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The Shimmer Excerpt from The Shimmer

by David Morrell

Specters in the Dark

On November 7, 2004, I paged through the Sunday edition of my local newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican. Although I don't normally read the travel section, the headline for one of its articles caught my attention.


The caption for a ghostly photograph referred to "mystery lights."

I couldn't resist.

Reprinted from the Washington Post, the article described how its author, Zofia Smardz, had taken her family to Marfa, a small town in west Texas, searching for strange lights that are visible there on many nights throughout the year. It's difficult to tell how far away the lights are. Magical, they bob and weave, float and waver, blink and glow, appear and vanish.

As the article pointed out, no one can say for sure what causes them. Perhaps quartz crystals absorb the heat of the day and give off static electricity when the rocks cool at night. Perhaps the lights are formed by radioactive gases. Or perhaps temperature inversions in the atmosphere refract lights from faraway vehicles. Whatever the explanation, the lights have been in west Texas for quite a while. As far back as the 1880s, a rancher noticed them and assumed they came from Indian campfires, except that when he searched in the morning, he didn't find evidence of any campfires.

The article's author described her visit to the area's viewing station. Along with her husband and two boys, she stood at the side of a country road and stared toward the dark horizon, pointing excitedly when the lights made their dramatic appearance. On occasion, however, she saw the lights when her family didn't, or else her family saw the lights when she saw nothing. A similar contrast happened when other tourists joined them. Some people were transported by the lights, while others couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

I finished my coffee, tore out the page, and went to my office, where I put the article among others on a shelf of research materials. I've been doing this for decades, stacking items that intrigue me, waiting to discover which of them calls to my subconscious.

It didn't take long for the Marfa lights to do exactly that. During many nights in the final months of 2004, just before I went to sleep, a persistent image kept appearing in my imagination. A woman stood at a viewing platform at the side of a road, staring spellbound toward alluring lights on a dark horizon. Unlike the author of the Marfalights article, this woman was not accompanied by her husband and children. Although married, she was alone. Having stopped while driving to visit her mother, she was so obsessed by the lights that nothing else mattered to her, including the husband who came looking for her.

That was all I had, and as 2005 began, I didn't even have that -- the image stopped appearing in my imagination. I'm used to ideas not being ready to reveal themselves completely, so I worked on other projects: Creepers, Scavenger, and The Spy Who Came for Christmas. Periodically, though, I removed the article from the stack on my office shelf. Rereading it, I felt compelled to do increasing research until I had a thick binder crammed with notes.

I learned that Marfa isn't the only place where the lights appear. Three other locations -- the Hessdalen valley in Norway, a remote part of the Mekong River in Thailand, and a rugged area in northeastern Australia -- have similar phenomena. In Australia, they're called the Min Min lights, and when an Australian fan got in touch with me through my website, I asked if he knew anything about the lights.

It turned out that the fan, a police officer named Daniel Browning, had actually experienced the lights.
My dad, Robert, and I were out near a town called Muttaburra in central Queensland, doing some kangaroo shooting about 30 years ago. Muttaburra was a tiny little town (10 houses). Dad was a professional "roo" shooter. We were doing some shooting at night by spotlight. We were out in the middle of nowhere -- no houses or roads anywhere nearby.

We saw a light. It was just suddenly there. We didn't see it coming at all. It just appeared and shadowed us. It did not seem to get closer or move away. It just stayed the same distance from us, moving with us. The thing wasn't on the ground or high in the air. It just sort of hovered. It lasted about 10 minutes, and what makes it vivid in my memory is that it shook my old man up. He knew we weren't remotely anywhere near homes or vehicles. This thing really had him worried, and then it was gone.
With that image drifting through my mind, I came across the DVD version of one of my favorite movies Giant (1956). Directed by George Stevens, it stars James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson in an epic about a Texas oilman's multidecade feud with a prominent cattle family. To my amazement, a documentary informed me that a lot of the film had been photographed in Marfa, the same town where the lights appeared. Moreover, a subsequent Internet search revealed that James Dean had been fascinated by the lights. He'd dragged his costars and his director to the viewing area, but he turned out to be the only one who could see them.

These elements worked on my imagination until, almost three years after that November morning when I'd come across the newspaper article, I was again visited by the image of the solitary woman who stood in the darkness at the side of a road, staring at the mysterious lights. But now I had another image: a man flying a single-engine airplane (I had recently started private-pilot lessons). To this I added the giant dishes of a radio observatory (there is in fact an observatory near Marfa) and the ruins of a military airbase from World War II (an abandoned airbase does exist outside Marfa, near where the lights appear).

I wasn't sure how all these items could be connected. Even so, I suddenly couldn't wait to begin. I made a list of all the elements I wanted to include, creating my own versions of people who in actuality had seen the lights: the rancher in the 1880s, the schoolteacher in the 1910s, James Dean in the 1950s, and the crowd involved with the ghost-light hunt in the 1970s. Yes, there really was a ghost-light hunt. A surprising amount of "reality" is in The Shimmer.

Of course, it's an alternate reality in the same way that Marfa and Rostov are alternate versions of a town in west Texas. Marfa is supposedly named after a character in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, whereas I named Rostov after a character in Tolstoy's War and Peace. Despite the parallels, no one in The Shimmer is meant to be identified with anybody in Marfa, although I hope that this novel makes you want to visit Marfa, which has come a long way since its cattle-town days and is now a picturesque artists' community similar to Sedona, Arizona, and Santa Fe.

In one respect, however, reality needed improving. Outside Marfa, the famous ranch-house set for Giant, which I call Birthright, was indeed only a facade. Although it appeared to be an entire, grand building, if you walked behind it, you found only open grassland. Over the years, that fake front disintegrated until only its support beams remain, and they won't stay upright much longer. Because of my fondness for Giant, in The Shimmer I allowed the movie set to endure.

For more information about this novel's background, search the Internet for "Marfa lights." You'll find over half a million sites. The more you learn, the more you'll understand what I meant earlier when I wrote that a surprising amount of "reality" is in this book.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Shimmer by David Morrell. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 David Morrell, author of The Shimmer