There is absolutely nothing about Chelsea Cain to remotely suggest that she had the year’s scariest novel inside her. The daughter of hippies who spent her formative years in an Iowa commune, Cain’s published work to date consists of an arch Nancy Drew parody (Confessions of a Teen Sleuth), a hippie-child anthology (Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture), a memoir of a road trip with her dying mother (Dharma Girl), a folk art how-to (Hippie Handbook) and a send-up of self-help for superheroes (Does This Cape Make Me Look Fat?). At 35, Cain is a seemingly well-adjusted Portland, Oregon, wife and new mother whose humorous weekly column in the Oregonian shows nary a hint of the chill factor behind her blue eyes.
How did a peace-and-love child come to unleash the full-on, visceral assault to be found in her new thriller, Heartsick?
Nightmares, gentle reader, nightmares.
But before we explore Cain’s psyche, you need to meet Gretchen Lowell, who, should this series take off as expected, may one day join Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter in our collective anxiety closet.
As Heartsick opens, the lovely Gretchen is strategically pounding nails into the chest of wide-awake-but-chemically-immobilized Portland Police Detective Archie Sheridan, whose task force has been on the trail of a serial killer for the past decade. He never expected his search would lead to the beautiful blond psychologist who only recently volunteered her services to the cause, only to abduct him. Then again, Gretchen is full of surprises, mostly of the excruciatingly painful sort. During their intimate week together, she uses a variety of tools to probe Archie’s pain threshold, ultimately bringing him to the brink of death before calling 911, saving his life but forfeiting her freedom. Someone please pull this girl’s Home Depot card!
Flash forward two years. The ordeal has left Archie a shell of a man with a raging Vicodin habit who visits Gretchen in prison weekly to learn the burial sites of her 200-plus victims. Only Archie knows the real reason for his visits: He can’t quit her. When teenage girls start disappearing, Archie and the task force are called in to hunt down the newly dubbed After-School Killer. The Portland Herald assigns pink-haired punk reporter Susan Ward to shadow Archie for a behind-the-scenes series. As the search continues, Susan’s own secret past places her in the killer’s path, and Archie, sensing a certain Gretchen-ness in the latest carnage, makes the kind of bone-chilling discovery that will have readers sleeping with the lights on.
Despite a quirky pace and a tendency to press the plausible, Heartsick may be the scariest psycho killer ride since Silence of the Lambs. The squeamish should definitely look elsewhere (perhaps a nice how-to book).
As a pre-teen growing up in Bellingham, Washington, Cain was terrified by news accounts of West Coast psycho killers. "We had Ted Bundy, the Hillside Strangler, the Green River Killer—it seemed like there were serial killers everywhere as a kid," she recalls.
Years later, Cain was pregnant with her first child and overindulging on rainy BBC America mysteries when she channel-surfed upon a Larry King segment with members of the Green River task force. She recognized the guests from newspaper accounts she’d read as a kid, and was fascinated by footage of them interacting with confessed Green River Killer Gary Ridgway.
"They would go on these weird field trips together, looking for bodies of his victims, and they had this very congenial relationship with him. They just seemed like friends; they had known him for so long because he had been a suspect for much of the life of the case," she says.
With prenatal time on her hands ("I couldn’t drink," she quips), Cain decided to explore her darkest fears as a child, and perhaps her fears for her daughter as well.
" Didn’t Mary Shelley write Frankenstein when she was pregnant?" she asks. "Maybe there is something to that, a fascination with death and life. Pregnancy is violent; in a way, it’s its own little torture. Maybe that’s where the fascination with the body in Heartsick comes from."
As luck would have it, Cain had recently joined a weekly writing workshop hosted by an author friend who is no stranger to graphic detail: Chuck Palahniuk. Did the best-selling author of Fight Club, Haunted and Rant help crank up the gore quotient of Heartsick?
"Oh, hugely," Cain admits. "Chuck is a big proponent of unpacking—really anything, but especially anything that’s visceral. I remember reading a passage aloud where they find the first girl’s body on the beach and Chuck was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, I want to see what that girl looks like.’ And there’s something important in that, to understand the violence of that."
Choosing a female serial killer vastly opened up the psychological possibilities of the series—watch for Sweetheart and Heartbreaker in the next two years.
"That automatically added this sexual tension on top of it," Cain admits. "When women kill, we always want an explanation. We usually want to blame it on a boyfriend or a husband or a father; there’s got to be a guy in her past that screwed her up enough. But when men kill, we don’t necessarily feel this need to explain it. Women generally kill their babies or they kill their family members and they use poison or suffocation. It’s very quiet, it’s premeditated and it’s very different from the way men kill. I was interested in exploring a woman who kills like a man."
Though Cain admits she’s "a little nervous" about attracting an unstable fan or two with her graphic content, she defends her decision to "unpack" her childhood baggage.
" I don’t think it’s gratuitous. I think it’s a violent book, but in order to understand Archie and Gretchen’s relationship, which drives the whole narrative, you have to understand what he went through. Society is filled with violence. To point at a book and start crying about how that is where the problem is, that’s pretty naïve."
Jay MacDonald always wears his safety goggles when operating machinery.