Please welcome David Morrell as he talks about his new title, CREEPERS, a novel of urban exploration!
On a cold October night, five people gather in a run-down motel on the Jersey shore and begin preparations to break into The Paragon Hotel. Built in the glory days of Asbury Park by a reclusive millionaire, the magnificent structure, which foreshadowed the beauties of Art Deco architecture, is now boarded-up and marked for demolition.
The five people are “creepers,” the slang term for urban explorers: city archeologists with a passion for investigating abandoned buildings and their dying secrets. On this evening, they are joined by a reporter who wants to profile them – anonymously, as this is highly illegal activity – for a New York Times article.
Balenger, the sandy-haired, broad-shouldered reporter with a decided air of mystery about him, isn’t looking for just a story, however. And after the group enters the rat-infested tunnel leading to the hotel, it becomes clear that he will get much more than he bargained for. Danger, terror, and death await the creepers in a place ravaged by time and redolent of evil.
CREEPERS, David Morrell’s gripping joy-ride of a thriller, depicts every harrowing second in eight hours of relentless suspense. It will haunt readers for many nights to come.
ABOUT URBAN EXPLORATION:
“Creepers” is the slang term for urban explorers: history and architecture enthusiasts who share a keen fascination with exploring abandoned buildings and tunnels. The Internet reveals hundreds of thousands of urban-explorer contacts throughout the world. But for every group that decides to publicize itself, there are many who don’t – because urban exploration is illegal and so unsafe it can be deadly. Authorities impose serious jail terms and/or fines to discourage it. Creepers liken their adventures to the covert-ops military expression for invading hostile territory: infiltration. As www.infiltration.org indicates, the objective is “places you’re not supposed to go”.
1) The plot of CREEPERS centers around a group of Urban Explorers. This is not only a popular activity (over 100,000 websites are devoted to it) but an illegal one. How did you get interested in Urban Exploration?
In my afterword to CREEPERS, I describe how traumatic my childhood was and how I used to escape family arguments by exploring abandoned buildings. At the time, I figured I was the only person weird enough to do that. But as I grew up, I discovered there were many like me who had an obsession with the past. I can’t remember a time when old buildings and tunnels didn’t have a tremendous tug on me. Only recently, thanks to an article in the LA TIMES, did I realize there was a name for this activity—urban exploration. When I checked the internet, I was amazed to discover thousands of sites devoted to urban explorers around the world. Their nickname is “creepers,” which seemed a terrific title.
2) CREEPERS takes place in Asbury Park, NJ. What drew you there?
Like the creepers in my book, I’m a fanatic about history. Asbury Park has a fascinating, sad background. It was founded in 1871 as a bastion of Methodism. But by the turn of the century, attention had shifted from the area’s numerous churches to the casino and the amusement park on the boardwalk. Eventually, the resort was known as the crown jewel of the eastern seaboard. In the twenties, a fire almost destroyed everything. But Asbury Park managed to rebuild itself, only to be devastated by a hurricane in the second World War. By the 1960s, the area was a shadow of itself. The decade was climaxed by race riots so destructive that many residents moved away. Bruce Springsteen sang in the local bars, and those early songs of his—about desolation and the need to head down the road—are reflective of Asbury Park’s tragic story. Hope and its downfall. I wanted these emotions to hover throughout CREEPERS.
3) The main location in CREEPERS is the vividly wrought Paragon Hotel—a magnificent building designed to look like an art deco Mayan temple. How did you conceive of the Paragon Hotel?
Buildings are important in my fiction. They often feel like characters. When I was writing an earlier novel, DOUBLE IMAGE, I fell in love with a house in the L.A. Hollywood Hills that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son. That structure was very much influenced by Mayan temples, and when I started CREEPERS, I thought I would emphasize that influence when I described the Paragon Hotel. It’s a seven-story building with receding levels that look like gigantic steps. It’s capped by a penthouse that in turn is capped by a pyramid skylight. The breathtaking hotel was designed in 1901, and yet its modernistic design anticipates the art deco craze of the 1920s. This shift of time—looking ahead, looking back—is part of the book’s eerie tone. As a character in CREEPERS says, “Given the disastrous condition of our world, it makes a lot of sense to retreat into the past.” But what if the past turns out to be more frightening than the present?
4) CREEPERS reads so quickly—how long did it take you to write it? How does that compare to your experience writing your other novels?
Some novels take longer than others. A year is a good average for me, and that involves writing nearly every day. But CREEPERS so haunted me that I wrote it in a white heat—12 hours a day for four months. I couldn’t get away from it. The plot literally took possession of me. As for the feeling of speed in the narrative, that’s one of the things I emphasize in my work. Since my first novel FIRST BLOOD in 1972, I’ve been preoccupied with building momentum. A lot of it has to do with the efficient use of description and the division of sequences into smaller units. Someone reading in bed will get tired and close a book if there are 20 pages left in a chapter. But if that same reader sees there are only two more pages in a section, he or she will keep going. Then the reader sees that the next section only has five pages and continues. With this device, I can often persuade a reader to go far beyond the 20 pages that might otherwise have seemed a chore.
5) As in many of your other novels, there are strong female characters in CREEPERS. This is something of a trademark of yours and one that is not common in your genre. How has the role of your female leads changed since FIRST BLOOD?
There’s been a total change. FIRST BLOOD was a completely male story that dramatized a small version of the Vietnam War in the United States. With each subsequent book, I not only added female characters but kept strengthening them. By “strength,” I mean women who are self-reliant and resourceful. In too many thrillers, the main female character is usually there only to provide love interest and if you remove the love interest, a male character would probably be equally effective. In contrast, I want to write male-female relationships in which the woman has an essential function in the story as a character and not just a love interest. In CREEPERS, there are two independent, resourceful women who confront the terror of the Paragon Hotel with the same determination that the men do.
6) What do you feel is the most distinctive element in CREEPERS?
The plot relentlessly ratchets tension in a way that I believe is unique because it combines a tensely restricted setting with an ever-tightening narrative that proceeds in real time without cuts. That time element is worth emphasizing. CREEPERS occurs in an eight-hour period, from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. on a cold October night. We are with the characters one hundred percent of the time. There are never any gaps or cuts in the escalating stress. Even when they go to the bathroom, we are there. If someone reads the book out loud, it will take approximately eight hours, which is the time frame of the book. This is one of the few novels to use this narrative device in so strict a way. Indeed, it may be the only one.
7) You’re the co-president of the new International Thriller Writers organization. What’s that about?
Sometimes, people refer to me as a mystery writer, which isn’t accurate. True, there are plenty of puzzles in my work, the secret of the Paragon Hotel, for example. But I’m a thriller writer. My work is about intensity and excitement. Pace. Breathlessness. Exhilaration. Author Gayle Lynds and I got to thinking that it would be fun and useful to found an organization for thriller writers. The idea is to widen and deepen the appreciation of thrillers. Our members are a “who’s who” of the genre, and our combined world-wide sales are over one billion books. To get an idea what we’re up to, go to www.internationalthrillerwriters.com. Among other things, you’ll find a must-read list and several fascinating essays about thrillers.
8) Another trademark of your fiction is that it has numerous references to popular culture. How does that work in CREEPERS?
In graduate school, one of my professors was Philip Young, the great Hemingway scholar. He loved to put cultural references into his work. He inspired me to do the same. CREEPERS is packed with references to Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Glenn Miller, Bruce Springsteen, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Jack Finney, Richard Matheson. There’s a section about the fatal flaw in CITIZEN KANE. Theodore Dreiser’s once-infamous novel, SISTER CARRIE, turns out to be the key to the novel’s theme. Along the way, we learn that Dreiser’s brother wrote the song “My Gal Sal.” What is the “royal disease”? Why is it illegal for American citizens to use gold as currency? These references are a kind of subliminal subtext, a partial escape for the reader as the novel’s suspense escalates. Not to mention, they’re a lot of fun.
AN OBSESSION WITH THE PAST
by David Morrell
When I was nine, my family lived in a cramped apartment above a greasy restaurant that catered to drunks from the area’s numerous bars. I often heard them fighting in the alley beneath my bedroom window. There was plenty of fighting in the apartment, as well. Although my mother and my stepfather never came to blows, their arguments made me so afraid that many nights I stuffed pillows under my bedding to make it look as if I slept there while I lay awake under the bed.
I often escaped that apartment and wandered the streets, where I learned the secrets of every alley and parking lot within ten blocks. I also learned the secrets of abandoned buildings. In retrospect, I’m amazed that I didn’t run into fatal trouble in some of those buildings. But I was a street kid, a survivor, and the worst that happened to me was a cat bite on a wrist and a nail through a foot, both of which caused blood poisoning.
Those abandoned buildings–a house, a factory, and an apartment complex–fascinated me. The smashed windows, the moldy wallpaper, the peeling paint, the musty smell of the past, lured me back repeatedly. The most interesting building was the apartment complex because, although deserted, it wasn’t empty. Tenants had abandoned tables, chairs, dishes, pots, lamps, and sofas. Most were in such poor shape that it was obvious why they hadn’t been taken. Nonetheless, combined with magazines and newspapers left behind, they created the illusion that people still lived there–ghostly remnants of the life that once flourished in the building.
I felt this more than I understood it. Treading cautiously up creaky staircases, stepping around fallen plaster and holes in floors, peering into decaying rooms, I gazed in wonder at discoveries I made. Pigeons roosted on cupboards. Mice nested in sofas. Fungus grew on walls. Weeds sprouted on watery windowsills. Some of the yellowed newspapers and magazines dated back to when I was born.
But no discovery meant more to me than a record album I found on a cracked linoleum floor next to a three-legged table that lay on its side. Eventually, I learned that it was called an album because, prior to the 1950s, phonograph records were made from thick, easily breakable shellac that had only one song on each side and were stored in paper sleeves within binders that resembled photograph albums. At the time of my discovery, discs of this sort (which played at 78 rpm) had been superseded by thin, long-playing, vinyl discs that were far more sturdy, had as many as eight songs on each side, and played at 33 1/3 rpm.
I’d never seen an album. When I opened its cover, I felt an awe that was only slightly reduced by the scrape of broken shellac. Two of the discs were shattered. But the majority (four, as I recall) remained intact. Clutching this treasure, I hurried home. Our radio had a primitive record player attached to it. I switched its dial to 78 rpm and put on one of the discs.
I played the song repeatedly. Today, I can still hear the scratchy tune. I’ve never forgotten its title: “Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.” An Internet search tells me that the song was written in 1929 by Irving Kahal, Willie Raskin, and Sammy Fain. Melodic and rhythmic, it was an instant hit, recorded frequently over the years. But at the time, I knew nothing of that. Nor did I understand the emotions of the lyrics, which described the loneliness of a young man whose friends are all getting married. What captivated me was that scratchy sound. It came palpably from the past and served as a time tunnel through which my imagination could travel back to other years. I visualized the vocal group in unfamiliar clothes, surrounded by unfamiliar objects, singing out-of-fashion music in a setting that was always fuzzy and in black-and-white. Regrettably, I don’t recall the group’s name. So much for immortality.
Since then, I’ve obeyed a compulsion to investigate many other abandoned buildings, not to mention tunnels and storm drains, although I never again found anything so memorable as that phonograph album. I assumed that my traumatic childhood accounted for my fascination with crumbling deserted structures and that I was alone in my obsession with links to the past. But I now realize that there are many like me.
They call themselves urban explorers, urban adventurers, and urban speleologists. Their nickname is creepers. If you type “urban explorer” into Yahoo, you’ll find an astonishing 170,000 Internet contacts. Type that name into Google, and you’ll find an even more astonishing 225,000 contacts. It’s a reasonable assumption that each of these links isn’t represented by just one lonely explorer. After all, nobody’s going to put together a site if he/she doesn’t have a sense of community. Those hundreds of thousands of contacts are groups, and logic suggests that for every one that publicizes itself, there are many others that prefer to be hidden.
Those who wish to remain anonymous have a good reason. Bear in mind, urban exploration is illegal. It involves the invasion of private property. Plus, it’s so unsafe it can be deadly. The authorities tend to insist on jail terms and/or serious fines to discourage it. As a consequence, many of these websites emphasize that explorers should get permission from property owners and that they should always follow safety precautions and never do anything against the law. Those warnings sound socially responsible, but my assumption is that for many urban explorers, part of the appeal is the risk and thrill of doing what’s forbidden. It’s significant that their slang term for entering a deserted building borrows from the covert-ops military expression for invading hostile territory: infiltration. As the website www.infiltration.org indicates, the objective is “places you’re not supposed to go.”
Creepers are mostly between the ages of 18 and 30, intelligent, well-educated with an interest in history and architecture, often employed in professions related to computer technology. They share a world-wide interest, with groups in Japan, Singapore, Germany, Poland, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Holland, England, Canada, the United States, and several other countries. Australian groups are fascinated with the maze of storm drains under Sydney and Melbourne. European groups favor abandoned military installations from the World Wars. US groups are drawn to classic department stores and hotels abandoned when social decay led to an exodus from cities like Buffalo and Detroit. In Russia, creepers are obsessed with Moscow’s once-secret multi-level subway system intended for evacuating Cold War officials during a nuclear attack. Deserted hospitals, asylums, theaters, and stadiums: Every country offers plenty of opportunities for urban exploring.
One of the first urban explorers was a Frenchman who in 1793 became lost during an expedition into the Paris catacombs. It took eleven years for his body to be discovered. Walt Whitman was another early urban explorer. The author of Leaves of Grass worked as a reporter for the Brooklyn Standard, where he wrote about the Atlantic Avenue tunnel. Touted as the first subway tunnel anywhere when built in 1844, it was discontinued a mere seventeen years later. Before it was sealed, Whitman trekked through it. “Dark as the grave, cold, damp and silent,” he wrote. “How beautiful look earth and heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals, the dissatisfied ones at least, and that’s a large proportion, into some tunnel of several days’ journey. We’d perhaps grumble less, afterward, at God’s handiwork.”
But Whitman didn’t get the point of urban exploration. He saw the tunnel in negative terms. For a true devotee, however, the cold, damp, silent darkness of a tunnel or an abandoned apartment complex or a deserted factory is exactly the goal. The spooky attraction of the eerie past: I suspect that’s what a much later explorer felt in 1980 when he uncovered that same Atlantic Avenue tunnel 119 years after it was barricaded and forgotten.
A major modern instance of urban exploration occurred recently in the Paris catacombs. Those catacombs are part of a 170-mile tunnel system beneath Paris, the consequence of quarry work that over many centuries provided building materials for the city. In the 1700s, some of the tunnels were used to store thousands of corpses when cemeteries exhausted their space. In September of 2004, a French police team on a training exercise found a fully equipped movie theater among the bones. Seats were carved into the rock. A small adjoining cave functioned as a bar and restaurant, with whiskey bottles on display along with professional electrical and telephone systems. Another major example occurred in Moscow in October of 2002 when Chechen rebels seized control of a theater. After the military surrounded the building, an urban explorer guided soldiers inside through a forgotten tunnel.
Some of this is adventuring in a basic sense. But I think that there are also psychological implications. As I note in Creepers, our world is so fraught with elevated threat levels that it makes a lot of sense to retreat to the past. Old buildings can be a refuge, drawing us back to what we imagine were simple and less stressful times. In my youth, the deserted apartment complex provided an escape from the turmoil of my family. I was a time traveler, finding sanctuary in a past that appealed to my imagination and in which there were never any arguments.
In my youth. As an adult, I now have a different perspective, one with deeper, less comfortable implications. To me, old buildings have become like old photographs. They remind me how swiftly time passes. The past they evoke draws attention to my ultimate future. They are an opportunity for reflection.
I recently had the chance to visit the high school I attended more than forty years ago. A part of it burned to the ground. Most of the remainder has been boarded shut for a decade. When I entered, a hazard team was checking for asbestos, lead paint, and mold, prior to the school’s demolition. It’s amazing what years of disuse can do, especially when broken windows allow rain and snow to intrude. In disturbingly silent hallways, the hardwood floors were buckled. Plaster drooped from the ceilings. Paint strips hung from the walls. But in my memory, everything was clean and well-maintained. I envisioned students and teachers filling the noisy corridors. The trouble is that many of those students and teachers have long since died. In the midst of decay, my imagination conjured youth and the promise of hope, gone just as the school would soon be gone.
I wonder if deserted buildings are vessels to which children bring a sense of wonder and adults bring their unacknowledged fears. When I obeyed the compulsion to visit that wreck of a school, was I unintentionally confronting my own mortality? But my visit had a safety that urban exploration doesn’t. Infiltrating forbidden sites, investigating the decay of the past, creepers flirt with danger. Any moment, a floor might give way, a wall topple, or a stairway collapse. Creepers challenge the past to do its worst. With each successful expedition, they emerge victorious from another confrontation with age and decay. For a handful of hours, they lived intensely. Obsessed with the past, perhaps they hope to postpone their inevitable future. Or perhaps they feel reassured that the past lingers palpably into the present and that something about their past might linger after they’re gone.
When my fifteen-year-old son Matthew was dying from bone cancer, his most plaintive statement was, “But no one will remember me.” Memento mori. Maybe that’s what urban exploration is all about. Is an obsession with the past another way of hoping that something about us will linger, that years from now someone will explore where we lived and feel our lingering presence. That phonograph album I found. The distant hiss I listened to just as someone listened to that same platter decades earlier. “Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine.” It’s a song about time, which is basically what all stories come down to. In the lyric, a young man says he’s got a lonesome feeling. But as I think back to that apartment complex and the deserted rooms I wandered through . . . the abandoned sofas, chairs, lamps, and pots . . . I didn’t feel alone.
David Morrell is the award-winning author of First Blood, the novel in which Rambo was created. He was born in 1943 in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. In 1960, at the age of seventeen, he became a fan of the classic television series, Route 66, about two young men in a Corvette traveling the United States in search of America and themselves. The scripts by Stirling Silliphant so impressed Morrell that he decided to become a writer.
In 1966, the work of another writer (Hemingway scholar Philip Young) prompted Morrell to move to the United States, where he studied with Young at Penn State and received his M.A. and Ph. D. in American literature. There, he also met the distinguished fiction writer William Tenn (real name Philip Klass), who taught Morrell the basics of fiction writing. The result was First Blood, a novel about a returned Vietnam veteran suffering from post-trauma stress disorder who comes into conflict with a small-town police chief and fights his own version of the Vietnam War.
That “father” of all modern action novels was published in 1972 while Morrell was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. He taught there from 1970 to 1986, simultaneously writing other novels, many of them national bestsellers, such as The Brotherhood of the Rose (the basis for a highly rated NBC miniseries). Eventually wearying of two professions, he gave up his tenure to write full time.
Shortly afterward, his fifteen-year-old son Matthew was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and died in 1987, a loss that haunts not only Morrell’s life but his work, as in his memoir about Matthew, Fireflies, and his novel Desperate Measures, whose main character has lost a son.
“The mild-mannered professor with the bloody-minded visions,” as one reviewer called him, Morrell is the author of twenty-eight books, including such high-action thrillers as The Fifth Profession, Assumed Identity, and Extreme Denial (set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he now lives with his wife, Donna). His recent books include Nightscape (a collection of dark-suspense stories), the high-action thriller The Protector, and Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, an analysis of what he has learned during his more-than-thirty years as a writer. A thriller, Creepers, will be published in September, 2005, by CDS Books.
Noted for his research, Morrell is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School for wilderness survival as well as the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security. Co-president of the International Thriller Writers organization, he is also an honorary lifetime member of the Special Operations Association and the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. He has been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and defensive/offensive driving, among numerous other action skills that he describes in his novels. More than eighteen million copies in print, and his work has been translated into twenty-six languages.
To learn more about David Morrell please visit his website: www.davidmorrell.net
The above interview, essay, and bio have been reprinted with permission of CDS
David Morrell - Bibliography
First Blood (1972)
Last Reveille (1977)
The Totem (1979)
Blood Oath (1982)
The Brotherhood of the Rose (1984)
The Fraternity of the Stone (1985)
The League of Night and Fog (1987)
The Fifth Profession (1990)
The Covenant of the Flame (1991)
Assumed Identity (1993)
Desperate Measures (1994)
The Totem (Complete and Unaltered) (1994)
Extreme Denial (1996)
Double Image (1998)
Burnt Sienna (2000)
Long Lost (2002)
The Protector (2003)
Rambo (First Blood Part II) (1985)
Rambo III (1988)
The Hundred-Year Christmas (1983)
Black Evening (1999)
John Barth: An Introduction (1976)
Fireflies: A Father’s Tale of Love and Loss (1988)
American Fiction, American Myth: Essays by Philip Young
edited by David Morrell and Sandra Spanier (2000)
Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft (2002)
Essay, Interview, and bio reprinted with permission of cds books and David Morrell