Horror author and Monster Kid Tim Curran freely, and of his own will, steps into the closet after his long terror-filled voyage in Dead Sea to talk about his latest novel, and the singular craft of writing horror.
When did the horror bug first take a bite out of you?
It took hold of me when I was very young. I remember my mom taking me and my sisters to the movies to see that Vincent Price/Poe adaptation, The Oblong Box. I knew we were going for days and I was terrified about it. There was an ad for it on the back of a magazine my sister had--a coffin, I think, with hands rising from it. That image burned itself into me and wouldn’t let go. The movie scared the hell out of me. I had nightmares for weeks. My older sisters were all Dark Shadows fanatics and they made me watch it with them. By then I loved horror. They were always dragging me to scary movies, a lot of the Poe stuff and Hammer films. We were always watching Night Gallery and re-runs of The Hitchcock Hour and Thriller with Boris Karloff, One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits. Wasn’t long before I traded in my Batman comic books for Monster of Frankenstein, Dead of Night, and The Vault of Evil.
I started buying Famous Monsters and Creepy, catching the old Universal flicks on Eerie Street out of Green Bay. And when we got cable, I became an addict of The Ghoul and all those great ‘50’s B-movies like Fiend without a Face, Not of This Earth, and Frankenstein 1970 that they showed along with the usual Saturday Night madness.
I was like any horror/monster fan of the 1970’s…I built all the Aurora monster models, Monster Scenes, Prehistoric Scenes. Collected the magazines and books and Don Post masks, put posters of Frankenstein and Dracula up on the walls.
When did you realize you wanted to be a horror genre writer?
I knew I wanted to write horror stories when I was like thirteen and I read Pigeons from Hell by Robert E. Howard in the paperback of the same name. The Howard book had a cool Jeff Jones painting of a dinosaur wading into the surf. That’s why I bought it. The first story in there was Pigeons from Hell and it scared me pretty good. I still think it’s one of the greatest horror stories ever written. But that first reading…all that imagery stayed in my mind. After that, I went after horror fiction with a fervor.
Next came Lovecraft and all the rest. I used to order those anthologies out of the back of Creepy, you know the Ballantine Lovecrafts, Pan Books of Horror, Alden H. Norton anthos, all of that. That’s where it all started.
Why write horror? Wouldn't romance be easier?
Romance would not only be easier, but more profitable, I’m sure. But it would never satisfy me. Not like horror does. It’s in my blood. I need to write. I don’t think I really have a choice in the matter. I don’t have the necessary skills or temperament to write anything else. You know, I’m not dark or weird at all, I’m very normal. Pretty optimistic and light-hearted. And I think that’s because I get all my demons down on paper. I guess it’s almost like self-therapy of a sort.
Tell us about your novel, Dead Sea, and how you came to write it.
I wrote Dead Sea because I just love sea lore and history, the weird varieties of ocean life, and probably because there’s something very mysterious and even spooky about the immensity of the seas themselves. That and the fact that I’ve been a big fan of William Hope Hodgson’s weird sea tales ever since reading his story, The Habitants of Middle Islet.
Dead Sea encompasses a lot of Hodgson’s ideas, a lot of the sea-based horror that has come since, and, of course, the reams of folklore that have come from generations of sailors: sea monsters, ghosts ships, disappearances at sea etc. It gave me a chance to incorporate a lot of those things and mix them up with Sargasso Sea legends and Bermuda Triangle myths/mysteries. In most of these types of stories, a ship or a plane will disappear in those areas and then people will try to figure out where they went . In Dead Sea, I dispensed with that angle. Instead, I show you where they went: a fog-bound, primordial dimension where the wrecks of ships and planes from throughout history are rotting in immense banks of seaweed. A place haunted by ghosts and monsters, alien monstrosities and things that were once human.
In the story, this dimension is the real inspiration for the Sargasso Sea tales. Dead Sea, then, becomes essentially a survival tale as a group of the lost try to stay alive so they can figure a way to get back into their own time/space while avoiding and battling the numerous horrors in the mist and weed, and particularly the devil of that dimension itself; something that feeds on human fear and human souls.
In your novel, Hive, you wrote a sequel to Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. What is it about Lovecraft's work that led you to do that?
Hive was one of those projects that had a mind of its own. I often felt like it was dictating itself to me. I set out to write a short story. Then it became a novella and then a novel and Elder Signs Press was kind enough to publish it.
I liked Lovecraft’s novella. I read it when I was a teenager for the first time. And through the years, my memory of it got a little convoluted. I remembered it as concerning a race of aliens that are discovered in Antarctica along with the ruins of their primeval cities that predate mankind. I had that much right. But in my memory, the aliens were scary and evil. But when I decided to write a story based on Mountains, I re-read the novella and discovered that my memory of it was partially erroneous: Lovecraft’s aliens, the Old Ones, were only scary for like the first half of his tale, then he approached them sympathetically. Showing us that the real horror was a shape-shifting group of creatures they had created called Shoggoths which had destroyed the Old Ones and their civilization.
Lovecraft went into great detail concerning the Old Ones’ history and culture, their battle with other alien races and their destruction by the Shoggoths etc. He went for the science-fantasy angle. That didn’t work for me at all. My original memory/concept of the Old Ones had them being extremely malignant and awful, not cuddly and misunderstood, victims of elitist class struggle. So when I did Hive, I tossed out most of Lovecraft’s ideas, staying with my own image of them, approaching it as a horror story.
I set Hive in the modern world as opposed to the 1930’s in Lovecraft’s story. The actual discovery of warm-water lakes beneath the Antarctic glaciers and NASA’s plans to drill down to them using cryobot technology as will be used to penetrate the poles of Mars and the ice sheets of Jupiter’s moons, Europe and Callisto, was what got me really going on it. I saw all kinds of possibilities. My novel is set in an Antarctic research station where a group of scientists discover the ruins of the Old Ones’ city in a sprawling subterranean network. They bring back mummies of the Old Ones and it’s discovered that although they’re physically dead, their psychically still active. Our minds coming into contact with them activate them and they begin draining our psychic energies. Then a NASA team drills down to a lake that has been locked beneath the ice sheet for 40 million years. What’s down there coupled with those dead alien minds will harvest the psychic energy of the human race on a global scale. Along the way, we realize that the Old Ones created life on Earth and engineered intelligence into it so that when the human race became populous enough and intelligent enough, they would harvest us like a crop. They seeded us and now they’ll harvest us. Something they have done with hundreds of races on hundreds of worlds. So, realistically, Hive is inspired by At the Mountains of Madness, rather than a direct sequel to it.
What's a 'writing day' in the life of Tim Curran like?
Well, I work a real job like everyone else. I put eight hours in a factory and when I get home, I write. I knock out about two-and-a-half or three hours of writing a day. More on the weekends. It’s like playing guitar or juggling…if you don’t discipline yourself to do it every day, you’ll never develop the necessary skills.
Which authors influence you the most?
I’m influenced by just about everyone. Lovecraft and Bradbury, King and Campbell, old writers and new. I really like the British author, Phil Rickman. Rickman’s just great. He’s like M. R. James, using all that ancient paganism and dark lore, having it rise up from the past to haunt the future. Thomas Ligotti is another of my favorites. Brian McNaughton, too. He’s incredible. I like a lot of non-horror authors like Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, David Morrel. These guys can teach you a lot.
How do you do it? What's your formula for writing?
I don’t know if I have a formula exactly. With me, I get an idea and it’s usually months or years before I actually write it. I just leave it in my head and let it develop itself. Now and again, something will jump into my head fully-fleshed and I’ll knock it out. But usually, ideas seem to brew and come together in their own time.
Where do you go for story ideas?
I get my ideas same place everyone else does: everywhere. There’s no specific place. I see something, I read something, I hear about something…it inspires me. I think it’s really pure imagination. Just looking at something and seeing something in it ordinary people wouldn’t. To them, an empty farmhouse is just an empty farmhouse, to me it’s something else, it’s empty for a diabolic reason. And that can be applied to everything. I see shadows everywhere…and the things that throw them. Ideas just fly at you out of the blue and you just have to be ready to catch them when they do. You have to exercise your imagination machine constantly and daydreaming always works for me. Just opening your mind.
Do you have any favorite horror movies?
I love all the good stuff and the bad stuff. Old ones and new ones. I appreciate the subtle nuances of the Val Lewton films just as I appreciate the more graphic horrors of Halloween, or The Evil Dead. I like silent movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the old Universals and Hammer films. In recent years, I really liked The Grudge, Dead Silence, The Boogeyman, because all three of those had incredible atmosphere. And instead of the usual gore stuff, they were actually scary. When I was a kid they always had those spooky TV movies-of-the-week, things like Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Gargoyles, and The Night Stalker. All of those. They scared me pretty bad and probably have a lot more to do with what I write than any of the cinematic stuff.
Can you give some advice to neophyte writers?
Yes: discipline yourself. First and foremost. Write every day. If you have the talent, it will bloom and amaze you. If you don’t, you’ll realize that, too. But the only way to find out is by writing and writing and writing. It’s tough. It’s much more fun to drink beer and watch TV, but that’s the only way to do it. Write every day. Read every day. Unlock what’s inside you. Get used to the fact that you’re going to be lonely because you won’t have time for a social life.
What projects are next on your agenda?
Right now I’m working on Swarm, the sequel to Hive. William Jones at ESP suggested doing Hive as a trilogy and it sounded like a fun idea to me. Swarm will be very large in scale. Though it’s set in the present in Antarctica , there’ll be lots of flashbacks to earlier Antarctic expeditions. The Old Ones will swarm, rise up in numbers to fulfill their prophesy of harvesting the human race. I’ve thrown everything into this one…Old Ones, Shoggoths, alien ghosts, the hive-mind. We’ll actually get down into the alien hive this time, as well as back down to that dawn city beneath the lake and the ruins beneath the mountains. As world civilization collapses and long-buried alien imperatives implanted in the human psyche rise up to overwhelm the human race and turn it into an alien colony that can be harvested en masse, people trapped down in Antarctica will have to accept that they’re at the very epicenter of the trouble and must fight against it.
Other than the Hive trilogy, I’ve just written a huge apocalyptic zombie novel called The Resurrection that combines supernatural horror with science fiction as Army limb regeneration experiments combined with Medieval sorcery bring the dead back to life and open the gates of Hell. Torrential rains flood a city and rain down what the Army was working on and the city becomes a sinking graveyard of floating corpses, the undead, mutants, plagues of rats and flies.
I’m also working on a novel called Hell Mary which puts a new twist on the old Bloody Mary/mirror witch thing. Hell Mary is the demonic spirit of Jack the Ripper’s final victim, Mary Kelly, whose gruesome death and dissection was recorded in a mirror. When the mirror game is played, Hell Mary is summoned as a hacked and stitched together wraith that slaughters without mercy, recreating her own horrible death again and again.
Also, Red Scream Films is planning to do a film version of my zombie story Mortuary. I’ve also written a script for an upcoming movie of theirs called Ice Vampyres. So that’s pretty cool. And I’ve had some film interest in Hive. I’d really like to see that get made because I think my variation of Lovecraft’s themes combined with a contemporary Antarctic setting and cutting-edge scientific technology would make for one hell of a ride.
What question would you love to be asked and what's your answer?
I would love to be asked about that strain of hereditary madness in my family. I would answer it by first vehemently denying any such thing, then drooling and giggling as I led you up the stairs to the locked room where my insane sister is kept.