Ed Gorman (1941-2016) wrote full-time for more than thirty years after a career in advertising. Prolific in the mystery, dark suspense and western fields, he produced more than a hundred stories and many novels, including a string of political thrillers. In 2011 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.
Ed Gorman's short fiction, distinctive for its emotional depth, has been reprinted in numerous anthologies, including The Shamus Winners (2010). Writing in Ellery Queen's magazine, critic Jon L. Breen called Gorman "one of our finest contemporary short story writers regardless of genre."
His books for Perfect Crime include two story collections, Noir 13 and Scream Queen and Other Tales of Menace. He lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Upon publication of Scream Queen and Other Tales of Menace, Perfect Crime wanted to get a glimpse of what drives a first-rate short-story writer. Ed complied with a few answers:
fterword, of Sorts
Q.: The stories in Scream Queen could all be called horror or at least menacing—without bending categories too much—but you’ve also written in other genres, notably western and mystery. Are there things you find you can do in a horror story that you can’t in the other fields—besides making a reader uncomfortable, which seems an important part of these stories?
A.: A number of my stories are horrorific in effect without being outright horror. I’m comfortable working in this dark suspense area. Of course there are times when outright horror makes the story stronger. As for consciously trying to make the reader uncomfortable, yes there are times I do. “Cages” is certainly one of them as is—I hope anyway—”The Baby Store” [Noir 13, Perfect Crime]. There’s a segment of society that has turned having children into a competition. There was a Salon article not long ago about how the entire lives of children are being laid out in advance by wealthy parents. That horrifies me. As does the prospect of creating children to order—color of eyes, looks, temperament, etc. This will happen sooner or later.
Q.: Perfect Crime published a paperback edition of your novel Cage of Night a while back. It shares some ideas with “The Brasher Girl.” Can you tell us how these two came about?
A.: Well, “The Brasher Girl” is somewhat of an homage to Stephen King’s really fine short story “Nona.” I took it in my own direction, of course. A year or two later my agent asked me if I had an idea for my next novel. So I expanded “The Brasher Girl,” but probably eighty per cent of the book is original. I’d been rereading Nathanael West at that time. I wanted to recreate that undertow of mystery and grief West captured in The Day of the Locust.
Q.: There are significant differences between the “Brasher” short story and the novel, for example the portraits of Cindy—and that bit at the end of Cage of Night in which the boy’s father tells him his wife is a whore. Without too much in the way of spoilers, can you say anything about this?
A.: Cage of Night is one of those books that was just THERE when I sat down to the computer. I have to “hear” books before I can write them: define a voice or tone. I used some of the establishing plot points from “Brasher,” but the “tone” was very different. The characters were different, too.
Q.: The story “Scream Queen” in this new collection should resonate with any guy who has enjoyed undressed actresses in horror films. Do you remember how this one came about?
A.: I’ve had incurable cancer for thirteen years. Right now it’s in a version of remission. I’ve spent dozens of hours in chemo rooms and have gotten to know a lot of the feelings of women who have this disease. Not just the dread of death but feelings about how their body will look. I ran across an article about a scream queen who was tired of showing her naked breasts on screen. I took the story from there.
Q.: There is a kind of dismal sickness in many of your characters—the people in “Angie,” “Render Unto Caesar,” “En Famille.” They all have a strong feeling of reality about them—as if you grew up around them. Any comment?
A.: These are my people. I grew up around them and in some respects resemble them. Of course they’re exaggerated in fiction but not by all that much. Angie is real; I am the narrator in “Render Unto Caesar” (the old man is real, too); “En Famille” is my family at large filtered through Zola. These are all from the neighborhoods I grew up in. When I was nine the crazy woman two houses away wanted to punish her four-year-old boy. She stuck him in the oven and burned the left side of his face. Her nine-year-old son, my friend, grabbed her and stopped her burning him even more. To this day the younger boy is horribly scarred. Neither boy ever recovered from it.
Q.: Does your sense of the Midwest owe anything to Sherwood Anderson?
A.: I reread Anderson every few years. He nailed the Midwest of his time. So did Sinclair Lewis, though he wasn’t the poet Anderson was. By the way, I really recommend the film version of Lewis’s Dodsworth. Walter Huston is brilliant. One of the finest American films ever made.
Q.: You mention at the end of “The Brasher Girl” that you have been strongly influenced by Stephen King. What other writers have influenced you?
A.: I’m never sure how to answer this because there are so many writers who’ve influenced me. Here’s a list, in the order of when I started reading them: Ray Bradbury, Mickey Spillane, the Gold Medal writers—John D. MacDonald, Richard Prather, Charles Williams, Lionel White, Peter Rabe, Vin Packer—Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Graham Greene, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain, Zola. Those would be the basic writers, but many, many more have certainly affected my work.
Q.: Given the popularity of urban horror, readers might be interested in whether some of your novels fit that category. Or are you considering something?
A.: There is some extraordinary work is being done in that field. I would like to do work in that genre someday.
Q.: Your mysteries, westerns and horror tales have all been well-received. Is there anything you’ve tried to write but can’t bring off—a mainstream novel that sits in a drawer? A book of religious revelations?
A.: I’m smiling at your mention of “religious revelations.” One of my all-time favorite episodes of The Simpsons is when the Rapture comes and everybody is drawn up to heaven except Homer. That’s enough of revelation for me. As for a mainstream novel . . . back in the ’70s Charles Scribner & Sons ran a short story contest (this was the Scribners of Joseph Conrad, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, not the commercial house of today), and I won one of the slots. An editor called and said there was a novel in my story and why didn’t I give it a go. I’d been selling stories to very lowdown literary magazines and even lower-down men’s magazines and starting and finishing mystery novels and never getting anywhere. I thought maybe I had a mainstream novel in me after all. I worked on it six months but gave up. I was bored out of my mind. I am a genre writer.