A former stage hypnotist, folksinger, and teacher, Mort Castle has been a publishing writer since 1967, with hundreds of stories, articles, comics and books published in a dozen languages. His most recent book is Knowing When to Die. He’s taught at every level from grade to grad school, retired by pandemic in 2020. The Chicago Sun-Times News Group has cited him as one of Twenty-One "Leaders in the Arts for the 21st Century in Chicago's Southland." Castle and his wife, Jane, have been married 52 years and live in Crete, Illinois. Cesar Toscano What do you believe distinguishes horror from other genres or do you believe it's a genre that is flexible? Mort Castle Flexible, flexible, flexible. You have gross-out horror: bodily alteration, mutilation, and fluid spew. You have ever so literary horror, Titus Andronicus (that Shakespeare is certified literary!) Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” and Hemingway, in particular his horror story masterpieces, “A Clean Well Lighted Place,” and “The Killers.” You have historical horror, for instance Dan Simmons’s The Terror and Louis Bayard’s Pale Blue Eye. There’s science-fiction horror, erotic horror, and some real specialties, Afro-American urban horror, Neo-Futuristic horror, experimental horror … Hey, maybe even Non-Epistolary, high fantasy, sideways Gothic horror. But what they all have in common is the horror element: That which compels you to look right at because it is so awful you cannot look away. It is horrible and it awesome, in the classic sense of that latter word which has become a meaningless cliché in our time, but once meant: Inspiring powerful apprehension, and fear. CT What were your experiences as an editor for horror fiction and non-fiction (Writing Horror)? the challenges and great opportunities that came with it? MC I’ve been so fortunate. Like many editors, I view my job, in part, as being a teacher, a coach, and a guide. Years back, at a writing conference here at Columbia, a sophomore asked, “As a writer, what do you do when an editor massacres your story?” I think I initially responded with, “Well, you get a camera and take a picture ‘cause that’s some kind of sight.” But then I got serious. Editors get to be editors because they want to help a writer put the story across in the most effective way to the reader. And typically, the more pro the writer, the more willing to listen to editorial suggestions. (Your prima donnas are more likely to be pretentious beginning writers who almost had a poem published in their mother’s online poetry journal.) I’ve been editor to Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Joe Hill, Wayne Allen Sallee, and any one of ‘em worthy of being called “writer” wanted just what I wanted: the best possible written presentation of their concepts. CT What do you think makes a strong horror story? MC A guy I’ve known for years, Kevin Lucia, a fine writer, and teacher and currently an editor for Cemetery Dance Publications, recently posted this on his Facebook page: APROPOS of nothing, these two quotes have informed my writing more than anything else over the past ten years: “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” - Stephen King "The best stuff, the stuff that lasts, comes from our late-night conversations with ourselves." - Mort Castle This is what makes writing horror so difficult. You’ve got to get deep, got to really converse with the person in your mirror. That’s painful. That’s exhausting. And often, you are not ready to write about that elusive, mysterious awful IT. You’ve got to creep up on it. I dreamed up such a horror story once, based on yours truly’s horrors. Ten years later, I worked up the courage to write that story. It got nominated for a couple awards, reprinted more than a few times in the USA and in a few languages other than English. Repeat: When you know what horrifies you, then you have a chance of horrifying someone else, your reader. CT Do you notice different trends in horror that you didn't see when you started as a writer? MC Trends? I’m not so sure. I mean, the flexibility we spoke of earlier, well, that’s always been present. There have always been fewer restrictions by convention in the horror genre. But what triggers a trend is success: Vampires, ho-hum, boring, long time passé—and then, here comes Anne Rice with her wonderful Interview with a Vampire. Pow! Vampires, vampires, vampires—and even Buffy and Scooby-Doo wind up messing with vampires. Zombies, ho-hum, hoo-hah-hum … And then a surprising success for a cheap film called Night of the Living Dead. That sets everybody to creating zombie scenarios, myself very much included with a novella called “The Old Man and the Dead,” showing Papa Hemingway in battle with the Living Dead. Success, meaning $$$$, determines trends. CT What has been your experience with HWA over the years? MC I’ve been a member of the HWA since it began as an organization called Horror and Occult Writers’ League. It is, quite simply, the world’s only professional horror writers’ organization. It’s award, The Bram Stoker Award®, is literally the Oscar of horror— and I’m bragging here: I’ve won three and have been nominated for seven or eight others. In the best ways, it’s always been an inclusive organization, and while there have been arguments and rifts in the membership(s) over the years, it is and I think it always will be the organizational foundation of “this horror thing of ours.” CT What was your favorite horror concept you've come up with? MC Cliché, but my favorite is always the concept I’m working on now. But I will tell you, I had some of the greatest fun writing the comic book series Leatherface. It was loosely based on the film Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and New Line Cinema, which had the licensing rights, gave me free rein to make the comics into something better than the film proved to be. Loved that Leatherface character. I changed the plot more than a little, added and subtracted characters, stuck in a lot of humor that—I think, anyway—worked just fine. The artists on it were great to collaborate with: Dave Dorman, Guy Burwell, and Kirk Jarvinen. And a complete set of those four issues, in good shape, is selling for as high as a thousand buck. But I always want to claim The Strangers as a concept that I dreamed up, that grabbed me, and keeps me grabbed. That novel, with the premise that murderous psychopaths are everywhere—even next door and are waiting to kill you, seems to have a real hold on readers. The book came out in 1984. It’s had tremendous popularity here in the USA—a bestseller—and around the world, with Poland’s edition of Newsweek citing it as one of the 10 Best Thriller/Horror Novels published in 2008. And there’s more Strangers news coming…that has to be hush-hush for now for legal reasons. But repeating myself, the fears that grabbed me in the 1980s seem to be more present and prevalent for everyone right here and right now. So, hey! Maybe yours truly started a trend—or realized the real-life horror trend that was a’coming!
Thanks for joining our list!