Monday, September 22, 2014

Take a Trip to the Downside with SL Grey #review #interview

Nothing is sacred to writing duo Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg – also known by their pen name SL Grey – who’ve brought us the highly entertaining, horror-themed Downside trilogy that engages a darker view of traditional settings that already hold more than enough horror. The Mall and The Ward took a stab at consumer culture and the South African medical system respectively, and in The New Girl, they allow their imaginations to run amok in a setting inspired by the school of your nightmares.

Though one might be tempted to wonder whether their own experiences provided inspiration, Greenberg says: “My high school was a grim, faux-Victorian boys’ school, so it might have been cathartic to set horror stories there, but we felt that a wannabe-gothic school would be a rather clichéd setting and decided, as we have throughout the series, to set it in a modern school whose abusiveness hides behind its clean, moral veneer.”

What set book three apart from books one and two is that this time the authors added the viewpoints of Downsider, who inhabit a shadowy world that exists as a dark reflection of ours, which offered a revealing glimpse into the lives of these rather macabre creatures.

Greenberg says that they didn’t want to write the same book as The Mall or The Ward and “the logic of the downside developed in The Ward and the next step was to turn the tables and allow readers to understand it from a downsider’s perspective.”

Of course the downsiders don’t quite “get” our culture at all, which results in their often humours appropriations of names and objects. Greenberg elaborates: “The denizens of The Mall are brutally honest –much more than upsiders – and that first came across in their shop names and in their marketing. It was so much fun that that sort of expression became a trademark of the downsiders, and part of the writing that we always looked forward to. My favourite parts in The New Girl are when some of the halfpints in class tell their teacher what they’d do to a brown who tried to threaten them. And the names Sarah came up with for some of the secondary downsiders, like Cardineal Phelgm, are classic.”
Since The New Girl’s release, both Lotz and Greenberg have gone on to celebrate the release of solo novels. Lotz’s much-lauded The Three, has recently received mention from no less than Stephen King; and Greenberg’s Dark Window has also garnered favourable reviews.

Greenberg says: “Sarah and I bring quite different skills to the collaboration, so it would be an interesting exercise to see both of our solo work and see how it differs from SL Grey, and how SL Grey combines our styles. I’ve also expanded vastly as a writer from working with Sarah, who gives me great hands-on practice at the aspects of storytelling I hadn’t practised so much before.”

Lotz adds: “I wouldn't have been able to pull off my latest solo novel without the experience I gained from working with Louis. It’s been a steep and rewarding learning curb. And I urge everyone to pick up a copy of his genre-busting, bloody brilliant latest novel, which deserves every bit of the praise it’s getting.”

Greenberg concludes: “I’m one of the legions of The Three fankids. I was lucky enough to read it in manuscript last year and I was thoroughly impressed, a little jealous and a lot inspired that she could write such a focused, sustained, original and riveting novel with her trademark plot brilliance and chameleonic empathy and voice.”

Title: The New Girl
Author: SL Grey
Publisher: Corvus Books, 2013

Truth be told, I don’t find the SL Grey books all that scary. Unsettling, yes. Disturbing, definitely, but in all the right ways possible. But, they’re highly entertaining if you’re not too squeamish when it comes to dark fiction with a twist of body horror.

The Downside books are the mutated brainchild of two of SA’s established voices in horror – Sarah Lotz (author of the widely acclaimed The Three) and Louis Greenberg (who has recently seen the release of his novel Dark Windows).

What the two started in their first foray into collaborative writing, The Mall, they’ve carried through with The Ward, book two, and have now concluded in book three. And, while you needn’t read all the books in chronological order, you will possibly pick up more of the references to the other instalments if you do.

Where The Mall takes a left hook at our consumerist culture, and The Ward examines the horrors of our hospital system, The New Girl slashes at South Africa’s private schools. Once again, the inhabitants of the Downside allow us to view a dark distortion of our contemporary lifestyle through their lens.

The results are simultaneously hilarious and uncomfortable, and by the third book, the blend between Lotz and Greenberg’s writing is seamless.

We meet Tara, an American woman obsessed with Reborn dolls, which are toys that have been modified to make them seem like real babies. The other primary character is Ryan, who is difficult to like due to his being a sexual predator pretty much begging for the signature SL Grey “Downside” just deserts.

What makes The New Girl different from its predecessors is that inhabitants from Downside are also employed as viewpoint characters, which gives readers the opportunity to see a behind-the-scenes slice of life from the perspective of these somewhat macabre individuals. Jane and Penter are unpleasant, yet one can’t help but feel a strange affection for them and their predicaments as they make the best of their situation. Their attempts to understand our world result in numerous darkly humorous situations. This touch from the authors was unexpected, yet added much depth to the novel, which otherwise might have followed the expected dual-viewpoint template.

At this stage, I must add, that SL Grey is perhaps one of the few names to have had me laugh out loud while reading – and have my fellow passengers on the train shift to a seat further away from my evil cackling. Well done, to these master storytellers.

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