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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Confessions of a suspense junkie



I'm a big chicken about scary stories and tend to avoid them, unless you count Neil Gaiman's—some of his are rather spooky. When it comes to movies I prefer psychological thrillers to gore-fests. I became a fan of Alfred Hitchcock as a teen. His movies may seem tame and dated to contemporary audiences, but to me he's the master of suspense.

Hitchcock's Rear Window has one of my favorite movie moments of all times. The film is about a sports photographer, played by Jimmy Stewart, who's homebound with a broken leg. Out of boredom he spies on his neighbors through a telephoto lens. Soon he begins to suspect that the guy across the courtyard murdered his wife, and much intrigue ensues. The movie is shot entirely from Jimmy Stewart's point of view, so much so that sometimes we see directly what he does. Without realizing it, the viewer becomes the character on screen. At the moment when the suspect suddenly looks straight into the camera, he's looking at us, and it's truly shocking. Anyone watching it for he first time is guaranteed to be taken aback.

Books too, work best if you're so absorbed in the character that anything happening to them feels like it's happening to you.


Last Stop is one of those stories that came out of the blue, unplanned and unexpected. It started with a sentence I scribbled to demonstrate the difference between passive voice and past continuous tense. The sentence involved two men in a diner. That should've been the end of it, but the guys wouldn't leave me alone. I kept wondering who they were, what they were doing in the diner, and what would happen next. I gave them names, and soon I had their entire backstories in my head. Once I knew where they were coming from, it was easy to plot the story. Jay is a young guy with lots of older men in his past. Sam is older and he has a few very bad men in his. When Sam's past catches up with them, all hell breaks loose, and they have to run.

Excerpt
Sam and Mr. Drake were arguing. To be exact, Mr. Drake was going on about something, and Sam stood there looking at him sort of amused, like Drake was an overexcited Chihuahua gnawing at his boots. Ever since the almost shooting, things had been strained between them.

Jay decided to go ahead and wait for Sam in the parking lot. He was already strapping on his motorcycle helmet as he stepped through the back door. He sensed something amiss the moment he stepped outside, but it took him precious seconds to realize what it was—the powerful floodlight that normally lit Ombre’s parking lot was off, leaving the almost-empty lot shrouded in semidarkness. Jay instinctively took a step back toward the door, but it was too late—a couple of dark figures peeled out of the shadows.

“Why, hello there,” a voice rasped.

While Jay turned toward the source of the voice, the other guy came up behind Jay and stuck something hard between his ribs. Jay didn’t have the slightest doubt it was a gun.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” the man said.

Jay had the sudden and startling urge to giggle at such a clichéd movie line. He realized it was a nervous reaction. As his eyes got used to the darkness, he could make out the face of the other man. Jay recognized him immediately. It was the man who’d stopped at the diner months ago and given him the heebie-jeebies, the one Sam called Nicky Torino. The guy sticking a gun in his back had to be Gino then. The seconds felt like hours as they stood there, frozen in their places. Jay thought he should be doing something, but didn’t know what.

They all turned toward the door as it banged open and Sam stepped out. Sam took a step forward and froze. The door clacked closed behind him.

“Hello, Rob, nice to see you again,” Torino said in a voice that was cold steel wrapped in velvet.

Sam’s jaw clenched. “Nicky.”

“You know the drill, let’s go.” Torino motioned toward a black SUV with his gun.
Sam stood his ground. “Let the kid go. He’s got nothing to do with this.”

“Maybe I will, later. If you play nice. Now get moving.”

Jay knew with absolute certainty that Torino had no intention of letting either of them go. It was in Sam’s eyes too—Sam glared at Jay hard like he was trying to transmit a telepathic message. The gun jabbed hard into Jay’s back, so he started walking.

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