Written In Prison Award and Anthology
Concepts and themes for anthologies can come to an editor in many ways. Some arrive like the plot of a story, a flash of inspiration, or evolve from their interests, their passions, and desire to create something new.
British horror author Graham Masterton, who brought us The Manitou and the hundred novels that came after it, recently went to Poland, and a truly fiendish endeavor was spawned …
EK: Tell us about your recent trip to Poland. What brought you there, and specifically to Wołow prison?
GM: My horror novel The Manitou was the first Western horror novel to be published in Poland since WW2. In 1989 I was phoned out of the blue by a Polish publisher called Tadeusz Zysk, who said that he wanted to bring it out in Poland but because the zloty in those Communist days was not convertible to sterling he couldn’t pay me actual money. However, he could fly me and my wife to Poland and give us either religious icons or kielbasa (sausages). I was about to tell him that he must be having a Turkish (Cockney rhyming slang for “laugh”) but my wife Wiescka was Polish and since she was born in a displacement camp in Cologne just after the war she had never been to Poland and said that we must go. Being a strong and domineering husband I acceded immediately.
The Manitou was a great success in Poland, and shortly afterward the Communist government fell, and my publishers were able to pay me in real money. Ever since then all of my horror novels have been brought out in Poland by two main publishers, Albatros in Warsaw and Rebis in Poznan. So I have been visiting Poland on promotional trips for many years, and have visited Warsaw, Bialystok, Krakow, Katowice, Gdansk, Sczecin, and Wrocław, and dozens of towns in between. Sadly, my wife died in 2011, but by then I had made many close and supportive friends in Poland. In particular, I have to thank Marysia Pstrągowska, who took over the job of reading my new horror novel Community chapter by chapter as I wrote it, just as Wiescka had done, which gave me the strength and incentive to carry on writing.
In late 2016, I was taken around Wrocław by Marcin Dymalski, who represents the Wrocław Agglomeration, an organization to promote arts and culture and sport in Lower Silesia. The last port of call was Wołow Prison, a maximum-security institution for serious criminals and recidivists.
EK: How is life different in Polish prisons than for inmates in British prisons?
GM: Wołow is the only Polish prison I have visited personally, so I cannot speak about women’s institutions or other correctional facilities. It is a very tough prison, indeed. It looks like all of the jails you see in 1930s black-and-white movies with James Cagney. Even the exercise yard has a roof to prevent escape. The cells for the most serious criminals are about 12 feet x 6 feet with a metal bunk and a stainless steel toilet with no lid. However, they do have a well-stocked and very attractive library which even has a fish-tank in it. The Warden Robert Kuchera is a former barrister and a very educated and civilized man, who believes strongly in reform and rehabilitation.
I have visited British prisons, and, while the environment there is generally more comfortable and the regime is not so disciplined, there is a great deal of violence and drug-taking. When I suggested a writing contest to the inmates of one prison in Yorkshire, the only inmate there who would admit to writing stories said that he didn’t like to tell his fellow inmates because they would accuse him of being gay and beat him up. It’s tragic.
Along with my friend Professor Sabina Brennan from Dublin I also broached the idea with the Irish prison service for a contest in Ireland, but they said that they already had a creative writing programme and thanks but no thanks. Perhaps they had heard that I told Irish jokes.
EK: What was the response from the men you talked to about your writing? Why do you think they connected with or were inspired by your visit?
GM: On my first visit to Wołow I spoke to about 100 prisoners. At first sight, they look pretty intimidating, with shaven heads and tattoos and grim expressions. The warders are just as intimidating, about 8 feet tall with massive bunches of keys hanging from their belts. I started by saying, “I hate people who take drugs.” The reaction was one of instant hostility, but then I said, “You know … like policemen and customs officials.” At once, the atmosphere became more relaxed, and I went on to tell them how I had graduated from being a local newspaper reporter to editing Penthouse magazine and then gone on from writing “how-to” books on sex to horror and crime and disaster novels. (Incidentally in 1990 my sex books were also the first non-medical books on sexual advice to be published in Poland since the war, too, and Magia Seksu (How to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed) was a huge success and is still in print.)
Many of the prisoners spoke English, and they were all enthusiastic readers. I told them how we had gone to live in Ireland for a few years and how that had inspired my crime thrillers, which are set in Cork. I also told them a few Irish jokes, and the rapport that developed was really constructive. Afterwards, several of them came up to me and asked questions about writing and wanted books autographed (those who couldn’t afford books brought scraps of paper.)
EK: Your visit turned into a writing competition, which then went national in the Polish prison system. How did that process unfold?
GM: I was deeply impressed by the prisoners’ interest in writing. I had lunch with the Warden after my talk, and it occurred to me that if they were encouraged to write stories themselves, it would give them the opportunity to express themselves to the world outside the confines of their cells. I suggested a writing contest to the Warden, and his response was immediately positive.
The assistance of Marcin Dymalski in developing the contest was invaluable. We agreed that the contest should be national, rather than restricted to Wołow alone, and he contacted the Polish Prison Service, who were also very enthusiastic. We launched the contest in January, 2017, and by the end of March we had 135 entries. The stories were all translated for me by the lovely Katarzyna Janusik (who also translates my jokes for me.)
This, year we have had 105 entries, but we have also decided to have ten runners-up instead of just three. The winner receives a brass and wooden plaque, and all the runners-up receive certificates and DVD players, which is about all they are allowed in their cells. I write personal letters of consolation to every one of the entrants, and give them a souvenir pen.
Rebis Publishers have donated 2000 books to prisons in Lower Silesia as part of the Graham Masterton Written In Prison Award (Nagroda Grahama Mastertona W Więzieniu Pisane).
EK: In your selection process, what were the things you looked for or didn’t look for in stories?
GM: Every story is so different that it is very hard to judge which is “the best.” Some of them are horror stories, some of them are fantasies … some of them are simply painful accounts of how the writer ended up in prison. I look for honesty, imagination, clever imagery, but mostly for a sense that the inmate is trying to share his or her innermost feelings. The second winner last year was a woman who still has eight years to serve for murder. It was a very touching story about a woman who was regularly abused by her boyfriend, but he would always give her white roses to say sorry. When he killed her, he laid white roses on her grave, and she ends the story by saying “now you know why I hate white roses.” I talked to her after the prizegiving last year, but she quickly became too distressed to continue. Winning the prize was a very emotional moment for her. This year we have had 11 female entrants, and several of them tell stories, fictional or not, which have underlying themes of abuse.
EK: How did the inmates who participated feel about the writing process? Have some of them continued to write?
GM: Almost all of the inmates I was able to talk to found that writing was very cathartic and a great release. For them to know that people in the world outside were sharing their thoughts gave them a sense of self-worth that they had lacked ever since they had been locked up.
EK: Can you give us a few spoilers from some of the stories you’ve selected?
GM: This is an excerpt from this year’s first prizewinner, “A Return To Normal”:
Finally came the moment when the door opened, then the second one, another, and finally he was standing in front of the last barrier separating him from freedom. The huge metal gate looked different than before. It wasn’t impassable anymore, it seemed light, easy to cross. He passed through the last security check and finally the gate opened and he stepped to the other side …
The city centre emitted sounds he hasn’t heard in 25 years. It was noisy, too noisy. He stood in front of the gate, lit up a cigarette, not looking back, wanting to leave behind him everything he’d lived through. He knew perfectly well he needed to move, he couldn’t stand in one place, but his legs felt like jelly. He sat on a bench, looked around, and despite having a plan prepared a long time ago, he began to wonder where to start. He had many opportunities now, he could do things that were impossible for him before, and which were normal for everyone else.
After almost an hour, he stood up and bought today’s paper in a kiosk. He walked through midtown with high office buildings, sun glittering in the windows. Strings of cars moved through the alleys. He felt trapped between them. Tension grew with every minute. He wondered why it was so. He was a free man. No one could take his freedom away from him. He sat on a bench again, this time in a park. He opened the newspaper and started reading it, breathing the fresh spring air. He had two hours left till the train was leaving, so he decided to stay in the park and wait, he didn’t have the strength to do anything else.
The noise at the train station was terrible. He wasn’t used to it. He bought the ticket, went to the platform and opened a cold bottle of Coke, which he’d wanted to drink for a long time. He felt like a savage among a few dozen people waiting for the train. It seemed everyone was looking straight at him. He tried not to get paranoid. Many people told him it would be like that. He didn’t believe them, but now he personally found out it was true.
And this is from the second prizewinner, “A Fear Of The Night”:
God, it’s been two years since I noticed something or somebody following me for the first time. Only I hear those whispers, steps, and rustles, I see people. I see objects move without any living person touching them. More than once, I was considered crazy when I told somebody about my weirdness, steps, people,or keys in the fridge. After a while, I leave the house, I put sweatpants and a sweatshirt over my pyjamas and I run. I always go alone, I, dying of fear. I take a shortcut, praying to get there. And once again I hear the same sound of footsteps behind me, behind my back—at first, the steps are far away, then they become louder and louder, and louder, until the sound pierces my ears. After a moment, I hear footsteps right behind me, it takes all my strength not to turn around. My legs are shaking, somebody’s shoes are practically trampling on my heels, I feel a stranger’s breath on my neck. I can’t take it anymore, fear clutches my throat, tears fall from my eyes, I turn around, overcoming my own fear and there’s no one there. God, and those hands which grabbed me, what kind of delusion it was. And maybe it’s the result of earlier overconsumption of alcohol. The nightmare started already in the first apartment. We lived in Brodnica. A big 60 square metres apartment. Two rooms, water always dripping from faucets, doors, and windows opening on their own, somebody’s footsteps on the creaking floor. Waking up at night is the worst, and the feeling somebody is standing over me and looking at me persistently. Finally I got so crazy, I was afraid to go to the kitchen and toilet by myself at night. I was waking up my man and walking holding his hand, turning on the lights everywhere on the way, of course. I had to be guided everywhere like a child.
And this one, the third, which the author doesn’t even pretend is fiction, but is a true horror story nonetheless—”My Story”:
And I, an eight-year-old boy, at a children’s home, it’s raining, I’m standing by the window. I don’t have parents, my sister doesn’t visit me, and boys and girls from the “orphanage” don’t want to play with me, because I’m a stranger and “new” here.
Two months have passed, I’m adopted by the second wife of our deceased grandfather, who was our neighbour in the country. We called her “grandma,” and suddenly she became a Mother. I converted into Christianity, because after my adoption it turned out I had been a Jehovah’s Witness. I was baptised at 10, the First Communion the same year. I go to school. I grow up. When I’m fifteen, I get my first (and last) school certificate with honours. I’m sixteen, I get into drugs and alcohol, and when I have no money for a fix, I simply steal. “Grandma” can no longer manage me. You don’t have to wait long for the next stage. I’m seventeen, I barely manage to graduate from vocational culinary school, then trials and the sentence—five years for robbery, breaking and entering and possession. A new world. A different language. For the first time, I get to know poetry and love for literature. I discover in myself things I had no idea about. I study in prison, I graduate from school, I participate in all possible literary competitions, I write poetry.
I’m released after five years. It’s January 2014. I meet a woman, we move in together after a few months, but “Grandma” cannot come to an agreement with my woman and moves back into her house.
A son is born from this love, I name him Adam, because he is my firstborn, but also because it was my father’s name. A year passes, I lose a well-paid job. I won’t let my family starve, because I promised myself I would never allow them to live like I lived in my childhood. I start to steal, I take part in an armed robbery at a gas station, although when I think about it now, I believe it was an act of desperation. My accomplices rat on me. I go to prison again. The sentence—five years.
It’s 2016. I have visitors. My fiancée came with my son. She says she’s cheated on me and we cannot be together anymore. We break up, rather coldly. Two more years pass. “Grandma” writes only from time to time. I have no contact with my family and my son. I’m alone.
Today is 28 February 2018. I am writing this short story for a great writer hoping he would read it. I lost everything and not because of drugs or robberies or something else, but only because of my own decisions and choices.
I remember the children’s home. It happens again. It’s raining, I stand by the window, the only difference are the bars in front of me. I feel exactly the same as when I was eight. Now I understand it. I have no parents, nobody’s visiting me. Is it déjà vu?
May this short story be a lesson for future generations how life can unfold, or rather what to do not to bring your life to ruin with your own mistakes. But is it the end?
“Life is a castle. Even after hundreds of years it can be ruined, but it doesn’t matter it cannot be rebuilt.”
Look for Written in Prison to be released in late 2019. It will include three years of prize-winning stories from inmates of prisons throughout Poland, both men and women.
Thank you to Graham Masterton for curating this truly fiendish endeavour.
Graham Masterton‘s debut as a horror author began with The Manitou in 1976, a chilling tale of a Native American medicine man reborn in the present day to exact his revenge on the white man. It became an instant bestseller and was made into a film.
Since then Graham has published more than 35 horror novels.
Altogether he’s written more than a hundred novels ranging from thrillers to disaster novels to historical sagas. He has also published four collections of short stories.
He was born in Edinburgh in 1946 and lives in Surrey, England. He has just finished writing a black thriller featuring Ireland’s only female detective superintendent, Katie Maguire, set in the Cork underworld; and a dark fantasy, Jessica’s Angel, about a girl’s search for five supposedly-dead children.
For more information about Graham and his work, go to http://www.grahammasterton.co.uk/.