By Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin
When you write horror or any kind of dark speculative fiction, you can’t just “write what you know,” can you? What you know is the eye staring at you through the slit in the curtain. What you sense, what you smell, what stiffens the hair on your neck is the imponderable presence behind the drapes.
So, what led me to write my novel Snare, in which the charms of brownstone living are transmuted into something unnatural?
In the 1990s I lived alone for some years on the second floor of a brownstone in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. Fort Greene had been poised for nearly a decade and a half to become the Next Hot Neighborhood, but it wasn’t until after I left in 2000 that that actually happened. During my years there, it was a rewarding but not always comfortable scramble of ethnicities, races, and economic circumstances. Neighbors developed close relationships. We watched out for one another. We babysat each others’ pets, attended each others’ baptisms, delighted in each others’ children and grandchildren. We kept spare keys for one another, called the cops if someone screamed on the street, and stayed out of the park at night, when the gunshots pop-popped.
For the most part, my life was orderly. I went to work, came home, and watched TV or wrote short stories that were roundly rejected on submission. Sometimes I wrote the first chapters of novels that I inevitably shredded weeks later. On weekends I volunteered at the National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan. I went out with friends but had few visitors and spent most of my evenings between the high-ceilinged walls of a building more than a century old. The walls were thin and the ceilings poorly insulated, and if people were in the hallway outside my apartment door, it sounded as though they were in my bathroom. EMS sirens to and from the nearby hospital were background music to nearly all phone conversations. It was impossible to drown out the street noise.
At some point I realized I was getting spooked. Except for two years with a roommate, I’d lived alone all my adult life and had never felt afraid. Now, on certain nights I’d come home from the office, grateful for the unusual silence—until I grasped that I hadn’t heard a single sound in the building for hours. Nothing. Eight units in the building and I might be the only person home. The only living thing in a brownstone whose front door did not lock properly and whose back wall had been scaled in broad daylight by a burglar who found a way in through a neighbor’s window. Doing the laundry at 9 p.m.—never mind midnight—at times like that was like wading waist-deep through a pond full of leeches: my worst nightmares attached and grew.
For a time these nights happened frequently, and when I’d wake up at 11:30 or 1 a.m. to footsteps in the hallway or doors opening and closing, it was with relief.
What great potential this all had for a writer’s exploration. The isolation, the silence, the dark, the night, the dusty crevices of an old building where the central staircase twisted up to a skylight on the roof. Could I do it? Could I use these elements to creep out other people as well?
I sat on the thought a while, and then magnified the impulse. I wanted to write dark. If you write dark, you can burn a hole in the most sunlit of scenes. I stole the basement from another brownstone I’d lived in because it was more sinister-looking than mine. I used the layout of various real apartments to set scenes. I even wrenched a character from a previous work, changed his name and background and made him evil.
When a young man leaving a party in the basement apartment was shot in the head and killed as he sat in his car waiting for a friend, I reeled for weeks. I couldn’t get warm. I would walk out of my air-conditioned office at work to sit in the searing July sun, letting the light and heat bake into my skin. It was all the healing I could get. It was the difference between writing about people who do terrible things to one another and seeing it actually happen.
That incident earned a mention in Snare. I wasted little, used everything, and also tried to incorporate the beauty around me: the curled scraps of sycamore bark on sidewalks, the light dappling through the mature trees on both sides of the street, the Italianate architecture full of grace and balance, the bonds and friendships between neighbors. Jojo the Dalmatian is my way of paying respect to my sister’s long-deceased first dog.
Wait, go back to those neighbors, you say. Are any of the characters based on them?
That’s where I drew the line. When I think of the vulnerable yet brash Patsy, nettled by guilt and careening from anger to sadness and back, I think of an old friend—but this old friend is not Patsy. When I think of Patsy’s Navajo-Yaqui-Italian husband, Bill, with his bulky frame and rat’s-tail braid and a truck full of wild turkey feathers and bear claws, I think of another old friend—but he’s not Bill. Some of the characters are like that, and the others are entirely made up. None of them actually lived in that brownstone, except maybe the introspective, uncertain protagonist, Fortune, who fights not only her fears but also the constraints she’s made for herself and the ones she’s let others make for her. There’s a bit of Fortune in me, even as I am not Fortune.
After I moved out of Brooklyn I’d get a catch in my throat every time I saw a picture of brownstones stretching down the street. I’d never known how much the neighborhood had nestled into me. I visited a year ago and barely recognized it. I thought I was in Park Slope. Mothers with strollers, kids and writers in Internet cafes, young women in backless shoes scuffing along the sidewalks holding coffees aloft. Expensive apartments listed in the windows of storefront realtors. A sunny vibe on a hot bright day. Nothing of the dark loam that had nourished Snare.
Could I have written Snare in such a cheery place? Probably. But the bigger question is whether I would have.