TOKYO Andrew, in a daring leap to freedom from an overbearing mother, moves in with a friend whose ramshackle house is the one blight on a gorgeous neighborhood - and promptly is attracted to his next door neighbor, the friendly Harlow.
Welcomed by a plate of homemade cookies and admiring of the picture-perfect home where she lives with her husband, Red, it is a while before Andrew starts to suspect there is something a little off about this woman, who seems just too good to be true.
"The Neighbors," Ania Ahlborn's second novel, was inspired by a battered house and a fallen-over mailbox she passed every day, making her think of a perfect house on a perfect street that in fact is "where all the darkness is."
Ahlborn, whose first book was self-published but became such a success she then picked up a conventional publishing contract, spoke with Reuters about neighbors, horror and her book.
Q: What inspired the book?
A: "I've always been pretty fascinated with serial killers, but not in the sense that I read about them and I'm like, let's see how they kill all their victims. I'm more interested in the fact that someone could be living right next door to you, and they might be the nicest person that you had ever met, but they're really not. There's something about that that really intrigues me. Of course it terrifies me, it freaks me out, but just that concept was what spurred my writing 'The Neighbors.' That, and I do have a little bit of a love affair with the atomic age and the perfect sort of Americana thing that was going on. That to me is also a little creepy. It's so perfect that it's almost plastic, it's Stepford Wives. Every time something is super cool and happy and nice, I always find something really creepy going on with it. If you meet the one person who's always happy, always smiling and always laughing, I'm going to be the person who's sitting back thinking, what's this person hiding?"
Q: How did you bring this idea to life?
A: "I knew that I wanted to have an everyman character that readers could relate to, so I put that into Andrew. He's just a regular guy. He has a lot of issues that he's dealing with, and he really is looking for that whole grass is greener on the other side concept. Then he steps into a life that he thinks is going to be great, oh look how nice these new neighbors are - they're going to give him a job, they're really sweet, they invite him to dinner. And he couldn't be happier, only it's 'oh my God, what have I gotten myself into.'
"As far as Red and Harlow go, I had to rewrite this thing three times. The concept was there, but there was something off about it. I actually started writing Harlow as a really nice old lady, kind of like your grandma, and there was something about it that just wasn't working for me. So I let her go and said, 'Do whatever you want.' I let her run with it, and figured I'd just see what happened in the next couple pages. And she turned into this really retro, cougary vixen. I thought 'whoa, we'll run with that.' I had to rewrite the whole thing. I just loved that - it just feels so wrong. A really sweet woman who ends up being almost like a dominatrix, in a way."
Q: You sound like that surprised you. Do you have that kind of experience a lot when you write?
A: "Yes. When it comes to writing, I think there's two different ways that you can approach it. You can either plot it out and do it by an outline and make the characters do what you want them to do, or you can basically let the characters carry the story and see where it goes. I like to do both techniques. Of course I want to have a beginning, middle and end where I don't feel I'm just writing and writing and writing and it's not going anywhere, because that's horribly frustrating.
"On the other hand, you always want it to be kind of organic, so it doesn't feel forced. When you allow those characters to step up to the plate and say 'here's what I would do.' You learn a lot about yourself that way. You don't know that you've got these ideas in your head, and they come out by way of these fictional characters. It can get a little bit weird, especially when you're writing horror and thrillers. You're like, 'oh my God, what's wrong with me?'"
Q: What is the function of scary stories?
A: I think that scary stories are the most truthful. I think that the honesty behind a lot of stuff that you read in horror is really what's scary. In 'The Neighbors,' one of the things that I tried to do was make Harlow as likable as possible even after I revealed the fact that she is this monster. The reason why I did that is because if your neighbor is some crazy psychopath but you don't know that, you might like that person. That in itself is terrifying because you don't know, they're so good at hiding what they are.
"I think that there's bits of humanity that come out in horror and thrillers that are really uncomfortable for us to otherwise think about. Could I relate to the monster next door? Could I care about them? Could I be the monster next door?
"That's the way that I think that horror became so popular - it really reflects who we are and who we hide. It also reflects our worst fears. We want to explore those fears and it's a safe way to explore those fears... But forget it, when I have to be alone by myself in a locked house at night, I sleep with all the lights on and the dogs in my room, where otherwise I wouldn't care if my husband was home... It's just funny how those tiny little differences make us interpret things in a totally different way. If he's here I'm fine, but if he's not a serial killer is definitely going to knock on my door and this is the last night of my life. That's just the way that our minds work. I think that horror makes us reflect on our fears, and on who we say we are - but are afraid to say we are."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)