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Confessions of a Horror Writer

An interview by Matt Williams

Versatility is Graham Masterton's middle name. As well as being one of the most highly respected horror writers in the field, Masterton is equally adept at writing historical sagas, thrillers and even sex manuals. With a formidable backlog of titles (75 and counting) and a non-stop writing schedule which sometimes results in three full length titles a year, this award-winning author shows no sign of slowing down.

Edinburgh-born Graham Masterton began his career working for two highly popular men's magazines, Penthouse and Mayfair. His experience there led to his writing sex instruction books, something he has continued to do - with great success - to this day. However, in the mid-seventies, the market for sex books dried up with the result that the author decided to try his hand at horror. Masterton's first published horror novel was The Manitou, written in a week and made into a major film in 1978 starring Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg. He followed the success of The Manitou with a series of short, fast-paced horror novels with titles like The Djinn, The Sphinx and The Devils of D-Day, books which introduced demons, legends and Indian folklore into the horror arena and which marked the author as someone to watch. Not content to just be labelled a horror writer, he began writing historical epics, and to date has turned out ten highly successful sagas, including Rich, Railroad and Solitaire. 'The historical novels were extremely fulfilling to write,' explains Masterton, 'and also extremely educational when it came to characterisation, plot and background. When I returned to writing horror, with Tengu, I applied what I had learned to supernatural themes, with the result that the books were more mature, more composed and had (I hope) much greater resonance.'

But writing in different genres hasn't adversely affected Masterton's ability to tell an engrossing tale, as he explains. 'All the same rules apply to a horror novel as they do to a thriller or an historical novel. A driving central narrative, sympathetic and believable characters, and a sense of "being there" - of smelling and hearing and feeling the imaginary world which the author has created. I try to write conversationally, so that the reader is unaware that I am there. No literary pyrotechnics or difficult metaphors. To me, a successful novel is a novel which almost reads itself. I often cut out similes or metaphors because - even though they may be clever or smart - they suddenly jerk the reader out of his or her suspension of disbelief. And it is vital when you are writing an unbelievable story to sustain that suspension right to the end.'

Much of Masterton's horror fiction is brutal in nature - particularly the opening chapters - yet they are rarely gruesome for the sake of it. Many scenes in his novels are uncomfortable to read because they're so clinical in their detailing of the characters' suffering. Family Portrait and Black Angel are two notorious examples, the former beginning with a merciless skinning of a paralysed woman and the latter opening with the gruesome slaughter of an entire family as they watch TV. Some might argue this is the literary equivalent of 'splatterpunk', films which glory in sleazy violence and graphic murders, though the author is keen to refute such claims.

'I don't enjoy splatterpunk at all,' he states. 'But then I don't enjoy horror movies very much. I prefer romantic comedy. To me, the best horror happens within the imagination. The difficulty with showing horror on the screen is that it is immediately reduced to the same level as a road-accident. What makes the terrible events that happen in the beginning of my novels so terrible is that they play on internal fears rather than external disgust. The fear of being helpless. The fear of inevitable death. These are incredibly difficult to show well on the screen.'

One of the most endearing things about Graham Masterton's fiction is his willingness to incorporate humour, especially into his horror writing. 'Humour is an essential part of horror, because people almost always use humour to help them to overcome fear and pain and tragedy. I have read some totally humourless horror novels, and they don't ring true at all, because even in the Jewish concentration camps people were telling each other black jokes to help them cope with their ordeal. Apart from that, I have always enjoyed humorous writing, and I think that it helps to give characters depth and reality. The more believable they are, the more the reader is likely to care about them when they are placed in extreme jeopardy. In so many horror movies girls go on screaming and screaming until you wish that somebody would stick an axe in their head just to shut them up. I have written a great deal of humour over the years, starting when I was 12 with an updated version of The Pickwick Papers, and then writing a short humorous column for my local paper for five years. I wrote a few humorous articles for Mayfair when I was editor; and even after I left men's magazines I wrote a rather notorious column for Men Only called "World of Nookie", by "Ed Knox". Knox's First Rule of Seduction was: never go out with a woman whose breasts are smaller than her head. His Second Rule of Seduction was: never go out with a woman whose breasts are larger than your bathroom. "Ed Knox" was so politically incorrect that he thought he was being sexually liberated when he told a girl that she didn't have to write him a thank-you letter for making love to her.

'I wrote for Punch for a few years when David Taylor was editor, on the subject of cars and holidays and horror writing. I used to go to Punch lunches and swap daft stories with Barry Cryer. I wrote two "Confessions of a Window Cleaner"-type novels in the 1970s, which were going to be the first of a long series, but the publishers moved to the West Coast and went all PC.

'My own favourite piece was an article for the Mystery Writers of America on "my most underestimated crime novel." I didn't know of any crime novels, not even underestimated ones, so I invented The Case of the Pevensey Hat, a totally incompetent mystery by Thurloe Nash. The crux of the plot comes when Colonel Gordon Prendergast is returning to England after stealing a ruby from a statue of the goddess Kali in India. Attacked by "strong-arm men", he throws himself off the ship, swims to shore, and hides the ruby by sewing it into the lining of a fisherman's sou'wester, despite having no needle and thread. Is he attempting to assuage his guilt at robbing Kali by subconsciously losing the ruby? Is he creating an existential conundrum to remind himself of his own reality? No. He is simply an idiot who for no sensible reason whatsoever decides to sew a priceless ruby into a cod-catcher's chapka.'

There's often a fine line between horror and humour. How does the author avoid the blackly comic becoming the patently ridiculous?

'It only takes common sense to avoid spilling over into absurdity,' says Masterton. 'I just close my eyes and think of that scene in Reach for the Sky when Douglas Bader is told that he has just lost his legs. "Oh," he says. "What a bloody silly thing to do."'

Research is a very important part of his preparation for writing a novel, something for which he has been praised in the past. 'When it comes to historical novels, I particularly enjoy pictorial research. A photograph of the place and the time that you are writing about can yield a wealth of information both historical and personal. You can see the way that people are dressed; how the roads are paved; how much traffic there is. I was inspired to write Empress simply by seeing a photograph of Lady Curzon in a gorgeous gown embroidered with peacocks. When I wrote Headlines I was lucky enough to find a book with photographs of almost every street in Chicago in 1949, which was the period the book was set in. Another fascinating source is period shopping catalogues, which give you an in-depth look into domestic lifestyles, as well as an insight into the social and economic structure of the time. In 1908, a telephone cost $10.80, whereas a beautifully-finished walnut accordion cost only $3.45. These days, a telephone costs hardly anything, while a handsome accordion would cost you a fortune. The research I do for horror novels comes principally from books (I have a large library of ancient grimoires) but also from personal interviews with police, doctors, clergy, even medicine men! I tend to start off with a single occult idea and begin writing my story, then continue to research as I go along. You have to be very careful with research not to get side-tracked. You can start off looking up something like the sonic qualities of snowflakes and end up five hours later reading the history of glass-blowing ... and not a word written!'

Masterton's novels differ from many other UK novelists in that he sets them in America. But has he himself ever been mistaken for an American author? 'Many times, but I consider that flattering since American dialogue and phraseology is extremely hard for a non-American to get exactly right. Apart from words we all know about, like "median strip" for "central reservation" and subtleties like "nail polish" for "nail varnish", there are thousands of regional differences in American speech itself which have to be accurate according to the character's background and the location of the story. In New York they will say "couch" for "settee" but in the South they still use the word "sofa". In Virginia, they call depression or low spirits "the blue devils". In some states, false teeth are called "clickers". Wild greens have scores of regional names like "cliff lettuce" or "wild cabbage" or even "woolly britches". You must not only know things like this, but know how to introduce them into speech so that they don't sound forced or obscure.

'I have set several novels in other locations. Death Trance was partly located in Bali; The Devils of D-Day was set in Normandy (my wife, Wiescka and I spent our honeymoon there, and the aforementioned novel was the result - apart from a giant hangover from drinking Calvados); Prey was set on the Isle of Wight; and The Chosen Child was entirely set in Warsaw. I have also written short stories set in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Belgium and Canada. Every country has its own myths and legends, and I enjoy exploring new ones. But I have to be careful not to detach myself too far from the American psyche, particularly as far as TV and movie developments are concerned.'

Which of his supernatural novels would he recommend for the first-time reader? 'The Manitou, because it is a simple straightforward story with an original (although now much-imitated) premise. The Pariah, because it shows how a contemporary news story (the raising of the Mary Rose) can be turned into supernatural fiction, thus lending a completely over-the-top story a credibility that it would never have had otherwise. Family Portrait, because it shows how a well-known story (Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray) can be twisted to give it greater drama and depth, and because I had some of the greatest fun of all time chasing my villain through a series of oil-paintings. I am still not sure about The Sleepless and Flesh & Blood. They are strange books that almost don't seem to have been written by me. Unlike all my other books, I don't know what they mean. The Chosen Child is a recent favourite; as is Black Angel. And I have a soft spot for Jim Rook. At the moment the Rook series (which comprises Rook, Tooth & Claw and The Terror) is available only in the library or by special order, but when I have completed the fourth in the series they will be mass-market paper-backed with two books in each volume. My writing is entering a new era now, and I can't wait to complete my new novel The Doorkeepers (or whatever it's going to be called when I've finished it). It's a parallel-existence novel reminiscent of Mirror and Night Warriors.'

Graham Masterton's latest collection, the British Fantasy Society produced Manitou Man: The Worlds of Graham Masterton, places particular importance on the author's erotic writing. However, one wonders if there is a limit to how far a writer should go when using sex in a novel or short story. Condor (written under the pseudonym Thomas Luke), for example, combines hard-core pornography with a conspiracy story: a devastating secret from the Second World War that threatens the life of everybody in America; but doesn't the introduction of brutal sex ultimately detract from a novel's plot and characters?

'I think the brutal sex in Condor was gratuitous and completely unnecessary,' he replies. 'I do think one can go too far in bringing sex into horror stories or thrillers. I occasionally look back and think that a story may have gone too far. My story "Eric the Pie", for instance, was notorious enough to put the UK horror fiction magazine, The Frighteners out of business! But as horror writers we are all concerned with giving our readers more and more sensation. We're in the entertainment business and people are always looking for new thrills. So I do try and push the envelope further and further and if I sometimes go too far then at least I have the sensibility to know it. After all, writing a disgusting story is a million times less evil than dropping bombs on Yugoslavia.'

Masterton has covered everything from demons, mythology, legend and Indian folklore to haunted houses/artefacts, ghosts, magic and spells. Yet if his future itinerary is anything to go by, there are no shortage of subjects left to write about. 'I'm going to write an extremely terrifying living-dead novel soon but there will be no shuffling through shopping-malls with fingers and toes dropping off. I am also a third of the way through a Mexican spirit novel with a really fascinating central character ... female, middle-aged and plump. I've written several disaster novels - Plague and Famine to name two - and have another planned called Drought. My favourite scene in that book has well-watered golf courses being protected by armed guards while ordinary people are dying of thirst. I will write it as soon as I get the time. I've mentioned The Doorkeepers and Rook 4: The Snowman. I also plan a new Manitou novel provisionally entitled Manitou Fire. Then I am going to write a major saga about a witty Dorothy Parker-type woman whose life comes apart at the seams. I also have a new sex book out from Dutton/NAL The Seven Secrets of Really Great Sex, followed in early 2000 by The Secrets of Sexual Play. I am planning promotional trips to Poland, France and the US, where Prey is being published by Leisure Books in December, followed by The House That Jack Built. I also have a great idea for a short story.'

Originally appeared in the 1999 FantasyCon Programme book.
© Matt Williams 1999.