Wednesday 31 May 2023
Interview with Tim Lucas - By David Kempf
When did you first become interested in writing?
I was always interested in books and reading, but for the first twelve or so years of my life, I was focused on drawing, on art. I won some awards, a trophy and two blue ribbons. When I got into junior high school, my art teacher noted that my talent was in representational art so I would likely go into commercial or advertising art if I made a career of it. For some reason, this offended me and I realized it was true that I was only recreating things with my art; I wasn’t using it to express myself.
It was around this same time that my reading graduated from comic books to film criticism and serious fiction. In my late teens I was working as the editor of the film section of a Cincinnati entertainment paper and became friends with one of our contributors, Robert Uth. Bob and I went to movies together and afterwards we would go to a coffee shop and talk about what we had seen. One night in 1974, he said, “I’m working on something; would you mind if I told you about it?” He was thinking about writing a novel - thinking about it, but already in the thick of imagining it, mapping it out. And that night changed my life because it presented me with a viable way of not only creating original art but living it.
I started writing my own “novel” shortly thereafter, a collection of surreal short stories based on some of the extreme dreams I was having at the time, which I called THE AUDIENCE BECOMES FLESH. I still think of cleaning it up a bit and publishing it someday, especially as the short fiction I’m writing now seems to have brought me full circle. After AUDIENCE I continued to write novels that were too strange and personal to publish commercially; I was very influenced by writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Raymond Radiguet and Anaïs Nin. They had titles like THE ART OF CONVERSATION, TRANSLUCENT SKIN, THE COMFORTS OF THE SMALL, CASSIE EFFLER (an insane unfinished work that, more than anything, showed off the influence of James Joyce on me, which no one needs to know about!), and then THE DEVIL’S GOOD LOOKS, which showed me at least starting to come out the tunnel of my own bottom with a halfway commercial spy novel about the Elizabethan playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe reincarnating as a 20th century spy. I then spent years writing a science fiction novel called T.V. HEAVEN, which I sent to St. Martin’s Press. I got back the most splendid rejection letter from an editor there, who compared my writing to Thomas Pynchon… but she complained that the causal links between chapters were unclear, so I spent another few years working on it - and when I sent it back in, to the same editor, it was quickly returned with a form letter rejection. It broke my heart and I became a full-time film journalist working mostly for CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine.
My biggest trouble with those early manuscripts was that I was using them to teach myself how to write; I rewrote each page a great deal but I could never address myself to editing the whole, so they never quite became anything - at least not anything salable. I was spending that time acquiring influences through my reading and doing away with them until I found my own voice. It wasn’t until my first published novel, THROAT SPROCKETS (1994), that I approached the task of novelizing from the correct direction and created something designed to entertain, and not just express myself. THROAT SPROCKETS had started out as a graphic novel serialized in Stephen R. Bissette’s horror comic anthology TABOO, and this basis meant that I had to approach it from a story standpoint. It became a traditional novel because I couldn’t get along with the artists I was working with - they were supremely talented but we were personally incompatible. Steve recommended that I try writing THROAT SPROCKETS as a traditional novel, which I did - and it quickly landed me an agent. Then, tragically, that agent died of an aneurysm but her office recommended me to Lori Perkins, an agent who got me a wonderful contract and advance. Lori is now one of my publishers; her Riverdale Avenue Books imprint just published the newly revised version of my novel THE BOOK OF RENFIELD: A GOSPEL OF DRACULA (2005, rev. 2023).
How did you get involved in fantasy/horror?
Horror and fantasy films were somehow my main and dominant interest as far back as I can remember. The first film I saw at a drive-in was probably THE HOUSE OF USHER and my first indoor theater experience was THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN; the giant spider in the basement terrified me and I literally ran out of the theater screaming - twice! Two TWILIGHT ZONE episodes (“The Eye of the Beholder” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) also made me scream, so much so that I wasn’t allowed to watch anymore after a certain point. I remember lying in bed in the dark and hearing its scary theme music filtering in from the living room. The pizzicato violins sounded like the Devil Himself tip-toeing toward my bedroom. I had a vivid imagination, and as you can tell from the titles I’ve mentioned, Richard Matheson was responsible for most of my nightmares. Strangely enough, I didn’t get around to actually reading Matheson till I was middle-aged because I had a staunch belief that horror was a filmic genre; I had little interest in reading horror fiction, especially anything new. I read the classics but the contemporary stuff mostly didn’t attract me. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and those people held no appeal for me because I was (and still am, to a degree) interested foremost in literary style. King, Koontz, etc. are idea men who spin a tale - not just that, but they are aimed at appealing to large numbers of people, and my tastes are more marginal. Story isn’t what interests me and, with the exception of certain masters like Matheson, I am especially not interested in stories that replicate the real world as a setting for a “more believable” tale. If I’m on page 1, I’m buying in and I want the writer to turn the world as I know it on it’s head, in ways that haven’t previously occurred to me.
How would you classify the genre you write?
When I sold my first novel THROAT SPROCKETS to Dell, they were going to include it as part of their “dark fiction” imprint Abyss, but it wasn’t an easy fit because it was - in their eyes - a more stylish, experimental, literary work. So they came up with a “dark literary imprint” called Cutting Edge and sought to define this brave new territory by bringing out a previously published novel, THE BUTCHER BOY by Patrick McCabe. THROAT SPROCKETS had received wonderful praise from THE COMICS JOURNAL in its comics incarnation and the novel was even better received, and the keyword being used at that time was “dark,” even though I saw THROAT SPROCKETS as at least partly satirical in its intentions. I also was interested in writing a novel whose central figure was an object (in this case, a film) rather than a character. This seems to be consistent with my other novels: THE BOOK OF RENFIELD tells a story made up of found documents, so it is about the book identified by the title; THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES (2022) opens with a chapter about 1966 Los Angeles rather than introducing the main character, and I suppose the book actually is most of all about that time, place and state of mind; another fantasy novel I’ve written, THE ONLY CRIMINAL (forthcoming), is literally obsessed with a character whom we never encounter. The fiction I’m writing now is increasingly focused on making narrative and psychological sense of dreams, which is rather where I started. With all this in mind, I’d have to classify my work as dark fantasy or even Surrealist.
Why do you think horror and fantasy books remain so popular?
I don’t think there is any great recipe involved. I think popular books are the books people are told to buy; they are products of aggressive promotion initially, and then word of mouth. Once writers develop of trusted name, they are read in great numbers and collectors begin to collect them, as this sustains them. Horror and fantasy are commercial genres because horror is an outsized emotion, a sensational form of storytelling, and people also feel it prepares them in some ways for danger or other catastrophic eventualities that could befall them. Fantasy is just pure escape, and historically it has also provided us with blueprints that we’ve applied to shape our own future.
What inspires your stories?
As much as I would like to be principally known as a novelist, I am best-known as a film critic and historian, as the former editor of VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine (which I co-published with my late wife Donna for almost 30 years), and as the audio commentator on more than 150 DVD, Blu-ray and UHD releases. I’ve written fairly few stories and what has amounted to only a new novel every decade. I live with any number of unrealized stories and novel premises in my head, but the difference between the ones I write and those that never get written down is that, with the former, I’ve made a point of making myself available to them. What I’ve learned is that the ideas I massage in my mind never move on beyond the original spark; it becomes a fetish I stroke. But occasionally one will come along that makes me sit down at my keyboard and type out everything I have on this idea… and then other things surprise me by revealing themselves. So what really inspires my stories is taking the time to move beyond that first “love at first sight” stage and inviting a deeper relationship with the ideas at hand.
What do you think the difference between American horror and British horror is?
I really haven’t read enough of either to know, but based on what I have read, I’d venture to say that American horror is more about the relationships between people or the status quo or their national identities, while British horror tends to be more about the relationships between people and their land. Stephen King gives us television commercials and billboards, Nigel Kneale is always digging things up from the ground. The British isles are a much richer potting soil for “folk horror” than anything I’ve seen come from America.
What are your favorite horror books?
I don’t read (and am actually very disturbed by) “true crime” books, but I find that crime is a major draw for me in creative literature, especially when it is playful and imaginative. I am drawn to the Fantômas novels of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain; the psychological thrillers of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (LES DIABOLIQUES, VERTIGO); the often exotic works of Sax Rohmer; the Arsène Lupin novels of Maurice Leblanc; and the many beautiful and terrifying novels of Gaston Leroux, who wrote so much more of value than just THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. I am very drawn to that 1910-1950s period, just before I was born, but my earliest favorites in this vein actually come from novels not seen as horror by most people, most of them published here in the States by my favorite imprint, Grove Press: the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, THE VOYEUR, PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK), Marguerite Duras (THE RAVISHING OF LOL STEIN), Pauline Reàge (THE STORY OF O), and Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues (THE MARGIN, THE MOTORCYCLE). Last year, I started reading the amazing works of Maurice Renard (THE HANDS OF ORLAC), and I am now spellbound by the first book I’ve read by Hanns Heinz Ewers: THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE. Much of what I read and love most seems to be of European origin, in English translation. One of the major exceptions is J.G. Ballard, whose CRASH and THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION I consider stunning achievements in horror.
What are some of your favorite horror movies?
F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922); Tod Browning’s THE UNKNOWN (1927); Fritz Lang’s THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933); James Whale’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935); Roy William Neill’s THE BLACK ROOM (1935); Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960); Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960), BLACK SABBATH (1963), BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), KILL… BABY, KILL! (1966), HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1969), BAY OF BLOOD (1971) and LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973); SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (1968) by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini; Roger Vadim’s BLOOD AND ROSES (1960); Willard Huyck’s MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973); Walerian Borowczyk’s DR. JEKYLL AND MISS OSBOURNE (1981); Andrzej Zuławski’s POSSESSION (1981) and SZAMANKA (1996), to name a handful.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as an author?
If I take your adjective seriously, it would have to be my magnum opus MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (2007), which weighs 12 pounds and has a greater word count than WAR AND PEACE (literally). At the same time, I put great stock in my 2021 novella THE SECRET LIFE OF LOVE SONGS which is less than 80 pages but they are very dense pages, dense with meaning and experience, and occupied me for the better part of a decade. It’s amorphous and genre defying - being equal parts essay, autobiography, novel, dream, erotica, poetry and song - and I was able to attract the collaboration of one of my musical heroines, Dorothy Moskowitz, in developing my poems into actual songs for a soundtrack CD to accompany the book, so it stretched me in many ways. Of everything I’ve published, it has the highest ceiling and the deepest cellar. It’s not horror but is arguably fantasy or at least fantastic.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Don’t just give us more of the same. Identify your heroes, take them in, and then throw them out one by one until you’re left with your own voice. And always write what you know, or at least what you dream.
What is your opinion of the new self-publishing trend?
Self-publishing has allowed a lot of commercially marginal work to see the light of day and bring recognition to those writers who have some business savvy and don’t mind applying themselves to the printing and promotional sides of the business. Self-publishing also means self-promoting, so Id don’t know how advisable it is for writers who haven’t acquired visibility by at least getting some stories published beforehand. Unfortunately mainstream publishing only promotes what they pay millions to acquire, and “midlist” fiction hasn’t existed since 9/11, so a well-run self-publishing enterprise is no different - and in some cases may be better - than signing with a major that ignores you and never seems to earn back your advance.
What are your current projects?
My most recent short story, “Brenda and Stiletto Go Boating,” is appearing later this month in PARSEC #7, a digital science fantasy fiction magazine from PS Publishing, whose imprint Electric Dreamhouse will be publishing my book-length monograph on Jess Franco’s film SUCCUBUS aka NECRONOMICON (1967) later this year. I am currently working on a two-volume study of the psychosexual cinema of Joe Sarno (SIN IN THE SUBURBS, INGA), which I hope to finish within the coming year. My research on this should be as ground-breaking as my Bava book was, and I hope it will draw particular attention to the fantasy streak in Sarno’s work, found in such occult films as SIN YOU SINNERS (1962), THE SEX CYCLE (1966), and YOUNG PLAYTHINGS (1972). I was unfortunately widowed late last year, when Donna - my business partner and wife of nearly 48 years - unexpectedly passed away, and I’ve been keeping a diary of my grieving process. I think this may turn into another kind of SECRET LIFE OF LOVE SONGS book, if I let it.
Please in your own words, write a paragraph about yourself & your work.
Tim Lucas was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in May 1956. His writing was first published in 1972 so he is now in his sixth decade as a professional writer. Roughly half of that time he spent as the editor, co-publisher and chief critic of the award-winning VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine (1990-2017). His work has encompassed novels, short stories, screenplays, literary/film/music criticism, editorials, articles, text and audio essays, comics, poetry, songs, blogging, even eulogies - and 150+ feature-length audio commentaries for various DVD, Blu-ray and UHD releases. He is the recipient of a record number (21) of Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards (including their Hall of Fame and Legacy Awards), two Saturn Awards (one for Special Achievement), the International Publishers Bronze Medal Award, and the International Horror Guild Award. Now widowed, he is now focusing on different book and commentary projects, writing new songs with Dorothy Moskowitz, and looking forward to whatever happiness may still lie ahead.