Very few books keep me up at night. Even fewer haunt my dreams. Behind the Red Door by Megan Collins (The Winter Sister) is one of those deeply disturbing psychological thrillers that do both. A story that highlights themes of childhood trauma and the serious implications resulting from long term exposure to narcissistic personality disorder.
When our heroine, Boston-based social worker Fern Douglas, sees a missing woman on the news, she’s almost certain she knows her. The now 34 year old Astrid Sullivan from Maine, who was snatched twenty years ago in the middle of the day, only to be returned two weeks later blindfolded, drugged, and completely disoriented. And now she’s gone again.
Fern’s husband, Eric, is convinced that the publicity surrounding the decades old case is the answer to his wife’s bizarre familiarity. But Fern has no memory of it, even though it occurred an hour outside her hometown. After learning of Astrid’s most recent disappearance, Fern has a recurring nightmare. One in which a young girl appears to be reaching out, pleading for help. Begging the question: Is it really a nightmare, or a repressed memory?
After receiving a call, Fern reluctantly returns to Cedar, New Hampshire to assist her retired professor father, Ted, as he prepares to move out of their family home and relocate to Florida. But Cedar holds some anxiety-ridden memories for her. Reminders of her attention-starved childhood in which her father regularly tricked her into partaking in his cruel experiments as he tirelessly researched the psychology of fear.
Fern buys a copy of Astrid’s memoir–Behind the Red Door–published shortly before her second disappearance in hopes that it will spark a memory. As she reads through, visiting the people and places, it triggers memories from her past. And with the help of her psychologist father, she digs even deeper in hopes of uncovering details that might help locate where Astrid is now. But the truth is so much worse than Fern could ever have imagined. And soon she’s confronted with the ugliness of her own childhood, including a toxic relationship that stems from one of the people closest to her.
As an avid reader of crime and psychological thrillers, I was extremely excited to hear that Megan Collins had released her second book this year (after the widespread success of her debut, The Winter Sister), curious as to the central themes she would focus on this time. I’m a huge fan of books which center around personality disorders, long-term effects of trauma, and the most obvious ‘good people doing bad things.’ But Behind the Red Door caught me off guard–in a good way. With a strong focus on toxic family relationships and the ongoing implications of early exposure to narcissism, there was something very relatable about Fern’s character. Her everyday struggles with anxiety and her unique coping mechanisms were something that spoke to me personally, and it helped shape her character into someone that I actually cared for and worried about when I wasn’t reading the book. That is a talent in itself!
Collins has all the right ingredients for crafting a dark and suspenseful world that appeals to readers of the genre on a deep and realistic level. Her descriptions, settings, character traits are detailed and absorbing, and her clever use of misdirection and subtle reveals kept me on my toes. For anyone not only interested in a great read, but who also appreciates the quality of beautifully crafted prose, I highly recommend checking out her books. You won’t be disappointed.
Behind the Red Door is a dark modern-day tale of suspense, enhanced by the scary and often sad reality of how the people we’re taught to hold in the highest regard, might in fact be the ones that damage us the most.
Quick Author Q&A
I was lucky enough to be able to pick the author’s brain on her recent publishing success and I’m excited to share her answers with you below.
What inspired you to write a book that centers around narcissistic personality traits?
I wanted to explore the nature of toxic relationships—what it feels like to be in one, how difficult it can be to get yourself out of one—and from there, those traits just sort of attached themselves to one character in particular. Fern has always had a toxic relationship with her family, but because her parents were all she had as a child, she’s had to convince herself that things weren’t as bad as they really were. Her husband sees that her parents are no good for her; the reader sees it, too, basically right away—but Fern’s ability to move through the world relies on her belief that her parents, particularly her father, really did care about her. When she returns to her childhood home to help her father pack for a move, she finally has the opportunity to try to reconcile the fiction she tells herself with the truth about her parents—and decide whether or not she will stay in those relationships.
What are your writing habits/tips?
Usually, I start writing in the morning, when my mind is most refreshed. I tend to set daily word count goals for myself, keeping them as manageable as possible. Most of the time, my goal is just 500 words, because it feels reasonable and not too daunting. On really hard days, I might only get those 500 words down, but on better days, I’ll exceed it and get to feel like a rock star for zooming past my goal. It’s all a mind game, but I find that it really works, and it helps me feel more confident as I continue on with the project. I always advise writers to set reasonable goals (doesn’t have to be word count; could be writing a certain number of pages, or outlining a certain number of chapters—whatever, really!), because I think it helps you to be both accountable and motivated.
How do your creative ideas form initially?
The initial seeds of my novels usually come to me in the form of a “What if” question. For example, with Behind the Red Door, the question that started it all was: What if someone who had been famously kidnapped as a child went missing again as an adult? As soon as it popped into my mind, that question really interested me, and from there, I became obsessed with this idea of a “twice-missing person” and worked on developing a story that would answer my question.
Name three authors that inspire you, or three books that inspire(d) you:
Oh man, there are SO many, but since I’ve only been asked for three, I’ll say: Toni Morrison, Gillian Flynn, and Marisha Pessl.
Are there any true crime cases that stick in your mind and perhaps influence your writing?
In the early seventies, there was a string of missing child cases in the area around my hometown. I wasn’t even alive back then, but the stories of Janice Pockett and Lisa White haunted the area for years to come, and I thought of them often while writing Behind the Red Door. In my book, Astrid is kidnapped as a child and then later returned, but sadly, that was not the case for Janice or Lisa, whose families still hold out hope that they’ll learn what happened to them. I think there’s something especially eerie about missing person cases, since the fact of their vanishing often means there are very little clues, and their family and friends are often left to try to fill in the blanks all on their own.