If you have ever met David Morrell, it is hard to imagine him with a machete strapped to his back slogging through the wilderness or driving fast cars in skidding defensive maneuvers or handling sophisticated weapons or mastering subtle forms of martial arts. Yet the soft-spoken and seemingly gentle-natured author has done all of these things and more, as he has stepped into the lives of the protagonists and antagonists in his books so he could know how they would act and how their minds would work. For his latest novel he spent hundreds of hours earning his private pilot’s license. But more about that later.
Despite the more than 30 books that would follow, Morrell is still best known for his first major work. Along with Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter, John Rambo is among the most recognizable characters in the literature of the past century. In fact, largely because of the popularity of the movie version of First Blood, the word, Rambo, is frequently spelled without the capital R and has found a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. David Morrell had no idea that, after nearly four decades, he would still be defined by his first published novel. Yet he has no regrets. In an interview a few years ago, he told me, “If it weren’t for John Rambo, far fewer people would be reading my other books, and I’m still proud of having created the character.”
On July 11, Morrell became the fourth author to be named ThrillerMaster at the annual meeting of the International Thriller Writers in New York City, joining the company of Clive Cussler, James Patterson and Sandra Brown. The much-deserved award recognizes the author’s contributions to the field over the past 37 years. And, although Morrell has occasionally penned some powerful works of horror, with three Bram Stoker Awards and a couple of World Fantasy nominations to his credit, along with The Totem, a truly unique slant on the werewolf subgenre, he has been largely content writing some of the best suspense novels of the last few decades.
With The Shimmer, released this month, David Morrell has finally, just barely, crossed that fuzzy line into science fiction. Many authors, including Stephen King, have mentioned that the most frequent and most annoying question they receive from fans and interviewers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Morrell answers that question in detail in “Afterword: Specters in the Dark” that follows The Shimmer.
“On November 7, 2004, I paged through the Sunday edition of my local newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican. Although I don’t normally read the travel section, the headline for one of its articles caught my eye.
LIGHT UP YOUR LIFE
TINY MARFA, TEXAS, BOASTS WEIRD NATURAL PHENOMENA
“The caption for a ghostly photograph referred to ‘mystery lights.’
“I couldn’t resist.
“Reprinted from the Washington Post, the article described how its author, Zofia Smardz, had taken her family to Marfa, a small town in west Texas, searching for strange lights that are visible there on many nights throughout the year. It’s difficult to tell how far away the lights are. Magical, they bob and weave, float and waver, blink and glow, appear and vanish.”
Morrell goes on to tell how the image germinated in his imagination over the next four years and how this article, combined with other elements, including the author’s discovery that one of his favorite movies, Giant, was filmed in Marfa and that its young star, James Dean, had been fascinated by the lights. So, if you have ever had wondered where writers get their ideas, be sure to read the “Afterword” after you have read The Shimmer.
Here is just a bit about the plot of the book: Dan Page, a New Mexico police officer and private pilot comes home after helping to catch a criminal by following him in his Cessna and discovers that his wife Tori has packed a suitcase and left. He finds a terse note on the kitchen table, “gone to see my mother.”
Page tries and fails to reach his wife on her cell, and a call to Tori’s mother in San Antonio reveals that she was surprised that her daughter was coming to visit and that she doesn’t expect her for several hours. Next, Page receives a mysterious call from the police chief in Rostov (Morrell’s fictional Marfa), Texas, telling him that his wife is in the small town, and he needs to come there.
Page hurries to his plane and heads south, where he finds his wife at a viewing stand, seemingly hypnotized by lights that, at first, he cannot see. Before long a lot of people die.
I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but in the pages that follow, expect mass murder, movie stars, government secrets that smack of science fiction, futuristic weapons, military plots and bungling megalomaniacal villains, Gothic tunnels and secret passageways, and blood and mayhem, with Page and his plane flying through the middle of it all.
In Morrell’s capable hands The Shimmer is a dandy suspense novel, a spy thriller and a believable romance with quite a few science fiction elements to spice up the action. There may not be enough science fiction here for a Hugo or a Nebula, but Morrell’s fans and anyone looking for a good thriller that is just a bit out of the ordinary will not be disappointed.