LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
Here's antidote to hot summer days - a new novel, which might send a few unseasonable shivers down the back of your neck. It's called "The Ridge" by Michael Koryta. It takes place in an isolated community in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. And it includes among its cast of characters 60-something exotic cats - lions and tigers, even a very rare black cougar, a panther.
Michael Koryta joins us from member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. Welcome to our program.
MICHAEL KORYTA: Thank you very much. My pleasure.
WERTHEIMER: Now, since this is a suspenseful story, I don't want to spoil it for anybody, but let me just mention some of the strange settings in your book. There's a women's prison, which is more than 100 years old. There's the sanctuary near the ridge of the title, for those exotic cats. There's a played-out newspaper, which is being closed down after many decades. And there is a lighthouse. Kentucky's landlocked, of course, but this is a real lighthouse.
Now, where does the idea of a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere come from?
KORYTA: The book really started with the image and I don't know where the image came from. It just struck me as something incredibly intriguing and evocative. And I'd worked at a small town newspaper, and I was thinking of all the strange stories that I had seen float through the newsroom in my time there that were dismissed as kind of amusing curiosities. And somehow from that I got to this idea of an eccentric alcoholic who built a lighthouse in the woods.
WERTHEIMER: Now, in addition to being a spooky thriller, this book is about a lot of different kinds of loss, right? And love.
WERTHEIMER: Everyone has lost someone. And most of these people are sort of in the process of losing their life's work as well. Like Roy Darmus, the newspaper man losing the paper. And the local sheriff, he's in love with a women who nearly killed him. He's courting her now at the ancient women's prison.
KORYTA: Yes. It sounds relentlessly cheerful when you phrase it in that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WERTHEIMER: Yeah. Right.
KORYTA: But, no, the book is certainly about grief in various stages. And I also wanted it to be about love and trust. And can you truly have love without trust, which is an issue for Audrey Clark, who runs the cat preserve. It was founded by her husband, who's now dead. So she's grieving for his loss, but determined to carry out his vision and does not have the trust for the cats that he had.
And for Kevin Kimble, he feels as if he loves this woman, but it's obviously an issue of trust there today. She shot...
WERTHEIMER: She did shoot him. Yeah.
KORYTA: So that can damage a trusting relationship.
WERTHEIMER: I can see that it would. Yes. But among the characters in this book are some of the big cats in the cat sanctuary. There's - on page 198 - there's a few paragraphs in the middle of the page that I'd like you to read. What happens here is that Audrey doesn't like to stay out there in the preserve at night. But she is staying out there at night because there isn't anyone else to do it.
And she all of sudden she hears this incredible noise. The fences all over the preserve, she says, are rattling and ripping and the cats are roaring. You want to start somewhere after that?
(Reading) She stood and jammed her feet into the boots that lay beside the couch, then pulled on a jacket and ran down the hall and jerked open the door. Stop it, she shouted, stop. Her first answer was a resounding roar from one of the male lions, a sound so powerful, she took a step back, actually considered shutting the door. Then she saw them and initial fear faded to fascination. They weren't lunging at the fences, trying to tear through them as she'd feared; they were simply standing against them up on their hind legs, bracing their front paws against the fences, every single one.
What are you doing? she whispered, as if expecting an answer. The sound she heard was more than 60 pairs of paws landing against the chain link - every cat rising. For what?
WERTHEIMER: It becomes clear to her that the cats see something she doesn't see.
WERTHEIMER: And that's very spooky. You've written other books that have a considerable spooky element. In one, the main character is a man who can see death in the faces of people who are about to die. You wrote a book about a entrepreneur who was out front in the bottled water business, but his bottles of water are always cold no matter where they're stored. What is with you and this spooky stuff?
KORYTA: One of the challenges that I really enjoy with these books is the task of trying to sell the skeptic reader on the implausible. And when I think about a writer like Stephen King or Richard Matheson or Ira Levin, I've always been entranced by the way they pull this off. And it's by grounding the reader in reality. And then adding the surreal to the point that the characters in the world are so familiar that all of the sudden, as strange as the events become, there's a part of you that says�maybe, just maybe, this could happen and maybe it could happen to me. And at that point you've suspended your disbelief and hopefully you're just lost in the world of the story.
And ultimately, you know, in my mind that's what I'm trying to do with my fiction, I'm trying to transport the reader into a different world. And certainly when I add the elements of which you just spoke, I'm trying to take them to a very different world.
WERTHEIMER: So I wondered if you think that there is a time for this kind of book. You know, there's a time when we are somewhat more receptive to the idea of magic. Like maybe hard times you need magic.
KORYTA: I think so. When you read a supernatural suspense story or a ghost story, or a horror story, the evil at play is something that you can dismiss. And I wonder if, in this time, if people really want to be sitting on the subway reading a book about someone releasing a dirty bomb on the subway.
I think if you looked at the kind of ebb and flow of supernatural fiction and horror fiction, it does seem to be more popular in times when we're hammered over the head daily with threats from all angles, very real threats.
WERTHEIMER: Michael Koryta. His newest novel is called "The Ridge." Thank you very much for coming in and talking to us.
KORYTA: Oh, thank you so much. It was my pleasure.
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