Any writer attempting to complete a thriller in our way-wacko year of 2020 had to face a rather high bar.
I watched in disbelief as the Covid pandemic progressively gobsmacked our entire globe. Oh, good grief. First, of course, I felt empathy for the massive suffering. Second, I felt fear and an overwhelming (if befuddled) urge to do all I could to protect myself and my beloveds.
But since I’m a storyteller, eventually I got around to: How could any aspiring scribbler concoct a disaster to top what we’re already going through?
“Came A Horseman” was a novel manuscript I needed to wrap up about halfway through 2020. So, design of a fictional disaster was no mere academic issue.
I’d planned to give my “Horseman” novel some aspects of the mystery and thriller genres. So far, so good. But its main thrust was going to be presentation of a Western tale in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Coming up with some sort of global demolition derby setting awarded me a problem of historic dimensions. What sort of credible, history-altering event should I devise?
Shuffling Past Disasters
A plague? Welp, I think a classic rejoinder, “Been there, done that,” settles the hash of that topic. To probe a drama of fellow humans wrestling with life-or-death issues of health and immunity, one need only flip (or click) through a few pages of current news. Besides, with families suffering personal tragedies right and left, whilst heroic front-line care-providers fought wretched burn-out? How dare I fictionalize that? It would smack of ice-cold exploitation.
Plus, in this case, reality was clearly able to outstrip my imagination. And I didn’t want to even think about how much worse things might get.
So, I wasn’t about to go there. However, where else should I head?
What may one say of so many other threadbare clichés of disaster fiction – your flamboyant asteroid strikes, shambolic zombie attacks, pyroclastic world wars, invasion by hordes of drooling aliens, and so on – except, “Yawn!”
Overuse has transformed many a disaster plot detonator into a soggy squib.
I wanted my apocalypse to be theoretically possible – thus educational. Once one visualizes something that might truly happen, one may then take certain steps. I also wanted it to be rare – and therefore unalarming. I mean, why add to our general angst? As a society wrestling with a pandemic, we already had way too much angst underway.
Beyond these considerations, my fictional mayhem also had to be dramatic – a phenom big enough to smack humanity’s reset button. I bear no particular animus against modern technology, although I’m a tardy adopter. Still, I do harbor one major complaint: I think modern tech often insulates us from an array of hard, natural facts.
Dawn Breaks on Marble Head
So, I wished my global disaster to be something that could shove us back to an earlier and much simpler era, where physical skills and face-to-face encounters made all the difference.
I reckoned I’d finally hit the jackpot when I twigged to solar flares. I began to study the characteristics of flares in general, and the Carrington Event of 1859 in particular. That was a massive double blast of ionized plasma that plastered the Earth in both hemispheres. The Carrington made sparks dance along telegraph wires, flames shoot out of telegraph keys, and pushed vivid displays of the Northern Lights as far south as Miami.
Other than such minor pyrotechnic displays, humanity was left largely unmolested. Prior to the Civil War, please note, electronic tech was in a rather primitive state. Not so very far removed from Benjamin Franklin’s wet kite string and brass key. Civilization back then harvested its power from equines, sail, steam, and – so sadly – slavery. The world then was lit by flickering flames from kerosene, coal-gas, whale oil and beeswax. So, the Carrington put on quite the show, yet it didn’t yank the rug out from under our feet.
Results can vary, and they’d be rather different now.
There’s a reason we shield our microchips when we send them into outer space. If we didn’t, radiation would fry them. But we never think about outer space shoving its way down to visit us. Which it can. That’s essentially what occurs when a big blast of solar radiation compresses earth’s magnetic field – our planet’s primary shield – and then thoroughly douses us in primal energy.
If a Carrington – or, God help us, a coronal mass ejection even larger – smacked into us now, transformers would blow. Our beloved electronics, in every item from phones to cars and computers, would all instantly turn into oddly shaped paperweights of varying heft. Many would mourn, of course, and succumb to despair. But the smart ones would waste no time revitalizing the skills and tools of earlier eras, just to survive.
By invoking a massive flare, my story could hit reset, and design humanity a fresh gameboard.
However, I didn’t wish to merely roam scorched earth. By which I mean, I didn’t want to tell a tale set mid-disaster. Again, a seriously overused narrative device. A clumsy way to create plot tension is to plunge the reader into situations that are sordid or fraught or both. I didn’t want to drop readers smack-dab in the middle of a catastrophe. You know, with women screaming, buildings toppling, children screaming, fires erupting, men screaming, planes crashing, cats screaming, tornadoes whirling, even butterflies screaming…. And so on. Scenes such as that are by now all shopworn clichés.
Pages crammed with descriptive mayhem suck up way-y too much space that a writer could otherwise deploy for clever plot machinations, nifty dialog or intriguing character development. In other words, for far more interesting writing.
Consequently, I set my story for ten years after the catastrophe, when much of the dust and ash has settled and humanity has begun to cope and adapt. That’s where the real meat of a story lies, in our reactions. The weak and the freaked are largely out of the picture. The stout and the canny remain. Their interactions shall tell the tale.
In “Came A Horseman,” people dub the solar outburst that reset their game board either the Fire-Flare or The Reckoning. Since they’ve been disempowered of all e-devices, they seek to re-empower by applying techniques and tools of the past. Horses for hauling and transport. Bows, spears and stone hammers for weapons. Buckskin and crude textiles for clothing. Gardens planted for survival, not as mere hobby.
Such a scenario makes for a homey atmosphere. And the big advantage for a storyteller is – if problems can’t be solved by applying a quick dose of technology – the more venerable skills of human perception, thought, and physical movement become paramount.
Imagine what the original MacGyver TV series would’ve been like if Angus was geared-up with an iPhone 12! We would not have seen what that shaggy-haired lad could pull off with a paperclip, a length of string and a wee dab of glue.
Similarly, in my alternative history of this near future, personality, brains and sheer guts and inventiveness come to count far more than whether a character has the latest gizmo. My main character, one Kyle Skander, can’t phone up a buddy for help, and he can’t summon Door Dash for a meal. He must make new friends among the strangers where he finds himself, right after he crashes his sea kayak on the shore of a remote valley whilst trying to flee San Francisco and paddle home to a town near Oregon.
Such a set-up allows me to underscore another theme. It may sound cerebral but it’s truly visceral, and a theme pivotal to the plot: What mindset does a person need to not only survive but thrive amid a rough time? That theme is what I hope makes the story of “Came A Horseman” relevant and useful to readers in this bizarre pandemic period in which we happen to find ourselves.
The same set-up also grants me a chance to have a bit of fun. In my brave, new world of the future-past, there aren’t any detectives, in fact no law enforcement whatsoever. So, when Kyle finds himself suspected of murder, and next he’s forced to find the real killer to prove his innocence, he must become an amateur sleuth in a changed world. Since he was a philosophy teacher before the Flare, it helps that he’s already quite logical, objective and methodical.
But the true ace up this guy’s sleeve is that, back at his old college, he once ran a mystery-and-thriller, book-and-movie club. Thus, he fully grasps the means-motive-opportunity triad, and he knows a few tricks of interrogation and other investigative tips that any attentive reader might acquire from deep immersion in crime fiction.
This is Kyle’s chance to try that stuff out in the real world, see if he can make it work.
Sometimes, if you learn from history, and you must repeat it as well, it can be a good thing!
A different version of this essay just ran in the spring issue of Janet Rudolph’s globally popular Mystery Readers Journal. To find out more about the Journal, her organization and the Macavity Awards, go to https://mysteryreaders.org/