Ginger Nuts of Horror
I got lucky.
I was 18 when I wrote to Richard Laymon. A film buff and horror fan with no friends who shared my passion to quite the same degree, I'd just written, edited, designed and published the first issue of FRENZY, a fanzine created under the influence of DEEP RED, GIALLO PAGES and Pauline Kael; mostly using scissors and glue.
It was an outlet for all the thoughts and ideas I was generating, my way of reaching out and talking, trying to connect (it would be another 20 years before I had the money and the sense to attend a convention). A way of expressing myself and my love for the genre.
It was well received, not that it sold many copies. But it was well reviewed by Steve Green in THE DARKSIDE’s 'Fanzine Focus', and John Martin called it: 'An Adrenalized Atrocity With Attitude' (he also told me that DARK WATERS director Mariano Baino nicked his original copy, which seemed a great review in itself).
Emboldened, but still hugely naive, I wanted something more for issue 2. I was a big fan of Laymon's writing at the time, but hadn't seen too many interviews with him. So I wrote one. Or rather, I wrote a list of questions, and a cover letter explaining who I was and what I was doing with FRENZY, and sent it to him; care of Hodder Headline, whose address I got from the front of one of his books (probably Endless Night, though I like to think it might have been The Stake, chosen for good luck since it was my favourite).
It got to him.
I can't remember how long it was before I heard back, but I did; in spades.
12 pages straight from the man himself, from the very typewriter on which he'd hammered out some of my favourite writing. Stories that had gripped and thrilled me.
And a letter - to me! - from the man himself telling me it was one of the best interviews that anyone had ever done with him (oh, how I wish I could find that letter, but it looks as if it might have been lost when my parents were clearing their attic).
It was one of the most thrilling moments of my early life. A confirmation, that what I was doing was worth while. That what I was thinking had value and meaning...
It's only now, that I realise how lucky I was that it even got to him. I owe someone at Headline Books a debt for even forwarding it on. That isn't usual - as I discovered when I tried the same with Shaun Hutson later.
I like to think they responded to the same thing that Richard did: the purity of my youthful passion and enthusiasm, he heartfelt manner in which I spoke; naivete and all.
There was no ulterior motive, no thought or concern except a simple love for this man's work and for the genre, and a desire to share that love with others, turn them on to what I saw as really great writing.
I read the whole thing now, and I smile at the person I see reflected in my questions. They're the questions of a young man looking for advice as he approached his own writing, and validation (or maybe reassurance) about all the weird ideas inside him; someone to sit him down and tell him all this stuff that he was thinking, was okay. That there were other folk out there just like him and some that really didn't think the same. That it was alright to be weird and maybe just a little twisted in your thinking...
I like to think that's what Richard was responding to. It seems to me - in reading his answers today - that he was reaching out a hand to me. Encouraging and reassuring and validating by the simple fact that he took me seriously. What I see is someone willing to help a newbie, and that makes me grin.
I never spoke to Richard again. A problematic period at University almost killed that simple, singularly focussed passion and it took a long time to find my way back to the path. But I've spoken since with his widow, who was generous to a fault and does sterling work with her daughter Kelly to keep Richard's writing in print.
What you're about to read is the uncut text of my interview. I never edited it; I was so pleased with what Richard had sent. I've not changed a word here, not tried to make myself look better. This is 18 year old me. The only thing I've done is to correct spelling and typos so as not to piss you off.
An innocent young horror fan talks to a generous, seasoned pro... I hope you enjoy it.
An Interview with Richard Laymon: 1995.
by Neil Snowdon
Let’s start at the beginning. Your first published novel was THE CELLAR, but how did you first get started as a writer? What inspired you in this direction, and why did you choose the Horror genre? Was THE CELLAR your first attempt at a novel, and where did the idea come from?
RL: When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I was writing a novel in secret while my parents thought I was doing my homework. I sent my first short story to a magazine when I was sixteen years old. I wrote stories and poetry for the literary magazines at my high school and universities, and made my first sale in 1969 to ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Then four years went by before I made my second sale – also to ELLERY QUEEN. The second sale seemed to mark my discovery of the meaning of ‘story’. After that, i sold short stories regularly to U.S. mystery magazines and a few to ‘mens’ magazines. About the only market for short ‘horror’ stories were two or three ‘mens’ magazines, such as CAVALIER and GALLERY.
While writing the short fiction during the seventies, I attended graduate school, where I earned a Masters Degree in English Literature, a teaching credential, and enough credits in librarianship to become a certified librarian. I also worked as a high school English teacher, editor of a couple of little mystery magazines, the publisher of a short lived periodical for pipe smokers, a clerk in a university library, a clerk in a junior high school.
During those years, I always had novels in progress. I wrote several before THE CELLAR, but none of them even came close to getting published. They were nasty, dark suspense thrillers, not supernatural horror. I decided to write a ‘monsterbook’ after reading SALEM’S LOT – which was a great inspiration for me. My idea was to come up with a new sort of evil being, rather than build a novel around an established notion like vampires or werewolves. The ‘beast’ was the result.
THE CELLAR was also inspired by visits to a couple of California tourist attractions: The Hearst Castle and the Winchester House. I thought it would be nifty if you could take tours of an awful, tacky place where multiple murders took place. So Beast House was born.
As an aside, my original title for THE CELLAR was ‘BEAST HOUSE’. Unfortunately, the John Belushi film, ANIMAL HOUSE, came along so my U.S. publisher changed the title for me. I have never thought that THE CELLAR was an appropriate title for that book.
I used BEAST HOUSE as the title for my sequel to THE CELLAR. Strangely enough, it seems to me that BEAST HOUSE has never actually been marketed as the sequel to THE CELLAR. Guess I should’ve called it THE CELLAR, PART TWO.
Something I often wonder about is whether authors have particular favourites amongst their works; do you? Even more interesting (to me) is whether or not you have ever written something with which you have not been satisfied? Or would you simply not allow such a work to be published if you found yourself unhappy with the way it turned out?
RL: I like all my books. In a way, they’re like people; they have strengths and weaknesses and quirks. BEWARE! for instance, is like my wild child who is sort of an embarrassment but lots of fun. (It’s the favourite book of the really strange fans). ENDLESS NIGHT is also ‘over the top’ – having some of my quirkiest [stuff] ever. I liked ONE RAINY NIGHT and MIDNIGHT’S LAIR for their non-stop action. I am especially fond of THE STAKE, SAVAGE, ISLAND and BODY RIDES because they were very ambitious, tricky projects that turned out well. The several novels that I haven’t mentioned here are also prized by me for one reason or another.
The only book I’m not happy about is a young adult novel called NIGHTMARE LAKE. I like what I did with it. I think it’s a cool vampire novel. But editors here in the U.S. made changes in the writing style so it has quite a few embarrassing moments.
If I’m not happy with the way a piece of my fiction turns out – at my end – I don’t submit it. I either rewrite it until I like it, or abandon it entirely.
THE STAKE contains a certain amount of insight in to the world of the Horror writer, is this based how you work? Over here in the UK, Shaun Hutson seems to have a similar approach to you in his commitment to ‘delivering the goods’ to the reader. However, he is well known for the meticulous preplanning of his novels. Do you work in this way? Or do you begin with a rough idea of where things are going and let it develop of its own accord? Can you tell us something of how you collate ideas and research, and about the general process through which an idea comes to fruition as a novel or short story?
RL: Larry Dunbar in THE STAKE does write the way I do. His playing around with the plot about the juke box story is the sort of thing I usually do when starting a novel.
A lot of factors are at play. When I am ready to start a new book, my first concern is to grab an idea that fascinates me. I’m drawn to simple premises. For example, what if somebody’s digging a hole in his back yard and finds a corpse with a stake in its chest? Or, what if a kid is hiding under the bed where Jack The Ripper is killing Mary Kelly, his final victim – and the kid is the reason the Ripper is never heard from again?
With the exception of the Ripper book, SAVAGE, most of my books required little research. That is, I don’t often resort to reference books. My whole life, in a way, is research. Nearly every place I go, everything I do, everyone I know, finds its way in to my books. I am always on the lookout for odd stuff. If I need to know something for a particular book, however, I’ll hunt it out.
After I’ve come up with the basic premise for a book, I ‘play around with it’. I’ll sit at my computer and explore the possibilities. What sort of nifty scenes can I have? In what sort of geographical area will it take place? Who will my characters be?
Is the idea ‘big’ enough? Is it substantial enough to support at least 600 manuscript pages? Is it something new and unusual enough to merit a novel?
The moment I decide that the idea is suitable, I’m eager to get started. I’ll often begin writing chapter one within an hour or so after first coming up with the premise. I’ll write until I’m not sure where to go next, then do some more plotting, till I figure out what should happen in the next few chapters, then write them, then do ore plotting… building the book as I go. This process, I think, usually results in stories that aren’t very predictable.
Which isn’t to say that I never know where I’m going. I do generally have a notion of several major scenes I want to create, and the overall direction a book will take. But I don’t often start with a map of every twist and turn. I like to be surprised and shocked along the way.
I’m a huge fan of all your work, but THE STAKE and ENDLESS NIGHT (two amongst many) really affected me. The obsessions and passions of Larry in THE STAKE, became my obsessions; the kids thoughts and fears in ENDLESS NIGHT, were mine. Were these novels written in the same kind of frenzied, passionate style that they read in?
RL: I don’t think any of my books were written in a ‘frenzied passion’. I rarely write more than three or four pages at a sitting, usually five to eight pages per day. While writing each scene, however, I am deeply in to whatever is happening. Usually, during the actual writing, I feel as if I am that character, doing and seeing and feeling everything he or she experiences.
I must also ask, how much of THE STAKE is autobiographical? Where did the story originate? It’s a truly fascinating premise. In the same situation, would you have followed Larry’s actions and taken the corpse home?
RL: THE STAKE first came in to my head while I was doodling at my computer, wondering if I could find a fresh way to deal with vampires. I thought: suppose a guy is digging in his back yard and finds a corpse with a stake in its chest? While playing with the idea, two big ideas came to mind:
1. Have him find the corpse, not in his back yard, but while exploring a ghost town with some friends.
2. Make him a Horror writer.
I had recently been exploring ghost towns in Arizona, so I used some of those experiences in the book. I also relied heavily on my experiences as a writer.
Later, when THE STAKE was nearly done, I went exploring some other areas of Arizona with my family and our friends. On that trip, in a dark room in a long abandoned ‘bottle house’, we found human remains in a coffin. We were tempted to take them, but refrained. (It’s a long story. I shouldn’t try to tell it here and now…).
To answer your question more specifically: I tried to create a set of circumstances that would make it believable for Larry to take the corpse home and hide it. Under identical circumstances, maybe I would have done the same thing. But I doubt it. There is a big difference between doing something in your imagination and doing it in real life. I am always writing things that I would never actually do.
Earlier I mentioned Shaun Hutson. Recently, his work seems to have, for the most part, been moving away from the horror of his earlier work, further in to thriller territory, from about RENEGADES onward. You too have recently seemed to diversify in your content, but have always retained the Horror elements with a capital H. Even those with more thriller-like aspects, or aspects of other genres, have always retained a weirdness, a nastiness, brutality etc something which, while exploring these other areas, keeps the novel firmly in Horror territory. Has this been a conscious effort, to remain within the genre whilst using it to disprove the idea (which some writers claim) that horror is a limiting genre?
RL: I think the reason that my books always retain a ‘weirdness, a nastiness, brutality etc’ is that I like writing about that sort of stuff. I find myself drawn to it. Give me the most innocent situation, and I’ll start imagining ways to turn it ugly.
Fortunately, there is a market for that sort of thing.
In a recent review of QUAKE that appeared in the HUDDERSFIELD DAILY EXAMINER, a Hilarie Stelfox wrote that I am ‘obviously writing books with one eye firmly fixed on the till, knowing that the public’s appetite for the mean, nasty and repulsive seems unending’.
When I read that, I laughed. Hey, I’m the one with the appetite for the mean, nasty and repulsive. And it has probably done more harm than good for my career. If I were writing with one eye on the till, I would’ve long ago cleaned up my act. Here in the U.S., the excesses in my books have caused me nothing but trouble with my publishers.
I’m very pleased by your questions, ‘Is it a personal mission to disprove the idea that horror is a limiting genre’?
I wouldn’t call it a ‘mission’, but I do feel strongly that horror is not a limiting genre. In my opinion, the horror genre (or any genre) is like a bag: you can throw in whatever you want. There is no aspect of life that cannot find its way in to a ‘horror novel’. And it seems like the perfect vessel or stories about (to paraphrase Faulkner) the great human verities: love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
To push the matter even further, I believe that the horror tale is the most basic, fundamental form of storytelling. It was probably the first type of story ever told around campfires when early man found his voice, and it’ll still be with us as long as any stories are told.
This is because it deals with the most basic of human conflicts – trying to survive and prevail when, all around in the darkness, there are monsters (of one sort or another) eager to destroy us.
Much of what you write is very extreme, in its gore, violence or sheer intensity. But have you ever gone too far in anything you’ve written, and been asked to cut or tone down an area of your story? Is there anything that you would not, or could not, ever write about? Why?
RL: During my career, I’ve had books rejected by agents and publishers because they contain elements that are too extreme.
I’ve had very little trouble, however, with my publishers in England. The people at Headline encourage me to follow my own inclinations.
I sometimes do censor myself. Once in a while, I’ll write a bit (or start to write one) and stop myself because it’s simply too vile, nasty, cruel. This happens fairly often. Maybe I should start to keep track and figure out what it is that I’m backing away from.
‘Is there something that you would not, or could not, ever write about?’
For one thing I’m reluctant to write a post-apocalyptic novel. For the very odd reason that my fiction, on a few occasions, has ended up coming true in various ways. For instance, we had a major earthquake in Los Angeles while I was in the middle of writing QUAKE. And we found the stiff in the ghost town when I was almost done writing THE STAKE. Probably just coincidences. But do I want to risk civilisation as we know it? (Someday, maybe).
Also, I will not write about anything that I don’t consider ‘fun’. Whatever else may be going on in my novels, I want them to be entertaining. The violence in them is make-believe. I see myself as sort of a gleeful, mad magician creating tricks that will shock and delight my readers.
I don’t want to write about something that is a real drag, like terminal illness. You won’t find old geezers waiting around to kick the bucket. Everybody gets a faceful of that stuff in real life, so I’ll leave other writers to entertain folks with tales of such things.
The extreme in your work, seems not only to be linked to the violence etc, but also to the plots themselves. Almost always you seem to take a concept which may at first seem relatively simple – but is weird enough and intriguing enough on its own – then you really go to the moon with it, taking it as far as it can go. But at the same time keeping the characters and their actions realistic, and your style itself makes the whole thing seem all the more real. What happens in the book becomes very close to being personal experience for the reader. Is this something you’ve always strived for?
RL: I certainly appreciate all these nice things you’re saying about my books. As with your other questions, this one brings up a complex bunch of issues.
I do always try to base my books on a simple concept. A ‘what if’. Then I try to make my characters ‘everyday people’. The sort of people you might know – or be. They aren’t the rich and famous, the jet setters, or the movers and shakers. They’re just ordinary folks.
These characters do not act like movie heroes. I get in to them, and try to have them act the way a real person (me, for instance) might behave in each situations. They know they aren’t movie heroes. They know they might get hurt or killed, so they usually exhibit a certain amount of caution and common sense.
More often than not, they’ll do what a reasonably smart person would do under the circumstances.
For instance they won’t stick around where anyone with half a brain would run like hell. My people will run like hell – unless they can’t.
Another reason my stories might seem ‘very close to having a personal experience’ is because I don’t always follow the rules and conventions of fiction. Everything is not foreshadowed. Accidents happen. Coincidences happen. As in life, but rarely in fiction, stuff sometimes happens unexpectedly and for no apparent reason.
Finally, I have always been a fan of Hemingway. When you read him, you can smell the wind and feel the dew on the grass. I would like to do that for my readers. I am not trying to tell them a story; I want to bring them into it so, as much as possible, they become the main characters and the story is happening to them.
To the extent that my fiction ‘becomes very close to having been a personal experience’, it is doing what I hope. I do strive for that, more than anything. So I’m delighted that it works that way for you.
Your style of writing is very visually orientated, and in your early novels in particular, there often seems to be an influence of splatter movies and stalk and slash stuff. Are you a big fan of these sort of films? Were they an influence at all? What are your particular favourites? Being so visually orientated, your books seem ripe for movie adaptation. Has there, or are there, any plans to film any of you novels? And if there are, would you like to write and/or direct them?
RL: I’ve always been a fan of horror movies, and have a special fondness for ‘splatter films’. I tried not to miss any of them. My favourite are probably the expected: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, 2000 MAINIACS, HALOWEEN, FRIDAY 13TH, IT’S ALIVE, MOTHERS DAY… There are plenty of other favourites, but those are some of the main ones.
My books OUT ARE THE LIGHTS and NIGHT SHOW are reflections of my fascination with splatter films.
A few of my works have been optioned, and screenplays were done of THE STAKE. But nothing has ever actually been filmed. Nothing is in the works at the moment.
So far, I’ve written a few screenplays based on my books, but I haven’t taken a very active part in trying to break in to films. I would certainly like to see movies made of my books, but I don’t plan to waste a lot of time fooling with it.
I keep hoping that one of my fans, someday, will become a movie mogul.
SAVAGE, which I believe was originally called NARROW CALLS, represented something of a change for you, being set in 19th century England and being a first person account, which involved a real life character. How did the whole concept come about? Was it a desire to do something different? The amount of research alone must have been staggering. Did you find its writing to be more difficult than perhaps it was with your other novels? Do you have plans for any other such experimental novels, especially after the success and sheer brilliance with which you executed this one?
RL: Thanks for your comment about the ‘success and sheer brilliance’ of SAVAGE. It does my heart good. Some other writers have called it the book I’ll be ‘remembered for’, a ‘literary masterpiece’ and ‘Dickensian’. My American publisher hated it, and said it had the worst sales record of any book they published that year.
I, personally, am extremely proud of the thing.
And disappointed because, though it has been popular in the UK, it was barely published and virtually unread in the US.
The book came about because my literary agent, Bob Tanner (to whom SAVAGE is dedicated), thought I should try writing a novel that has an English setting. Which seemed like a good idea and a bad idea.
A bad idea because I have only been to Britain once, back in 1978, for three weeks. So I didn’t have much first hand experience to draw on.
A good idea because you folks on that ‘sceptred isle’ are chiefly responsible for my success as a writer.
Within a day after Bob Tanner made the suggestion about setting a story in England, I was struck by an idea so fabulous that I could hardly believe it hadn’t already been done: put a kid under Mary Kelly’s bed on the night the Ripper nails her.
By using that as a gimmick, I had a ready solution for my ignorance about England – I could ship the kid and Jack the Ripper to America.
This book brought together three of my long-time fascinations: Jack the Ripper, Mark Twain and America’s Wild West. It allowed me, for the first time, to write a novel as a first-person adventure narrative told in slangy language: a picaresque novel along the lines of TOM JONES or HUCKLEBERRY FINN.
At first, it all seemed too enormous a task. It would take huge amounts of research, etc. But I was so excited by the idea that I thought: even if I can’t quite pull it off perfectly, it’s got such great possibilities that I’ve got to give it a try.
I did a lot of research. In particular, I wanted to make the London scenes authentic. I had old maps. I used several Ripper books for details about Mary Kelly’s murder. The idea was to insert my kid, Trevor, in to the actual scene.
I researched all sorts of stuff about America: trains, the Indian wars, bandits and gunslingers.
Also, I had real experiences to rely on for the story. I’ve done a lot of travel in areas that show up in the book. I’ve spent time in old western towns, in deserts and mountains, in caves. I’ve travelled by train and on horseback. And I’m fairly familiar with firearms.
Basically, I worked out a few major areas of the plot, then just started writing the book. I did most of the research along the way.
The book was surprisingly easy to write. I had great fun with it, and I’m happy with the way it turned out.
As for writing ‘experimental novels’ in the future, I’ve already done it. ISLAND was a major experiment – the whole story is told in a diary being kept by a castaway on the island. He write it as he goes along, never knowing how anything will turn out. The format created a bunch of unusual opportunities, and makes ISLAND very different from most of my novels.
The World of literary horror is a very large and varied one, with room for all conceivable styles. But which authors do you read these days? Do you know or meet other horror writers, and do you get along with them?
RL: I do have a lot of friends and acquaintances who write horror fiction. Not wanting to offend anyone by omission, I’ll omit them all. Except Dean Koontz, who is a good friend and has been a great help in many ways – through his encouragement, his example, his advice etc.
As for horror writers I like to read, this is also a tricky one without risking hurt feelings. Oddly enough, a great many of my favourite horror writers are published by Headline and Hodder.
I would probably answer the question in specific detail, naming names, but it would take several pages… maybe some other time.
THE STAKE contains much about the life of a writer, one part of which concerns a muanuscript returned to Larry by an editor who has practically rewritten his novel. This surprised me, having never thought any such thing would happen to writers, especially to the extent of changing a writer’s style etc, rewording sentences and paragraphs, really mangling a piece of work. Was this taken from personal experience?
RL: Generally, everything in THE STAKE about writing is based on my own experience. The horribly mangled piece of work referred to in THE STAKE is based on what happened to my second novel, THE WOODS ARE DARK.
Most writers have a similar disaster happen at least once – usually early in their careers.
They get their manuscript thrown to an ignorant, over-eager and often envious editor who is sure he or she can do a better job than the author – and proceeds to rewrite the book.
Here in the US, there seem to be a lot of editors who love to ‘improve’ the books they get their hands on – almost always to the detriment of the book.
I’ve been very fortunate in England, where I’ve had the same editor, Mike Baily, for many years. He is a writer himself. He doesn’t tamper with my stuff. But h does make suggestions that lead to improvements, and sometimes saves me from making embarrassing mistakes.
I am particularly curious as to whether your wife and/or daughter ever read your books? More interestingly, do the weird and occasionally perverse natures of some of the characters and events, ever elicit strange or worried glances from them as to where you come up with some of this stuff?
RL: My wife and daughter (sixteen) seem to be more amused than worried by the nature of what I write. They think I’ve got ‘attention deficit syndrome’, so they’re amazed that I’m able to write any books at all.
Finally, could you let your fans in on any secrets? What you’re currently working on, or what lies ahead?
RL: BODY RIDES, my next novel, is supposed to be published in February, 1996. It is considerably longer than any of my previous books. And it has some rather strange goings on in it.
Thank you Neil for allowing Ginger Nuts of Horror to publish this amazing interview. That last question brought a small tear to my eyes, as Body Rides was my first exposure to works of Richard Laymon.
We have produced a companion piece to this interview where some of the horror writers who were influenced by the great man tell us just how important both his writing and the man himself were to the development of their writing careers.
You can read the article here