Updated: Feb 8
Haley Newlin is a horror and thriller writer, who released her debut novel, Not Another Sarah Halls, in December 2019. I've known Haley since our Study Breaks Magazine days in January - May 2018 as college undergrads. She went on to work towards her Master's and writing while I am awaiting the publication of my debut novel. You could say that Study Breaks Magazine was a foundation for a great writer friendship from different ends of the globe. I highly recommend reading her Author's Note first when you pick up her novel, you won't regret it.
With only five chapters in, I was already itching to know more about the characters that reside in the forgotten town of Oakhaven. Mysterious ones fill the dark town as an on-going investigation keeps main characters, Autumn and Becca, on their toes. Readers follow high school girls (and their past memories), Aut and Bec through this Young Adult Horror Novel that reminds me of the original It movie based on Stephen King's Horror Novel of the same name. King also happens to be Haley's horror hero. If you are a fan of his bloody mysteries and twisted tales stick with me as I review Newlin's debut novel, Not Another Sarah Halls, while also hearing from Haley herself, since I wanted a personal touch. Lucky for all of you horror fans and readers, alike, she said yes!
I am not a horror fan, by any means, but Newlin creates the perfect balance of the elements from the Young Adult genre with a taste of the Horror genre that the novel's cover art deciphers. When I think of horror, my mind instantly goes to examples like Stephen King's It and Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street movies that cause me to sleep with the light on or throw a blank over my head. Yet, Haley Newlin's Not Another Sarah Halls touches on the lighter side of this rather terrify writing medium. As I was reading the novel's first half, I noticed a happy tone that reminded me of my style of writing - Young Adult. So, as any curious writer and reader, I asked the author, herself, what made her horror novel so lighthearted in the face of danger.
Emily: As writers, we all struggle with picking the best title to capture the essence of our story. How did you decide on Not Another Sarah Halls and what were your other choices?
Haley: I played around with a few other ideas for titles, speaking more to the mental battles Autumn faces, rather than the disappearances in the town. But I wanted to show Autumn’s core character element of heightened empathy. She follows the string of girls, but Sarah Halls seems to be the one that lingers, the one that truly haunts her. It’s also the disappearance that shakes her and seems to say, “You’re right. The girls are unforgettable, but you have to do more to fix it.” That’s why I wanted to use Sarah Halls’ name in the title. Readers can look out for the title’s name drop a few times throughout the story.
E: Your writing style is so unique. Tell us about your writing process and brainstorming the words, terms, and creations you come up with for your novel.
H: Thank you very much. Similarly to how Stephen King weighs an idea for a book, I create some framework for a story mentally. This process can begin with a character and their unique abilities, a setting that drives the plot, or maybe even just a scenario that will build up with action and tension. Then, I turn to music, films, interviews with directors like Mike Flanagan, Jordan Peele, and Tim Burton for ideas or sentiments of characters or world-building elements. It's incredible how much inspiration you can acquire by listening to the greats in your genre.
I use this inspiration to create a series of scenes rather than chapters. Then, as I develop more scenes, I find new details or ideas for earlier pieces that allow them to become full-fledged chapters.
I also read a lot when I'm working on a novel of my own. It not only keeps me inspired but offers different tacts in integrating storytelling elements and conventions of the horror/dark-fiction genre that may be useful in my work.
E: How did this story, characters, and town come about? The background behind crafting a mystery like "Not Another Sarah Halls?"
H: I began writing Not Another Sarah Halls as a freshman at SNHU. We were studying flash-fiction and genre-blending. My professor said I had a knack for creating characters that would connect to readers in the Young Adult genre, so that's how I began creating Autumn and Becca's characters--among the others in Oakhaven. The two are based loosely on my twin sister, Hanna, and I.
I created the town as more than a backdrop for the action, but with careful consideration of how I could use: its appearance, its people, the weather, et cetera, to aid in plot/character progression. The small community allowed for the familiarity of people that characters had never spoken to or only briefly, like Cali or Ms. Dillard. People from the Lafayette or Indianapolis, Indiana area might pick up on a few local nods, like the Branding Iron at Lafayette Jefferson High School.
E: How did you bring such a light tone to Autumn and Becca's friendship in the middle of all the fear?
H: Bringing the emotional tone between Autumn and Becca was a pillar of Not Another Sarah Halls. Because of the fierce and compassionate nature of their friendship, including the moments of separation and pain, they cause one another; the girls consider parts of themselves comprised of one another.
I created this tone by integrating elements of my identical twin sister and I's friendship. It's not always at its best, but the bond is still there. I think that despite the circumstances, the comfort of positive familiarity in a town where the norm is selfish, allows the light tone of Autumn and Becca's friendship to feel natural to readers.
E: What two words would you use to describe Autumn and Becca's friendship?
How do you hope best friends relate to them and how growing up changes that friendship?
H: I would describe Autumn and Becca's friendship as ever-lasting and fierce. There is an ever-lasting connection there even after they grow up with different ideas about the Dae house. Readers can see that in several ways, like Becca still trying to get Autumn to come to the Dae house with her even though it's not her thing and in the way, small everyday things remind Autumn of Becca.
The way Autumn and Becca forgive and look out for each other, even when they're not in the best circumstances themselves, is fierce. It reminds readers when things change in life; they should focus on the core parts of the friendship that has always connected them, not the differences.
With the young adult elements weaved into the horror genre, NASH stands out as a well-crafted story that deals with friendship and fear.
The opening to Not Another Sarah Halls even gives off lighter tones with the scare factor as an undertone, "The fog descended on Oakhaven the same way the apparent never-ending curse had - so quickly, no one saw it coming." Yet, the dark and cursed town gives off a sense of comfort, if only viewed from the hilltop as Autumn and Becca often did to escape the townspeople who had moved on too quickly from the missing girls' case. But for Autumn, more so than Becca, the long-forgotten girls were her crime obsession. She had to keep the hope alive even when the other townspeople went back to everyday life. By giving Autumn this trait, Newlin takes her readers through twists and turns via Autumn's psyche. Not only weaving in her fears but also her curiosity to find out the truth, Newlin captured the need to solve the most unsolvable cold cases. She lets us sit front and center as she teases us with the truth that was hidden so many years prior in the "dried-up oil town," known as Oakhaven.
E: Without giving spoilers, give the readers a little overview of Oakhaven--the good, the bad, the ugly, and most importantly, lessons that come from this town you've created.
H: Oakhaven is a cursed town. Readers learn early on about the string of cold-case disappearances. What stands out about the people living there is their shared cover-up of the ugliness in the town's history. They hold vigils for the missing girls after they reach the three-week-milestone--a selfish and heartless method of moving on from the disappearances.
The people of Oakhaven also fear the Dae family. But they do little to understand the "evilness" that is said to go on in their house. This ambiguity of the house stemmed from the Radley place in To Kill a Mockingbird. While the characters in the two stories living in these mysterious houses are different, the way the town whispers and create legends is similar--though few try to learn the truth.
The lesson to be taken away from Oakhaven is not to accept the norm of a town or even society if it seems to contradict core values. Convenience should never trample compassion.
Drawing from her own cold case curiosity of famous serial killers, Newlin dove headfirst into embracing Autumn's appeal to her hometown's investigation turned cold case. Readers see firsthand how the voices of the missing can mess with someone's mind even years later. From illusions that make Autumn's blood boil to itching curiosity that keeps her searching for one shred of hope, Newlin lets the demons come out to play.
Newlin doesn't lightly dive into the terrifying side of Autumn's psyche, no, she describes in detail what she is feeling and seeing in her illusion. As Haley tells me, "Chapter ten was the most fun to write," and any reader can see why. She pays close attention to detail making me want to desperately know the ending. Reading this chapter, I kept thinking, how much worse can Autumn's nightmare get, then it got worse each turn I took deeper into her subconscious. Newlin reveals just how much terror our minds can induce as we grow more and more obsessed with finding answers that others have long forgotten.
"It was like Emily, Avery, and Peyton woke up one day, completely unaware of the flames below their feet as it climbed their bodies and seared into their skin and bit by bit they were reduced to ash, blown away and lost in the wind." -Not Another Sarah Halls, via Haley Newlin, Writer.
E: Without giving away spoilers, how did you connect to Autumn's psyche? In crime shows, people are affected by investigations in their hometown, but why is Autumn so drawn or affected by the disappearances in Oakhaven?
H: I talked about this in an interview proposal with Split Lip Magazine. I first studied cold-cases in a psychology course as a freshman at SNHU. We studied serial killers/clans like the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, and the Manson Family. Growing up, we believe justice follows crime wherever it unleashes. However, calling back to To Kill a Mockingbird, that's not always the case. It bothered me how long the cases at the hands of these famed killers went unsolved. Fellow students in my class were ready to move on because of the vile nature of the killings. But for me, like Autumn, the names of the victims haunted me ever since--though the murders took place decades before I was born. Sometimes, without even thinking about it, my thoughts wander to Cecelia Ann Shephard or Caryn Campbell.
Autumn gives readers an inside look into living with anxiety as she is open and honest about dealing with the daily struggles that anxiety brings from mind games to your skin crawling.
"Conceal your wounds so no one has to deal with your bleeding." - Autumn
This part of chapter ten is so deep just like scars can be. It is no secret that Autumn deals with the effects of anxiety and panic attacks while also deviling into the self-harm side of things. As someone who has dealt with suicidal thoughts and self-harm, I relate to Autumn so much and her struggles. She is brave yet afraid at the same time. Some might even argue that she could be afraid of her own shadow with the images her mind creates out of fear.
In this horror centered novel, Haley weaves in not only major fears (murder/kidnapping/cold cases) but personal fears or battles that we may all come to face (anxiety/self-harm/panic attacks). I'm not usually one for horror, but Haley crafts such a unique story that keeps me hanging on for more. Especially since the main character being open about their anxiety or mental health struggles, in general, is rarely front and center, this story keeps my attention glued to the page. Yet, I still found myself wanting to know more of a backstory on why anxiety plays such a pivoting role in the main storyline, thus far. Although Haley touches on her personal battles in her author note, I decided to get more insight into what made her "shine a light" on her own fears. Because let's face it, facing your deepest fears is a challenge in itself, yet Haley gives her characters the tools to face anything.
E: Tell us how you wove your personal battles with fear and anxiety into a horror-based novel. From the note from the author to the first chapter, readers meet Autumn, a young girl struggling with anxiety.
H: Weaving my own battles with fear and anxiety into a horror-based novel like Not Another Sarah Halls came naturally to me. I think horror is an excellent tool in shining a light on elements of our lives that we often keep stowed away. If you think about it, anxiety is a lot like the monsters in a horror story. We close our eyes or try to focus on something until it goes away. But that's only a momentary fix. Much like characters find out in horror stories; eventually, the fear has to be faced head-on.
With that mission, comes the unavoidable task of asking yourself what triggers the anxiety or fear in the first place. Most times, this is personal--even if others sit under the same terminology or umbrella of symptoms. In coming to terms with my own battles of mental health, I learned that the only way out is through. As Shirley Jackson says, "We yield to it, or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway."
E: Becca always repeats the phrase, "Mind over matter" to Autumn during an anxiety attack. What does that phrase mean to you & where did the motto stem from?
H: I think it's important for people to understand what happens with anxiety. As readers see in Autumn's character, anxiety can trigger your flight-or-fight response--increasing your pulse, breathing, et cetera. While this is a disorder that isn't treatable with well wishes and inspirational quotes, we have to remind ourselves that not everything is out of our control. And during anxiety attacks, that's how people usually feel--helpless. Becca's anecdote tells readers to look for a new angle. Find something that you physically have control over in those moments. It distracts you from focusing on the things you can't help.
Mental health plays a central role in Autumn and Becca’s lives and how they became friends in second grade, which is why I relate so much. As I read Newlin’s novel, I grew closer attached to the young adult storylines that weaved in and out of the story’s horror aspects such as the relationship between the main girls and Aut’s anxiety battles. While casually chatting with Haley, via Twitter, we came to the same conclusion, while writing Autumn she wove her current struggles in while also having Aut overcome those struggles. Whereas Haley, in real life, was still trying to understand and defeat her anxiety and depression. Having these same struggles, myself, hearing Haley be so open and honest in her novel made me want to connect to Autumn even more.
As writers, we write ourselves into one of the many characters we create in our worlds and Haley did that with Autumn. While reading Not Another Sarah Halls, it is evident that Autumn is a version of Newlin fighting her demons, but in this story, Autumn helped her come to terms with her real-life struggles.
H: It's clear that you not only connected to my characters and story but my personal struggle with mental health that I wanted to share creatively with readers.
E: Yes, I most definitely relate to your characters and mental health struggles. I started opening up about my own late last year in my writing so I am so glad to see that in your novel, it wasn't in mine. My main character is opposite from me in my driving fear, she can do it whereas I struggle with it. I showed a character that didn't have it but maybe a future me.
H: And I love that. That is so poetic and beautiful. I found that integrating my struggles into Autumn's character finally gave me the courage to get help for my anxiety and depression. I was hoping it may do the same for readers
E: Aw thanks, I didn't deal with my anxiety other than therapy before I finished mine so it didn't get put in. But I would like to think Lucy (my character) is a different version of me, one that didn't have a car wreck or experience sexual abuse (cause of my mild depression). Yes, I believe it will definitely help others, that is what I do with my poems! I am so glad it helped you face yours because you lay it all out there.
H: Also, I love your connection to your character. I think it's even stronger than you may realize. When I created Autumn, though she had struggles, she overcame many as well. I wasn't to that point yet but seeing how much stronger it made her, made me more willing to open about my mental health battles.
E: I would like to think I connect to Lucy in many ways, you'll get to know me, even more, when you read my novel. That is so cool how Autumn helped you like Becca helped her!!!
H: And yes you're one of the few people to pick up on that even after I've shared the connection between me and Autumn.
E: Oh I can tell by the way you talk about Autumn that she had to have helped you in some way.
“Mental health…is not a destination, but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going.” – Noam Shpancer, PhD
The minute I started reading Newlin's Not Another Sarah Halls I knew I wanted to write a book review, little did I know how much I was going to connect to the characters. As I dove deeper and deeper into this remarkably crafted story, more and more phrases jumped out at me as I tried to piece the cold case clues together. Not only did I connect to Autumn's raging anxiety swelling inside her, but to Becca's need to be there for her best friend. Not many people understand mental health or want to stick around, yet Bec shows so much strength as she and Aut grew up together. I think the decisions she makes, as readers will see in the second half, doesn't take away from that love they have. I believe those tough decisions show just how much of an impact people have on one another especially childhood friendships.
"To bury me in the darkness, like I was already dead." - Becca This line is so interesting, especially in a horror novel. It's like she is telling us that she's running towards the danger and almost being at peace with the possible ending. Although she admits to feeling "defeated," she begs us to question what Autumn's illusions about "she is next" really means.
Is Becca the next Sarah Halls and is the Dae House really the key to figuring out the unsolvable cold case? From Newlin, we know that the Dae House plays an important role in the town, "The stories were so well-fabricated that when the kids first heard them, they would carry the fear into adulthood and pass it on to their own children. Generations of blind ignorance leading blind ignorance. The only ones who knew the truth were the ones brave enough to look inside and maybe even go in and dance with the devil." Is the Oakhaven's forbidden house a major clue in the string of missing girls? Becca seems to be trying to clue us in on the missing information. As I pause my reading for a moment, I'm itching to understand how Becca connects to the plot and what secrets lie ahead in Not Another Sarah Halls.
"Fear had a way of backing people so far into corners and gluing them there that eventually they became trapped by the mold incapable of breaking free." - Becca Of course in a story like this one there is fear, even if it isn't always on the surface. Becca isn't the one who shows fear, but Newlin gives that side of her traits light as Becca leads us deeper into her own fears of the future. It begs the question, was Becca always afraid and was strong for Autumn, or is something really terrifying about to go down? I will let you find that out on your own because you will want to keep reading, I know I do.
E: Give the readers a tease of how you played on the fears of the townspeople to make the Dae House so appealing to Becca.
H: I think this came from the idea that as kids, the more adults tell us something is bad, especially if said with mere skepticism rather than experience, we have to see it for ourselves. I combined that idea with the culture of small towns--the way some people get so caught in that life, they never make it out. Becca’s character was a bit of a wildflower, so it made sense that she’d want to see it for herself, especially if it meant bringing something different in her life.
E: Earlier we talked about how this is a story about facing your fears, how did you face fears even you weren't ready to overcome? What gave you the courage to push through and give your characters that slice of hope you were looking for as well?
H: Questions like this always make me think back to my favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh knew darkness that I and so many others who battle with mental health know all too well. I was afraid to write this story, particularly, to share the depths of my psyche that I’ve veiled for most of my life. But if I wanted to speak to readers who face depression, anxiety, or some kind of mental issue, I had to make myself vulnerable to them. That included sharing personal run-ins with depression and anxiety throughout the story. Like Van Gogh, creating wasn’t always a release. In fact, it sometimes was a product of a mass breakdown. As Van Gogh created Starry Night amidst recovery, I created Not Another Sarah Halls to demonstrate my hopefulness in getting better myself. I hoped through my novel; readers would feel that for themselves too--a journey through the dark that, in time and a hell of a lot of determination, reaches a better life. I’ll always remember Van Gogh as the artist that showed me the beauty in a world that frequently feels like an unfortunate place; we have to look hard enough.
E: As I'm reading, I'm wondering how you articulated the spooky aspects behind the key storylines. What films and novels do you draw from most when writing dangerous scenes where the outcome is uncertain?
H: Because Not Another Sarah Halls orbits around the themes of mental health and fear, I looked to horror novels that apply the genre convention of manifestations comprised of the darkest parts of inner selves. Including Stephen King's IT, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
I also looked to horror films, not slashers, but real films built on the conventions of the genre, like Jordan Peele's Us, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, and The Conjuring. In these stories, the main characters usually had to dig deep into their psyche first to determine the elements of themselves used against them, before they could confront the monster ahead--a task Autumn must embark on herself.
"To a lot of people, the girls were juicy gossip not someone's best friend or daughter that they might never see again. It seemed obscene the way one person's pain could be another's entertainment. It wasn't human. It was soulless."
By creating characters like Autumn and Becca, Newlin draws in a reader base that doesn't normally read horror novels, readers like me. I'm a young adult reader and writer through and through, yet this story drew me in deeper and deeper. I was so blown away that a horror novel was keeping my attention, yet Newlin's well-crafted storylines made me want to know more and more. I found myself rooting for Autumn and Becca more as they got closer and closer to the truth that the town buried along with the missing girls' investigations. I also found myself never wanting the story to end because for the first time, in a while, I really connected to a character. Not only connected, but her honest voice drew me in page by page. Not only did Newlin create a fantastic character cast, but a story that will keep even nonhorror fans interested from beginning to end.
As I made my way through the second half certain sentences and scenes kept sticking out to me. Through every twist and turn her story kept me reading and glued to the page as if I was suddenly helping Autumn with the mystery. Like Autumn, I was itching to get down to the bottom of Oakhaven's missing and how they connected to her new findings. Trust me, you'll never guess the ending. Newlin takes her readers in so many different directions, in a good appealing way, that there is no way they'll expect the ending when it finally arrives. Which got me thinking, did Haley have any other ending in mind, or was this the only one? As I finished reading, I was reminded of how I had three different conclusions in mind for my novel. Because as a writer you want to answer all the ending questions: where are the characters going, is everything okay, and a possible illusion to a follow-up story. To close out this amazing interview with Haley, I wanted a little background on the writing decisions behind the ending to Not Another Sarah Halls and how it made every twist and turn worth it.
E: Without giving the ending away, how did you come to the conclusion that you did? I know when writing poems or stories, I find it hard to know how to end them. How did you craft an ending that makes every twist and turn worth it?
H: The ending of Not Another Sarah Halls haunted me. At times, I became so frustrated, and I thought those last few chapters might keep me from writing the book entirely. But, I kept coming back to that same idea of horror prompting self-reflection and eventual change for a better life, as discussed in my Note From the Author at the beginning of the book. That’s what made me decide that this ending had to come from Autumn, herself. It was also about speaking to readers who had stuck with this character attempting to navigate her psychic ills to find her underlying strength.
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” ― Stephen King
As readers are captivated by NASH, they will discover Autumn's love for music, specifically Freddie Mercury. He is the voice that calms her nerves and takes away her fears. Turning on his songs are the best therapy after a terrifying anxiety attack.
Haley and I were chatting via Twitter the other day, I finally revealed to her that I, too, had a twin sister. We began discussing the similarities and differences between ourselves and our respective twins. I found out that my music taste is a combination of Haley's and her sister, Hanna's favorite artists. Hanna likes more of today's pop such as Katy Perry, Lizzo, and Arianna Grande, much like when Becca and Autumn listen to throwback pop music. Autumn would rather be listening to bands like The Beatles and Led Zepplin like her creator, Haley, but loves jamming to the Jonas Brothers with Becca.
Connect with Autumn by listening to the songs that calm her fears.
If you loved Not Another Sarah Halls, you'll be eager for Haley's second novel. As Haley and I were chatting about her novel, she let me in on a shift in her writing when Take, Your Turn, Teddy hits retailers later this year. "I am working on my second novel right now called Take Your Turn, Teddy. This will be a bit different than NASH because it will be adult horror," Newlin shares.
“And as the moonlight tucked behind the trees, the shadow retreated to its corner of darkness. Teddy sat up in bed and wondered if the shadow really could be what it said, something he hadn’t had since the move to Indiana—a friend” - via Haley Newlin, Take Your Turn Teddy
Via Twitter, @HaleyNewlin22
Not Another Sarah Halls: