Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about older horror discovers. There’s all of the Paperbacks From Hell books and my never-ending love of Stephen King‘s work, but there are also a lot of great current horror writers whose work I enjoy. After checking out Riley Sager’s Final Girls a few years back, I’ve been keeping an eye out for his other works in either digital or analog formats. Somewhere along the way, I found a discounted version of his 2018 book The Last Time I Lied and immediately added it to my Kindle library. When Scare Season came around, it jumped to the top of my To Read list!
In this novel we meet our narrator, Emma, a painter approaching 30 who had a harrowing experience at Camp Nightingale when she was about 13. The three girls she shared a bunk with — Vivian, Natalie and Allison — disappeared without a trace. Now a painter, Emma still finds herself haunted by them so much so that she actually includes them in every single one of her paintings before covering them with other elements.
When Emma gets word from the camp owner, Franny, that she wants to reopen the camp after it being closed for 15 years, and have her come in as an art instructor, she agrees, but only so she can try and figure out exactly what happened to her bunk-mates. However, others — many of whom were around for that first trip to camp, including Franny’s two sons Theo and Chet, as well as other fellow campers-turned-instructors — might not support her mission. At least her three new bunk-mates seem to interested in the concept.
I’m not going to get into spoilers, but I found this book to be a super-engrossing mystery all dressed up in the trappings of a classic 80s camp horror movie. Considering that Final Girls did much the same with slasher horror tropes, I was a little concerned that Sager was playing the same hand this time around, but was glad to be proven wrong. I’ve got no problem with using classic horror ideas as a springboard to come up with thrilling new stories.
I’ve also got to give Sager a lot of credit for that detail about Emma secretly painting the three missing girls into all of her works. That detail not only captured my imagination early in the story, but also went a long way to establish Emma’s character, showing exactly how much this trio left an impression on this woman. It also fully sets up her mental state and why should go back and investigate, which becomes all the more clear as we learn more facts about that first trip to camp.
Speaking of which, I adored how Sager crafted Emma’s search for the truth. It’s part good old fashioned investigation, but also has some classic almost Gothic elements with her discovering an old diary and basing a great many theories on it. Even better, Emma’s wrong about a lot of her hypotheses, even as she learns more about the camp grounds and what they used to be before.
But the whole time you have to remember you’re dealing with a first person narrator. Not only that, but we jump between time periods from one section to another. From the present, we hop back to Emma’s early teen trip to Camp Nightingale. Sager does a fantastic job of building the suspense in both time periods and also paying off mysteries from one in the other. All of this works together to turn the reader into a kind of multi-temporal amateur sleuth trying to figure out what happened to these three girls. Without giving anything away, I also really dug the crazy twist and how the ending landed. I remember being a little shellshocked by how Final Girls ended, but I’m giving The Last Time I Lied a standing ovation.
Better yet, I have already picked up my next Riley Sager book, Lock Every Door, which is $1.99 on Amazon Kindle RIGHT NOW! Don’t expect a review too soon, though, I’ve finished a pair of non-fiction horror books and am working on a Clive Barker now!