Lee McGeorge isn’t just making waves in the UK, he’s turning countless heads in the US. Why? Because the man possesses an uncanny connection to cultural trends and relevance, and he’s concocted a method to make those topics horrifying. To be blunt, Lee knows exactly what readers want to read. His ability to keep his feet planted on the earth have allowed him to directly relate to today’s younger market. And it’s worked like a charm.
Last year McGeorge released The Thing: Zero Day, a fan-fiction novella that operates as a prequel to John Carpenter’s legendary film In McGeorg’s book we’re enlightened the tale of those who saw their worlds turned upside down at the Norwegian basecamp, which holds a crucial position in John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing (which, for the record was a remake of the genius 1951 Howard Hawks picture The Thing from Another World). Sure, we saw a 2011 “prequel” released, but did it give us much of anything unique?
It sure as hell didn’t.
Well, Lee McGeorge’s tale does just that, giving breath and life to characters we’ve longed to know, while detailing the turmoil the Norwegians truly faced.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, The Thing: Zero Day was the prequel we all wanted. And it’s an amazing enough book to tour the globe twice over to promote it. But it doesn’t seem to be in McGeorge’s blood to stand back and admire his own success. He’s moving forward, and he’s moving forward very fast.
This year you’ll be able to look into another horrifying fictional tale that places a culturally relevant menace directly under the spotlight. That villain is the oft-discussed but rarely deciphered paranormal villain known as The Slenderman. The Slenderman, for those who may not know, is an elongated, mystical gent in a fitted suit with a strange mask over his melon. He also seems to possess a paralyzing hunger for the world’s children.
McGeorge tackles that topic head-on. He pulls no punches in his disconcerting narrative, and in turn is able to extend a spine tingling backstory to one of today’s most discussed phenomenon. Slenderman, Slenderman, Take this Child, is a tale unlike any you’ve read. McGeorge finally fills the whole that haunted the Slenderman mythos, and he does so in terrifying fashion.
SCREAM: Let’s start with the obvious question. What made you want to write about Slenderman?
Lee McGeorge: I just wanted to see him become interesting. He was this great, crowd-sourced concoction, but he was lacking in substance and depth. I always saw him as a character like Pinhead from Hellraiser, but he didn’t have the mythology to make him cool. Take away the puzzle box, hooks, chains and mythos and Pinhead is just some guy with nails in his head. That’s where Slenderman was. He was just some oddity without a supporting universe.
Many years ago I’d made notes for a story called The Twelve of Darkness, a tale of 12 children used in an occult ritual. I’d developed a nice mythology but didn’t have any sort of story to go with it. When I inserted the Slenderman character into the Twelve of Darkness mythos I found it supported him quite well.
From there I worked out the story of Jemima Collins, a twelve year old girl who loses her mother in a car accident. Whilst her father is lost in grief and looking the other way, this supernatural entity entices and encourages Jemima to help him with his own secretive agenda; but the more time Jemima spends under the influence of the Slenderman, the more frightening she becomes herself. You have to start questioning who the real monster is.
SCREAM: Beyond the story of Jemima, Slenderman, Slenderman, Take this Child (SMTTC) has one of the darkest themes you could choose. How and why did you write about that?
LM: The book has a subtext on child sexual abuse but that’s really just an undercurrent. I often think that monsters should have aspirations and desires, but what sort of desire do you give to a supernatural child thief? I was very conscious that Slenderman himself should not be a paedophile. Nobody wants to read that book. Nobody wants to read a book where Slenderman steals kids due to sexual urges. So to make Slenderman real I needed to give him a more personalised and insidious agenda. More than anything I wanted this book to be an intelligent and intellectual horror that connected to real world fears. The one thing I desperately wanted was to avoid it feeling like a crappy horror film; this was not going to be a story about a group of good-looking teens running away from a monster. It needed to go into more adult territory than that and that’s where it starts to touch on the predatory angle. I outlined the story for SMTTC five years before I began writing and it was collecting dust until the Savile and Yewtree scandals emerged. That was the final piece of the puzzle. Savile and Yewtree opened a way to make the story relevant and zeitgeisty.
SCREAM: You have mentioned Savile to me before, could you explain to non-British readers who he is and why he became so important.
LM: Sure. Jimmy Savile was a British TV personality with a glittering career spanning fifty years. He had a programme in the 70’s called “Jim’ll Fix It” that encouraged children to write to him with their deepest desires. If Jimmy picked your letter he would make your dreams come true on live TV. He was like a real-life Willy Wonka and every kid in Britain wrote to him. I wrote to him. Kids would watch their TV every Saturday night hoping he would read their letter. When he died a few years ago people began to come forward with terrifying stories of how this man behaved behind closed doors. He has since been revealed as Britain’s biggest predatory child sex-offender with over one thousand victims. He used this TV show to entice children, then selected the most vulnerable for his sexual gratification, purposely picking kids who would be too frightened to say anything. His victims were so terrified, that most were unable to speak out until after his death.
But Savile was only the beginning. In the wake of this, the police set up Operation Yewtree, a special investigation into historic sexual abuse cases that began to ensnare rock stars, politicians and other TV celebrities. The scale of this thing was incredible.
Slenderman is scary, but Jimmy Savile was fucking terrifying. You can now look back at his past interviews and see he even hinted at having sex with dead bodies whilst working in a morgue.
So SMTTC is really a riff on what was happening in the British media. I‘d planned a story about a twelve year old girl who becomes friends with a monster and enjoys the power it brings her, but I found I could sprinkle this with elements of Savile and Yewtree and the thing suddenly had this new disturbing undertone that made it current and relevant.
The book is littered with references to Savile and Yewtree and it’s interesting to see how it’s received in different territories. British readers pick up these references straight away; but in America, where you don’t know much of this, the reaction is very different.
SCREAM: Are you saying there is a cultural difference, or that some things are lost in translation?
LM: There is a cultural difference which has turned out to be really interesting. People are having profound, yet unique reactions to the book and seem to get out of it what they take in. It’s kind of a reflection on your own fears which is exciting because it turns the story into a conversation.
Ultimately I think the hidden strength of the piece lies in how it sneaks up on you. You begin reading about a world with an invisible predatory figure around every corner; then slowly begin to realise this is your world. What begins as a fantasy about some supernatural boogeyman dissolves into what happens very close to you. It doesn’t matter if you know the references or not, that won’t impact on your enjoyment of the story.
SCREAM: With regards to real life references, is there anything specific readers could look for? If they wanted to recognize some of the true crimes, what would they notice?
LM: It’s mostly subliminal and hidden. Some parts are subtle and some are overt. For example, it was discovered that many people working with Savile at the BBC knew what was happening but kept quiet because the guy was so powerful he could end your career with a phone call. The BBC cover up became a huge part of the Savile story. In the book I have a classroom scene where the teacher is talking to the kids about George Orwell broadcasting propaganda on BBC radio during WWII; the teacher asks, “how do you think Orwell would feel knowing the BBC were covering things up and not telling the truth?” British readers immediately make the connection because for two years their daily news has been about a BBC cover up.
More overtly, there’s a police investigation in the book that fizzles out into nothing. One of the things uncovered by Yewtree was a gang of Muslim men in the town of Rotheram who groomed and raped underage girls; the police didn’t investigate properly for fear of being accused of racism and the investigation faded away. That gang went on to rape 1400 vulnerable girls in one small town because the police were frightened of offending Muslims.
It’s not so much knowing the references that’s important, it’s more about being prepared for this kind of universe. The sad truth is, Britain had its eyes pulled open by Savile and what happened in the UK must be happening in other countries too, it just has yet to be uncovered. America hasn’t yet had this moment of horror. Can you imagine if it was discovered Mr Rogers molested a thousand schoolgirls, or you watched live on TV as Anderson Cooper went to prison for raping a nine year old boy? Can you imagine how it would feel when every week you watched another childhood favourite led to court in handcuffs? This is what we’ve been living through in Britain. Think what happened with the Catholic church in Boston, then imagine transposing that story onto the makers of Sesame Street. Imagine Frank Oz getting twelve years in prison for grooming little girls. That is exactly what we’ve been living with and these stories have dominated the British news. This is what I mean by being prepared. British readers are coming at this from a different experience to those in other parts of the world.
SCREAM: Do you worry that you’re treading in some very, very dangerous waters. Waters that a pedophile, for example, may find enjoyable? Are you concerned that some the racier moments in the book could cause something of an uproar?
LM: It would be nice to have a little bit of controversy, but I think people who are smart enough to read books will generally be smart enough to understand. There are crazy Christians who want to ban Harry Potter books. I’m pretty sure they’d have a heart attack if they ever saw SMTTC, but by and large these people don’t read the books they want to ban anyway.
As for it being enjoyable for paedophiles, I doubt that. This might make you laugh, but I planned SMTTC as a children’s book. You’ll notice there is no bad language, no gratuitous sex, very little description of gore. If you analyse it in terms of the content it’s remarkably clean. I was aiming for the same Young Adult market as The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner books. The horror I was building in was all subtext. What I wanted was that children would read it and see a story of a young girl who becomes friends with a monster but when adults read it they would see the hidden references and feel the lurking danger. I really thought I was succeeding in that aim, but after the third draft I set the book aside for a month before reading it with fresh eyes; I nearly shit myself when I read it back. This was not a fucking children’s book. But the fact I had such a strong reaction made me realise I’d tapped into something important. It’s kind of a literary version of what happened with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In TCM there is no blood, no real on-screen killing; they made a film that was censor proof because the director, Tobe Hooper, was trying to get a PG rating whilst hanging people on meat hooks. I made the same lucky mistake in that I was creating extreme horror yet packaging it as a book for teenagers. In doing so, the book is perhaps even more shocking.
SCREAM: I did notice that at times you’re clearly careful in ensuring the work is not offensive, that it’s handled with care and respect. Was this part of trying to make the book for the young adult market?
LM: It was more about getting the tone and balance right so that readers didn’t put the book down. You don’t want readers to stop because you’re making them feel uncomfortable. Getting the tone and content right was something that kept me awake at night. There were times when I struggled to find the right balance and I worried I would have to abandon the entire project if I couldn’t find it. One signature scene sees our twelve year old heroine inflict pain on two naked schoolgirls. It’s a crucial moment as she finds this sexualised sadism so erotic and powerful it has a profound impact on her character. To make the scene work you have to see it through her eyes and understand what it’s doing to her, but to write something like that without it becoming paedo jerk-off material was agonising. It required a lightness of touch, many rewrites and absolute sensitivity to the reader.
SCREAM: We’ve seen a few different Slenderman pictures released in the last few years. When you were gearing up to write and going through the research stages did you watch those films? Did you track down any quality stories that put Slenderman at the forefront of the terror? If so, can you recommend a few?
LM: It was exactly the opposite. I did everything I could to avoid other stories because I didn’t want to be unduly influenced. There was a real life case, I believe in Wisconsin, where two young girls had stabbed their friend to try and summon Slenderman. I’m purposely uneducated about that case and know nothing other than the headline. I’ve avoided the creepypastas and movies too. On the other hand, I’ve watched a huge amount of police documentaries and news reports on Yewtree. I read up on the Boston Catholic Church and associated investigations. The real eye-opener was spending time talking with two schoolteachers who have to deal with sex related problems happening within the school system. The teachers had lots, and I mean lots, of serious and disturbing stories to tell.
SCREAM: Because you’re in such risky territory, how would you convince someone who may be on the fence when it comes time to spend a few bucks on the novel?
LM: I think we’ve talked too long on the scary themes and forgot to mention that SMTTC is a thrilling and exciting page-turner. A friend once described my books as like getting on a galloping horse, which has turned into something of a mantra for me. Every page has to have that sort of propulsion and rapid story dynamic. If you want to check something out without spending a dime, then download The Thing: Zero Day for free and check me out as a writer. Slenderman is going out exclusively for Amazon Kindle at first, so you can always download the first part of the book without charge to make sure you like it.
I think ultimately the reason why someone should take a look at this book is demonstrated here. We’ve been talking about some of the themes and ideas yet we’ve barely scratched the surface. This is popular horror given uncommon depth. There are conversations to have and questions to ask that SMTTC raises. In my opinion this doesn’t happen enough in horror literature. Modern horror novels spend so much time battling vampires and monsters that we don’t often get stories that challenge, or make us stop and think, or are prescient and connected to the reality of our world. If you’re the kind of horror reader who would like a story with a little more depth, then you’ll probably find SMTTC a rewarding addition to your bookshelf.
SCREAM: Thanks for talking to us.
LM: My pleasure, thank you.