Posts Tagged ‘Final Girls’

In the past couple of years, Riley Sager has made a bit of a name for himself among horror-thriller writers. Final Girls was a great debut novel with a new twist on an old trope, and his second book The Last Time I Lied gave new life to the sleep away camp horror story by making a twisty thriller out of it. So I had high hopes for his third book, Lock Every Door, which just came out.

And you know what? It has all the hallmarks I’ve come to expect from a Riley Sager novel. A young woman with a past negatively affecting her present as the lead? Check. A situation out of an old horror movie just ripe for a new spin? Check. Lots of flashbacks? Check. A whole ton of twists to keep you guessing? Check.

You know what else? Dude still knows how to write a good horror-thriller.

Lock Every Door follows Jules Larsen, a young woman recently laid off from her job and out of a bad relationship. Life’s been hard for her: her sister went missing, her parents are dead and she’s got nowhere to go. So when she’s offered a job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew, an upscale Manhattan apartment building for the rich and famous that also happens to be the setting for Jules’s favorite novel, she jumps on it. But once she moves in, she finds a disturbing side to the Bartholomew. Another apartment sitter goes missing in the middle of the night, and Jules suspects someone at the building is responsible. As she investigates, she uncovers a web of intrigue and murder that may claim another life very soon. Her own.

Mood-wise, Lock Every Door is semi-Gothic: it takes place in a fancy apartment building with gargoyles and a dark and sordid history. There’s not enough emphasis on the building itself as a character to really make it a Gothic novel, but there’s enough there to give it a feel of that genre, and that works in the book’s favor. It gives horror fans some expectations, but at the same time leaves room to defy them in a spectacular manner.

I also liked Jules as a character: she’s damaged and somewhat pragmatic, but she’s fiercely loyal to those she cares about and that’s what drives her throughout the story. She’s the kind of person you’d want as a friend through thick and thin, as well as the sort of character I like to write into my own stories.

On top of that, the story is quick-paced and full of the usual twists. I spent a good chunk of my reading wondering, “Where’s this going to go? Where are you taking us?” And just when you think you have it figured out, the carpet is pulled out from right under your feet. I had to struggle to put the book down sometimes, which could be an issue as I mainly read it on my lunch break.

If there’s one issue I had with Lock Every Door, I felt like characters other than Jules felt underdeveloped to me. You could feel them wanting to be more, but they weren’t really allowed to be, and this made them a bit easier to predict as to what their final fates would be (usually I’m not good at guessing these sorts of things in these types of books. Not so with Lock Every Door. I was making early predictions that turned out to be right each and every time).

But on the whole, Lock Every Door is a fast, engrossing, and chilling read that will have you thinking one thing and then totally throw you for a loop. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give the book a 4.7. Check in and hope you’ll come out unscathed.

Makes me wonder what Mr. Sager will be doing for his next book. What horror trope will he flip on its head for a new thriller novel? I hope it’s not a school. I’ve got plans for November, after all…

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After reading and really enjoying Sager’s first novel Final Girls, I was eager to check out his latest book, The Last Time I Lied, when I found out about it. It helped that the protagonist was a young woman with a dark past (my favorite kind of character to work with) and the story combined an old horror trope with some of the new thriller-type storytelling that we’ve seen in novels like Gone Girl and The Woman in the Window, as well as in Sager’s last book. What more could I ask for? Excited, I downloaded the audio book before the New Year, and started listening.

The Last Time I Lied follows Emma Davis, a New York City artist who is invited back to Camp Nightingale as an art instructor for its first summer in fifteen years. One problem: Fifteen years ago when Emma was a camper at Camp Nightingale, her three bunkmates went missing and were never found. This incident has haunted Emma all through her teens and adulthood, and she decides to go back to see if she can’t finally put the past to bed and maybe even find out what happened to her friends. Weaving between the past and the present, Emma arrives at camp and finds very little is as it seems, and gets caught up in a web of mystery, one with her old bunkmates at the center of it, and which threatens to entrap her and the current crop of campers inside.

One thing I loved about this story is that the camp setting and the camp reminded me of my own camper days. Yeah, my camp was co-ed and Jewish in nature and the one in the book is a secular all-girls camp, but the amount of swearing, the hormones and the differing personalities that sometimes get along and sometimes clash kind of brought me home. But beyond that, this novel is just as twisty as Final Girls was. Every moment you think you know what’s happening or what’s happened, the story throws you for a loop and introduces new information that makes you rethink everything. I was only able to guess a couple of those twists out of all of them, and given that I’m not normally very good at doing that for most mysteries,

I also felt a lot of connection with Emma herself. She’s a very well-developed character, and I understood how the events of the past affected her in the present (I’ve been there too, though nowhere as severe). But you also see how caring she is, and how that caring makes her want to seek out the truth and to protect those around her. She’s a great example of a protagonist for this sort of story, and I hope I can learn from reading her story to write those sorts of characters in my own stories.

A few things did stick out for me with this story. Remember those twists I was able to guess? Well, at times said twists did feel a bit obvious, so the emotional response at their reveal wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been. At least for me. For others, it could be different. Also, there’s this subplot involving a relationship between Emma and another major character she has history with, not all of it good. And while that subplot did add some drama to the story, I didn’t like how it concluded. Without spoiling anything, after everything that occurs in the novel, I find the hints as to the direction the relationship may go in the future hard to believe.

But all in all, I really enjoyed The Last Time I Lied. It’s a twisty story with plenty of surprises and great characters that play off each other in all the best ways. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.3. Sign up and dive right in for a great thrill ride.

I’m looking forward to Sager’s next novel, Lock Every Door, when it comes out this summer. And if you read Final Girls or The Last Time I Lied, you will be too.

You know, for a little while now, I’ve been pondering something. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to certain stories as “slow burns.” Heck, I even called my friend/colleague Pat Bertram’s book Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare a slow burn mystery when I reviewed it on Amazon (and I highly recommend you read it, BTW). But what exactly makes a story a “slow burn?” Sadly, searching in Google didn’t pull up a lot of information, and I needed a short break from working on Rose (which is going great, BTW), so I thought I’d share my observations on the matter.

So what is a slow burn story? Well, to put it simply, it’s a story that doesn’t try to rush itself or keep escalating things as the story goes on. Instead, the story takes its time getting to the story’s resolution, using an intriguing set up, good characters and character development, and little bumps in the excitement levels to keep readers invested in the story. A good example of a slow burn would be a romance that, instead of having the characters hook up within the first half of the story and then showing them struggle to stay together, or having the characters finally confess and kiss at the end of the story after a number of travails, the story takes its time establishing these characters, the development of their relationship, and then showing the hook up, all without any big drama or too huge plot twists.

Getting an idea for them yet? And you’re probably familiar with a lot of these stories, even if you don’t know it. Many of these slow burn stories are pretty calm for up to the first two-thirds, with little intervals during that time that ramp up the excitement for a brief period, before they have an explosive final third (not always but often). A good example of this is The Shining, both the book and the movie. Unlike other King stories like It, where things are big and scary from the very beginning, The Shining takes its time building things up. It lays the groundwork, showing us these very real characters and their struggles, the isolation they feel, and the true nature of the Overlook. On that final one, King really takes his time. We get brief glimpses of the truth of the hotel, and each glimpse gets nastier every time, but it’s not until the final third that things really hit a head and things become truly exciting.

Another facet I’ve noticed about slow burns (the ones I’ve come across, anyway) is that there’s a sort of reluctance on the parts of the characters. In The Shining, none of the three main characters want to be in the hotel, but they all have to be so they can survive as a family, and it’s with a certain reluctance that the characters, especially Jack, acknowledge that there’s something seriously wrong with the hotel they can’t handle and that they have to get the hell out of Dodge. Dracula is often described as a slow burn, especially in the novel and in the Nosferatu adaptations, and without a doubt the characters are reluctant to be in the machinations of a centuries-old vampire. And in Pat’s novel Madame ZeeZee, the first-person narrator is very much reluctant at first to look into the strange events that occur at the titular character’s dance studio. It’s only as things progress that she finds herself really looking into things.

So that’s slow burns for you. But how do you write them? If I had to guess, I’d think it would have to do with moderation, specifically moderating the amount of excitement in the story. With most other stories, the norm is to build the excitement until the climax of the story when things get really explosive. But with a slow burn, it’s more like you’re doing a mostly flat Richter scale graph with only slight bumps here and there until the very end when things get super exciting (if you decide to write the story that way, that is). Doing that might take some practice, however, so I would recommend doing that practice and just allowing yourself to get good at them. Don’t get upset if you’re not good at it at first; we all start somewhere, don’t we?

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some good slow burns to get a good idea for them, here are some of the ones I’d recommend: The Shining by Stephen King; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (see my review of that novel here); HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (see my review of that here); Final Girls by Riley Sager (see my review for that here); and of course Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare by Pat Bertram, which I reviewed on Amazon. All of them are excellent slow burns, and I can’t recommend them enough. Definitely check them out if you’re curious.

What observations have you made about slow burn stories?

Which slow burns have you read recently? Would you recommend them?