Gregory Lamberson discusses the craft of horror writing.
Darkness subsists in the crevices of our minds, tucked away. And often, this darkness can manifest as fear. Fear is distinctive, it thrills us, and as H.P. Lovecraft reminded his readers in a popular essay on the genre, it connects us all — man and animal alike.
Horror author, screenwriter and director Gregory Lamberson has been tapping into that cultural stew for years, honing his craft and stretching out into many narrative forms. Lamberson, the author of such titles as Johnny Gruesome, The Frenzy War, Personal Demons and others, like most writers of the macabre, can trace those darker passages from the building blocks of an impressionable childhood.
“I loved monsters as a child, in cartoons and comic books,” Lamberson says. “I started collecting the Aurora monster models as a kid (based on Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula and other characters), then watching the movies based on them, then reading the books which inspired some of them. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love monsters.”
That love evolved naturally into a need to emulate the stories he absorbed. This included work from Stephen King and Peter Straub.
“I read Salem’s Lot and Ghost Story in high school, and they set my mind on fire,” Lamberson says. “Richard Matheson, too — as a kid I watched The Twilight Zone and The Incredible Shrinking Man, and as an adult I’ve read I Am Legend dozens of time. But all kinds of writing influenced me: the Marvel comic Tomb of Dracula, written by Marv Wolfman, and TV movies directed by Dan Curtis (often written by Matheson), the man behind Dark Shadows.”
Finding a voice in another place
Lamberson honed his craft in various ways, writing each day and attending film school for one year in New York City. The school substituted a screenplay class he wanted to take with a class he didn’t need, remedial English, and that concluded his formal training.
“Film school has its uses as far as theory and playing well with others goes, but the truth is that its greatest use is getting a degree to become a film school teacher if your career goals don’t pan out, or in landing an internship on a cable TV reality show which could lead to an eventual corporate position,” Lamberson says. “People who want to make movies can read screenplays and books about filmmaking on their own and get entry-level work as a production assistant without racking up $100,000 in student loans. I never studied writing beyond advanced courses in high school; I read novels and books about writing novels. I learned more from reading notes from my editors on my manuscripts than I ever could have learned in college. That being said, I taught myself to tie my own shoes, too, and I’m told my technique is pretty funny.”
Lovecraft has Arkham, Stephen King has Castle Rock, but Lamberson doesn’t really go for those types of horror stories that are stand-ins for his hometown. He doesn’t avoid them, but when they happen, it’s usually out of necessity. Thus, most of his novels are set in New York City, where he’s lived for 21 years. He’s lived in Buffalo for the last 14 years and grew up an hour south of there. In fact, he adds, all the films he’s made since moving to Buffalo are set there out of necessity (there’s no grand cosmic plan with tentacles).
“Johnny Gruesome is both the exception and the embodiment of these directions: I wrote the original screenplay while on an extended vacation in my hometown, Fredonia, always intending to shoot the film there,” Lamberson says. “I wrote the novelization here in Buffalo, and I ended up shooting the movie here last summer for reasons of practicality. I don’t believe in ‘writing what you know’ — that sounds boring to me — but it simplifies things as far as setting goes.”
The checklist goes a little something like this: He’s set a novella Scaremonger, entirely in Lily Dale, which is a nearby spiritual assembly. Black Creek is set in Love Canal, and that’s 20 minutes from him. “That’s the one instance in which I wrote around and about a specific location because I knew things about it because of where I live,” he says.
Otherwise, Lamberson is more interested in concocting a darkly hued cocktail of narrative injection in various mediums, but film is always a type of North Star — he rounds back to it as a de facto anchor, a talisman at the ready.
Screenplays, novels and ‘small armies’
“It’s pretty easy,” Lamberson says about the creative process. “I make low-budget movies, and if I have a story to tell that can’t be shot in 18 days with minimal special effects, it’s got to be a novel. I know before I sit at my keyboard which medium I’m going for. The first Jake Helman novel, Personal Demons, and the first Frenzy Cycle werewolf novel, The Frenzy Way, were originally written as screenplays I hoped to sell to big-budget movie producers.
“When I finished them, I didn’t want to part with them (not that the opportunity ever presented itself), so I turned them into novels. Most of my movies are goofy low-budget affairs aimed at the cult film audience, but my novels are serious works with greater ambitions.”
For Lamberson, screenwriting is easy. Maybe it’s intuitive. There’s a lot of white space in that format, and no interior monologues. He can write a full screenplay in one week. The narrative is a lot easier, too — present tense — with a lot of caps to denote special effects and sound effects. It takes him up to six months to write a novel. At its core, storytelling is the same regardless, he notes. Indeed, when it’s really working, Lamberson is writing to surprise himself. Still, there’s something about the collaborative nature of film.
“Even though I know how I want some things to look, I collaborate with a director of photography, a production designer, a special effects artist, actors and musicians,” Lamberson says. “It’s my job to draw out the best in them to make my script better. In a novel, an author has to control every aspect of the story and how it’s conveyed. That sums up the differences: a filmmaker works with a small army of others to realize his vision, and an author works only with his editor.”
TV adaptations…an open landscape
So, while Lamberson’s been busy writing books and making films, he has also been working to expand his brand — broaden the pitch, as it were. There’s the film release of Johnny Gruesome and a possible TV series for the Jake Helman Files in the works.
“I’m working with George Mhalka, an experienced filmmaker (My Bloody Valentine) and TV show runner,” Lamberson says. “George understands exactly what needs to be done to market the potential show to production companies. I’m not naive, and realize that if my novels become a TV series, that series may bear only a cursory resemblance to what I wrote. I am involved in the writing at this early stage, but that could and probably will change the minute we get a development deal. I’m prepared for the fact that my pilot script and the outline I wrote will probably be discarded and a successful television writer will be brought in to start over from scratch.”
Right now, he’s having fun with the process and has even developed a story that expands on his Personal Demons with “all kinds of twists and offshoots.” If it gets made at all, he says he’ll consider himself lucky; if it’s treated with some sort of fidelity, and he has a hand in it, he’ll be thrilled. “But if it’s made at all, a lot more people will read the books, and maybe I’ll get to write the remaining novel.”
His best advice for those wanting to share their own horror stories is first to dispel the notion that there is a “horror field.”
Writing is writing, fiction is fiction, literature is literature, and movies are movies. The same rules apply to writing horror as in action or comedy. Only the methods and techniques change. Be the best writer you can, and genre will grow from your imagination, not from a rule book.
Lastly, “Beware of anyone who claims to know those secrets, but also be aware of your own suspicions about things you’ve written,” he says. “If you suspect you’re trying to get away with something that isn’t true to the rest of what you’ve written — something that’s a cheat or strains the integrity of the world you’ve created, and a beta reader confirms that suspicion, it’s time to edit.”