Sarah Lotz’s The Three was one of the best novels of last year; an intricate, chilling conspiracy sci-fi. For her follow-up, Lotz has written a novel set in the same universe, but not a direct sequel, and it’s another must-read.
Day Four is a compulsively readable horror in which the passengers and staff on a cruise liner realise that they are stranded in the middle of the ocean. As tensions mount, plumbing fails and everyone starts fending for themselves, it seems that there may be more to their predicament than mechanical error…
We talked to the author about following The Three, the horrors of singles’ cruises and why she loves a good disaster movie.
Did you always plan to write more stories set in the universe of The Three?
Yeah, I think that what I wanted to do is write novels that weren’t necessarily a series, that you didn’t have to read sequentially. You could read Day Four before The Three if you wanted, and if you put them together, you’d have all the answers to all the questions. So that was the idea and I’ve always wanted to write something set on a cruise ship.
Did that feel like the next logical step after the aeroplane crashes of The Three?
I don’t know if it was the next logical step, I just think when I was a kid I was just completely fascinated with The Poseidon Adventure, really, absolutely fascinated and horrified. I do find boats sort of terrifying and that whole thing of being on a holiday with a bunch of strangers, people you just don’t know, and then getting stranded with them, how we all react to each other.
The idea of a singles’ cruise seems horrifying enough already…
I know! It’s a nightmare. Especially as it’s a massive industry in the US, where there are basically these floating casinos and they’re really done on a tight margin, so the staff don’t get paid very much and they are completely lawless because they tend to register their ships in, say, the Bahamas or whatever, so crime on cruise ships is quite a problem as well, because who prosecutes it? They’ve just recently started changing the law on this, and that fascinated me, the fact that you could get away with stuff you couldn’t get away with on land that literally by spending $200 to go on a cruise, you could potentially get away with murder.
Day Four is really about the lower end of the industry and it was quite shocking, the amount of money that the workers are paid and they really do rely on tips, some of the conditions that they live in are quite horrendous. Those stories for example, like a Haitian guy who was working on the boat, when they get into an American port, he has to be handcuffed so that they won’t flee into the States and things like that. So a lot of the people who are working on the ships, and they do like nine months, they actually very rarely get off the ship. So things like that. And then I did one of those cruises and it was horrendous! It really was! You basically just get trawled around and go to massive duty free shops.
You actually did one? What was that like?
Yeah, the one that did the route in the book, that went through the Gulf of Mexico, and I had a whole bunch of people helping me out, actually plotting the route. I had a guy from the South African Navy who, he actually spent hours and hours making sure that where the boat was going to drift would be possible. He was incredible. And I spoke to obviously all the people who were working on the ship surreptitiously because they didn’t want their secrets revealed. I couldn’t actually publish their names.
Was doing something with a tighter focus part of the appeal of Day Four?
Yeah, it was that, that whole sense of claustrophobia. The Three had such a massive scope and I didn’t want to just do the same kind of thing. So doing something set kind of just in one location and focusing through fewer characters, it was actually more daunting weirdly and that’s why I think I was so nervous about the reception of it because it’s so different to The Three, even if it is in the same kind of pulp tradition.
It does feel like more of a straight horror than The Three as well.
Yeah it is, I really do identify with that kind of pulpy kind of potboiler sort of thing, I think that’s what I naturally write. I’m never going to win The Booker Prize! But I really thoroughly enjoyed coming up with cliffhangers and things, why not? The horror that comes out in the novel mostly comes from the circumstances, as the engine breaks down and the plumbing goes. Was that a conscious choice, to focus on the non-supernatural as much as possible?
Well, I think some of the research I did, the Carnival Triumph, which is a cruise ship that was stranded in the Gulf Of Mexico for five days and it basically became known as the Poo Ship because the toilets all blocked up and that kind of thing, so I was quite influenced by that and I did read quite a few articles in a diary that somebody had written while they were on board the ship, and it was very interesting to see how almost everybody said that people did actually behave badly. And I think the whole tension is between what is scarier, the kind of supernatural element or human nature. When you are running out of food, when you are panicked, when you don’t know if you’re ever going to get home.
The behaviour of the passengers is horrifying but it is definitely plausible…
Well, I mean, maybe I’ve got a really bad view of human nature but I do actually think that is probably what would happen! Some people have complained that there was too much visceral element with the kind of sewage and stuff, and that was a very tricky balance, I think probably I did go a little bit overboard with it but I really think the conditions if you were stranded, from the research and talking to people on cruise ships, say the propulsion systems and the lavatories did back up, it would be absolutely horrendous.
There’s a great cast of characters from the passengers to the staff. Was there one character that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I loved Althea, who was the cabin steward. When I was on the cruise I spent a long time talking to, especially to the women who work in that housekeeping industry and hearing the stories about the passengers, and how they do have to keep this façade up, this polite façade, even when people are basically treating them like shit. I wanted to look behind that. I think a lot of the passengers think “Oh! These people from the Philippines are just so smiley and happy and everything” and this absolute stereotype, which is bollocks. Obviously you always take a risk when you’re writing a character from a completely different culture, but why not? Shouldn’t you try and get into other people’s heads? I really wanted to look at that, she was my favourite.
I did want to ask about Celine, the horrible medium, who’s fascinating. Was she fun to write?
I loved it because mediums make me angry. “I can talk to the dead.” I think they cause a lot of upset to people. Even just a brief glimpse of the internet, say you’re talking about, just say a mention on a blog of The Long Island Medium or whatever and there are literally thousands of comments of people saying “Please, I need to speak to her, I need to get in touch with so and so.” And it’s so heartbreaking and they’re basically conning people out of their money and I do think it’s cruel. So yeah I really had a great time with that sort of over the top con artist element of that.
There’s definitely some Stephen King in Day Four and it reminded me of High-Rise as well. Were there any particular influences on you?
It’s that old school 80s disaster movie thing! Disaster books, disaster movies, that kind of thing. The Shining, I mean The Shining is a massive influence on pretty much everything I write, both the movie and the book! I think this is basically The Poseidon Adventure meets The Shining with bodily fluids! [laughs]
How was it seeing the great reaction to The Three?
It’s staggering. I still don’t believe that I deserve it or that it kind of is real, really. Especially getting a shout out from Stephen King, that feels like it happened in a parallel universe! Again another reason why Day Four is kind of a daunting thing as well. After getting that from Stephen King is there anywhere else to go? [laughs] It was amazing and humbling.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a book with Louis Greenberg under the name SL Grey, we’ve got a book coming out in June called Underground which is also kind of a claustrophobic-y kind of novel, and then I’m working on another horror thriller novel that is not set in The Three universe.