Thunder Road began with a modern cowboy named Tom Abernathy. One day, he simply emerged, fully formed, and ambled patiently around in my head for quite some time before another character came to life via one of the most horrifying yet fascinating nightmares I’ve ever had. Not long after that, I read about UFO reports in the California High Desert, out by my favorite historical amusement park, Calico Ghost Town. (Even if you’ve never visited Calico, you may have seen bits of it in movies like Tremors 4.)
I had cowboys, amusement parks, serial killers, and UFOs – but I needed one more thing. I remembered that, years and years ago, there had been a cult of sorts surrounding a high desert structure called the Integratron, where people went to try to communicate with aliens. While I kept some UFO cultists hanging around Old Madelyn Amusement park – Madland, my version of Calico – I decided my main cult would be a religious one. That was because too many missionaries had been knocking on my door lately and I needed some sweet revenge.
Also, I really wanted to try my hand at an apocalypse novel and where there are cowboys, there are horses, so I suddenly had visions of the Four Horsemen prancing through my skull. I was now officially in love with the the book.
The mountains around Calico are famous. As the sun sets, they glow with eerie colors cast by all the minerals that were mined there besides silver. One of the most famous was borax, as in Boraxo Hand Soap. The chemical was hauled by a twenty-mule team on a hard road between mining towns (all the way out to Death Valley) and then into the city. I had walked the road behind Calico and recalled seeing it on TV as a little kid. What better name than Thunder Road, especially since I knew drag racing was going to be a problem in Madland. So I named my new novel for Bruce Springsteen’s song. He, in turn, had been inspired by the poster of the 1958 Robert Mitchum movie of the same name. It was about running moonshine. It all fit.
So, there, you have it. Cowboys, sheriffs, tattooed ladies, a sexy shepherdess, horses, rodeos, crazy prophets and crazier followers babbling about the coming apocalypse, aliens, one ghost story (how could I skip ghosts?), a beautiful UFO researcher, lots of quotes by Jacques Vallee, and not one, but two – count ‘em, two – serial killers!
In addition to being a very fun write, Thunder Road gave me some great returns. One was a friendship with Jacques Vallee (the French scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is based on him); and another was a treasure trove of ghost stories.
While I believe the UFO sightings up in that area of the desert are primarily atmosphere or military related, I came to find out – and witness – that the real Calico Ghost Town is absolutely overrun with ghostly anomalies that’ll knock your socks off (though you’ll get nothing but denials if you ask those currently running the park). But that’s a story for another novel…
An excerpt from Thunder Road:
‘Justin had never been in here before, and he looked around, impressed with the rich, dark colors, the candlesticks and stacks of cards, the Tiffany lamp in the corner. He sat at the table and reached for the crystal ball.
“Don’t touch that.”
Justin hesitated, then withdrew his hand.
Carlo folded his arms and leaned against a rolltop desk. “What do you need to talk about?”
“Tonight. What we’re, I mean you’re, going to do to Alexandra Manderley.”
“Peel her,” the man said slowly. “What else is there to discuss?”
“You’re going to do it?”
“And you’re going to teach me?” he added hopefully.
“You may watch. Whether you can learn or not is a question that remains unanswered.”
The doorbell rang, and Carlo stood. “Come back tonight at midnight. You may go now.”
Justin rose, in awe. The man was a king, a leader among men, with a voice so commanding that Alexandra Manderley would probably peel her own skin from her bones if he asked. “Midnight,” he repeated, following Carlo to the back door.’
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