My brother John is an actor. A few years ago he starred in an independent Irish horror film titled beyond the woods. Filming took place in a remote house in rural Cork in the dead of winter, mostly at night, over the course of a few weeks, with the small cast and skeleton crew remaining on location. Before filming could begin, the director had to go to the local Garda police station to say that if they received a report in the middle of the night of bloodcurdling screams coming from the woods, it was not someone who was being murdered. It was just them, shooting their horror movie.
It’s a hazard of my profession (author of detective novels; yes, spare a thought for our parents but they can take comfort in the fact that my sister has a respectable 9-5) which I immediately thought of but that would it happen if has been someone gets murdered? A horror movie set began to look like the perfect place to set a thriller. When I sat down to write the book that would become Duration, it became clear that for my idea to work, I needed to place the fictional horror movie’s script at the center of the novel, fully intact. To prepare for this, I set about reviewing some of my favorites in the genre.
I love when writers write about writing, so a disproportionate number of them featured scribes. There are many things about the life of a writer – the isolation and frustration, the blurring of lines between fact and fiction, reading your own reviews online – that suit a genre concerned with the darkest recesses of the human mind. I was watching some of these movies for the first time in years, and in those years my own life had completely changed. I had gone from dreaming of being a published author to doing it full time and it had a weird side effect. When I looked Misery, it wasn’t Annie Wilkes who terrified me the most. It was seeing a finished draft of a novel on real paper knowing that – it’s even hard to type that –it was the only copy of this one. (Nooooooooooooooooo etc)
There are horror movies about writers, and then there’s the horror of seeing the realities of a writer’s life rendered on the big screen. I have collected five such examples below. Some of these movies will make your heart race because they’re so close to the bone, but others will have you staring through your fingers because it’s clear no one was ever involved. seen a real book, let alone talked to someone who writes them. But all of them are, in their own way, great fun. If you’re a writer, maybe wait after you have met this deadline to get stuck. If you’re a reader, you can watch them knowing that the authors who strive to move, scare, and confuse you find these things the scariest of all.
That’s it other movie adapted from something Stephen King wrote about a writer who loses his mind in a hotel that doesn’t exactly encourage leaving. Former Serious Writer™ Mike Enslin (John Cusack) now makes a living writing about haunted hotels that, in his experience, aren’t actually haunted. But when he checks into room 1408 at the Dolphin in New York City, despite the hotel manager’s (Samuel L. Jackson) pleas to stay away, real horrors soon ensue. One of the scariest scenes in the movie comes early on when Enslin, who hasn’t published a new book in ten years, arrives at his own event to be mistaken by the annoyed salesman for a customer and then has to suffer the pain. indignity of speaking to an audience of four scattered about from each other in a sea of empty chairs. Give me a haunted hotel room this any day.
I’ve never been a big fan of research. It’s called fiction for a reason and if our detective stories were factually accurate, there should be 300 pages in the middle where someone is just waiting for forensics to come back. This film absolutely confirms my professional choices. True-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has just moved his family to a new town so he can investigate the grisly murder of a family that once lived there. We know he’s a writer because his cable knit cardigan has leather elbow patches and he wears his reading glasses on a chain around his neck. Oh, and he neglected to tell his wife that he moved them into the real house where the murders took place and that he just found video footage of their deaths in the attic. (Something tells me Hallmark doesn’t have a proper “New Home” card for this.) I have to watch most of it through my fingers because it’s really disturbing, but what really gives me some chills is their precarious financial situation. They haven’t sold their old house yet so they have to pay two mortgages, his last book was a disaster and he’s writing this new one on… On… On SPEC! [Insert a high-pitched, blood-curdling scream here.]
Based on a short story by – yes, you guessed it – Stephen King, this film has the misfortune of starring Johnny Depp as mysterious writer Mort Rainey, but since it also stars the fantastical John Turturro and was written and directed by David Koepp of jurassic park fame (now an acclaimed novelist himself), I include him here. Depressed, divorced and suffering from dual writers block and the worst bed hair you’ve ever seen, we meet Rainey locked in his ramshackle lakeside cabin, living on a diet of Doritos and Mountain Dew. He spends his days alternating between naps and staring for hours at the only four lines he’s managed to type. (He seems to have left two spaces after the period, which I’m sure you’ll agree is the scariest detail of all.) And things are about to get worse, because a dangerous man accuses him of plagiarism. When it comes to what it’s like to work from home, alone, as a writer, facing a deadline but with no words to get you there, this movie gets an A+ for accuracy. And that makes it one of the scariest writers movies of all.
Whether secret window sits at one end of the precision spectrum of the professional writer’s life, this so-called ‘steamy thriller – spoiler alert: it’s neither – sits about 500 feet past the opposite end. Big-selling thriller writer Mary Morrison (Kristin Davis) has decided to stop writing big-selling thrillers for unspecified reasons. His publishers tell him that they have financial difficulties and therefore really I need her to write just one more book in the series, even though her previous eight titles are still selling craploads, so I’m struggling with the math. They then present him with a terribly written offer that promises an “advance of: TWO MILLION DOLLARS” not for a book with a delivery date of, you know, reality, but ‘to start writing immediately’. And that’s before we get to the moment when a resigned Morrison sits down at her desk and begins to write her novel on unlined printer paper, by hand. (I can’t even.) This movie also suffers from a common confusing affliction: No book seen on screen is unlike any book you’ve ever seen in real life. Dear Hollywood, please start hiring real book designers to make your movie book covers, I love Catherine. This one isn’t meant to be a horror movie, but it sure is awful. What bothers me the most is that they didn’t call him Deadly hints. I mean come on.
YOU SHOULD LEAVE
A few years ago, on Ireland’s annual independent bookstore day, I called The Company of Books in Ranelagh, near my home in Dublin, and asked them to recommend a book. That’s how I ended up buying a new thin little one called You should have left by Daniel Kehlman. Translated from its original German, it tells the story of a screenwriter who retreats to an isolated Airbnb with his wife and young daughter so he can get to work on the sequel to his biggest commercial success, Best friends. The novel takes the form of the notebook he keeps to follow his progress, soon hampered by very mysterious events. In 2020, David Koepp, making his second appearance on this list, turned it into a movie starring Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried, and inexplicably recast the narrator as a retired banker who is, like, really try to enter into meditation. He still does a lot of scribbling in notebooks, so I’m including him here. This movie and the short story it’s based on are great reminders that you probably don’t need to move to a dangerously isolated place to get a few words across. If you really can’t work from home, maybe try a Starbucks.