Graham Masterton, known to be one of the lions of the horror genre and one of its most celebrated novels, is also one of its most prolific writers, with over 40 novels spanning multiple genres. He received the lifetime achievement award from the Horror Writers’ Association in 2019 for his work in the genre.
I had the immense honor of having a chat with the horror legend about his writing, sex-help novels, what he is working on now, and the horror genre in general.
[GdM] Before becoming a novelist, you were a journalist for a few years. Journalism requires a different type of approach to presenting the reader with an idea or situation. There is also a lot of overlap between the two. Could you tell me a bit about what you learned as a reporter and how that has affected your writing later in your career?
[GM] Most of my education was at Whitgift School in Croydon which was an all-boys school. My parents moved and I was supposed to complete my sixth-form education at a mixed grammar school in Crawley. Unfortunately (or fortunately as it turned out in terms of my career) I lost all interest in Shakespeare and Byron and Wordsworth and concentrated all my studies on Jane and Jill and Charmienne. After two terms I was asked to leave. After a short spell as a greengrocer I was offered a job as a junior reporter on the Crawley Observer newspaper. I was lucky that in those days local papers were staffed by semi-retired Fleet Street reporters who really knew their stuff, and so I was taught all the rudiments of writing a good news story, as well as layout and typography. The most important lesson I learned as a news reporter, though, I learned on my very first day. I was sent to interview a woman about her husband’s cycling trophies (not exactly front-page news) but after she had told me all about them and I was about to leave, she said, ‘He beats me.’ I went back into her living-room with her and for an hour she poured out the whole story of her husband’s abuse… how he hit her if she argued with him, how he threw his dinner onto the kitchen floor if it wasn’t what he wanted to eat, how he would rape her in the middle of the night when she was asleep. She had told her mother and her sisters, but they had simply told her that it was her fault for marrying him. There was little that I could do for her except to suggest that she go to her doctor and social services. But as I cycled away that day, I felt like Saul on the way to Damascus. I had learned in that one morning that everybody is bursting to tell you their story, especially if they are caught in a distressing situation from which they feel they can’t escape, and if you listen sympathetically they will tell you everything… right down to the most intimate details. Obviously my horror novels are based on fantasy and mythology, but I still base my characters on real people in ordinary situations… characters who have their own mundane problems like abusive marriages or debt or stress in their careers, apart from having to face up to demons and obnoxious spirits and other mythological perils. I believe that helps to make my novels more realistic and more frightening. The other important thing I learned as a reporter was how to join two contrasting or even conflicting ideas together to come up with an interesting story. As a reporter, if you witness a car crash, you don’t just describe the crash and any injuries that might result, you ask how and why did it happen, and who were the people involved.
[GdM] You are a sex instruction manual writer, 29 so far. I read that you got into that through writing a column for Mayfair, then through Penthouse magazine. I would love to know how you got from Mayfair to Penthouse and then on to writing the instruction manuals. And what continued to draw you to write on different topics in the genre?
[GM] After four years training on the Crawley Observer I wrote a very arrogant letter to the newly-launched Mayfair magazine, and they were so impressed by my arrogance that they gave me the job of deputy editor. The staff included the publisher, the editor, me, the secretary, and the publisher’s dog. Our office was the size of a wardrobe. But I was given free rein to write features and to organize fashion shoots and I also had the arduous job of going to the photographers’ studios and interviewing the girls who appeared in the centre-spread every month. Most men who casually visited the studios would simply gawp at the girls, but I always got to talk to them in the same way that I had talked to that woman whose husband had abused her. They told me just as much: about their boyfriends, about their ambitions, about why they had decided to pose nude, about their sex lives. I just listened and nodded and took it all in. At that time Penthouse was outselling Mayfair by a considerable number of copies and one of its most attractive features was the famous Penthouse readers’ letters, which were all very frank accounts of sexual encounters. I suggested that we start a regular column of verbatim interviews with girls about their sex lives… what they wanted and how they went about getting it. I called it ‘Quest.’ Of course I wrote all the girls’ responses myself, but they were based very closely on the personal stories that had been given to me by our models, so they were realistic and not misleading, and hopefully quite informative too. After three years at Mayfair I had an argument with the editor and simply walked out. I phoned the editor of Penthouse, and he gave me a job as deputy editor the following week, for twice the pay. At that time, Penthouse had just started publishing an American edition, and so I was sent to New York fairly regularly to help out. While I was there I met Howard Kaminsky from Warner Paperback Library (who happened to be the cousin of Mel Brooks, whose real name is Mel Kaminsky). He suggested I write an anecdotal sex instruction book and so he commissioned me to write How A Woman Loves To Be Loved. I wrote it under the nom-de-plume ‘Angel Smith’ and there was a photograph of Angel on the cover in a wet T-shirt. It was hugely successful, since most sex books those days were very medical. The only trouble was that Angel received a lot of fan mail. One letter included a condom which the sender said he had rolled on and off himself as a tribute to Angel. After that I insisted on writing sex books under my own name. The first was How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed, published by Signet, and it sold half a million copies in six months. For various personal reasons I eventually resigned from Penthouse but my sex books were easily making enough money for me to live on. Sex is a varied and interesting subject, and I got to know many of its most famous (or notorious) practitioners. I became friends with Xaviera Hollander, the Happy Hooker, and with the late Monique von Cleef, the dominatrix, and I learned a lot from them about what men wanted and how women could give it to them, and vice versa. Eventually, though, the market became flooded with similar books, and it was time to move on.
[GdM] You have had a hand in writing many types of novels. You have an extensive repertoire of horror stories. But you are also a prolific crime novelist and an author of non-fiction sex instruction manuals. Is the creative process different for each of these types of books?
[GM] Obviously the research is very different for each type of book. I try to make the characters and the background as believable as possible, which is why I usually set my stories in real locations, rather than invented ones. You can visit almost all of the locations that you read about in my books, including pubs and restaurants. I don’t have a ‘Castle Rock’ for example, although I have no criticism of Stephen King. My horror novel The Children God Forgot is set in Peckham, East London, which I know well; and my crime series featuring Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire of the Cork Gardai was based closely on my experience of living in Cork for a few years. In the same way my horror novels set in various American cities are all based on personal observation—like The Manitou in New York and Walkers in Milwaukee and a new horror novel I have just finished, The Soul Stealer, set in Hollywood. Essentially, though, the creative process is much the same. The story has to grab the reader from the very first line, the writing has to be tight and clear, and the dialogue has to be believable. It is important for the characters to sound as if they know what they’re talking about, and in the case of the Katie Maguire novels I used a certain amount of Cork slang, although not as much as the real Corkonians use, or nobody would have understood a word of it. ‘That langer would break your melt’ (that dick would test your patience to breaking point); or ‘That’s the berries’ (that’s excellent.)
[GdM] As a reader, which type of horror resonates the most with you? Has there ever been a horror novel that you have had to put down for a bit because it was just too intense? And if so, why?
[GM] I don’t read horror fiction. In fact I read almost no fiction at all. I regret it, because I used to enjoy it a great deal, and I learned a lot about developing a direct and involving style from American writers like Herman Wouk (The Caine Mutiny, for example) and Nelson Algren (The Man With The Golden Arm). One of the reasons I don’t read fiction is because I am severely critical of my own writing, and I am too quick to pick holes in other authors’ fiction. I think the day I stopped reading fiction was when I was reading a Len Deighton novel and realized that I knew he was hungry and was rushing to finish the chapter so that he could go for his lunch.
[GdM] When you create a horror scene, how do you know where the tipping point is when a scene’s horror is too much? Or does such a place exist?
[GM] I thought long and hard before writing The Children God Forgot because of its controversial subject matter, and to be honest I wasn’t sure that any publisher would touch it. In the end, though, I knew I had to write it even if it never saw the light of day. But times have changed, and my publishers Head of Zeus are open-minded and advanced in their thinking and they got behind it regardless. When you consider the atrocities that are committed in real life, there is nothing that you could possibly write in fiction that could come close. I regularly visit towns in Poland where, during the war, scores of innocent children were taken away and gassed. You can’t write anything worse than that. I know that some people prefer ‘cosy crime’ like Agatha Christie stories in which the most dreadful thing that happens is that the bishop gets beaten to death with a badger in the bathroom. But in reality people get raped and tortured and chopped into bits, and left in builders’ bags in a forest somewhere. These killings affect detectives, too, deeply. They don’t sit calmly puffing a pipe in Baker Street or putting on a hairnet when they go to bed like Hercule Poirot. They suffer terrible PTSD. Obviously I try to write entertaining stories, but I believe in representing the horrors of this world as they really are.
[GdM] How has the release pacing of horror novels changed since the introduction of ebooks?
[GM] Ebooks have changed my whole career as a horror writer. They have made it possible for almost my entire backlist to be made available, whereas it is very doubtful that so many of them would have been re-issued if it had been necessary to reprint them on paper and store them in warehouses. I seem to be writing horror novels at a fair lick now. I sometimes think that readers don’t appreciate that a book that takes them three days to read can take three months or more to write. Their appetites are voracious!
[GdM] Can you tell me a bit about the Graham Masterton Written In Prison Award (Nagroda Grahama Mastertona W Wiezieniu Pisane). How did that come about, and how did you end up working with Polish writer Joanna Opiat-Bojarska?
[GM] I first had the idea for the Graham Masterton Written In Prison Award five years ago when I was taken to Wołow maximum security prison near Wrocław to talk to the inmates. They were plainly so interested in writing and reading that when I was having lunch with the prison director, Robert Kuchera, afterwards I suggested that it might be therapeutic for them to write short stories for a small prize. Robert is very enthusiastic about rehabilitation and he got behind the idea immediately. In the first year we received more than 120 entries and even last year with Covid we received nearly 100. It is open to the inmates of every penal institution in Poland and the prizes (DVD players) are now financed by the Polish Prison Service although I used to pay for them myself. Some of the stories are crime thrillers, some are fantasies, but at their core almost all of them have some element of personal experience… pain, and regret, and sadness. I was unable to go to Poland last year to present the prizes in person but I am hoping to go back in October. Joanna Opiat-Bojarska I have yet to meet, because of Covid. She volunteered to help by selecting the best 20 stories, which are then translated and sent to me to pick the 10 winners. The best story receives a brass plaque, and the runners-up receive certificates, as well as prizes. I write a personal letter to every entrant and every entrant receives a souvenir pen.
[GdM] Your first horror novel, The Manitou, came out in 1976, and most recently, The Children God Forgot in 2021. How have things changed in the horror industry?
[GM] Things have changed enormously, especially in the horror writing business. When I published The Manitou there were very few horror novels on offer on the mass market, but these days there is a regular flood. It is partly because the internet has made communication so much simpler, and partly because social attitudes towards horror have become much more relaxed.
[GdM] Can you tell me a bit about your newest novel, The Children God Forgot? For me, it was a book that is difficult to categorize in any subset of the horror genre. It has a bit of everything in it.
[GM] The Children God Forgot is a novel that examines different attitudes towards abortion. On one hand there are people who believe that every life is sacred, from the moment of conception. On the other hand there are people who believe that a woman is entitled to seek a termination if she has become pregnant through rape or incest, or whose foetus has such defects that it is non-viable. It is a book about the conflict between religion and superstition and progressive feminism. I think you can understand why I ummed and aahhed a bit before I wrote it. Not to mention the fact that it describes blocked-up sewers.
[GdM] The Children God Forgot, is a follow-up to Ghost Virus, which follows DC Jerry Pardoe and DS Jamila Patel on a case and combines crime and horror. What important aspects do you think a book needs to straddle the line between the two genres? There seem to be aspects of each genre that compliment each other.
[GM] To me, horror and crime go pretty much hand-in-gory-hand. If somebody gets horribly killed, the police are naturally going to get involved. Apart from which, I enjoy writing about the reaction of ordinary, run-of-the-mill coppers to the appearance of some ghastly demonic apparition. When I started writing horror novels, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a ‘genre.’ To me, a story is a story, and what makes it come to life is the contrast between fantasy and reality. On more than one occasion I have started writing a book that was going to be a straightforward thriller and then found out that it worked better as a horror novel. Blind Panic was one of those… it was going to be a disaster novel about a pandemic of blindness in the United States, but then I found out that it was being caused by vengeful Native American spirits. A similar thing has happened with the novel that I have just completed, The Soul Stealer.
[GdM] Do you tend to model aspects of characters after real-life people? I am especially interested in Jamila Patel. She seems like a powerful and capable character, one that bucks the many female character tropes of the horror genre. Can you tell me a bit about her creation?
[GM] All of my closest friends all my life have been women. When I was 17 I became friends with a young woman reporter on the rival newspaper in Crawley, and we still meet and talk for hours. I had a Burmese girlfriend, too, and she had the kind of inner strength that Jamila Patel has. In fact so many women are strong and clever and capable but do not allow themselves (or are not allowed) to challenge men. I have a woman friend now who is highly qualified but finds it desperately hard to have her abilities recognized. And I am close friends with the brilliant writer Dawn G Harris. We have co-authored two horror stories together and published them in five different countries and we are writing more. Jamila is a combination of several of those women.
[GdM] I think the first thing I googled when I started The Children God Forgot was “What is a Fatberg?” From there, I went down a terrifying rabbit hole. Yes, they are very much real things. How did you come across that this was a thing?
[GM] Fatbergs were shown on the TV news, and it occurred to me that they would make a fairly stomach-churning feature in a horror novel. This is another example of mixing two contrasting stories together (sewers and abortions) to make the whole novel take on an extra sense of reality. Not to mention making editors of horror magazines throw up.
[GdM] Now that The Children God Forgot has released, what do you have in the hopper?
[GM] A new horror novel featuring Det Sgt Jamila Patel and Det Con Jerry Pardoe will be coming out in December—The Shadow People. Following that, The Soul Stealer. I have been writing some new short stories, too, and I hope to have a new collection out sometime next year. Thank you for your interest.
Read Children God Forgot by Graham Masterton
This Interview was originally published in GdM#27