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North Woods Noir

By On Jan 29 2012, 7:16 am

North Woods Noir

The Nick Lupo Thrillers by W.D. Gagliani

Wolf's Edge (#4) is now available; Wolf's Trap (#1) will be reissued this spring


Sometimes the setting is all-important in horror. Sometimes it's important enough that it becomes a character in your novel. Think of your favorite movies, horror or otherwise. Think of the most successful movies. It's those with a strong sense of place that become memorable. Taxi Driver wouldn't work set in Miami. Deliverance wouldn't work set in California (well, maybe it would…). Though movies are visual and books have to be visualized, they are similar in how the setting can shape the story. If the author skimps on details, whether real or fabricated, the book is less likely to succeed in engaging the reader. This is why Stephen King has connected so well with readers of all kinds – besides being a master of internal monologue and dialogue, he has always communicated a tremendous sense of place in his books. We all feel we know Maine a little better because of his stories set there.

When writing my first novel, Wolf's Trap (to be re-released this spring by Samhain), my strongest inspiration came from my vacationing in Wisconsin's North Woods. Sprawling evergreen forests dotted by lakes and narrow rivers and channels, known for their natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities, the North Woods blankets a large portion of northern Wisconsin. Driving north from the more populous south, you can spot the change – the line where the deciduous tree majority becomes the minority and evergreens take over, mostly pines. More than just a different look, there's a different feel. A different air about it. Lovely, quiet, relatively unspoiled (despite human efforts to the contrary), the very atmosphere feels different the farther north you go. Ranks of pines line the roads, stands of dark forests surround long finger lakes that often flow one into the other. Yes, ski-boats and overfishing are starting to take their toll, but generally the area still qualifies for "getting away from it all" vacations, especially when your destination is nestled in a quiet wooded area fronting a channel between two scenic lakes, part of a chain of lakes that stretches for mile after beautiful mile.

Wolf's Trap would launch a series leading to Wolf's Edge (the fourth Nick Lupo thriller, new from Samhain last October and, in print, January), but all I knew as I plotted it was that the protagonist was a troubled Milwaukee homicide cop. And he was a werewolf, part of the reason for his troubles. It was natural for me to make the North Woods a major setting for the book (and the series), because where else would a tortured human go to wolf out? Where else could he attempt to let the moon take him with less chance of human victims? How else could he return, unknowing, to the origin of his lycanthropic roots?

The nights are dark in the tall pine forests. If you pull off a main road and follow a winding country road far enough, it's entirely possible to imagine being in the middle of a wilderness. No city lights means the stars will always shine more brightly. When conditions are right, the Northern Lights ripple through the night sky. It's certainly beautiful… 

But since we're dealing with horror thrillers here, what's the draw of the North Woods? Well, besides all the beauty, it's really, really dark there, in the woods at night. The wind rustles ominously through the pine needles. Large and small critters rustle through the undergrowth. While it's not quite a jungle, there surely are plenty of frightening cries and sounds you can hear – but you can rarely see what's making them. In the middle of nowhere, on a dark road where your only illumination is a cell phone screen (probably no signal), you can easily imagine that rustling you hear is of a large predator stalking you. You can easily imagine a crazed killer huddling outside your window, looking in while you can't see him. You can imagine that if your door were to explode in a cloud of sharp kindling, there'd be no one near enough to save you from a home invasion, human or otherwise.

If you've ever seen Twin Peaks or Fire Walk With Me, you know what I mean when I say "David Lynch Woods." That's what I call the North Woods when conditions are just right to induce shivers along my backbone, when the wind whips through the trees as ominously as a nightmare about to touch your easy rest and ruin it. That was the setting I picked for much of Wolf's Trap and its follow-up, Wolf's Gambit. Wolf's Bluff moved the action a bit to the southwest, but Wolf's Edge returns readers to the North Woods (as well as Milwaukee and World War 2 Italy) because there will always be more darkness, more fear, and more thrills in the predator's natural habitat. I’ve dubbed my dark tales set in these sometimes scary woods North Woods Noirs – the darkness is built right in.


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