Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg are pretty formidable writers on their own. Together, as SL Grey, they’re terrifying. Literally. (And I mean literally-literally not figuratively-literally, whatever the new dictionary definitions say).
As the co-authors of the downside horror series, The Mall, The Ward and now The New Girl, they’ve exposed the underbelly of the shiny carapace of consumer society, hospitals and private schools respectively.
In this week’s The Spark, they talk about how they conceived a horror about education, creepy teen girls, Re-born babies, over-done tasteless Johannesburg mansions, and other horrors, during a perfectly lovely day out with Louis’ kids.
The Spark: The New Girl by SL Grey
It was raining. Hard.
On the way from the flat, Louis’ younger son, Thing 2, had been blown across the road to the bus stop. Thing 1 watched him go, folded down his umbrella and clenched his teeth into the gale. When the bus came, they squished on board like three saline creatures that had been blown with the scum over the ballustrade of the Mouille Point promenade.
‘I want to go home,’ he whined. ‘We don’t have to use bloody umbrellas at home in Joburg.’
‘It’s not that bad.’
‘It is!’ he moaned. ‘I thought this holiday was going to be fun, but it sucks.’
‘I’m cold and wet and miserable.’
‘Come on, Dad, cheer up,’ Thing 1 said, damply. ‘We’re going to play mini-golf with Sarah!’
‘Yay!’ chirped Thing 2, before his jaw locked in an involuntary spasm.
‘Winter holiday in Cape Town. We must have been mad,’ Louis grumbled.
They found Sarah at the Scratch Patch and Golf Cave at the Waterfront. The mini-golf was quite exciting, not because of the tight scoreline, but because water was dripping through the light fixtures in the low faux-rock ceilings and along threadbare wires into the sodden green baize of the course. Every time Thing 1 played a good shot he waved his club in the air, swishing the metal shaft millimetres from the exposed cords.
‘We’d better talk about the plot for the next book,’ Sarah said.
Louis glanced across at Thing 2, who was sitting on a stained concrete rock and had gone a bit blue in the face. ‘Um, okay. Should we go somewhere for a cup of coffee?’
Thing 2 jumped up. ‘Nooooo! We’re having fun here!’
Sarah glanced at the electrical sparks snaking across the third tee. ‘Tell you what, kids. How about we go and collect some gems?’
‘But I’m not finished my round,’ Thing 1 said.
Sarah glanced at the sparks crackling at Louis’ temples and across his furrowed brow. ‘Okay! Let’s race!’
Louis sat next to Thing 2 on the sticky rock and rubbed the circulation back into the small boy’s hands while Sarah got Thing 1 laughing and sprinting through the rest of the course. Thing 1 won – 743,239 to 3!
‘Right! Gem time!’ Sarah called.
The boys scratched through the patch for their most favourite coloured stones while Sarah and Louis sat on the bench. ‘So,’ she said. ‘I’ve got this cool idea. A school.’
Louis shivered. And it wasn’t because of the cold. Every time someone mentioned the S-word, he had flashbacks of his faux-Gothic, faux-Victorian, but still dark, terrifying and malicious boys’-only high school. ‘I’ve got just the setting,’ he said.
‘Nah,’ said Sarah, after he’d recounted his experience and he’d been shown many polished rocks and shed many post-traumatic tears. ‘Been done. Too often. We need a new school. One of those schools that’s supposed to be all tolerant, but the abuse is even more insidious and covert.’
Louis flashed to his weekly drive between home and the local mall, to the blonde, airy school on that route. The kids seemed happy there, but now that Sarah mentioned it … what if they just looked happy? What if they were forced to look happy, just like in that odd book that his son liked to read when he was depressed, about the sad king who forced everyone in the kingdom to smile. ‘I know just the place. But it means we have to stick to Johannesburg.’
‘I thought we were going to set it in Cape Town for a change. Jeez, you’re so lazy.’
‘I write what I know, okay? I’m a chronicler of the city’s inner life. It’s my lot.’
When the boys had bagged up their gems and the quartet were sloshing their way to the coffee shop, Sarah said, ‘We also need a house. The sort of place downsiders would stay while they’re upside. ‘Anything up your sleeve, chronicler?’
‘I’ve got just the place. Two, in fact. Next time you come to Joburg, I’ll take you on a tour.’
Which happened. It was much warmer, and much dryer, and Sarah and Louis hopped the fences of half-completed mansions in Bedfordview and Hyde Park, suburbs where downsiders would feel very much at home. They took some pictures.
And after those sparks, The New Girl pretty much wrote itself.