For your entertainment and consideration: a cluster of half-baked ideas for horrible novels, inspired by a much milder discovery in Michael Connelly’s The Narrows.
The police, the FBI or some such American authority make a discovery in some Nevadan desert, or in some backwood of Montana. The discovery is dead people: lots of them. Thousands of dead people.
The hook is that no-one can say who these people are.
First derivation: They look like your average folks: jeans, baseball caps, families and loners, sneakers and loafers — but they’re all buried side by side in the desert, and no dental record or missing persons notice can trace any of them.
First solution to the first derivation: No, they can’t be traced at all. This is a sci-fi novel! These people show up without traces because they’ve slid in from a different reality. The first clue will be a pin saying “Re-elect Santorum in 2012!” — what remains is to see if they’re the victims of some purge in the other world, the whole patch of ground shifting, carrying their graves here, or if they escaped here and were killed here. Possibly the investigators are attacked by gun-wielding otherworld goons, and carried to the throne of the President of God-America. There to hear that there’s a plot to destroy their ungodly ick-America, and the agents with the nukes are marching through the portal already.
Second solution to the first derivation: Well, they can be traced eventually. They’re the remains of a Jim Jones-like cult, recruited through the Internet. They came for harmony, eternal truths and free love; things then went wrong. Maybe their food was contaminated; they hallucinated; and a partly forced mass suicide followed; the last shovelman wasn’t buried. Since this isn’t much of a plot, add a few survivors, one of which absconded with the colony’s cash stash. Or maybe the cult’s recruiting tool is an Internet page (the cult itself does not encourage communication with the outside world), and that page is still being updated with happy testimonials from named inhabitants? Maybe leads to some cynical content creator marketroid in Seattle.
Second derivation: They look weird. They’re all buried nude; they are stooped, malnourished people with tangled long hair and bad teeth, with weatherbeaten skin all of them. They look, for all purposes, like human herdstock, if anyone had the mind or purpose to herd suburbanites. And by the signs of it, all of these people are free range, not the doctor-visiting kind.
First solution to the second derivation: They’re not livestock; yuck, that’s a horrible thought. Here’s something worse. Their origin is not all that interesting — maybe a caravan of settlers was trapped by an avalanche in the mountains in the 1850s, and they couldn’t get out of some hellish tiny vale. There was enough food there to survive with a bit of cannibalism on the side; but in a few decades the survivors were mad, and their children feral. Then come the 1990s the government, with spy satellites and stuff, discovered the valley, and the human animals in it. Overcome with disgust (also cannibalism and stuff), the decision was made to quietly euthanize the nude and wild descendants, and this is their gravesite. Novel turns out to not be so much about the dead, as about the morality and ethics of their killing and the governmental cover-up.
Second solution to the second derivation: They are livestock. But who would farm people? The usual answer would be, amoral corporations or mad billionaires or the government. Somewhere there are very long sheds, and long pork breeding and fattening inside them. Since these people are long-haired and gaunt, they are escapees: the sheds had a roof failure during an autumn storm, and the flock ran away. The point of discovery was where the bodies were gathered and buried; the ruins of the sheds can be found nearby. Pertinent questions: How do you find people to work in a place like that? What’s the market for human flesh in non-delicacy amounts?
Third derivation: There are a lot of people, but they’ve been buried here over a long, long time. The oldest are wearing Depression-era clothes; the newest have iPods in their pockets. And they’re not dead; they’re killed.
First solution to the third derivation: …and there’s something really weird with the bodies. The oldest are red-haired boys. The Fifties ones red-haired athletic men. The newest, codgers with a bit of red in their white hair. If you squinted, the same person, getting older and older. The explanation is a serial killer that takes the identity of his victims, in this case just for long enough to lay a few false tracks and then kill again; in the city, no-one notices a slightly different face. As a result, the vast majority are thought runaways, nuts, people that took the cash and ran. (Yes, this is a ridiculous plot. As if those above were any better.)
Second solution to the third derivation: …and the key phrase is, “There can be only one.” There’s a contest, possibly over the control of some criminal organization, where two men enter, one man leaves. And the ones that didn’t leave are buried here: every single loser of the challenge for the past hundred years. The reason they haven’t been missed is this Mystery Organization doesn’t attract people that have other people that’d miss them. (Really, to make this stinker work you’d have to invoke some drama magic. Like, “Congratulations for discovering the Brutal Brethren, o single FBI agent of exceeding pulchritude and heavy bosom! Now we must go — in three hours, the Empire State Building shall be attacked by the Midnight Monks of Eeh, and we must foil their centurial plot!”)
Fourth derivation: After examining the bodies, it becomes ever clearer that they form families: plenty of farmer families, single families of shopkeepers, gas station owners, the like — as if they were some roadside town of two thousand, all here, dead in the ground, dead in their daily clothes. There’s no missing village, though.
Solutions to the fourth derivation — who knows?