World of Horror: Interview with Marty Young
Marty Young is a Bram Stoker nominated and multiple Australian Shadows award-winning writer and editor, and sometimes ghost hunter. His fiction and anthologies have been nominated for and won numerous awards, while his essays on horror literature have been published in journals and university textbooks across the world. Marty was also the founding president of the Australian Horror Writers Association from 2005-2010, and one of the creative minds behind the internationally acclaimed Midnight Echo Magazine, for which he also served as executive editor until mid-2013. As of 2023, Marty is the co-chair of Asylumfest, an all-new annual Australian horror con.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
It’s funny what sticks, right? I often say to people, when explaining why I love a particular song, that it sings to my soul. And as wanky as that sounds, it’s the same with horror. I mean, we all know it’s a buzz when you’re scared shitless and yet you’re perfectly safe. There’s something alluring to that.
But it’s also the flexing of your imagination, and that’s a massive driver for me. I live in this world so I want to be entertained by other worlds, other places, no matter how dark or gruesome. Horror that is too real isn’t a fun experience; give me wild crazy monsters or alternative worlds any time – so long as the themes are relatable. Make them suffer so I can feel better about myself. There’s something a little sadistic about that!
When I was young, my dad worked in a video shop (I think it was called ‘Flicks’), and every other night he’d bring home a box filled with videos that customers had returned with complaints of creased tape or other such obscure problems. His job was to watch those movies, find the damaged tape, and then cut and splice it if possible. This fascinated me, so of course I wanted to help. Cutting out a second or two of a film, then splicing the tape back together, wondering if people would notice… It was so cool!
But even better was Dad getting me to help by watching the movies to find the damaged tape! Dad was also a big horror fan, so we’d sit down together and watch movies I probably shouldn’t have at that age!
[One he didn’t let me watch was the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so I had to sneak into the lounge and hide behind one of the big chairs to see it! Scared the crap outta me, that one… Especially at the ripe old age of about ten!]
This was also the age of practical special effects, with legends like Tom Savini and Rick Baker; watching documentaries on how they performed some of their effects enthralled me. There was a time I wanted that as my career, and I’d practice with sfx at home, creating all kinds of latex monsters.
Another perk of Dad’s job meant I could rent out any movie I wanted for free (within reason!), but that meant I watched a crazy number of movies growing up – at one point in the late 1980s, I had exhausted the video store’s entire horror section! We also had permanent free passes to the movie theatres as another of Dad’s jobs was in a leather shop and they got hired to re-upholster the seats in the theatre. Bingo! Free movie tickets for life. It was brilliant.
Movies naturally led into books (of course it was Stephen King; how could it not be? But then came Clive Barker, my absolute all-time favourite writer), and that’s where I’ve been ever since – although one day, I’d love to make a movie… Or be involved with one.
Is there a horror tradition in your country, in your culture? A taste for horror, a market? Not necessarily literature; perhaps oral tradition too.
I’m going to tackle this from the point of view of growing up in New Zealand, before moving to Australia in 2000.
I grew up on a diet of ‘external’ horror – horror from the USA and the UK, mostly. New Zealand-grown horror of any kind was in limited supply. Sure, we had the Taniwha, a supernatural creature that featured in numerous myths and legends of Māori culture, but they’re not really horror (some were even tribal guardians). Māori burial grounds were widely regarded as tapu (sacred) when I was a kid, places you did not trespass on, but that’s more out of respect than for horrific reasons. Some old colonial stories featured Māori in supernatural, spooky terms, but colonial stories of most countries tended to treat their indigenous cultures that way and this wasn’t something to celebrate. NZ horror didn’t have a long history to draw on other than delving into our indigenous culture, and as a result, there were no NZ-based horror traditions I remember celebrating when I was a kid.
With regards to film and TV, there were the occasional shows like Under the Mountain (1979) and A Haunting We Will Go (1970-1980), but that was about all and they weren’t really horror, either. Halloween wasn’t a thing other than some kind of magical event I saw on tele, and then there was Guy Fawkes Night… But in general, New Zealand-based horror was such an alien concept to me that I was shocked to discover sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s that NZ-made horror movies were even a thing!
Guy Fawkes Night has some weird pagan undertones to it, and that was the only celebration I can remember even stretching to fit into horror. This dude way back when tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the UK and ever since we’ve been celebrating him on November 5th. So every Guy Fawkes Night, we’d go out and buy a massive bag or two of fireworks (which you could buy from the corner dairy) and let them off in the evening. We’d then have a bonfire and throw an effigy of Guy Fawkes onto it and watch him burn. How extremely pagan is that? So no, it’s not really a horror tradition but there are certain horrific elements behind the idea of burning an effigy of someone on a bonfire!
When I was a kid (before the internet was a thing), my main source of horror news came via a Fangoria subscription. Man, I’d so look forward to getting my next issue. I was the only one in my local bookshop who got the magazine, so they ordered it specifically for me, which I thought was cool.
I stumbled over Fangoria courtesy of my dad again. He knew a lot of people about town and would get given a box of old magazines each month from one of the bookshops in town. The covers would have been torn off but one magazine in the pile was Fangoria, with an article on New Zealand’s own Peter Jackson. The article covered his movie Bad Taste from 1987, and there was a picture of Jackson scooping up brains to put back inside his head!! Man oh man, I was blown away. New Zealand horror? This was something else.
So yeah, Peter Jackson and his movies; Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles (1989), and Braindead (1992). That was my first taste of home-grown horror, and it was just awesome.
As a side note, I’m answering these questions on a rig site deep in the mountainous jungles of Papua New Guinea. Drilling operations have ground to a halt with our drill bit stuck 3200m below the surface. The locals have been saying we have not appeased the local gods; we’re taking from the land but not replenishing what we want to take. They are telling the drilling company that they need to sacrifice a pig and let its blood seep into the ground to restore balance, and only then will we succeed and our harvest will be bountiful.
But the company refuses to give in to such beliefs, so they drill on – or try to. We’ve been stuck for 3 days now, and it looks likely they will have to abandon this effort and start again, at the cost of 10 million dollars or more. Perhaps this time, they will make that blood sacrifice the land is asking for. PNG is a spectacular country, one that has melded Christianity with pagan customs, and the end result is some truly fascinating beliefs.
Who are some of your favorite characters in horror, internationally and/or in your own culture?
Count Homogenized! He was a vampire with a white afro from a children’s TV show called A Haunting We Will Go that aired in New Zealand from 1979 – 1980. He loved milk with a passion, and would continuously steal it from Major Toom, who lived in a big old haunted house. That’s why the Count was a delightful pale milk colour from head to foot. “It is I, Count Homogenized!” And off he’d sneak with six bottles of milk.
Portrayed by Russell Smith, the Count ended up having his own show and has become somewhat of an icon in NZ TV history. I would’ve been about 9 when A Haunting We Will Go aired and it’s something that has stayed with me, firmly lodged in my mind – to the point that sometimes I’ll have a drink of milk and sing the theme song to the show! Or I’ll turn to my wife and say, “It is I, Count Homogenized!” She had no idea what I was on about until I showed her an episode once. It didn’t win her over! Hahah!
Like I said above, this wasn’t horror but there were enough horror elements in it (a vampire and ghosts) that it sang to my soul.
Internationally, I love horror movie monsters (Freddy, Jason, Myers, Pinhead, Leatherface, etc), plus of course the classics (Dracula, Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc). I love the idea of creating a monster that just resonates with people across decades. There is something truly magical in that.
Do you make a conscious effort to include characters and settings from your country in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
A lot of my stories have focused on issues in my life at the time of writing those stories, give or take a couple of years. Because I had left New Zealand in 2000 before I really began writing, I haven’t really delved into my past as my present life often had enough twists and turns in it to sate my muse. That’s now starting to change – or my focus is.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a story for a Cthulhu anthology set in New Zealand (Cthulhu – Land of the Long White Cloud), and that was the first time I’d written something set there. It was a thrill, and I loved exploring parts of my past for that story. Then earlier this year (or late last year?) I got invited to contribute a story for an anthology of NZ stories, edited by another person I have a great deal of respect for, so again, I was thrilled to write something. Even better, it cemented the notion that I have a lot of things to write about from my life in New Zealand, so I’ll definitely be returning there. I’ve been thinking about pulling together a collection of New Zealand-based horror novellas – if I can ever get my lazy arse back into the writing chair…
New Zealand is such a beautiful country. I love that the Māori culture is embedded within society, and I think that makes us even richer. It’s a country I’ve explored thoroughly in my time there, and it has so many unique tales to tell.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Writing is cathartic for me, and horror allows me to explore themes and topics that would otherwise be too difficult to write about in any real emotional depth. Too confronting, personally. Horror is a great disguise, it’s a mask, and once you put on that mask, you can see things from a perspective with less pain.
My last book (Gutterbreed) was about someone with bipolar and how that impacted her life but also helped her survive some pretty harrowing ordeals. That character was loosely based on my wife, and how she went from battling her bipolar to accepting it was the key motivator for writing Gutterbreed. So horror has allowed me to get deep and personal and confront the issues in our lives, without standing there stark-naked while doing so. I can hide behind that mask of horror without flinching and be as uncompromising as I want or need to be.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve, both in the US and in your country?
I lament the move to digital because I feel we’ve lost a lot of the magic. Back in the 1980s when I first got into the genre, and even through into the early 2000s, there were so many small press magazines available. My first real subscription was to Fangoria, as I mentioned above, but by the time the 1990s had taken over, I had subscriptions to a dozen or so small-press magazines, and I would eagerly await their arrival in my mailbox. Nothing beats the magic of holding that magazine in your hands. There’s less soul to the digital versions, the magic is gone, and the world and our genre are the poorer for it. Same with special effects; the days of Tom Savini are long gone, and that’s a shame, too.
But things evolve, I get that. I also get how tough it is running a magazine, so I fully appreciate the need to move to digital. I just have my old man pants on is all.
We were talking about masks before, and in a counter way to what I was saying, I feel the mask of horror has been pulled off via social media. We see backstage too much; we know our authors too intimately. We see their attitudes and egos, their prejudices and leanings, and we’ve been exposed to the brutal truth of the awful discrimination that took place in the publishing world – and still does. We know the warts and all, as the saying goes. There was a certain magic to going to the library and searching for horror novels, then finding one. Or better yet, a bookstore that had a horror section filled with books with these wonderfully gruesome covers by authors you’d never heard of.
It’s like being a kid when the world is full of wonder. We’re not yet exposed to the harshness of reality. When I was at university in NZ, I wanted to become a volcanologist, but the magic I saw in this field was stolen via courses in chemistry. My passion faded because I knew the background workings, the mechanisms, so to speak. For me, it’s the same with horror to an extent, and it’s perhaps why I’m not that active on social media.
But at the same time, staying ignorant is to be complicit to the injustices that happen, and that’s not acceptable. So it’s a difficult balance to walk, keeping the magic while fighting for equality.
I’ve also noticed a lot of newer writers have no idea of the history of this genre, and I think that’s also a shame. Again, maybe old man pants are talking, but become a student of this genre, learn about it. Understand it. Discover those who walked this path before you – but don’t do so with modern sensibilities in mind. Read them in the context of the society in which they lived.
How do you feel the International horror writing community has been represented thus far in the market and what hopes do you have for representation going forward?
I’m not comfortable commenting here as I haven’t had to struggle as a marginalized voice. I haven’t had to endure discrimination due to my sexual or ethical identity so it’s not for me to say how the international horror writing community has been represented thus far.
All I will say is that our world is diverse, and it’s so much better for that diversity.
But my hope is a naive one set in a utopian world, where the story someone wants to tell is what’s important. Unfortunately, all I can see in society is even more polarization, meaning ongoing effort will be necessary to achieve a level playing field. And that sucks. That should never be a thing we have to fight for.
Who are some international horror authors you would recommend?
Like I said, go read the classics! Understand why our genre is built upon the likes of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft, MR James, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Bloch, Guy de Maupassant, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Joyce Carol Oates, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard, John Wyndham…. The list goes on but too many people forget the classics and worry about who’s hot right now.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Write because you love to write, you love to tell stories. That beats all. And with such passion will come a desire to better yourself, to learn and improve. Passion will motivate you to keep going when the rejections come in, because getting published is a lovely reward but don’t make it the main reason you write.
And be open and honest with yourself. Look deep into all the cuts and bruises on your soul. Put on a mask if you have to, but don’t shy from what’s there. Such brutal honesty will make your stories so much better.
And to the writers from your country out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Get out and see the world, and bring that worldly perspective back home.
Find more about Marty at his website.