Chet Williamson: a devout skeptic |
compiled from interviews by
Tom Knapp from 1990 to 1998
Chet Williamson doesn't look very scary.
But the images he conjures on paper can peel the paint off a barn. With 14 novels and 80-odd short stories to his credit, Williamson has made a career of giving people uneasy dreams. Best known for his tales of psychological horror, he has branched out into other areas, including fantasy, mystery and the paranormal. He has written an original Crow novel, film and game adaptations, Aliens comics and a series based loosely on The X-Files. Other novels to his credit include Dreamthorp, Mordenheim, Second Chance and Reign.
Nothing in his rambling suburban Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, home leaps out to say "A horror writer lives here." Not the shelves overflowing with compact discs, which Williamson, 50, avidly collects, nor the proud display of his son's music awards. Not even the bluish goop he keeps handy for making rude sounds to bedevil his wife.
His tiny writing room is eccentrically decorated. A rubber Cryptkeeper, stuffed musical frogs and an Elvis action figure war for attention. Cramped bookshelves sag under an unusual array of material, from Li'l Abner collections to thick volumes of Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe and Dolly Parton, an assortment of Disney videos and bagged copies of old pulp monthlies like Amazing Stories.
Williamson smiles and sinks back into his couch, ready to talk about things that go bump in the night.
You've written about demonic possessions, timeslips and all sorts of supernatural beasties. What's your view on the reality of the occult?
I tend to be an unbeliever in nearly all aspects of the occult and paranormal. It's kind of strange, because the big project I've just completed is a three-book series called The Searchers which is like paranormal suspense. I come to it from the point of a skeptic. Although the people in the books do investigate purported paranormal occurrences, their task is to disprove them. I don't want to give too much away, but it's sort of a rationalist's view of the paranormal while hopefully keeping a spirit of fun and entertainment. No, I'm not much of a believer at all, but I think it's terrific for fiction. It gives me a lot of opportunities.
Have you ever experienced anything which made you waver in your disbelief?
No, not a thing. One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Hardy, who said he'd give up 10 years of his life to see a ghost. Just to have that experience, to know there's something beyond. But I've never had an experience, and I've never heard or seen anything I would consider to be solid evidence. You see this stuff in the media all the time, but these people offer no proof. I would love to have some sort of true evidence.
Why are so many people credulous about "true" ghost stories?
The desire for it is so great. People really want to believe in something beyond. We all do, it's a natural human need to believe there's something beyond our own lives, that something exists after death. That's something we all would like to believe.
Does this impact on your religious beliefs?
A lot of people think that if you're a total rationalist, you can't believe in a supreme being. I'm a practicing Christian. I really don't have any physical or rational proof of any religious reality, but religion has to operate by faith alone. Our need to believe in something beyond ourselves is very great, and that happens to be where I fulfill that need. I can't rationalize it beyond that.
So if monsters and bugbears aren't real, what to you comprises real horror?
To me, real horror is about the potential for evil which lies within every human being. It's best explored by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, which is the keystone of that type of fiction. I think everybody has the capacity for evil, for doing monstrous things. I was at a writer's conference recently and one of the speakers said anyone is capable of murder. A clergyman stood up and disagreed with him. He said, "I am not capable of violence." But by the time the argument was stopped, the clergyman had to be physically restrained from attacking the speaker. Point proven.
Horror is often equated with the occult. Are they really separate fields?
I think occult is mostly fairly silly. The best of horror treats things in a realistic angle. The best horror is non-supernatural horror because it comes closest to being real. To me, it's always the real that's the most frightening. I don't find vampires frightening, or werewolves. Those things aren't real and don't scare me. But the human mind is very real.
So does a writer also need to be a psychologist?
I think so, if you're going to write more than the usual paperback schlock. The field as it stands now is 90 percent garbage. That's a blanket statement and I would never go back on that. That's all right. It's OK. I read a lot of trash when I was growing up. But an awful lot of writers in the field are content with turning out a book just like their last book, and a lot of publishers aren't interested in anything but that. They want what sold last year. There's a glut on the market and a lot of bad stuff is being done. It puts a bad taste in the reader's mouth.
What is the essence of a good horror tale?
A good horror tale is something that makes you shiver, and not necessarily makes you sick to your stomach or repulses you. A good horror tale is something you think about later -- not just at night but in broad daylight. It gives you a sense of unease, something that lodges in your mind and stays for a while.
Have you ever written anything that, later on, disturbed you?
Yeah. Probably my novel Dreamthorp, which was very violent. It's the most violent thing I've ever written. Later, I looked back on that and I was disturbed by the explicitness of the violence. I probably won't do anything like that again. What I prefer is to look back at a story and say "Yeah, that's pretty deep. That stays with me."
What's the scariest movie you saw in the past year?
Nothing. They're not scary anymore. They've replaced terror with blood and gore. For the really scary movies, I'd have to go back to the '60s. The Haunting, or Carnival of Souls. That was a low budget film, but it was one of the most nightmarish films I've ever seen. Psycho is still one of the most frightening movies ever done. In recent years, special effects takes the place of suggestion. What you think you're going to see is always much scarier than what comes through the door.
Will a good supernatural thriller keep you awake at night or make you jump at sudden noises?
It can, but again, it's mainly the older material that will do that.
What first drew you to the horror genre?
I always loved it. When I was a kid, my grandfather had a grocery store here in town, and one stock boy used to tell me Edgar Allan Poe stories in the basement. I loved famous monsters in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which was a great magazine back in the early '60s. We would go to horror matinees and we would watch them on TV. Then I started to read the stuff, and I just gobbled it up. When it came time for me to write, it was only natural that I would start with horror.
What do you like to call what you do now?
I don't like to call it anything anymore. I like to call it fiction. Pigeonholing has its dangers, I've discovered.
So if you don't want to be known as a horror writer, how would you like your readers to perceive you?
If readers look on me as a writer who tells a good, involving story with realistic characters with whom they can identify, that's enough. If they want to think of me as a horror writer, that's fine. If they want to think of me as a suspense writer, that's fine too. It's very difficult in today's market to bounce back and forth. You tend to become known as the writer of a certain kind of fiction. It can be stifling to what you want to write. A person may not want to write horror novels and mysteries all his life but due to the market, he may not have much choice.
Since you can't rely on special effects to sell your story, how do you do it with words?
I don't know, I try not to think about that. Really, I'm not self-analytical at all. I don't like to spoil what, for a rationalist, I still consider a kind of magic. I'm very painstaking when it comes to constructing and plotting my stories. But once I start writing, I kind of let things go. I let things happen and try not to think too much about it. The subconscious takes over, I guess; sometimes I think that's how the best writing comes out. Of course, it requires a lot of revisions afterwards. You have to kill some of the darlings your subconscious mind has come up with. But I don't think a lot about the process. It's that old superstition, if you think about what you're doing you aren't going to be able to do it. "Use the Force, Luke."
Where and how do you get your inspiration?
It generally starts with places. I feel very much attuned to places. ... I think, "What could happen here? What strange could occur?" Once I have the plot idea, I try to develop the characters and go from there.
Do you sit down and consciously try to create, or do images and story ideas just strike you at odd moments?
When that happens, it's wonderful. But I don't sit down and stay until I have so many pages written. I'll get up and walk around the house and think about things. I can stop in the middle of a sentence and think, "OK, what's the next word?" Then I'll get up and shift a load of clothes from the washer to the dryer and then I'll come back and have it.
What would you write if you were writing a Hallmark card?
Probably something funny.
You probably wouldn't want to get slotted into the goofy Halloween card department.
No. Oh, what the heck. How much do they pay?
If you couldn't write, for whatever reason, what would you want to be doing?
Hmm. I'd like to be a club singer. Yeah, it's true. I did musical comedies back in the old days, I started out as an actor. I still like to sing. A saloon singer, that would be cool.
Do people like you to sing?
My son doesn't. But most other people do.
You've incorporated your opinions on land preservation into your books. You've been an outspoken voice for tolerance at some heated public meetings in Elizabethtown. Are politics in your future?
Absolutely not. I'll just be the gadfly. No, I'd have to answer to too many other opinions besides my own.
[ by Tom Knapp ]
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