunetelling. They open me up in a way that scares the hell out of me. I have to do it from time to time, and I hope my stories are better for it. It’s a hell of an exciting way to make a living.
I wasn’t sure the feeling of being watched was ever going away. In the end, I spent six delightful hours at the DuQuoin State fair and then watched several old episodes of Scrubs and Masterpiece Mystery. I feel much better now.
Next: I’ll be writing about obsession and how it can be a very good thing. A warning, though. This path leads straight to Wal-Mart. Ha!