The horror genre’s best architects have created some pretty iconic settings and scares—Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, John Carpenter’s Michael Myers, Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, everything Wes Craven has ever done. We’ve seen characters survive massacres and possessions, slashers and cursed objects, the supernatural and the true-to-life.
But it’s what happens after the horror that intrigues Riley Sager. Our Laurie Strodes, Lutz families, Camp Crystal Lake massacre victims, Martin Brodys—how does surviving a horrific event change their lives? Our first experiences with these characters almost always ends as they’re being rescued or escaping to safety.
It’s a common theme throughout Sager’s oeuvre, most recently in his latest novel, Home Before Dark, out June 30.
“At the end of these movies, it’s supposed to be happy,” said Sager, who lives in Princeton. “But the police are there, she’s getting loaded into an ambulance, everyone you know is dead. That has to mess her up. Let’s see what happens 20 years from now.”
That was the inspiration behind Sager’s first novel, Final Girls, and it’s a theme he finds himself subconsciously revisiting in some of his other stories. In Final Girls, protagonist Quincy Adams deals with the aftermath of surviving a massacre that left six of her friends dead. She, along with two other women who lived through similar encounters, are dubbed “Final Girls”—a horror trope that refers to the last woman standing at the end of a slasher film.
Final Girls flashes between the past and Quincy’s present-day life, 10 years after the massacre. It explores the long-term effects of surviving trauma and her adult life experiences—as well as those of her fellow Final Girls.
Sager’s newest novel, Home Before Dark, has a similar structure. It follows the story of Maggie, a woman whose father writes a best-selling horror memoir about the family’s experiences living in an old, Gothic house—after a series of supernatural events spread out over the family’s first few weeks in the house, they decide to pack up and leave in the middle of the night.
Maggie returns to the house as an adult to fix it up, skeptical of what really drove her family out. A child when it happened, her father’s book is all she has to go by, and she never really believes what he wrote. Home Before Dark alternates between Maggie’s present-day narrative and her father’s memoir—”a book within a book,” Sager said.
Sager came up with the concept for the novel while listening to a podcast about The Amityville Horror. The classic novel, written by Jay Anson, follows the Lutz family, who move into a Long Island home a year after the previous resident commits a horrific crime. Paranormal terrors ensue.
The Amityville Horror is said to be based on the experiences of the real-life Lutz family, but decades of controversy have surrounded the book (and the films it spawned), including accusations that the Lutzes fabricated the entire thing.
“Everybody thinks it’s a hoax,” Sager said. “I just keep thinking about the kids, what it must be like for the children who were the characters in this book. What must life be like for them now? Were they in on the hoax? I wanted to write a book about a character who was a kid in a haunted house.”
The theme seems to subconsciously follow Sager. In his second book, Last Time I Lied, we follow Emma, a woman whose friends disappeared at summer camp years ago. She returns to camp as an adult after it re-opens.
“I think it just happens,” he said. “From a narrative standpoint, it’s very interesting. Then, you can show readers the before and after. It’s a great way to build suspense. It’s the events of the past and things today, and toggling between them to find out the truth behind the situation. It’s not intentional, but it just so happens to appear in three of the four books.”
Sager’s horror successes started only recently. Prior to Final Girls, he worked in journalism, for the Courier News and Star Ledger. He wrote books—thrillers and mysteries—under his given name, Todd Ritter, but he says they didn’t do well. Work-wise, the minimal sales didn’t bother him too much since he did have a full-time job. When he was laid off, though, he faced a decision.
“It was fine, until all of a sudden it wasn’t,” he said. “It came to the point where I really had to make some decisions. Is writing feasible long-term? Can I make a career out of this?”
Then he watched Halloween on Halloween.
“During that time in my life where I was jobless, and I couldn’t get an interview to save my life, the idea came to me—‘What if this happened in real life? What if these horror movies existed?’”
He pitched the idea to his agent, who immediately said yes, and Final Girls came to fruition.
“It was a combination of luck, desperation and I guess a little skill,” he said.
The book exploded—it was an international bestseller and has been published in 25 different languages. Sager could only call the experience “surreal.”
“I didn’t go on a book tour,” he said. “I didn’t do any events. I was sitting at home working on my next book as all these mind-blowing, unexpected things happened.”
Stephen King tweeted about it, calling it “the first great thriller of 2017.” The book was featured in Entertainment Weekly. Whoopi Goldberg held up a copy and raved about it on The View.
“I was sitting at home, thinking, ‘Is this really happening? Am I in some weird fantasy world?’” Sager said.
The success continued with Last Time I Lied and Lock Every Door, both of which landed on the New York Times bestseller list. The film rights for all of Sager’s books have been optioned and are in different stages of development.
Sager grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Penn State University, where he worked on the student newspaper. He moved to New Jersey in 2005 for his first journalism job.
He had an extensive book tour for Home Before Dark planned before the COVID-19 pandemic. Once that was canceled, he had virtual events set up with book stores across the country throughout the month of June, but “it’s not the name as being able to go and meet people,” he said.
Locally, he’s also missing going to the Princeton Garden Theater—its Hollywood Summer Nights series and annual summer screening of Jaws are some of his favorite Princeton traditions. He also likes eating at Agricola and One 53 in Rocky Hill, where he goes to celebrate on release day.
Sager says he loves horror movies, citing Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror, Halloween, It Follows and the Scream series as favorites. Those films also inform some of his writing—which he’s doing right now.
“Summers are always scrambling to finish the next book,” he said. “I never get to enjoy summer anymore.”