Sunday 22 June 2014

The Horror... The Humour... of Graham Masterton

One of Britain’s most prolific and hard-working horror writers talks to Remy Dean about sex, murder, crossing the line and not wearing hats indoors…

If you check out an on-line bibliography of Graham Masterton, you will be glad of your scroll wheel! The lists go on and on… and most are incomplete, mainly because no one can keep up with his output, which seems to average about four novels a year. 

If you talk to a Masterton fan (I count myself as a member of this cult) they will sing his praises and convince you that he is indeed, ‘the living inheritor of the realm of Edgar Allen Poe’ - as claimed on the back of numerous book jackets - a writer of dark imagination that rivals, perhaps surpasses, the big names such as Stephen King and Clive Barker. Talk to one of his detractors (as with most horror writers he has many) and they will fail to convince you that his stories come from a sick and warped imagination and are only suitable reading for those who have sicker minds. Or perhaps you will talk to a reader of his sweeping historical sagas, who will recount how they could not put his doorstop of novel down, how they were transported into a well-researched and convincing re-telling of some historical setting and mind-set. Or maybe a reader that loves to be immersed in his perceptive and often prophetic political thrillers… 

Generally, Masterton divides readers, into three categories: those who love his books, those who hate them, and those who have never heard of him… He has managed to maintain the status of a ‘cult’ writer, although his first novel, The Manitou, was published nearly forty years ago, he has won literary awards, collaborated with William S Boroughs, featured on best-seller lists, been adapted for television and cinema… and shows no signs of slowing down!

Depending on what day you ask me, I may well cite Graham Masterton as my favourite author – not for clarity and elegance of prose, for that I go to Bukowski, not for his profound yet entertaining philosophical inventiveness, for that I go to Richard Miller, not for his potent and disconcerting honesty, for that I go to Lydia Lunch… but for a good rollicking read, I’ll go for Graham!

In a recent twitter conversation with @GrahamMasterton, he stated that Descendant was one of his personal favourites from his own back-catalogue. I thoroughly enjoyed it too and on hearing the news that another of his books has just been optioned for film, was suggesting it as an ideal candidate for cinematic treatment… His writing is usually so cinematic, it is surprising that more of his books have not been made into big screen movies.

“Ten of my books have been optioned over the years for feature films, including Trauma, which was optioned by Jonathan Mostow, and Family Portrait, which was optioned by Gold Circle. Every time some last-minute problem led to the projects falling by the wayside – usually financial. Almost all writers will tell you that they have had the same experience. The late Tony Scott bought three of my short stories for his Hunger TV series, the best adaptation of which was The Secret Shih-Tan, a Chinese cannibal story featuring Jason Scott Lee. The other two were Anais, about the sketch of a sexy woman coming to life, and Bridal Suite, about a honeymoon couple who get more than they bargained for in a New England guest house.

"Walkers has been optioned by Jules Stewart, the mother of Kristen Stewart from the Twilight series. It is currently in development with her Libertine Films in Los Angeles, under the new title of The Oaks. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope that it gets a green light.”

Also ideally filmic was one of the first Mastertons that I read, The Devils of D-Day, a fast-moving and fantastical war story that I have since pushed on several friends… With such a huge back-catalogue, does Graham have any recommendations for anyone who has not read anything Mastertonian? Where could they start?

“I think The Manitou is probably a good place to start,” he responds with little hesitation, “because that was the novel which kicked off my career as a horror writer.  After that I would probably recommend some of the novels I wrote in the 1980s like Family Portrait and Mirror and The Pariah. By the time new readers have digested those, I think they will be pretty well acquainted with the way I write and the directions I like to go wandering off."

The Manitou was a hugely original and influential novel for the horror genre, with very few precedents at the time of publication, it has been followed by four sequels to date. In the Manitou series of stories, the protagonist, Harry Erskine - who was played by Tony Curtis in the 1978 movie version - is  described in the books as a bit like Elliot Gould... so who would be cast in that role now?

John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) talks 'medicine'
with Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) in The Manitou
“I think Tony Curtis was perfect for the role, because he played it absolutely straight - as did the rest of the cast. I don’t know enough of today’s young male actors to be able to make a suggestion for a remake.”

How much of the real Masterton is in Erskine?

“Oh, quite a bit, the real Masterton finds it hard to take things too seriously and also reads fortune-telling cards, although I do it for pretty young women for free, rather than rich old ladies for money.”

He seems happy enough to be labelled as a horror writer, and is respected as one, having been awarded some prestigious genre prizes, such as a Special Edgar for Charnel House, a Bram Stoker award for short stories, the Prix Julia Verlanger for Family Portrait. He recently had a park bench dedicated to him in Krakow, where you can sit and listen to an extract from Bassilisk on your mobile device... but having written such a variety of genres, including non-fiction and sex-guides, is there a label he feels is more suitable?
A French edition of Family Portrait / Picture of Evil
which was awarded the Prix Julia Verlanger 
“If I labelled myself as anything, it would probably be ‘journalist’. I was trained as a newspaper reporter and a magazine editor - I have always written to entertain and involve my readers rather than trying to make any personal points or explore my own psyche. To me, writing is my job.”

Does he wear different hats for different genres? (I mean this metaphorically, of course, but privately hope he really does wear a variety of a hats when writing!)

“Obviously there is a difference between the way I write a sex guide and the way I write a horror novel, but when I am writing fiction the genre is unimportant. What is important is making the characters and the settings believable and giving readers the sense that they are participating in the story rather than just reading it. Even with a sex guide I try to be involving and make readers empathise with the experiences of the people I am writing about, and imagine themselves in some of the sexual scenarios which I recommend.”

Is there, I wonder, a personal favourite piece of work that means a lot to him on some level, or that he is particularly proud of?

“I was very pleased by the way Trauma (aka Bonnie Winter) came out. I was originally going to write it under a woman’s nom-de-plume but when I showed it to my agent he persuaded me to publish it under my own name. It tells the story of a woman crime-scene cleaner who is gradually brought to the point of a nervous breakdown by the horrors of her job and her dead-end marriage, and I feel that in this novel I managed to get closer to understanding female thinking than any other novel I had written before.”

Fellow Brit Horror writer, Ramsey Campbell, recounts how people often come up to him and, knowing him to be a horror writer, will say, “I don’t like the kind of books your write,” to which he responds with the questions, “Oh, which ones did you read and not like?” To which they reply, “I haven’t read any of them…” Clive Barker is accused of being in league with Satan… Graham must also be used to dealing with negative responses because of people’s preconceptions?

“My crime novels White Bones and Broken Angelswhich have been very successful as Kindle books, did elicit some hostile reactions, mainly because I wrote about murders in a very graphic way. But, after all, murders are horrible and I don’t see any point in pretending otherwise. Real murder is not like an Agatha Christie novel, in which the bishop gets bashed on the head in the bathroom with a badger. It amused me that most of the readers who complained spelled 'graphic' with a double 'f' - ‘graffic’.

"I never read reviews these days, because I know from my experience on magazines that only a tiny percentage of readers ever complain, and so they are not in any way representative of the readership at large. All that counts is how many books are sold... if it’s a lot, then you obviously have some happy and satisfied customers."

His books do often have a level of cruelty and ‘nastiness’, but the characters and stories are also very entertaining and I often find myself chuckling along to dialogue and the ridiculous situations they may find themselves in – to me the horror seems balanced with humour. Is this a deliberate decision?

“It’s deliberate in that I know that people often react to desperate or even grisly situations with humour. It’s our defence mechanism against the unspeakable. Think of the 'Tommies' in World War One who produced humorous magazines like The Wipers Times and made jokes about death and hideous conditions in the trenches.”

…the cat and razor-wire enema from The Sleepless, or the family murdered cruelly in the opening of Black Angel – both books I really enjoyed, by the way, particularly the latter – but does Graham ever think he has ‘crossed the line’?

“I have occasionally ‘crossed the line’, as you call it, on purpose. I have written several short stories which were intended from the beginning to test the very limits of acceptability, such as the notorious Eric The Pie, which led to the banning, by W H Smith, of the horror magazine Frighteners, which I still regret, as it was a very good horror magazine. Then there was Sepsis, which was a Cemetery Dance chapbook, and most recently Beholder, about a little girl who believes that her mother is keeping her imprisoned in the house because she is too beautiful to go out. That will appear in my new collection of short stories Figures of Fear, in October.”

What does he think his readers enjoy in the books, what attracts them to come back?

“I hope when they read my books they feel involved in the characters and identify with their lives and their problems. All of my characters are pretty ordinary people, not super-heroes or knights of the realm, and they often have difficulties quite apart from the evils they have to confront, like business difficulties or a failed marriage or grief. I try very hard to make myself invisible to the reader to create that ‘cinematic’ effect you talked about. This is not nearly as easy as it might seem, because it requires very precise choice of words and an ability to communicate plot essentials without appearing to be lecturing. The late William Burroughs and I spent many hours discussing how to become what he called ‘El Hombre Invisible’. I try to evoke sounds and smells and sensations in my novels to make them feel real, and the greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was by a woman who was reading my Irish crime novel White Bones and said she had to keep looking up from the book to reassure herself that she wasn’t actually in Ireland.”

Graham has been writing professionally for fifty years or so, what is it that still motivates him to write?

“It gives me a chance to tell everybody else what to do. And sometimes that’s a good thing. A retired country doctor in Warsaw said that for years he had prescribed my sex guide Magia Seksu (How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed) to his patients if they had sex problems.”

Short video: Graham Masterton at a Polish convention  
talking about where his ideas come from

He was instrumental in publishing Scare Care – a collection of horror stories sold to raise money for children’s charities - what wider issues are important to him? What gets Graham angry or ‘fired up’?

“Very few things fire me up except stupidity and ignorance and cruelty and elderly people who dress badly and people who wear hats or caps indoors,” (okay, so he doesn't actually wear different hats for writing each genre…) “Oh, and Banksy and his rubbishy clich├ęd graffiti. Apart from that, I find it almost impossible to believe that in the 21st century we are still fighting and killing each other, especially small children who have never had a chance to live out their lives. I have seen a great deal of child abuse, and also children who have terrible debilitating illnesses and brain damage, and that is why I put together the Scare Care anthology, which was a collection of short stories by mostly well-known horror authors all of which were donated for free. It raised tens of thousands of dollars for children’s charities in the UK, United States, and several European countries.”

So who are his heroes and heroines?

“People who believe in themselves and stick at what they believe in and take risks. I am helping a young woman to write her first novel and her determination makes me proud of her.”

In many Masterton books, you will find some quite specific art references, to particular works and painters. I gather then that art must be an interest of his – how does creativity from other formats feed into the creative writing?

“I have always enjoyed art and in fact was going to be a commercial artist before I decided to become a newspaper reporter instead. Art can teach you a lot about how to describe a room or a scene or a building or a person. Take a look at paintings by Velasquez, easily my favourite painter. From a distance, they appear immensely detailed, but when you look closer you can see that elaborate lace ruff is just a few splodges of white, and that cherubic face is made out nothing more than some smears of red and yellow ochre. Picasso could do that, too, before he started painting all that Cubist rubbish. Whistler comes a close second...”

To what extent does Graham think that location influences creativity?

“Location is very important as the setting for a story. It has to be utterly believable and feel real. But I can write anywhere. I have written horror stories on the beach in Greece, and sex guides in a cupboard in Stockholm,. When I first joined a newspaper, the reporters’ room with all its manual typewriters sounded like a riveting shop in a Glasgow shipyard, but you soon get used to writing with all that background noise.”

He moved around from Scotland to Ireland to the USA and back – can he still be considered a British writer?

“When I write, I am not aware of having any particular nationality. I set many of my books in the United States for commercial reasons – the whole world is familiar with American culture from films and TV, so it make sense. I am writing a series of books about Katie Maguire the Irish detective at the moment so the inside of my head is completely Irish and I even find myself saying things like: (in blarney accent) ‘if my dog had a face as ugly as yours he’d shave his arse and walk backwards’!”

So when we drink to Graham’s health this solstice weekend, what should we toast him with… a shot of poteen or Irish whiskey? ...perhaps raise a Guinness?

“I have been known to enjoy a Sauvignon Blanc or two, although in Bialystok in Poland recently I spent the whole night until 2:30 in the morning on wild strawberry vodka. It was absolutely delicious and so pure I had no hangover the following day. Many thanks to Adam ‘Tequila’ the barman!”

- and thank you Graham Masterton, Cheers! 

Graham Masterton was talking with Remy Dean

if you enjoyed this interview, you can...

Just out are a new disaster novel Drought - in the style of Plague and Famine - and a new Katie Maguire novel, Red Light

A new short story collection Figures of Fear will be published in October and he is currently working on a fourth Katie Maguire novel and when that is finished he promises, “to write a novel so scary that nobody will be able to sleep at night after reading it.”

up-coming release...
More info and news on the official Graham Masterton website...

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