TALION -- Paranormal Thriller

My novel Talion began as a novella about the friendship between Lu and Lisa, teenagers from different backgrounds. I fell in love with Lu, who clings to her selfhood despite neglect and abuse. But the story dragged, weighed down by the characters' pasts and a present where the conflict arose from their general distrust of one another. Nothing was happening! The plot needed a catalyst, a threat that would either unite or destroy them.

Rad entered the story, stalking the girls as they sunbathed at an old dam in the mountains. The narrative was third person with multiple points of view, and I could not avoid including Rad's. Since his character is so far outside my experience, I had research to do.

Two or three books, I thought, but I ended up reading ten times that many. As often happens, a little knowledge taught me how little I knew.  My reading fell into three categories: books written by FBI profilers or police detectives, journalistic accounts of true crimes, and academic books.

Serial killers have been popularized in fiction, most famously Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs and his villain Hannibal Lector, whose powers verge on the supernatural. Harris drew material from the books of the FBI profilers who studied these criminals: Robert Ressler, John Douglas, Roy Hazelwood. So I began with them and learned the concept of signature, those details of the killer's crimes that express his inner needs and fantasies – his ritual. If he needs to arrange his victims' bodies in lewd poses, that's part of his signature.  His MO might evolve as his skill increases or circumstances dictate, but his signature never changes. I learned serial killers are driven by their fantasies.

The true crime genre is a perennial favorite, and given the dark side of human nature, journalists always have fresh material. Since these books describe the killer's crimes at length, they make difficult reading. In the 1970's a sadist named Cameron Hooker kidnapped a girl and kept her in a box under his bed. For years. He would take her out, rape and torture her, then stash her back in the box. His wife helped.  As always in cases like this, the question arises whether the wife was an accomplice or another victim. I had nightmares of being shut inside that box and realized serial killers' fantasies are worse than anything I could imagine.

The academic books gave me less practical help in writing Rad's character, but they broadened my understanding of the darkness in human beings. In Why They Kill, Richard Rhodes chronicles the life of Lonnie Athens, a criminologist whose violent childhood led him to research how people become violent.  Athens concludes violence is learned behavior – an optimistic finding since it implies violence may be unlearned. In Dark Nature: A Nature History of Evil, Lyall Watson explores the biological roots of human actions that are considered evil, or more accurately, amoral. He takes the more pessimistic view that amorality is part of our nature. But Rad falls outside the category of ordinary evil. Watson presents a complicated theory to explain serial killers, one that confirms my sense of them as monstrous. To make their fantasies come true, they lose whatever humanity they might have had.


Mary Maddox grew up in Utah and California. A graduate of Knox College and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, she taught writing and literature at Eastern Illinois University. She lives in Charleston, Illinois with her husband, film scholar Joe Heumann. Her interests include dressage and tournament Scrabble. Mary's short stories have appeared in a number of magazines including Farmer's Market, Yellow Silk, and The Scream Online. Her fiction has been honored with an Artist's Grant and a Literary award from the Illinois Arts Council.