As the summer gets hotter, here's a new suspense novel that's sure to send a few unseasonable shivers down the back of your neck: The Ridge by Michael Koryta takes place in an isolated community in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. It includes among its varied cast of characters 60-some exotic cats — lions, tigers, ocelots, a panther, and even a very rare black cougar.
Without giving too much away, here are a few of the settings in the book: A women's prison that's more than 100 years old. A sanctuary, near "the ridge" for those exotic cats. A played-out newspaper being closed down after many decades. And a lighthouse — situated in the middle of nowhere in landlocked Kentucky.
"I don't know where the [lighthouse] image came from," Koryta tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "It just struck me as incredibly intriguing and evocative. I'd worked at a small town newspaper, and I was thinking of all the strange stories that I had seen float through the newsroom in my time there that were dismissed as kind of amusing curiosities. Somehow from that I got to this idea of an eccentric alcoholic who built a lighthouse in the woods."
In addition to being a spooky thriller, the book is about a lot of different kinds of loss and love. Everyone has lost someone. "The book is certainly about grief in various stages," Koryta explains. "I also wanted it to be about love and trust. Can you truly have love without trust?"
A local sheriff is madly in love with a woman who is in prison for shooting him. Audrey Clark, the widow who runs the exotic cat sanctuary, is carrying out the vision of her late husband, who founded the preserve. She loves these big cats just as he did, but does not trust them.
The cats are characters unto themselves — and they sense things the human characters do not. Koryta describes Clark, as she hears the animals roaring in the night.
They weren't lunging at the fences, trying to tear through them as she feared; they were simply standing against them up on their hind legs, bracing their hind legs against the fences, every single one.
'What are you doing', she whispered, as if expecting an answer.
Koryta says that one of the challenges of writing spooky plots is "selling the reader on the implausible." In The Cypus House, the main character sees death in the faces of people who are about to die. In So Cold the River, an entrepreneur in the water bottle business finds that his bottles are always cold — and shed light. Koryta himself is a skeptical reader and is always impressed by the skill of writers like Stephen King or Richard Matheson and Ira Levin, who can lure readers into believing:
"The way they pull this off," he says, "[is] by grounding the reader in reality and then adding the surreal to the point that the characters in the world are so familiar that all of the sudden, as strange as the events become, there's a part of you that says: maybe, just maybe, this could happen and maybe it could happen to me. At that point, you've suspended your disbelief and hopefully you're just lost in the world of the story. Ultimately, in my mind, that's what I'm trying to do with my fiction, I'm trying to transport my reader into a different world."
But when you close the book, that different, spooky, scary world stays on the page — and that's key to the genre's current popularity, Koryta believes. No one, he says, wants to sit on the subway, reading a book about a dirty bomb being released on the subway. In hard times, people want trills, but safe thrills — they need a little magic.
"When you read a supernatural suspense story or a ghost story or a horror story, the evil at play is something that you can dismiss." Koryta says. "You can step back, close the book, and feel as if you have gotten all of the great emotional rush of a suspense novel — but that threat is not real."