It would be an understatement to say that Douglas Preston has some skeletons in his closet. The acclaimed journalist and author has dozens of macabre memories knocking around his head, ranging from 800 skeletons dredged up from a lake in the Himalayas to Egyptian tombs that had been sealed for millennia. Preston even has his own Jack the Ripper: a serial killer who slipped through his fingers and got away.

Over the years, the reporter has accompanied archaeologists on excavations and police at crime scenes, and written 36 books, both fiction and nonfiction, but it isn’t all about death. Sometimes there are ancient temples or lost treasures, too. From his thriller novels, to his adventure-filled books, to articles in major publications—many of which are collected in his latest book, The Lost Tomb—Preston’s stories sometimes defy belief.

Atlas Obscura spoke to Preston about some of the strangest mysteries he’s encountered, greatest dangers he’s faced, and the beginnings of his journalism career.

In your reporting work, you’ve gone on a lot of archaeological excavations. Have any of them been dangerous?

The most dangerous one I did is not in The Lost Tomb. It was when I was doing a story for National Geographic (“The Temples of Angkor: Still Under Attack,” 2000). I went to Cambodia in the early 1990s and organized an expedition with an archaeologist to an unknown ancient temple that had been discovered using aperture radar from space. This archaeologist wanted to get there to see this ruin.

Radar images of the forest in Cambodia show a temple (Nokor Pheas) that was previously unknown to archaeologists.
Radar images of the forest in Cambodia show a temple (Nokor Pheas) that was previously unknown to archaeologists. NASA

We hired a small army of soldiers. There are no roads there, so we had to take motorbikes over dikes and areas that have been still mined. It turned out that this temple was in Khmer Rouge–held territory. When we got there, we learned the Khmer Rouge had kidnapped three people and had taken them out into the forest a couple of kilometers and were demanding an $80 ransom.

I had an interpreter with me. He was absolutely terrified out of his mind. The soldiers that we’d hired—we had 13 with AK-47s and mortar launchers—all became so terrified that we could only spend about 20 minutes there. They thought if the Khmer Rouge were to learn we were there, we’d be absolutely screwed. I mean, to learn that a National Geographic writer was there, it was going to be a much bigger ransom than $80. And as my translator said, the chances of us coming back out alive are about zero.

As soon as we turned around and took off, I felt relief. You know, I wasn’t really as scared myself until I saw how frightened the soldiers were. These soldiers know more than I do, and so if they’re terrified—and these guys are carrying automatic weapons and grenade launchers and mortars—I guess I should be scared, too.

Reporting with soldiers for protection, there must have been some times when they were more helpful?

I went to Honduras on an expedition (The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, 2017), and there were three British ex-SAS officers who were running it. They were really experienced jungle warfare specialists and knew how things work in the jungle. We got helicoptered into this valley that was scientifically unexplored—one of the last unexplored places on Earth—where they had found, using lidar, an ancient city that was unknown.

I was in this virgin jungle, and we had to hack a little clearing, and I hung up my hammock. And the first night we were there, there was this gigantic fer-de-lance snake underneath my friend’s hammock. It was huge. I’d walked by it twice, and it was very aroused—it was in striking position. It was as large as a person.

This hidden valley is where the Lost City was found in Honduras.
This hidden valley is where the Lost City was found in Honduras. Dave Yoder

I said, “Hey, you guys, there’s a big snake over here.” So these SAS guys came, they said, “Oh blimey, keep your light on that snake. I’m gonna move it.” I thought, “He’s gonna move it? That’s crazy.” So this guy cut a big long stick, and then he pinned the snake with it. The snake just exploded in a fury of striking and literally arcs of venom flashing, glittering through the air as he was striking this way and that.

He grabbed the snake behind the head, and the snake swiveled around trying to sink his fangs into the back of his hand. It expelled venom all over his hand, and his skin was like bubbling. So he wrestled the snake to the ground and cut off its head. The head of the snake continued to snap and spew venom. He continued to have to fight the body of the snake. Finally, he stabbed the head through with his knife into the ground to stop it from hopping around. The body of the snake eventually stopped fighting. Then he washed his hands, and he said, “Nothing like that to concentrate the mind, is there?”

Among the stories collected in the book, do you have a favorite expedition?

One of my favorites is the story about Ancient Egypt and the tomb of KV5 in the Valley of the Kings (“All the King’s Sons,” The New Yorker, 1996, collected in The Lost Tomb). When I was a kid, I was fascinated with Egypt. I thought that when I grow up, I’d be able to be the first person to enter a burial chamber of an Egyptian tomb, like Howard Carter. But when I grew up, I realized, well, of course, that’s never gonna happen. All the tombs have been found, and I’m not an archaeologist. But I was in Egypt, and I was writing about the discovery of the tomb of Ramsey’s 50 sons, called KV5, being excavated by Kent Weeks.

The tomb was enormous. It was maybe the largest underground tomb in Egypt, but certainly the largest in the Valley of the Kings. When I was there, they uncovered the doorways to 99 chambers, and most of them were still sealed. I asked the archaeologist, “Do you think it’d be possible if I could be the first one in one of those burial chambers”? The tomb had been robbed in antiquity, and the doors were sealed, because there had been cave-ins and floods that had brought in debris and that sort of thing into the cave. So it wasn’t like they had the original seals on them. And he agreed.

Preston is shoved into a burial chamber in KV5, so he could be the first person to enter it in thousands of years. It was, predictably, empty.
Preston is shoved into a burial chamber in KV5, so he could be the first person to enter it in thousands of years. It was, predictably, empty. Douglas Preston

First, he picked out the smallest, least important-looking door he could find, way in the back of the tomb. And then the Egyptian workmen cleared a hole underneath the lintel so I could get in. I said, “Where’s the ladder?” And they said, “Oh, you don’t need a ladder.” The workmen just picked me up and shoved me in head first, and I fell into the tomb on the other side, and then they shoved a light bulb in a cage in after me.

I looked around, and it was empty. It’d been robbed like everything else. But I achieved my childhood dream of being the first one in a burial chamber.

Lots of your stories involve mysteries, too. Are there any unsolved ones that really stick with you?

I wrote about the Monster of Florence case (The Monster of Florence: A True Story, 2008, began as a story in The Atlantic, collected in The Lost Tomb), and that has got to be one of the strangest and most grim cases of murder and non-punishment in the history of the world. He killed 14 couples that were making love in parked cars in the Tuscan Hills between 1974 and 1985. He would shoot the man first and then he’d kill the woman, and then he’d take the woman away and perform a horrible ritual.

It’s the longest running criminal case in modern Italian history. It’s still open; they don’t know who the monster was. They’ve never identified him. And it’s been half a century, almost. I believe it’ll be like Jack the Ripper. They never will know. I think it’s too far in the past, and the investigations have gone too far afield ever to come back and solve that case.

I was talking to this journalist named Mario Spezi (who cowrote the book), and he told me all about it. At a certain point, he said to me, “I know who the monster is. I figured it out,” And I said, “Well, we’ve got to go interview him.”

So we went to this guy’s apartment, we buzzed his buzzer. Mario used a fake name, and he just buzzed us right up.

Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi at the site of one of the crimes associated with the Monster of Florence case.
Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi at the site of one of the crimes associated with the Monster of Florence case. Christine Preston

The first thing he did was he looked at Mario and he said, “Oh, I must have misheard your name over the buzzer. I know who you are. You’re Mario Spezi. You’re the guy who wrote all those articles about the Monster of Florence. I’ve read everything you’ve written.”

So we sat down and we interviewed him, and we asked him many questions. It was a really crazy and disturbing interview, and he kind of toyed with us.

He knew things about the killings that Mario says were never even reported. The police keep information back in cases like this. He knew stuff that only the police knew about the killings. He also kind of teased us. Because the medical examiner said that these mutilations were probably done with a scuba knife. And this guy that we interviewed kept talking about how he always carries a scuba knife wherever he goes. He made a point of that. It wasn’t like he was just saying it off-hand—it was like a threat.

Then at the end, Mario asked him, “Are you the Monster of Florence?” I really can’t repeat what he said. You have to read the book. It’s just too awful. Smiling and charming and everything, he then bent over and threatened Mario.

Roopkund Lake in the Himalayas contained about 800 skeletons—and no one know how or why they got there.
Roopkund Lake in the Himalayas contained about 800 skeletons—and no one know how or why they got there. Wirestock, Inc./Alamy

Another incredible mystery that I wrote about—and I sort of expected it would be solved eventually, but it hasn’t been yet—is the story of “The Skeletons at the Lake” (The New Yorker, 2020, collected in The Lost Tomb). And that’s the story of a lake high in the Himalayas at 16,000 feet. Far, far from any human habitation. Something like 800 human skeletons were found and there’s this huge mystery. Who are these people? How did they die? Why were they there? What happened?

A geneticist named David Reich at Harvard University and a bunch of Indian colleagues did a major genetic study of some of these skeletons to figure out where they came from. This didn’t solve the mystery, it only deepened it, because something like a third of the skeletons that they studied appeared to have a Greek origin. These were Greeks dating from the 18th century. What were a bunch of Greeks from the 18th century doing at 16,000 feet in the Himalayan mountains of India? I mean, it boggles the mind.

It’s so utterly bizarre that I’m not sure I could come up with a story that seems probable. The one thing about fiction is it’s got to be plausible. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be plausible, because it’s true. And if it’s true, it doesn’t matter if it’s plausible or not. That’s what makes it so much fun and interesting to do nonfiction, because as long as you are a very meticulous journalist and make sure that you are relying on accurate sources and you go back to the original sources and you double check things, and you convince yourself that it’s true, you’re on solid ground even if it seems utterly fantastical.

So you think fact can be stranger than fiction?

I do. I love the idea that there are still mysteries in the world that remain unsolved. One of the first stories in the book is about the Oak Island Treasure (“The Mystery of Oak Island,” Smithsonian Magazine, 1988, collected in The Lost Tomb). My mother was really interested in buried treasure; she loved going and looking for things. I got a lot of this from my mother, this sense of adventure and exploration. She told me the story of the Oak Island Treasure when I was like eight or nine years old. I was completely fascinated with it.

The infamous Money Pit on Oak Island in Nova Scotia, seen here in the 1930s, has long been associated with buried treasure.
The infamous Money Pit on Oak Island in Nova Scotia, seen here in the 1930s, has long been associated with buried treasure. Nova Scotia Archives

When I grew up, I got into it again. I realized, my god, there are really some serious people here who are raising money and are going to try to bring up the treasure. That was one of my first experiences as a journalist, to go up to Oak Island. I met the treasure hunters. I interviewed them. I got to see the money pit that I dreamed about ever since I was a little kid, and it was just fabulous.

My writing partner, Lincoln Child, at one point said, “Doug, that story would make a great novel.” And that’s where our novel Riptide came from. We changed some of the facts, we moved the location to the Maine coast and so forth. But it’s similar. And we came up with an answer to what was down there and who buried it, which was all fictional—because we still don’t know the truth.

So which do you prefer writing, fiction or nonfiction?

Well, it’s funny, it’s like summer or winter. In the heat of summer you think, “Oh, god, I wish it would get cold.” And then in the freezing winter, you think, “God, I wish it would warm up.” When I’m writing a novel I’m thinking, I really wish I had a backbone of facts to work with here. You have to just make up everything. But then when I’m writing nonfiction, it’s like I can’t depart from even the slightest iota. So both are hard. I don’t know, I like them both. I can’t say.

I never would have been any good as a novelist if I didn’t start out as a journalist. The training that journalism gives you, in taking this mass of information and turning it into a story, but also being very careful to be correct in everything, it’s really great training for writing novels. I also think that writing novels and understanding what makes a story good is very helpful in writing a nonfiction piece. So the two really are synergistic.