Why I Write the Dark Stuff

In my day job I’m a patrol supervisor for the San Antonio Police Department, working the west side of town.  The police officers who make the calls, who make the arrests, who keep the peace in the busiest part of the city, they work for me.  I’m the one they call when they have crime scenes that need managing, or when something just doesn’t look right.

What that means is that I get to see a lot of dead bodies.  And I mean a lot of them.

Like last week.  One of my officers called because he had a decomp (police parlance for a body that’s been rotting in place for a good long while) and he wasn’t sure if it was suicide or homicide.  So I showed up to the apartment and there was the dead guy, seated on the floor (or almost on the floor; his butt was about two inches off the carpet).  He had a noose around his neck, though you could barely see it because his skin was so bloated and gummy with rot that it had sort of oozed over the rope.

“So, what do you think?” the officer asked.

“Suicide,” I told him.

“But he’s sitting down.  Wouldn’t he have rolled over or something when he started to choke?  That’s like an instinct or something, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said.  “What you’re looking at is an act of will power.  If you want to do something bad enough, you’ll see it through.”

He looked from me to the body and shook his head.

“Besides,” I added, “look at all that medication in there in his bathroom.  Those drugs are for hepatitis and cancer.  He did this because he was hurting pretty bad.  And look up there.”  I pointed to the ceiling where our dead guy had nailed the rope to the rafter.  “He did that because he didn’t want the rope to slip off.  And look at where he chose to do this, here in the bedroom, so his relatives coming in the front door wouldn’t have to see him.  I bet if you look around here you’ll find a note.  Probably in the other room, out of sight of the bedroom.”

The officer nodded.

We both stood there, staring at the body.  The apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and it felt like standing inside an oven, even though it was the middle of the night.  The smell was really bad.

The officer kind of chuckled and said, “So Sarge, I guess this is one for your next book, huh?”

I offered him a bland smile.  Cops develop their gallows humor long before they learn that it’s actually a defense mechanism against the horror of confronting your own mortality, and this officer was one of the young ones.  He still had a lot to learn.

“Go look for the note,” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

When he was gone I found myself looking into that suicide’s face and sighing.  The suicides always get to me. Something about standing in the presence of someone so desperate to take control of their pain and their emotional devastation that they would resort to this makes me feel numb.

In the other room, the young officer was clumsily knocking around.  Something fell over and broke.  I almost called out to him to be careful, but held my tongue.  You see, my mind had drifted from my day job to my night job.  I was thinking about what he’d said about my next book.  So many people seem to have that opinion about horror, and about zombie fiction in particular.  To them, a book about shambling dead things eating the living must be nothing but gratuitous violence and gore.  What else could it be?

Well, I take exception to that.

I started writing because I was scared of the future.  My wife and I had just gotten married.  Then we had a daughter, and the world suddenly seemed so much more complex.  In the wink of an eye, I went from a carefree young cop – a lot like the one in the other room knocking stuff over – to a man with more responsibilities than he could count.  I had obligations and commitments coming at me from every angle.

I’d been writing stories for a good long while at that point, starting sometime in my early teens, but never with the intention of doing anything about them.  I would write them out on a yellow legal pad, staple the finished pages together, and leave them on the corner of my desk until the next idea came to me.

Never once did it occur to me to do something with what I’d written.  I just threw those stories away and forgot them.  But then came adulthood, and parenthood, and I found myself groping to put the world in order, to regain some of the control I felt I had lost.  I realized that writing could help me with that.  I realized that I could focus my anxieties and make something useful of them.

And so I started writing a science fiction novel.  It was a big space opera epic, and it was pure trash.  Every word of it was awful.

The reason?  Well, it wasn’t authentic.  It wasn’t me.

The real me, the kid who sat at his desk filling up yellow legal pads rather than going out bike riding with his friends, was a horror junkie.  I was crazy for the stuff.  Horror was my first literary love, and I figured seeing as love was what drove me to return to writing that I should write what I love. I was feeling like the world was rushing at me from every side, so I wrote a zombie story about characters who had the living dead rushing in at them from every side.  That’s when things started to click.  That’s when it all made sense.

But it wasn’t just that simple.  You see, I sincerely believe that fear is the most authentic, and the most useful, emotion available to the storyteller.  It is as vital as love, and indeed, gives love its profundity, for what makes love, and family, and everything we treasure so valuable but the fear that it could all be taken away in the blink of an eye.  For me, fear goes far beyond monsters.  It is the catalyst for my creative process, and without that creative process, I’m afraid I would wither up inside.  I’m not saying I’d end up like that suicide I just told you about if I couldn’t write anymore, nothing that melodramatic, but absence of that creative outlet would be a hole that nothing else could fill.

So that’s why I write the dark stuff.

A Quick Note on Police Procedure for Writers

Last night, I was reading a novel by a highly respected horror author and I noticed a basic mistake that I see over and over again.  In this novel, which is a sequel to another very good book, a small town has been decimated by vampires.  Of the original 430 residents of this small town, only a dozen are left alive at the beginning of the sequel.  The town’s sheriff was killed in the first book, and the second book starts off with a replacement sheriff coming into the community to take over as the top law enforcement officer.  This new sheriff is of course curious about what happened to all the people, and sets out to solve the mystery.  But unfortunately for the new sheriff, the town’s vampire problem is far from over.

That sounds good, right?

I thought so.  It’s an excellent set up for a sequel.

However, for me at least, the effectiveness of the story was compromised by the glaring mistakes in police procedure.  And I’m not talking about the minutae of investigations and paperwork, either.  I’m talking about the broad brush strokes, the big picture.  And it’s all the more frustrating for me as I know this author.  I’ve had dinner with him.  We’ve talked police procedure before.  This mistake would have been easy to correct.

Well, I can’t do anything for him now, but I can help any future authors out there looking to stick a sheriff into their story.  What follows is a quick and dirty guide to sheriffs, police chiefs, and state police, and when to use them.  I hope it helps you.

I have written before on the critical role police procedure plays in horror stories, but it’s a point that profits from repeating.  Many horror stories are plotted as tales of discovery.  We generally start off with one person (or sometimes a small group) crossing from the comfort of normal existence into a strange and ominous new setting.  This can involve the protagonist traveling to a new place, such as going into the woods or breaking down in a small, weird little town, or by having their familiar world made sinister and claustrophobic by the introduction of some evil force that comes to them, such as having a bloodthirsty vampire coming to town or by having a killer stalking the babysitter.  Once the evil is introduced, a period of discovery ensues.  Here, the character, or characters, begin to realize what they’re up against.  Perhaps they learn the secret that will help them fight the monster, or perhaps they will learn how truly screwed they really are.  Either way, this is the part of the story where the protagonist starts to feel alienated.  The police are a great way to accentuate this isolation.  Consider how easily a horror story would fall apart if the protagonist could simply go to the local cops and say, “There’s a giant gelatinous blob eating the town!” and be believed.  Our protagonist could then step back and let the police do all the work.  But we know from years of reading and watching creature feature flicks that this never happens.  The police either can’t or won’t believe the protagonists, which drives the characters further into isolation and ramps up the scares.  The only thing left for our protagonists to do is resolve the matter on their own, each according to their wits.

The police generally fall into a sort of negative role in horror fiction…or, put another way, have a tendency to become lesser antagonists.  As the authority figure that refuses to provide the needed assistance, they become part of the evil, or another brick in the wall the protagonist must overcome, to borrow a Pink Floydism.  They can even be their own worst enemy, as in the novel that prompted this post.  For example, everything a cop does is a matter of public record.  As the strong arm of the law, a free and just society has every reasonable expectation to know the things the police do in their name.  Furthermore, because a police report to some degree validates an event (i.e. the murder or burglary or car crash or whatever really did happen because it’s contained in a police report), the police fall into the role of fact makers.  But what happens when the very character responsible for reporting the facts confronts something that simply can’t be?  If our protagonist is a police officer, he not only becomes alienated from authority, but from the very authority of which he is a part.  It makes for great drama.

But how do you know what type of cop to use?  Well, hopefully, the following matrix will help answer that question.  And, as always, feel free to write me in the comments section with specific questions.  I’ll try to get you the right answer.

Title How they get their job The extent of their authority Specific duties
Sheriff Elected Top law enforcement officer in the county; jurisdiction throughout their county Manages the jail; in charge of constables; manages court bailiffs and security; conducts criminal investigations; in some counties acts as head of the local militia
Police Chief Appointed by elected municipal-level officials Top law enforcement officer in the town or city where they work; jurisdiction in their municipality Enforces city, county and state laws through criminal investigations
State Police Appointed by elected state-level officials State-wide jurisdiction to include the state capital and ports Manages state crime labs; highway patrol; license and weight regulations for commercial carriers; conducts independent criminal investigations and supports local and county investigations when requested; manages licensing of drivers
Game Wardens Depends on the state, but generally appointed by elected state-level officials State-wide, though usually they are divided into regions within a state; the only law enforcement officer with the legal authority to conduct searches without a search warrant Responsible for enforcing fish and game laws; may also have full police powers of arrest, to include traffic law, depending on the state
Constables Elected Usually limited to a particular precinct or region of a county; generally affiliated with the county sheriff The only law enforcement officer with the power to enforce civil process, such as evictions; conducts independent criminal investigations
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