Debut thrillers tend to fall into two categories: the perfectly plotted handshake that introduces us to the promise of a series to follow and, very rarely, the unexpected high dive that turns convention on its head, dazzling us with its sheer audacity.
Count Gina Wohlsdorf’s Security among the high-board thrillers, both for its narrative daring and successful weaving of horror, humor and Fifty Shades of Grey hotness into one unforgettable reading experience.
We enter the luxurious 20-story Manderley Resort in Santa Barbara less than 24 hours before its grand opening. Tessa, the general manager, rides roughshod over housekeeping, front desk and food & bev on the lower 19. The 20th floor remains off-limits to all but the resort’s elite security team, which monitors a state-of-the-art security system specifically designed to protect the world’s one-percenters.
But behind this behind-the-scenes, pre-grand opening frenzy lurks a masked killer who is systematically retiring the help, one by one, in gruesome ways.
Why the carnage? And who’s narrating this grim tale? Wohlsdorf offers clues in the chapter headings, which simply consist of security camera numbers. Then, less than 20 pages in, she doubles the intrigue by splitting the descriptive narrative briefly into two columns. Then three. Then four.
Wohlsdorf breaks into laughter when I admit my first reaction was, “Oh God, no!”
“Yeah, this could go so wrong!” she admits during a call to her home in Denver. “I was aware that it was a really, really sensitive device, and I didn’t want it to come across like a device. Whenever the head of security was seeing two or three things at once, I split the page. But I was aware of it as an instrument to sometimes get something across thematically, like splitting the page between a very graphic sex scene and also a staff member’s flight—this duality of sex and death, which is classic to the slasher genre.”
And she would know. Growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota, Wohlsdorf dealt with her own preadolescent anxiety by immersing herself in the big-screen mayhem of such cinema slashers as Halloween’s Michael Myers, Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees and Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger. Little did she realize that life would soon nudge her into exploring horror from a whole new perspective: her own.
“When I was 13, I got hit by a car going a good 30 miles per hour; it whacked me into the gutter and broke my upper arm clean in half. I looked up from the gutter and just started screaming, and people came to help,” she recalls. “As I was lying there, I suddenly realized: This is what you’ve been afraid of your whole life. You might die here, but you’re OK; it’s a beautiful day, the sun is out, birds are singing and that’s awesome. Lying in the gutter, I realized, you know, it’s really ridiculous how much time you’ve wasted being scared when this is it—you’re here and you’re fine.”
Several years later, she took her first stab at writing a slasher novel.
“I loved Stephen King, read everything by Stephen King and loved reading horror, but there was no ‘slasher’ novel,” she says. “So I sat down and tried to write one, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s why; that’s awful!’ It didn’t work at all. It just read wretchedly, and I kind of gave up.”
“As a kid, I was always wondering what Michael Myers was doing when he wasn’t on screen. Does he snack? Does he make phone calls or do laundry?”
To her surprise, her page and screen influences—including the Daphne du Maurier classic Rebecca (set in part in the Cornish estate of Manderley) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (with its creepy deserted hotel)—combined to inspire a new horror novel idea. But where to set it?
“I’m notoriously spatially challenged; you turn me in a circle and I get lost, even in places that I’m very, very familiar with,” Wohlsdorf admits. “So when I had the initial idea for Security, I sat down and drew a very simple schematic of the hotel. I knew there were 20 floors and an external pool and a glass cover. So I had a really good grasp of the grounds.”
She knew from experience that her killer would have to be three-dimensional to carry off such a locked-room mystery. She fashioned hers after one of her screen favorites.
“As a kid, I was always wondering what Michael Myers was doing when he wasn’t on screen. Does he snack? Does he make phone calls or do laundry?” she says. “So in my book, the killer is kind of the most human character, because you see him do all of those things. He’s human; he makes mistakes and he’s funny. He drags a liver along the floor like a tin can. Come on, that’s funny! You almost like him. You almost want to hang out.”
Recent public concerns over privacy and security, including Fox Sports reporter Erin Andrews’ hotel stalking lawsuit, provide the powerful subtext that drives Security. And once again, Wohlsdorf’s personal experience helped bring the security fears to life.
“I had this boss I once worked for who was bugging her breakroom. And we tested it, as workers will, and it was very strange to know that she could be listening at any time to our conversations, which she did quite often,” Wohlsdorf recalls. “Why would she need that? I’m sure that her rationalization was, that’s when you’re safe, when you just know everything that goes on. But that’s also when you’re so vulnerable, because that’s when your megalomania can really hobble your relationships. You see that in Security as well.”
For Wohlsdorf, whose works-in-progress include a father-daughter thriller and a “zombie romance,” facing some of life’s darkest fears has opened up more than just literary possibilities. “It’s life possibilities, too,” she says. “Writing’s scary, and trying to make a living is akin to suicide! Being fearless helps a lot.”
This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! All month long, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a daily dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.