The worst environmental disaster in US history inspired a new horror novel.
Usually when someone asks me, “Where did you get the idea for this novel?” I find myself retracing footprints through my mind. Ideas for novels rarely arrive fully formed on a red carpet; more often, they form as nebulous, shape-shifting concepts that collide with other ideas, reform, gestate, mutate and finally arrive on a plate resembling an altogether different meal than I had anticipated. This was not the case for Black Creek, my latest novel for Medallion, which pits the survivors of a deadly snowstorm in the area formerly known as Love Canal, New York, against vicious mutant cannibals seeking to reclaim their land. Although the story evolved in steps, I remember each one vividly.
Writing instructors say, “Write what you know.” This is a good homily for settings for novels, not so much for actual stories. We know our jobs, our schools, our friends and our families, and most of them do not scream, “I am a page-turning thriller.” But sometimes choosing a setting can be half the battle. For Black Creek I drew on two historical events from my childhood that occurred one year apart.
I grew up in the village of Fredonia, a pretty college town one hour south of Buffalo, where I now reside, in Western New York. In 1976, when I was 12 years old, WNY suffered its worst snowstorm ever — until the following year. The Blizzard of ’77 was one for the history books. Side roads went unplowed, we missed school for weeks and our driveway magically grew four feet of snow every time we cleared it. My mother took a photograph of our cocker spaniel sitting atop a snowdrift looking down at the rooftop of our ranch house. In Buffalo, the snow reached the top of street signs, and people poked sticks and poles through the snow, searching for their vehicles. Canadian rescue workers rode snowmobiles over a frozen Lake Erie to lend assistance. It was like an Irwin Allen disaster flick, minus the all-star cast. Most of us survived that storm (there were 23 storm-related deaths). Western New Yorkers are survivors in general: we survive the weather, we survive a bad economy (the rest of the country just caught up with us), we survive the Buffalo Bills. After my first novel, Personal Demons, was published, I always knew I’d revisit that storm one day.
After high school, I attended college in New York City, where I lived for 21 years before returning to the area. On one trip home, I found myself in the taxi of a young driver who had just bought a house with his wife in Love Canal, located in neighboring Niagara Falls. Love Canal was a fixture of my childhood. Back in the era before cable TV, we had about six channels with good reception, with half an hour of local news and half an hour of network news beginning at 6:00 p.m., and another half hour of local news at 11:00. For a couple of years, reports on Love Canal were a staple of those news shows, locally and nationally. In 1978, after the Blizzard of ’77, President Jimmy Carter declared the area the first man-made national disaster area due to health hazards caused by decades of toxic waste dumping, and authorized the relocation of some 800 families. For me, this was just one of those stories discussed every night on the news, like Watergate or Three Mile Island. I didn’t realize until that taxi ride how close to Love Canal I grew up, and I felt sad that young people could afford homes only in the supposedly rehabilitated neighborhood. And that taxi driver told me his wife was pregnant.
Photo courtesy of Chris Cosgrave
As soon as I discovered the town had been renamed Black Creek Village, I knew there was a horror story to be written about the neighborhood.
Perhaps 15 years later, after moving to Buffalo, I took a tour of Love Canal, a mere 20-minute drive from where I now live. It was a somewhat rundown, working-class neighborhood. The containment zone where barrels of toxic waste had been buried in clay for years was a fenced-in area covered with glass, with two or three maintenance buildings in the center. Trees surrounded three sides of the zone. Occupied homes rubbed elbows just across the street. The side streets around the zone were blocked by cement barriers, but people could walk along them on foot. There were a few occupied homes and several unoccupied ones. People walked their dogs on nearby grass, as if the land were part of a park. Some houses were a good 200 yards from the zone. For Sale signs were nailed to telephone poles. An abandoned firehouse still stood, as did part of a school, the asphalt roads cracked and overgrown with weeds like a scene from a postapocalyptic movie. Paths through the woods proved to be driveways leading to asphalt squares where houses had once stood, now surrounded by trees. As soon as I discovered the town had been renamed Black Creek Village (a prettier name?), I knew there was a horror story to be written about the neighborhood. What if some residents had not only stayed behind when others had fled but had actually gone underground? But other projects beckoned, and at least another decade passed before I delved into research.
Photo courtesy of Chris Cosgrave
A detailed account of the history of Love Canal can be found in my novel, but here’s the short version: at the turn of the 20th century, an entrepreneur named William T. Love bought the land which became Love Canal believing that a canal there could be used to generate electricity. Nikola Tesla’s discovery of cheaper AC current dashed that dream. In the 1920s, the canal was turned into a municipal and industrial dump site for toxic chemicals. In 1953, Hooker Chemical covered the canal with dirt and sold it to the city of Niagara Falls for one dollar. One hundred homes and two schools were built on the site. Over the decades, the containment barrels rusted and the chemicals they held escaped into the clay and rose into the earth. Spring floods helped spread them. In the 1970s, people discovered black sludge in their basements, and instances of miscarriages, cancer and birth defects — club feet, cloven feet, double rows of teeth — led local activists to make the story national. The local government denied there had ever been any negligence, but President Carter finally took action. Eight hundred families relocated, but 100 stayed behind.
Niagara Falls, New York- Hooker chemical plant complex, where the dumping of chemicals in Love Canal started years ago.
When I revisited Love Canal two years ago, shortly before writing my novel, a lot of the abandoned houses had been removed — a couple still remained, one of them extremely creepy (it figures in the novel). Construction trucks were parked deep in the wooded neighborhood, with mountains of rocks nearby. Farther away from the zone, I noticed a mosque, an elks’ lodge and a Masonic temple, and there is a $1 million playground less than a quarter mile from the containment zone. Over the years leading up to the writing of my novel, I’ve spoken to several people who know someone — the birth of urban legends? — who had seen an albino deer while hunting or who had witnessed glowing green chemicals bubbling from the surface of a frozen pond while snowmobiling. As for Love Canal? They can change its name to Black Creek Village, but they can’t change the contaminated land it was built upon. Lawsuits by residents persist, and every once in a while new contaminants are discovered — and the local government continues to insist everything is A-OK.