The Levels was more or less an exercise in world-building. I had the basic character setup ideas – where Turner and Kate are at the start of things – but pretty much everything else came from the fundamental need to have a setting where no one had recourse to the usual authorities or social support structures that regular society depends on. That immediately imposes certain conditions on your location and leaves you with a string of questions. If your community has no help or interference from regular society, what does that do to you? How does it affect the rules by which you live or the way you deal with one another? What structures will arise to fill the gaps? (Because something always does.)
So things like the Tower, Sorrow, Ghost, (names which are effectively meaningless to you unless you’ve read the book – sorry) the various other individuals and locations and so on all grew from those initial questions, questions which I pretty much answered as I went along. Each of those then needed a history and a reason to be, and like just about anywhere you care to mention, its own mythology. The poorer and more isolated a place is, the stronger and more numerous its legends and beliefs. So in the book you have things like the graffiti death markers, the various stuff people say about Sorrow and the ‘Death Book’ and so on, and they carry more weight than they might in other, less depressed places. If you’ve ever seen Candyman, you’ll know the sort of thing. (If you haven’t, well, you should.)
While I’ve been free to make up any old guff for the Levels, aiming for the willing suspension of disbelief rather than absolute realism, the place has its roots in real-world examples. Incredibly depressed housing projects (like Cabrini Green in the aforementioned Candyman), interstitial spaces that drop into jurisdictional or governmental gaps and so on, and not in third world countries but in some of the richest places on earth. The best of those is, or was, since it was demolished in the 1990s, Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. 35,000 people crammed into six acres of unofficially constructed high rises, initially existing without outside authority thanks to a jurisidictional issue with the British lease of Hong Kong. I can’t do the place justice here, but I’d recommend anyone to look it up online, or to score a copy of Ian Lambot and Greg Girard’s staggering photobook/interview collection City of Darkness. If you’re looking for a real-life example of the Levels, this would be it.
The story’s a fairly regular mix of ticking clock thriller, grubby urban fairytale and redemption yarn. But they’re only free to run as far and as strongly as they do because of the place they happen.
The Levels is published by Headline