By Leslie Lindsay
It’s a dreary morning here in Chicagoland. The landscape is bathed in a white mist, and the trees are changing color, leaves dropping one by one. There’s a hush about the air, a tentative pull on the senses that makes us a little more alert, a little more intuitive.
So it might be time to settle in with a classic horror story.
Originally published in 1967, at a time when the ordinary became menacing, ROSEMARY’S BABY brought readers to the brink of what appeared to mundane details that might actually be hiding tragic truths.
Ira Levin, the author of seven books, ranging from horror to mystery to science fiction, among others received an Edgar in 1954 for A KISS BEFORE DYING (his first novel) and again in 1980 for his play, DEATHTRAP. He received the Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association in 1996. Stephen King referred to Ira Levin as the “Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel.” In 2003, he received yet another accolade: the Mystery Writers of America’s Grandmaster Award. ROSEMARY’S BABY sold millions after The Today Show interviewed him, surging the title onto the New York Times bestseller list.
Ira Levin passed in 2007 at the age of 78 in his Manhattan home. Despite the kind of works he’s famous for, Levin was considered mild-mannered and modest.
It would be in true horror fashion if I had Mr. Levin on my blog couch today. Alas, I do not live in a haunted manse shrouded in cobwebs and the wedding cake uneaten. But that’s another story for another time.
Please join me in welcoming David Morrell, who is just as decorated as Ira Levin—perhaps more. He’s the author of FIRST BLOOD (from which “Rambo” was created), as well as numerous NYT bestsellers. He’s also the recipient of several major accolades, including the Thriller Master award from International Thriller Writers and three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association.
Leslie Lindsay: David, it’s an honor. Thank you for popping by. What draws you to the thriller/horror genre?
David Morrell: I had a tough childhood. My father died in combat. My mother couldn’t take care of me and earn a living, so she put me in an orphanage when I was three. A year later, she remarried, but my stepfather didn’t like children, or maybe it was me in particular he didn’t like. They argued all the time. Lots of verbal violence and sometimes physical. Afraid, I slept under my bed, telling stories to myself in which I was a hero rescuing helpless people. Novelist Graham Greene believed that “an unhappy childhood is a goldmine for a writer.” You could say I was programmed for the thriller and horror genres.
L.L.: In your introduction to ROSEMARY’S BABY, you mention how Levin—and many of his predecessors—take the mundane and spin it into something dark and menacing. This tactic is hugely successful. Why is that?
David Morrell: Using familiar, mundane elements to make horror believable seems obvious, and yet it took a long time for the technique to emerge. In the 1950s, Richard Matheson (THE SHRINKING MAN), Robert Bloch (PSYCHO), and Jack Finney (THE BODY SNATCHERS) are generally credited with inventing it. I quote Douglas E. Winter about how these authors brought “fear from the Gothic landscapes of misty moors and haunted mansions, (inviting) terror into our shopping malls and peaceful neighborhoods—into the house next door.” A decade later, Ira Levin (ROSEMARY’S BABY), William Peter Blatty (THE EXORCIST), and Thomas Tryon (THE OTHER) further developed the technique. Then came the next stage of realistic horror with Stephen King and Peter Straub, etc. So, Levin is solidly in the middle of this trend. His mundane details—the best place to buy swordfish steaks in Manhattan, for example—made what Levin called his “unbelievables” believeable. It was a horror novel that didn’t feel like a genre novel.
L.L.: There is a good deal of religious references in ROSEMARY’S BABY. For one, the second half of her name—Mary. But also: “Oh God!” “hell” and “what the devil” in the dialogue. It’s all there, but one has to be an observant reader. What is your understanding about how Levin structured this tale? And what—if any—research did he do to get it “just right?”
David Morrell: Yes, most of the expletives in ROSEMARY’S BABY have a religious context, but they’re so carefully embedded that readers feel the implication more than notice it. Levin thought it would be interesting for Rosemary (you noted the irony of the second part of her name) to give birth to the Devil’s child on June 25, 1966—a date that’s a version of the sign of the Devil, 666, and that’s also the
calendar opposite of December 25, Christmas. He counted nine months backward and collected newspapers about all the important things that had happened in New York City around September and October of 1965. An electrical blackout, a New York Times strike, John Lindsay’s mayoral campaign, and especially a visit by Pope Paul VI who officiated at a mass in Yankee Stadium on October 5. All of these formed the realistic foundation for the novel. The implication is that Satan impregnated Rosemary during the Pope’s visit.
L.L.: I read, too that the movie adaptation of ROSEMARY’S BABY is “one of the most faithful ever” (I think Levin said that himself); whole pages of dialogue are in the movie, so too are specific colors. But it’s hardly the case that movie adaptations are as exact as the book. Number one, why is that? Two, what has been your experience of your book to movie adaptations—I’m especially thinking of RAMBO?
David Morrell: Director/screenwriter Roman Polanski was inexperienced with Hollywood’s ways and thought that a film necessarily had to be faithful to its source material. By the time he found out otherwise, he’d crafted a perfect distillation of the novel, quite an achievement given that the book is several hundred pages long while many screenplays are 110 pages long, with a lot of white space. Too often, directors and screenwriters change things to show how creative they are.
As for my experience with the film adaptation of my novel, FIRST BLOOD, there were 26 screenplays written for various studios that owned the movie rights at one time or another. Some of the screenplays were unintentionally funny, such as a character referring to Rambo as “the Bobby Riggs of guerrilla warfare.” The final result (released in 1982, ten years after my novel was published) is remarkably similar in terms of plot, but it interprets Rambo differently (as a victim rather than someone who’s furious about what the Vietnam War did to him). Because the character was softened, the ending was changed. Also the role of the police chief was diminished. Despite these differences, I like the film. It’s very well made, and the action scenes get better each year because the stunts are real, not computer generated. For the U.S. Blu-ray DVD of the film, I recorded a full-length audio commentary in which I compare the two.
L.L.: As for writing—what might be your best tips for writing thrillers and also today’s hot genre (domestic) psych suspense?
David Morrell: I teach writing at various conferences, and I always emphasize these two mantras. 1. Be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of another author. 2. Don’t chase the market. You’ll always see its backside. These days, domestic psychological suspense is the hot subgenre. It can be summarized as “The person closest to you is your worst enemy.” It’s accompanied by the technique of the unreliable first person in which everyone is basically a liar. The subgenre started with Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL in 2012, and after only five years, every agent and editor I speak with complains that this is mostly what’s being submitted [to them.] There are too many followers. You can’t have a long career unless you establish your own identity and make other people imitate you. I talk about this in my The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing.
L.L.: Of all your books and your multiple series, is there any one that stands out as something you are most proud of? I know, a bit like choosing your favorite child.
David Morrell: Over 45 years, there’ve been many books. But four of them stand out for me. FIRST BLOOD (1972), because that debut novel set everything in motion for me and has been called “the father of the modern action novel.” THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (1984) made a difference also, because it was one of the first espionage novels to blend the British and American spy-novel traditions. The British had authentic spy tradecraft but almost no action. The Americans had plenty of action but laughable spy tactics. I thought it would be interesting to merge the strengths of the two. FIREFLIES (1988) is personally important to me because it’s a meditation about grief after my fifteen-year-old son, Matthew, died from a rare bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma. Finally, in response to another death, that of my 14-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, from the same disease, I escaped into 1850s London with three Victorian mystery/thrillers (MURDER AS A FINE ART, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD, and RULER OF THE NIGHT). They feature a notorious real-life literary celebrity of the time, Thomas De Quincey, who invented the word “subconscious.” De Quincey’s daughter, Emily, is a strong character in these books and represents the independent woman that I wanted my granddaughter to have the chance to become.
L.L.: Besides scary stories, what’s keeping you up at night? It doesn’t have to be literary.
David Morrell: For 7 years, while I wrote my Victorian novels, I convinced myself that I was on the gothic fogbound streets of 1850s London. When my imagination returned to the present, the hostile tone of the modern world bludgeoned me. FIRST BLOOD came out of the cultural violence of hundreds of riots in the late 1960s. I worry that we’re headed that way again.
L.L.: David, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?
David Morrell: Just a thought about the almost 500 original scripted TV series that are currently being shown either on network TV, cable, or via streaming. No exaggeration. That’s how many there are. When I’m at social events, I don’t hear people talking about books as much as what they’re binge-watching on TV. Add to this the 800,000 self-published books that were released last year, and you have the most competitive [book/publishing] market I’ve ever seen. More and more, I advise beginning authors to write the book they were born to write rather than what’s currently hot, because trends are ever-changing. As I said earlier, if we chase the market, we’ll always see its backside.
For more information, to connect with David Morrell via social media, or to purchase the 50th anniversary edition of ROSEMARY’S BABY, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Morrell is the author of First Blood, the acclaimed novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a PhD from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous New York Times bestsellers include The Brotherhood of the Rose, the basis for the only television miniseries to be broadcast after a Super Bowl. An Edgar, Anthony, and Arthur Ellis finalist, an Inkpot, Macavity, and Nero recipient, Morrell has three Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers Association and the Thriller Master award from International Thriller Writers. Bouchercon, the world’s largest conference for crime-fiction readers and author, gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award. Visit him at www.davidmorrell.net.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Pegasus Books and used with permission. Image of FIRST BLOOD original cover retrieved from Wikipedia, image of Ira Levin from Wikipedia, image of Blu-Ray RAMBO and SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, and DVD cover of Rosemary’s Baby retrieved from Amazon, Thomas De Quincey from Wikipedia, all on 9.25.17]