Last year, I hired a young woman to clean my apartment. The purely financial nature of our relationship made me uncomfortable, so I tried to make small talk whenever I saw her. She wasn't having it. Then, one day, she saw a copy of Graham Masterton’s Feast on the table.
“Graham Masterton is the world’s greatest writer,” she said, and began recounting the plots to his books.
This outpouring of Masterton Love fascinated me. I asked her if there were other writers she liked.
“My sister and I like the same books,” she said. “By Graham Masterton. My one dream in life is to read everything he has written. When I retire, I’m going to buy all of his books and go to a remote location and read them.”
I mentioned that I wrote horror. She could not have cared less.
Her Masterton Mania made sense. First, she was Polish. Graham Masterton has a rabid fan following in Poland, the kind of following that makes American authors’s fan followings look a bit sickly. Masterton’s wife and agent, Wiescka Masterton, was something of a literary heroine in her native Poland and that explains part of it, but the rest is just that Masterton is hugely popular in Poland. Period. Sometimes a country finds an author and it’s love and no one needs to understand.
The second thing that explains her Masterton Passion is pretty simple: Graham Masterton is a baller. His 1975 novel, The Manitou, about a Native American shaman regenerating himself in a modern day white lady’s neck tumor so he can avenge the genocide of his people launched him to fame, and Masterton's career was all about always pushing everything further and further over the top. To date there are seven Manitou novels, one of which sees Misquamacus team up with Lovecraftian demons and voodoo priests to take down whitey, and, as one reviewer writes in awe, “Chicago and New York are reduced to rubble; a man possessed by Misquamacus reaches deep into a woman's body and pulls her inside out; and the Indian spirit performs the hastiest eyeball-removal seen on paper since Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird...”
Critics mostly file their reviews of Masterton’s books in a sort of stunned daze. “Though Masterton's plot moves well and is action-oriented,” a still-reeling reviewer for Kirkus wrote in 2013. “The condoning of generally abnormal human interactions by all hands may make readers wonder what, in this world, normal is.” Another hapless Kirkus critic in 1992 reviewed Masterton’s Master of Lies, saying it “...opens with what may be the single most sadistic scene in horror history…culminating in a soul-draining depiction of a giant mutilating the penis of a renowned psychic.”
With Condor (1983, Tor paperback, 1985), Masterton demonstrates that he’s still the master of the high concept. In the first chapter, a lovable scamp explores some New Hampshire woods, finds a crashed Nazi bomber, unleashes its cargo of hyper-polio, and dies. Chapter Two: a retired British intelligence officer on vacation in Stockholm sits down in a cafe and finds himself munching a sandwich across from Klaus Hermann aka Klaus Schreiber “The Vampire of Herbstwald”, a Nazi war criminal. He discovers that this hidden Nazi, “the medical equivalent of Werner Von Braun”, is living in the Soviet Union. He immediately calls his superiors who send him Bill Bennett, a cheerful, bright eyed, square-jawed, All-American psychopath with a shoot/strangle/suffocate first and ask questions later approach to life.
The plane was found on property owned by Reynard Kelly, a Kennedy stand-in who never made it out of the Senate because he has a hard time keeping his hard-on inside his pants, but who’s now running for President as a populist Democrat. The fly in the ointment isn’t his razor-edged wife who has to be paid not to divorce him. It’s not the New Age scam artist she forces him to appoint as Secretary of Public Health and whose highest dream is “to see all those surgeons and neurologists who snubbed me on the golf course crawling on their hands and knees.” It’s not even Chiffon Trent, the “total face of today”, a young socialite actress with whom he’s having an affair. It’s the fact that back in 1944, Kelly made a secret deal with Hitler to use the hyper-polio to blackmail FDR into surrendering to the Nazis. It didn’t work out, but now those condors have come home to roost.
This is Masterton in thriller form, and it’s not his strongest genre. Condor is also weaker than a lot of his other thrillers. In, say, Famine (1981), a wheat blight reduces America to anarchy, with televangelists going on rape-kill sprees, and main characters getting their guts grilled in supermarket parking lots, which is exactly what you want in a Masterton thriller. Masterton keeps it pretty reined in for Condor, although by the time the book is over Chiffon Trent is shooting a snuff film in Milwaukee, Soviet subs are being shot at by helicopters, Concord, NH is looted, and thousands are dying of hyper-polio. For Masterton, this is pretty weak tea.
But Masterton's always a far better stylist than he needs to be, infecting his geo-political race against time with puffs of dark humor, like black foam flecking the muzzle of a rabid dog. Getting the drop on his accuser, Klaus Hermann deadpans, “The second rule that any spy must learn is that even the watchers have watchers. The first rule is never to go to bed with a Bolivian woman.”
Hyper-polio spreads because an 11 year-old boy brings vials of the dangerous serum to school and sells them for .80 cents apiece as “secret obedience potion” kids can pour into their parents’s “coffee or cocktails” so they'll let them stay up late. When Chiffon Trent meets the man who’s going to gang rape her then burn her alive on camera, his female assistant/hostage breathlessly says, “Denzil’s a very scary person. But don’t you think he has wonderful charisma?” And in my favorite moment, Bill Bennett kidnaps one of Klaus Hermann’s lovers and tortures her into revealing where “The Butcher” is hiding. Then he brings her along on the 60km drive, and complains to his passenger:
“She’s been dying to confess for years. All she needed was the opportunity. You wait. She’ll spend the whole 60km ride to Lingslätö telling us the full, gory story of what they did together and how often she felt like calling up Simon Wiesenthal. Women are all the same.”
And, of course, the book has a handful of patented Masterton Moments that make you go “huh?” like the claim that Thalidomide was a Nazi invention designed to shorten the limbs of “inferior races” so they could work in tunnels. Or the claim that Klaus Hermann was “the first person to develop a method of spreading rabies by missile."
Condor is third tier Masterton. It’s a thriller, but one without as much blood, guts, and glory as his other thrillers. But even third tier Masterton is better than the best efforts of a lot of other writers, and that explains why someone can dream of one day going to a remote location and reading everything he ever wrote. Even his bad books have enough lunacy to keep you turning the pages.
PS - If you want to read Masterton eulogize his wife, read this essay and poem he wrote. For all the penis mutilation, cannibalism, and snuff films, the man’s got a way with words.