Lauren Beukes’ latest novel, The Shining Girls, is hot. How hot? So hot that even before US publication, it was snapped up by Leo DiCaprio’s production company to be made into a television series. Why is it so hot? Because Beukes is one of the best writers of speculative fiction working today, and The Shining Girls a fine example of just how good she is. And to what does she credit for the genesis of this latest book? Why, the Internet, of course!
Writers write – that’s the most important thing, getting those pesky words onto the page. But writers also mess around a lot on the Internet. And sometimes, just sometimes, that can pay off.
Take me, for example. I threw out the idea that I should write about a time-travelling serial killer during a bit of silly Twitter banter. And then quickly deleted the tweet because I realized I had to write that, right now, before someone else thought of it.
I had the image of a limping man giving a little girl an impossible toy that hadn’t been invented yet and a promise that he would be back to get it when she was grown up. I knew he had a house that opens onto other times that allows him to stalk young women through the decades. And I knew that when he did come back to find her to fulfill his promise, that she would survive and turn the hunt around.
It’s nice to have a strong premise to start with, but “serial killers” and “time travel” are two genres with a strong tradition, from Silence of The Lambs to Twelve Monkeys. I’m a big fan of the remix and the best mash-ups riff off the best things about the original and subvert them in a way that hopefully says something new or interesting.
Which meant, alas, I couldn’t write Bill & Ted’s Excellent Killing Spree from the dinosaurs to the Dark Ages with a stop-off in World War Two to kill Hitler. Although that would probably have been a lot of fun.
And in fact there would be no killing Hitler. Not in my universe.
Between grandfather paradoxes, multiverse theory and the natural inclinations of subatomic mesons, I opted for classic Greek tragedy-style fatalism. By trying to resist your fate, you put into action all the events that will ensure that it comes about. Throw in some loops and snarls and paradoxes, and hey, voila!
You know what else has loops and snarls and ugly echoes that come up again and again? History. Especially recent history.
Which is why I decided to contain the time travel over 60 years, from 1931 to 1993 (thereby specifically avoiding cell phones, the Internet, CCTV, Google Streetview and Reddit jumping on board to solve the mystery in two days flat)
There are obvious parallels in the book; the Great Depression of the 30s and our current recession, surveillance society and erosion of privacy in the name of the War on Terror, mirroring the tactics of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the fact that women’s right to control their own bodies is apparently still somehow up for question according to politicians. But I was also interested in how cities have reshaped around highways, how the world has changed and how we’ve adapted, how all of that explains who we are right now. I could do that through the eyes of my serial killer, Harper Curtis, who is too cynical to see anything but ruin and rot, but we can pull focus to see the bigger picture.
I read a lot, watched documentaries and YouTube videos, listened to oral histories, re-visited Chicago, where the novel is set, to location scout and interview insightful people from Chicago architects to criminal defense laywers, cops, historians, sports reporters and music journalists.
On the other side of this remix, I had to contend with the stereotype of the serial killer.
I tracked the killings very carefully across the timelines with a murder wall above my desk full of notecards and red string and evocative photographs of the eras; Harper’s killing timeline, which gets uglier and more elaborate as he goes on, jumping all over the place so his MO is impossible to track, the actual historical timeline, the totem objects he leaves behind on the bodies and the novel’s timeline, playing out between his story, Kirby, the survivor’s, and the young women of the title.
I also did a lot of research. It was a sad horror reading up on true crime cases. The banal reality is that serial killers are generally not the Chianti-sipping diabolically sophisticated Hannibal Lecter predators of our popular imagination. Most of them are vile and violent losers with impotence issues and very little insight into why they do what they do.
But despite the lack of inner life, in the news and in fiction, serial killers usually get more attention than their victims. There are so many dead girls. Dead girls every day. At worst, the young women are a bit of violent titillation, the gorgeous tragic blonde with glazed blue eyes and her dress rucked up to expose her stockings, lying with limbs akimbo in a spreading pool of blood, or chained up naked in a basement having her eyeball gouged out.
At best, they’re just one more piece in the bloody puzzle the detective has to solve. A tragic loss, especially one so young and beautiful, but we usually don’t get to know a whole lot about who she was before she was a corpse.
All of which meant I was much more interested in “the shining girls” Harper goes after than writing about him.
Killers often have a general type – which could be vulnerable people at risk, like sex workers or runaway kids, or much more specific, like Ted Bundy’s predilection for co-eds with brown hair and a middle parting.
But what if it wasn’t a physical type?
What if my killer was attracted to young women with a spark, who stood out in their time, who weren’t afraid to fight convention, or were still afraid, but pushed through anyway, who had fire in their guts and a burning curiosity and the desire to set the world alight. That would drive my killer insane. He would have to cut it out of them.
Trigger warning. There is cutting. The violence in the book is terse, but it is shocking. It’s supposed to be. Because real violence is shocking. And we shouldn’t forget that, what violence is, what it does to us, personally, and the ripples it sends out through society.
There’s a moment in the book where Kirby says, “How am I supposed to let this shit go?” pulling down the scarf she uses to hide the scar across her throat. And she’s right. How can we?
I dealt with it by narrating the attacks not from the killer’s perspective, riding on his shoulder, complicit, getting off on it, but from the victims’, the horror hung on a few terrible details right at the end of a chapter that has been all about their lives. We’re with them at the end, in the shock and pain and fear and outrage.
I tried to make it about the emotional impact. To make it real. I worked to make the women breathe on the page, so you would feel the loss of them. Not just as mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, but as people in their own right, from a young activist to a bohemian architect accused of being a dirty Red, an African American Rosie the Riveter war widow or a burlesque dancer who literally glows because she dances in radium paint and Kirby, the one who got away, but who has allowed her life to become derailed by the attack.
Ultimately it’s a story about obsession, free will and determinism; Harper’s compulsion to kill and Kirby’s obsession with finding him, being trapped by fate or kicking back against it.