The Debut Review: A FLICKER IN THE DARK by Stacy Willingham (8/12/21)

Debut author Stacy Willingham has written a masterful and lyrical thriller that is compelling to the very last word. Everyone in our department loved A FLICKER IN THE DARK so much, we even named it our unofficial seasonal staff pick! With an unforgettable main character, twists around every corner, and a moving family subplot, this is an edge-of-your-seat story that will have you questioning your trust in every character. 

The summer Chloe Davis was 12, six girls went missing in her small Louisiana town, and weeks later, her father was arrested for their murder. Now, it’s the 20th anniversary of his arrest, and Chloe is living a new life as a private practice psychologist preparing for her wedding. But when a copycat serial killer emerges and girls start to go missing again, Chloe has to figure out if she can truly trust the people closest to her. 

Now let’s take a look at a day in Stacy’s life. Keep scrolling to find out the origin of this gripping story, get some thriller recommendations from Stacy, and more!


Ha! For me, every story starts with one “big idea,” then evolves from there. For A FLICKER IN THE DARK, the big idea was: what would it be like to be the daughter of a serial killer? There are lots of serial killer stories out there, but I haven’t encountered many that focus on a vantage point other than either serial killer or detective. With Chloe, we get to see a completely different side of that story. The villain isn’t one dimensional through her eyes, and I thought it would be so interesting to explore the complicated emotions that would come with her perspective.

In terms of the rest of the story, once I had my big idea in place, my brain just went down every possible avenue and side street. It is so important to me that every character in a story feels complex and realistic, which means they all have a backstory, flaws, desires and complicated motivations. I also wanted the reader to feel everything Chloe was feeling—the paranoia, the fear, the uncertainty—as well as second guess everything and everyone in the same way Chloe does… which, of course, means lots of twists!

Your bio says that you’re working on a second novel… Can you tell us about it? 

Yes, and I am so excited about it! I can’t say too much just yet, but it focuses on a woman named Isabelle who hasn’t been able to sleep since her son was taken out of his nursery in the middle of the night. Her entire existence now revolves around finding him, all while fighting severe insomnia that leaves her questioning whether or not she can even trust herself.

Similar to A FLICKER IN THE DARK, book number two features a Southern setting and a storyline that jumps back and forth between past and present… and there are quite a few twists in there that I hope will take you by surprise!

I loved the twists in this book. What are some of your favorite books with shocking twists?

It’s so hard to pull off both a shocking and believable twist, but some of my all-time favorites include anything by Gillian Flynn (seriously…GONE GIRL gets the most recognition, but SHARP OBJECTS and DARK PLACES both have KILLER endings!), SHUTTER ISLAND by Dennis Lehane, ALL THE MISSING GIRLS by Megan Miranda and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. In terms of more recent reads, I’ve really enjoyed THE GIRLS ARE ALL SO NICE HERE by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz and VERITY by Colleen Hoover.

What has been your favorite part of your publishing journey so far? And what are you most looking forward to?

Good question! Since A FLICKER IN THE DARK is my debut, it has all been so new and exciting. However, while I was working on A Flicker in the Dark, I actually didn’t tell anyone other than my family and a few close friends that I was even interested in being a novelist, let alone that I was writing a book. I wouldn’t call it lonely, but I was definitely isolated, so the very first editing conversation I had with my agent after he signed me was actually the first time I had ever talked about my characters in any kind of depth or detail with another person. For some reason, that was such a surreal experience! I get so close to these characters that they sometimes start to feel like real people to me, so now, every time I get to talk about them and analyze them with other people who get and appreciate them in the same way I do, I want to pinch myself! Feeling like I’ve created something that other people enjoy and connect with is extremely gratifying and has been my favorite part of it all so far.

In terms of what I’m most looking forward to next: I really can’t wait to see the book out in the world. I’ve been dreaming about seeing my book in a bookstore for about a decade now, so the first time I see it out in the wild will be something special.

Where did the story start for you?  Did you always know that twist was coming?

The story started with Chloe. I wanted to explore what it would feel like to be the daughter of a serial killer, as well as how that childhood trauma would trickle into every aspect of your adult life. I also wanted to know how it would feel, and how you would react, if it all started to happen again. 

I don’t outline, and I actually start writing a book before I even know where it’s going myself, so I knew what one of the twists was going to be, but the others came to me as I wrote. That’s actually part of the fun for me: writing a book is like putting together a really complicated puzzle. There are so many different pieces, and it can be frustrating at times trying to move everything around and see what fits, but I LOVE the excitement that comes with the realization that I finally know how to put it all together. 

Did you do any creepy serial killer research for this?  What was the most interesting thing you found?

Oh man, yes! I’ve always been interested in serial killers, so while I did research for A FLICKER IN THE DARK, I already knew quite a bit about them before I even started writing. In fact, it was my interest in them that led to the “big idea” in the first place. 

I think the thing that is the most interesting to me, as well as the most terrifying, is how well some of them are able to hide their true selves from others. Some of history’s most infamous serial killers had girlfriends, wives and even children who had absolutely no idea that they were sharing a roof with a monster. I really wanted to explore how coming to that realization would feel, which led to the creation of Chloe. I’m also very interested in serial killer motivations—or, more often than not, their lack thereof. Most murders take place because of really common emotions (love, jealousy, vengeance, greed, etc.), but serial killers are a completely different story. It’s really tough to nail down a motive for a serial killer, other than the fact that they just like to kill, and that made me realize that anyone can accidentally stumble into a serial killer’s path… that’s terrifying!

How’d you choose the setting for the story?

I live in Charleston, South Carolina, so while it is certainly different than Louisiana, I’ve always been drawn to Southern settings. There is something so tangible about a hot, thick, humid Southern summer, and because I know it so well, I really enjoy describing it for others. There’s also something inherently creepy about the bayou—it’s beautiful, but also teeming with all kinds of creatures that can hurt you. They camouflage so well, hiding themselves in plain sight… I think you can see where I’m going with that one.

A FLICKER IN THE DARK by Stacy Willingham; 9781250803825; 1/11/21.

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