Friday 30 January 2015

Interview with Mort Castle By David Kempf

Mort Castle
Born 1946 (age 68–69)
Novelist, short story writer, comic book writer

Mort Castle (born 1946) is an American horror author and writing teacher, with more than 350 short stories and a dozen books to his credit, including Cursed Be the Child (Leisure Books, 1994) and The Strangers. Castle's first novel was published in 1967. Since then he has had pieces published in all sorts of places ranging from traditional literary magazines to more off-the-wall or risqué markets. He has been nominated four times for the Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction.

A dedicated writing teacher, Castle has been a working musician, a standup comic, a stage hypnotist, a high school English teacher (for 11 years), and a magazine and comic book editor. He is currently writer-in-residence for three high schools, and teaching "Researching and Writing Historical Fiction" and "Story In Graphic Form" at Columbia College Chicago. He is a frequent keynote speaker at writing conferences, and has given over 800 presentations to writers, would-be writers, and teachers of writing. His latest book, Writing Horror, for which he served as editor, has become the "bible" for aspiring horror authors. It also includes interviews with some of horror's top stars, such as Stephen King. Castle is also the Executive Editor of Thorby Comics, and currently fiction editor for Doorways Magazine.

Castle has been a regular contributor to Eureka Productions' Graphic Classics series since 2006, with work in Graphic Classics: Jack London, (second edition), Graphic Classics: Ambrose Bierce (second edition), Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker (second edition), Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson (second edition), Graphic Classics: O. Henry, and Graphic Classics: Halloween Classics.

In August 2013 it was announced that Castle will be scripting the Red Giant Entertainment comic book Darchon, an ongoing feature of their Giant-Size Comics line of free print comic book titles set to debut on May 3, 2014, as part of Free Comic Book Day. Darchon will appear monthly in Giant-Size Thrills, their horror-focused title.

Interview with Mort Castle By David Kempf

Tell us how you became interested in writing.

Long before I became interested in writing, or knew anything about it, or found out that there were such beings as writers, I loved story. I was read to regularly, particularly by my mother (loved her renditions of The Color Kittens from the Little Golden Books series) and my great-grandfather, who taught himself to read English when he was 60 and frequently shared with me the heavily Yiddish-accented presentation of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Pay-Tur.

Remember sitting in kindergarten and making up stories. Remember loving the "Oooh, what happens next?" feeling that came from television shows. (I was one of the first of the TV-addicted generation; we got our set in 1949.) I was hooked on the serial adventures of the daily Howdy Doody Show and the Hopalong Cassidy westerns, the less than stellar fare that made up early TV but helped shape this storyteller.

Then came school. I lived in a good time for learning to write. Sure, we were taught the basics, but mainly we were set loose to write all kinds of stuff, without the educational experts mandating rigid and rote "learning goals" for the curriculum of any particular grade level.

Which leads me right to your next question ...

Why the interest in horror fiction?

In third grade, I discovered Mr. Edgar Allen Poe, who taught me words. The story was "The Tell Tale Heart," which is pretty grim stuff. Murder without rational reason. Dismemberment. Madness. Obsession. And conscience which must disguise itself.

Yeah, third grade. Thank you, Mrs. Curlin, my teacher. She brought in the latest high tech educational media long playing phonograph record and we eight year olds sat and listened and were horrified.

Play that today and you'd have 23 school psychologists and a platoon of lawyers on the scene. These traumatized kids will be wetting the bed for decades ...

Well, amigo, I was enthralled and not traumatized because horror pushed the right buttons in my psyche and soul.

It scares so good!

I mean, my answer to "Why do you write horror" is ...

I like it.

And, somehow, that leads to the question ...

"But why do you like it?"

The answer is, "I don't know."

My friend F. Paul Wilson, a fine writer of thrillers, mysteries, science-fiction and horror, has said he's convinced the liking for horror is hard-wired in a person. It's a matter of DNA.

Just like the roller coaster aficionado is what he is and what he is cannot be explained to the person who gets vertigo on the first step of a foot high step stool.

I mean, Paul ought to know. He's also a medical doctor.

For me, as far back as I can remember, I not only loved stories, I was always drawn to the horrific, the terrifying, the dark and the scary and I've learned that most horror writers say the same.

All kids have nightmares (just like adults).

I was one of those kids who had 'em and liked 'em. When I was seven and a half, I had a dream that I remember to this day, a dream which in its own fictionally altered way, has informed ever so much of my writing.

I was the kid apprentice to the secret village poisoner. It was my job to grind up a yellow poison with the mortar and pestle and sneak into peoples' houses and dose their food and drink with the poison. Nobody suspected the village poisoner or his apprentice.

I know. I was a kid. Must have been something wrong with me. I should have been dreaming about fluffy bunnies and wax lips and happy sunshine songs.

I wasn't.

I had nightmares and I loved them.

I loved scary movies. They weren't as all enveloping as nightmares, but you could turn them off with one button. Thank you Chicago's Shock Theatre, hosted by a beatnik style, sardonic guy named Marvin. Shock Theater introduced me to Frankenstein's Monster and even as a kid I sensed there was something sad as well as bad about that monster.

Shock Theater introduced me to King Kong ...

I could relate to that one. You know the scene in which Kong grabs the elevated train car? Well, I rode the Chicago elevated train, "the L," regularly, and it didn't take much for me to imagine a big furry finger  an apely digit!—smashing through the L train's window during a metal on metal screeching turn ...

Dracula scared me. Not the Lugosi Dracula in the first filmed version but the Dracula he portrayed in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I mean, if Abbot and Costello weren't safe, these guys who were on the Colgate Comedy Hour, then nobody was safe. When Dracula turned into a bat, thanks to simple animation back in those pre-CGI days, that got to me.

Anyway, by third grade, I knew I could write. I mean, I could even write cursive. (Not very well, which is why I learned to type in the fourth grade ...)

I could write ... stories!

I could write stories that scared me. We all begin as our own first audience.

But I was a munificent child.

It would have been selfish to keep my stories to myself. I wanted to share them and scare others.

I started off writing about a guy who was transformed into a spider. I forget why that was. I know it was "for his evil deeds." I had a strong moral sense even then as do many horror writers.

Spiders ... I don't want to hear about how interesting they are. Or how they're man's best friend because they take care of flies.

Spiders are scary.

I started off with spiders and I've been finding other stuff that scares me and I hope my readers, ever since.

Do you prefer teaching or writing?

I teach, I write. I'm a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. A writer, if he's a writer of more than fluff-nothing, is a teacher. A teacher, if he's worth anything, has the organization and narrative skills of a writer, whether he's actually slapping words on the page or not.

I don't try to separate the two. That's why one of the people I consider a mentor, the late Lucien Stryk, a fine poet and professor, and a guy who never said to me, "I'll teach you something now," is also something of a role model. Writer, teacher? He was a Zen man. He was who he was. Most of all, he was aware.

And maybe that's why another hero of mine is none other than Popeye the Sailor Man. I've borrowed his mantra: "I yam what I yam and 'at's all what I yam."

What do you consider your greatest achievement as an artist so far?

You know, I could pile on the artistic bullshitskya here and say, "I am still seeking the ever advancing goal of blah-blah-bullshit ..."

But of the hundreds of short stories I've published, "Altenmoor, Where the Dogs Dance," has made people weep. It's a story that a mother kept reading to her adult son as he lay in a coma for some months, and when he came out of it, one of his first questions was "Where is that Altenmoor?" It's not been out of print since its first publication in 1982. It's been translated into a dozen languages. It's been filmed twice, once in Serbia--in Serbian, a language in which I am as fluent as I am in Vernacular Sanskrit. It's part of a forthcoming audio book and will appear in February as a comics story in the IDW published series Shadow Show: Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury.

I've created a memorable story. A lasting story. I'll put money on it being a story that is still talking to people long after I've become ashes.

"Altenmoor Where the Dogs Dance" is my shot at immortality.

But I have to add the prose anthology Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, that I edited with Sam Weller. Tell you, when we went into that project, I did not realize I'd be gaining a brother in my co-editor. I love the guy.

The book, unlike many anthologies, does not have a clunker in it.

Most important, the book is a heartfelt love letter and thank you to Mr. Ray Douglas Bradbury from writers who were taught, inspired, and encouraged by him.

The contributors: Neil Gaiman, Dan Chaon, Harlan Ellison, Audrey Niffenegger, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Dave Eggers ...

"Altenmoor" is my shot at immortality, but Shadow Show is our contribution for Ray, our spark to the Eternal Flame of Ray Bradbury who is doing just what Mr. Electrico at the carnival bade him do so many years ago: "Live Forever!"

What do you think of the electronic and self-publishing trend?

We're gonna separate 'em, but first we're gonna recall Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap.

Self-publishing has always adhered to that law, people "publishing" strictly for vanity's sake, usually their singular talent being vanity.

So you had those books of diabetic-dialectic sing-song poetry and "Simple Wisdom from a Simple Mind for Simpletons," and the nutcase diatribes, The Real Protocols of the Younger Elders of Zion, and Garden Slugs: Man's Best Friend, and those horseshit novels Son of On the Road and Love's Tormenting Rash typed (not written) by folks who had no intention of wasting time learning to write or who perhaps had neither the little bit of talent and greater degree of ambition necessary to become a writer.

But at least, back in the day (Listen up, sonny, 'cause I'm a geezer!), if you self-published, it cost you something. Subsidy publishers made a good buck off your vanity. Even if you tried to do it all alone, you still paid for printing, binding, shipping. You had to invest a real buck or two or 12 and that was the cover charge that kept out many of the dabblers and dilettantes.

Today, 90% of all self-published stuff maybe even 96% is crap, that hasn't changed ... But because it no longer costs anything to be an ebook or a website or a telepathic-radiating microchip in a dog's ear or what the hell, we have tons and tons and tons of crap out there.

And the four percent, the good stuff well, it's harder than ever for it to get noticed. You don't quite see the sparkling diamond in a flood of sewage.

Okay, there might have been a short-lived "bubble of success" for the new model of "You too can self-publish," but now, well, just read about the revolt of Amazon self-publishing authors--who are indeed for the most part revolting, although they are hardly authors in the way I use the word.

True, self-publishing has been fine for a selected few: Established authors with backlists, new authors with talent and ambition and a good sense of timing because they were among the first to find a temporarily successful gimmick, and of course, writers with more luck than brains: 50 Shades of Gray, mediocre porn at best (you'll find sexier spanking on TNA Impact Wrestling).

But for nearly everyone else, self-publishing is a frequently well deserved walk on the old treadmill to Oblivion.

As for the electronic aspect–well, it might be "just another way to publish," just as POD was "just another way to publish," but it is certainly a new and ridiculously cheap (free!) means for helping the self-deluded stay that way.

Have your political or philosophical views shaped your art in some way?

Sure. But the art I've studied has helped shape my political and philosophical views, so I guess it works out. The Brothers Karamazov, The Grapes of Wrath, and Goya's "Colossus" and Eisenstein's Ten Days That Shook the World, and Charles Ives's Appalachian Spring, and ever so many others inform my work because they contributed to my being ... I Yam what I Yam!

And that's the Yam you get on the page. (Let's break out the puns now!)

Which writers (whom you have worked with) have inspired you the most?

Lucien Stryk, as I mentioned above. Harlan Ellison ... I told him in the 1970s that he was the guy who taught me to work close to the horns of the bull. Robert Weinberg: He taught and teaches me to work, work, work. The marvelous Margaret Atwood, who gives the lie to everything you ever heard about slowing down with age and who sings pretty well, too, with a decent folk and country repertoire--even sings the word "about" right, unlike most Canadians. And Alice Hoffman, who never just phones it in but finds the wonder in life and helps you do likewise.

So many, so plenty of 'em. I mean, I don't know if "inspire" is the word I want, but I'm so glad this guy's posse includes Sam Weller, and Jeff Jacobson, and John Everson and Rick McCammon and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and ... I love being in the "lit'ry life" and the "pop fiction life" and "academia" and being part of the "lit mob ..." There's just a whole lot less quiet desperation when you hang with people who create and affirm your right and ability to do so.

What are your interest outside of teaching and writing?

I really like living. Love travel, particularly to France, where my wife, Jane, is a fluent French speaking guide and where she has relatives we've grown so close to. A year from now is Poland. I have Polish readers ... Well, I made a Newsweek Top Ten in "Best of the Year: Thrillers" and I've not quite done that in the USA.

I love eating outlandish amounts of really good food and drinking good booze.

Music, music, music, the listening, the making thereof Had my ventures into showbiz via music been more successful—you sometimes find the 1965 album we cut when I was a member of THE INNSIDERS, a folk trio, on Ebay going for $250 to $1,500!—and I'm focusing more these days on blues harmonica than guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, etc. And of course, nice weather, I like to sit outside with Jane and meditate, contemplate, and often fall asleep!

What advice can you give to aspiring writers?

Simple: Learn to write. Worry less about "platforms" and "social media" and "emerging technology" and ... You've got to have a product before you can sell it.

Truth: I cannot believe there's so much bad stuff out there ... But that's because now we get to see the bad, proudly displayed on websites, in bad electronic magazines edited by editors who can't edit, featuring stories by people who can't write, aimed at aspiring bad writers who want to write for bad electronic magazines, and get self-published on Kindle, Swindle, Shnook, Hobo, Yoyo, and Hoohah ...

Writing is a craft and a craft can be learned and a craft can be taught.

Name some of your favorite horror books.

Two by Dan Simmons: The Song of Kali and The Terror. King's absolute masterpiece Pet Sematary and near masterpiece, The Dead Zone. Ted Klein The Ceremonies. The now almost forgotten genius book Slob by Rex Miller. And the best book of Jerry Williamson, my dear friend and the leading horror writer of the 1980s: The Banished.

And of course ... Dracula! And you haven't really read that one until you've annotated it!

Name some of your favorite horror movies. 

Classics: The standard issue Universal monster movies. The 1940s—The Beast with Five Fingers. The 1950s: The Black Sleep.

Little known: 1959's Face of Fire with a now mostly forgotten James Whitmore.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Hills Have Eyes. And stay light years away from any of the unhorrifying remakes, reboots, and repos.

Not a whole lot since, though The Babadook has some moments.

What are your current projects?

With Sam Weller, I'm wrapping up the comics series based on Shadow Show for IDW, and Darchon, a supernatural comics series from Red Giant Entertainment, that's set to launch in April.

Have two or perhaps three hush-hush / cannot talk TV and film projects, but can say that, using "the biz" lingo, there are serious names attached.

Have been asked for stories for three anthologies (I'd prefer they stay hush-hush for now), and to put together a non-fiction book proposal, but ...

Like I said before, harmonica. Tell you, there's so much to be learn on the little instrument you can keep in your pocket. Of course, you do keep it there, you're likely to swallow some pocket lint when you hit that low "C."

Please in your own words write a paragraph about yourself & your work.

Mort Castle? Not a bad guy. A polished presenter of the world's dirtiest joke about Wyatt Earp. Mort Castle? Trying to gain another 40 pounds so he can be in contention as Japan's first kosher Sumo champion. Castle—seriously? He's a wordworker, has been for a long time, hopes to continue to be for a long time. And on some days, he almost gets it right.

Check out Mort's Website