Skull Session by Daniel Hecht
This is the book that got me writing. It implanted an idea for a novel in my head and after the idea formed it was like I had to write it to excorcise the idea.
In Skull Session we meet a man who has Tourette’s. The drugs he takes to keep the Tourette’s under control also stifle his creativity. Off the drugs, he has some powers.
After reading it I was struck with the thought “What if a schizophrenic person could see ghosts when not taking medication, only no one believed them?”
I started writing Whitesands with this person in mind, Daniel Hope (see the nod to the author of Skull Session?) who could see ghosts and learned that one of them was committing murders but the police didn’t believe him.
I had written a few chapters and then realized that I needed a detective for Daniel to talk to. John Dark appeared and sort of slowly took over. Ultimately, Whitesands is the story of John Dark, with Daniel Hope as a secondary character.
But without Skull Session, it wouldn’t exist.
Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
One of my favorite novels, but one I find hard to recommend. It’s about a detective in the city of Ambergris, which has been overrun and infected by a race of creepy and sinister mushroom people. The buildings are damp and dark, the remaining citizens cower in fear and despair, some of them infected with fungal growth, others addicted to spores from giant mushrooms. Detective John Finch is trying to solve a double homicide; a human and one of the mushroom people have been found dead inside an apartment, aparently dying as a result of falling from a great height.
John Dark owes a lot to John Finch, not least of which is the repeated mantra in Whitesands “If I was a proper detective, I would have found her by now.” In Finch, John Finch repeats “I am not a detective.” to himself.
There is also a scene where John Dark talks to a man about a lead and the descriptions of the apartment and the man are heavily influenced by the ambiance of the city of Ambergris in Finch.
I happen to really like Finch. It is weird and the prose makes it a challenging read. The pure strangeness of the world of Ambergris also makes it hard to recommend to people. But without Finch, John Dark doesn’t exist, and without VanderMeer giving me license to write as weird as I want, Whitesands becomes less complex.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
This is the scaffolding that I used to build Whitesands. This is the holy grail of thriller books and I leaned heavily on it. A lot of writers avoid being too influenced by other books so they will read only non fiction as they write or, as I learned Catriona Ward (author of the fantastic Last House on Needless Street) does, read nothing at all. I, however, wallow in my influences. I positively roll around in the prose and the structure of other books as I write.
In the case of Whitesands, my copy of The Silence of the Lambs was always within reach. The way Thomas Harris starts his chapters, the way he shows us the villain not through hints but by giving them the stage in long dedicated chapters. The pure depths of dread and bleakness.
Silence of the Lambs is a mix of thriller and horror. Whitesands is a mix of thriller and horror. I would not have known how to write a book if not for my repeated readings of Silence of the Lambs. I’m up to six complete read-throughs.
(Creepy coincidence – both in Whitesands and Red Dragon, the villain is introduced in chapter 25.)
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Oh lordy the prose! Once you read a book by Raymond Chandler you realize that while the books (and Chandler) are best known for creating one of the most iconic private detectives in Philip Marlowe, it’s the prose that makes the books classics.
It is endlessly quotable. Endlessly.
“Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.”
Another thing I take from Chandler is the fact that he was over forty years old when he started writing, and his first book, The Big Sleep, came out when he was fifty-one. It’s a good book but he followed that up with a series of books that are now considered masterpieces of literature, not just of the detective fiction genre. He is my writer-idol, seeing as I am now forty-three when my debut comes out.
In The Woods by Tana French
The relationship between John Dark and Monique Moreno is very much influenced by the relationship by the main characters in Tana French’s excellent In The Woods. The sort of informal relationship and trust that seems effortless but probably took Tana French countless hours in edits to get right.
There is also the way the story advances that just somehow feels right. The discovery of the body, the mystery surrounding the main character, who as a kid was playing with a group of friends in the woods. The friends went missing and he alone was found by a tree, with blood in his shoes. He remembered none of it. The mystery nags at us and the character as we read the story and it is the same feeling I tried to get with the disappearance of Emily Dark.
So I would like to recommend these books to the people who liked Whitesands and want to read something similar. Without these books, Whitesands wouldn’t exist. And unlike so many other writers who avoid too much inspiration, I try my utmost to be saturated with it.
For my next book, I am going to dive into Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Alice in Chain’s grunge masterpiece Dirt, the world of the KULT roleplaying game and the story of serial killer Israel Keyes.
Thank you, Johann, for this fascinating and inspiring look into the books that inspired Whitesands. I’ve read most of these and loved them, but it looks like I’ve a few new ones to add to my TBR. I am more excited than ever to read your next book!
Whitesands is an exciting paranormal thriller about a detective obsessed with his missing daughter, and a series of murders that are horrifically linked.