Riley Sager’s Final Girls plays with horror-film conventions, even as it plays honestly by the conventions of the mystery novel. Although Sager has published previously under a different name, this first “Riley Sager novel” is generating much buzz, led by Stephen King, who described the work as “the first great thriller of 2017.” The result is an entertaining work that should please both film fans (of all genres) and mystery-novel aficionados.
A shorter version of this article was published in the Houston Chronicle on July 9, 2017.
Mike Yawn: Tell us about Final Girls.
Riley Sager: The term “final girls” is film-speak for the last woman standing at the end of the movie. And the book is about three women—Lisa, Samantha, and Quincy—who survive horror-film style massacres, and the press dubs these three “the Final Girls.” When one of them, Lisa, is found dead, Samantha shows up on Quincy’s doorstep, and this forces Quincy to confront the past.
Q: Tell us about what inspired the novel.
A: I love horror films, which so often end up with the last girl standing. All her friends are dead, and she alone lives to tell the tale. Famous examples of this are Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream. A few years ago, I was watching Halloween, on Halloween. I began thinking of the “final girl” and what it must be like for them years later. How does this event affect your life? That is what I wanted to explore.
Q: You mention Scream, which explicitly references horror-genre conventions at the same time that it plays by those conventions. Your book does that a bit.
A: Definitely. The final girl is a stereotype in movies, and there are many other “rules” that have developed over the years. The final girl should be the “good girl,” smart, a virgin, and not a drinker. Scream plays with those conventions, and I do as well. What I really wanted to do, though, is to take the concept of the “final girl” and put it in a real-world setting. If this type of horror-movie massacre happened in real life, how would the public react? How would the press react? How would the survivors react? How would their friends and family react? I wanted to play with the conventions, but I wanted this to be realistic as well.
Q: As you mention, some of the plot elements are inspired by movies. The setting is a Manhattan apartment. Was that inspired by a famous horror film?
A: Yes! It’s set in a beautiful apartment near Central Park on the upper-west side of Manhattan. It’s a wealthy, homogenized world, which I think contrasts richly with horror, exactly like Rosemary’s Baby.
Q: In fact, the entire book is filled with film allusions of all genres. It’s not just for horror film-fans.
A: I’m a big fan of movies, new and old. Quincy and her husband, Jeff, are characters who love films, and they watch film noir, which made me think of Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews. I also refer to Leave Her to Heaven, The Lady from Shanghai, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Mary Poppins. I wanted to include as many references as possible, but also be sure that they complemented the narrative.
Q: In the book, you switch from the first person in the present day, to third person when you incorporate flashbacks. Why was it important to approach it in that manner?
A: I wanted to differentiate between Quincy’s version of events and the real-life version of events. Quincy isn’t entirely trustworthy, and her memory is spotty. Quincy’s present-day narration brings a sense of urgency, but the third-person flashbacks to Pine Cottage provide a documentary feel.
Q: Although the novel was inspired by horror films, it’s actually a mystery novel, which has its own conventions. How did you play by the rules of the mystery while still providing an end-of-the-novel
A: A lot of domestic suspense books, live or die on “the twist.” I knew I needed to deliver a doozy. And I hope I delivered more than one, because that was my intention. And I did that while trying to make the characters as real and relatable as possible.
Q: Your book has blurbs by famous writers. How do those come about?
A: People think that that is all arranged by the publishers, or it’s some sort of system of traded favors. In my experience, that’s not the way it happens. In this case, Stephen King received a copy, read it, and liked it enough to tell the world about it. I didn’t even know he knew about the book. It’s particularly nice for me, because I’ve been reading his work since I was 13, so to know my book gave him some pleasure is really amazing. I’m gratified by the reception, but I’m still the same writer, living in the same place, wearing grubby jeans, and living the same life.
Q: Did you have anything to do with the cover?
A: Nothing, but it’s great! They gave it to me for approval and asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Ummmmm, I think it’s awesome.” There are lot of bad covers out there, and I was lucky to get a good one!
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.