Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: William F. Nolan

William F. Nolan may be best known to readers as the co-author (with George Clayton Johnson) of the science fiction classic Logan’s Run, but Nolan is also a prolific mystery novelist, biographer, screenwriter, and poet whose horror work just earned him the 2015 World Horror Convention’s Grand Master Award. In addition to dozens of short stories, Nolan’s horror credits also include screenplays and teleplays for such films as Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings. At eighty-seven, Nolan is still active and excited about the future, and we sat down to talk at the annual Vintage Paperback Show in Glendale, California, which he’d driven down from Oregon to attend.

Let’s start by talking about you being chosen as the Grand Master for this year’s World Horror Convention . . .

Yeah, that’s a great surprise! It’s wonderful. I’ll be going back to Atlanta, flying back during the first week in May. I have no speech prepared because I don’t like speeches. I’ll be very short in my thanks because I think these Oscar speeches where they thank everybody but their grandmother, their writing teacher, their first grade teacher . . . they go on forever! Mine will be very brief. Just really to say that I’m honored to have it.

I won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association, I’ve won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Author Emeritus Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America, a World Fantasy Award with the Lovecraft statue, a Bram Stoker Award for my Nolan on Bradbury, and now this Grand Master Award, so they’re mounting up! I can’t keep track of all the awards I’ve won in the last five years — it’s amazing. I don’t ever campaign for one, so they come out of left field.

You’ve had kind of a resurgence in the last five years. The fans were really excited to see you here today.

Every year I go to this event — I’ve gone more than any other author, over thirty times! Tom Lesser, who puts it on, says, “You’re the champ! You’ve been here more than anyone else.” I think before Robert Bloch died, he would have given me a run for the money, but unfortunately he’s not around anymore. Such a nice man — I’ve never heard a bad word from anybody about Robert Bloch. Everybody loved him. He was always great as a toastmaster — he had such a dry sense of humor. And a great horror writer, too, what with Psycho and all.

He got ripped off on the film of Psycho, though. Hitchcock didn’t want Bloch to know that he was the one buying Psycho, so he bought it under a different company and paid very small money to Bob — five thousand dollars or something — and then made millions off of it. That’s Hollywood for you. They do that to you — you’ve got to protect yourself all the way. Bob was kind of bitter about it, and I don’t blame him. He was lied to in effect. If he’d known he was selling something to Alfred Hitchcock, he would have gotten better money for it — a better deal and a better contract.

Your own Hollywood experiences have yielded some interesting stuff.

I did a lot of television horror work for Dan Curtis. Dan Curtis was the Dark Shadows man. He came from New York and settled out here in L.A., and I was over at Richard Matheson’s house one day, and he said, “You ought to go talk to Dan Curtis — he’s building an empire and you should be part of it.” So I make an appointment, I go over and see Dan, and Dan says, “So what do you want to do, Nolan? You want to be a co-producer?” And I said, “No, I want to write for you. I don’t want to be a producer and I don’t want to be a director — that’s all bull. But I would like to write for you.” So he says, “I got this thing here, some piece of crap — you think you can do something with this?” He hands me a couple of pages, and it was The Norliss Tapes, and that’s one of my best scripts. I turned it in and he said, “Say, you’re pretty good. I think I’ll use you again.” So I did seventeen projects for him.

Seventeen?!

Yep — I did both Trilogy of Terror 1 and 2, I did The Turn of the Screw, which he filmed in London . . . I did a lot for him. He was a great guy. He died of a brain tumor very suddenly. I was shocked because he was full of energy — he was dynamic. And suddenly I’m reading that he’s dead, and I couldn’t believe it — “Dan Curtis dead?” He was diagnosed with the brain tumor, and four months later he was dead.

He also did Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Dracula with Jack Palance, based on a Matheson script, and it was wonderful. Dan never got the credit he deserved. He wanted to be a major director, but the only real film he ever did was Burnt Offerings, which I wrote the screenplay for. It was one of Bette Davis’s last films — a horror film, of course, based on the Robert Marasco novel. We took the novel and scrapped the whole first third of it and started it in the old house. I said, “Dan, all this stuff in New York City in the novel doesn’t work. We gotta drop all that and start with the car coming up the driveway toward the house.” And the evil chauffeur was my idea, with that evil smile. I said, “I don’t want him to say anything, just smile.” And that wasn’t in the book. That was my creation.

A lot of us grew up loving Trilogy of Terror especially — it’s one of my favorite television movies.

There’s a funny story about Trilogy of Terror. I did both Trilogy of Terror 1 and 2. Trilogy of Terror 1 had three sections in it: It had the one about the evil sister and the good sister, and I wrote that one, based on a very short story by Matheson; the second one had an evil school teacher that seemed to be a victim, and ended up victimizing her students — I wrote that one; the third one had the Zuni doll that chased Karen Black around, and that’s the one everybody remembers. When I say I wrote Trilogy of Terror, they say, “Oh, I loved your story about the Zuni doll!” And I have to say, “Well, I didn’t write that one, but I wrote the one about the school teacher,” and they say, “School teacher? I don’t remember that one.”

But I loved that one, too!

Yeah! It was really good. I liked it a lot, too. So when Dan said to me, “I want you to write Trilogy of Terror 2,” I said, “Under one condition: I get to write about the Zuni doll this time, because I’m sick of hearing everyone talk about how wonderful the Zuni doll was when I didn’t write the Zuni doll!” So I got to write the second one, and unfortunately the second one didn’t have the impact of the first one, but that’s the way life is. Karen Black was just so good in that first one.

Your Turn of the Screw adaptation was something I really enjoyed as well.

Yes. Lynn Redgrave played the Governess in that. That was a tough thing to do because I had to take Henry James’ great story and extend it to a two-night ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment for America, so I had to extend it and yet keep the aura and the dialogue and everything that he might have used. I was really pleased to see that critics said, “Nolan really studied James, because he did an excellent job with the script.” That meant a lot to me. It really was a tough job to extend it because it’s so perfect just the way it is.

My favorite scene in it is when she goes in for the interview and he says, “Open your mouth and let me see your teeth.” Like a horse — you check the teeth to see the age of the horse.

So yes, I did a lot of television and films, but most of my horror writing has really been in short story form. I’ve got a book coming out next year that’s part of the series Masters of the Weird Tale from Jerad Walters at Centipede Press. I’ve got eighty stories in that — it’s like 300,000 words. I told him, “It’s gonna be so big that if you drop it on your foot it’ll break your foot!” But it’ll be a good showcase of my work.

Your short story “Small World” is one of my all-time favorites.

That one’s been reprinted more than any other story of mine — it’s been in about twenty-five books, under the titles “Small World” or “The Under Dweller.” It’s also been out under the title “The Small World of Lewis Stillman.”

One of the things I loved about that story was how you used Los Angeles.

Those storm drains under L.A. really exist. They’re not sewage. Somebody said he lived in the sewers, and I said, “No, no, he didn’t live in the sewers — that’s gross! He lived in these very clean concrete waterways.” He’s built a little platform on a ledge above the floor so the water can pass under him, and he lived there. I’m proud of the double twist at the story’s end. I’m really glad you liked that one. Writing is great. People say, “When are you going to take a vacation?” I say, “My whole life is a vacation!” I love writing. I just love it! I just finished an essay last week, and a new poem this week, about a witch that lives in the forest. I don’t need a vacation!

Did you have other jobs before becoming a professional writer?

Oh God, yes. Every writer has jobs. And thank God for that, because you can use all the experiences you had on those jobs in your writing later on. I ran a miniature train in Griffith Park — I was the conductor. I worked for Hallmark Cards as a cartoonist/writer in Kansas City, where I was born and grew up.

You’re also fairly skilled as an artist, aren’t you?

I’m okay. When I was in high school, I did a cartoon for the high school paper and I illustrated the yearbook and all . . . pretty bad stuff. But I got better.

Were you writing then, too?

Yeah, the first thing I ever had printed was a poem in our high school newspaper, when I was thirteen. That started my writing career in a way. I wrote some nonfiction pieces for the paper, and then I created a comic strip for the paper called “Freshman Frankie,” about this little tiny guy and he’s very unhappy being small. It ran for twelve issues. He would get these friends to try and stretch him out by pulling on ropes, and he’s still small. Finally at the end he realizes that we should all be who we are and not try to be someone else, and if being small is who he is, then he’s happy being small. He goes down the road at the end singing. It made a moral point about accepting yourself.

I won some awards for art, and I had my own art studio in San Diego in Balboa Park. I had a showing of all my work there, and the curator of the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery gave me a great review. He said, “This stuff is really good,” so for years I thought I was going to be a commercial artist. And then one day I had this idea for a story about a woman with a false bosom. So she becomes a major star because of this false bosom, and then at the end they find out she’s flat-chested. I sold that for five-hundred dollars, and I wrote it in an hour. And I thought, “Hold on a minute — I’m in the wrong business. I wrote this in an hour and I made five-hundred bucks?” So I started writing a lot more than cartooning, and that’s how I ended up as a writer.

And your first major genre sale was to If Magazine, wasn’t it?

If Magazine published my story “The Joy of Living.” There’s an interesting incident connected to that story. One of my dearest friends in the world was Ray Bradbury. In fact, on his death bed, his voice was almost gone, and he said, “C’mon, come here, I’ve got something to say, get close to me . . .” So I leaned over him, and he said, “Thank you for being in my life.” That still chokes me up to think about it. Anyway, not long after I first met him he said, “I’m going to Ireland to work on Moby Dick for John Huston, and I think you’ve got real talent as a writer but don’t send me anything to look at because I’ll be real busy writing Moby Dick . . . unless you think you’ve written a story that’s exceptionally good and that I might like.” And so I wrote a version of “The Joy of Living,” and I sent it to him in Ireland. And he said, “This is a wonderful story — very fine — and you are definitely a writer. You understand imagery and dialogue . . . however, your ending is terrible. You have him fall in love with this robot he’s hired to take care of his children, and at the end she’s crying as they’re taking her back to the factory. You can’t take her back to that factory! She has to go back home.” So that’s what I did, and I made the sale. Ray wrote that ending for me, really. That my first sale. I got a hundred dollars for it, and I still have a copy of that check taped to my wall.

Then, when I was working for Hollywood, I made eighty-thousand dollars for one screenplay — you’ve got to write a lot of short stories to make eighty-thousand dollars! So I do miss working for the industry. I worked for thirty-three years in films and television. I’m too old now to do it, but I’m still writing short stories.

I’m not going to quit writing. I think the only way to exist as a writer is to keep writing. It’s oxygen, it’s lifeblood. I was at a convention one time and this woman comes up to me and says, “Mr. Nolan, why do you write, write, write?” And I said, “Why do you breathe, breathe, breathe?” Then I walked away.

But I love writing. The key to writing is to write something every day. You can’t say, “Well, next week I’ll start something, or next month.” You gotta write something every day. I taught creative writing at a university in Bend, Oregon, and I said, “You have to read everybody.” This woman once came up to me and said, “I want to be a horror writer, so I read Stephen King.” And I said, “Well, that’s fine; now who else do you read?” And she said, “Nobody — just Stephen King.” And I said, “Oh my God, you’ll never make it. You gotta read Chandler and Hammett . . .” It’s okay to read horror — I think horror is wonderful, you’ve got Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood and M. R. James and Henry James — but you also gotta read Chandler, and Thurber, and Norman Mailer. You can’t limit yourself to one thing because writing is human emotion with people, whether it’s science fiction or horror or aviation or boxing stories. The key thing is to create a real person and touch the reader with that person. It can be any genre. I write in twelve different genres, and it’s all the same to me — it’s all writing. It’s all people. I create people and then I have them go through crises, and that’s what a short story is.

You were part of the whole circle they call either “The Group” or the “California Sorcerers” . . .

The California Group was eleven people; nine of them are dead now. Two are alive — myself and George Clayton Johnson. The rest are dead — Bradbury’s dead, Matheson’s dead, OCee Ritch is dead, Jerry Sohl is dead, Charles Fritch is dead, Ray Russell’s dead, Charles Beaumont’s dead . . . they’re all gone. George and myself are the last two — the Logan’s Run guys are the last of the group.

What was it like to be part of that group?

It was wonderful. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without it. We used to stay up all night at all-night coffee shops and talk writing and editors and markets. We’d read our latest stories to each other and then the others would criticize it.

You’ve been writing so long and in so many genres, I’m just wondering how you approach writing horror from other genres.

Well, the first horror I remember reading in high school was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” — which a lot of people still love to this day. So I was influenced by science fiction from H. G. Wells, and horror from Algernon Blackwood, and the westerns of Max Brand. The work of Max Brand taught me a very important lesson: that action can reveal character. You don’t have to tell what a character is like, you don’t have to explain anything, you don’t have to have dialogue. So I learned that from the westerns of Max Brand. He had a big influence on me.

But about horror . . . like so many other people, once I got a taste of it I couldn’t let go. It hangs on with you. I’d go do science fiction or whatever, but I kept coming back to horror. The kind of horror I write is about something twisted in the mind of somebody. Charles Beaumont called it, “The fiend in you.” The human brain is the fiend in all of us. Most of my stories deal with some kind of psychic or brain disorder. “Small World” didn’t, and not all of them do, but that’s a subject that I’m very interested in. Horror is a way to explore the darker side in people. We all have our dark side and our light side. Horror has stuck with me and I can’t get rid of it. It’s like it’s a growth on me. But I love it and I’ll never abandon it completely. I’ve been writing long enough to know what I’m gonna do and what I’m not gonna do, and I’m not going to ever abandon horror.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.