By J.J. Hensley
Channing sat in the chilly theater and watched the curtain lift toward the ceiling. Cool air blew over the heads of the audience members as the lights dimmed. Beside him, his daughter squirmed in anticipation. If he was going to be honest with himself, Channing had to admit he too was curious about the show since he had no idea what was involved in a 4D production. As a child of the late 70s, he was all too familiar with 3D movies and the cheap cardboard glasses with the red and blue lenses. But what the hell was 4D?
The sounds of thunder rumbled from speakers all around the theme park theater that had been designed to look like a cave in the depths of an ocean. Overly-tired parents leaned back, taking much needed breaks while their sugar-fueled children bounced in cloth-covered seats. Moving images of fish and lobsters danced across the screen and leapt out toward the audience in typical 3D fashion. A few of the children made sounds of delight and one girl let out a squeal.
He needed this. Being a private investigator, or whatever the hell he was these days, came with benefits, but Channing had been feeling the toll from pursuing a disgruntled former chemist he knew was looking to not only commit mass murder, but had communicated his intent to target scores of children with a nerve agent.
Sounds of rain filled the space all around. He, along with the rest of the crowd, looked up and tilted special yellow viewing glasses toward the ceiling as a plane of fine mist formed and illuminated near the ceiling.
As some of the droplets touched his face, it came to him. Ah. 4D. Then his heart stuck in his throat as the realization struck him like a cinderblock to the nose.
My God. This is how he’ll do it, thought Channing. This is how he’ll kill the children. This is how he might be doing it… right now.
Back in real life, my wife turns to our daughter and me as the three of us exit the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show at Hollywood Studios. “What did you think?” Predictably, my five year old says that she loved the show, although she points out it was an abridgment of the movie version of the story.
My spouse then turns to me and asks, “J.J., what did you think of the show?”
I smile. “It was fine.”
What I’m thinking is, I KNOW A WAY I CAN KILL SO MANY FAKE PEOPLE!
And THAT is why it is a wise policy for crime novelists to censor their thoughts from time to time. At least while on a family vacation. And perhaps at restaurants. And probably while walking in the park, taking their dog to the vet, shopping at the bookstore, attending a football game, working in the garden, taking out the trash, during ANY trip to the hospital, and certainly at the Department of Motor Vehicles (because actual murder might be too tempting while waiting at the DMV). Actually, self-censoring is a solid plan pretty much anytime except dinner parties. It’s fine to let the disturbing thoughts out at dinner parties because let’s face it; we are all secretly hoping a real life game of CLUE will break out.
I’m lucky. My wife is a veteran of my cerebral trips to Crazyville; she became accustomed to the odd workings of my mind when I was a Secret Service agent. In that line of work, you’re constantly in a state of threat assessment. Nearly every day you take a moment to think, How would I try to kill X if I were an assassin?
Yeah. Perfectly normal.
That type of thinking didn’t vanish with my change in employment and may have even become even more twisted when I became a writer. While Secret Service agents tend to think, How would I try to kill X if I were an assassin, writers tend to think, How would I try to kill X,Y,and Z and then get away with it in the coolest possible way.
Yeah. Perfectly normal.
As writers, we tend to draw inspiration from multiple sources. We read, we study, we inquire, and we experience as circumstances permit. Our minds run down dark pathways, hit dead ends, and then turn back looking for alternate, even darker paths. At times the thoughts come at us so quickly we need to take notes or create voice memos on our iPhones. (Author’s note: I do not recommend creating any voice memos like, “Have Johnny put the body in the swamp” or “This is the perfect place to stab five people” while in earshot of other people. You may have to explain some things to the authorities later.) But on occasion, should we turn it off these thoughts? Can we?
All writers need a little time to recharge. There are many tremendous writers out there who would disagree with me on this point, but I think there’s a benefit from not only walking away from writing for short periods, but from not thinking about plots, characters, and settings. Have you ever read several books by an author and thought that all the works were somewhat similar? There may be some simple and well-thought-out reasons for this, such as wanting to repeat the success of a previous book or playing to the demands of a fan base. However, sometimes I wonder if the similarity in characters and plot lines occurs because the author never really stepped back from his or her work to gain a fresh perspective.
It happens in music as well. Some bands crank out songs at such a furious pace, many of the songs sound alike. To this day I’m not sure I can distinguish between the Aerosmith songs, Cryin’, Amazing, and Crazy. Of course it may just be me, because I also think their bassist may have fought Bruce Willis in Die Hard. On the other hand, too much time away from the art can have a detrimental effect. For instance, the fantastic films Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were all released within a nine year span. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came after a 19 year break, proving that extremely long breaks can be detrimental to all mankind.
Some writers under deadline-driven contracts don’t have an option to step away, but many do. Those breaks can be helpful and give the writer’s mind (and family) a much needed recess from BatShitCrazy 101. Besides, even Ariel in The Little Mermaid took a break from singing for a short while and things turned out fine for her. At least I think so. I was pretty busy committing Mental Mass Murder when the show ended.
J.J. HENSLEY is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Hensley’s works include the novels Chalk’s Outline, Measure Twice and Resolve; the latter was named one of the BEST BOOKS OF 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was a finalist for Best First Novel at the 2014 Thriller Awards.
To learn more about Chalk’s Outline, click on the cover below: