Back when S.F. Barkley was a police officer, she said, she was repeatedly dispatched to an abandoned warehouse to investigate reports that someone there had called 911, then hung up the phone.
She never found anyone there when she got to the scene, she said – and, what’s more, the building’s electricity and phone service had been disconnected long ago, leaving her wondering how the calls had been placed in the first place.
“It always had us officers curious how 911 hangup calls were coming from a building that really doesn’t even exist anymore,” the Johnstown native recalled during an interview with The Tribune-Democrat. “I didn’t find a dead body, but it kind of had my brain going on what-ifs.”
The eerie experience inspired Barkley’s first novel, the supernatural mystery-slash-police procedural “Patch Lane,” published on Oct. 22 by the indie outlet Liminal Books. Like Barkley, the novel’s protagonist, rookie cop Sarah Hastings, is repeatedly sent to an abandoned building to investigate 911 hangup calls – but, unlike Barkley, Hastings does find a dead body.
Forensic investigators tell Hastings that the Jane Doe has been dead for three or four days, but when the dead woman’s fingerprints are run through the system, it’s revealed that she died 20 years ago.
“Patch Lane” as of Friday has an average rating of 4.4 stars out of five on Amazon, with 20 reviews. Reviewers have described it variously as a “well-written story with twists and turns,” a “quick, fun, easy read” and a “very good crime drama with realistic characters and good development.”
Barkley, a 2009 Westmont Hilltop High School graduate, worked as a police officer at her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, and in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. She now lives in Maryland and works as an analyst in the financial industry. She framed her writing career as a natural outgrowth of her long-standing interest in horror stories.
“I’ve always been drawn to all things creepy and paranormal,” she said.
She got her start as a fiction writer on the popular social news and discussion website Reddit, which is made up of thousands of smaller communities called “subreddits." Each subreddit is dedicated to discussion of a particular topic or special interest; there are subreddits for everything from football to politics to tabletop gaming.
The subreddit where Barkley wrote is called “NoSleep” and bills itself as a place to submit “realistic horror stories” written in the first person. To maintain the community’s spooky-stories-told-around-the-campfire vibe, users who comment on the stories are instructed to react as if they are true accounts of the original posters’ real-life experiences, often offering advice to the stories’ protagonists on how to escape their purported predicaments.
“I loved reading them,” Barkley explained, “and I had a few ideas based loosely on some of the experiences that I had for some stories, so I wrote a couple stories on this Reddit forum. Without even realizing it, my one short story series completely blew up.”
That series, on which “Patch Lane” is based, was read by more than 100,000 people and beat out almost 4,000 other stories to win the subreddit’s “Story of the Month” award in August 2018. The novel itself briefly topped Amazon’s list of best-sellers in the supernatural mystery category the weekend it was released.
“The response has been great,” she said. “A lot of my fans from Reddit loved the fact that, when I turned it into a novel, I closed a lot of the gaps that I had previously left open, and I added a lot more twists and turns than the short story version had.”
The town where the novel is set, “Amber Forest,” described in the Amazon listing as “a small, rural town nestled in the western Pennsylvania mountains,” was “loosely inspired” by the Johnstown area, Barkley said. She described it as a smaller version of Johnstown and similar cities, such as Butler.
Likewise, Officer Sarah Hastings has a lot of the same characteristics as her author.
“She’s definitely inspired a lot by my personality and how I would handle a lot of things,” Barkley said.
Barkley plans to turn “Patch Lane” into a series, she said. She’s currently starting a standalone sequel, featuring many of the same characters, but a new story. While it’s a work in progress and much of the plot is still up in the air, she described it as inspired by two pieces of western Pennsylvania history – the 1889 Johnstown Flood and the construction of Huntingdon County’s Raystown Lake in the 1970s.
She also plans to host a book launch party and signing event from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Nov. 27 at The Boulevard Grill, 165 Southmont Blvd., Johnstown.