Night Time Logic is the part or parts of a story that are felt but not consciously processed. Those that operate below the conscious surface. Those that are processed somewhere, somehow, and in some way other than… overtly and consciously. The deep-down scares. The scares that find their way to our core and unsettle us in ways we rarely see coming…
In this column, which shares a name with my New York-based reading series, I explore this phenomenon, other notions of what makes horror tick, and my favorite authors and stories, new and old with you. Today in my conversation with Sarah Langan we go “beyond the door” and into the “void”… an abyss that could be the darkest of them all and might not be the one you were initially expecting.
Sarah Langan’s latest novel Good Neighbors (2021 from Simon and Schuster) is a masterful depiction of the horror that is other people, the horrors of the way people treat each other, and the horrors of the way we see and treat ourselves. Over the last two decades Langan has also written dozens of short stories including “The Burn Victim” which appears in Shivers 5 edited by Richard Chizmar and a trio of supernatural novels — The Keeper (2006), The Missing (2007), and Audrey’s Door (2009). Good Neighbors, presented and marketed as a literary thriller, showcases Langan’s profound talent — she is quite simply one of the finest authors writing today. The book is not supernatural horror like her other novels; it skillfully and effortlessly operates in the realm of the horror genre that I think of when I think of Jack Ketchum’s work. The writings of Langan and Ketchum shine a light on the depth and breadth of the umbrella of what we consider horror.
While not based on true stories like much of Ketchum’s work, the verisimilitude Langan presents is such that you’d swear the story is ripped from the headlines. Don’t look for supernatural baddies here. This is the darkness of the suburbs and the secrets it holds and the trauma and cruelty of how people can act towards outsiders and new comers, ordinary people who just want the same dignity and chances in life that we all do.
Since Langan’s previous novel, Audrey’s Door, is a book that I consider not only one of the finest haunted house novels, but also one my favorite novels in recent memory, so thoughts of it loomed large as I read Good Neighbors and prepared to discuss it.
In Audrey’s Door the supernatural element is a building that operates as the catalyst for the events of story. In Good Neighbors the incident that sets everything in motion is an oil disaster in the suburbs, and the resulting sinkhole. While one element is supernatural and the other natural, they are both the catalyst for the human behavior and human reflection that Langan presents and illuminates for us as few other authors can. While these are two very different books, I couldn’t help but notice what I perceived as the similarity and commonality of the Night Time Logic in play and operating in both books.
On the eve of the launch of Good Neighbors in January 2021 I had a chance to talk to Sarah about these things:
DANIEL BRAUM: You are the author of many short stories and three other acclaimed and award-winning novels. You recently (December 2020) read a chapter from your third novel, Audrey’s Door, for the New York Ghost Story Festival. Could you tell a reader who may be new to your work what the book is about?
SARAH LANGAN: It’s about an architect in freefall from her life. She leaves her fiancé, afraid to commit to raising a family with him because of the childhood she’s come from. She stumbles across an extremely cheap Manhattan apartment, designed by her hero. But the building wants something from her. It wants her to build a door.
Tell us more about the character of Audrey. Who is she and what does she want when we encounter her at the start of the book? How is her situation changed or affected by the supernatural?
Audrey’s scared of everything. She keeps trying to branch out, but her fears tend to drive her. In the haunted apartment building, her past, and the things she really fears, all come back.
I found the haunted apartment building to be a very unique and uniquely depicted super-natural element. Even though they are very different books and different kinds of books do you see the house and the door in Audrey’s Door operating in some ways the same way the sink hole in your latest book, Good Neighbors?
I think they’re different — one’s evil, and wants evil. One is utterly human.
Good Neighbors is full of non-supernatural, every-day “utterly human” people. The quotation on the cover is from Liv Constantine, author of The Last Mrs. Parrish, who calls it “A modern day Crucible… Beneath the Surface of a suburban utopia, madness lurks.”
Congratulations on the book. And for all the wonderful advance reviews and advance acclaim.
What do you want readers to know about it before they pick it up?
Good Neighbors is a fish out of water story, about misfit newcomers arriving on a suburban Long Island block. It’s near future, and global warming is more intense, anxieties higher. The Wilde family manages to fit in at first, but an argument between newcomer mom Gertie Wilde and Queen Bee Rhea Schroeder turns them into outcasts. Things get worse when a sinkhole opens in the middle of the park, swallowing Rhea’s daughter inside. During the days and weeks of search that follow, the neighbors start to look for someone to blame for everything that’s been happening, including Shelly’s fall. With Rhea’s help, they start to blame to Wildes. They decide their own children might be in danger, unless they preventatively strike against them…
The book is set in Long Island, New York. For those who do not know or are not from the area, Long Island often refers to Nassau and Suffolk County, which are the suburbs of New York City. The book is full of real places. A real bar called Croxley’s Ale House. Nassau Community College. And Hofstra University, to name a few.
The book and Maple Street, the street where is all takes place, feels like the suburbs I knew and the suburbs I know. Let’s talk a bit about the suburbs. First, what is good about them? Why the allure? The main characters we are going to look at later were outsiders who wanted to come and made a decision to move. Also, what are the risks and ills of the suburbs — oth to the characters and in general?
A cul de de sac is a great microcosm for the ways towns and nations function, and the suburbs are the typical Americana I was interested in exploring. Where I grew up, everybody was the same, or tried to be the same, and money was extremely important. I think things have relaxed since, but there’s still that feeling of conformity. Of appearances being more important than substance. There were great things about the ‘burbs, too. I got a good education and had great, long-term friends who remain friends. The suburbs are home to me. I only write about things I love. Life’s too short.
I found Good Neighbors to be an unflinching and insightful look at relationships. Relationships between husbands and wives. Between parents and their children. Between children and other children. And these groups of suburban families and other families, in close proximity — their neighbors. In the middle of all these relationships we have a sink hole — a hole in the group that opens up in their neighborhood, right near their homes.
I have a bunch of questions about these people and their relationships. The children. The individuals. And the families. And then I have some questions about the sink hole. And how it affects them and drives the story. Let’s start with the children. I’m going to read a few lines about them.
“Julia looked across the hot, empty park, and the hole behind them, which kept getting bigger. Nothing made sense. Nothing was how it was supposed to be because the world was upside down. All the grown-ups were kids, and the kids were on their own, and maybe that’s how it had been all along.”
Tell us about these kids — the pack of kids everyone calls “the Rat Pack” and their world and reality they face in the book.
These kids are inheriting a falling apart world, and they know it, and their parents know it. It’s near future, and there’s more sinkholes, more scarcity, more global warming refugees. But the adults, in an effort to shield their children, and also because it’s an unpleasant reality, are in denial. Kids see it clearly, the way kids always see things more clearly, because they have so much less baggage.
They’re depicted with such verisimilitude. And you show us this suburban street — Maple Street from multiple perspectives, the perspectives of several families which for me brought to mind a favorable comparison to some of Stephen King’s work — the way he delivers a sense of place through its people. As the work goes on I felt the book also revealed an element that I associate with author Jack Ketchum, an unflinching “true crime” perspective.
What were some of, if any, of your influences and inspiration for the book? Talk to us about the real-world dangers or just downright ugliness or challenges to an outsider or non-conformist of what I’m calling “the tyranny of the community”?
“Tyranny of community” is a great expression. My favorite play of all time is “Our Town,” and I think you can see that. The play’s got this folksy feel, but it’s sneaky and postmodern, and very much about the roles we all play, our identities, that never quite fit, and in death, don’t matter. I also love “Dogville,” a much bleaker version of the same story. I read Megan Abbot, who’s a master of psychological suspense, and Patricia Highsmith.
Community is what forges civilization. Without it, humans would not survive. But community can also be unforgiving, and suspicious of things that threaten its power, even when those things (people) are harmless.
Some of the story is told looking back. From news articles and social media and even shows and Broadway shows done on what happens on Maple Street. Here’s a line from the Broadway show about the events of the book that appears in the book.
“I blame the people of Maple Street. I blame the people who knew better.”
Let’s talk about people who knew better. This book may not be “direct” or what we commonly think of as horror as far as supernatural monsters and happenings. Do you feel the actions or inactions of “people who know better” comes under the umbrella of the horror genre?
The book isn’t traditional horror because there’s no monster and nothing supernatural happens. Also, the characters never have over-the-top, heightened emotions, that genre characters tend to. But then again, Jack Ketchum’s work was more horror than any monster, and totally believable (and great). So, another distinction with Good Neighbors is that the point isn’t the violence. I’m not saying: look at this horrible thing! Don’t flinch! People are awful sometimes! My premise is that people are basically good. What’s horrible is the way our good instincts get manipulated by bad actors.
It’s about the community, and social connections, and personal connections. The horrors are all about the characters behaving badly, because they’re fighting monsters that don’t exist.
This excerpt is about those characters one will find on Maple Street. And their… wounds.
“You never got the real Jane when you talked to her, just this textbook automaton semblance of sweet compassion.”
Along with the duplicity and the masks people wear we see these characters’ “wounds” or defining traumas that have shaped them and drive them. You mentioned something akin to this when discussing the film Wonder Woman 1984 and I found it fascinating. You mentioned how the film is set up and structured around how the characters are all motivated from their wounds. You say it much better, could you tell us more about this? And about looking at characters and story in this way.
I think a lot of us are looking for validation, but validation will never solve our problem. We want to be “special” or especially good at one thing, or famous, or rich, because that will make people like us. It’ll be a shield. We’re looking for protection. But from what?
Usually, it’s to conceal a wound. Something in our upbringings, that we think money or high ability will compensate for. People will see that “specialness,” and believe we have value. Wonder Women skewers that perspective, in a really funny way. The villain dad tells his son that he’s going to one day be rich and powerful and worth spending time with. Until then, he’s too busy to hang out with his son. The dad was abused as a child — totally neglected. So this pursuit is really a way of avoiding his son, who scares him. The son might get to know him, and reject him, and why put himself through that? Why not wait until he has armor (money), so that rejection won’t be as likely? What the dad doesn’t see, is that this search for power is a misdirected desire to be loved. But he’s already loved. By his son. And he’s perpetuating this wound through the next generation, because his son doesn’t feel loved, and equates love with power and money instead of, say, a day at the park. So, his son will have these messed-up values, too.
Diana in Wonder Woman is the same. Her wound is that the love of her life died. More than fifty years later, she goes out to dinner with Kristen Wiig’s character, and for a hot second, we wonder: is this going to a sexy place? Because sparks are FLYING. But no. Instead, she resurrects her dead lover, only it’s not actually him. It’s some other guy who doesn’t even look like him, and she doesn’t care. Nor does she care about the moral implications, or the lover’s feelings. She just wants the shield. She doesn’t want to get hurt, loving someone new again.
We all do that. We live in a capitalist society, where money is a surrogate for time and affection and love. And I’m not saying money isn’t necessary — it really is. It can make you safe. It’s a gauge for workforce value (albeit flawed). But it can never make you happy. And no one will ever love you more for having it.
My big problem is gifts. I love getting them, except from close loved ones. Whatever happened in my upbringing, I learned to associate gifts/money with love. So when my husband and kids get me presents, they’re never good enough. It’s messed up. I don’t know why I’m like that and I wish I wasn’t. But there it is. Gifts are some kind of shield for me, and no one I love can ever provide one that’s good enough — that adequately covers the wound.
Here’s an observation one of the characters makes about human behavior and human perception.
“Gertie once read that when people start to lose their sight, they don’t know it. Their minds fill in the missing parts. So, when they’re driving, maybe they’re passing a field of cows, but what they see is just green. Their minds make an assumption based on past experience. It occurred to her that people’s personalities were like that. Full of holes. We think we’re complete but we’re not, and usually that’s just fine. It’s typical…”
Such a fascinating concept. It reminds me of something that happens when people experience the unexplained. They rationalize or come up with something rather than have to sit with or deal with they experienced something super-natural or that cannot be comprehended. This also is in play in the “natural” in the everyday interactions that make up relationships.
How does this come into play in the book?
I think it’s the reason Gertie and Rhea have their falling out. They both have blind spots in the exact same places, and the fantasies they create to fill those spaces come from very troublesome narratives. What’s scary about this kind of thing, is that we don’t know what we don’t know — we’re unaware of our blind spots.
Let’s talk about the character Arlo. Who is this guy? And where is he in his life when we meet him at the beginning of Good Neighbors?
Arlo has a lengthy backstory that never made it into the novel. In my mind, he split his childhood between an East Village squat (his dad’s apartment) and his mom’s place in Jersey (a pharmacist’s assistant). His dad got him into drugs by the time he was eight, and the reason he’s such a good husband when it comes to chores and cooking is that it’s all he ever did for his parents. He’s got his dad’s musical talent (his dad’s a failed musician), and with his band gets a top 40 hit. But his dad’s the manager, and steals all the money, while Arlo gets heavily into drugs.
Anyway, Arlo’s on his second life by the time he meets Gertie. He’s both ashamed by all that’s he’s lost, and thrilled to start a new chapter. Together, they move to Maple Street to raise their kids. But he’s suspicious-seeming to the neighbors. The tattoos and drinking and PDA with Gertie were normal behaviors where he comes from, but totally unacceptable on Maple Street. He’s also not clear on how he’s supposed to talk to his kids. He’s gruff and yells at them. It makes the neighbors crazy, even though some of them are doing worse things, they do them in secret.
Spoiler warning on this question. Tell us about how the people of Maple Street look at Arlo. Also, when Arlo gets back in touch with his old band mate, Danny, to try and sell his Grammy we get a glimpse of Arlo’s life before and outside of Maple Street. In what ways are the interaction with Danny the same and in what ways different than with the Maple Street families?
I think Arlo and Danny are really honest with each other because of their history. It was a genuine friendship, despite the current bad blood. Arlo actually has another genuine friendship — Fred Atlas. It’s a testament to him. He doesn’t fit in with most people, but he has good taste.
Another key character is Rhea. Please tell us a bit about her and about her relationship with the 1979 Disney movie The Black Hole?
Rhea’s a classic narcissist. I studied them while writing Good Neighbors, and they’re pretty fascinating. They erect false, perfect selves as a coping mechanism in childhood, but they never let it go. They’re prone to magical thinking, and the notion that they’re either the best or worst people on earth. It’s an affliction and they’re in constant pain. In Rhea’s case, she starts to want to lose the mask, and find out what’s underneath when this story opens, because she knows that the person under the mask is very sick. But she’s also terrified — who’ll love that person, the real Rhea?
That Disney film was a lot of fun to write about. Rhea used to watch it with her dad when she was a kid. It’s about him, and the holes in perception we were talking about before, and the tragic thing that happened with her dad, that she’s never acknowledged.
Let’s talk about the sink hole.
The hole is real. It is a real and literal thing. It is also the catalyst. The thing that drives the story and all the conflict. It occurred to me from the start it operates in the story in the place that often “the supernatural element might” in a genre story.
You have a MS in environmental toxicology. So, I also realize you might have had something very different on your mind when you came up with the sink hole.
Tell us about the sink hole and how you use it in the story.
They’re the physical evidence of global warming, which I think makes the neighbors a lot more anxious: they know things aren’t going to get better. They’re going to get worse.
The hole means a lot of things. It’s like that Tom Waits song, “Anything you can think of is true. And the fishes make wishes on you.” I like the idea that it belongs to the reader.
That is a wonderful Tom Waits lyric. And I love the notion that some things belong to the reader. I also cannot help but think the sink hole and the recurring appearance of the Disney’s The Black Hole in the book are part of the “Night Time” part of the story. The part that is there but not necessarily or necessarily meant to be consciously processed.
Good Neighbors is out now and available wherever you buy books. In the time since this interview, it has gone on to achieve widespread acclaim and praise.
A conversation between Daniel Braum and Sarah Langan from January 2021 can be found here.
About the Writers
Sarah Langan grew up in Long Island and has an MFA in creative writing as well as a Master’s in Environmental Health Science / Toxicology. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughters, and giant, pushy rabbit. She is the author of the novels The Keeper, The Missing, and Audrey’s Door. Her latest Good Neighbors is out from S&S. She’s received three Bram-Stoker awards, and her work has often been included in best-of-the-year lists and anthologies. She recently published “You Have the Prettiest Mask” in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet edited by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link from Small Beer Press. Her novelette “The Night Nurse” appears in the Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 edited by Ellen Datlow. Her website is https://sarahlangan.com
Daniel Braum’s stories often explore the tension between the psychological and the supernatural. He is the author of the short story collections The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales (Cemetery Dance eBooks 2016), The Wish Mechanics: Stories of the Strange and Fantastic (Independent Legions 2017), the chapbook Yeti Tiger Dragon (Dim Shores 2016) and the novella The Serpent’s Shadow (Cemetery Dance eBooks 2019) His third collection, Underworld Dreams, was released from Lethe Press in September 2020 and is out now as an audio book. His novel Servant of the Eighth Wind is coming from Lethe Press in Summer of 2022.
He is the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and the Shivers 8 anthology edited by Richard Chizmar to the Best Horror of the Year Volume 12 edited by Ellen Datlow. He is the host of the Night Time Logic series, and the annual New York Ghost Story Festival. Please subscribe to his YouTube channel DanielBraum where you can find free streaming versions of Night Time Logic interviews, readings, and more. He can be found on social media and at bloodandstardust.wordpress.com
About the New York Ghost Story Festival
When the year grows old and December’s daylight departs too soon it is time to fill the dark nights with stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The New York Ghost Story Festival is an annual event of ghost story readings and discussion hosted by Daniel Braum founded in 2021, featuring authors of the uncanny, strange and fantastic from New York and around the globe.
Stay in touch at the Daniel Braum or Night Time Logic pages on social media. Visit http://bloodandstardust.wordpress.com for information and dates of the December 2021 Festival.
Here is the link to the Night Two of the December 2020 Festival where you can hear Sarah Langan read from Audrey’s Door and discuss ghost stories.