The Man Behind the Tree

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Stephen King once said of Thomas Harris–author of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs–that, “the very act of writing for him is a kind of torment.”

I know very little of Thomas Harris’s well-guarded personal life (I understand he hasn’t given an interview since 1976), but over the years I’ve come to identify with what Stephen King has said about him. You see, when you write the kind of novels I write, you must constantly identify with evil characters. It’s something I used to think was a schlocky thing crappy writers would say. “You gotta get inside the minds of your characters and let them run the show.” Whatever. You just tell the story and that’s that.

Nah. It’s true. You do have to get inside the minds of your characters, good and bad, else they will come off as false to the reader.

It’s a sticky proposition. Essentially it means if you want to write about someone who may rape and kill, you have to think like a rapist and a killer.

It’s no wonder Harris was tormented, considering that he wrote about Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.

In a way it’s cathartic, though, because by the end of the book the bad guy usually gets his due. So conjuring him up, thinking like him for awhile, and then having your hero smash him into oblivion makes it all okay.

Maybe 😉

Still, though, there are strange moments. I had one of those moments this morning while working on my latest book. There’s a scene where and evil man must lure someone into his clutches with alcohol and the promise of more in the same way a pedophile might lure a child into his car with candy. I had to think about what it would take for a rationally-thinking adult to willingly go with someone who’s clearly a little off. I had to play both roles in my mind. In one instant I was the killer, tempting my victim, and in the next I was the victim sniffing around for clues as to why I should steer clear of this guy.

And then a memory came to me. It stopped me cold. I literally quit writing and walked away from the computer.

I believe I was thirteen at the time. I was in Florida with a friend whose family been kind enough to take me on vacation with them. My friend and I were just at that age where we were rapidly becoming aware of the adult world including sex, smoking, and booze.

We had spent the entire day at the beach, and in the fashion of the young and indefatigable we were still raring to go that night. In my mind it was really late, well after midnight, but I doubt my friend’s parents would have let us out of their sight so late, so I’m guessing it was closer 9 or 10 p.m. We left the hotel and were walking the shoreline in search of whatever trouble we could find.

The beach and all the little huts and pools of the other hotels were devoid of people. I believe this is why it seems so late in my mind. I can’t imagine such a lively area being so desolate that early in the evening, but nevertheless we were the only two people around when we came upon a wooden bench facing the endless water. On the wooden bench there was a glistening six-pack of beer and a two-liter of wine cooler. Remember Sun Country?

We stopped walking and looked down at the alcohol, then looked around to find no one in sight, down at the alcohol again, and then another scan to find no one. The beach and surrounding area was so abandoned we figured someone had forgotten their alcohol and by now was long gone … only the drinks were ice cold.

I remember looking out into the black surf and wondering if someone had swam out and drowned.

For us the bounty was practically a goldmine. If there was no one around to claim it, we were the lucky two thirteen-year-old boys in possession of some serious power. So, after a quick discussion, we picked up the alcohol and started hustling back in the direction of our hotel.

“Wait.”

The voice came from nearby, but we didn’t know where. We spun and scanned, but found no one until a man came out from behind a nearby tree where he’d been hiding. As he approached I thought to drop the alcohol and run, but I don’t know if I was simply too terrified to move or thinking we could take this guy if we had to.

We stayed and waited until he came to us.

“That’s mine,” he said.  “You boys want some?”

We looked at each other and, if I’m being honest, I don’t recall what my friend’s face looked like in that moment but I remember thinking the alcohol was super important. If this guy was willing to share it with us I was willing to partake.

How’s that for the naivety of youth?

We made our way back to the bench with this guy and had a beer with him. He was dressed like a tourist, but it seemed like he’d recently gotten off work. His outfit seemed false, you know? I think it was his boots or maybe he had a jacket with his name-tag stitched on the chest, but I remember distinctly thinking he’d just gotten off shift from some hard labor kind of job.

I don’t recall much of what was said, but I recall thinking the guy seemed desperately lonely. In the passing years (and having survived the incident unscathed) I’ve had occasion to feel sorry for the guy, but ever since I started writing fiction and trying to get inside the mind of someone who might find and lure victims, I’m not so sure loneliness was his only motivation that night.

I wonder if he was disappointed that we weren’t young women–or worse, one young woman. Hell, even just one young man. I wonder if he seriously considered doing something horrible to us, but thought better of it since there were two of us? After all, I was in football and so was my friend. We were young, athletic, and strong, but we were about to walk away with this bait.

Ultimately, I wonder if I survived an encounter with a killer that night. And I wonder if the following evening there was another six-pack and two-liter on that bench. And the evening after that, and after that, and after that. It unnerves me to think that your typical human isn’t going to buy and drink two decidedly different kinds of alcohol, you know?  Maybe he was testing out different lures?

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