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by William D. Gagliani

(Interview published in July 1993 issue of Science Fiction Chronicle. The whole CD-ROM gaming industry was quite new then, and Matt was a pioneer. He wrote the story line for the first best-selling CD-ROM game, The Seventh Guest. It was so new, when we talked about it in the Parker Meridien's noisy bar -- during the 1992 Stoker weekend -- he didn't even realize how much it would change his life.)

His work has spanned several genres - Science Fiction, Fantasy, Suspense, and now even CD-ROM games - but he remains a consummate writer of Horror. His newest novel centers on horror that crawls not from the abyss, or from some incantation gone badly wrong, but from the depths of a man's heart. Homecoming is, without a doubt, Matt Costello's strongest work to date.

And that's as it should be. Writer and writing have evolved together, continuing to up the ante in the game all writers play against themselves.

Costello describes his new novel: "Homecoming is about a hostage who escapes and comes home after five, six years to a young wife, who had a child with him, who didn't know if he was alive or dead. She's reluctantly allowed herself to trip into an affair. But now this stranger who has been through this unbelievably horrible experience is coming home. What's interesting about the hostages that have come home recently is that now they're telling what they had to go through, which I knew about because I'd done the research, and the horror they experienced is unbelievable. Tremendous. A lot of that is in my book, before the person escapes. At the same time that he's coming home, someone else is being released from Sing Sing prison after five years on a manslaughter charge. What's not known is that this person was responsible for a lot more than manslaughter. And these three elements, the wife having the affair, the husband coming home, and the person being released from
prison are on a collision course.

"Essentially that's what the book deals with, but also - what's family? What does it mean when you have a family, it's broken up, then you're reunited? What's the real nature of love and giving? In an early incarnation of the book, I was playing with people's sympathies in terms of the husband. You're rooting for the husband, but then when he's here, there's a sense that maybe the husband will turn out to be something bad for this family. I really had to pull away from that, because it's not what the book is about. It's about coming to terms with someone re-entering the home after a traumatic experience. Not making him into some kind of monster or villain, though there are monsters of a kind in this book, both of the spiritual and physical kind. The big question is, why did he come home? By the end, you know the answer."

Costello has been leaning forward, intent on his description. You can see the enthusiasm for this plot, this novel that has taken him another level upward. And you can see that he genuinely wants to talk about the monsters, the very same ones that presumably chased these themes of his onto the page.

It seems that Matt Costello is always coming home. His fiction is replete with the image of home, often somehow transformed into an alien place that haunts his characters. In Beneath Still Waters, the hometown is literally submerged. In Darkborn, home is vision layered over a reality that can only be revealed by a jump back in time, and a reliving of one's life from the outside. In Homecoming, three prisons give way to three homecomings, of sorts. The theme lurks in the early Sleep Tight as well, where home is no longer what it used to be.

"It's interesting you would say that," Costello says, clearly satisfied. "As a writer, your own psyche is like a work in progress. For instance, when I wrote Beneath Still Waters and Wurm [science fiction/horror], it was fun. I wrote fun stories. There was skin diving and tentacled monsters. But with every book the game got a little more serious, to where now a book is almost a holy endeavor - in that I have to meditate on it, I have to research, I have to think, and the day I start actually writing ... I take a breath and I know I'm going to be lost in this personal journey. Wurm, which obviously grew from Beneath Still Waters, had tremendous underwater scenes, hydrothermal vents, and it was still fun and games, a pleasure. It was something I didn't have to commit my whole self to. Now it's different - with Darkborn it started to change, and now I think consciously of what I'm saying beyond the story, beyond the characters, beyond the roller coaster ride. I believe a book should be a roller coaster ride. I think you should pick up a book and - Bingo!, gone. A lot of books I read don't do that. I want that to happen. Now I think, what am I saying? What am I dealing with? And sometimes that message might change in midbook, but it's a personal journey. It's more costly in the sense that there are nights you don't sleep as well, and there are days I don't communicate to my family as well because it's demanding that much more of me."

What happens when the message does change? How does Costello deal with personal disclosure? He answers first with a question.

"How do you separate you as the person and you as the writer?"

Costello readily admits that on occasion the book he was working on suddenly seemed too personal, too dangerous. Homecoming is one novel that demanded a lot from its writer. "You have your prejudices, you have your hang-ups, you have your complexities, and you have your compulsions. How do you separate that from the person who should be writing about that character and this character objectively? So you're in this balancing act, and you may have your theme and - all of a sudden - if you're giving your characters free rein that theme changes, and it challenges you. You may try to hold back from expressing something about yourself and your worldview, because you don't feel comfortable being open about that, or you don't feel comfortable dealing with certain things because you just haven't come to terms with them. It could be a variety of things. But when that happens you have to stop and say, well, maybe this book isn't exactly what I think it was about. Maybe it's more than I want it to be. Maybe it's more about things I didn't want to talk about, and that I'm going to have to deal with in the course of the book.

"I think that's where you have the potential for Art. I'm not sure I've made Art yet. But I think if I stay on this track and keep at it, eventually it may be there. It may be glimmers now, but you have the potential for doing something important with a book that's still gripping, absorbing reading."

The recurrence of the homecoming theme can be traced back to Costello's earliest work. "Maybe I was processing material," he speculates, "only now I'm processing it knowing it's happening. It may actually interfere with the writing process to some extent. Beneath Still Waters just rolled out. The books now certainly come out, but they come out as a more methodical process because I'm trying to be aware of what I'm doing."

It's difficult to talk of Homecoming without at least mentioning the success of Thomas Harris and the so-called "mainstreaming of horror." Silence of the Lambs paved the way for a flood of imitative serial killer novels that threatens to obliterate the truly good ones, such as Homecoming. On the other hand, Harris put horror in the hands of the masses, despite anyone's denials. And that success undoubtedly spurred Berkley to market Homecoming as "Novel" rather than "Horror."

"Look back a dozen years to Shane Stevens' By Reason of Insanity," Costello points out. "Harris obviously took a few licks from Shane Stevens. Look back to Lawrence Sanders' First Deadly Sin. That genre has been there. What the Thomas Harris book did was throw all the switches open. The intelligence and the quality of the writing, the quality of the plotting and characterization, took it to degrees it had not been taken before. In a way, it established a sub-genre. I think we'll have a mini serial killer sub-genre, with female heroines, for a while. I don't think it'll last - as people start regurgitating that story it'll get very vapid. But it showed that a good suspense story done well could reach a major audience. And that's the real message. Not that serial killers are hot, or that female heroines trained at the FBI or CIA are hot, but that a good mainstream suspense story can provide a tremendous audience and canvas for a writer to work with. My book to some extent borrows a bit from those messages."

Costello says his agent was looking for something "with larger scope," something that dealt with "topical issues." At the time, nothing was more topical than these nearly forgotten men who had been held prisoner and tortured for years while the government at least seemed unconcerned.

"It was a classic suspense story on the order of something Hitchcock might do, but meaner and nastier."

Was the move away from the genre label intentional? Costello isn't the only writer to have abandoned the field of Horror for a greener, less genre-specific pasture. But he's adamant about why the exodus is taking place. It's less predicated on the quality of the writing than on its packaging. And here his voice shows a slight edge of bitterness-just enough to underline how seriously he takes his work, his Art.

"No one said 'Don't do Horror!' I probably could have done something more repulsive with mummies in the subway, and the publisher would have bought it and published it, and it probably would have had a skeletal mummy on the cover."

The conversation has turned serious. Packaging is the crux of the problem with the Horror label, Costello feels, and it has touched him. "This may sound immodest," he begins, "but in a recent article in Cemetery Dance, Tom McDonald makes the point that ten years ago my most recent novel, Darkborn, would have been issued in hardcover, and it would have been a career-making novel on the order of Carrie or Ghost Story. Today it's just another paperback with a skull on the cover. That's the sad fact, and it has made me want to pull away. There are still tales and stories I'd like to deal with, but it [Horror] became, unfortunately, a ghetto. Maybe you can still break out of that ghetto, but I think that if you're telling tales that go beyond the morass of stuff that's being issued, you have to find your own platform, and for me it was that the company I write for is interested in seeing me pursue other avenues."

The fact that Homecoming is categorized simply as Novel "is great, because it sends out the signal that anybody can read it -- the novel might be appropriate for anyone, not just people who like books with skulls on the cover. There may come a point where the Horror genre might become revitalized, when people leave it. For now it's good that a book does not look like a Horror novel even if it is. The more mainstream, the better."

Costello's enthusiasm for the genre hasn't waned despite the bleak picture. He describes with pure joy his youthful attachment to writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. Interestingly, he singles out the mainstream work of Thomas Berger, as well.

"I always had a special place in my mind for Horror," he says. "There was a collection called Chamber of Horrors. Hardcover, 1965. It had artwork, stories, poems. It showed the true range of Horror, going back to the 15th, 16th Centuries, to the most contemporary stories-Bradbury. It was a wonderful collection."

"I never thought of Horror in the limited terms that, for example, Splatterpunk has defined it as. I saw it as truly a Literature of the Fantastique -- wonders terrible -- but a literature that gave you a real sense of excitement and danger."

One can't help but wonder if his young mind was shaped by the infamous EC Comics but, he says, "I missed those by a year or two or three, or four even. By the time I got to the comics they were very mild-mannered."

He read prodigiously in the area, however, broadening his horizons to include TV's Twilight Zone. But he "deferred being a writer" until his thirties, he says, having been "busy doing other things, like studying classical guitar," and traveling.

"But then I felt the clock was running out. I'd always said I could write, and now was the time to do it. And by that time, I had Stephen King as an example. Of course, he's the touchstone. He is the modern master, and it was like a wake-up call to me. He came out of college, knew what he wanted to do, and went out and did it right away. When I was about thirty, I said, 'Well, this was something you said you could do, you wanted to do, now's the time.' I'm sure there are people who get to that point and nothing happens. I was lucky in the sense that something in fact did happen."

An important part of the writing process for Costello is a careful attention to detail. "It's a badge of honor with me," he says. He visited Woods Hole to help render portions of Wurm, and learned how to pilot the submarine. "I knew how all the controls worked." Nowhere is the attention to detail more striking than in Homecoming, in which Costello's research on body modification is carefully laid out to enhance characterization, providing you with more information than you might want about exotic accessories such as the ampallang. The research flows smoothly into the narrative without once intruding, and that is of course the point.

For his newest novel, recently turned in to Berkley, Costello's research followed a different direction but was just as thorough. "I spent close to two months researching child abuse, people who abduct children, agencies such as ChildFind, and the National Center for Child Abuse. I flew to Santa Fe and drove to the mountains, parked my car, and hiked in with snow 3 to 4 feet high. I saw cougar tracks, and a cougar figures in that book. I came back and walked the same places my characters end up. The more I'm allowed to by virtue of my position to spend time researching, the more research I'm going to do, because the closer it brings you to the material."

Detail, yes. And often just the right one, in the right place.

In addition, nearly all Costello's novels have a strong cinematic quality. Settings are as quirky as the shadowy streets of a submerged small town, murky depths populated by 20-foot tubeworms, and the boarded-up menace of a windswept Steeplechase Park. Scenes are short and punchy and camera-ready, and dialogue flows in a realistic shorthand style that captures his characters as sharply as, say, Charles Webb's The Graduate. The jump to film seems predestined.

"Sleep Tight was optioned," he explains, "and they did one screenplay. Then they hired me to do a screenplay after theirs, and there was some interest in Japan, in terms of financing. But I know what the odds are like-once optioned I think it's one out of a hundred that actually makes it to production stage. And everything I've done since then, up until Homecoming, would be too expensive."

But there has been some interest in Homecoming, Costello adds, even as early as the galley stage. Once a proven winner, his other novels would likely invite a second look. The adaptation process doesn't bother him, even if he were not involved. "I'd rather see one of my books purchased for movie rights, and then just let them do what they want with it. I really subscribe to the belief, echoed by various others, that books are forever. The books are your books."

Until Matt Costello finds himself confronting the movie deal dilemma, trust him to find some uncharted territory to map. Long a gaming enthusiast, having penned numerous columns and even game novelizations, Costello has kept up with the tremendous technological innovations. His gaming knowledge is a boon, of course, but it was his skill as a writer that led to The Seventh Guest.

"I did the screenplay for The Seventh Guest. It's a CD-ROM product from Virgin Games, on two CDs. It was filmed with a cast of a dozen actors, and Vincent Price is doing the narration. It's a completely realized haunted house you can walk through, as real as any room in your house. It's different puzzles and things that trigger cinematic scenes in which ghosts appear. Nintendo acquired exclusive video game rights for their CD-ROM system, so it's turned into rather a large thing."

Cutting edge indeed, but Matt Costello is first and last a writer, one whose work will always transcend genre labels. His serious approach enriches every novel he has written, even the "fun" ones. New-found success in digital media could signal a step away from traditional writing, if he'd let it.

"My friends like to joke, saying: 'You won't be writing novels anymore after this,' but the thing is that novel writing is what I love to do."

And it shows.

Recent work by Matthew J. Costello includes the novel Unidentified, but I'll always remember him for Homecoming and the absolutely fantastic, classic Darkborn. Beneath Still Waters was recently optioned for filming, so congratulations, Matt!