STARBURST: Near Dark, Hitcher and now White Knuckle – what draws you to horror stories set on the road?
Eric Red: The road thriller milieu involves an interesting reverse claustrophobia where even through you’re surrounded by vast highway and open spaces, you can’t get away and there’s no escape. The emptiness closes in on you. Isolation breeds terror. You’re isolated in your car. You’re isolated on that open highway. It’s even scarier at night when it’s all darkness outside your windshield beyond the beams of your headlights and then you see a pair of headlights appear in your rearview mirror. Those are obligatory scenes for road thrillers. The spare roadside iconography focuses the suspense with a less-is-more economy of elements, breaking the confrontation down to its basic moving parts and heightening the tension. There’s also a sense of speed - on the road, you’re driving forward fast, infusing an intrinsic pace and momentum into the narrative.
White Knuckle differs from my other road thrillers in that it’s a cross-country chase with a female FBI agent on the trail of a horrific interstate trucker serial killer. Here, the sprawling sense of scale and scope of the vast distances are used to unnerving effect. The Hitcher took place in Texas and Near Dark in a few Midwestern states, so both were more contained. But like those, this book involves a scary mano a mano between a good guy and bad guy. And of course, there’s lots of exciting vehicular action scenes.
What inspired you to write White Knuckle? Is it based on any real case or cases, because it’s so plausible that we’d be surprised if a serial killer didn’t operate under the cover of a long distance hauler?
White Knuckle is a fictional character and there’s never been a prolific trucker serial killer like the monster in my book that I’m aware of. There are real-life truck drivers who kill people in one state and elude detection by transporting and dumping the body in another state. Statistically, these cases generally involve one or two murders and the victims are usually truck stop prostitutes.
The idea for the book came when my wife and I drove across America a few years ago and saw all those countless tractor-trailers driving those thousands of miles of interstate. If one of those big rigs was a serial killer truck driver, I wondered, how would you know, how would law enforcement track him down? There’s literally millions of trucks on the U.S. highways and it would be like finding a needle in haystack. That sounded like a solid mystery idea fraught with thriller possibilities. The notion of a serial killer interstate truck driver is relatable, because we all know what it feels like to drive on the highway and that shiver of fear we feel when an eighteen-wheeler hurtles by a little too close. It taps into a universal fear.
A close friend of mine is a female FBI Special Agent and I discussed the idea with her and found out there is a division of the Bureau devoted to apprehending highway killers, called the Highway Serial Killer Initiative or HSK. I decided the hero of the story would be an FBI agent, since the Bureau is in charge of all interstate crime, and that’s when story came together. The character of my agent heroine Sharon Ormsby is based partly on my FBI friend, who’s one of the coolest people I know and was a technical advisor when I was researching the novel. When I finished the book, I showed it to her first to be sure it was technically accurate.
It gave me the opportunity to do a bigger, scarier road horror story than I’d done before, with a bad guy so terrifying, he made The Hitcher look soft. With White Knuckle, I set out to write a horror thriller that did for highways what Jaws did for the ocean.
There’s lot of background information, from the way the law enforcement agencies operate on a cross state level with the FBI and their training, to the technicalities and mechanics of how to apply the brakes on an eighteen-wheeler to prevent it from jack knifing. How meticulous is your research on the fine detail in your books?
I do extensive research and consult technical advisors when the novel involves real-life subject matter like the FBI and trucking industry like in White Knuckle, because those details must be accurate as possible for the book to be believable and convincing. I have a responsibility as an author to know what I’m writing about. Plus, all that background is interesting for the reader and part of the whole reading experience. A window into a world of the American trucker we all see every day on the road but most of us know very little about.
My previous book, It Waits Below, is a science fiction novel about the crew of a three-man Deep Submergence Vehicle who dive to the deepest part of the ocean to recover a sunken treasure and encounter an alien organism. The extraterrestrial creature stuff was obviously made up, but all the sub stuff needed to be technically accurate. I spent a lot of time researching that with a technical advisor who is a top Alvin sub pilot. The deep diving ocean bottom scenes in the book are pretty realistic.
But my first novel Don’t Stand So Close was a dark coming-of-age story about teenagers growing up in a small town, so that book didn’t require much research. The amount of research required really depends on the book.
Not only are you an accomplished screenwriter and novelist, but you complete the triple threat by being a seasoned film director as well. Which of the three do you prefer?
I love directing films. That’s my favorite job. Don’t know anything that’s as fun and exciting to do. Making movies is what I do best.
As a writer, I prefer writing books to screenplays by far. I have many more storytelling tools at my disposal in a novel, so am able to develop a narrative and explore the characters in much more depth. I’m not constrained by budget or censorship or any other considerations like in a script - the only limits are imagination, which is very liberating as an author.
Previously, you both wrote and directed Bad Moon and 100 Feet. How difficult is it to direct something that you’ve written? Are there scenes you don’t want to drop, but have to for narrative purposes or running time?
There are invariably scenes that work in the script, which may even work during shooting that I’ve cut during the editing. The reason is usually pace, where the film doesn’t need the scene. Sometimes I make more radical changes to what was in the script. I restructured the entire first act of 100 Feet, and reshot the ending of Body Parts, for instance. It’s always based on how the picture shapes up in the cutting.
It’s never been difficult for me directing my own screenplays, because during filming I stop dealing with it as a script and instead as the movie that’s in front of me. This is probably true for any competent writer/director. Writing the screenplay is internal. Directing the movie I’m dealing with externals - cast, locations, camera placement, effects, stunts, whatever - and pulling those elements together to make the picture in the time and budget parameters we have allotted. And once I get in the cutting room and begin working with the editor in post, my focus is making the best film coming together out of the existing shot footage. Every movie is made three times - in the writing, during production, and in the editing. Throughout the process, I always try to be open to and take advantage of good ideas that come out of the collaboration with actors, cameraman, editor, and producers. That’s what making movies is all about, and it’s what makes it fun.
The movie rights to White Knuckle have been sold, and you’re back in the director’s chair we believe?
Producer Gil Adler (Tales from the Crypt, Superman and Contsantine) picked up the rights a few months ago and is in the process of putting the film together. I’m directing, which am very excited about.
Did you write the novel with this in mind?
No, White Knuckle was always conceived as a book. The extensive FBI and trucker material best suited the story to a procedural novel. I’d wanted to write a straight mystery thriller novel for a long time, and this offered that opportunity.
After White Knuckle, what’s next for you?
I have features in the works of my other three books, and am developing a television series. I’m working on my next novel, a Los Angeles-set super-thriller that is a big book with a large cross section of characters. I’m also writing a sequel to my werewolf western novel The Guns of Santa Sangre called The Wolves of El Diablo for the same publisher Samhain.
WHITE KNUCKLE is published as an eBook on June 2nd and is reviewed here.