Within the trade paperback of A Head Full of Ghosts, William Morrow published an extensive liner notes section in which I went chapter by chapter explaining some of the references, nods, inspirations for the novel. So, why not do the same or similar for Disappearance at Devil’s Rock? So I am. And I’m going to leave it up here on ye olde blog.
So many of my novels have been inspired by and/or were reactions to other works (AHFoG wears its influence on its sleeves (Yes it has sleeves), The Little Sleep: The Big Sleep and Raymond Chandler (obviously) and No Sleep Till Wonderland: The Long Goodbye). DaDR is no different, and being a novel partly inspired by New England folktales and folklore, of stories that interconnect and interact, here’s a brief list below of other works that inspired and informed Disappearance at Devil’s Rock.
YEAH, SPOILERS BELOW. Don’t read unless you’ve already read the book or don’t plan on reading it. Or do what you want really. I’m not here to tell you what to do…
You can read Michael Calia’s WSJ Speakeasy blog for more about the novel’s genesis. But basically I started off with a teen going missing and a place, Borderland State Park. It’s a place I’ve been visiting for going on seventeen years now. See this post for my photos and the like. I renamed the town of Easton as Ames, otherwise, the geography of the area and park is as described in the novel. Including Split Rock. Although, Split Rock doesn’t have the gnarly tree on top. That tree is on another unnamed boulder in the park. I just moved it over a little.
No, it’s not a Hardy Boys mysteries title…. This is the first novel I have ever started writing without a title in hand. I started off calling it, simply, ‘Borderland.’ But I knew that wasn’t a good title and wouldn’t work. It was a place holder.
Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of three Australian films that heavily influenced the novel. A bunch of private school girls go on a trip to Hanging Rock at the edge of the outback, and some of them disappear, as does a chaperone. If you think my books are maddeningly ambiguous, try the wonderful Weir film. There’s barely a hint of an answer as to what happened. But the general unease (doubly impressive given how well-lit and sunlight splashed the film is…the light itself becomes trippy, hallucinogenic, creepy) and feel of the film is just brilliant.
So Disappearance at Devil’s Rock it became. Hardy Boys be damned.
Being the parent of a teen (and a second teen on the way to teen-ness), the fear of losing one is high up on my list of fears, and it’s where I started with the novel. I made sure that Tommy Sanderson was not in any way like my son, though, in an effort to detach from some of the fear/anxiety. It worked, mostly. Tommy was instead modeled after a kid who lives down the street. (Sorry kid who lives down the street). That said, Cole was my Minecraft consultant.
The “hardo” and “chirps” lingo the boys use is what the kids at my school used circa 2014 to now.
Friend and brilliant writer, Stewart O’Nan published his Songs for the Missing in 2008. I even got to read with Stewart at the KGB bar in Manhattan as a part of that book’s tour. He floored the room with his reading from this harrowing, brilliant novel about an almost-to-college aged girl not coming home from work one night. The novel is an almost unbearingly too-realistic portrayal of what happens to the parents and a sibling and friends and the town when a young person is taken away. I’ve only read the novel once (because it was so much to take emotionally), but I knew instantly that I wanted to treat Tommy’s disappearance with a similar weight, gravitas, and melancholy. In this way, the novel has a similar tone to the movie Lake Mungo (more on that…later)
When I was a little kid, there was a small period of time where an older kid, a teen named Vito wanted to hang out with me. I remember not knowing why such an older and cool kid wanted to hang out with me, but I loved it. Made me feel so much older and important. We of course did some dangerous stuff that I shouldn’t have been doing (mostly playing with fire and messing around with trashed wood and nails and such). The friendship didn’t last long. I know my parents weren’t happy about it existing in the first place and likely were relieved when the older kid stopped hanging out with me. I know because I’ve been hesitant to allow my daughter to hang out with another girl who is four years older. Those four years are a bridge over a canyon when they span puberty.
So enter the mysterious older boy Arnold into the novel.
I read a bunch of true-crime accounts of men coercing others into violent acts. Just awful stuff. But these two fictional tales, and one movie based on a true story, were the biggest influences on Arnold.
Joyce Carol Oates’s famous short story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” (also adapted into a film called Smooth Talk) was a formative, life-changing short story for me. (read this essay, if you wish!) I named my mysterious, may-or-may-not-be-the-devil stranger after hers. And yeah, his Snapchat handle was Arnoldfrnd (so clever, right?). I was pleased that Terrance Rafferty and the NYT picked up on that!
Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant and disturbing Child of God was another book that helped to inspire bits of Arnold and his character. Particularly Lester Ballard’s proclivity to crawl around caves in the woods.
Based on a horrific true story, The Snowtown Murders (another Australian film) is one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. A movie that I will only see once. In it, a strange, charismatic man befriends his girlfriend’s totally messed teenage son and convinces/bullies/coerces the kid into unspeakable acts.
What did Tommy see in the woods and/or Elizabeth in her bedroom? Hell, if I know for sure…
There are a whole slew of apocryphal doppelganger stories floating around out there, and I mentioned a few in the novel. My favorite fictional use of the doppelganger is in the film Lake Mungo. Such a quiet, clever, melancholy movie about a family dealing with the drowning death of their teenage daughter, and there’s a genuinely moving and frightening doppelganger reveal toward the end. The movie shares so much in tone and feel with the O’Nan novel as well. It’s the slow build and aching realism that makes Mungo so effective.
The story of Devil’s Rock in the novel is presented as a long-ago folktale, one typical of puritan New England. I wanted to juxtapose that with our own modern, version. Tommy’s drawing of the shadowy-maybe-doppelganger goes viral with sightings (real or imagined) of a shadowman peeking in windows and bedrooms all over town and then the drawing and name trends as a hashtag on Twitter and is then being argued over on social media sites and news shows by vapid talking heads.
Slenderman is our 21st century version of those devil-in-the-woods folktales, complete with hysteria and controversy surrounding the tale/figure (and of course, a near tragedy perpetrated in his name). I wanted Tommy’s shadowman to fill that Slenderman role and be juxtaposed with the Devil’s Rock story. Or maybe it verifies the Devil’s Rock story?