Between the Lines: Riley Sager
The Fine Line Between
Psychological Thriller and Horror
In Riley Sager’s LOCK EVERY DOOR, a young woman, struggling with grief after a tragic loss, accepts a rare opportunity to move into an elegant, Gothic-style Manhattan apartment building. She’s warned about the building’s grim history, which includes a string of grisly deaths and whispers of occult activity, but she shrugs off those concerns and sets up house among the building’s eccentric, secretive residents. At first she can’t believe her good luck, but she slowly becomes convinced that something unimaginably sinister is going on in the building. Others dismiss her concerns, leaving her to root out the truth on her own. What she finds threatens her sanity, her bodily autonomy, and ultimately her life.
If that all sounds a lot like Rosemary’s Baby, Sager can tick another item off his bucket list.
“I’ve been a fan of both the book and the movie since I was about 14, and it was a dream of mine to write my own version of a similar story,” says Sager, who first fell in love with the thriller genre when he read his sister’s copy of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in the seventh grade—not long before he discovered Ira Levin’s devilish classic. “I was drawn to the idea of this young woman in this beautiful, glamorous apartment building, and something really sinister going on there. Who can she trust, and how is she going to get out of it?”
Sager is building a career on retooling tropes and themes that, thanks to pop culture touchstones like Halloween and Rosemary’s Baby, have become indelible parts of modern American culture. He published several well-reviewed novels under his real name and another pen name (Riley Sager is a pseudonym), but it was 2017’s Halloween-inspired Final Girls that launched him to bestseller status. The following year’s The Last Time I Lied, a vaguely gothic summer-camp creeper inspired by the unlikely pairing of Picnic at Hanging Rock and, um, The Parent Trap, cemented his reputation for twisty psychological suspense that blurs the lines between thriller and horror.
For his skin-crawling valentine to Levin’s 1967 bestseller, though, Sager wanted to shake things up a bit. With its evocative prose, chillingly atmospheric setting, and 20-something female protagonist, it’s still completely on-brand—even if his name weren’t on the cover, anyone who’s read his first two books would have no trouble pegging LOCK EVERY DOOR as a Riley Sager novel. But this time around he ditches several elements shared by his previous releases.
“When I started writing LOCK EVERY DOOR, I had certain rules for myself that I had to follow, because I didn’t want to get to the point where I was repeating myself,” Sager says. “And so, no unreliable narrator. Jules is 100 percent reliable. She might be confused at times by what’s going on, but in that building, you can’t blame her. Number two, no flashbacks. Both Final Girls and Last Time I Lied had this really intricate flashback structure that I think worked well for those stories, but I wanted to avoid repeating that again. Number three, no cabin in the woods. [Laughs] I just needed to get out of the woods for a while and have a book that’s completely set in the city, mostly in this one building.”
The trick, Sager says, was figuring out exactly what’s going on in that building, which he dubbed the Bartholomew. He tried out several ideas before he arrived at the one that stuck—a concept he found both exciting and more than a little scary. (Don’t worry; you won’t find any spoilers here.)
“I’m the first to admit, we’re going to Crazytown with what’s going on in that building,” Sager says. “When it first popped into my head, I had two simultaneous reactions. One was, Oh my gosh, this could be amazing, and the other was Oh my gosh, this could end my writing career.”
In an effort to lean into the former scenario and avoid the latter, Sager uses a similar trick to the one that worked for Levin, who grounded what he called his “unbelievabilities” in the minutiae of everyday life in New York. But rather than filling his pages with local news items and pop culture references, Sager turned to his protagonist, Jules Larsen, to keep his baroque thriller rooted in the real world. Jules is homeless, recently heartbroken, and flat broke when she responds to an ad seeking an apartment sitter for a three-month tenure. When the apartment turns out to be in the Bartholomew, a luxury building that was immortalized in Jules’s favorite novel, she literally can’t say no—the job promises a $12,000 payday that could get her back on track after a recent job loss and messy breakup.
Jules’s economic situation was born of pragmatism—Sager needed a way to ensure his protagonist couldn’t just pack up and leave when things get weird—but it wound up being just the thing the story needed to keep it feeling real and relatable, even when Sager pulls out all the stops for the book’s gloriously bonkers third act.
“I wouldn’t call this a horror novel, but it certainly flirts with horror themes, and one of the things horror does so well is address current issues,” Sager says. “But it does it in a way that’s not preachy, but entertaining.”
So while Levin’s tale of a young woman forced to bear the antichrist was part of a wave of reproductive horror that was particularly topical in the 1960s, Sager’s neo-gothic chiller has its roots in a different national anxiety: income inequality and the bleak financial outlook faced by so many young Americans.
“Once I latched onto this idea of her just being unable to afford to leave, I thought it would be interesting to add more of that economic disparity into the book—not to make it issue-driven, but if readers want to pick up on it, excellent,” Sager says.
He also admits that Jules’s predicament turned out to be one of his own entry points into the story—a reminder of just how quickly Sager’s star has risen in the publishing world. Though he’s an international bestseller with multiple movie and television development deals on the table, it hasn’t been that long since Sager was staring down the barrel of a newspaper layoff and a cancelled publishing contract.
“I was speaking from experience, and it was pretty recent experience,” he says. “Five years ago I was unemployed, with no publisher and no job prospects, and it got very, very scary. And so I did tap into that when writing Jules’s feelings toward her own economic state. There are a lot of people out there in a situation where one missed paycheck could set this whole domino chain of bad things falling.”
Sager is currently at work on his fourth thriller, which will find him deconstructing another American horror classic—The Amityville Horror—though he promises a very different story than whatever that title might conjure up in readers’ imaginations. For now, fans can expect Sager to hew closely to the niche he’s carved for himself, which he describes as “walking that fine line between psychological thriller and horror, with a kick-ass female protagonist at the center of it.”
And he intends to keep leaning into the gothic elements that have drifted to the forefront of his work. “There’s just something delicious about those types of books, where a woman’s sexuality, her strength, and her mind are frightening to people,” he says. “It’s about young women sort of being put into these boxes that they’re struggling to get out of. And if you add in possible ghosts and creepy old houses, that’s catnip to me.”
In fact, Sager thinks the new wave of gothic thrillers—he cites Ruth Ware’s upcoming The Turn of the Key as another example—might be poised to displace the unreliable-narrator stories that exploded in the wake of Gone Girl.
“I like that that’s where we seem to be going,” he says. “It seems to me that that’s kind of like the next frontier, where maybe it’s something supernatural and maybe it’s not, but it’s more than just a narrator who’s lying to us.”
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