What do sex-instruction books and horror classic The Manitou have in common?
Why it’s author Graham Masterton, of course! Masterton went from writing How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed to penning the critically acclaimed classic that now sits on every self-respecting horror fan’s bookshelf. Currently residing in Surrey, England, he tells us how he feels about the legacy of The Manitou, his friendship with William S. Burroughs and what books he would need for survival on a deserted island.
Grey Matter Press (GMP): Your novel The Manitou is a classic, and one that many authors cite as an inspiration for their own writing. How did the book come about, and how do you feel about it being so revered today?
Graham Masteron (GM): The Manitou happened almost by accident. After I quit as executive editor of Penthouse magazine, I continued writing the sex-instruction books that I had started writing when I was still on their staff, such as How A Woman Loves To Be Loved and How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed. They were making much more money than I had ever earned before, and of course I had the freedom of writing them at home, not having to worry about all the petty squabbling and office politics that went on behind the glossy exterior of Penthouse’s pages. By then I had been editing men’s magazines for over seven years, and, quite frankly, I felt like a change. I had also fallen in love with my Polish editorial assistant Wiescka. We started living together and very soon she was pregnant with our first son.
I had a week’s break in between writing one sex book and the next, and Wiescka was still working then, so I had five days of doing nothing very much. That was when I wrote The Manitou, combining Wiescka’s pregnancy with an article about Native American spirits that I had read in The Buffalo Bill Annual when I was a 10-year-old boy. That was my early training as a newspaper reporter coming into play: combining two wildly different stories to make a conflicting drama, which is a technique I still use in novels today.
I sold the first draft of The Manitou to an old friend of mine, Neville Armstrong, who ran a small London publishing company called Neville Spearman. He paid me £200 for it, and after that I thought nothing more about it because I was too busy writing More Ways To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed for Pinnacle Books in New York.
Then Andy Ettinger, my editor at Pinnacle, called me to say that the bottom had fallen out of the sex-book market, so to speak, so he didn’t want any more. I pointed out that we still had a contract for one more, and so I sent him The Manitou as a substitute for How To Turn Yourself On. He liked it, although he asked if I would change the ending. In the first draft, the vengeful Native American wonder-worker is killed off by contracting the venereal disease Vietnam Rose, which Karen Tandy has caught from her boyfriend, and to which, of course, he has no resistance. This was an idea I pinched from H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds, in which the invading Martians die from catching Earth influenza.
I rewrote the end so that the powerful spirits of white men’s computers would kill off the Native American spirits. Pinnacle published The Manitou and it sold something like 50,000 copies in the first six months. I think the reason for that was (a) their very good promotion; and (b) no horror novel had featured Native American magic before (with the exception of Algernon Blackwood’s terrific story about the Wendigo). I had an amazing reaction from Native American reservations, and Sitting Bull’s great-grand-daughter took me to lunch (at the Russian Tea Room, of all places!) and presented me with a framed portrait of Sitting Bull.
Not long after its publication, The Manitou was picked up at the LA airport by the late young movie director Bill Girdler, and he bought the rights and made the movie. It featured Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara, Burgess Meredith and Stella Stevens. It was the last movie Bill Girdler ever made because he died in a helicopter crash not long after. Sad, because he had plans to film The Djinn.
Obviously I was delighted with the success of The Manitou and I am still very gratified that it made such an impression on so many people, especially young writers who were looking for inspiration and encouragement. Although I wasn’t conscious of it when I wrote it, it had everything that I always advise young writers to aspire to: clarity and simplicity of writing, vivid characterization and a highly unusual story. I don’t write about vampires or werewolves of zombies because they have been done to death, and the world is crowded with so many fascinating demons.
(Having said that, I did write Descendant, which is a vampire story of sorts, but introduces the real Romanian strigoi who don’t bother with biting your neck—they simply cut open your aorta and drink your blood as if they were refreshing themselves from a water fountain in a park.)
GMP: You were friends with literary icon William S. Burroughs and collaborated on a novel with him, Rules of Duel. How did the two of you meet, and what was it like to work together?
GM: I read William’s novel Naked Lunch when it was first published in the mid-1960s, and I was immediately impressed by his style and his bravery. I wrote to him when he was still living in Tangiers and we started a regular correspondence. I still have all his letters and postcards. He came to London eventually to undergo an apomorphine course to wean himself off drugs. By then I had left the local newspaper that I was working on and was deputy editor of a new men’s magazine called Mayfair.
I went round to William’s flat in Duke Street pretty regularly, and we would either have dinner at his place or go out for a meal at a restaurant somewhere. We talked for hours about writing technique and how to make a book come to life. We agreed that it was essential that the author should “disappear” and that the reader should feel they were living inside the novel—hearing the same incidental sounds as the characters, smelling the same smells, feeling the wind on the back of their neck. William called it being el hombre invisible—the invisible man. He used to say “pick up your typewriter and walk.”
We also discussed the technique of “intersection writing” which he had devised with his artist friend Brion Gysin. That meant writing sentences and then cutting them up so that they took on a different meaning. He used to say pick up your sentences and go out for a meal at a restaurant somewhere. By then he was smelling the wind on his letters and postcards. Get it?
Together we put together a short novel called Rules of Duel, which is about a young reporter who is trying to escape from metropolitan bureaucracy. It features Motherwell the Everlasting Executioner and Jack Beauregard the Eater of Cities, among many other strange characters. William wrote a foreword for it and I stuck it in a drawer. I thought that nobody would ever publish it because it was so avant-garde. Years later, however, David Howe at Telos Books picked it up and published it in a very fine edition. It is still available today.
I suggested to William that he write a series of articles about his favourite hobby-horses for Mayfair, and these came out monthly as “The Burroughs Academy.” Eventually they were to form the basis of his novel The Wild Boys.
William looked like a bank manager and spoke in a Mid-Western drawl, but he was extremely funny and we had some great laughs together. He got very drunk in a Lebanese restaurant in Covent Garden one evening and started shouting, “Bomb the Ay-rabs!” over and over. We were asked to leave, and Brion Gysin and I almost had to carry him home.
All kinds of interesting writers used to turn up at his flat. Alex Trocchi, who wrote Cain’s Book, brought William a swordstick one evening and William pranced around his flat waving the sword around and shouting, “Ho there, you ruffians!”
Allen Ginsberg turned up, too. I took an instant dislike to him, not only because he was so full of himself, but because he lay on the floor and fell asleep with his greasy hair on my pale Italian suede shoe.
GMP: If you could take three books with you before being stranded on a desert island, which would you choose, and why?
GM: How To Survive On A Diet of Coconuts and Parrots, for obvious reasons. Specimen Days in America by Walt Whitman because it is such a beautifully-written insight into the Civil War and after. Anything by Stephen Leacock because I love the absurdity of his stories, such as Hezekiah Hayloft, A Hero In Homespun.
GMP: What is the writing process like for you? Do you write every day?
GM: I write almost every day from about 9 am to 4 or 5 pm, sometimes longer. I write all of my novels on commission so I have to keep up with deadlines. At the moment I have just finished a 400-page novel, Living Death, for my series about the Irish detective superintendent Katie Maguire. This is the seventh book in the series and I have been contracted to write three more. I am also contracted to write a second novel in my series of 18th century crime thrillers featuring Beatrice Scarlet, whose childhood training as an apothecary makes her a kind of 18th century CSI. The first novel, Scarlet Widow, was published in March.
Currently I am writing a promotional short story for Katie Maguire, “The Drowned.” After that I have a family saga to write which I am not allowed to tell anybody about at the moment.
GMP: Is there a certain physical space where you feel the most creative, or can you write just about anywhere?
GM: I was trained as a newspaper reporter in a smoky, shouty office with ten typewriters banging away at once like a rivet shop, so I can write anywhere, and I don’t get disturbed by ambient noise. I never write to music, however. For me, writing is like composing a song, and I don’t want Mozart’s or Grimes’s rhythms interfering with mine. My desk faces a large window out of which I can see everything that is going on in my street, and I have always found that essential, being irredeemably nosey.
For relaxation, I write poetry, which as far as I’m concerned is an essential discipline for any writer. I have also been helping a young woman writer, Dawn Harris, to write her debut novel, and I really enjoy doing that.
GMP: You have a story featured in the Grey Matter Press anthology Peel Back the Skin titled “The Greatest Gift.” Where did you find the inspiration for this story of the extreme lengths one woman will go to in the name of love?
GM: I have met so many women who have sacrificed themselves in various ways for the love of a man who didn’t deserve it, and “The Greatest Gift” simply takes that to an extreme. I found that some women are prepared to endure pain and humiliation for the sake of love to a degree which I used to find baffling. You will see again and again in my novels and short stories that I try to see the world and relationships from a woman’s point of view. Much of this came from my experience at Penthouse where I would make a point of talking to the models about their ambitions and their problems and their self-esteem (or lack of it), whereas most men would simply goggle at them. It’s a complicated subject and almost every case is different.
GMP: What do you have in store for your fans that you can tell us about?
GM: Apart from the new Katie Maguire novel Living Death, which will be published in July, and the promotional story “The Drowned,” which is coming out in August, I have written an extremely extreme horror story called Cheeseboy, which Cemetery Dance will be bringing out sometime in the not-too-distant future as a chapbook. If they don’t I am going to send a kid round to pee into Rich Chizmar’s postbox.
I visited Audincourt in France at the end of May to be a judge at Bloody Weekend, which is a celebration of French short horror movies. In September I am attending a book convention in Leipzig, Germany, and in October the Katowice Book Fair in Poland, as well as signings in Warsaw and Wroclaw.
My late wife Wiescka was Polish and arranged to launch my books in Poland while it was still communist, so The Manitou was the first Western horror novel to be published in Poland since World War II, and was a massive success. Now I have a bench named after me in Park Planty in Krakow where you can use a QR reader on your iPhone to listen to me reading an excerpt from one of my horror stories.
One small thing…I never call my readers “fans.” I’m not Justin Bieber. They’re my readers, and when they get in touch with me and tell me that they’ve enjoyed one of my books, I call them friends.