In the past I've written about some of the experiences I've had that may have contributed to the writer I'm still learning to become, particularly a writer working in crime fiction. One of the kicks to writing THE DEAD ROOM is the novel's setting in Philadelphia and the suburbs about fifteen miles out from Center City. This was where I grew up. In the novel, a young civil attorney, Teddy Mack, is forced by his boss to represent a man who may have committed multiple murders. Because Teddy is essentially broke, he still lives with his mother. In one chapter, Teddy stands at the end of the driveway gazing at the falling snow and the garish development of oversized houses across the street. It's the dead of night and he can remember a time, just as I can remember a time, when open fields and country roads snaked through the rolling hills all the way to the horizon.
One day when I was a young boy a rumor began circulating among my friends. Apparently, a girl's body had been found in a shallow grave beneath a small grove of pine trees. The gravesite was on a lonely road a mile or so from my house. The man who found the girl's body had been collecting pine cones with his dog. The dog caught a scent in the earth, became excited and started digging. I have no facts on this murder. I was way too young, eleven or twelve. But in my mind I can still see the girl's hair strewn through the soil. For whatever reason, I see long reddish brown hair. I can see it as if I was there.
Later that night I spoke with my parents and learned that the rumors were in fact true. A girl had been murdered and buried under the trees. A teenage girl, I believe. The news had an incredibly heavy impact on me, and I remember becoming terrified. The road where the dead girl had been found ran between two grass fields with no signs of barns or other homes for a good half mile. Worse, I traveled on that road every day. I rode my bicycle everywhere, and the only way to get to my friend's house was to ride past that grove of pine trees. My mother drove on that road everyday as well because that was the only way to get to the post office.
I can't tell you what it was like to ride past the crime scene and look beneath those trees with big, wide open eyes. The things that I made up in my head, seeing it all happen from a boy's imagination, the fear and panic that the world wasn't the safe place I had always thought it to be. Worse, there was a sexual component to the crime, or at least to my memory of the crime. My guess is now that she had been raped. At the time, the sexual implications were too deep for a boy my age to fully comprehend. All they seemed to do was make the crime more mysterious and more horrific.
It took me almost a year before I finally hit the brakes on my bicycle, lifted the tree branches, and went in for a look. I can remember being alone, my hands shaking, my heart beating. I can remember the shock I took when I noticed that the form of the shallow grave was still there. Still undisturbed. Images of the girl's hair radiating through the soil hit me again. I couldn't see her face, or the face of the killer. But I could feel the killer's madness, his sickness, just as I could feel the girl's last moments, the fear and terror she must have gone through. I could feel it in the air and all around me. The darkness lingering beneath the pine trees on this lonely road.
It was late afternoon and the sun was going down. My bike ride home was on the fast side. I didn't feel much like eating dinner that night, and went up to my room. I was too old to believe in ghosts, and yet, when the lights went out, there they were, hovering over my bed and keeping me from my sleep. I couldn't wait for dawn.