While Stephanie Perkins is a voracious reader of horror novels, it was her love of horror films that inspired her to, well, take a stab at writing scary stories.
The Asheville-based author achieved New York Times bestseller status in 2014 with her third YA romance, Isla and the Happily Ever After, and landed back on that revered list in 2017 with her debut horror novel, There’s Someone Inside Your House. Recently, things have come full circle as the story of Makani Young attempting to figure out who’s behind a string of murders at her Nebraska high school has been adapted into a feature film. The movie premiered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 23 and hit Netflix on Oct. 6, where it promptly vaulted to the streaming service’s most popular offering.
Like many writers, Perkins has had a few of her books under contract with producers, only to see the deal fall apart for various reasons. So when Dan Cohen, an executive producer on “Stranger Things,” showed interest in There’s Someone Inside Your House, she tried not to get overly excited.
However, given the immense success of “Stranger Things,” Cohen had significant sway at Netflix and soon tapped Henry Gayden, screenwriter of the hit DC Comics adaptation Shazam!, to handle the script. Patrick Brice — whose The Overnight and two Creep films made a fan out of Perkins — then signed on to direct. Yet the entire endeavor continued to seem too good to be true for the author.
“I didn’t believe it was happening for a really, really long time, until [Cohen] called me,” Perkins says. “He was in the middle of a cornfield with everyone else and was like, ‘Yeah, we start shooting here in six days.’ And that was when I realized it was actually happening.”
On the advice of friends, Perkins chose not to be involved with the adaptation process. Most authors she knows who’ve done so have felt somewhat unwanted on the film set, which she says is understandable. An author’s job, she believes, is done once the book is written; screenwriting and filmmaking, she adds, are “a totally separate thing.”
“The movie is very, very different plotwise from my book, but in a way that I’m really happy with,” Perkins says. “I think it makes for a better cinematic experience, and I’m glad they didn’t try to do a straight adaptation. That rarely works.”
The author’s lone request was to visit the Vancouver, B.C., set. That wish came true during production, resulting in what Perkins calls “the ideal experience.”
“[The film] was just this perfect timing of everyone and all the right people. And [Cohen, Gayden and Brice] are very close in age to me, so we all had the same influences,” she says. “It was crazy that it happened, and then it was even more wild that they made a good [movie]. I’m really proud of it and excited for people to see it.”
Every tumbling leaf a terror
Along with the new film, Perkins is also celebrating the release of her latest book, The Woods Are Always Watching — her first novel set in Western North Carolina. The story is a tale of two teen girls who go backpacking in Pisgah National Forest. The simple storyline and small cast of characters, notes Perkins, was by design. After There’s Someone Inside Your House — which takes place in two primary locations (Nebraska and Hawaii), and features nine very different points of view — simplicity was key.
“It was as stripped-down as I can make it. I wanted it to be this nice, tight, gruesome little book,” she says. “I think it is that thing, but the ridiculous thing, of course, is that it took me just as long to write as all the other books that are longer and more complicated. So, the joke is always on me.”
As part of her research for The Woods Are Always Watching, Perkins and her husband, Jarrod, hiked and camped on the Art Loeb Trail, undergoing the same outdoor experience as her young protagonists. “Which is to say ‘none,’” Perkins says, noting that the only way she could have written the book was “from the perspective of people who were also amateurs but who would try really hard.”
The author recalls having her journal and pen out the entire time on the trail, taking notes to capture the experiences. At that point, Perkins adds, her husband had been listening to her tell stories of serial killers in the woods and bear attacks for several months. As a result, he didn’t sleep particularly well that night.
“I’d filled his head with too many scary stories, and so every little leaf tumbling across the tent was a terror to him,” she says. “It was funny, but I felt a little bad about it, too.”
While WNC is rich in hair-raising folklore, Perkins says she purposefully avoided those traditions and instead delved into her strong interest in true crime. She stresses that the things that scare her “are less monsters and more men.”
“The deeper and deeper you go into true crime, the more and more you realize that nowhere is safe, and that includes nature,” Perkins says. “My husband and I moved here because it’s so beautiful. And now, unfortunately, I know all these terrible stories about things that have happened to people out there, and they did stick with me. I would never, ever go hiking in the woods alone anymore. I just know too much.”