The NBC investigative journalist turned novelist talks about the inspiration behind his supernatural thriller The Darkest Time of Night.
Jeremy Finley submitted a short story for a young authors contest in the fifth grade. He remembers walking up his teacher’s desk to turn it in and thinking that’s what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Instead, his career path led him to journalism and now, 30 years later, he can finally say he’s a novelist.
His first book, The Darkest Time of Night, was released at the end of June and is being called “a long-overdue ‘Close Encounters’ for the modern age” by fellow Nashville writer J.T. Ellison. Finley says his favorite genre of book is the speculative thriller, which is defined as having supernatural or futuristic elements. “I love the ‘Stranger Things‘ series. I’m a huge fan of ‘X-Files’ and ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Communion,” he says. “Anything rooted in reality where a whole different understanding of existence is revealed.”
He describes his own book as starting off with the disappearance of a senator’s grandson and then veering “wildly into a Stephen King kind of territory.” The only thing the one witness to the disappearance will say is “the lights took him.” As the FBI and National Guard launch a massive search, the boy’s grandmother Lynn Roseworth fears only she knows the truth. But coming forward could ruin her family and her husband’s political career.
Finley based his character of Lynn on his own mother-in-law, who worked as a secretary in a university astronomy department when her husband was in law school. The professor she worked for did UFO research. “She told us one day out of the blue this story of how she would take messages for him of people calling from all over the world of sightings and abductions,” he says.
Lynn’s job while her husband is in law school is much the same. In the late 1960s, Lynn worked in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois, and it doesn’t take her long to figure out that the mysterious messages about stars and horizons she keeps taking for Dr. Steven Richards are not from his colleagues. Now she’s a dutiful senator’s wife, mother of three daughters and owner of a garden store living on an estate in Nashville.
Finley also wanted to honor the tenacity and determination of people who will stop at nothing to try and find out what happened to their loved ones. “My mind just started clicking away and thinking about missing people, and in my career as journalist I have unfortunately had to do many stories of missing people and the trauma of people left behind,” he says. “Oftentimes they start launching their own research to try and find what happened to their loved ones.”
Determined to find her grandson, Lynn decides to return to the university and the former life her family knows nothing about to enlist the help of Dr. Richards. Her best friend Roxy goes with her, but they arrive to find his office locked and all his research gone. As Lynn delves further and further back into her past to search for Dr. Richards and anyone else who can help her, she realizes there are plenty of forces and people determined to stop her. She is also forced to confront the truth about her own forgotten childhood, which could reveal the greatest mystery of all time.
When it comes to aliens and UFOs, Finley says he is “an extreme skeptic with a very open mind. In doing this research, the thing that truly kind of haunts me is that all of these people all over world who have never met each other tell similar stories. They describe crafts in the sky the same, abductions and interactions with aliens the same way.”
Do you know what I remember so vividly about all those cases of missing people? That sometimes there was a phrase repeated over and over again by the people who either claim to have witnessed the abductions, or were the last to see the missing people: ‘The lights took them.’ Or some variation of that. And you know that’s the last thing Brian every said. Yes, I know I’m desperate. Yes, I know this is hard to believe. It’s still hard for me to believe all the stupid things I did in this town. But I have to do something … ” – Lynn, Chapter Nine
While beams of light and weather patterns play a big part in the story, Finley also uses setting to form his cautionary tale. As a child, Lynn’s father forbids her to enter the woods behind their house, and she had the same rule for her children, but her grandchildren are harder to control. Her older grandson was camping in the woods the night his brother disappeared.
“Nashville is a growing urban area but still has these swaths of heavily forested areas where you never know what’s going on inside them,” says Finely. “The house I used to live in had a pretty thick forested area behind it right in the middle of a neighborhood. Nashville is also the center of politics in the state of Tennessee, so I wanted to tie in Nashville’s political climate as well.”
We don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Lynn goes as far as any mother (and maybe even further) to find her grandson, while also confronting her own fear of the woods. She and Roxy, her partner in crime, have been referred to as Thelma and Louise, adding to an already compelling narrative. Finley’s ending will have readers’ hearts pacing and their beliefs about other life forms challenged.
All aliens aside, Finely says he wanted to tell the story of a marginalized woman and how she reclaims her younger self. “A lot of women go on this journey of wanting to have their own career and forge their own futures and some of them end up, their primary focus is their family,” he says. “This is a woman who had devoted her entire life to serving her family and she has to go back on that journey of who she once was and the life she gave up. She is able to risk it all to save her grandson. I really wanted to encapsulate the courage of a woman in these circumstances and when everybody else says no, she is willing to do anything to find him.”
It’s been a long road to publication for Finley and The Darkest Time of Night. His work was rejected more than 50 times, and he was told this story just wasn’t marketable, but he says he wouldn’t change a thing. “Conspiracy theories abound in our modern life now, so I think the time is right for stories that make us question what we believe in.”