In nine days, I’ll be hitting the publish button on Plague of Life, the final Rankin Flats supernatural thriller, at least in its current incarnation.
It was never supposed to end.
I didn’t like The Ghost at His Back’s premise. I didn’t care about ghosts, or gyms, or psychotic breakdowns of programmers. I saw an opportunity to create something that hadn’t really been done before, as far as I knew, and I thought – perhaps mistakenly – there was a bigger market for it. The plan was to write as many of these as readers liked, in an emulation of John Sandford’s Prey novels, just with a vigilante and his ghostly friends.
It’s funny now in retrospect. The Ghost at His Back and Shifting Furies were written entirely with future profits in mind, but both of them – and every novel to follow – wound up mattering more to me than any other work I’ve done before. Along the way, Garrett, Brianna, Murphy, and all the side characters dragged me kicking and screaming into loving them now and always. And once I did realize I loved them, loved all of them, I realized I had to let them have their end. A journey is wonderful, but a destination is closure. My characters deserved that.
The beginnings of The Ghost at His Back are murky in the back of my mind. The “real” first draft didn’t start until January of 2016, but the ever-helpful Facebook “memories” feature helped remind me that I did, in fact, write two chapters of the story way back in the beginning of 2015, nearly a year before my lizard brain thinks I started writing it.
In its earliest form, The Ghost at His Back was really The Ghost at My Back, a first-person narrative in the vein of Charlie Huston. The first chapter very much mirrored what you can read on paper today, minus the character Monica, who wasn’t a part of the novel until its real second draft in March of 2016. That first draft featured Murphy and Garrett breaking into the same barbershop – though this time the evil barber’s name was Emmerich.
The second chapter jumped quite a ways ahead of what you’d find now in a scene that killed my forward momentum in a hurry. The basics of it were that Garrett was playing poker with Danny – the same Danny from the published edition – along with several of their friends and acquaintances. This poker game, as poorly written as it was, set up wone of the more minor antagonists of the series, Ben the “Professor,” who is jealous of Garrett in all his successes and would have wound up betraying him.
The second half of the chapter introduces Brianna much earlier in the plot, as she joins her dad and the others for the poker game. Brianna in this version is a much “sexier” character, without the scars and with a few more curves than she wound up with in the final product. In this iteration, interestingly enough, she was a pastor, brought in straight out of college to a failing church. The original idea was to make her Garrett’s confessor of sorts. The idea, though, fell flat when I realized how many urban fantasy novels play on the same archetype. It stopped my progress on the novel for nearly a year, until one day, in the shower, I thought about why ghosts would be stuck here on Earth. They wouldn’t be good enough to go to heaven, or evil enough to drop to Hell, so…
“Ghosts are assholes.”
Now, keep in mind I don’t actually believe in ghosts or the paranormal. Well… to a certain extent. I believe there are probably some kernels of truth to certain mythologies about creatures, probably thanks to dying species of animals our ancestors saw in their last days on Earth that were then blown up into typical human bullshittery. You can see the same phenomena when it’s hunting season. Two-point deer suddenly become six-point monstrosities that the hunter “just missed.” In the same manner do I believe in mythologies. Was there probably some leathery winged creature that, from a distance, could be mistaken for something as big as a dragon? Sure! Why not? Do I believe these things exist now? Oh hell no.
Anyways, back to the process. The plot for the first draft of The Ghost at His Back revolved around a politician on a meteoric rise and whose house was protected by a ghost-killing smoke monster entity. Weird enough for you? Just wait. It gets worse.
Garrett, Murphy, and Brianna – now the daughter of a gym owner – take on the politician along with Padraig, the Scottish ghost who goes rogue on them in the draft you might have read. In that draft, Padraig is a coward, but he’s convinced by Murphy to help scout out the house. They find out the politician is a cannibal, belonging to the Legion (who are much the same as you’ve read in the final draft), and he has a shrine to a Legion dark entity in his basement (much the same as what lies under the school in Bone Carvers).
Here’s where things get really weird.
In order to stop the soul-killing smoke monster thing, Padraig sacrifices himself in an attempt to drag it to heaven (sound familiar?). Murphy realizes Padraig’s on the right track, and helps him, abandoning Garrett and Brianna but not before warning them that the Legion are bringing in trucks filled with bombs because… I don’t know why. That plot point was shaky at best. Something to do with killing Garrett, but why they didn’t just hire a sniper or something, I have no idea. Look, it was a bad first draft.
Anyways, Garrett and an FBI agent (not Shannon Oliver, but a sort of super-genius guy who sniffs out the vigilante) track down the trucks, but realize it’s a trap at the very last second. The trucks detonate, and the two are captured by the politician’s henchmen and dragged down to the basement of the politician’s house, where they’ll be sacrificed.
Cue Brianna and Stephanie, who have been waiting in the wings. When the bombs go off and Garrett hasn’t checked in, Garrett’s girlfriend and his sister come to rescue him… except Brianna’s killed by the politician after it seems the day has been saved. The idea was that “The Ghost at His Back” wasn’t Murphy, but Brianna, starting a bittersweet love story across the novels where they still were together, but unable to touch.
It was bad. And, weirdly enough, I’d really fallen for Brianna myself. Most of the men in the novels are based off someone, but I have such vivid imagery of the women I’ve written about that I don’t really need it. I’d created… well, not my ideal woman, but a beautiful one, flawed and spirited and more than willing to fight for what was good and right. I couldn’t kill her in The Ghost at HIs Back.
What came after that draft was a whirlwind of a complete rewrite to what you’re basically holding in your hand now. Elements were added – Monica’s part was fleshed out, the male FBI agent and the stupid bomb plot was dropped altogether, and I added Shannon Oliver and Annalise Fox, two of the biggest characters of the series, though their roles were admittedly a little small in that first novel.
On June 1st, I hit the publish button. It was premature – on the very first page, there was an error, and the whole book was riddled with more. I hadn’t proofread properly, but I was learning. I began work on a sequel immediately, a strange little thing that would continue the Shannon Oliver overarching plot while introducing new villains and allies.
And its name? The Ghost and the Shifter. More on that tomorrow.