Exclusive Interview: Jeffrey Sackett

Conducted by Hunter Goatley

Editor's Note: Jeffrey Sackett is the author of five horror novels, all published by Bantam. In each novel, Mr. Sackett has re-worked a traditional horror theme, while mixing in large doses of historical fantasy. His first novel, Stolen Souls (1987), was about Egyptian mummies and a curse; Candlemas Eve (1988) mixed rock'n'roll with witchcraft; Blood of the Impaler (1989) was an interesting update of the Dracula Harker family; Mark of the Werewolf (1990) told of the curse of a 3000-year-old werewolf; and his new novel, The Demon, is about a shapechanger.

Mr. Sackett is very knowledgable in several fields, including history and the classical Greek and Latin languages. For a more entertaining description of his early life, read the author biography in the back of any of his books. In addition to writing, Mr. Sackett is a full-time high school teacher, husband, and father of two girls, Victoria and Elizabeth. The following interview, which was Sackett's first, was conducted by phone on July 8, 1990, just a few days after his daughter Elizabeth was born.

Goatley: What are your degrees in?

Sackett: I have a Master's degree in European history, a Master's degree in East Asian history, and a Master's degree in Education. I'm a high-school teacher of English and History in Long Island.

Goatley: Wow. Heavy-duty stuff.... Was Stolen Souls the first novel you wrote?

Sackett: It wasn't the first one I wrote, but it was the first one I sold. I'd been writing pretty much continuously since I graduated from college. I had a few nibbles, and some encouragement, but no substantial success until Stolen Souls.

Goatley: Were the other stories and novels in a similar vein---steeped in history....

Sackett: Well, yeah, most of them really were historical. I wrote a historical novel that I thought would be a good book, but nobody's interested in it. It's based on a true story of a love affair that Adolph Hitler had with his niece, Angela Raubal. That novel is the one that got me an agent---I sent out letters of inquiry and synopses and [was noticed by an agent]. He never sold that one, but when I wrote Stolen Souls it was marketed within a few months.

Goatley: That's interesting. I know it's not unusual for authors to write several novels before they get one published.

I have several vague questions that I'll just spit out at you at once and let you answer them however you want. How do you write your novels? How do you do your research? With your studied background, is the research difficult for you?

Sackett: The research, in specifics, is somewhat time-consuming, but not the basic stuff. For better or worse, when it comes to historical, linguistic, philosophical trivia, I have a mind like a steel-trap---I don't forget anything. When it comes to anything important, like how to change the oil in my car or fix a faucet, I can't do a %fucking thing. In terms of which Egyptian king reigned during which part of which dynasty, or what province of ancient Iran Zoroaster was born in, that kind of stuff I just know. Because I am, after all, a history student and a history teacher, so it's the kind of thing I would know, really. But when it comes to---for example, in Stolen Souls, there's an awful lot of transliteration of ancient Egyptian language---that's certainly not the sort of thing that I'd know off-hand. That I had to do quite a bit of research in. And also to be able to construct sentences in hieroglyphs, to have them say what I wanted them to say, that required research as well.

It does vary. Blood of the Impaler is about---partially, anyway---the historical characters of the Dracula story. All I knew going into it was that he was a 15th-century Rumanian prince who was rather well-known for his cruelty. So I had to do a lot of research about that historical character---that was kind of time-consuming, as well. So I guess it varies in that regard---it varies from the general to the specific. In the generalities, I'm pretty well grounded just in terms of my general knowledge, I think. But that, again, is a part of me and what I do for a living.

Goatley: Have you visited any, or all, of these places you write about?

Sackett: I've travelled kind of extensively in Europe. I haven't been to the Middle East or East Asia at all. But I've been to Germany a number of times, Britain, France, Scandinavia, Italy, the Balkans, Hungary---I never got to go to Russia, but someday....

Goatley: I'd call that well-traveled, I think.

Sackett: Well, yeah. That's one of the [benefits] of marrying late---I got to go places.

Goatley: How did you get into writing horror, given your history background? What attracted you to trying to mix the horror and the history?

Sackett: Well, there are three things. First thing is that, even though academically I've always been centered on history and literature, I'm a certified English teacher also. But despite that, ever since I was a child, I've always had an interest in horror stories. I was one of the few people I knew who belonged to the Dwight Frye Fan Club---Dwight Frye was the guy who played Renfield in Lugosi's Dracula and the assistant in Karloff's Frankenstein. So I was always interested in film---and always interested in the literature. I read Stoker's Dracula when I was about 12, so I've always been interested in it---it's not something that just came out of the blue.

The second thing is that I was in an airport---I think I was flying to Buffalo to see the Moody Blues with my cousin---and I just picked up a novel in the bookstore just to pass the time on the plane. I can't remember the name of the novel (and even if I could, we probably shouldn't print it, because I'd get sued), but I thought it was terribly written---terribly written and not particularly interesting, and yet it was in print. Having had no success with my historical novels or my forays into social criticisms---which nobody was interested in---I thought to myself, "Well, if this can get published, I know I can write a horror story that's better than this one." That's when I started thinking about Stolen Souls.

The third thing is---this all kind of happened at the same time---I was reading an interview with Stephen King, I think it was in Playboy, and he made a very interesting comment, I found, about the film The Shining. He said something like, "I thought it was a very interesting film, but I wondered what happened to the book I wrote." After that, he said that what he found different between the film and the book was that Stanley Kubrick, who directed the film, was an atheist. And Stephen King, presumably, by the basis of what he said, is not an atheist, and King said that if you are an atheist, you really can't believe in the existence of evil. There has to be some rational explanation---like insanity, or psychoses, or cabin fever---when bad things happen. That started me thinking that there is a vast opportunity in the horror genre to go beyond the simple transcendent evil, and bring in the concept that there is transcendence which is either evil, neutral, or good. I don't want to talk just in terms of God and the devil, but supernatural transcendence is, indeed, supernatural transcendence---you can't have one without the other. You can't have up without down, or right without left. So, I started thinking in terms of horror as an agency for the good vs. evil struggle, which is at the basis of not only most, or a lot, of great literature, but also a lot of important periods of history.

Goatley: I think you're right about bad fiction. Just as a reader of horror fiction, I'm amazed at some of the stuff that gets printed.

Sackett: I don't think lousy books are just in horror---I'm sure there are an awful lot of lousy Westerns and lousy romances. I don't know if this true, I'm just saying this off the top of my head, but I think there may be a mistaken perception on the part of the publishers, or reviewers, or whatever, that the horror audience is relatively unsophisticated, which is not true. But they may think it is; it may affect their decisions on what to publish and what not to publish.

Goatley: Have you written any short stories, or do you plan to try?

Sackett: I think I'm less comfortable with the short story format than I am with the longer novel format. I started a couple of times to write short stories and I've found that they either become so long that they turn into short novels, or else if I make a conscious effort to keep them short enough to maintain the designation of short story, then I don't find them satisfactory as pieces of written work, and I don't even send them out. I've written about two or three dozen, I guess, and I don't like any of them. I write them, I revise them, I re-read them, I re-revise them, and I throw them away.

Goatley: Do you enjoy teaching, or would you like to get to the point where you wouldn't have to teach---where you could make a living just from your novels?

Sackett: Well, that's a good question. I do enjoy teaching---I enjoy my students; I teach high school, and I have, on occasion, taught interesting elective courses. In fact, there's a 12th-grade English elective course in the school where I work titled "Literature of Science Fiction, Mystery, and the Supernatural," and I have a lot of fun when I get to teach that.

If I had enough money that I wouldn't have to teach, I might very well not stay where I am, but I don't know if I would ever want to not teach at all. If I didn't have to think about the money, I think it would be a lot of fun to get a job in some small country college someplace for $6000 a year and teach English or something like that. Because it is fun---I find teaching to be a lot of fun and very satisfying. It's very difficult, and frequently very frustrating, but overall I think it's very satisfying---I don't know if I'd want to leave it forever.

Goatley: What's a typical work day like for you? When do you find time to write, since you're a teacher too?

Sackett: Well, that's one of the advantages of being a teacher, that I do have a large break in the summertime when I can get a lot of work done, and I do have a shorter work day than some people---you're at work right now, for example. Basically, it's getting up early on a lot of weekends and foregoing a lot of other vacations. I find it easier for someone in my position to write than someone who, for example, has a 9-to-5 job, or someone who runs his own business, or something like that. For the life of me, I really don't know how people who are putting in long conventional work weeks---50 weeks a year---get time to write. I really don't know how they do it; they have my admiration.

Goatley: I'm having a hard enough time just doing Lights Out! which only comes out four times a year. I can't imagine trying to do more than that.

Sackett: Oh, I'm sure you are.

Goatley: I have a couple more questions....

Sackett: Sure, take your time. This is fun!

Goatley: Do you have a favorite among your own works?

Sackett: Yeah, I think Blood of the Impaler is my favorite book. Well, it's hard to say. There's a book I have coming out in February called The Demon, which will also be published by Bantam, and an awful lot of that book is autobiographical. I haven't read the galleys yet---I haven't even looked at [the book] for about a year now. I think when I sit down and re-read the galleys and start making corrections, I might say, "Yeah, this is my favorite." At the moment, I think it's Blood of the Impaler.

Goatley: Getting back to another typical question, did you have any specific literary influences?

Sackett: Well, it's hard to say. For a long while, I read very extensively and deeply in Herman Hesse, and I try to capture some essence of lyric prose in the way I write. I don't know if I succeed, and it maybe sounds like kind of a high-falutin' thing to say, because I don't know if I'm able to do it. But I think Hesse has influenced my style, in terms of the types of things that I write, you know, historical fantasy, which I loved as a child.... Certainly Stoker's books. Edgar Allan Poe---the sheer bizarreness of the things that he thought of writing about always struck me as reflecting a very interesting and peculiar mind.

Goatley: To say the least. That leads into another question that is commonly asked, the dreaded "Where do you get your ideas?" But specifically, all the historical tie-ins you had with Janos Kaldy in Mark of the Werewolf. Do you read about these things and that just sparks an idea, or did you sit down, in that particular case, and look for places in history where you could place him?

Sackett: I can give you some specifics with Mark of the Werewolf: my original idea for that book was to draw a connection between werewolvery and Zoroastrianism. As you may know, I also studied for the ministry for awhile---my first two years of college I was in the pre-seminary program---so I've always been interested in the history of and developments in religion, and Zoroastrianism has always struck me as a very interesting faith. The Zoroastrians emphasize the struggle between good and evil as the motivating force in the physical universe, and the struggle goes on inside every human being. That struck me a long time ago, long before I ever thought of writing a book, as an interesting werewolf metaphor. After kicking that around in my head for awhile, I came up with this idea for a Zoroastrian priest who, for one reason or another, had been cursed to have this struggle between good and evil be physically and visually present in him. So from that point on, the book kind of developed itself in terms of the historical elements of it. If 3000 years ago this Zoroastrian priest were so cursed, what would occur over the ensuing 3000 years that would be interesting before I bring him up to today. So, find some interesting points in time and, you know, put him in there.

Goatley: It worked for me. I got a lot more than I was expecting out of Mark of the Werewolf. I was fascinated with, what I assume to be, the accuracy of the historical situations, yet showing how he was Barrabas and the way that was so logically done---it was a real pleasant surprise.

Sackett: That's good to hear. It's nice to hear that people read my stuff and go, "Oh!"

Goatley: You've been able to "re-work" a lot of the traditional horror staples without relying on a given subject....

Sackett: Yeah, the mummy, the vampire, the werewolf, and the witch....

Goatley: But you don't have this underlying theme to all of your novels, like the Barbara Michaels books. Is this something you planned, or is that just the way it worked out?

Sackett: That's just the way it worked out. I mean, if anybody was interested in me writing a sequel to something I've already written, I'd be happy to! I really hadn't thought consciously in terms of one or the other---that's just the way it has worked out.

Goatley: To wrap things up, can you tell me a little more about The Demon? You mentioned that it's autobiographical....

Sackett: Well, it's autobiographical to a degree. It takes place in the 1960s and is actually based upon---well, how should I put this? There was a fellow named Grogo the Goblin, and he was in a number of side shows and freak shows around the turn of the century, 1930s, 1940s---a while back. He was horribly deformed, horribly deformed and he was billed as the Goblin and people'd come look at him. After he retired, he left the circus and moved to a small town in upstate New York. All of this is true---this isn't something I made up. He lived in a little house off in the woods. About 20 years ago, a friend of mine found this guy's house, and I dug up a whole lot of stuff in his house---it had been abandoned for years, he had been dead for years---about his past. A lot of stuff happened up there which can very easily be related to some sort of malevolent supernatural force. The story is basically about a shapechanging demon from Hindu mythology and a bunch of stoned-out, drugged-up college kids in the 1960s who come into contact with this thing.

Jeffrey Sackett's latest novel, The Demon, is Bantam's February horror title and is in the bookstores now. He is currently working on his sixth novel.

Lights Out! The Robert R. McCammon Page, Hunter Goatley.

Copyright © 1991,1997, Hunter Goatley. All rights reserved.
Last updated 9-JAN-1997 16:00 CST.