La legado vivo! With Frazer Lee!

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Frazer Lee’s debut novel The Lamplighters was a Bram Stoker Award Finalist for “Best First Novel” and a Book Pipeline Finalist (from over 950 entries). His other published works include the Amazon #1 horror/thriller Panic Button: The Official Movie Novelization, novels The Jack in the Green and The Skintaker, and the Daniel Gates Adventures series of novellas.

His screenwriting credits include the acclaimed horror/thriller feature film Panic Button, and award-winning short films Simone and The Stay. His film and television directing credits include multiple award-winning films On Edge and Red Lines starring Doug “Pinhead from Hellraiser” Bradley, and the promo campaign for Discovery Channel’s True Horror With Anthony Head. Frazer was named one of the Top 12 UK directors in MySpace’s Movie Mash-up contest by a panel including representatives from 20th Century Fox, Vertigo Films, and Film Four.

Frazer lectures in Creative Writing and Screenwriting at Brunel University London and Birkbeck, University of London, and is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association. His guest speaking engagements have included The London Screenwriters Festival and Guerilla Filmmakers Masterclass. He lives with his family in Buckinghamshire, England, just across the cemetery from the actual Hammer House of Horror.

Official website: www.frazerlee.com

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Ryan Lieske: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?

Frazer Lee: My earliest reading memory is Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I went back for the sequels—good job old Enid was so prolific!

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RL: What is the book that sealed your fate as a lifelong reader?

FL: Ronald Welch’s The Gauntlet sealed the deal for me. I felt like I was there, in his vividly described, magnificent medieval world. I have kids of my own nowadays, so maybe I’ll read it again with them and see how it feels after all these years.

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RL: Are there any other books from your childhood that you’ve passed onto your children? 

FL: It’s wall-to-wall Harry Potter at Lee Cottage right now. So I think they’ll maybe get to those Star Wars novelizations later… But the kids have introduced me to BeastQuest, Dinosaur Cove, and many other newfangled fictions I wasn’t even aware of.

RL: A lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?

FL: Yes, I’d agree with that. I started reading a lot of horror and sci-fi during my middle and high school years. A favourite was, of course, Alan Dean Foster’s first Star Wars movie novel (he famously ghosted for George Lucas, who still gets sole author credit—welcome to the publishing business, kiddies!), and his bonkers sequel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which would’ve made for a very interesting film.

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RL: I wasn’t aware of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye until a friend pointed it out to me in the early 90s. I recall enjoying it, but chuckling rather awkwardly at certain parts. I like to think in an alternate universe somewhere, there is a film version of it. Or who knows, maybe Disney will try and make it. I’d buy a ticket for that fiasco.

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FL: It’s a bit of a space oddity for sure. I’ll bring popcorn!

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“Threepio! Did Lucas decide if we’re brother and sister yet? Because I felt something a little…weird back there in the spaceship before we landed…”

I did read a lot of movie novels—I loved getting spoilers before the films were released. Star Trek The Motion Picture, Flash Gordon, Tron, E.T., The Last Starfighter, Krull—oh, but the 1980s was a fun decade for a teen genre addict!

RL: You’re speaking my language, brother! I don’t know how old you are, but I have a feeling we’re about the same age. I, too, devoured movie novelizations, before and after seeing the movies. All of those you mentioned and more were a big part of my youth. I still collect them, as well. I don’t get too many chances to talk about this, so let me ask you, what do you feel the novelization’s place is in literature?

FL: I think of them as a quick read, a beach read that you can read anywhere — not just at the beach! Critics may slam them as sub-literature, but I think they can be an important way into reading; for the curious. Maybe in a similar way to comic books, which are equally derided at in some circles.

After all the movie novels, I got into this little-known American author called Stephen… somebody-or-other. Oh—King, that was it. Yeah, Stephen King—ever heard of him?

RL: I have heard of King, actually. Apparently he’s quite the household name here in the States. I didn’t know anybody knew about him overseas. 😉

FL: Only a chosen few :-))

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You know this dude?

Well, Carrie, Christine and The Shining were my induction, along with his shorts—and then Pet Sematary just blew me away.

RL: Joking aside, I’m a King acolyte, and have been for decades, but the first two books of his I read I didn’t really respond to positively. First was The Dead Zone, and I think all the politics in it sailed way over my 12-year-old brain; the second was Cujo, and because I’d already seen the movie, my youthful need for visual visceral stimulation made the book seem dull. I have re-read both, and think they’re great, but I don’t think they were the right introductions for me.

A year or so later I read Pet Sematary, and that one sealed the deal. It remains my favorite King novel, and was instrumental in me first picking up a pen to try write my own horror tales. I still think the novel is terrifying, and heart-breaking.

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FL: It really is. King takes what he’s scared of — the destruction of the family unit — and puts it right up there, SLAM. As the characters lick their wounds, then re-open them and pour salt into them, the reader is left doing the same. It’s an intense, and intensely emotional, experience.

Blatty’s The Exorcist too gave me some crazy, hallucinatory nightmares (at the tender age of twelve), and the front cover of that book disturbed me so much I used to place it face down on the nightstand after reading.

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Away from horror and S/F, I also loved Victor Canning’s coming of age stories—the Smiler trilogy—and his take on the King Arthur legend, The Crimson Chalice.

RL: I’m not too familiar with Victor Canning’s work. Could you tell me a little bit more about him?

FL: Canning was predominantly known as a thriller writer — the old school, cigarette smoking espionage type. I was too young to be reading those! But his young adult fiction really chimed with me. Smiler has an animal sidekick in each of those books, and his love for those animals was something that resonated with me (and still does, I’m a nature lover). The books were as much about the animals as they were about the boy. They become almost totemic, like animal spirit guides, as the adventures unfold.

RL: Were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?

FL: I’m going to lose street-cred points here, but I admit I was too well-behaved to ignore the set-reading. But I was a voracious reader and let’s just say that some of my extra-curricular reading (blame E.C. Comics!) did take over for a while at the expense of a few chapters of my O-level English set reading— such as Paul Scott’s Staying On. I managed to catch up though, like a good little swot!

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RL: Swot. I had to look that one up. And I can definitely say I was not a good little swot. You Brits have way better slang than we do. 

Did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up? 

FL: I’ve always been an awkward social animal, but have managed to find common ground with almost anyone. I think my reading helped me to see things from another person’s point-of-view, you know? By spending so much time in other people’s heads, I mean. Sure, I spent long hours in the school library, and couldn’t wait until my weekly library visits with my mother. Sitting cross-legged on the floor between those dusty shelves with a stack of books to pore over was my personal sanctum sanctorum. Oddly, that very solitary practice had the knock-on effect of helping me to survive social encounters. Then a truly magical thing happened— I discovered Role Playing Games. And the reading world and the social world suddenly melded, and I had a fantastic time imagining wondrous stories with some great friends. Late night AD&D sessions, and RuneQuest, and Call of Cthulhu, were the best hangouts going.

RL: What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college? Out of those, what stuck with you?

FL: Oh, college opened me up to so many good things. Theatre & Drama Studies led me to a lot of dramatic writing— Shakespeare, Dario Fo, Jean Genet, and Lorca— my goodness, Lorca had such an impact. Here was a writer who managed to pack all of the drama and fire and blood of life into a couple of sentences— just astonishing. I think that early experience of dramatic writing seeded in me the possibility of writing for the screen— it was all buzzing around and consolidating in my head along with the movie novels of my youth. I am indebted to my tutor Christina Brown, who changed my life and broadened my mind with all that wonderful stuff. I also read Frankenstein during my college years, and it has stayed with me as probably my favourite novel of all— it has everything! Mary Shelley was an astonishing writer. So much emotion and darkness and scope in that book.

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If I’ve never mentioned it before: Library Essential.

I started seeking out many more texts that would take me out of my drab Midlands existence and into other worlds, other experiences. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was so damn good that I read it twice, back-to-back.

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Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf had a fierce impact on my imagination. Angela Carter’s work also, especially The Bloody Chamber. What a brilliant, free and experimental time that was, enjoying so much reading and not realizing how it was shaping me.

I can’t really understate the importance of all the music I was listening to at that time as well. The Cure’s lyrics led me to Baudelaire, The Sisters of Mercy had me reading Marx & Engels (“God and angels…”) and Fields of Nephilim led me into Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild, and wider reading on Thelema and the Golden Dawn. Wonderful, wonderful times.

RL: We share the same musical tastes, my friend! And I’m glad you brought up the impact music had on your reading, as it did the same for me. The music I listened to in high school, and then into college, broadened my horizons significantly. Nephilim and Sisters, PiL, And Also the Trees, Joy Divsion—The Cure introduced me to Baudelaire and Camus, The Church to Oscar Wilde, The Smiths Keats and Yeats (“Are on your side…”), Dead Can Dance introduced me to a lot of mythology and folklore I was hitherto unaware of. And, like you said, I wasn’t cognizant of just how much it was all shaping me. I pay a bit homage to my musical influences in my upcoming novel Fiction. And, transversely, I discovered that a lot of the horror fiction I was reading and horror movies I was watching had found its way into the music I was into and thus made me love Nine Inch Nails (Reznor thanks Clive Barker in the liner notes, I mean come on!), Skinny Puppy, Ministry, ClockDVA, Anthrax, etc. all the more. I remember flipping out when the Ramones released Pet Sematary! I’ll stop here, because I could wax nostalgic like this for days…

FL: I’m with you on that. You have excellent taste. I love slipping the occasional song lyric or music reference into my writing work—can’t stop myself!

RL: I also want to talk about Hesse, because no one else has brought him up yet, and discovering his work totally changed my life in my early 20s. Can you talk a bit more about the impact his work had on you and your imagination?

FL: Reading Hesse chimed with a suspicion that was growing and gathering force in my mind—that it was okay to be a bit different. It was a bit drab and gray where I was growing up and I was given to extreme flights of fancy. A writer who takes you on one of those flights when you’re at an impressionable age, well, you’ll never forget them. It plants a seed, and can germinate some weird tendrils. Hesse was one of those intense experiences. I was first in line for, “Magic Theater. Entrance not for everybody. For madmen only!” ha ha.

RL: Talk to me about your first bookstore experiences.

FL: I grew up in Staffordshire (in the Midlands of England) having moved there from Canvey Island in Essex. There were two places I loved to be—Mike Lloyd Music in Newcastle-Under-lyme, where I would scrimp and save my pennies for the latest coloured vinyl offering from my favourite bands. The other was Fantasy World in Hanley—an Aladdin’s cave of comic books, paperbacks, RPG campaign books—you name it. I think it changed its name to Another World later on, long after I’d left for the big smoke of London. It was packed out on Saturdays with the geek fraternity—for me it was like a gallery of everything that was cool. I had to look at all the new arrivals—the action figure section was a particularly guilty pleasure. My other hangout was the local newsagent’s, where I’d pick up comics like Scream, 2000AD, Eagle and Captain Britain. And Batman of course—always had lots of time for the old guy in the Bat costume.

RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?

FL: I don’t cringe about any of my old loves. That would do them a disservice, when they gave me so much. Yes, I admit, the Alex Raymond Flash Gordon books were pretty cheesy—but they are so much fun to read! I stopped reading Stephen King for a few years, probably because I had oversaturated for a while, and was on to other things. Then I picked up Full Dark, No Stars, had my mind blown by how good it was, and kept reading him regularly since then.

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A similar pattern with James Herbert and a few others. You know, I think I love all those books even more now that I can appreciate what they gave to me, looking back. They were unconditional in their open paged offer of a place to hide, and imagine.

RL: How has your reading life survived adulthood?

FL: I make time to read. If I’m driving, I take an audiobook to listen to (it’s just not safe to read and drive, kids!) If I’m on a bus, train, or plane I always have a book with me. My university job involves a LOT of reading—I’m in a constant feedback loop with my students, and so I often carry their latest drafts with me to annotate on the move. At home, I make a conscious effort to put down the smart phone, switch off the TV screen and read in the morning and evening wherever possible. It book-ends the day! (awful pun intended, sorry)

RL: No apologies necessary. I love awful puns! Although now the kids call them “dad jokes.” Here in the states, anyway.

FL: Here in the UK too. Oh goodness me, yes. It’s every dad’s job to keep the crap jokes alive.

RL: I’m not a father, but I am an uncle, so I do my best to keep the crap jokes alive, as well.

What types of books are you mostly drawn to nowadays?

FL: I’m completely open to whatever’s out there. I like to make sure I’ve read the core texts that my students are required to read, so that accounts for some of my intake. I’m on awards juries, and I have Kindle overflowing with submissions at any given time, so I discover a lot of new writers and their material that way. My tastes veer towards the dark and disturbing, but I also read a lot of text books which are far lighter by comparison! My go-to summer vacation reading is invariably J.G. Ballard because he’s such thought-provoking company to keep.

RL: What are some of your particular favorites of Ballard’s?

FL: Crash takes it to the howling edge and then shoves it over the bloody cliff. I adore that book, with all its hard edges and sexual carnage. Ballard’s short stories and early novels are filled with such peculiar ideas and phrasing that I’ve engaged with all of them that I’ve read so far. Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes are among his best—they show the real darkness beneath the glamour of Riviera life. I’ve glimpsed some of that bizarre, manic nightlife at the Cannes Film Festival, but through Ballard’s lens, it takes on an altogether more disturbing aspect. Kingdom Come tells you all you need to know about mass psychopathy and consumerism—Ballard the teacher, the sage. And an unsung hero is Hello America, which I re-read when Trump was elected. It’s one of the more overtly sci-fi of Ballard’s novels and it really holds up in the context of the climate change debate. I wish he was still writing, especially during Brexit and all the current tensions. He always held up a dark mirror to it all. I miss his voice. But his books will endure.

RL: How do you share your love of books with others?

FL: I’m part of some of the book groups on Goodreads, and share the passion via that platform sometimes. I always try to leave a review, or at least a rating, for anything that I read and enjoy. If I have only negatives to say, sometimes I choose to keep it to myself because too much grumbling can come across as ‘sour grapes’. I recommend books to friends often, and they reciprocate. I’ve enjoyed leaving books for people on those ‘take a book & leave a book’ shelves in libraries and on the university campus (sometimes leave a copy of one of my novels in return for something I haven’t yet read—I definitely get the better deal!)

RL: Hey! That’s a great idea! I’ve yet to try one of those shelves, but I’ve always wanted to. When my novel drops, I might just steal your idea. I’m sure I’ll get the better deal, too, but hey, why not? Could you tell me about one or two books you discovered that way that you really loved?

FL: Kostova’s The Historian was a great find. I came to it cold, without knowing a thing about it (often the best way) and it got right under my skin. Another was Asylum by Patrick McGrath, which I was told would be right up my dark alley. And it was. A truly harrowing read, in a good way!

RL: I’m one of those people who reads several books at a time. I’ve been called a “reading polygamist.” Are you? Our are you pretty monogamous when it comes to reading?

FL: Oh, I’m with you on the polygamous reading. At least a threesome going on at all times in my reading room, baby. I love the sweet spot where one of the books draws you in so much that it takes precedence over the others for a while, before you (ahem) spread the love again.

RL: I’ve usually got a foursome going. (Does that constitute an orgy?) And yes, I know that sweet spot you speak of. That’s a wonderful, wonderful place to hit. (I’m sorry, I never realized how, um, racy this particular question could sound.)

FL: I think a cold shower is in order at this point 🙂

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Books, baby. Reowr!

RL: Yes, indeed. Ahem…moving on.

Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures? What is it about them you dig so much?

FL: I don’t go for that term either—I mean, if a pleasure is entirely guilt free then that throws up all kinds of questions about why do it in the first place? I’ll tell you what gives me those pangs of guilt though—all those books on the shelves that I didn’t get around to reading yet. You know the ones. Their spines give you the evils every time you glide on by and…. yet again pick up something else to read.

RL: Oh, God, do I ever. I have about one hundred of them glaring at my back as I type this. I feel like one of those sleazy womanizers in an old 80s teen comedy. “I promise, baby, I’ll call you. I swear. I just gotta get rid of this other chick. But don’t worry, she’s really not my type. You are, baby.”

FL: “I bet you say that to all the neglected, yet pristine, first editions you sleazebag…!”

RL: Haha! Busted! (He says, as the book slaps him, deservedly, across the face.)

So, what are your thoughts on “genre?”

FL: I teach a class sometimes called “Scriptwriting in Different Genres”. I’m so used to working with movie producers that I have accepted the importance of genre in pitching and packaging a project. I love how hybrid genres and sub-genres are created along the way, and are defined by certain stand-out narratives. Take ‘folk horror’, for example—I was on a panel discussion at Stokercon about that and it’s a real passion area for me. The term ‘folk horror’ was coined by Piers Haggard (Blood on Satan’s Claw) and it raises awareness of folkloric storytelling, the occult and paganism in horror. I think such labels can help us as readers to navigate our way around a cacophony of ideas, each of which is vying for our attention. It’s a shame though when I hear students and readers saying they would never go near certain genres. I think everything is worth trying at least once.

RL: Are you a physical copy person, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as e-books or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as King calls it, matter to you? And while we’re on the topic, what do you think the future holds for reading? Do you think physical books will always be available?

FL: I think physical books will always be with us – its such a great delivery system! Remember when there was talk of vinyl records becoming obsolete? Yeah, look again! I personally love reading, whatever the format. But for that olfactory, tactile, sensory experience there is nothing quite like the smell and the feel of a real book.

RL: Do you take a book with you wherever you go?

FL: Yes, I do. I feel bereft on those rare occasions when I forget to take one with me. (Good excuse to buy a new read though!) I remember when there was a security scare at the airport—I was flying to Horrorfind Weekend to do my first ever USA con appearance, and all passengers were told they had to stow everything (books included) in their hold luggage. I picked up a copy of Dean Koontz’s first Frankenstein series that day. A fun airport read.

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RL: What books―and they don’t have to necessarily have to be all-time favorites―do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most: as a human being, as an artist, etc.?

FL: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Crash by JG Ballard. Oh, and The Gauntlet by Ronald Welch. They are where I start and finish as a person, and as a writer, I think.

RL: Can you talk a little about the influence that Frankenstein has had on you? 

FL: Frankenstein showed me a relationship between man and monster that I had never seen before. And by the end, you’re wondering which one is the monster—that’s the simple beauty of Shelley’s premise, I think. I loved the clash of religion and science, something that has found its way into most of what I write. Most of all, I think Shelley grasped the angst that all creators feel. She was so young when she write that book, but was writing with more authority about the human experience than male writers twice her age. It’s an astonishing book, and one of a kind.

RL: Have you ever read a book that made you cry?

FL: Ronald Welch’s book made me cry because I never wanted it to end. It represented a magical world that was so far removed from what I was experiencing in my everyday life as a child.

RL: Have you ever read a book that truly, deep down in your soul or psyche, disturbed you? Almost to the point where you had to stop reading it? 

FL: Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis, deeply wounded me as a teenager. The deviant acts of the jock characters—one in particular, involving underage junkie sex-slavery—turned my stomach inside out, and I didn’t want to continue with the book. Needless to say, I did continue, but I never, ever picked that book up again. Ellis made the descent into a living hell all too real—which is testament to some great writing. Bloody hell, though!

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RL: Lastly, just for fun, what is the one book―be it a widely lauded classic, or bestselling popular phenom―do you find absolutely unreadable?

FL: I was once bombarded by a top-drawer publisher to read a horror novel that was described as the dawning of a new era for the genre. It was the most derivative, poorly written, hackneyed story and characterization I think I’ve ever read. One of the few occasions where I didn’t manage to finish reading the whole book—it was that harrowing (and not in a good way!)

RL: I’m SO curious as to which book you’re talking about, but it’s probably better to let that remain unspoken. Thank you for discussing your reading life with me. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

FL: Thanks! I really enjoyed these questions, and looking back over my reading habits. I’d better go pick up that book right now and get on with some more reading! CHEERS! All the best, Frazer

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Sir Lee with George R. R. Martin. 

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