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The first thing you must know about Carter Wilson is this: He lives in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home, designed with tongue-in-cheek detail to evoke the Addams Family mansion. The house is the color of charcoal, with deep purple trim tracing the windows and doors. There’s a turret, a line of iron spikes at the edge of the roof, and a bat carved into the entrance gate. A Jack Skellington doll (from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas) lounges out on the front porch year-round.
Yet this house, like several of the projects the Erie author and hospitality consultant has conceived over the years, is not entirely as it appears. Wilson built it with the help of an architect in the early 2000s to look Victorian, as requested by the neighborhood developers. That fancy oval window and arrow-tipped weathervane are just for show, because Wilson wanted what he calls “the house.” You know which one he’s referring to: The house all the kids flock to on Halloween because it’s an irresistible blend of the beguiling and bizarre. Every October 31, Wilson decks it out with animatronics, motion sensors, and hidden cameras, which capture the hilarious reactions of spooked trick-or-treaters (some of which you can watch on YouTube). He delights in those few seconds of pure terror—and, of course, the ensuing laughter.
Considering the house, the Halloween festivities, and the penchant for people-watching, it’s not a stretch to imagine Wilson as a thriller author. He’s now published six books, the latest of which is The Dead Girl in 2A (out July 2 from Poisoned Pen Press). And while each of his novels has fallen on the eerie end of the storytelling spectrum, The Dead Girl in 2A’s book jacket pitch alone is disquieting: Freelance journalist Jake Buchannan is on a business flight to Denver, where he’s promised to meet a man who’s paying him $75,000 to ghostwrite his memoir (as real-life journalists everywhere sigh, If only). In the seat next to him is a woman Jake swears he’s met before, but he can’t put a name to her face. As the two travelers struggle to uncover their connection, the woman reveals why she’s headed to Colorado. She’s going to the Maroon Bells to die.
Besides living in a Halloween-ready home a la Stephen King, Wilson also possesses the bestselling horror author’s knack for compulsively readable concepts. How could you not want to know what happens once that woman disappears into the bustle of DIA? And though Wilson might not have the fame or experience of King, his personal hero, he likes to promise he has something you won’t get from many stories: originality. That’s what he considers more important than anything else in his writing career.
He reads the reviews of his books. He cares about feedback. He wants to sell copies. But if he can make sure whatever he’s putting out into the world isn’t boring, then as far as Wilson’s concerned, he’s doing his job. Sure, lots of authors like to make the same claims to have wild, original ideas that have “never been done before.” But The Dead Girl in 2A might actually have a shot at the title of “original.” Early reviewers have noted how “unpredictable” the story is, what a “surprise” it was to read. That’s not an easy bar to meet in the world of thrillers.
It’s easy to disregard these opinions until you actually read the book, and you’re met with not only a very strange plane trip to Denver, but a world of amnesiac adults: dying millionaires; a personal investigator who only goes by the letter “L”; a former middle-school teacher who’s somehow secured enough money from her adoptive parents to stay at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen.
Wilson, who’s fond of fragments and occasionally heavy-handed metaphors, has nevertheless written something cinematic that desires to be an HBO script.
If you catch Wilson out and about with his sleeves rolled up, you’ll notice a large tattoo on his right arm, which displays a bottle of ink and a feather quill drawn as if it were plunging its tip into his flesh. Needled onto the ink bottle’s surface is the beloved writer’s cliche: “Kill your darlings.” It might be a bold way of saying it, but Wilson’s aware no story comes without some sacrifice. And as he continues to write novels, he’s aware of the emotional pull of them, the ways he’s forcing himself to confront some of his worst fears—such as losing his memory—and his own pain, especially the loss of his father from Alzheimer’s-related issues 10 years ago. The fact that the theme of The Dead Girl in 2A is memory loss is no accident.
Maybe originality is the thing that’s most important to Wilson. But given that, in the author’s note of The Dead Girl in 2A, he’s written, “Dad, I think you would have liked this one,” we can be sure it’s not the only thing.
If you go: Carter Wilson will speak and sign copies of The Dead Girl in 2A at Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th St., on July 9 at 7 p.m.