Riley Sager’s childhood home was not an architectural delight. Rather, he says in a call from his current New Jersey home, “I grew up in Pennsylvania in a boring ranch house. I longed to live in a house that was exciting in some way. I would’ve settled for a second floor! That’s probably why I think haunted houses and buildings with history are cool: childhood boredom.”
The bestselling author of three previous thrillers (he is perhaps best known for 2017’s Final Girls) says the classic horror story The Amityville Horror served as inspiration for his new book, Home Before Dark—but he didn’t think the suburban Long Island setting of that iconic tale would provide the right “aura of creepiness” for his haunted Victorian manor. So he set his supernatural story in a remote area of Vermont, in a small town with beautiful woodlands that become decidedly more threatening under the dark of night.
This turns out to be the least of protagonist Maggie Holt’s problems when she sets out to renovate Baneberry Hall. She inherited the home from her father, who wrote about the horrors that he and his family experienced there 25 years ago in a hugely successful memoir. After just 20 days in the gothic fixer-upper, they abandoned their attempts to downplay and then deal with increasingly terrifying ghostly goings-on. They fled in the middle of the night, leaving all their possessions behind.
“I don’t believe in ghosts, yet the thought of them is very, very frightening to me. That’s what I was aiming for with this book: coming from a place of skepticism, yet also being scared at the same time.”
Her father’s book and the fame and notoriety it engendered have embarrassed Maggie her entire life; she was just 5 when the family made their escape, and she doesn’t remember the events her dad describes. In fact, she thinks her parents made the whole thing up, so it seems perfectly safe to stay in the house while she revamps and sells it, in service of releasing herself from it (and the hurt she feels at her parents’ lying to her).
Maggie muses, “I believe science, which has concluded that when we die, we die. Our souls don’t stay behind, lingering like stray cats until someone notices us. . . . We don’t haunt.” So what if she’s long been bedeviled by nightmares about the threatening figures of Mr. Shadow and Miss Pennyface?
Readers will be delighted to discover that they are not only able to immerse themselves in Maggie’s story (which ultimately transforms into something far more dramatic and frightening than she could’ve anticipated), but they also get to read what her father wrote in his book—a deliciously frightening story well told, even if it might not be true.
After all, Sager notes, “I don’t believe in ghosts, yet the thought of them is very, very frightening to me. That’s what I was aiming for with this book: coming from a place of skepticism, yet also being scared at the same time.”
For Sager, crafting the book-within-a-book was one of the most rewarding aspects of writing Home Before Dark. “It was really interesting to do the back-and-forth,” he says. “Maggie and her father were sort of in a dialogue with each other, almost comparing and contrasting their recollections with each other, like a fun-house mirror. . . . It was fascinating to come up with ways to do that, and have her father’s book be the unreliable narrator, in a sense.”
As Maggie’s days in the house tick by, readers will indeed begin to wonder which narrator is telling the truth—or if anyone is. To add to the mystery, the neighbors, many of whom were there 25 years ago, are by turns friendly and angry, inquisitive and brusque. Might they be hiding something, too? Soon Maggie begins to experience disorienting flashes of memory, but she’s unsure if they’re real or just imprinted on her consciousness after years of hearing about Baneberry Hall’s generations of pain and sorrow.
Like her parents before her, Maggie finds that her stress is amplified by her reluctance to leave the house, because of both her skepticism and her desire to sell the place. That’s in keeping with a theme that’s been woven through Sager’s work thus far: the ways in which dire financial straits can constrain people’s choices and well-being. His characters often make decisions they hope will give them a monetary boost with, shall we say, mixed results.
“It does make plotting things easier when there’s desperation involved,” he says. “For example, Maggie’s family felt they couldn’t leave Baneberry Hall because they didn’t have money to buy a new house,” thus making them less likely to immediately run screaming into the night like people with more money could and would have.
“That’s one thing I think genre books are able to do very well: address important issues while still entertaining,” Sager says, adding that the financial insecurities of his characters come from his own experience. “Five years ago, I was laid off from my job [at a newspaper] and had a year of unemployment. During that year, I wrote Final Girls. So something great came out of it, but it was just this year of constant worry. I knew that if I put on the page how I felt at that time, a lot of people would be like, I hear you, I’ve been there.”
Sager explains that it’s important for him “to put my concerns and thoughts into these books, a bit of myself. A lot of times in genre fiction, the characters are just wealthy. It doesn’t say how, they’re all just wealthy. . . . I like to put a little bit of realism in.”
Another element that’s become a Sager signature is his female protagonists. He says that writing women characters “started by happy accident through my first book, Final Girls, because the trope in horror movies is final girls. If it had been final boys, it would’ve been a very different book, and probably a very different career.”
It’s crucial that, in Sager’s books, there isn’t much talk of female characters’ clothing, makeup, physicality, etc. Instead, the focus is on what they’re thinking and experiencing—which is by design. “I think about what makes this person tick, not what makes this woman tick,” he says.
“I’m fully cognizant how darn lucky I am [that] this is my full-time job. I don’t work in a coal mine; my job is to sit here and try and scare people.”
Thus, having half of Home Before Dark “be from a man’s point of view was kind of worrisome to me. In my other three books, there’s a first-person female present-tense narrative,” he says. “To throw this male past-tense narrative in the mix . . . how much should be Maggie’s, and how much should be her father’s? It was definitely a challenge.”
What hasn’t been so difficult, he says, is diving into a whole new set of characters and storylines with each new book. “It’s not easier than writing a series,” he says, which he did under his real name, Todd Ritter, before he adopted the Riley Sager nom de plume, “but it’s better for what I’m trying to do: create a little world in each book. It’s fun to not be tied down to one set of characters, or one style.”
Ultimately, Sager says, “I’m fully cognizant how darn lucky I am [that] this is my full-time job. I don’t work in a coal mine; my job is to sit here and try and scare people.”
Fortunately for Sager fans, there’s no rest for the spooky. Once readers have recovered from the goings-on at Baneberry Hall, they can keep an eye out for his next book, a story that goes in a “completely different direction from Home Before Dark.”