Interview: Graham Masterton on Extreme Horror, Forensics and Series Characters

Graham Masterton

This is Part Two of Simon Bestwick’s interview with Graham Masterton. Masterton is the author of the horror classic, The Manitou, and has recently turned his hand to crime novels. White Bones, set in Ireland, was a Kindle phenomenon, selling over 100,000 copies in a month. This was followed by Broken Angels, Red Light, Taken For Dead, Blood Sisters, Buried and the forthcoming Living Death. He is now working on new horror and crime novels.

You write about violence in a horribly compelling way: you often describe what happens way past the point that other writers would break off, but it never becomes voyeuristic or pornographic, and it continues to compel the reader’s attention (the murder scenes in White Bones spring to mind in particular).

When my late wife and I were living in Ireland, it occurred to me that I had never seen a crime thriller set in Cork, which is a very fascinating and eccentric city and very different from Dublin, say, where so many Irish novels are set. They have their own slang, their own accent, and a cosmopolitan history that comes from Cork being the second-deepest harbour in the world, and thus an attraction for centuries for Vikings, Spaniards, and of course the British Navy. Corkonians still say “take a sconce to that” when they mean take a look at something … a phrase that dates from candlelit days. As I said earlier on, setting is vital. Setting is what gives a novel a four-dimensional quality and of course killing is killing, whether the murderer is a ghost or some other kind of supernatural creature or a scumbag from Knocknaheeny who knocks on your door and shoots you in the head while you’re still carrying your toddler in your arms. I have sometimes set out deliberately to write scenes of extreme horror, because it is a test of my writing quality to make it vivid without (as you say) being pornographic or voyeuristic. My short story ‘Eric The Pie’ was written to do this, and unfortunately resulted in the banning of the first edition of the new Frighteners magazine by WH Smith (Eric has sex with a dying calf). Sepsis, which was a chapbook published by Cemetery Dance, was similar (woman eats dead cat). Rich Chizmar and Brian Freeman at Cemetery Dance will shortly be publishing Cheeseboy, another extreme chapbook, set in Ireland.

You’ve written thrillers before, but the Katie Maguire books are your first foray into crime fiction. What prompted this particular move?

I did want to reach a wider audience, and although I love my horror genre readership, I knew that I could find tens of thousands more readers if I wrote crime fiction. JK Rowling of course has done the same as Robert Galbraith. This happened as eBooks really started to take off, and the results in terms of sales have been more than gratifying. Katie has already sold more than 850,000 digital books which in the days of print-only would have been staggering. Fortunately, my horror readers have come with me, and seem to enjoy the crime as much as the horror (because there really isn’t all that much difference, apart from the supernatural element).

How did you create the character of Katie Maguire?

All my life my best friends have been female. I still regularly see a woman who used to be a reporter for the rival paper in Crawley. We used to cycle out to the local schools together to get the latest news from the headmasters, and then go and lie in a field and talk about anything and everything. When I was editing Mayfair and Penthouse I always took the time to talk to the models about their love lives and their ambitions. While other men were dumbly ogling their naked bodies I was trying to understand why they wanted to pose (apart from the money) and how they felt about themselves, and about men, and female equality, and sex, and anything else they wanted to talk about. I also made friends with some of the most famous sex workers of the day, Xaviera Hollander (The Happy Hooker) and Monique von Cleef (the Dutch Dominatrix). I also dated a very pretty girl who had been badly knocked about by her previous lover. Out of those intimate conversations I think I was able to gain some insight into women’s thinking, and I have tried hard to bring that insight into my fiction. One of the best compliments I was paid was by a reader who was convinced that the Katie Maguire books were really written by a woman. Katie’s physical appearance is a combination of women I know. She has strength and determination and organisational ability, but she is also emotionally vulnerable and Irishly sentimental and has a craving for affection, both physical and romantic. These characteristics are mainly drawn from two young women I know, one English and one Polish.

Do you know how many Katie Maguire books there are going to be? Do you have an endgame in mind for the character?

Living Death will be published this summer, as well as a Katie short story The Drowned. My publishers Head of Zeus have commissioned me to write three more so that will be ten altogether. But I have no endgame in mind. There is always so much happening in Ireland that I doubt if I will ever run out of plots. This week the Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan revealed that there will be more armed Gardaí on duty in the country to deal with increased criminal activity. We shall just have to see what twists and turns Katie’s career and love life happen to take. (I have also been commissioned to write a second Beatrice Scarlet novel to follow Scarlet Widow.) 

Graham Masterton TraumaTrauma is one of the best things of yours I’ve read. Would you mind briefly describing it for our readers?

The police don’t clean up after murders or other messy criminal incidents, so if your living-room is spattered with blood you have to pay for somebody like my heroine Bonnie Winter to come and spring-clean it for you. Bonnie is in a deteriorating marriage, and the stresses of her day job working for a perfume company and cleaning up after some particularly nasty crimes begins to tell.

Trauma has a supernatural element, but it’s very muted; I found it, first and foremost, a very powerful character study of someone whose life was unravelling and coming apart. Where did the idea for it come from?

The idea for Trauma came from a newspaper article I read about a woman who had started up her own crime-scene cleaning business in Los Angeles. At the same time, I knew a woman whose marriage was coming apart at the seams. I had also read about the Mexican population of LA still being very sensitive about their traditional demons. Like any trained reporter, I brought all three stories together and created Trauma. I was going to publish it under a female pseudonym to start with, but then Simon & Schuster bought it and insisted I use my own name. A limited illustrated edition was also published by Cemetery Dance under the title Bonnie Winter. The book was optioned for a movie by Jonathan Mostow (who directed U-571) but Universal pulled the plug on the finance (same old story). I am not altogether sorry because I saw the screenplay that Jonathan had commissioned, and it was lurid and horrific and had none of the sensitivity of the novel.

One final trivia question, you’ve previously mentioned starting the day with a mug of horseshoe coffee, so called because it’s so strong you can float a horseshoe in it! How strong are we talking here—is there a specific recipe? If so, I might try it, blood pressure or no … .

‘Horseshoe’ coffee came from my research for Railroad. The labourers who worked on the Union Pacific railroad would treat themselves to an extra-powerful mug of coffee in the morning to kick-start their track-laying. It’s simple: at least three heaped dessert-spoonful’s of Lavazza espresso ground coffee into a cafetière. Add water that is just off the boil. Leave for five minutes before pressing down the cafetière plunger. Leave for another minute. Pour out. Drink. No milk, no sugar. Make sure you have a razor handy to trim the hairs that will sprout out on your chest.

Graham Masterton, thank you very much for talking to us.

It’s always a pleasure.


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