Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
The ambition on display throughout Sarah Lotz’s novel The Three is staggering. It’s the first fiction book since Max Brooks’ sprawling (and fictional, of course) zombie oral history World War Z to wow me in that way. (It’s worth noting that World War Z was a primary influence on Lotz.) For a book worm like myself, someone who loves dark genre fiction as much as he loves originality and artistic bravery, The Three is a cause for vigorous celebration.
For Lotz, meanwhile, it's the first time she's written horror by herself. Along with co-scribe Louis Greenberg, Lotz has penned three other fright novels under the pseudonym S.L. Grey, including next month's The Ward and, as Lotz describes it herself, the “not for the squeamish” hardcore shocker The Mall (2011).
With The Three, though, the Cape Town, South Africa, native really swung for the fences. The story revolves around Black Thursday, recognized on calendars as January 12, 2012—that’s the day when four airplanes crashed simultaneously in South Africa, Japan, Florida, and into the ocean. Amidst the countless fatalities, three young children incredibly survived, a trio of miracles that, gradually, invoke a string of worldwide paranoia and fear-mongering. There’s a religious extremist, Pastor Len Voorhees, who starts labeling the kids as three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, inspiring numerous believers to pledge allegiance to his fanaticism. Then there's Paul Craddock, one of the kid’s uncles, who begins losing his mind as he suspects the little girl of harboring malevolent supernatural abilities. Finally, there are youngsters Ryu and Chiyoko, in Japan, who connect via online chat room and Skype conversations, trying to reason their way through the hysteria and bond over one of the survivors’ strange android clone.
The mounting insanity is all documented by Elspeth Martins, a journalist and author of the made-up book-within-the-book, Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. The bulk of The Three is Martins’ Black Thursday, a World War Z-like oral history comprised of journal entries, interview and cube chat room transcripts, radio broadcasts, and other seemingly non-literary methods of storytelling. Somehow, Lotz expertly keeps The Three’s myriad characters, plot threads, and journalistic contradictions in check while building up a surplus of dread through unreliable narrators and by treating the pre-teen crash survivors as slowly answered question-marks.
Akin to mind-bending films like Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, The Three is a book that will leave you anxious to re-experience it immediately once Lotz’s fascinating, satisfying, and audacious endgame is revealed. It’s only May, but I feel confident in saying that The Three is a shoe-in for whatever “Best Books of 2014” list comes about at year’s end. It’s that damn good.
Earlier this week, I discussed the book in-depth with Ms. Lotz. By doing so, I’ve gained an all-new appreciation for The Three and its delightful author. You’re about to see why.
You’ve talked elsewhere about how the book originated from your own fear of flying. There’s only one section of The Three takes place inside an actual airplane, and it’s the knockout prologue. Did your personal fears prevent you from setting more scenes inside airplanes? It seems like writing more about airplanes would’ve helped you confront that fear.
After I wrote that prologue, and I wrote it in one go, I had full-on nightmares for two weeks. I had to take sleep-aids; I could not sleep. It really, really messed with my head. Then, after that, especially after doing all of the research and going in-depth with pilots and people like that, it made the fear a lot worse.
And now I’m about to go on a U.S. tour, during which I’m going to fly 20 times. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m trying to just be fatalistic about it. I suppose that if the plane goes down, it will be really good for the book’s publishers. [Laughs.] It will make for great publicity, if you want to really be dark about it.
But, really, that’s the only way for me to deal with it. It’s a completely rational fear, too—I know this. But writing about it didn’t help me cope with the fear at all, even though writing about your fears is supposed to be therapeutic. This didn’t help at all.
Is there any specific thing about flying that scares you the most? Because I have my own personal reason why flying and airplanes terrify me.
I think it’s partly the claustrophobia and partly that I’m a bit of a control freak, and when I’m flying, I’m not in control. I always drive, I never let anyone else drive because I know that if I drive, we’re all going to be safe. When you get on a plane, though, obviously you can’t go into the cockpit and say, “OK, I’m taking over now!” You’re in the handle of these people, and, honestly, I know the physics of flying and how planes work, but I can’t understand how they stay in the air. [Laughs.] I really don’t know they do that, and that lack of knowledge terrifies me. It doesn’t seem right.
See, for me, it’s the aspect that if the plane goes down, it’ll be in the middle of nowhere, where my loved ones won’t be anywhere near nor have a clue of its whereabouts, and there’s a scary sense of seclusion and helplessness to that. At least if you’re driving and the car crashes, you’ve seen traffic markers and location signs. There’s a kind of comfort in knowing you’re in actual place and not hovering thousands of miles above the ground in no man’s land, and no one you love will have a chance to see you or your body ever again. That freaks me out.
Or it’s like the movie Alive where you end up on a mountain in the Andes and you have to eat the passengers. It’s that kind of thing. I’ve actually never thought of it like that, so thank you for adding that new fear. [Laughs.] That wasn’t part of my psychosis, but now it is! Yikes.
Damn, my apologies. Though, I must say, it feels pretty good to introduce a successful horror writer to a new fear.
Yeah, you should feel proud. I’ll send you my therapy bill. [Laughs.]
Fair enough. How long did the research period take before you started writing The Three?
Oh, god. It was about six months just for the basic stuff, because there were a lot of things I knew nothing about. For example, Japanese economics—the way I was setting up what could happen in Japan needed an absolute certain knowledge of the social and economic histories to make what was going to happen seem feasible. Would it be feasible? Who knows, but it has to be potentially feasible. Things like that I was completely ignorant about at first. I had to a quite in-depth schooling on.
After I submitted the book, my editor and I worked very closely on doing more months of research. All in all, it was about a year’s worth of research, not including any of the actual writing.
You read a fair amount of transcripts from people on planes about to crash and fall, right? That must have been emotionally scarring.
It was absolutely terrible. Also, you know, there are quite a few videos on YouTube with audio of that. You can actually hear it. There’s actually one for the Japan Airlines Flight 123, the crash that happened in Japan, and you can actually hear the final moments of that. It’s really devastating. It makes it really real. That was traumatizing. I then went to the crash site in Japan—I actually took my mom with me. [Laughs.] We went on a research trip there. I thought, I need to see it for myself. I needed to see where the plane actually went down, and to see if it’s actually as creepy as everyone had written about. It actually wasn’t—it was actually incredibly beautiful. It was eerie, sure, but it wasn’t terribly creepy or disturbing.
That could also describe the crash site and nearby forest in the book, where people go to mourn and, in some cases, commit suicide. You present the site in this almost fantastical, mythical way that makes it less scary and more dreamlike.
There’s an actual mythology around the Aokigahara suicide forest. Over 100 people killed themselves there, and you have a preconceived notion of what it’s going to be like. So when I was writing about that in the book, it was a sort of marriage between what I’d seen there and what I thought I’d feel about it. And then, obviously, after the plane goes down there, it does become a devastating nightmare environment because of the 100 bodies there. Writing about that was pretty traumatizing as well, actually. You have to picture it all in your head.
In all, it sounds like The Three was a really pleasant book to write.
[Laughs.] Honestly, I had a great time. If you’re writing a horror novel or a thriller novel, though, and you’re not freaking yourself out, you’re doing something wrong. How can you ever expect, then, your readers to feel anything? I did go on a journey into the dark side, but I’m quite used to doing that. It wasn’t that big of a stretch for me.
One of the things that I find really interesting about The Three is how it’s being pitched and sold as a nightmare scenario involving flying and one’s fear of that yet very little of it takes place inside an airplane. It’s really about the aftermath of that nightmare, and what happens because of the airplanes crashing.
At first, I knew I wanted to write something about an air accident, an air crash. As the story grew, though, it snowballed into something much bigger than that. Initially it was based around what happened with 9/11, this devastating event that changed the way we travel. I suppose, subconsciously, that was always there. It’s this devastating event—how would the media view it? And what if, from there, there was a conspiracy surrounding these crashes. Because four plane crashes on the same day? It’s unthinkable, and there would be conspiracy theories surrounding it, and people, specifically the media, would latch onto it.
That’s been happening with the Malaysian airlines plane. Watching that and then going online and seeing the people are actually building the same kinds of conspiracy theories around that that I’ve written about in The Three—it was really a bizarre feeling. It was weird, and kind of scary, as well.
I initially thought it would be all about the plane crashes, but, ultimately, it has to be about the people. It’d all be very well to just investigate the air crashes, but it’s the human element, I think, that drives this story.
And how the crashes affect the people reminded me a lot of the great Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” about a suburban neighborhood block full of friends and family turning on each other as aliens manipulate their homes’ power, traffic lights, and other commonplace devices, making everyone suspect their neighbors of possibly being aliens and causing it all.
Yeah, that’s a really good analogy. It’s exactly like that! Things like this always have a knock-on effect. When something unexplained happens, we need to find the reason behind it, whether you believe it’s supernatural, or aliens, or you believe that there has to be a rational explanation, or you have to believe that it’s from the hand of God. I do believe that’s part of our human nature—we need to get to the root of the mystery, one way or another, and some people cling to the belief and the mystery that it is alien or supernatural. I find that to be really fascinating, too. Why would you believe that when there’s most likely a rational explanation?
A lot of the book is about belief, and why do we believe what we believe? And what consequences that can have.
You handle religion really well in the book, namely through the Pastor Len character. He’s an example of religious extremism, but he’s also eviscerated by a shock-jock radio show host in one of the book’s funnier chapters. Was it difficult to present these views on religion and its rule in fueling people’s fears and beliefs without harping too much on any kind of personal bias? Or leaning too far towards one point-of-view about religion?
Yeah, that was really hard. In a lot of ways, you could say that this book is a criticism about religion, but it’s not a criticism about religion. If you read it very closely, pretty much every character, in some way, is affected by religion, and some characters are affected in positive ways. I suppose what I’m really getting at is the hateful side, the dangerous side. I’m getting at the side that points hatred towards, for example, minority groups, that wants to strangle people’s rights—I have no problem saying that I am commenting on that in the book.
But I don’t think the storyline is criticizing religion as a whole, because it can bring comfort people. I’ve seen it bring comfort to a lot of people. Still, there is a darker side to it, and that tends to be the fundamental extremism, where your beliefs are pushed onto other people.
As far as writing, for example, characters like the pastor, from the fire-and-brimstone side, I was very nervous about doing that. It can become such a massive cliche. In fact, a lot of the book’s characters are, on the outside, sort of stereotypical. You’ve got the sex worker with a heart of gold, the gay actor, the pastor who wants the power, and so forth. It was very important for me to make sure that these stereotypical characters and tropes were made absolutely human. It’s a really fine line, though. I don’t know if I pulled it off. [Laughs.] There are going to be some people who think not.
When you sit down to start writing a character and you first realize that he or she is bordering on being stereotypical, does that make you want to keep the character to humanize them and make them work, or does it ever make you stop and rethink the character altogether?
No, that’s how they came out. That’s how they were born, not to sound like a pretentious ass. [Laughs.] There are stereotypes for a reason. These are recognizable characters, and I tried to give them sides that aren’t stereotypical. It was a massive challenge, and, like I said, some people will say that I didn’t pull it off, and that’s fine. It was fun giving it a go, anyway. The whole book was a challenge to write and it did push me in a lot of ways, but what’s the point of treading water?
Absolutely. In that same breath, when I first read about The Three and saw that there’s a “creepy kid” element, I became a bit skeptical. Creepy kids in horror can be great, but they can also very easily turn cheesy and ruin the movie or book they’re a part of.
But, come on, you can never have too many creepy children! [Laughs.]
Well, I guess I’m speaking more about movies. If the “creepy kid” is played by a bad actor, it will destroy the entire movie. But what I really appreciated about The Three is that it’s partly a “creepy kid” story but the kids are kept off in the periphery. We never hear their voices or see anything through their eyes—we only hear about them from other people, many people who, because of these kids, have turned creepy themselves. The kids are catalysts for everybody else’s creepiness. What made you want to keep the kids off the story’s side the whole time?
It’s a characteristic of horror, really. It’s scariest when you don’t see the monster until the very end. I really loved Cloverfield, for example, because you never got to see the whole of the monster until the end—before then, you only see flashes and glimpses of the monster, and how people react to it.
The second the boogeyman comes out of the closet and you see exactly what it is, and even how horrific it is, the horror, to some extent, is over. Whereas, that unnerving feeling you get from the monster hiding in the shadows is the scariest thing. But, also, I’m all about creepy kids. I’m all about Damien and The Omen; I’m all about the twins in The Shining. If done right, there’s nothing creeper than children. Well, except for spiders. [Laughs.]
A big part of why the kids remain creepy in The Three is how the adult narrators are so unreliable. You can never tell who’s telling the truth, so the kids, even though they’re off to the narrative’s side, maintain this air of unease. Like the Paul Craddock character, for instance—he’s gradually losing his mind, so who’s to say that his strange accounts of little Jess aren’t just his delusions. That’s a really smart move on your part.
Thank you! That was terrific fun to do, but I had to be careful to keep good track of all the tiny little facts introduced throughout the various chapters. There are so many tiny little facts that, inevitably, people start contradicting each other, even if it’s just some throwaway line. There are all these little threads which, if I’m being honest, were a real pain in the ass to keep in check.
You can’t really trust anyone in the book, namely Elspeth, who’s writing the book within the book. How can you trust her? She’s got a bias; she’s deliberately taken segments out and edited the book down, so we don’t know what she’s taken out. The other thing I had to consider was that everything is coming from her perspective, and it was an American-produced book. With the online conversations between Ryu and Chiyoko, everything they say has been translated. That was all very tricky. I had to think about what they might have said originally and how it might have been changed through translation, and what might have been lost. That was a very difficult line to walk.
It must have been such a Herculean task to write this book, from juggling all of the different perspectives and different tones and styles.
Yeah, it was really daunting, but thing is, the minute you start thinking about that, you won’t be able to do it, so I didn’t think about it while writing. I wasn’t smart enough at the time to ask myself, “Can you pull this thing off, Sarah?” It was more like, “Yeah, just do it!” [Laughs.] Actually, the hardest things to write in the whole book were the non-fiction bits, the newspaper articles in the middle that link everything together. I really had a hard time with those. They were dry compared to writing, say, Paul’s bit, or the stuff about the android.
The conversations between Ryu and Chiyoko, and Ryu’s group convos in the online chat room, are the opposite of dry. They’re slang-heavy and quick, which seems like it’d be tough to pull off. You don’t want fictional chat room conversations to be “well written,” but you also don’t want them to seem forced or hokey.
Totally, yeah, and that’s why working with an editor is a brilliant thing. In the later chat room sections, where everyone’s going off and getting randy, I actually got really graphic. People on chat boards, of course, get really graphic and swear a lot, and I’ve done that myself. I had to pull it back, though. It went over the line, and my editor said, “You have to lose this,” and I was like, “But that’s how people are.” Her response was, “Yeah, they are like that, but it needs to change here.” It’s weird, when you put something like that into fiction, it needs to change a little bit. It has to feel authentic but it can’t be too authentic, or else you’ll come across as trying to be too clever. And I was trying to be too clever, and I got my ass kicked for it by my editor. I’m really thankful for that, too. [Laughs.]
When writing a book as ambitious and wide-ranging as The Three, nailing the ending must be incredibly difficult and intimidating. Did you know where it’d all end from the beginning, or did the ending shape itself while you were writing?
I always knew where I wanted it to end. What I had a big problem with, though, was getting to that end point after the book-within-the-book ends. I didn’t want it to feel labored. There’s enough material left with Elspeth after her book finishes that it could’ve warranted its own separate book. That was very, very difficult to do; I must have re-written that about 18 times. But the last page, no, I always knew where I wanted that to end up. You never know, though, because you can start writing and think it’s going to end one way, like, “This is who’s going to be the murderer,” but as you’re writing, it might not fit that way. I was lucky that my initial idea for the ending ultimately fit.
I do expect that the ending, as well as the book’s overall style, will be contentious for many readers. Some people will probably be quite disappointed when they start reading the book and realize it’s done in this particular style. A lot of people expect it to be a third-person narrative about plane crashes and evil kids. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see the reactions.
The Three’s ending is ambiguous, but it’s the kind of clever ambiguity where it’s somewhat definitive and somewhat vague. That’s always going to be divisive.
Exactly, and I like that. The ending will make some people chuck the book across the room, and I have had some people email me saying, “God, I wish you hadn’t spelled it out so much!” I’ve been expecting that to happen. It is a bit scary having an ambiguous ending. My editor, though, ultimately said, “Yup, divisive endings are good.” That kind of made my decision for me. [Laughs.]
The Three hits bookstores next Tuesday, May 20, through Little, Brown and Company. It's also available to order here.
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