Mort Castle is an award winning author who has over 500 short stories and 17 books to his name. When he isn’t hammering out a great story, he is teaching creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. In addition to his 1984 novel, The Strangers, constantly demanding his attention with renewed film and international publication possibilities, Castle has been developing the anthology Shadow Show into a TV series. Wanting to learn more about his career and current projects, Castle allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what stories did you love reading? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Mort Castle: Hoo, great question. Remember reading more or less on my own the Little Golden Book entitled The Color Kittens. Early novels: the Howard Pyle Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the “somewhat autobiographical” novel, The Story of a Bad Boy, by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. (I’m friends with his great-great-(maybe a couple more greats) grandson or nephew, I forget which, a psychologist and film critic, David Bailey.)
Short stories, oh, yeah, and of course we have to begin with Poe, and I’ve told this story many times, but, hey, I’m old. I repeat myself.
Thank you, Mrs. Curlin, my teacher. She brought in the latest high tech educational media, a long playing phonograph record, and we eight year olds sat and listened to “Telltale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and were horrified.
Play that today and you’d have 23 school psychologists and a platoon of lawyers on the scene. These traumatized kids will be wetting the bed for decades.
I was enthralled and not traumatized because horror pushed the right buttons in my psyche and soul.
It scares so good!
The other classics, of course: “The Monkey’s Paw.” “The Most Dangerous Game.” “Young Goodman Brown.”
And, you know, there’s not a one I can’t go back to and enjoy and perhaps even gain new insights from—including The Color Kittens!
Yanes: On this note, you are a creative writing instructor. What are some stories you think all horror writers need to read?
Castle: All of Poe’s short stories–and the French commentary on Poe so you start seeing more than “ah, poetic arabesques of language but really … so old-fashioned.” Hemingway’s collected short stories and when you understand what Malcolm Cowley means in his essay “Nightmare and Ritual in Hemingway,” you’ll know why he matters to a horror writer.
Hemingway, man, I re-read the Finca Vigia story collection about once every 18 to 20 months and it still teaches me plenty.
Yes, there’s a datedness and clunkiness of language to much of Lovecraft, but when HPL really does it to you, as in the “The Colour Out of Space,” no modern master has done or can do it better.
Robert Bloch is so important, both for his ability to give us comedic shpritz and modern psychology in his horror. For the “let’s get Gothic and down home,” Flannery O’Connor.
Harlan Ellison, world’s oldest wunderkind, for his ferocity of thought and language.
And right now, in addition to the certifiable genius Stephan King, I’d strongly recommend you hit Dan Simmons and Robert R. McCammon for long form, and, short form, Dan Chaon.
Yanes: You have been publishing stories for decades. In regards to a writer getting their first work professionally published, how do you think this experience has changed over the years? Further, what advice do you offer your students on this point?
Castle: Yes, yes, tell ya now, sonny, when I was comin’ up, why, it was hard to get published.
And it still is. However, now thanks to, ahem, self-publication, indie authorness, ebooks, Kindle, Nook, Swindle, and Shmuck, why, we’ve eliminated those gate-keeping editors and publishers and everyone can be published…
Now, everyone can delude himself that he has been published because he threw some words onto a computer screen and transferred them to some ebook platform, where those words, many of them fairly close to English, will be read only by indulgent mothers who never learned about tough love and aspiring self-publishing writers (right) who will imitate the “get it while it’s free and worth every penny” success.
Never has it been so easy for so many to be so self-deluded and to aid others in becoming no less deluded.
My advice to my students: Learn to write. Writing is a craft and a craft can be learned and a craft can be taught.
Worry less about “platforms” and “social media” and “emerging technology” and…
You’ve got to have a product before you can sell it. Don’t delay learning how to make that product by throwing slapdash alleged thoughts into your endless “Tall Zombie” series of novels destined to be read by Mom and perhaps a tall zombie or two.
Yanes: Your book, The Strangers, was published in 1984 and it is still read. Why do you think this story has had such a long lifespan?
Castle: I managed to hit something that is a universal fear: That seeming nice guy with the smile and the shoeshine, your friend, your uncle, your dad, that ordinary dude has some Sabatier cutlery he wants to use on you, and will, if given the opportunity.
First time you really see your parents sleeping and it hits, They look so different. Are they … pretenders? What do they plan to…
Jim Thompson, definitely one of my influences, gave us The Killer Inside Me. That was one person.
I upped the ante. There are plenty of covert killers around the world, and when they unite…
The fear of “the other / the others” was with us in 1984. Now in the time of instant and incessant news bringing us the latest doings of “just a guy, you know,” swinging a machete at a pre-school playground, or aiming his Peterbilt 587 at a convention of Carmelite nuns or opening up with his vintage Thompson submachine gun at the Cineplex crowded with people at the reboot of The Sound of Music…The book triggers the fears we all have, if we are at all aware of the world.
Yanes: Do you have any long term goals for this novel? Would you like to see it as a movie?
Castle: Definitely want to see it as a film. Tim O’Rawe, film guy perhaps best known for his debut movie Ghoul School (“Where the Undead Meet the Uneducated”) did the screenplay.
Jeff Balis optioned it for Rick Rosenthal’s Whitewater Films, but, well you know for a film to happen, the heavenly stars have to be in perfect alignment, the dice of God have to be loaded, and the right Hollywood star has to say, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
Still think this ought to happen and of course I want it to. And could see this as a TV series as well.
If it doesn’t come about, well, at least we’ve tried. If it’s not meant to be, then all I can do is hold my breath and kick my heels on the sidewalk–really hard.
Yanes: A more recent project that is dominating your time is Shadow Show. What was the inspiration for Shadow Show?
Castle: As you know it began with the book called Shadow Show, and the subtitle really explains what the anthology was intended to be: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury. My co-editor is Sam Weller, who is Ray’s biographer and, in every way but DNA, was Ray’s son. It was Sam who went to the White House with Ray to receive the National Medal of the Arts from the President and Mrs. Laura Bush. (Mrs. Bush gave us a blurb for Shadow Show, as did Hugh Hefner, Stan Lee, and Joyce Carol Oates.)
Shadow Show got great reviews, won some major awards, including the Bram Stoker, got nominated for others, was published in a dozen foreign languages, got morphed into an audiobook (with Neil Gaiman, F. Murray Abraham, and additional voice performances by the team of Sam and Mort); jumped to four color format as a comics series and then an award winning graphic novel.
Then TV…You ask for the inspiration for the series? Well, the inspiration is what Ray Bradbury so willingly gave to all the contributors to the Shadow Show books and comics and to the world: Imagination.
And the transcendent imagination gives us well-made stories in honor of the Big Subject and the Big Question: What does it mean to be human?
So it’s moved beyond Ray now. And as gratified as he was at a tribute anthology, he recognized that all the people he influenced were out there “making story” and in his intro he praised them for the creative work they were doing.
Yanes: Shadow Show was a collection of stories in tribute to Ray Bradbury from great authors. What was this experience like? Were there any lessons you took away from it?
Castle: This might have been the easiest editing gig I’ve ever had; certainly it was the most joyous.
Anthology editors often rightly complain about the difficulty of getting “name authors” to contribute to a project.
All we had to do was say, “This is basically a love letter to Ray Bradbury,” and we heard, “I want in.” I don’t think there was a more universally loved author in modern times than Ray Douglas Bradbury.
One contributor hadn’t been asked yet–though we planned to contact her–and she went up to Sam and said, “Who do I have to kill to be in the book?”
I sent a contract to another (yeah, I’m not naming names) who said, “Oh, we’re going to be paid for contributions? I didn’t expect that. It’s nice, but you know I’d have given you a story for Ray.”
Truth: Our contributors are some of the biggest names in contemporary literature: Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, David Morrell, Alice Hoffman, Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers …There wasn’t a single prima donna, nor curmudgeon, nor archly temperamental egotist, IE, no jerks in the crew, just thoroughly professional writers who deeply appreciated the gifts Ray had bestowed on them and loved him for it.
A lesson? Yeah, the affirmative reminder that we are all in the literary trenches together, and that’s a lesson that I see many of the newbies to this writing thing sadly in need of learning.
Yanes: Shadow Show started off in print but is being developed into a show by Council Tree Productions. What are some elements of Shadow Show you look forward to the television medium highlighting?
Castle: Well, it actually began with 4 Maples Productions, the LLC consisting of Dave Moll, Dennis O’Connor, Mark Valadez and my own self putting together the proposal. The other three guys had considerable film and TV experience, Dave on Hill Street Blues, Dennis on classics like Weeds and most recently, the John Hancock Looking Glass, Mark writing for Scrubs, Perception, and Gang Related (Digression: How do you find copacetic partners? Well, two of these three guys were my high school students!) We took the Shadow Show concept as far as we could, getting Joey Pantoliano attached as exec producer and star of the proposed pilot.
We then took what we had to Joel Eisenberg and Council Tree. We needed someone who was Johnny on the spot, finger on the pulse, nose to the wheel and ear to the ground (well, cell phone). Have I just provided a perfect capsule description of Joel Eisenberg or have I? Joel’s “go power,” hey, if he weren’t a vegetarian, you’d think he dined on Energizer Bunnies.
It was Joel and I kicking branding ideas around that gave us the concept of bringing Vincent Price into the mix: A truly iconic champion and practitioner of so many arts and a versatile, gifted actor who used English in a way that made you feel enlightened by the language. Fortunately, Victoria Price agreed with us that her father was the ideal host for Vincent Price Presents…Shadow Show.
The strength of the series is, naturally enough, the stories. All the episodes are based on published stories (and that means well published, not tales appearing on ‘My Aunt Sophie’s Wonderful Vampire and Romance and Recipe Website’), some of them originally appearing in the Shadow Show anthology. For instance, we plan to use Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Keller’s “Hayleigh’s Dad” and a story called “Heavy” by Jay Bonansinga, who wrote the bestselling Walking Dead novels. We’re discussing terms now with some of the most acclaimed fiction writers in the world.
Then the show features “the short story for television,” a half hour format. There’s no bloat, no attempt to fill time as opposed to pure storytelling. In a number of ways, we’re carrying on the tradition of a Twilight Zone in our time, without trying to end each show with a “biter bit” or “gotcha” moment.
Yanes: What are some projects you are currently working on that people can look forward to?
Castle: I’m very slowly working on a script for comic book adaptation of the 1920s film The Golem that will appear in Eureka Productions’ Graphic Classics. Love comics and love no less what publisher Tom Pomplun does with his Graphic Classics, with top artists bringing their unique vision to stories by writers like Lovecraft, Twain, Stoker, Doyle, and, a personal favorite now sadly forgotten, Rafael Sabatini. (Sabatini wrote Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, amongst many others; at one time he was the most widely read author in the English language. I did his biography in comics form for his volume of GC.)
There’ll be a new story in Eric S. Brown’s anthology C.H.U.D Lives, one in which I posit a way to solve Chicago’s violence problem.
I have a non-fiction piece on writing horror in Where Nightmares Come From, edited by Eugene Johnson.
And yes, really happy with a new story collection, entitled Knowing When to Die, which will be published by Independent Legions Publishing. This was a semi-finalist in the 2016 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. These stories offer homages to Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a harmonica playing World War I soldier, a high school guidance counselor who advises students and ghosts, and that lovelorn ape in a diving helmet, Ro-Man, from the film Robot Monster, who, even though he turned the deadly calcinator ray on this planet, still had a heart and soul.