Up Close: Riley Sager
An Eerie Excellence
Riley Sager’s Final Girls hit bookstores in July 2017 with the kind of buzz most writers only dream of. Pre-publication praise had rolled in from the likes of Entertainment Weekly and BookPage, with Library Journal and Booklist offering favorable comparisons to the work of Gillian Flynn. Stephen King called it “the first great thriller of 2017.” Readers turned out to be just as excited about the book as critics were, catapulting Sager’s debut novel to international bestseller status.
The story that was playing out behind the scenes was perhaps even more intriguing. Final Girls might have been the first anyone heard of Riley Sager, but the writer behind the pseudonym had published a string of mysteries under his real name—a series that, though well reviewed, was never able to break away from the glut of crime novels that crowded bookstore shelves. In fact, Final Girls was to be the author’s final attempt at making a career of writing fiction. Sager says the book’s breakout success was an experience that, at times, almost seemed to be happening to someone else.
“The books I had published under my real name didn’t get anywhere near the attention or the reception [that Final Girls got], so I knew that it was something rare and something special, and I tried to appreciate it as much as I could,” Sager says, during a break from work on his soon-to-be-finished third novel. “But there was also this sense that it wasn’t quite happening. It was very surreal, because my life, for all intents and purposes, has not changed very much. We still live in the same place—we didn’t buy a mansion. [Laughs] But the book just had this whole life of its own, and it felt weird to be sitting at home in track pants and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and then see my book being mentioned on The View. I don’t think I appreciated it enough, because it was almost like an out-of-body experience.”
Final Girls—a novel that embedded classic slasher-movie tropes in a Gone Girl-esque psychological thriller—enjoyed an appeal that spanned several markets: horror fans embraced its savvy, affectionate dissection of films like Halloween and Scream (not to mention its many genre references), while mainstream suspense fans responded to its story of an unreliable narrator who must revisit the secluded cabin where a gruesome murder spree claimed the lives of her friends years earlier. The book even found an enthusiastic YA following—a phenomenon Sager attributes to the same factors that attract teenage girls to the horror films that inspired it.
“It’s really one of the few genres with strong female role models, when you come right down to it,” Sager says. “There’ve been studies showing that, of all movie genres, even more than romantic comedies, horror movies give women the most screen time. I really think that’s one of the reasons why [horror] appeals to young women, and why Final Girls did the same thing.”
But careers aren’t built on one book, and before the ink was dry on Sager’s publishing contract for Final Girls, it was time to begin work on the follow-up—a daunting task, especially when his novel started generating significant pre-pub buzz.
“There was a long time between the acceptance of Final Girls and the publication of Final Girls,” he says. “I think it might’ve been eighteen months. I knew I needed to write another book during that cycle, and that’s when I wrote THE LAST TIME I LIED—I handed in the first draft a couple weeks before Final Girls came out. In the writing of THE LAST TIME I LIED was when the weird groundswell of attention for Final Girls started happening, and I have to say it kind of affected me as a writer. Like the Stephen King [blurb]—I was working on LAST TIME I LIED, and in the back of my head I was thinking, Stephen King might read this, and he might judge me. [Laughs] That’s a surefire case of writer’s block right there.”
Before all that, though, there was the matter of deciding what that next book would be. Sager says he didn’t want to repeat himself with his second novel, but he also didn’t want to stray too far from the elements that made Final Girls catch fire. He developed a handful of ideas, but none of them were quite “clicking” with him. He finally found the spark he was looking for in Peter Weir’s 1975 psychodrama Picnic at Hanging Rock, an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel about a group of girls who vanish, along with their teacher, during a Valentine’s Day outing to an Australian rock formation in 1900.
“I always look to movies for inspiration,” says Sager, who conceived the idea for Final Girls during an annual viewing of John Carpenter’s Halloween. “Picnic at Hanging Rock just really stuck out to me. It got me thinking about these girls vanishing into the wilderness, and there are no answers—not for the other characters and not for the viewer—and how maddening that is in some ways. And the movie does focus on the aftermath of the people left behind and how it affects them. That was when it sort of clicked. I wanted to update that concept.”
For Sager, that meant modernizing Hanging Rock’s boarding-school setting. He arrived at THE LAST TIME I LIED’s eerie summer-camp backdrop after watching another movie—albeit one that, at least on the surface, strays far from the brooding dread that permeates Weir’s Victorian-gothic puzzler.
“Summer camp popped into my head thanks to The Parent Trap,” Sager says. “It’s a family-fun movie, but if you really stop and think about it, it’s so messed up. It’s really just a hair’s breadth away from being a V.C. Andrews thriller. And so those two things combined—it was like, I’m going to do Picnic at Hanging Rock at an exclusive summer camp, and that’s going to be my next book. So from then on, it was just, okay, let’s try to do this and hope it doesn’t suck.”
It doesn’t. THE LAST TIME I LIED, which Sager has described as “summer-camp gothic,” is every bit as riveting as Final Girls, even as it trades its predecessor’s visceral immediacy for an eerier, more dreamlike experience. The story centers on Emma Davis, a painter who is tormented by the disappearance of three of her friends at an elite summer camp fifteen years ago, when the girls were teenagers. When Emma gets a chance to return to the newly reopened camp, she hopes she’ll find a way to exorcise that terrible summer from her psyche and maybe uncover the answers that have long defied authorities. Instead, Emma’s return to Camp Nightingale forces her to reexamine her own possible role in the disappearances and their fallout, and to dredge up secrets best left hidden in the forest.
“I liked the idea of having this woman who was haunted by something that happened so many years ago, and not in a normal way—she’s truly, mentally haunted by what happened,” Sager says of his new protagonist, who has made a name for herself in the art world with huge paintings of forest landscapes that, unbeknownst to anyone but her, all contain the painted figures of the three missing girls hidden beneath layer upon layer of color and shadow. “That was another thing that sort of clicked right away—I loved the idea of her painting her friends and then covering them up with these abstract images of the forest. That was just the perfect example of how her mind is trying to handle what happened at that camp all those years ago. And I like the idea of someone going back to where a trauma happened. Obviously that happened in Final Girls, but it was sort of forced, where this was the character voluntarily going back and trying to revisit the past in order to fix the present.”
While Emma’s character is the engine that drives the book, Sager says it was the camp itself—built by a lumber baron who, disappointed that he couldn’t find a swath of land with a large lake, flooded an entire valley to make one—that was the most fun to develop.
“It was like, okay, let’s think of the creepiest possible summer camp outside of [Friday the 13th’s Crystal Lake),” he says. “What would it have? Underwater trees? Check. Creepy sculpture garden? Check. Big, ominous lodge on the water? Yep. That was a really enjoyable process.”
Location will also play a significant role in Sager’s third novel, another standalone that he’s due to deliver to his publisher later this summer. Once again, he’s taken a cue from a classic genre film, though it’s too soon to reveal the movie that inspired him this time around. It’s safe to say that it’s a film with a more distinctly urban spin than Halloween or Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Sager promises that he’s departing from the dual-timeline structure of his first two novels.
“It’s strange,” he says, “because on the surface [Final Girls and THE LAST TIME I LIED] do seem very similar, and they’re not at all, really. Maybe the structure is, and the cabin-in-the-woods aspect, but they’re really completely different books. And so my next one, which I can’t say too much about—I’m still working on it and it’s never going to end—I swear there will be no flashbacks, and there will be no cabins in the woods.”
- Between the Lines: Stephen Graham Jones - January 31, 2023
- Between the Lines: Grady Hendrix - December 30, 2022
- Up Close: David Swatling - October 31, 2022