Survive the Night by Riley Sager

Survive the Night by Riley Sager. Boston, MA: Dutton, 2021, 336 pp.

Riley Sager’s latest chiller is an homage to the B movies of a different time. A little claustrophobic, a bit of whatever it is that makes slasher movies so compelling, and a touch of Hitchcockian, gas-lighting psychodrama.

To get into the groove of the story, you have to think about what 1991 was like, a time before cell phones and Ubers, a time when college students posted on ride share boards to get home for break. And that’s where we join Charlie, a film major whose roommate, Maddy, has been murdered by a serial killer. Charlie is broken, still grieving the deaths of her parents in a car accident years before. The killing of her best friend has left her reeling, especially because the pair had a blow-out fight the night of the murder, with Charlie leaving Maddy behind at a bar where she was lured away by the Campus Killer.

Charlie is also suffering from trauma-induced mini-fugue states/hallucinations that she refers to as movies in her mind. Sometimes, she’s not all that sure what’s real, as her brain overlaps realistic looking movie scenes with real life. Not surprising, since her grandmother was once a hopeful Hollywood starlet, who helped Charlie deal with the loss of her parents through classic cinema. The grief and guilt she feels are compounded by the fact that one of these movies in her mind is covering the face of Maddy’s killer, who Charlie saw as a film noir-esque character, face covered by a fedora. 

To get home to Ohio, and her beloved grandmother, Charlie accepts a ride from total stranger Josh Baxter, leaving her picture-perfect boyfriend Robbie behind at school. It’s clear pretty quickly that Josh isn’t exactly who he says he is, there are holes in his story and he knows things about Maddy’s murder that weren’t made public. She begins to suspect that he may be the Campus Killer, but can’t trust that the things she’s seen and heard are really happening, they could be the movies in her mind taking over. So, she stays with Josh, because either he’s a perfectly nice guy who she’s projecting onto, or he killed her best friend, and she has a chance to get justice, or at least revenge. All she has to do is survive the night, a task that will get more and more difficult the deeper the pair drive into the Pennsylvania mountains.

I’ve seen a lot of varying reviews on this one, and the criticisms are valid. Why would a woman take a ride across the state with a man she doesn’t know? Why would she stay when she begins to suspect he’s a killer? I’ve seen reviewers call Charlie stupid for these choices, but I see her as self-destructive and guilt ridden. She’s so consumed with the pain she’s feeling that she doesn’t see anything other than her need to get away, and she doesn’t see herself as worthy of a future, as worthy of saving. So, Charlie takes a route that might help her make amends to Maddy in trying to figure out if Josh was her murderer.

Survive the Night is a twisty thriller infused with a love for movies and 90s nostalgia. Sager is in his usual form, with a plucky, traumatized protagonist navigating a deceptively simple horror trope played for everything its worth. It’s not my favorite of his books (that would be The Last Time I Lied), but it is a solid summer page-turner that kept me guessing throughout the action.

Lacey Tobias is a Library Assistant at Graham Library, she can be reached at ltobias@alamancelibraries.org.