David Morrell created the character John Rambo in First Blood in 1972, and the action/adventure novel was born. Creepers, his latest novel, continues the Morrell tradition of fast-paced action mixed with archetypes that resonate with his readers.
Morrell’s own life is the stuff of novels. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in 1943, he never knew his father, who died in World War II. Young David’s mother placed him in an orphanage at age four, and he lived on a Mennonite farm, traveling on weekends by bus to visit his mother. His mother’s second marriage was contentious and young David often cowered beneath his bed or climbed out his window to “explore” urban settings, just like the Creepers urban spelunkers, to avoid the incessant arguing.
Inspired by heroes like Stirling Silliphant (of Route 66 fame), Morrell worked his way through Penn State, where he vowed, early on, to become a writer. He also earned a full Professorship at the University of Iowa, where he began teaching in 1970 and continued teaching until 1986. In 1987, the tragic death of his fifteen-year-old son, Matthew Morrell, changed the writer’s life forever. He has written about Matthew’s ordeal in Fireflies and, soon after Matthew’s death, David and Donna Morrell relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he continues to produce top-notch thrillers that keep his fans coming back for more.
He has written twenty-eight books, which have been translated in to twenty-six languages. Films of his works have been box office successes, with the first three Rambo movies doing $614 million worldwide. His website is www.davidmorrell.net.
Reflection’s Edge: In Creepers, you have one of the characters describe Theodore Dreiser’s book Sister Carrie, saying “the theme is pessimistic determinism. No matter what we do, our bodies and our surroundings doom us.” Do you feel that is also the theme of Creepers?
David Morrell: Absolutely!
My novels all have two levels: one level is, I hope, a very intense blend of action and intrigue and suspense. Buried within that there are all kinds of allusions, cultural references, and thematic discussions that pop up the second time through. I have had people re-read my books and say, “Oh, my God! It is like a different book! It is stuff I hadn’t noticed before.”
It is an intense book: eight hours of people exploring a hotel that has been abandoned since 1971. It is a real-life phenomenon. “Creepers” is a nickname for urban explorers, who are architect and history enthusiasts who like to create a sort of time capsule effect by going into these old buildings.
The characters in Creepers meet in one building that they never should have entered. They are having eight hours of hell. In the midst of all this, I found a way – the former professor in me – to bring in Theodore Dreiser. There is a scene where the characters are going through the hotel. One imagines the music that would have played back then, and somebody says, “Yeah, that would have been like ‘My Gal Sal.’” And somebody else says, “Do you know that Theodore Dreiser’s brother wrote that song?” Then, somebody else says, “Who is Theodore Dreiser?” And that, in turn, gets me into Sister Carrie.
There is a sort of whistling in the dark, so to speak. They are talking about Sister Carrie in a way to overcome the nervousness they are feeling, the mounting terror. That is basically what Sister Carrie is all about: pessimistic determinism, which says we are doomed biologically and environmentally. It was en vogue in France. Stephen Crane did it in this country. It just seemed like a good way to introduce all of this.
Yes, Creepers is an example of pessimistic determinism with a slight optimistic aspect to it that it is possible to overcome the past if you have the strength and the character. I think all of our problems come because we have not adjusted to our past. If we do that, we’d be a lot happier people.
RE: Is the Paragon in Creepers modeled on a real hotel?
DM: If you go to the website www.abandonednj.com and you snoop around, you’ll find a section about Asbury Park where the novel is set. Asbury Park is a fascinating community because it represents the American dream and a kind of F. Scott Fitzgerald failure of the American dream.
Asbury Park had been founded in the early 1870s as a bastion of Methodism (laughs). It’s just hilarious! By 1900 they had this honking big gambling casino at the end of the half-mile boardwalk. In 30 years, look at how much the place has changed! Then, a series of disasters – a fire in the 1920s, a hurricane in the 1940s – sort of tore it down. By the 1960s, it was mostly a haven for bikers and street musicians. Then a riot in the 1970s destroyed it again. It never was rebuilt. To this day, what was once a crown jewel resort on the eastern seaboard is now like bombed-out Bosnia.
I thought that was so fascinating, and a lot of the hotels, the classic hotels, are still there. They are boarded up. You can go in them, and many of them still have furniture. Some of them, there are still plates in the kitchen. It’s kind of eerie how they retain a sense of the past. I got so excited about this; I kind of amalgamated existing structures. I added a little bit of my own, because I wanted to use allusions to Dante’s Inferno. I don’t exactly say it, but you can feel it. In this case, there are seven levels – each level, as you go higher, gets smaller, like in a pyramid. As you go higher, things get more claustrophobic.
RE: In Creepers, you continue the father/son theme that has been noted in your work, this time with Ronald Whitaker and Carlisle. Has this continuing theme in your writing emerged consciously or sub-consciously? In other words, did you consciously intend to use it, with the writing-as-psychotherapy school of thought that you describe in your book Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, or did it just come from the characters and the material?
DM: Writers are a gestalt of all kinds of kinks and weirdness. As you know from Lessons, I paraphrase Graham Greene, who said, “An unhappy childhood is a gold mine for writing.” Ernest Hemingway said almost the same thing. Someone wrote to him once, “What do you really need to be a writer?” He responded, “An unhappy childhood.”
It’s sad, but the discontent makes people sit down and write. There are some people who have the urge to create beauty. But I always thought that – and Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the rest of that group thought with me – that we were all writing in response to tremendous dissatisfaction and frustration.
Two of the main psychological events in my life were the death of my father before I was born, my subsequently being put into an orphanage and foster homes – one of which was a Mennonite farm. The Mennonites didn’t like me because I was raised Roman Catholic. There was a little conflict there. On Fridays, Catholics couldn’t eat meat. The Mennonites went out of their way to make god-awful Friday meals (laughs) that had no meat in them…mostly scrambled eggs mixed up with potatoes. For many, many years, I couldn’t eat eggs and potatoes together; it made me ill. Alfred Shant, the man who ran the farm, he had a thing about chewing food. I had to chew my food fifty times before I swallowed it.
All that father/son stuff came from growing up. A lot of my success was due to male authority figures who understood my loneliness, who encouraged me: Philip Young being one, the Hemingway scholar I mention, Stirling Silliphant being the other. Stirling wrote “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Towering Inferno.” Twentieth Century Fox said, “Let’s do a documentary on Stirling Silliphant.” And everybody was shocked. In Hollywood, the writer is the last to get any kind of acknowledgement. They got in touch with me; they got two hours of me on camera talking about Stirling, as well as other people who knew him. They tell me it is a really moving documentary. That will be out in the spring.
RE: You speak in your book Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing of consciously using Joseph Campbell’s three basic stages of separation, initiation and return as your structure when writing First Blood. Can you expound on that theme in writing, in general, a bit? And can you relate that theme to your most recent book, Creepers?
DM: I grew up without a father. Then I married and had children. Then my son Matthew died. Yesterday would have been his 34th birthday. He’s always on my mind. That was such a shock. The whole issue of fathers and sons goes throughout my work. One of my sisters-in-law, a literature teacher, used to say, “Some day, someone will write an essay about fathers and sons in your work.”
In Creepers, I think a lot of that pain creeps in, forgive the pun. It’s not like I say, “Oh, good! I am going to do this!” It’s more allowing myself to open up for a story.
RE: It creeps right out of your pores?
DM: That’s a good way to put it. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces is one of the most important books that I have ever read, from the viewpoint of storytelling.
Joseph Campbell was a comparative literature specialist who studied literature in all kinds of cultures and had concluded that there are natural arcs in stories that virtually every culture uses. One of his was separation, initiation and return, which he saw as the life story of all of us. We grow up; we have our separation when we leave to go off into the great world where we are initiated into whatever. Then, late in life, we come back to revisit our childhood or where we were raised. It’s a whole metaphor, really – only to discover how far we have come and how much we have changed from when we started out. That is a powerful structure. First Blood is written in three parts. There are the events of the town: Rambo goes up to the mountains, the police chase him – that is part two, the initiation. Then, in part three, Rambo comes back to town and has his final fight. So much has happened that Rambo and his opponents are different people.
RE: 59-year-old Sylvester Stallone is set to reprise his role as John Rambo in Rambo IV. Are you involved in any way with this project?
DM: No. Not now, at least. I heard about that the same as everyone else, through press releases, and Sylvester said something about it on Larry King in June. I’ve been trying to get in touch with the production company. It’s a complicated history. The company that made the original Rambo – I’ve known both heads of that company. We talked a lot. There was a lot of open communication. That company went bankrupt. I can’t understand it; they did Terminator 2, Total Recall, Basic Instinct – big pictures! But stuff happens.
I always thought this was hilarious: the rights to make future Rambo movies were acquired at auction by Miramax, the folks that brought us The English Patient. (Laughs). They have a separate company called Dimension. That’s where they planned to release it. Miramax and the Weinstein brothers and Disney, which was the parent company, had a falling-out. In the reconstruction, the rights to make future Rambo movies were sold to a company called Nu Image and the man who runs Nu Image is a man named Ozzie Learner. I have been able to establish a line of communication. In a timely way, when I am done talking with you two, I am scheduled to have a conference call with Ozzie Learner so I can find out what exactly is going on.
RE: Are blue and burgundy your favorite colors? I ask this because so many of your heroines are described as wearing blue tops with burgundy slacks or skirts.
DM: We all have our weak spots as writers, and I am just terrible at that kind of detail. I didn’t know. Someone should have told me. I seldom describe what my characters look like. I seldom describe what they wear because it just doesn’t interest me that much. I do know that a lot of people find it very interesting. If I had any awareness of these matters, I could use clothing as a way of characterizing people. That is easily the least-able thing I do. I also do that with the color of eyes. I often will pick on some eye color – like Steve McQueen type eyes. When I read my books that have been around for a bit, I’ll say, “For God’s sake! There you’re doing that eye thing again!” (Laughs.)
RE: Last question: “Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave. Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind. Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.” Those words, of course, are Edna St. Vincent Millay’s in “Dirge Without Music.” You said, “Everything’s an act of faith. We have to accept what is the case. Take the bad with the good, load it all aboard, and do our damnedest to move on.” How successful have you been with that strategy in your own life? Any comments on Millay’s “I am not resigned” viewpoint?
DM: That’s a great poem. It makes me want to go read it again.
When I was looking at Hemingway in my early days, his thing is grace under pressure. The world breaks everyone, and afterword, many of us are thrown into broken places. My view has always been, I translate it into a different form. In my fiction, people are amateurs or they are professionals. The professionals see life as hazardous. This, again, is a metaphor. Hazards come in a lot of ways. If you are an academic, one wonders if that is a deadly profession. (Laughs.) Metaphorically, it is as dangerous as being a police officer. The attention to detail, being prepared, becomes a major ethic.
In fact, in law enforcement, in the military, and with espionage people, they are often taught in color codes. Someone who is white is someone who is absolutely innocent. “Please attack me and steal my stuff!” No awareness at all. Condition yellow, which is a general sense of alertness, is next. If you get out of a car in a parking lot, you pause and check the parking lot. One, to make sure no one will run you down. Two, to make sure there is no one there to steal your purse or briefcase. In condition orange, which is much more serious, you have reason to feel that you are threatened. That “condition yellow,” I feel, is a real important psychological state. That is the way I run my life.