David Morrell's tale of the crypt
In 2004 at the Toronto Bouchercon, Gayle Lynds and I helped found the International Thriller Writers organization. Subsequently, I had ample opportunity to think about the nature of thrillers and explore the theory that genres can be identified by the emotions they evoke: horror/fear, romance/sentiment, science fiction/awe, mysteries/puzzlement, thrillers/exhilaration, etc. I’m still trying to figure out the primary emotion of westerns, and you might disagree about some of the pairings. Science fiction and awe? Some visions of the future have been depressing more than awe-inspiring. But you get the idea.
There’s another way to look at genres, and that’s in terms of their structures. For thrillers, my favorite structural description comes from an unexpected source, the postmodernist author John Barth. In the late 1960s, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on his work and often find myself referring to his narrative theories when I’m trying to solve a problem in my fiction. In an essay about Tobias Smollett’s 1748 novel The Adventures of Roderick Random, Barth wrote that the “ancient, most profoundly lifelike human sports, the obstacle race and the scavenger hunt” are also the oldest and most appealing for storytellers.
When I read that passage, something in my imagination raised its head. What a perfect way to describe a thriller, I thought. An obstacle race and a scavenger hunt. The hero or heroine overcomes hurdles in a race against time to complete a scavenger hunt for a treasure that can take countless forms—a rescued loved one, an averted disaster, a secret that saves an innocent person from being executed. I can’t think of a satisfying thriller that doesn’t fit that concept. So it was inevitable, I suppose, that one day I would write a book in which an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt were literal plot elements. To emphasize my intention, I even used the title Scavenger.
How literal? Consider this passage in which an elderly professor addicted to video games reads from the back of a game called Scavenger and unknowingly describes the novel she is in. “Scavenger is a life-and-death obstacle race and scavenger hunt in which the characters use high-tech instruments to discover a lost hundred-year-old time capsule. In the process, they learn that Time is the true scavenger.”
Time. I recall the excitement this idea created in me. If a thriller was an obstacle race against time and if my plot was a literal scavenger hunt, then why couldn’t the object of the hunt be time itself? Of course, time is an abstract concept, difficult to dramatize, but a time capsule isn’t, and Lord knows, there are plenty of fascinating stories behind time capsules. Consider the Crypt of Civilization, a project envisioned in 1936 by Thornwell Jacobs, the president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
Troubled by the Great Depression and the expansionist military policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan, Jacobs became so concerned about the survival of the world that he arranged for a drained indoor swimming pool to be filled with hundreds of thousands of microfilmed pages of encyclopedias along with such everyday objects as a toilet brush, a lipstick, a grapefruit corer, a fly swatter, Lincoln Logs, and an ampule of Budweiser beer.
It took four years to fill the swimming pool. When its stainless steel door was finally welded shut in 1940, Jacobs said, “The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.” But by 1970, the Crypt was virtually forgotten until a graduate student, Paul Hudson, snuck into the basement of a campus building to do some urban exploring and was startled to see his flashlight reflect off an eerily shiny door. Thanks to Hudson, who went on to become Olgethorpe’s registrar and a founder of the International Time Capsule Society, that basement was opened to the public. Students now pass the Crypt every day, though none will ever see its contents because it isn’t scheduled to be opened for 6,000 years.
Although the Crypt was finally remembered, thousands of other time capsules have not been as lucky. One town misplaced 17 of them. In another, all the members of a committee that buried a capsule died before they could tell anyone its location. In yet another, a time capsule was buried in a street. Its plaque used to be visible. In a perfect illustration of the layers of time, subsequent street repairs put pavement over the plaque. Now no one remembers where the time capsule is.
Lost time. Forgotten time. Those are treasures worthy to be hunted. In Scavenger, my version of the Crypt of Civilization is called the Sepulcher of Worldly Desires. It’s been missing for a hundred years, but as my characters are forced to follow clues in a desperate 40-hour hunt to try to find the time capsule, they discover that sometimes the past is buried for a reason. An obstacle race against time. A scavenger hunt to find time. It isn’t often that the metaphors for a genre become literal plot elements in an example of that genre. I confess that made me smile.
Scavenger by David Morrell (Vanguard Press, March 2007, $24.95)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #99.