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Interview: September 27, 2002

September 27, 2002

Douglas Clegg's newest novel, THE HOUR BEFORE DARK, moves into a wider arena as it combines horror with psychological suspense. In this interview with's Jackye Thorn, Clegg reveals his thoughts on the dark games children play and what he finds frightening even when he's writing a novel.

BRC: Reviewers are saying that with THE HOUR BEFORE DARK, you are pushing the edges of the horror novel and moving toward psychological suspense. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

DC: Yes, in some of my upcoming novels, I'll be working with the landscape of the psychological suspense novel, although, to me, there's room for a love story, for terror, and for comedy within that form. On the other hand, if a story came to me that was completely a nightmare on paper, I'd go for it as well. I want to experiment sometimes, be more of a traditionalist at others. I believe readers will come along for the ride, so long as I make sure the story's a good one, and a page-turner.

I believe a really good novel is just that --- despite some kind of artificial genre expectations foisted on the book. Horror fiction is still my first love, but what I'm writing these days is closer to novels of psychological disturbance than anything else. Horror to me exists within the human psyche, therefore it's worth exploring in fiction. And exploring the human mind in its shadowy areas is a lot of fun, too. At least in fiction.

I truly believe that the human psyche is a landscape of both wonder and nightmares, and I'd like to explore both of those aspects fictionally. In some of my fiction, this takes the form of the fantastic; in others, like THE HOUR BEFORE DARK, it's in the form of the suppressed memory within a family --- the psychological underpinnings of a current murder story.

BRC: The Dark Game in the book is integral to the plot and something many adults can relate to --- the games we play as kids to help us cope with the realities of our universe --- did you have a dark game? What was it?

DC: In THE HOUR BEFORE DARK, Nemo and his sister and brother played it as children with blindfolds and that wonderful but sinister nursery rhyme that begins "Oranges and lemons, say the Bells of St. Clemens," and ends with "here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head." They were already reciting a rhyme of both wonder and nightmare, and somewhere in that game of make believe, they lost a week of memory from their lives. Now, as adults, they begin to piece together the week, through their unraveling of the secrets within their father's house.

For me, personally, my version of the game was volcanic activity. My imagined life was more important to me than my real one, in many respects. It was both a destructive and creative force in my childhood --- the little rituals and privacies I gave my imagination protected me from some unspoken terrors of my young life and also kept me from fully participating with others my age in their more acceptable daylight games.

To me, the Dark Game is simply a level of secrecy that some children create around themselves --- perhaps it's a game of make believe or "Let's Pretend," but it can move into a ritual of separation from the rest of life. But it's also a fountain of creativity.

The positive side of my own version was that I wrote story after story from the age of eight or nine onward; I sketched and painted and doodled into an imaginary world; and I composed music in my head, much of which I could still hum or sing to this day. Like I said, it was volcanic activity for me. The unpleasant side of this was that I generally felt separate from other children my age, and would watch them interact much more socially than I ever could. It wasn't until I was about fifteen or so that this changed.

The Dark Game for me was definitely a lifesaver. It was a place I could go to be creative, and ultimately, to practice storytelling for many years before I ever did it professionally. On the other hand, it also created mysteries in my head about what was really going on at home that I had refused to acknowledge. When I finally did, as I got older, I could see that the Dark Game had an equally destructive influence --- it kept me, at a certain point, from growing. So, I had to change, to allow myself to grow.

BRC: The fear in your books is so palpable. Are you frightened when you are writing?

DC: Yes. I get scared all the time --- and I have to tell myself "It's just a story. You're making it up," whenever I get in that moment of terror. There's a point in the book --- a crescendo of the story --- where Nemo Raglan, my main character, is forced to deal with the idea that he, and his sister, may be going insane. That they may have seen something terrifying, or else they are losing their minds. After all, their father has just been brutally killed --- it would not be out of the ordinary for a breakdown to follow. From having watched my father go through stages of Alzheimer's Disease, I truly believe that knowledge of losing one's memory --- or one's mind --- is one of the most terrifying events any of us can face. Consciousness is more fragile than we'd like to believe --- all it takes is one accident, or one genetic screw-up, and suddenly our sense of who were are, and who is around us, might change.

I find this the most terrifying prospect --- the disintegration of the mind, either through an imbalance, a perception, or perhaps even the haunting of childhood upon the adult --- all those unresolved mysteries and fears that are hangovers from our childhood.

In writing THE HOUR BEFORE DARK, I wanted to both explore this kind of fear, and also exorcise it to some extent. And enjoy the process --- THE HOUR BEFORE DARK turned out to be a painful novel to write, because I wrote it the year my father died, and then other deaths hovered as well --- my uncle, one of my editors, my good friend, novelist Richard Laymon, and even my beloved dog, Randy. On top of that, the World Trade Center came down within a few miles of where I live. I felt that 2001 was the Year of Death. So, writing a novel about the murder of a man's father was not the story I thought I'd be writing. But somehow, in writing the novel --- about a father who was the polar opposite of mine --- I was able to find the light at the end. I think creativity of any kind is an enormous gift that really helps take you through the dark times of life.

Writing the novel became my own form of redemption --- I had to grow with the characters in many ways, I had to face the death of loved ones in a way I never had to previously, to know that certain things will always remain unspoken between people, and I had to acknowledge that life has got to be more than a long line that's punctuated by birth and death at either end of that line.

I find a lot of personal redemption in writing these novels --- and THE HOUR BEFORE DARK held more meaning than many of my other novels for me. The family in it is completely unlike the family I grew up with, yet the problems of fragmentation of memory, of a beloved parent who is both hero and difficult taskmaster, and of the mysteries of who our parents truly are, existed for me as well as for the narrator, Nemo Raglan.

BRC: What kind of books do you read for "comfort food?"

DC: I read everything that I can --- if it interests me. Recently: THE LOVELY BONES, FLESH TONES, Shirley Jackson's THE BIRD'S NEXT, Ira Levin's THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, a collection of Joyce Carol Oates' short fiction, a short story collection called DRAGONFLY by Brian Knight, and far too much nonfiction on the subject of smart drugs. There's a lot going on in the small press and I try to keep up with newer writers, because I believe first or second novels are usually among the best of a writer's work. My favorites to turn to are Dickens, John Irving, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Anya Seton, and Daphne DuMaurier. Whenever I can, I re-read ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, and sometimes dig out various Robert Louis Stevenson stories from various collections. I read less when I'm writing a novel, so my reading of fiction tends to be confined to several months of the year. I read a lot of nonfiction while I'm writing a novel.

BRC: I know one of your books has made it to the silver screen --- what was it like to see your ink and paper characters speak out loud and move in three dimensions?

DC: Well, I had so little to do with it --- other than creating the characters and basic plot in my novel, BAD KARMA --- that the best part about it was imagining what the movie could be.

A very strong presence came to the movie by way of British actress, Patsy Kensit. The script doesn't really work for the movie. I felt bad for the actors, because some of them were very good, given the material at hand. I don't know what happened to this production --- good camera work, nice --- if different --- setting from the novel, and a lead actress who really knew what she was doing. Strangely, I wrote the novel in such a way that it could very simply be turned right into a movie --- cut some description here and there, and you had a script. But they veered from the novel a bit in the movie. The novel, called BAD KARMA, was essentially about a relentless woman who would stop at nothing to prove her past reincarnation "story" to the man she believed she was bound to, in this "bad karma." The movie, called "Hell's Gate" in the USA, keeps some of that, but seems intent on pulling the legs out from under the story.

I want to keep a sense of humor about it --- I'm not the first novelist to have a B movie made from one of his books, nor shall I be the last. For horror moviegoers, there are fun-bad moments in it, and something about the story structure holds up, but it's just not quite there. I would love to have done the running commentary for the DVD.

On the other hand, once I signed off on it with my agent in Hollywood, why should I be this movie's critic? Sometimes, a B movie is just a B movie. I hope there are other movies in the future, and I hope I can write the screenplay for one or two of them at some point, since I believe I have a fairly cinematic story sense.

BRC: After several books, what still challenges you, what do you think you haven't done yet and what do you want to do?

DC: Basically, I feel as if there are a thousand doors in my imagination. The act of writing a novel, novella, or short story, is about opening up each door and exploring it fictionally. That's how I see it. Behind each door, some new interest or obsession presents itself, or some aspect of the world that I want to understand or experience --- so I begin writing as if I've lived it. As if I'm there, with the people in the story. I consider this like a "false memory" thing --- there are times when I remember a story, and then feel as if it actually happened, as if there were people who lived, and all I did was translate the memory of that. When the novel becomes "as if it really happened" to my brain, I generally know the story worked.

Regarding what I haven't done yet? I haven't written the novel I've been thinking up that I want to write after the one I'm currently working on. I want to write many novels over my lifetime, many short stories, some screenplays, and maybe even make some movies at some point. I love being a writer, and I love that I get to see my books in readers' hands.

Not sure everything I want to do will happen, but I want to plan for it so that if it does, I'm prepared. I love storytelling. If all publishing ended tomorrow, I'd probably be down at the corner store of some small town telling some stories.

Currently, I'm revising a novel called THRILLER that will be out from Tor in hardcover in the fall of 2003.