Preston Digitation: Douglas Preston

It was an intriguing series of requests for columnist Douglas Preston, who wrote about history for Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. An editor from St. Martin’s Press had been reading his pieces and asked Preston to write a history of that institution. That invitation led to Preston’s first book, 1993’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. After it was published, his editor got a tour of the museum—in the middle of the night, which led to the second request.

Preston remembers it as follows: “I showed him all the best places to which I had access—the dinosaur bone storage room, the collection of 30,000 rats in jars of alcohol, the whale eyeball collection, the preserved mastodon stomach with its last meal inside, and a lot of other unusual things. We ended up in the Hall of Late Dinosaurs around 2 a.m., with only the emergency lights on, the great black skeletons looming in the darkness around us, and the editor turned to me and said, ‘Doug, this is the scariest building in the world. Let’s write a thriller set in here.’ ”

That editor was Lincoln Child, and the result was the 1995 bestseller Relic (Tor), a scientific suspenser about a mysterious savage creature rampaging through the dark corners of a labyrinthine “New York Museum of Natural History.” Relic, co-written by Child and Preston, introduced Aloysius Pendergast, an eccentric, maverick FBI agent whose startling appearance attracts almost as much attention as his oracular pronouncements. In his book debut, he’s described as “a tall, slender man, wearing a crisp black suit.” His “[h]air so blond it was almost white was brushed straight back above pale blue eyes,” and Pendergast is initially mistaken for an undertaker.

Neither writer expected Pendergast to become a series lead, let alone star in sequels in which he confronts evil both supernatural and natural. (Grand Central will publish his 12th adventure, Two Graves, in December). But after a number of successful collaborations featuring other interesting characters (Mount Dragon, Riptide, The Ice Limit), the pair returned to the unconventional FBI agent in 1997’s Reliquary (Tor) and never looked back.

In retrospect, Child was ideal for sustaining books linked by plausible evocations of horrifying setups. (Relic was initially passed on by five or six publishers.) He was 14 when he first encountered the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which served as a major influence. Lovecraft gave him a “sense that the strange and outré is very much amongst us—all it takes is a little digging to find it,” Child says. At St. Martin’s, he rapidly advanced from editorial assistant in 1979 to full editor in 1984. Although he worked with the likes of James Herriot, the creatures great and small that Child most cared about were decidedly not warm and fuzzy. He put together collections of ghost and horror stories (1984’s Dark Company and 1985’s Dark Banquet) and founded the company’s mass market horror division.

But Child’s road to professional writing was not a linear one. A nine-year stint at Met Life, doing what he describes as “highly technical programming and systems analysis,” came between his leaving St. Martin’s and “stopping working for a living.”

In addition to penning 18 books with Preston, Child has written powerful horror fiction on his own, most recently June’s The Third Gate (Doubleday), which is intended as the launch of “enigmalogist” Jeremy Logan as the lead of a series. But even for Child’s solo efforts, Preston serves as an active ally, a sounding board for plot developments and scenes.

After so many years, Child and Preston can sound like an old married couple—on the rare occasion that they’re in the same place at the same time (such as when they both traveled to New York City to attend the wedding of Preston’s daughter last month). The intellectual curiosity they share bridges their very different personalities. (Both men, albeit with a smile, have described Child as an “introverted reclusive neurotic” while Preston is the consummate adventurer.) And the two are committed to making each new book “better than the one before,” says Child, relying on each other to make sure that the major pitfall of a long-running series—tiresome repetition—is avoided.

Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.