Gahan Wilson talks with Marc Librescu (Part Two)

Posted by on June 29th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

MARC LIBRESCU: We met in New York in 1998 at the HWA Stoker Awards Banquet. Are you still active in HWA?

GAHAN WILSON: Oh yeah. Some of my best friends are in that organization. It’s a great little bunch, a great little crowd.

LIBRESCU: Are you working on anything in the horror genre now?

WILSON: I’ve gone through a long stretch where I haven’t written a thing but I’m toying with the idea of moving back into it. I’ve got some projects going that I may or may not pursue.

LIBRESCU: I believe that horror is a luxury that we can indulge in when times are good. I think there’s a human need to experience fear in a safe environment. A scary movie or novel allows you experience that emotion. When the movie’s over or you put the book down, you’re safe in the real world. It’s like a dream. But when the real world is no longer safe, there’s no longer a need to create that kind of experience.

WILSON: We’re in the god-damnedest era. It’s appalling. It’s almost like the Great Depression.

A very interesting thing happened to me about four years ago. Somebody was writing a book about a friend of mine, and I’m in the thing. I’m one of the minor characters. He was doing some fact-checking and he sent me this very polite letter and he wanted me to verify some of the information. I thought, what the hell, and I did it.

I was answering these questions and I came upon this one part, something about my parents, and adults, and how I related to them as a child. And I was about to answer, when all of a sudden, I had this extraordinary thing happen, which was like in these paintings by El Greco, where Saint So-And-So is going, “Ahhh” and he’s looking up —“Ahhh” — in the upper-right-hand corner. His eyes are wide open, and he’s seeing something. He’s having a sudden vision. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. My parents lived in this apartment building in Evansville, Ill. There was another apartment there where friends of the family lived. Suddenly, I was transported, or it came to me (I don’t know which direction these things move), or we rejoined. I saw and felt and smelled and heard that I was in [the neighbors’ apartment]. They were having a party. There were other people there, neighbors and so on.

I was there. Suddenly, bang I was back there and I was this very, very young child and I remember this other very, very young child, my first love, Anne Foster, was there. She was the daughter of the people who lived in the apartment where this get-together or party, whatever it was, was taking place. There were all these people there who were my grownups when I was a little, teeny, itsy-bitsy kid, and I saw them and they were talking. They were just sort of hunched, leaning together and I’m looking at them while I’m reading Dick Tracy on the floor (once again on the floor) and Anne Foster is there doodling with stuff. I was looking up at all these grownups — my mother, my father, the Fosters, and these other people — and they were talking about something horrible. Their eyes were bulging and they were just scared shitless.

It was the Depression. I’ve never gotten over this moment of recall. It brought back that I grew up with these parents who were scared out of their skulls. Their world had fallen apart. It was very hard for these people, because they were middle-class people, hopefully on their way up. As it turned out, they did well. It worked out and they survived. But at this point, it all could have fallen just completely apart. And it had, largely, and a lot of these people didn’t make it. A lot of them were killed by it — or killed themselves because of it.

So we’re back in this. It’s not as bad as that now, but it’s getting there. It’s looming, it’s sort of tottering in that direction and it’s very, very scary. It’s a very scary time.

So horror is there. It’s a very strong emotion. It certainly is a real part of life. You’re right, though. Horror is harder to take [nowadays].

One thing that just bores me to death is the horror movies they’re making presently, where they’re reduced to just sadistic brutality. This does not entertain me in the least. They just have one godawful thing after another done back-and-forth to these awful people. And it’s further cheapened by tackiness. They all have the same very tacky, very predictable thing, and the music scores are just infuriatingly stupid, where they have this (imitates music) dum-dum-dum sort of thing and eee-eee-eee. And the editing is frantic. You can’t follow an actor across a room any more. You just desperately cut from one angle to the other as he goes to open the door. It’s just nuts and boring, and also unsatisfying. I don’t go to them any more because they bore the hell out of me. I find them annoying and tacky.

When you came out of the theater with some well-done Hammer horror movie that was fun and games, well-produced, a lot of pretty images and all kinds of intriguing stuff, you had this ahhh sort of feeling. You had this sort of we have been amused and we’re chatting crowd coming out. But in one of these [modern horror] movies, you see these people coming out and they’re all eweaghh — not happy. They haven’t had a good time and they’re not having a good time now in the lobby.

So it’s bad. It’s silly. And part of it, I think, also, is like you’re saying: we’re all surrounded by such incredible atrocities that [we don’t need these kinds of movies]. Back then, it was, frankly, an escapist sort of thing. No one believed that Béla Lugosi and Christopher Lee were vampires wandering around. And there were some very classy people involved, like James Whale and his Frankenstein and those other movies, which were, by the way, also extremely funny. I mean, he’s a huge influence. Not only were his movies funny, but the whole movie was entertaining and visually, quite beautifully handled — the way Boris Karloff was made up.

Humor was an enormous part of it. And it’s not cruel humor. I think this is very important with humor, especially humor which is about grim stuff. It’s not nyah nyah kind of stuff. It’s very sympathetic, very compassionate. One of the jokes is our fragility and our ability to deal with [events], and the strangeness of it all. It doesn’t just whack you in the face. It says “Look at this. Isn’t this extraordinary that we are here and we have this?”

Another important aspect of the classic horror movie is that it resolves in the end. There’s some sort of resolution. It works out, in a way. Sometimes it misses its grim message. But you get somewhere.

LIBRESCU: I guess the inherent humor is the reason why movies like Frankenstein and Dracula lend themselves to parody. Even back then, Abbott and Costello were doing parodies of horror movies. Mel Brooks followed suit with Young Frankenstein, and later, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

WILSON: Yes. The Whale movies in particular (and he set the pace on this, really) are touching. [This was] one of the enormous things about his Frankenstein, including the way Karloff handled playing the monster and the way the makeup was done. The monster takes this little kid. Then he wants to play with the little kid. And he throws the little kid in the water. And it’s very disconsolate because it didn’t work out. Something’s wrong here. There’s a question: What did I do? There’s this classic moment where he looks up at these people, and he says, “Why? Why?” And it’s just a great moment.

A lot of the reasons that [today’s] horror movies are so not entertaining or not much fun, and leave you with a very yuck taste, is that they’re brutal. And I think they’re brutal because the people who are making them are brutalized, basically, putting it right smack down there on the table. And they’re kind of a little fuggy, and that’s not good for an artist.

LIBRESCU: But there’s an audience for it.

WILSON: There’s an audience, but they’re not a very happy audience. And [the movies] aren’t doing all that well. It hasn’t worked, really. To a degree, it’s commercially feasible but it’s very frantic. It doesn’t attract people who are happy and it’s not a good crowd who are putting it together. They’re not very talented and they’re not very creative. And I think that they are scared shitless, frankly. Let’s hope everybody gets better.

LIBRESCU: What is the current state of the horror fiction market?

WILSON: It’s not very good. For one thing, you don’t have magazines that do short stories anymore. The only way you’re going to make any money doing short stories is to bring out an anthology of short stories, and how are you going to get that printed if you don’t have any short stories published?

LIBRESCU: It’s a Catch-22.

WILSON: Right. So the only thing to do is to write a novel of some sort. But even there, I wouldn’t try it. I sort of toyed with the idea of getting back into writing again and I would love to do it. I love the short-story form, but there’s no market for the short story.

LIBRESCU: Given the state of the market, what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about writing in the horror genre but might be hesitant out of fear that there’s not much of a market?

WILSON: You do the best you can. And you try to make it as good as you can so you really like it, and you really are proud of it, and you really think it’s saying something. If you’re doing it just to write a bestseller, you’re going to come away with something pretty crappy.

It’s all very unpredictable. Critics, teachers and scholars write books about what happened in this era or that era, but you just don’t know what’s going to catch on. Van Gogh had a very hard time of it, but he really started shining after he was dead. It took a while, but there it was.

There are books on how to write a best seller. But if you try to do it in a calculated way, you might actually sell something, and it might sell rather well, but nine times out of 10, it won’t be much of anything to be proud of.

It is what it is. It’s like the horror movies we were talking about. Nobody’s doing it with anything like the sophistication and the nuance of Whale, nothing like it. Whale would talk to you for about five minutes and then he’d leave the room. You wouldn’t want to mess with him.

So the whole market thing, there’s no way to tell what’s going to be successful.

LIBRESCU: It’s been said that if your motivation for writing is to make money, you shouldn’t bother, because the odds are, that isn’t going to happen. You should write because you have to write.

WILSON: Exactly. It’s the same as the painter who suddenly decides to do just whatever he decides to do. He does it because that’s what he must do now.

All cartoons Gahan Wilson ©2009 Playboy

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One Response to “Gahan Wilson talks with Marc Librescu (Part Two)”

  1. […] (Note: I prepared three questions for this interview, but Gahan was such an engaging subject that our conversation lasted almost an hour. An expanded, two-part version of this interview appears at The Comic Journal: part 1 | part 2) […]