There is a lake in the Serial Killer books called Clayton Lake, which John calls Freak Lake, which serves various different functions throughout the series. This is based on a real lake near my house, called Utah Lake. Despite being situated right next to a string of fairly bustling residential areas, Utah Lake doesn’t see a lot of use; any other lake in that situation would be surrounded by jetties and resorts, and Utah Lake has a few, but for the most part it’s just there. Many people come and go from Utah Valley, living here for years at a time, without ever once even visiting the lake. Most of the time we forget it’s even here. Probably because it’s barren, desolate, and fairly ugly.
Several years ago, when I was first playing with the ideas and characters that would eventually become I Am Not a Serial Killer, I worked in a place called Pleasant Grove, just a few minutes north of my house. It was an easy drive on the freeway every morning, but on the way home the traffic was so bad that I started looking for alternate routes home. One day I saw a convenient back road and decided to follow it and see where it went (I do this all the time, just ask my wife), and discovered that it passed through this incredibly intriguing fringe area of the city: past the landfill, through a railyard, along the shore of the lake, and then through some farmland to the back side of Geneva Steel, a massive factory complex that was, at the time, mostly abandoned and about half-dismantled. About half a mile after that it popped out next to my kids’ school, and about half a mile later I was home. Needless to say, this road became my standard commute every day from then on, and I found myself endlessly fascinated by everything I passed.
The thing is, I find desolation to be absolutely gorgeous. I’m sure that part of this is the fact that I was born and raised in Northern Utah, which is technically classified as a desert, and which is very extreme in temperature. In the summer it gets very hot, and in the winter it gets very cold, and while we do have our share of green we spend most of our time surrounded by either white snow or brown rocks. I can appreciate the beauty of lush, verdant countryside, but I grew up with wasteland, and I love the images and scenery of a barren desert. Part of this is the rugged determination of it: a lush green forest is very pretty, for example, but a lone, scraggly tree clinging tenaciously to a boulder in the middle of nowhere adds a whole extra element that I find completely delicious. Put another way, anything can be beautiful in an already beautiful place. Being beautiful in an ugly, even horrifying place deserves special recognition.
So here I am, driving down this twisty little back road every day on the way home from work, watching the landfill and the railyard and the lake and the broken-down factory, and because I’m trying to write to plot out this new book I’m working on my thoughts begin to blend together. One of the first things I noticed were the people by the lake–people John calls Freaks, who come out and sit in or on their cars, in the middle of nowhere, simply watching the lake, quiet and alone. Who are they? Why are they there? I had no idea, and I certainly had no idea how to use it in a book, but I loved the solitary, melancholy feel of it and filed it away. Then winter came, and the lake froze over, and the dead trees bristled with spines of ice, and one day the lake was covered with a flurry of wind-blown snow and suddenly everything clicked. I knew in that moment that this lake had to be in my book, and that it had to be frozen over, and that someone would walk out in that snowstorm and hide a body under the ice. A passage in the book about the affect of cold on the human body (page 96 in the UK edition) wrote itself in my mind, right there on the spot, and over the next few days the entire plot of the book started coming together. The lake itself is incidental to the story, but the feel and tone that infused my mind on those many drives home became integral to the entire series. This was not a story about a normal kid, and it was not a story about a normal killer; it was the story of a Freak, a young man who goes out in the wasteland and watches this barren lake and sits in silence, alone with his thoughts.
Yesterday morning I got to visit my son’s school for a reading activity called Dads and Donuts, and yes it’s as awesome as it sounds, and afterward I got in my car and headed off to my office to work, and suddenly I realized that my new office was very close to my old one in Pleasant Grove, and that I was right next to the entrance to that old beloved back road. I turned at the park and drove north: past the vast, empty lot that used to house Geneva Steel; past the farmland with its leafless, ice-crusted trees; past the flat, frozen lake. The mountains on the far side were hidden by fog. Without knowing why, I stopped, convinced in that moment that I had to go out on the lake. I hiked down to the shore and across the snow, most of it packed down. I passed two blackened pits where someone had built a bonfire–one that was huge, leaving a tangle of charred logs on the snow, and a smaller one farther out that was simply a black patch around the metal base of an easy chair, the wood and fabric all burned away. The ground was laced with tiny, hairline fractures where the ice on the lake had cracked and separated and refrozen. I came to a long, narrow bump in the snow, the border where two massive plates of tectonic ice were sliding into each other to create a tiny mountain range. I followed trails of footprints, and I ventured off where the snow was untouched. I heard the ice cracking and shifting beneath me. The surface of the snow was rough and jagged, whipped by wind and crystallized by cold. I went back to my car and looked out at the lake, fascinated and moved.
Not everybody lives in a desolate place, but I hope that everybody can find some of the beauty in desolation. If you’re a fan of my book you probably already know what I’m talking about. Either way, I really want to close with some links to what they call Urban Decay. Some of these are absolutely incredible.