Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Seductions was my first novel. I couldn’t close my mouth the first time I saw the book and held it in my hands. A half-naked woman dangled from the dripping, embossed letters of the title, which were written in glimmering blood-red foil. It was lurid. It was garish. And I was thrilled. That meant it would fit right in with all the other lurid, garish, blood-dripping paperback covers on the shelves in every book store, grocery store, convenience store, pharmacy, truck stop and airport in the country. I was in! The novel’s publication owed a great deal to luck. I was in the right place at the right time.
It was published in 1984, a wonderful time to be a horror fan. I think the roots of the horror genre’s enormous popularity at that time were in the success of Ira Levin’s terrifying 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby, which became a huge bestseller, putting the modern horror novel on the publishing map. It came along in a period when the country was beginning to go through startling changes, when the United States was involved in a controversial war that was eating up our young before our eyes on the evening news, when old traditions and ideas were being left behind by some and actively torn down by others. The previous year, Time magazine had run a cover that asked the question “Is God Dead?” and Anton LaVey had established the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Levin’s novel struck a cord with readers and sold over four million copies. The following year saw the release of Roman Polanski’s movie adaptation, which was a huge success, and which remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest horror movies ever made.
As the 1970s got underway, Satan was big in America. Levin’s book and Polanski’s movie had launched a Satanic trend that seemed to take over the genre in fiction and film. Novels like Fred Mustard Stewart’s The Mephisto Waltz and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist were turned into successful movies. The Exorcist, in particular, was a blockbuster hit that had lines going around the block wherever it played and injected the trend with steroids. Whether it was black-robed Satan worshipers in movies like The Brotherhood of Satan, Race with the Devil, or The Devil’s Rain, or the devil and his minions in The Omen, To the Devil, a Daughter, The Sentinal, The Legacy, and so many others, Satan was a big enough box office draw to compete with Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. There were made-for-TV movies like Satan’s Triangle and Satan’s School for Girls. He possessed a baby on the network sitcom Soap. I even remember an episode of Mannix in which the detective was up against a Satanic cult. Satan was everywhere.
If Satan wasn’t your speed, there was the new guy who was blowing everybody away with one scary-as-hell novel after another, Stephen King. His first novel, Carrie was a runaway hit, and Brian De Palma’s movie was iconic. King brought the horror genre into the modern world, even into the mainstream. He filled it with McDonalds and Burger Kings and familiar brands and products, and populated it with real people we recognized, people we cared for and wanted to follow. That world was also occupied by real horrors like cancer and crib death and mental illness, so that the horror, no matter how wild and supernatural, always took place in the real world where we all lived. He entertained us with excruciatingly terrifying stories while showing us ourselves and the world in which we lived. And with those novels came a wave of Stephen King movie adaptations. Each new King bestseller and movie adaptation fed the wave of popularity the genre was riding.
By the late 1970s, the horror boom was booming. Genre novels were everywhere from writers like the astonishingly prolific Graham Masterton, who’s 1975 novel The Manitou was a bestseller and became a popular movie starring Tony Curtis, to former movie actor Thomas Tryon, whose elegantly written novels The Other and Harvest Home were bestsellers and adapted into a popular movie and TV miniseries respectively. At least one horror movie, and often more, was opening every weekend, whether it was a glossy studio offering at the local movie house or a tacky exploitation movie at the drive-in. Horror was everywhere.
It was into this stream that I dove when Seductions was published in 1984. Publishers were buying up horror novels as fast as they could be written, and every book store had a sizeable horror section. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I agree with Woody Allen, who said, “People are afraid to acknowledge or to face what huge dependency they have on luck.”
An advance reading copy had been sent to Robert Bloch, among other writers. Bloch replied to my editor with a letter explaining that he could not endorse Seductions because he was too disturbed by the close relationship between sex and violence in the book. I was flabbergasted that I had “disturbed” the man who wrote Psycho. In the late summer of 1984, a few months before Seductions was published, I met Bloch at a convention. I introduced myself and mentioned his response to my book. “Ah, yes,” he said, clamping his cigarette holder between his teeth. “You’re unwell.”
I had found a literary agent by accident. That, by the way, is the only reliable way to find one, because there’s never one around who’s interested when you’re actually looking. He was a friend of an ex-girlfriend’s father, and once we connected, I sent him some short stories. He said they were good, but he didn’t sell short stories. Did I have a novel? Of course, I said! I was halfway through one and would send it to him as soon as it was finished. That was ... less than factual. I was not working on a novel. But I decided to get to work on one fast.
I knew I wanted it to be erotic, but that was all I knew. I thought sex and horror were a perfect match, because when are we more vulnerable, more naked, than when we’re engaged in sex? I was barely twenty when I wrote Seductions, and keep in mind that I was a very sheltered and inexperienced twenty-year-old. That may explain the book’s high school setting. In fact, it may explain a lot. I’d recently read an interview with Stephen King (I think it was in Playboy) in which he’d mentioned that he liked the idea of vagina dentata but had been unable to come up with a way to use it in a book. I latched onto that, never giving a thought to how much it would endear me to feminists everywhere.
I was living with my parents for most of the time that I was writing Seductions. One morning, I got up and went to the kitchen for some breakfast, where Mom was waiting for me. My unfinished manuscript was on the kitchen table. Mom had been unable to sleep the night before, so she read what I was writing, and now she wanted to talk about it. Oh, goodie. It’s important to note that my mother, a very religious woman, was, if possible, even more sheltered and naive than I at that point. To this day, she thinks an orgasm is a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole. Our conversation went something like this:
“I read your book last night.”
“What did you think?”
“Well, you know I don’t care for that kind of story. It’s well written, but ... I know things have changed and it’s no big deal to write about things like sex, but ... well, they don’t really swallow it, do they?”
“Oh. And ... how do you know?”
“I read a lot.”
My first novel did not set the world on fire. America was not seized by vagina dentata fever. Best of all, there was no merchandising, which would have led to nothing good. But the book put me on the map. After that, I simply refused to go away.
Seductions is now available for Kindle at Amazon, and for Nook at Barnes and Noble. For information about all my work and updates on new releases, please visit my website at RayGartonOnline.com.