When Nica Ashley, a free-spirited high schooler, is sent there to live with her divorced father, she bristles at the curfew, the deadbolts, the rules, and the restrictions enforced by the private security arm of BarTech, the company that runs the town. When she asks her father about the strange things she's noticed, her father evades her questions. But Nica needs to know what's going on. She teams up with the high school's rebels and outcasts to find out, and what she learns changes her in greater ways than she could have imagined. Overpowered is Mark H. Kruger's first novel, a young adult thriller about a town with a dark secret.
I spoke with Mark about Overpowered. We also talked about our love for the work of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives author Ira Levin, Shirley Jackon's "The Lottery," and more.
Mark F.: I'm a fan of Ira Levin. I really liked Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives. They are both about a male family member deceiving a woman for personal gain. I was wondering — did you think of Levin's work at all when you wrote Overpowered?
Mark K.: Well, Rosemary's Baby is one of my favorite movies and books. I read it as a kid. I think it's a perfect horror story because it takes place in the real world in which extraordinary and horrific events happen. I wasn't actively thinking of Ira Levin but he is certainly one of the authors that I read as a kid and, really, Rosemary's Baby is almost always in my consciousness. I've read that book several times and I've seen the movie dozens upon dozens of times. I know every frame, every line of dialog, and I love it. I love it because it starts out so ordinary — a couple getting an apartment. The same thing in Overpowered: this is about a 16-year-old girl who goes to live with her dad, and this is something that is very common for kids who come from families where the parents are divorced, not living together.
That's the thing that kicks off the story in Overpowered, and I like those simple, very relatable entry points to stories that then grow out of that. The horror or the mystery element starts to get bigger and bigger and suddenly they realize they're in the middle of something much bigger than they expected at the beginning.
Mark F.: I love those kinds of stories and I'm a huge fan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Every time a new version comes out I see it opening day. There's something fascinating about that kind of world — where there's ritualistic groupthink and a person joins this culture or society and slowly realize, that even though things on the surface seem great, there are some creepy things happening. On a related note, You are adapting Shirley Jackson's 1948 New Yorker story "The Lottery," which is one of the most amazing, creepiest short stories in the world, and Michael Douglas is producing it. Is that still on? Are you still working on that?
Mark K.: Yeah, in fact I was sitting here working on it right when you called. Writing the screenplay for it.
Mark F.: When did you first read "The Lottery?"
Mark K.: I read "The Lottery" in middle school, like so many other kids. I was familiar with Shirley Jackson because I was obsessed with her as a writer. Of the writers that I read as a kid I would say Edgar Allan Poe, Ira Levin, Shirley Jackson were the ones I read a lot. The book that just grabbed me from the first moment was her novel The Haunting of Hill House, which was made into a fantastic movie [The Haunting] in the early '60s.
Mark F.: Was Fred Astaire in it? [I was thinking of Ghost Story — Mark]
Mark K.: No, it was Julie Harris, who just died last week or the week before, Claire Bloom, and I think Russ Tamblyn. It's about a group of five people who go to live in a haunted house. A doctor is trying to either prove or debunk the existence of ghosts and this is supposed to be the most haunted house in New England. They go there and it's from the point of view of the Eleanor character, who’s a put-upon spinster in her 30s who really hasn't lived her life. She's been taking care of her mother and it goes from there.
So I love Shirley Jackson and I also read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I have adapted as a feature also for Michael Douglas. We've got a cast that we're putting together and a director.
"The Lottery" was one of those iconic stories along those lines of like "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce and those other short stories that everybody reads. "The Lottery" just was so mesmerizing to me because in seven pages she creates this world, this very matter-of-fact all-American summer day somewhere in the middle of America and it's about a town that's mobilizing and they're getting ready for some big thing and… it's… oh! It's a lottery and it's… you think oh … Everybody seems to be upbeat, and then there's all these weird little things that you notice … [I cut the rest of this paragraph out because it's a spoiler. If you have not read "The Lottery," you should probably skip to my next question. — Mark]
You don't really know why they do it other than it's been done for generations and it's not religious. They just do it. It was so gripping because it's so ordinary and then it turns unbelievably dark, but it's all about the psychology of the town and why they do this. Shirley Jackson was obsessed with and wrote so much about mob psychology and how people will do things as a group, and that's echoed in many of her stories and books. I love that notion and that definitely had an influence in Overpowered.
I like stories about secrets because everybody has secrets, whether it's a little kid or a teenager or an adult. They're all things we keep to ourselves. Sometimes we share, sometimes they get out. We're always afraid of what the consequences will be once that secret is out. I just love exploring that.
Mark F.: It's great you were able to tell me about Shirley Jackson and her influence on you because I found Overpowered to be very accessible, very easy to read, but there are some deep concepts that you explore. One of them that I saw throughout the book is the idea of safety-versus-freedom. Barrington, the Colorado town that Overpowered is set in, is touted as one of the safest communities in the United States, but there's a severe price that people pay in terms of how much freedom they have to give up, especially young people. And then it turns out that the people in charge of providing the safety aren't really keeping people safe. Was that an idea that you wanted to put out there?
Mark K.: Absolutely. I've always felt in our world, that parents are getting increasingly involved with the minutia of their kids' lives — the whole notion of helicopter parenting. There's overemphasis on protecting your kids — worrying about the things that are going to happen. Yet at the same time, kids have more freedom and the world is spinning more out of control. It's a weird dichotomy that we're trying to control those things and yet we have no control over any of that. It's all an illusion. We live in these communities that are gated and walled and have armed guards protecting them and we want to live in these fortified places, yet the world is unstable and an unsafe place in so many aspects.
I think it was up until 9/11 that we had this illusion that we were protected. Pearl Harbor probably really pierced that, but that was so long ago that, for all of us growing up, it was never an issue about America being attacked. It was always a world away, like Vietnam, even though we saw soldiers coming back. It was not fought on our shore. All of those conflicts were far away and then with 9/11 suddenly we're living with the very real threat of terrorism and all these horrible things and a world that goes through these cycles of being unstable. All that fear that we grew up with of the Soviet Union and the threat of the bomb, the nuclear war, and we had all these air raid shelters and everything like that.
In a weird way the world was, I wouldn't say safer, but things were more in check. And now, as we see, time and again things are more unstable and erratic and people do horrible things to each other and power corrupts and all of those things that we grow up hearing about or that Shakespeare wrote about 500 years ago are still true today. People have not changed and that desire to control and make your kids safe is a very normal thing, but then as we push it to the extremes it becomes fanatical and in some ways living in the world and learning how to exist in an unstable and uncertain times is what living in the modern world is. We want both. We want our kids to be safe and pretend there's nothing for them to worry about and yet all this horrible stuff is happening and it's everywhere. We hear about chemical warfare in Syria and we hear about mass slayings in Rwanda 20 years ago and we hear all this stuff, which the modern age has not stopped and it never will. For me I see that dichotomy of living in a modern world that's more and more out of control and more and more things that you can't predict what the danger is and we're trying to make it safer and protect more and yet you really can't. You can only control things so much. Those are the things that have always been in my mind even when I was a kid growing up, just seeing that dichotomy in the world and sometimes the hypocrisy.
Mark F.: That's some heavy truth you're delivering to your readers.
Mark K.: Well I didn't mean it to be so heavy, but more out of a sense that it creates conflict because kids want freedom. That is natural. It doesn't matter if you're the most liberal parent or the most conservative parent, your kids will rebel against you. That is the law of the jungle. I think that's a natural thing for kids and in some ways kids are more on their own now and have more freedom but in other ways we've tied them down … We've got apps on their phone so we know where they are at all times. All of that stuff because there are scary things in the modern world, but there have always been scary things.
Mark F.: The teenagers in Overpowered have superpowers. Is that a metaphor for the fact that when teenagers start to mature they realize that they have more power than their parents might want them to have?
Mark K.: Absolutely. Also, they want to use that power, whether it's being defiant or acting out in secret ways. Look, we were all kids and then when you grow up you have kids, so you know the kinds of things kids do.
Kids realize that their lives are their own. At a certain point they have to make choices, and have a sense of values, and some sort of code. I think that's always the thing you hope for as a parent — to give your kids a moral code so that when you're not there they'll do the right thing. The kids who have these powers in the book sense that it's exciting, but it's also scary and they have to learn how to control their power.
Mark F.: It interesting to note that a corporation, BarTech, runs almost everything in Barrington including the police force. Instead of the town government. Are you sending a subtle political message about growing corporate power in America?
Mark K.: Well, I'm a student of history and American corporate power has been growing for over 100 years. We've always tried to put limits on corporate power but when the Supreme Court broke up Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller's trust that monopolized the oil industry it just created more oil conglomerates. We have consolidation in business, in media, and everything else. Lobbyists dictate what kind of policy gets made in this country because they're funding our representatives. So corporate power is big and when you see the Supreme Court decision about allowing corporations to make unlimited contributions to political candidates and PACS to me it's the full corporatization of the world. When we talk about globalization it's really the global economy. It's business, you know and the goal of corporate America is to get bigger and be more powerful and to have more control. So, many places have their own private security forces.
If you own a house in LA you're probably hooked up to a security company. You just do it. Everybody does it. You have it and those are all privately funded. Yeah, we have police but we also have private security and every day I see them driving around my neighborhood. I never think twice about it, but it is a fact of modern life that we pay for extra security and with that comes monitoring. Our houses are monitored so they know when we come in and out. All those things. The same thing as security on our computers, all of that stuff. We pay for that. It's all run by big companies, and companies have the money, they have the power. When you think about even companies that are positive that have done a lot of positive things, there is a scary side to that, the Googles and the Apples. They have so much cash. They have more cash than many governments do. So, their ability to make things happen in the world is much greater than governments'.
To me that's just a reality that I'm reflecting and putting it in a microcosm in a small community where they have ceded power to a company that seems to have all the trappings of being very positive. It's a green company, it does good, it puts money into education and charitable stuff, which every big company no matter who it is whether it's the Halliburtons or the oil companies. They fund arts programs, they fund charities, they all do good works.
Mark F.: Good corporate citizens.
Mark K.: Exactly. Cigarette companies. They all do that, but it's really PR to balance out all the other crap they do. I don't mean to be so cynical but to me it's just a reality. I'm not saying it's positive or negative. I'm just trying to say this is what it is and the danger of that, the cautionary tale of the danger of that to me, is the thing that's scary and that to me makes it a good element to have in the story because it's something that I actually do feel is happening. When you look around the world, what are the things that helped bring down communism? It was commerce. It was globalization. It was business. That Chinese economy has developed from commerce, business, and technology, and politics have taken a backseat.
Mark F.: There are secrets revealed in Overpowered, but it has a cliffhanger ending. So, when is the sequel coming out?
Mark K.: I'm working on it right now. I would say a year to two years, somewhere in there. I'm just trying to finish it as fast as I can.