Be afraid. Be slightly afraid

Horror fiction is laughed at by serious critics. How wrong they are, Garth Marenghi tells Steve Jelbert. The genre's megastar is far better than Martin Amis. Well, that's his story and he's sticking to it...
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The Independent Online

Usually derided as a form, except when it's being ignored, there's little doubt that the horror genre is a leading contributor to Britain's export drive, what with the works of James Herbert, Clive Barker et al often being sold at airports. So when a master in the field such as Garth Marenghi branches into the theatrical form, then it's time to take some notice. He is, after all, the author of classics such as Black Fang ("mutated rat sperm enters the female population of Leytonstone, who then give birth to bus-driving rats"); Juggers ("a monster lorry goes on the rampage in Leytonstone. It will be unstoppable unless someone can stop it"); and The Coil ("a homage to Dennis Wheatley, on whose work the copyright has lapsed").

Usually derided as a form, except when it's being ignored, there's little doubt that the horror genre is a leading contributor to Britain's export drive, what with the works of James Herbert, Clive Barker et al often being sold at airports. So when a master in the field such as Garth Marenghi branches into the theatrical form, then it's time to take some notice. He is, after all, the author of classics such as Black Fang ("mutated rat sperm enters the female population of Leytonstone, who then give birth to bus-driving rats"); Juggers ("a monster lorry goes on the rampage in Leytonstone. It will be unstoppable unless someone can stop it"); and The Coil ("a homage to Dennis Wheatley, on whose work the copyright has lapsed").

Marenghi's first foray onto the boards, Fright Knight, was one of the hits of this year's Edinburgh Festival, as he bravely and cheaply dealt with the fears of a writer ("Neil Hack") who has lost his muse, represented by a lady in a white dress. Soon to reach the West End, it's a compelling show, touching a chord with audiences whose continual laughter clearly disguised their very real sense of fear. Yet the dumpy fortysomething author, with bad skin ("It's like Brie. I suffered jaundice as a child, over which I triumphed"), bristles at the suggestion that the work is autobiographical.

"What you've done is completely misunderstand the show. It's a narrative within a narrative," Marenghi complains. "Neil Hack is not Garth Marenghi. Neil Hack has not gained any critical approval. Garth Marenghi..."

"...has not gained critical approval. But is not the same person as Neil Hack," interjects Marenghi's long-time colleague Dean Learner, of Devil Books, who is responsible for publicity, editing and "helping out with adjectives". Learner is Marenghi's key collaborator, in awe of his charge yet capable of keeping him in check.

The pair work well together, Learner's commercial realism restraining Marenghi's wilder flights of fantasy. "He wants to publish every three or four months, but I say 'don't flood the market. Keep 'em hungry'," Learner explains.

"You're not supposed to let him know that," Marenghi protests. Learner corrects himself. "Garth's got eight projects 'on the go'."

"Dean says if I was to die in a freak accident, he'd get them out," Marenghi says.

"If we could get them out on the day it happened, we'd get them out on the day," admits Learner, showing the hard-nosed business sense which has benefited both men.

But, heaven forbid, if such a thing should occur, how would this master of bizarre demise choose to go?

Marenghi pauses. "You've asked me a difficult question. Because I've described so many elaborate deaths, that's my job. I'm always scouring the news for more inventive ideas."

"For me, the best is in The Ooze, where a man uses a short brolly, puts it in someone's mouth, and opens it," Learner adds, demonstrating.

"I got six pages out of explaining just how it was manufactured," Marenghi says. "My personal favourite is in Eyesore, where a man is sent down a waterslide into an enclosed box filled with a swarm of African killer bees. I keep that going for two chapters."

Though an admirer of Lovecraft and Poe (except for Poe's marriage to his 13-year-old cousin - "That's just disgusting"), his inspirations go back further. "The Bible is the first horror novel. There's a lot of freaking weird stuff in that book," this student of the form explains. "The locust is a horror staple now, but the Bible did it first."

His tremendous success has brought with it problems unlikely to beset other successful writers (except Salman Rushdie) - the fear of being stalked by those wishing to do them harm. A recent incident at Marenghi's palatial Barnes home rattled him, when a naked man, brandishing a hot cordless iron and claiming to be the true author of all four volumes of The Slicer Trilogy, vaulted the fence and threatened him. "I sacked the groundsman of course. He's paid to stop naked men coming into my house," Marenghi says.

The wealthy suburb is a long way from his roots in Leytonstone. "A great place. Very near where the Ripper murders were," he says. "It's good to go back to your roots, but it's also good to get out of what is a very stifling environment. It's a dump, to be honest."

But he does cling to his roots in one way, having been happily married to Pam for 25 years. "Pam is a loyal companion, a sensitive lover, a fantastic mother to our three daughters. She's a brick. She also writes her own Arthurian romances. But I can't comment on that," he says, shaking his head.

Learner takes up the baton. "I won't publish her. It's a hard decision, and I know her well, but she is awful."

"Don't print that she's awful, or I'll have a hell of a time," Marenghi pleads. "But if there's a writer who's the greatest writer on earth who can't write, that's Pam."

As an author inspired by the capital's ebb and flow, Marenghi considers himself a peer of heavyweight names, whom he refuses to genuflect to, such as Martin Amis.

"He writes London novels, I write London novels," he points out, his competitive instincts coming to the fore. "Take The Information. Within six months it was in a bargain bookshop. Mine take eight or nine," he boasts. The hard-headed Learner is more scathing: "Garth's a working-class writer. Martin Amis is - well, he's a ponce, isn't he? Plus he can't rival the length of Garth's books.

"I challenge him to a head-to-head writing contest. One week. Garth'll come out with a 500-page book. He'll write an article about what's wrong with the Dome," Learner splutters.

The similarly fecund Will Self tried something similar recently on the very pages of this newspaper. "Well, I gave him the idea," protests Marenghi. Learner is more revealing. "I've seen him with his thesaurus. He doesn't know what those words mean."

Marenghi works fast. Trapped by the recent fuel protests, he started writing there and then in his car. "He had Roadgrid on my desk the next day. Amazing!" marvels Learner. A patriot ("with a small 'p'") who only drives British cars ("you can take it back when it breaks down"), his international reputation has secured him an invitation to Stephen King's much publicised smashing of the very pick-up truck that hit and injured the American master, alongside other respected names in the field such as "Dean [Koontz], Clive and Jim." His publisher is excited. "That's like getting Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dickens and Ibsen to smash up a carriage. It's an event," beams Learner.

Horror has paid well. "I've earned enough to have a comfortable three lifetimes," boasts Marenghi, owner of a haunted castle on a Scottish island, once visited on an angling trip by an Edinburgh murderer ("When people eat fish there they hear voices.").

Of course, jealous sorts have suggested that Marenghi and Learner don't really exist, and are the creations of a disaffected one-time bookseller called Matthew Holness and his mate Richard Ayoade. One suspects the man himself would appreciate such a mystery.

'Garth Marenghi's Fright Knight' is at Her Majesty's Theatre, London, SW1 on Sunday, as part of the Perrier Pick of the Fringe, with Lee Mack's New Bits; the following Sunday features Dave Gorman and Sean Lock; Sunday 15 Oct, Otis Lee Crenshaw and Noble and Silver.

Booking: 020-7494 5558

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