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Dark Dreamer: Graham Masterton (1990)

An interview by Stanley Wiater

One of the most popular - and prolific - dark dreamers on both sides of the Atlantic is England's Graham Masterton. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1946, Masterton has had a lifelong fascination with both writing and horror, having completed his first epic work - a 550-page vampire novel - for the amusement of his friends at the ripe old age of twelve. After first working as a reporter, then an editor for such lofty British publications as Mayfair and Penthouse, Masterton struck the right vein by returning to the supernatural with his first published novel, The Manitou, in 1975. (The film, starring Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg, was released three years later, directed by the late William Girdler. According to the author, 'I think every one of my novels has been optioned at one time or another.' However, it remains the only Masterton novel produced to date.)

Since that initial success, Masterton has been quite busy at his word processor, having published more than thirty novels. These include Revenge of the Manitou, Death Trance, Sacrifice, Ikon, The Pariah, Charnel House, Tengu, Condor, The Wells of Hell, Night Warriors, and Mirror. He has also written two sequels to Night Warriors: Death Dream and the forthcoming Night Plague. Under the pseudonym of 'Thomas Luke,' he has written three books, The Hell Candidate, The Heirloom, and the novelization of the John Huston film Phobia.

Interestingly enough, he divides his talents into two distinctly separate camps: first writing a horror novel, then writing a mainstream or historical novel, then back again to horror. Published under his own name, his mainstream novels include Railroad, Lords of the Air, Rich, and Maiden Voyage. However, he has recently gone on vacation from the epic historical novels to concentrate on writing larger and more-complex novels of horror.

He is also writing a new series of adventures for an American comic book firm, Northstar, based on his popular Night Warriors characters and themes. Although he travels to America to gather research for his novels, Masterton resides at Epsom Downs, Surrey, with his wife Wiescka and three sons. He confesses only to preparing a 'huge cup of extremely poisonous coffee' and a sincere attempt 'to do the Daily Telegraph crossword' to get his own creative juices flowing every morning.

WIATER: Frankly, from reading several of your novels, I first believed you had to be an American just living in England - most of your novels take place in this country, and they certainly read like they were written by a native-born American.
MASTERTON: Yes, it's an odd characteristic in some ways. But right from the very start, when I wrote The Manitou, I found that the acceptance for that kind of horror story was very much stronger in the United States than it was in England. Also, I really wanted to get away from all the gothic and traditional horror forms that had been around at the time, and so the idea of having an ancient horror that was rooted in the New World was very powerful to me. So the summers when I become 'Graham Masterton: horror writer' I just look for that sort of audience - not so much American these days, but certainly international to that extent. And because of the universality of American television in particular, everybody all over the world seems to be able to accept a story set in America.
WIATER: Many of your early novels revolve around ancient cults and religions - you must enjoy creating your own mythologies as the origins for your monsters and demons. H.P. Lovecraft was famous for doing this sort of thing.
MASTERTON: I think I'm slightly moving away from the ancient demon type of book, but there were so many interesting and unusual terrors of the past! One reason I wanted to go back and look at them is because some time in the past they really did terrify some cultures. It's quite interesting to explore what it was about them that made them so frightening. Exploring certain fears like being visited by the dead; that comes up as zombies and ghouls. Fears of being dragged under by strange maidens, fears of being made love to in the night by disgusting creatures! I also like to have something of an intellectual game with the reader, with those who have a long-standing interest in horror stories, and have knowledge of their background. By getting in little jokes and wordplays which refer back to old Lovecraft stories or other stories they may have read. It's kind of a 'shorthand of horror' in that you know it's going to be frightening once you start mentioning Arkham or going the wrong way by the Miskatonic River [laughs]! You just add layers to the horror. And to those who know these mythologies, it's an added pleasure.
WIATER: With the obvious exception of the sequels, no two Masterton novels deal with the same kind of fear. Clearly you believe you have more to explore in the field?
MASTERTON: It's gotten so that there are so many fascinating things that one can do. And the discipline of it alone is so interesting. Because you're dealing with the occult and the supernatural - remember we were just talking about mythologies? - well, there have to be some kind of ground rules. Otherwise, there is no fear. Without ground rules, your hero cannot overcome the demon, or the other way around. So in some ways, writing horror is much more difficult than writing any other kind of book because you have to create your own discipline, your own ground rules, and then have to stick with them.
WIATER: Yet the whole point of working in this genre, some of the critics say, is to keep going forward, to keep breaking rules. What boundaries or censorship do you put on your work - or aren't there any?
MASTERTON: I don't think I'm going to receive any medals as Prude of the Year, after eight years of working on Mayfair and Penthouse, and editing Forum for four years. And I contributed to an anthology called Hot Blood. Certainly it's a question of taste more than anything else. I personally don't like watching movies where people get chopped up into pieces. I didn't like The Fly [1986] very much - I thought it was just plain disgusting. And I thought Hellraiser went well beyond the bounds; it wasn't frightening because it was just ... tasteless. The extraordinary thing is, the more overt the horror is, the quicker the fear factor drops. There's no particular fear in having somebody's head chopped off or blown off or anything like that. It's jolly good special effects, and it was all right the first time that David Cronenberg did it in Scanners.
But if you just want butchery, you might as well go along and visit your local meat counter. It's about as frightening as that. And, it seems to me, that those writers who are becoming really successful at developing this genre are those who are exploring ways of making you frightened rather than ways of making you disgusted. Anybody can write a 'meat story.' You can write a factual piece describing a liposuction operation and that would be sufficiently disgusting. Anybody can do that, and it's not clever or impressive. And it doesn't take the genre anywhere. I don't deny that there's still an audience who wants to read about such things; otherwise there wouldn't be the kind of sensationalism we've always seen in the past.
WIATER: What about sex in horror - is there any reason to be squeamish about that any longer? Haven't most writers gone beyond the idea of just putting it in a story to be merely sensational?
MASTERTON: I would be inclined not to include any particularly sadistic sex. It's one of the reasons I didn't like Hellraiser, actually. I thought the sex in it was sadistic. But certainly a story can be erotic. And it can be frighteningly erotic. And there can be strong hints of sadomasochism in it; it's simply a question of the intelligence of the writer and how he or she handles what they're doing.
WIATER: Do you ever incorporate any of your personal fears?
MASTERTON: I'll tell you what one of the strongest fears is that runs through my books. When you're a father, and a parent, and a husband, and a lover, you have very strong protective feelings about your family. I've been asked about the novels I write in the first person; not many horror novels are written in the first person because you give the game away right from the beginning, that the hero is going to survive. But what you can do is transmit the fear and the anxiety that the main character has for the people he loves and is responsible for. It's become one of the strongest themes running through all of my horror novels. I think it's a lot more terrifying than the fear you feel for your own survival. So I have a wife and three sons that I care very much about, and if there's any personal experience that comes through my work, it's that constant feeling of looking after them.
WIATER: When you write in this genre, do you purposely try to frighten yourself? In other words, have you any way of judging if your work is coming across as effective?
MASTERTON: I have to be frightened by what I'm doing. There has to be at least one moment - hopefully it's underlying through the whole experience - when I shut off that word processor at the end of the day, and the house is dark and quiet, and there is a true feeling of fear in me. Hopefully, I've transmitted it to the reader as well. That effect, I think, is very important. It's like when you're writing a sexual story, there should be a strong feeling of eroticism. When you're writing an adventure story, you want to be thrilled by it and want to know what will happen next. So I think it's very, very important for a horror writer to be frightened by his own work.
WIATER: This leads to the question of what novels of your own would you recommend, going along with those qualifications?
MASTERTON: In some ways, I think the first one I did was the best one I did in terms of story - The Manitou would certainly be a good introduction. Another would be Charnel House, which in some respects is a reworking of The Manitou, except the fear was rather more sharpened and developed. Tengu, which was a sort of thriller-horror novel, had some moments of fear in it intermingled with more everyday life than just the purely fantastic. I would also recommend Picture of Evil as it was called in America.
WIATER: Getting back to The Manitou, what was your reaction to the film version?
MASTERTON: I liked it a lot, actually. It had all the right elements of humor and fear in it, and I thought for the time, 1978, the special effects were very good. I think the director, Bill Girdler, got a little bit carried away by Star Wars toward the end of the film - remember Star Wars had just come out then and was influencing a lot of the people who were making movies. But it had all the right wry elements in it that I believe made The Manitou what it was in many respects.
WIATER: Under the name of 'Thomas Luke,' for example, you did a novelization of the film Phobia. Probably more people read that book then saw the actual film.
MASTERTON: Oh, yes, that was just a novelization. That was done in four days. People are always asking that question: How long does it take to write a book? You just look at them and say, 'I don't know!' Some books are very quick, though. The Manitou was written very quickly - in about two weeks. I don't know if having a word processor now has speeded things up; I don't use as much correcting fluid [laughs]. The word processor has made my desk tidier, though. I'm usually quite fast as a writer, in any case. But it depends. You can labor all day over a single paragraph, and sometimes you can't write anything at all. I've never really suffered from writer's block, but one is confidently trying to drag the very best out all the time.
WIATER: Considering your long list of publications, it appears that you've never had to worry about writer's block.
MASTERTON: I have an idea for a new horror novel practically every day. I thought of one this morning, actually. A guy buys this old Zenith radio, and hears on it these old radio programs. He also hears the most grisly things going on, like he's witnessing these ritual murders. He hears something that was in the past, with someone begging him for help. So how does he go about dealing with it - with going into the past? It would be a horror story set in some sort of 1930s' motor court, with all the historical detail and atmosphere of that time. And so on and so forth, and so on and so forth.... [laughs] But right now I don't have the time for it; I'm doing something else.
WIATER: It must be somewhat frustrating to have your imagination always brimming over with new ideas?
MASTERTON: One way I can productively use this brimming over of ideas is to get into different fields, like comic books. I've also been writing more short stories lately for various anthologies. It's a different way of expressing the same ideas which may eventually make novels, but which will certainly help develop the terror - and develop my own techniques. You never stop learning; you never stop expanding your techniques and ideas.
WIATER: Besides having a family to support, what else compels you to write? More than thirty novels since 1975 would seem to most like a lot of time spent locked away in a room.
MASTERTON: As I said, I do have a lot of ideas, so this in some ways is the problem. But it's also the joy of imagining these other realities and possibilities and other lives. Imagining new fears, exploring various frights. Being able to convey this to other people is a joy. My biggest axe to grind is with publishers who fail to see the author-editor≠publisher-distributor-reader as one direct link. There are so many good books published today (and some of mine are included amongst those) that are badly published. They just don't reach the public that they ought to. Unfortunately, too many writers today are writing for the publisher, and not for the reader.
WIATER: Tell me the story behind Scare Care, where the stories were donated by many of the top writers in the field. Even its American publisher, Tor, donated the hardcover profits of the book to the various charities involved.
MASTERTON: Well, Scare Care started off as one of those five-o'clock-in-the-morning inspirations. I thought, 'There are a whole lot of very good writers out there in "horrorland," and it would be a whole lot of fun to put some stories together and send the profits off to charity.' One of my favorite charities here in England has always been the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, not to mention other charities such as cancer research for children, and so on. I started to write blindly to writers I knew - I asked Ramsey Campbell for help on writers he knew - and it started off from there. It's quite a large collection - there are thirty-eight stories - that covers the whole spectrum of what's being written today, from new writers to quite experienced writers.

Taken from Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror. Excerpt copyright © 1990 by Stanley Wiater. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.