I knew almost nothing about Graham Masterton’s work when I started this blog. I had read his very first novel, The Manitou, several years previously (and seen the charming yet silly movie version), but knew nothing else about his work. But he is a ‘Horror Master’, and I decided to give his books a more detailed look. Ten novels later, I feel like I’m ready to write a ‘Masters’ post about him…
Graham Masterton himself is quite an interesting character, and I sincerely mean that in a very good way. Born in Scotland in 1946 (an amazing amount of good modern horror comes from the UK), Masterton was trained as a newspaper reporter but went on to be the editor at a young age of a number of men’s magazines, including Penthouse and Penthouse Forum. His writing output has been prolific and varied: in addition to having authored over forty horror novels, he has written a dozen thrillers, nearly a dozen historical sagas, and nearly thirty sex instruction books! (When I started looking for Masterton books on Amazon, I at first assumed that there must be two of them: one who writes horror, and one who writes sex-ed. In fact, Masterton has written enough books for a dozen authors!) He has also written numerous short stories and edited a collection of short stories which was produced to aid children’s charities.
He also has a scientific connection in his family: his grandfather, Thomas Thorne Baker, invented DayGlo and was the first man to transmit news photographs by wireless.
Masterton’s inspiration is the ghosts and demons of folklore and ancient cultures. His first novel, The Manitou, dealt with a vengeful Native American medicine man and the spirits he could summon. Since then, Masterton has dealt with Aztec, Egyptian, African, Japanese, and Christian mythology, to name a few.
This emphasis on interpreting and reinventing folklore gives Masterton’s work a very Night Stalker-ish feel. That cult classic television series dealt with a reporter who, in investigating a series of bizarre murders, would always come across some supernatural spectre from the past. Masterton’s stories typically follow a very similar path (mysterious deaths, leading to the discovery of a demon from ancient history), but should be more rightly called “Night Stalker on crack”: Masterton’s monsters are far more vicious, and his murders far more gruesome, than anything that could be shown on network television. Victims have hands removed, limbs ripped off violently; their stomachs rupture, their eyes are frozen solid. Invisible blades cut them to ribbons.
The most prevalent theme that runs through Masterton’s work is the price of past sins. Monsters which appear to terrorize the characters in his novels usually have a connection to crimes and horrible acts in the distant past. In his seminal work The Manitou, for instance, the wonder-worker Misquamacus seeks revenge upon the ‘white man’ for the mass murder of Native Americans.
The only real limitation I can find in Masterton’s work is that his characters are sometimes unsympathetic, and sometimes even cartoonish in their motivations. In The Devils of D-Day, the hero decides to release a clearly evil and vindictive supernatural force, even after it has spoken to him, out of what almost seems to be simple curiosity. In The Devil in Gray, the main character seems rather distantly connected to the events surrounding him. In The Sphinx, the superficial and selfish nature of the main character practically had me rooting for him to get eaten!
But these are minor, isolated quirks. The truth is, I could hardly put down even the weakest of Masterton’s novels, and I would immediately pick up the next one in line and dive in. His blend of modern brutality and supernatural folklore gives effective frights and is horrifically beautiful.
I give below a (non-spoiler) summary of each of the Masterton books I’ve read:
The Manitou (1976): This was Masterton’s first novel, an undeniable classic which I discussed in some detail in another post. Second-rate fortune teller Harry Erskine gets involved in the case of a seeming cancer patient, Karen Tandy, who has a strange growth on her neck which moves. Doctors are helpless to remove it, because it is actually the reincarnated form of a powerful and angry Native American shaman, Misquamacus, who is quite good at defending himself. Harry seeks the help of a modern shaman, and a battle of wits and magic is waged. I consider this to be one of the best ‘science vs. sorcery’ novels I’ve ever read.
The Sphinx (1978): This is the weakest Masterton novel I read. An up-and-coming American diplomat meets a beautiful woman at a party, and quickly gets involved with her despite her obvious reservations. She has a dark secret, however, and a connection to an ancient Egyptian god…
The Devils of D-Day (1978): Despite what I consider to be an oddly-motivated main character, this short novel is fast-paced and carries a lot of horror kick. An American cartographer, traveling through France, comes across an American tank which has been broken down and sealed shut since the D-Day invasion. This tank was part of a mysterious and little-spoken-of regiment of 13 tanks that decimated the Nazi lines. Now it exudes a subtle and malevolent influence upon the surrounding community, and the cartographer decides to investigate its contents. What follows is a rapidly-expanding nightmare of demons and murder, and a dark secret of the Allied forces.
Tengu (1983): Tengu is a powerful, shocking and unforgiving novel of awesome terror. I’ve also described this one in detail in another post. A seemingly random and exceedingly brutal murder in California slowly brings together a disparate cast of characters. Individually and together, they uncover a plot by a cult to exact revenge upon the United States using the brutal Tengu, a Japanese demon. This novel grabs your attention from page one and doesn’t let go until its shocking conclusion.
Pariah (1983): Salem resident John Trenton has recently lost his wife Jane and unborn child. Still coming to grips with the tragedy, he is suddenly haunted by Jane’s spirit, which leaves him cryptic messages. Driven nearly to madness, John begins to investigate the cause of the haunting, and is eventually led to the sunken remains of a 300 year old sailing ship, the David Dark, and its deadly prisoner – a prisoner which is almost free. ’83 seems to have been an excellent year for Masterton – Pariah is a great story which blends authentic New England history with fictional supernatural events.
Burial (1994): Burial is the third book of the ‘Manitou’ series, featuring the sorcery of Native American wonder-worker Misquamacus. Harry Erskine, still working as a fortune teller, is drawn yet again into supernatural events beyond his control. People are being murdered around the country, and the only suspect is a misshapen, sourceless shadow. Soon entire cities are collapsing into nothingness, and Harry must face a plot to eradicate the invading white man from the Americas – this time without help from any modern medicine man. Burial is a novel of apocalyptic horror, and features an unholy alliance between the evil spirits of two cultures.
Trauma (2002): This lean novella tells the story of domestic crime scene cleaner Bonnie Winter. Los Angeles has been suffering under an excess of brutal murders, and when Bonnie uncovers a rare South American caterpillar at each crime scene, she begins to suspect some darker force at work. Trauma is an unconventional Masterton story. It is at times intentionally mundane, describing the bleak and joyless life Bonnie leads. It is also much more subtle: you won’t find massive alien monsters and exotic supernatural deaths here.
The Devil in Gray (2004): Several seemingly unrelated people are brutally sliced up by an invisible assailant. Investigating police detective Decker ignores any supernatural possibilities at first, but his recurring nightmares tell him that something otherwordly is happening – and he is intimately involved. He is led to discover events that had been kept secret since the Civil War. This was another Masterton novel where I felt like the main character was poorly motivated and fleshed-out, though I can’t quite place why. The story is in a sense ‘standard’ Masterton fare.
Manitou Blood (2005): New York City falls victim to a vampiric plague: the afflicted avoid sunlight and slash the throats of friends and family for blood. Soon the city has been quarantined with its deadly and savage population, and Manitou-hunter Harry Erskine brings himself out of retirement to seek the source of the trouble. As the title strongly suggests, he is brought into conflict with his old pal Misquamacus, who has made yet another unholy alliance to bring down American civilization. There isn’t a whole lot new here, but the book is an excellent read and Masterton’s vampires are brutal and unique.
Edgewise (2007): Lily Blake is nearly murdered and her children are kidnapped by men working for her ex-husband. When law enforcement can’t help her, she turns to a Native American shaman for assistance. This shaman summons the Wendigo, a powerful spirit which keeps only two of its three dimensions in our world, to track them down. When the kidnappers are found brutally murdered, however, Lily refuses to fulfill her side of the bargain. Soon the Wendigo begins to stalk her. Edgewise is a straightforward tale, with an excellent monster. Masterton’s version of the Wendigo is a truly odd and frightening beast.
I should mention that Graham Masterton has an official website, which lists his complete bibliography and most recent news.