Horror Novelist Matthew Costello on His Bloody 'Vacation'


Matthew Costello's newest novel Vacation is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which the food supply has been decimated by an ecological disaster, leaving survivors holed up in heavily fortified communities and living on synthetic foods while battling hordes of "Can Heads", cannibals whose lust for human meat makes them extraordinarily fast and strong. The protagonist, Jack Murphy is a cop who has been injured on the job and is now packed off with his wife and two children for vacation to the Paterville Family Camp, an isolated – supposedly safe – resort in the Adirondacks.

The multi-talented Costello has written games (like Doom 3), television shows (for Syfy and The Disney Channel), and two dozen novels, including both original works (like 1993's Bram Stoker Award-nominated Homecoming) and tie-ins (King Kong: Island of the Skull). Vacation was published on September 27 by Thomas Dunne Books, and forthcoming from Cemetery Dance will be a limited edition with illustrations by Alan M. Clark.

Vacation's had an interesting history…

Vacation started as a short story I wrote for Cemetery Dance 17 years ago. Then it was published in Best of Cemetery Dance Volume 2 that came out from New American Library, and somebody at Miramax saw it and asked about film rights. Well, you know – these things happen, they don't happen…but they wrote a screenplay based on the short story, and it got shopped around. For a while 50 Cent was attached to it, and he sure had the right sort of charisma for it, but nothing happened. That's how it goes with writing – some of your children live, some don't.

My editor Brendan Deneen asked me if I could write a novel based on the screenplay and short story. The screenplay had made some interesting changes to the story – the story was only 16 pages long. The screenplay opens with Jack as a cop, in the middle of cop work. It also spent more time with the camp personnel, and introduced the character of Shana, who was not in the short story.

And the screenplay had a different ending, different from the short story. When it came time to write an ending for the novel, I had these two choices, or I could come up a third ending. So the ending to the novel plays out in a different way, even if you've read the short story. And it sets it up for the sequel.

Can you talk about that yet?

Home will be out next fall. In it, the survivors from Vacation leave Paterville Camp and come to find out that while something different was going on inside the camp, now something different is going on in the outside world. It starts 5 minutes after the events of Vacation, and it's designed to work even if you haven't read Vacation. You'll be able to follow it, and hopefully you'll want to go back and read the first book.

We're also talking about it as a trilogy, so there will be a third book.

Let's talk about zombies. With the Can Heads, you're really playing with the mythology of zombies in a new way, and yet the original story was written long before the popularity of zombies exploded.

It's funny, I'm getting credit for doing something different with zombies. Reviews are saying things like, "Despite the glut of zombie fiction, Vacation puts a new twist on zombies!" Yet the story is 17 years old. Zombies really hadn't arrived when I wrote it. Everything was still centered on vampires at the time. The story really pre-dates the zombie explosion.

Still, the early Romero zombie films were already around – did those influence you at all?

Well, there'd been Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead…you could even go back to Val Lewton's zombie films. But it hadn't become the phenomenon yet. Vacation was really influenced by two things: When I wrote the story, my kids were still young, and taking vacations was a big deal. And I knew that area of the Adirondacks. I'd been doing a big project for Disney that was set around there, so I really got to know the mountains.

And it's really about New York City before it turned around. Back then, the streets were alive with all sorts of creatures! I loved it.

 I thought the middle section set in the camp was wonderfully tense, even though the Can Heads aren't really present. The structure of the novel is really interesting – you start and end with big action and massive attacks, but the middle section in the camp builds this quiet dread.

Right. The camp is actually pretty nice. They have lakes, canoes…and by the way, it's not meant to parallel the Chevy Chase movie at all! I used to tell people that the story is about a vacation – until it's not.

Did some of that camp material come out of the screenplay? And did you have a hand in writing the screenplay?

When the screenplay was being written, they'd send me the new drafts, and I would send back comments – lots of back and forth, so I was definitely involved. There'd always been a question as to how to create tension in the middle. There was the beginning and the end, but what do you do in the middle? We had to play the Hitchcock card – slowly things start looking wrong. Jack's seeing these things around the camp and his insides are tightening bit by bit. In the original draft of the novel, the scenes in the camp were even longer, but at some point you have to realize you can't overdo that.

The style of the writing in Vacation is unique – terse and compelling.

I like to capture a story in as few words as possible. I also preach the gospel of point of view – there's nothing you'll read in that book that isn't seen through the eyes of one of the characters. I challenge you to find the author's voice intruding!

I learned that from Harlan Ellison. Harlan gave me a call after an editor had given him a copy of one of my books to blurb. He said he couldn't give me the blurb, then he talked to me about point of view. I heard what Harlan said and I got it.

It also reminds me a little of the screenplay style of Walter Hill.

Other people have told me it almost reads like a screenplay.

Which of course leads me to – any plans for a film version?

Brendan said someone from CAA called last week to talk about film rights. It'd make an interesting movie, but I don't want it to be just about the scenes in the charnel house. I'm not a fan of the Saw movies or anything else with excessive gore. Obviously there's a lot of blood splattered in the book, and a movie would have that, but it shouldn't be the whole movie.

The paperback should be released next March or April, and of course Cemetery Dance is doing the limited edition, so maybe there'll be more film interest in it.

What are you working on now?

Technically I'm supposed to start Home today. I just started to work on the beginning prologue.

I've also been working with an English writer on scripts for a photographic display of Shackleton's polar expeditions that's going to open in Buckingham Palace. It'll open at the end of October, so we're still doing some last-minute scripts. You'll be able to stand under these old photos, and you'll hear Shackleton's narration and the sounds of dogs barking and ice cracking. It'll be in Buckingham Palace for four months, and may tour after that.

And lastly – did you hate summer camp?

Here's my summer camp story: When I was a kid, I was supposed to go to this Boy Scout camp in Ten Mile River. Well, a couple of nights before that, my mom took me to see The Sound of Music, the live stage version with Mary Martin. So while I'm sitting in the theater, I'm getting these jagged pains in my side. Basically my appendix had exploded right there and they rushed me to the hospital, so I never went to summer camp…but I'm not really a Boy Scout camp-kind of guy, so I think I would've hated it.