A Conversation with Sarah Langan

As some of you may recall, I doled out a high-praising review of Sarah Langan’s Bram Stoker Award-winning second novel, The Missing. I knew it was a semi-sequel to her debut, The Keeper, but that had no bearing on my enjoyment of the novel.

Having recently found a copy of the debut, I excitedly went to work devouring it over a weekend. Upon its completion, I was shamed at waiting so long.

The Keeper tells the tragic tale of Bedford, Maine, a small town built on the back of a paper mill. The Mill, now closed, employed most of the townsfolk and paid for its existence. But as the story unfolds and its deeply textured characters are introduced, we find that this small town is quite unlike others. It is haunted. Haunted in a very unique way.

A thickly veined historical horror that begins when the town does and continues throbbing and festering until it culminates in the events chronicled in The Missing. I will not give away any details, other than to say this book is packed full of so many deeply disturbing visuals and delightfully surreal flourishes, that to call it a haunted-town story, or a nod to “Ancient Evil in a small town” books, would be a white lie, true at its basest level but highly inaccurate at the same time.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have the chance to ask Sarah a few questions and she was kind enough to answer them.

JB: First, Sarah, allow me to thank you for taking the time to grant this little interview. I will get the giddy fan boy stuff out of the way and say I love your work. LOVE, in all capitals. I read the first two out of order and it had no impact on my enjoyment of each; both are highly effective and greatly visual novels. I also read and enjoyed Audrey’s Door. That was actually the first book I bought of yours, solely on the fact that John Skipp told me to. Then, when I was interviewing Jack Ketchum, he dropped your name, and I decided I was missing out on someone special.

I was right.

Could you give us a short encapsulation of your work, what you have out there in addition to these three wonderful novels? What is on the horizon? Do you think you’ll revisit Bedford again?

SL: John, I’m delighted you asked for the interview. My last book came out in 2009. Then I had two kids, so the next book won’t be out for about two years. It’s people like you, who love reading, that make it possible for me to do my job. So, no thanks necessary on your end.

My work: I’ve got about thirty published short stories. Most recently, “Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?” in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2011; “Independence Day” in Brave New Worlds; “Beasts of Burden” in The Gutshot Anthology; “Hindsight” in Lightspeed Magazine; its companion story, “The Man Inside Black Betty,” in F&SF; and a radio play called “Is This Seat Taken?” from the Tales from Beyond the Pale series, produced by Glass Eye Pix. In the pipeline, I’ve got a story called “Afterlife” in the debut issue of Nightmare Magazine; “The Ninth Witch” in The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women; “In India, They Worship Cows,” also in Nightmare Magazine; and a collaboration with my husband, the director JT Petty, called “Family Teeth,” a partial of which will be published this year.

I’ve also assembled a two-part collection of my short stories, tentatively called We Have Never Lived Here; and am working on my fourth novel, Empty Houses; a screenplay called “Glen Cove”; and two proposals with partials for series. I cobble away at all this in short spurts, when I’m not with my kids, and haven’t tried to sell any of it, since I’m not in a place where I can promote them, or even take a phone call. But I plan to get back writing more regularly and selling what I’ve got in September of 2012.

JB: Seems like you’re pretty busy…also seems like I have a lot of stories to track down.

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania—a really small town—and I believe the last census data I heard of pinned it at around an 850+ population. I have always felt endeared to “small town” horror. That is why I fell for Stephen King and Bradbury. I loved the setting for your novels, and did what I always do, I plugged my hometown into the novel and added all the sights and events to that tableau. Do you come from a small town? Is there much autobiography to your work?

SL: The Keeper’s town was mostly invented, though loosely based on Waterville, Maine, where I went to college. The paper mill there had closed and times were rough, unless you happened to live at the top of the hill in the ivory tower. Which is where I happened to live.

The Missing’s town is based on my hometown, Garden City, New York. It’s an affluent suburb, and when I grew up there in the 80s and early 90s, I always felt a little paranoid. I was overweight, which back then, in that place that so strived for perfection, was a size twelve. People teased me for it. I was one of the few people who walked places instead of driving, and parents, peers, and strangers would sometimes slow their cars to gawk. They couldn’t understand that I might just want to be outside and alone with my thoughts. It’s a very suburban way of thinking—everyone has to do the same thing, in the same way, or they’re nuts. I was indeed, nuts, but not because I walked, or read books no one else read, or volunteered my opinion in class more than any other girl, back when that still wasn’t done.

When I got to college, I was delighted. I used to like to eat lunch by myself in the cafeteria, though I had friends I could have sat with. I just liked the alone time. In a lot of places, that’s considered weird. At Colby College, nobody cared. I also finally tried my hand at writing, something I’d planned since I was four years old, but never had the courage to do. For me, Maine represents freedom.

JB: I attended my first convention last summer, Necon, and think I may have said a shy “hello” to you. Anyway, I saw a panel you were on. I think it might have been called “What Do We Call It Now?” and concerned the future of the genre. It was a very cool panel. But I will ask the same question now:

Where do you see horror/dark fiction heading and what hopes do you hold for its future?

SL: I think all of publishing is changing. If I get my wish, there will be so much sheer product published online that it will be the job of tastemakers (critics and editors) to sort it all out, and offer their individual stamps of approval. Readers will follow critics (Laura Miller at Salon, or Edward Bryant at Locus), or editors (John Joseph Adams, Gordon VanGelder, Sandra Kasturi, Brett Savory), just like they now follow Anthony Lane at the New Yorker. This seems more fair to me than the current, blockbuster-driven model.

As for the horror genre in particular, I don’t know. Its popularity tends to be inversely related to the health of the economy. The weird stuff, even when brilliant, tends to get marginalized, while the mainstream stuff sells. But really, that only answers your question from a marketing perspective. I’m not a business person—it’s impossible, ultimately, to guess trends. As a writer, you can only respond to current culture. I think there will be an increase in dystopian fiction, like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl. There might even be a renaissance in horror, as there was in sci-fi in the 1970s, where many authors are simultaneously successful.

JB: That would be pretty sweet to see; there are so many talented writers out there struggling under the radar. This is just a nosy question, but since we at Shock Totem love music as much as we do horror, what do you like to listen to? Do you listen to music while writing? How much and what sort of things do you like to read?

SL: I listened to music until I had kids and started working at the public library instead of at home. Also, my iTunes are all tied up in my dead Mac, which sits on my desk like a corpse, waiting for the day that I make some small effort to fix it, instead of glaring at my more technologically capable husband, like it’s his problem.

I tend to listen to one song over and over when working. Like, for hours. The Keeper was The Eels’ “Fresh Feeling.” The Missing was “Feels Flows.” Audrey’s Door was “Hard-knock Life,” and this series I plan to get back to in a few months, called Kids, was “Kids in America.” Empty Houses was a weird one: “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” by Traffic.

I’m very excited to get back to my office. Can you tell?

JB: I want to thank you again for your time. And I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed your work. I’ve been pimping The Keeper since finishing it, telling most who’ll listen that it is up there with The Shining or The Elementals as one of my favorite haunted-place novels. I look forward to following your work for some time to come. Thanks so much for your time.

SL: Right back at you!

Sarah Langan’s books are available through Amazon and the usual roster of booksellers. She is published through Harper Collins.

About John Boden

Lives in the shadow of Three Mile Island. Likes Diet Pepsi, fried food and truck-drivin' music. Has ferocious sideburns and a heart of gold.
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