A Conversation With Mort Castle

by Claire E. White

Horror author Mort Castle has more than
Photo of Mort Castle
350 short stories and a dozen books to his credit, including Cursed Be the Child (Leisure Books, 1994) and The Strangers. A dedicated and talented writing teacher, he takes pride in the fact that more than 2,000 of his students, ranging in age from six to 93, have seen their work in print. 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 (Writer's Digest, 1997), for which he served as Editor, has become the "bible" for aspiring horror authors, and is packed with tips and information about the genre. It also includes interviews with some of horror's top stars, such as Stephen King. He is also the Executive Editor of Thorby Comics, which publishes the popular comic books Night City, Death Asylum, The Skulker, Blythe: Nightvision, and Johnny Cosmic. Mort spoke with us about the basics that every horror writer must know, the trends in the industry and how to get started in the world of comics.

When did you first become interested in horror writing?

I cannot remember a time when horror did not speak to me, nor a time when I wasn't writing horror. Shock Theater started on Chicago's ABC station when I was seven, and you bet I had a pizza and watched that premiere, Frankenstein; by the way, the host was Marvin, and later, in college, I wound up rooming with Terry Tiz, who was president of the Marvin fan club. I recall writing a third grade horror story about a woman who was turned into a spider "for her evil deeds"; and, you know, the editor I've become recalls, too, thinking that I didn't do enough to list those evil deeds.

What is the horror market like these days for writers in the genre?

Here's a bunch of contradictory/not so contradictory stuff. All the big houses have shut down their horror lines. Leisure maintains a horror "category" and does well with it. THORBY, with comics and non-comics, is doing all right with horror. And as THORBY'S exec editor, I'm in a good spot to make that call. Now that that is said, virtually every fiction publisher is still publishing horror, even if a book does not have horror marked on the spine. Labels are just that and nothing more. Hey, Ed Gorman's masterful western novel, Trouble Man, is called historical novel by Leisure because western isn't the easiest sell these days. But this is the ticket: writers in the genre had better realize they are not writers "in the genre." They are writers, trying to present good stories, and sometimes those stories will do the horror dance on your spine points, and sometimes those stories will make you laugh, and... Good writing will eventually find a home, and if it's not this year, then...

How important are writer's groups and associations to the professional and the aspiring horror writer?

Any group, any associate, any pal, anything that will help you learn and that will help you learn is important. Me, I'm glad to have some associate/chums in the HWA that I can call on for stories if I'm working on a project--and you can bet I do call on people I know and whose work I know before I seek the work of "outsiders." But let me add this: You still find the equivalents of "sewing circle literary societies" and "poet-tasters" groups for writers who think they are trying to become commercially successful. Support groups might get you off drugs or help you free your kvetching child within, but it's a good idea to get educated about this writing biz, to learn from people who can really teach instead of just whispering buzz words in your ear about how "we all have something to say," and "you are so sensitive and bold for sharing that story based on the horrible trauma you really suffered when you were six and your chameleon died..."

How would you define the horror genre?

Once upon a time I'd have had a lengthy, gassy answer to this. Now, more and more, I'm convinced that genre is a way for a publisher to put a tag on a spine so that a minimum wager can grab a book and put it on the right shelf in the store. I mean, when horror was hot, Rex Miller's Slob was a horror novel; then, next thing you knew, old Chaingang, the protagonist of Slob, started appearing is "suspense novels" and "detective novels," and- Same Chaingang guy, though. Yeah, so copping a line from Robert Frost, when he was at his most insightfully surly, "Horror writing is what horror writers write."

What trends do you see in the horror genre lately?

Here's the big trend: those who have identified themselves as horror writers have learned they had damned well better learn how to write.
"Realize it's a beautiful and horrible world we inhabit, and you've got sensory units to help you take in all of it, and that you, if you are a writer, must be aware of and thankful for all of it."
Uh, a good-sized number of them apparently did not know this before the so-called "horror depression." Take a look at what was published in the days of "our mid-list is doing okay and horror is viable": most of it was not good enough to aspire to be pulp. Only in the romance field could you find equally sub-literate writing. Characterization like "he was tall." Plotting that came from, "Then they were all killed by a hairy monster. The End." Way back in horror's boom days, men's adventure, westerns, and God knows, mystery writers, all had enough sense to know they had to be capable craftworkers in order to publish. But in "horror's glory days": if it was about a monster and a ghost and a baby who kills her sister with a power tool," and you tossed in a crazed aunt who locked kids in the basement and beat them with live flounders, and, oh, yeah, we need a Japanese demon called the Hu Me, hey, you just might get published. Now has come the revelation: If you want to write horror, you have to be able to... write. To write write, just like someone who knows what he's doing.

I'd like to talk about another area in which you are an expert: comic books. What types of comics does your company pubish?

Cover of
Night City We are publishing horror, soap opera, science-fiction, street real non-linear neo-noir... Nah, I almost got into classifying and I am not the Chief Curator at the Museum of Stale Arts, thank you, so forget the categories. THORBY is publishing good comic books. We are also publishing good non-comic books. I mean, you try to categorize a trade paperback graphic novel by that unassuming genius David Quinn and that risk-taking artist, Hannibal King--Blythe: Nightvision; categorize our Sherlock Holmes line, with the finest Holmes art ever by Dan and David Day and Charles Dougherty, and a new novel by Sherlockian J.N. Williamson; there's a wonderful superhero series written by Terrance Griep, Jr. (who writes Scooby Doo but probably shouldn't be categorized as a Scooby Doo writer) and Steve Kurth, who is one of those artists who is going to be known for drawing people and not steroidinal blobs; and there's the first Scandals, the first comic book soap opera in 20 years, and my Night City series, which is pretty damned tough stuff... THORBY is publishing stuff that ought to be published. How's that?

That's great. How does a writer approach you with an idea or a comic script?

Thorby Enterprises, Inc. Logo Send me something that's good. Show me that you have looked at our guidelines. For most people, please, don't bother approaching me with an idea. Idea doesn't mean much. The idea: she is young and beautiful. He is young and handsome. They are in love and their families hate each other-- You know, that was as stale as a box of 1959 Shredded Wheat when Bill Shakespeare stole it. But Romeo and Juliet seems to work. And so does West Side Story. Now give that same idea to a man called Spelling... Hey, The Crow was a great comic and led to the making of at least one near-great movie called (duh!) The Crow. What a tired-out idea: this guy, dead as hell, comes back from the grave for revenge/justice. So, show me that you have something worth being published. It's that simple-- --and that difficult.

What do you look for in comic script submissions?

Cliché, but, I look for a script that shows me the writer knows how to write visually. Not every writer does, you know, and particularly now, when you have a number of prose writers who've adopted neo-Gothic arabesques of language, well, figurative language doesn't translate to something we can see.

What do you look for in a comic artist or illustrator?

I am borderline art-impaired, so much of what I have learned about the "drawin'"part of comics is based on the fine arts stuff I've picked up from my wife, Jane, and from the comics Grand Master of Glass House Graphics, my dear friend, David Campiti. But above all, if I am looking at a comic book, I want sequential art, art that moves, flows, from panel to panel. I'd sure like to see that the artist knows what Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit, has taught us about "story art," pace and point of view, and is not just doing pin-ups. I want facial expression and not broad comic-book caricature: You know, she's sad, so you have tears the size of melted Frisbees running down her face. I've been cursed/blessed to work with some of the finest artists in this business--Mark Nelson, Dave Dorman, Mark Evans, Don Kramer, Mike Okamoto, and they've provided me a standard of excellence, so, even if I can't always articulate what I want, I have a good idea of "I know it when I see it."

How will the Internet change the comics industry?

Honest to God, I don't know, but most of the people who claim to know don't know either. You know, when motion pictures first started happening, there were those who said you had to work only in long shots because your public would feel cheated by seeing less than all of the actors. I think there will always be stuff on paper to be read by people who think the concept of reading is as interactive as you need to be. And it is, I guess, once you think about it. But we're (THORBY) selling downloadable comics in pdf format, which you can read and print up with Adobe Acrobat Reader, and we're talking about comics that offer interactive possibilities, including slapping your face if you are at all insulting to the protagonist, and we've worked on some full motion video concepts. I'm going to cop-out here: The Internet will change publishing comics and publishing other stuff in many interesting ways. I am firmly convinced of the possibilities. We must go forward, so that we do not go backward. This is a time of challenge and experimentation and innovation. If we can put a man of the moon, surely we can bring an exciting, nutritious, non-polluting, mentally challenging, ethnically inoffensive comic book to the Web! Yippee!

Will Thorby comics be publishing any comics electronically?


How did the book Writing Horror come about?

Ten points for James Gormley, HWA Member and good guy and idea-maker. He pushed the concept of an HWA book at conventions, confabs, etc., and Writer's Digest Books picked up on it. WD contacted then HWA VP Bob Weinberg, asking if he would edit the thing, but Bob was too busy. Says Bob, "You might want top talk to Mort Castle. He's done a lot of teaching (including some 15 years for Writer's Digest School) and..." Digression: No, you don't want to be in any writing organizations. Can't possibly do you any good...

What was the most difficult aspect of editing Writing Horror?

You know, that was a joyful experience, albeit a difficult one. Why difficult? Because I was dealing with more than a little family illness, serious stuff, at that time: my mother,
Cover of
Writing Horror, Edited by Mort Castle
Click here
for ordering information.
my father, my late brother-in-law (and thanks to Writing Horror contributors Harlan Ellison and Bob Weinberg for their good words of support when so much needed). But the book? Hey, I put together a list of chapter topics that I thought needed to be included. Then I asked good writers to write those chapters, allowing H.A.'s membership at large to query on additional concepts. Sure, we needed names--yes, names do sell books--and we got those names: Harlan Ellison, David Morrell--whose chapter on writing dialogue ought to be required reading in every writing program and alleged writing program in the country-and Joyce Carol Oates, and an interview with Stephen King... And people pretty much hit the deadlines. And I damned near did. And WD put a great cover on the book. And I'm proud of that one.

What do you love most about teaching?

Too easy. I love people. They come to me to learn stuff and, yeah, I have a few things to teach 'em and it all works out. And then I hear, sometimes pretty quick, "Yeah, I'm getting published." Tell you one other definite plus for me: Being around truly "inquiring minds" and "growing minds" and "creative minds" keeps me from becoming a stagnant coot, a geezer who wants only to see if there's another tub of mashed potatoes at the Jumbo Biggy Country Buffett, all you can eat for seven dollars, now that your taste buds are pretty well shot anyway.

What is the most common mistake you see your students make when writing horror or fantasy?

Let's qualify this. The question becomes, "What is the most common mistake you see your students make when writing"; and the answer is, sadly and simply, not knowing how to write. But on the up stroke: hey, you can learn! This writing thing is a craft, you know, and a craft can be learned and a craft can be taught.

Do you recommend that beginning writers start out with short stories or novels?

Unless the "beginning writer" is the rare happy obsessive-compulsive, it has to be short stores. A short story gives you a clearly attainable goal. Hey, a fat story, 5,000 words is 20 pages, and even if you agonize like Flaubert over each word, you can still have it finished in two months. A novel? It's just so damned big. It offers so many choices. It eats up your life. Help! Oh, help! Help, help~!

When you're not working, what are your favorite ways to relax?

My wife, Jane, and I walk. We spend a lot of time at Chicago's Art Institute. I read--lots of oriental poetry. I play music (I usually do guitar, banjo, harmonica, dobro, mandolin) with our band that was first
"Writing well...[is] a challenge and a fear and a joy we ought embrace if what we create is to stand, to be there even when we are not, to speak well to the human mind and to the sometimes wicked human heart."
put together in the 70s -- now we call ourselves Mid-life Crisis, specializing in heavy wooden music, with Sharon Scott on vocals and Chuck Niebling, baritone and guitars, and sometimes Mike Baker on bass, or Greg Zipprich on rhythm guitar, if he is willing to bring the beer. Yeah, music... If things had gone somewhat different, that would have been the career; there was one album back in the 60s, club work, radio, TV, and, all in all, failure. I watch wrestling. Hey, in the Golden TV Age of "grunt and groan," I shook the hand of Golden Moose Cholak, I love old radio shows. You know, in my new comic book series, Night City, there's more than a little homage to radio's Broadway is My Beat.

Do you like to read any other genres other than horror?

Sorry, all this question has to be is "do you like to read?" And if the interviewee can't answer "of course," then we are talking about someone who isn't a writer. Sometimes it's overwhelming, realizing how much wonderful stuff there is out there to be read, to be listened to, to be looked at.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Hemingway. James Ellroy. Harry Crews. Charles Bukowski, who once, said Mort name-dropping, put in a reference to me in a poem.. John Steinbeck. Stephen King. Andre Schwarz-Bart. Lucien Stryk. Harlan Ellison. Stuart Kaminsky. John Irving. There's probably not more than an additional 2,675 on my current "fave list."

What's the scariest thing you've ever read?

No question, Matheson's wonderful I Am Legend. I was 22--a really good age to discover the scariest book, and a really good age to make a commitment to horror writing. (Let's say I'd been loose and unfocused until then, even though I'd already sold three or four novels.) I finished Legend at 2 in the morning--and stayed awake until it was time for work. Pretty close--and read right around the same time, Jim Thompson's Population 1280.

What advice do you have for the aspiring writer?

This is not meant sarcastically, although perhaps it is getting redundant. Learn to write. Turn off the TV -- especially the USA Network. Do something in the real world, like get a real job so you know how real people really feel and really act really--and so you won't be copying dialogue and phony-baloney actions/reactions from simple minded media produced by simple minds for simpletons. Realize it's a beautiful and horrible world we inhabit, and you've got sensory units to help you take in all of it, and that you, if you are a writer, must be aware of and thankful for all of it.

What projects are you working on now?

Photograph of Mort Castle More Night City comics. A novel about Hemingway and the Living Dead. A fantasy novel about Buckeye Jim, who is kinda helping the world to get ready for Jesus, who plans to come back, all right, according to prophecy on the day after He is no longer needed. Who knows? Tomorrow might be another book.

What's the greatest challenge horror writers face today?

Same challenge as yesterday and same challenge as tomorrow: writing well. But it's a challenge and a fear and a joy we ought embrace if what we create is to stand, to be there even when we are not, to speak well to the human mind and to the sometimes noble and sometimes wicked human heart.

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