On Urban Legends

Picture this: a still, starlit August night, as warm and clear as it had been all day and the day before and the same as it will be tomorrow. An open field, surrounded by pine woods so dense and dark that the seam between sky and earth has vanished. Soon, the campers will be packing their T-shirts and shorts, their tennis racquets and baseball gloves and bags full of dirty laundry, and heading home to New York, to Connecticut, to New Jersey and beyond. 

         Campfires light the faces of the boys as they sit in circles: the younger ones toward the center of the field, the older campers by the edge of it, nearer the woods. Dinner—hot dogs on sticks cooked over open flames, potatoes baked in foil among the coals, marshmallows blackening on twigs—is over. The fires move from glow into fade into cinders and, in just a few minutes, into ash as, pacing the perimeter of the circles, the counselors tell the same story they’ve recited from one year to the next, quietly and reverentially, as though it were a secret meant to be kept forever. A tale that was by now as woven into the camp’s culture as the songs they sang in the social hall—odes to the outdoors, to teamwork, to Echo Lake and the hills beyond. The boys stare into the dying embers, watching the words come to life or keeping their eyes shut as though wishing camp were already over and they were home, where nothing bad could ever reach them. 

         “One night, every seven years since Camp Waukeelo was founded in 1937,” one of the counselors begins, “long after lights out, a local man, John Otis, would sneak into the camp through the woods behind the bunks and take one of the younger boys.” He falls silent, the better to let his words take root in the boys’ minds. “Townsfolk said that John was someone who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, just a guy of average height and weight, but”—he pauses a moment—“with the eyes of a dead man. When you looked into them, you felt the temperature drop.” 

         So begins my seventh novel, The Drowning, to be published in January 2019 by Sourcebooks Landmark. The next night one of the boys will disappear, eight-year-old Joey Proctor, only to return to life, it seems, twenty-one years later.

         A campfire is where many of us first heard an urban legend: at summer camp, or Boy Scout camp, or simply camping with friends. When I first heard about John Otis I was in the last summer camp I attended, in the Berkshires. This wasn’t the usual camp tale about monsters or vampires, the familiar creatures of the movies; this was a crazy man, and that was somehow far more terrifying. To make it worse, the counselors would show us the old leather binders filled with camp photos dating back thirty and forty years, to the 1920s and ‘30s, and point to this camper and that: “He disappeared one August night in 1944. His father was in a prisoner-of-war camp. His mother never saw either of them again.”

         Showing us the photos was the key to making it all the more credible. Add a detail, show a face, and suddenly a story made of words told around a campfire has come to life. And I think we all realized then that woven into our mundane lives of camp and school and families was a thread of mystery. People disappear; people go mad; bad things happen in that house they told us about where John Otis lived, high above the camp with the marble steps cut into the hillside leading to the lake, where Otis would quietly row to the camp’s waterfront and make his way up to the bunks every seven years at two or three in the morning, never leaving empty-handed. And where were the boys he had taken…?

         There’s another I heard about a young couple. They’re out in the country and run out of gas. The guy tells the girl to lie down in the back seat to stay safe and unseen while he locks the car and walks to the nearest gas station. After a long while she sees the reflection of police flashers, and a cop taps on the window. “Sit up and don’t look back,” the officer tells her. She follows his direction, unlocks the car, and the cop continues to tell her not to look back at the car.

         Sitting on the trunk, looking into the car, is the decapitated head of her boyfriend.

         I’d heard that story many, many years ago, and often told it when I was in college and we were all a little stoned (it was the sixties, after all). But what I added were specifics: the kind of car he drove, actual street names, usually prefacing it with, “You know what I’m talking about, that corner where the white house is…?” They could picture exactly where it was taking place and then imagine was happening. I once saw a very large football player cry real tears when I told it, slowly, adding one detail after another. That’s the power of storytelling: make it specific, make it real, make them believe. And always, always, add that tiny element that is so unbelievable your audience has to believe it’s true.  

         Though it’s a psychological thriller in every possible way, The Drowning is also a novel about narrative and credibility, and making the fictional a little too real. Which is when the novel tips its metaphorical hat to horror: when even a real person can become part of a story created by someone else. And then all control is lost. Forever.