A pot-loving theme park scare actor? How Lou Berney found ‘Dark Ride’ an unlikely hero

Lou Berney hit a dead end.

Berney, whose novels include “November Road” and “The Long and Faraway Gone,” writes deeply involving thrillers with characters you care about. But he was struggling with a book he’d spent years on.

“I’d been working on a novel for about two and a half years after ‘November Road’, and it really was not coming together. I was not making it work. And so right when COVID hit in March of 2020 I decided I needed to stop this novel, put it aside and start something brand new. It was a tough decision to make after two and a half years,” says the Oklahoma-based writer during a Zoom interview.

“I needed to go back to basics and maybe try writing what I know,” he says, adding with his understated humor. “So I was like, ‘All right, what do I know? Right now, what I know is that I’m incompetent at something I love to do, I’m in over my head, and I feel like I’m failing at every turn – and I feel like I have to succeed … or I’m in trouble.”

Into the ‘Dark’

The decision enabled him to create a new story. Berney’s novel “Dark Ride,” which hits stores Sept. 19, centers around a theme park scare actor, a cannabis-consuming twentysomething underachiever named Hardy “Hardly” Reed who works at a Halloween haunt. When he sees something he shouldn’t have, Hardly can’t let it go.

“Here’s a guy who’s unsuited and unprepared for the task in front of him. What I’m interested in is, Will he be able to pull it off? As I writer, I didn’t know,” says Berney. “I wanted him to fail a lot — I mean, they’re huge failures, they’re terrible failures — but each time he’s like a little bit smarter. … And that’s sort of what always drove the book for me.”

Berney says tapping into his own writing frustrations helped him discover Hardly. “Who’s a character that doesn’t belong in a crime novel? So that’s where Hardly got started. And right away, it just clicked,” he says. 

“It may have been the place I was in emotionally at that time — and plus, I just liked the kid,” he says of his “Dark Ride” protagonist. “It just all started to come together in a way that just felt very, very right.”

Readers will likely feel the same way. “Dark Ride” tells a gripping and emotionally rich story through Hardly’s perspective, and it’s all the more affecting because of how Berney puts the narrative in the hands of a young man who’s completely ill-equipped to deal with what’s happening.

While the author hesitates to classify the kind of crime writing he does, he feels a kinship with writers like Megan Abbott, Ivy Pochoda, Steph Cha and Tod Goldberg among others. He connects with other writers in real life, too; Berney and I met up at the mystery festival Bouchercon in San Diego a few days after this interview and he was a gracious host, introducing me to a number of writers and speaking knowledgeably about their work. 

“I feel like there is a big tribe of crime writers … who write crime that’s maybe more character-driven, maybe more interested in language and structure potentially than plot at times,” he says, though he’s hesitant to make broad generalizations. “You know it when you see it.

“I really enjoy all kinds of crime fiction. As a writer, I enjoy most crime fiction that sort of subverts formula. And so that’s what I’m kind of always trying to do and that’s why I have so many failures because I’m always trying to write something that I haven’t seen before,” he says. “I’m always trying to do something that kind of surprises myself — and that can lead you off some cliffs at times.” 

Let and let lie

Berney didn’t set out initially to be a novelist. He studied journalism in college in New Orleans before getting an MFA in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (studying with, among others, novelist John Edgar Wideman), later publishing a book of short stories and a pair of novels, “Gutshot Straight” and “Whiplash River.”

Berney credits his father, a used car salesman, and his sisters for fostering his early love of fiction.

“My dad was a world-class liar. But he was, like, a recreational liar; he would just lie for fun. He wasn’t a con man or anything; he was very generous and good-hearted, but he loved to lie and make things up so I think I picked that up from him and the joy of making up stories,” he says.

“My two older sisters are 10 and 11 years older than me, and they taught me to read and write at a really early age because they both wanted to be teachers. And that’s what they did for fun. And so I got the love of books, love of reading started really, really early for me,” he says, “It was whether I liked it or not. It was not what I wanted to be doing. My sisters were tough.”

Berney became an educator too, teaching for 13 years at St. Mary’s College of California in the Bay Area. “They have a Great Books program, so everyone was forced to teach — in my opinion, got to teach — Great Books courses,” says Berney. “I had this great education as a teacher. I’d never read Chaucer. I’d never read Dante. … I was reading along with the students.”

He says he enjoyed his years in California, living in Santa Monica, San Francisco and Moraga. “California, to me, always felt like home,” he says. “Especially the parts of California that don’t often make it to the big screen. I just love the parts of California that remind me a lot of Oklahoma … the fields and the strip malls and just the life of a place that in some ways represents everything, good and bad, about America.” 

Eventually, after a period that included working on screenplays in Hollywood, Berney and his wife Christine moved back to his native Oklahoma City to care for his ailing father and stayed. Berney now teaches in the undergraduate English and MFA programs at Oklahoma City University.

“It was a perfect place to be a fiction writer. You could live affordably and so that’s where I’ve been ever since,” he says.  

Everywhere all at once

Though loosely based on Oklahoma City, the setting for “Dark Ride” is purposefully vague; the location feels extremely specific and yet could be anywhere. (It’s not hard to imagine that book’s haunted Wild West theme park being similar to Knott’s Berry Farm.)

“That’s what I was going for. I kind of feel like, you know, most Americans live in a place like that, like whether you’re from Louisville or Fresno,” he says. “I’m glad you picked up on it because I really wanted to get it that sort of American landscape of strip malls and warehouses and alleys and fast food places that kind of gets overlooked. … This is this character; this is his world, his landscape.”

And it’s not an easy place to escape either as the book touches on the financial struggles of many Americans, especially younger ones. Hardly, who is deep in debt for the few semesters of college he managed to attend, has no clear way out. “He’s genuinely stuck,” says Berney. “That landscape, that world, it’s easy to overlook if you’re in a certain social class.”

The possibility of escaping yourself — and what it might cost you to do so — has long interested Berney. “I think that’s probably my one abiding preoccupation as a writer whether I like it or not,” he says. “Just that idea of like, can we reinvent ourselves? Are there second acts? Are there third acts? And to me, that’s just a fascinating question.”

Berney says the novel surprised him at times, presenting him with twists he couldn’t have planned for. It’s one of the things he loves about writing. 

“Sometimes you’re writing a novel and the book is much smarter than you are,” says Berney. ”That’s my great hope; that the book will be smarter than me.”

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