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Beware of Doug: Douglas Clegg on Life as a Horror Writer

The nomad of horror fiction finds fear in diverse settings.

By Denise Dumars     April 12, 2000

From the desert communities of California's heartland to the crumbling infrastructure of New York City, the settings of Douglas Clegg's horror fiction reflect his own wanderlust. But no matter how far from his origins Clegg travels, he always comes back to one thing: horror fiction. His fan base also reflects diversity: from his fellow horror writers to fans of splatterpunk to readers of supernatural horror and mysteries, Clegg's fans find a common thread in his fiction--his love of the dark fantastic.

'I started writing at about the age of 9, but it still took me until I was about 27 or so to actually write a novel and submit it to a publishing house--that was my first book, GOAT DANCE,' says Clegg, a tall, dark and rather shy fellow. 'I had been writing and editing nonfiction for a living before this, but had not really committed to writing a novel, and then one began to come together and I decided to sit down and write it out. About a year after I finished it, it was bought and then published a bit after that.'

The 'H' word is one that many writers don't like being pegged with, and Clegg is also ambivalent about it. 'I don't write in any one genreit's just that every time I write a story or a novel, it seems to get scary or dark. I just go with it.'

After authoring several paperback originals under his own name, Clegg published BAD KARMA, his first big hardcover novel, under the pseudonym Andrew Harper. 'I used a pseudonym for fun and because I felt BAD KARMA was different from my other novels to the point where I wanted to somehow shout to the people who'd read my other novels that it wasn't a supernatural story.'

BAD KARMA is a story of Agnes Hatcher, a female serial killerimagine Sharon Stone as Hannibal Lecter--who is obsessed with the doctor who treated her at a hospital for the criminally insane. In the novel, she escapes, and threatens him and his family. Though there is no overt supernatural horror in the book, a case could be made that the serial killer's idée fixe that she and her doctor were lovers in another life just might be true.

Clegg regretted the pseudonym, but by then the book was printed. 'I did try to get my name on it just before publication, but it was too late. I had begun to feel, and I still do, that a writer should put his name on everything he writes because it adds some kind of karma of its own to the book.'

BAD KARMA was consistently shelved in the Mystery section of bookstores. Clegg shrugs. 'BAD KARMA sold well--it was not that successful as a hardcover, but it did extremely well when it came out in paperback. And regarding the Mystery shelving, I have no idea. It was a pretty brutal little thriller, so I imagine people going to Mystery cozies would've hated it. However, I have to admit, the mystery bookstores definitely supported it--as they do many thrillers, and I was happy with that.'

Many readers might think that BAD KARMA would make good movie material, and apparently Hollywood thinks so too. 'BAD KARMA was optioned first awhile back by a company that made cable movies, but the option lapsed. I forgot all about it, and figured it would never interest anyone else in Hollywood. Then, out of the blue, my Hollywood agent called to tell me it looked like it was a go with a new company called American World Pictures. I'm hoping they get someone fun to play Agnes Hatcher.'

Clegg has spoken of his latest novel, YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU, just out from Leisure in paperback and in hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, as the book that's been in his head for several years. 'I pretty much began writing it--in a short form--in 1985 or so. I didn't get to writing further on it until 1987, at which point I wrote what I figured was half of YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU at 700 pages. Then over the next year or two, this book went to 2000 pages. Well, that was too long. So I spent the next few years just cutting and revising and really focusing on the characters more so than I had in my other novels. I wanted to really know who they were in the flesh, and make what they went through believable. It just took that long. When I turned YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU in, I had cut at least 2 pages for every 1 that appeared in the final draft of the book. Books can take time, and as a writer, you just have to let them.'

YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU is a densely packed novel that is horrific in both a supernatural and a realistic sense. It's not for the faint of heart; it pulls no punches in its description of carnage by agents of a supernatural power, who are themselves both horrified by and yet compelled to do what this power wants them to do. As an introduction to Clegg's power as a writer of supernatural horror, one could not go wrong by starting with this book. When I ask Clegg about this, he replies, 'I would definitely pick YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU as a book to pick up if the reader hasn't read any of my others. I think it's a solid story with a strong sense of character.'

THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES, a fabulous collection of short horror fiction, is currently nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. It begins with a frame story of kidnappers whose victim is not who they think he is. It seems almost like a way for the publisher to unify the stories, and thereby attract readers who don't usually like anthologies, but Clegg disputes this theory. 'The frame story came about because I like frame stories with fiction collections, and THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES is a bit of an homage to Ray Bradbury's THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN. It definitely was my idea and not my publisher's. In fact, anything that's in one of my novels or stories is all my own, warts and everything.'

The two most outstanding stories in the book: 'White Chapel' and 'I Am Infinite; I Contain Multitudes,' are both graphically horrific, yet they are much, much more than mere horror tales. 'White Chapel,' while obviously a reference to Jack the Ripper, seems primarily to be Clegg's take on HEART OF DARKNESS. Regarding 'White Chapel,' he says, 'This is one of those stories that was, for me, inspired more by Conrad's LORD JIM than HEART OF DARKNESS. But I can understand the comparison. I just saw this woman who was an adventurer with a journalist's curiosity, pursuing a mystery down a brown river in intolerable heat. That was the first image that came to me. Then I saw the people in the boat with her--Jim, who is named for Lord Jim and is the boatman, and Greer and Lucy, a British couple right out of Forster, and Jane Boone's assistant, a recovering addict who takes good photos to go with her articles. Once they began interacting, the story grew,' he explains.

'I Am Infinite, I Contain Multitudes,' is a story that takes place in a prison that is also a hospital for the criminally insane. A long-time inmate, Hype, believes he is God. He tells another inmate, whom he calls Doer, that he can break him out of the place. But Doer's lover, Joe, doesn't want him to go. The ending of the story completely surprised this reviewer, which, considering how much horror fiction I read, is no mean feat. Yet for all the story's success Clegg seems uncomfortable discussing it.

'This is a story I'm fairly ambivalent about. I had done a good deal of research, both in books and up-close, about hospitals for the criminally insane, and their histories. This went into BAD KARMA, but the [material] from these places is so rich, it leaked into other stories such as this one. I saw Hype across the yard, and I knew my narrator quickly, what his crime had been, and pretty soon his lover, Joe, entered the picture. Joe, with all his perversities and real sense of love and loyalty.'
The real-life horrors that Clegg learned about in his research informed the story. 'Below one of the actual hospitals I studied, there was a bunker-type area that had once housed menopausal women who had been institutionalized by their controlling husbands, along with criminally insane, along with schizophrenics, along with tuberculosis patients--all pretty much treated like animals in some ancient world that we're not so far removed from. I thought of those people, down in what amounted to a catacomb, and the story came. I don't really love the disgusting aspect of the story--that is, Joe's particular erotic fondness for wounds--but this is certainly something I discovered in my research, and Joe seemed to have arrived with this fixation.'

Another common theme in Clegg's stories is that of the victim as perhaps not a willing, but yet a grateful, victim. 'The idea of a grateful victim is something I see in the world, and I wish I didn't. To blame the person who most obviously perpetrates an act that seems senseless and cruel is to forget that someone else allowed that act to take place. This doesn't apply to all victimizers, certainly. But I can't help but think that part of human nature is the balance between the actor and the acted-upon,' he says.

Much of Clegg's work fits into the literary technique of 'setting as character.' 'Setting is the most important thing to me outside of character,' he states, 'and I can't imagine a particular character without the setting surrounding them. Before I start a story or novel, I have to have a solid sense of where this story must take place. The smells in the air, the history of the land beneath the character's feet, the industry, the shapes of houses, the way the sun sets--everything.'

Write what you know--that's the dictum. And Clegg knows his locales. 'I have traveled a lot since I was a little kid--I lived all over the place, and then, as an adult, I have moved around quite a bit. In my novels, there's not one setting that exists that I actually have not lived in and around for at least a year or more. I really love the world. That sounds nuts, but I love the differences; I love the architecture; I love the woods, and I love the varied wildlife and domestic life of all places. I can imagine myself living happily in any number of places, and I seem to do this, too. So when I live somewhere, I research the area, I find the local gossip, the folklore, the tone and voice of the place as best I can, and then a story begins to present itself to me in this place. I believe the only story of mine set in a place I have not been is 'White Chapel,' but Asia and India are two places I dream of and long for, so it was like going someplace that I had already been to in a dream when I wrote that story.'

One of Clegg's novels, NAOMI, appeared first as a free e-serial. 'NAOMI did well to the extent that I had a great time writing it, and thousands subscribed to get it free. It'll be out in hardcover in August from Subterranean Press in 2000, and then in paperback sometime in 2001.'

Clegg plans to repeat his online success with a new novel. 'NIGHTMARE HOUSE, my e-mail serial novel that begins on July 30, 2000, is the first in a group of books about a particular haunting. To read more about it, people can visit my webpage--there's an excerpt and some fun stuff there. NIGHTMARE HOUSE is set in the 1920s, and is the story about a young man whose life has not worked out as he wanted it to. He has inherited this grand house on the Hudson Valley, and he finds that his grandfather, who left him the house, had a particular mania and created something truly remarkable--and terrifying--with Harrow.'

The specialty press Cemetery Dance Publications has issued several items of interest to Clegg's fans. 'Rich Chizmar at Cemetery Dance Publications is probably the most interesting and successful [specialty] publisher I've known. I was thrilled when he wanted to do YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU in limited edition hardcover, and then MISCHIEF [in July], PURITY [a novella], and the eventual limited edition hardcover of NIGHTMARE HOUSE [in 2001]. Cemetery Dance Publications also has sponsored NIGHTMARE HOUSE's e-mail run, which means they pay me to give the e-mail serial for free to subscribers--now, that's a good deal. I can't say enough good about that guy and his company. He also has an amazing roster of novels out in 2000--mine was probably the least significant on his list, but I'm just happy to be there.'

After NIGHTMARE HOUSE comes another novel, called MISCHIEF. Clegg clearly wants to reinvigorate the haunted house genre. 'MISCHIEF is the second book about Harrow, the haunted house of NIGHTMARE HOUSE. I want to do something epic with the haunted house form. While NIGHTMARE HOUSE takes place in the 1920s, MISCHIEF takes place in present day. Harrow is now Harrow Academy, and in the year 2000, a boy is at the school who seems to wake the dormant darkness of the house.'

And there's yet more to come of the tales of haunted Harrow. 'I'm planning a third novel for Harrow, called THE INFINITE, set after MISCHIEF, when parapsychologists and skeptics come to the house to investigate the source of its horror. Each of these three novels is completely independent of the other two--except for the house itself, which dominates each and provides the catalyst for the stories.'

Like many writers, Clegg was an English major in college. 'I graduated from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, with a major in English Lit.' When Clegg lived in Los Angeles he was part of the infamous group that met at Gary (THE HOWLING) Brander's house for horror writing workshops that inevitable turned into parties. Richard Laymon, William Relling, and many others were a part of the group. He tells us about the experience. 'I just remember going to Gary's house and drinking a lot and meeting all the writers I had ever read in the genre who I didn't think would even say 'Boo!' to me--and finding out there were a fun crowd,' he laughs. 'Come to think of it, I met a lot of people who became good friends there. I miss those days. Now, a hot Saturday night is when I drink coffee and stay up late with a caffeine buzz,' he says.

Clegg was one of the few survivors of the horror putsch in the early 1990s. 'Ah, the questions!' he sighs. 'I don't see myself as a survivor. I just write what I write and I find a way to get it out there because I like doing it. Why did it fall apart? Everyone has a theory, but my only thought toward this is: I've always ignored what was going on in the market. I write what I believe in; I write about what I observe; I go with my imagination as it moves me, and drive onward,' he says, and this discussion generates some strong words from the soft-spoken Clegg. 'I think it's silly when writers and editors pronounce horror dead just because they have no interest in it. No genre is dead unless the people who believe in that kind of book stop writing. In fact, I'm sort of tired of what has become an annual shtick of people getting up at conventions as self-appointed experts and claiming any number of things about the death of horror fiction. Sometimes I feel like these are people bemoaning their lost youths. I say: get over it and let the ghosts come through!'

In other words, get on with your lives. Clegg does bemoan, however, the loss of Dell Abyss, one of the most innovative of the horror publishing lines. 'I think the basic reason Dell Abyss shut down was because the person who had envisioned it and believed in it, Jeanne Cavelos, left publishing. Dell Abyss had a great run. I'm happy that Jeanne bought my novel THE CHILDREN'S HOUR--Dell did a nice job with that book, and my subsequent editor, Jacob Hoye, was superb.'

All this talk of writing brings up a question I've been wanting to ask Clegg for a long time: with his love of setting, the depth of his characters, the impressiveness of his research and the layers of themes in his writing, when is he going to write 'the Great American Novel?' 'When I write a novel, I write to the best of whatever talent I have. There is no Great American Novel out there. If I've got one, it'll probably have nightmares, monsters, and the occasional bogeyman lurking around its pages. But thanks for the compliment!'

He ends with this, the shy and unassuming side of Clegg reasserting itself.

Visit Clegg's website at www.douglasclegg.com

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