What is a shadow but a Rorshach blot, a dark shape that fills your head with ideas that make you tremble? The shadow is nature’s foil for the fluffy white cloud that conjures images of lollipops and whales. Sure, not all shadows are scary. There are Hallmark moment shadows—say a shadow cast by a couple holding hands or your own shadow, which you probably don’t notice—but that’s not the kind of shadow I’m thinking of today. I’m writing about blurry edged shadows that provide cover for unknown things, the kind that make your heart beat faster.
A shadow’s greatest power is its ability to incite the imagination. All it has to do is exist to make someone curious or even scared. We all know that most things are “just a shadow,” but that usually doesn’t make anyone feel better. In some ways a mystery novel is a lengthy narrative of what an author sees in the shadows.
For my first twelve years, I lived just outside of Duluth, Minnesota on an overgrown patch of land with a creek running through it. In that part of Minnesota, the underbrush is thick and the shadows are thicker. You couldn’t even see the creek until you were basically in it. It’s not the kind of place you gleefully tromp through the woods to your treehouse, at least if you have an over active imagination. The bus used to drop me off a quarter mile from my driveway. Every day I would run at an outright sprint to my front door because I couldn’t see what was lurking in the shadows, not to mention, the only neighbor was Boo Radley-ing things up pretty good.
With the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction, the darkest writing has been coming from places with the coldest climates, Minnesota is crawling with mystery writers: John Sanford, William Kent Krueger, and Kristi Belcamino, to name a few. I think it’s more than the cold climate, though. In a mountain climate, the sun comes out and relieves the relentless gray of winter from time to time. Not so much in Minnesota. Winter goes on and on and the snow just keeps getting dirtier, especially up north. Plus, there’s the landscape. I’ve never been to a Scandinavian country, but every time I go for a walk in northern Minnesota where the forest is the thickest, I expect to stumble across a shallow grave or get shot by a hunter. It’s never happened, but my shadowy imaginings aren’t susceptible to logic. When the woods are encroaching, the shadows are long, and seasonal affective disorder is in play, any book you write will have a soul as black the shadows that inspired it.
Now, let’s all take a moment and breath. That was really dark of me! I normally tell a lot of jokes and write cozy mysteries. I was really getting in the shadow mood. It’s that time of year, I guess. Is anyone reading anything scary for Halloween? I’ve got some Shirley Jackson lined up.