What’s scarier than a psychopathic serial killer who can travel through time toying with victims at various points in their life? Not much if Lauren Beukes’ new thriller, The Shining Girls, is anything to go by.
It's 1931, and in Depression-era Chicago, the violent Harper is living a hand-to-mouth existence in Hooverville, until he commits a murder and takes refuge in a mysterious house. It is in this strange house that he discovers both a portal to other times and visions of his “shining girls”, women from various decades who “shine” for him and become his murder victims—but only after he has visited them as children, teenagers and then as adults. With the ability to time travel on his side Harper is the perfect, undetectable murderer—until one of his “shining girls” does the impossible . . . and survives.
The spectre of Lecter
Harper is one creepy character—incredibly violent, he takes pleasure and sexual gratification from the murder of his “shining girls”—and Beukes says that writing him “was terrible, it was horrible being inside his head. That’s why he gets fucked up at every available opportunity—from breaking his jaw to getting stung by a bee—I just had to hurt him whenever I could. I loathed him, but at same time I had to make him human as well. So it was interesting to see how he feels trapped by the house, how he tries to resist that and break out of the cycle by trying to find the meaning in things. I think that’s a very universal thing, we’re all trying to find meanings and patterns and Harper just has a very twisted and deviant form of that.
“The rest of us might read horoscopes—he’s reading entrails. But, the more research I did, the more apparent it became that the ‘Hannibal Lector’ thing doesn’t really ring true. Most serial killers are awful, pathetic human beings who can’t get it up. Harper doesn’t think too deeply, yes he’s tortured and feels trapped, but he’s not Hannibal Lector. I didn’t want to do a sexy, cool psychopath.”
Kirby Mazrachi, a punkish misfit, is the shining girl who survives Harper’s attempt to kill her in 1992, and she makes for a fine female lead. Strong and defiant, she is a stark contrast to Harper. “It was lovely to play with the differences between them and have her be such a strong antagonist for him, and a strong protagonist in general," Beukes says. "But for me what was most interesting is that she is kind of ordinary until the attack, and it is the attack that actually makes her shine. I’m not trying to say anything about victims and violence in general, but for Kirby, that’s the foundation point for her life.”
Having survived Harper’s brutal attack—which leaves her heavily scarred, both physically and emotionally—Kirby becomes obsessed with finding out the identity of her attempted murderer. While interning at the Chicago Sun Times, she befriends Dan, a former crime journalist, who has become isolated and cynical following his divorce. Amidst Harper’s gruesome killing spree—the total body count reaches double figures—Kirby and Dan’s friendship develops as the pair try to track him down. Their relationship is a mixture of buddy-cop banter and old-fashioned romance, and they make quite the duo.
“I loved writing those sections, because I feel they’re really sweet together. It’s nice for Kirby to have a foil and I think they do good things for each other. Dan’s trying to get her out of the obsession she has with finding Harper and she also reinvigorates Dan, he’s jaded and bored and she rekindles his passion and brings out the shine in him. It was great to have that relationship, it’s a big part of what made writing the book so fun for me, to have that almost love story in.”
With Beukes having worked for many years as a journalist, The Shining Girls is incredibly well researched, and Beukes has carefully constructed back-stories for all of Harper’s victims. “I listened to a lot of oral histories to try and get the distinctive voices right. It was great digging up all this weird, crazy history and plundering some of the good parts for fiction. I interviewed a lot of people (including a former Sun Times journalist), and went on research trips, because I think it is important to have those details to make things real; especially when you have a weird conceit like a time-travelling house.”
The Shining Girls is Beukes’ third novel; she followed up her 2008 début Moxyland, a cyberpunk novel set in a future Cape Town, in 2010 with Zoo City, a science-fiction thriller set in an alternate version of Johannesburg where criminals are magically attached to an animal familiar.
The latter won the Arthur C Clarke Award (the Man Booker Prize of SFF) in 2011. Although both of her previous books are further into the sci-fi camp than The Shining Girls, the genre-distinction argument drives Beukes “nuts”. She explains: “I didn’t ever specifically set out to write cyberpunk or science fiction or anything else, I’m just writing the stories I’m interested in telling. There will always be an element of the weird about my books in some way, because using crazy, mad conceits as a way of exploring real social issues and themes matters to me.”
On this note, one of the main draws of placing Harper’s time-travelling abode in Depression-era America was “finding the resonances with where we are today. To be able to play with the times of history is interesting to me and it was good to look at how much some things have changed and how other things and problems stay absolutely the same, and of course time travel is all about loops and cycles.”
A film adaptation of Zoo City is in the works, and Beukes recently stalked “The Wire” actor Idris Elba to his hotel room in order to give him a copy of the book—“He sent me an email saying he liked it, so celebrity stalking totally works.” Her next novel will move from Chicago to Detroit, but will again be a thriller “with a social edge and weird stuff happening. Ideally I would like to be a writer like David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood who can write whatever the hell they like and their fans follow them because it’s a fun story; that’s what I’m aiming for.”
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is out now from HarperCollins