Mash-up king Seth Grahame-Smith’s new novel Unholy Night re-imagines the story of the Three Wise Men of the Nativity as a swords-and-sandals adventure romp.
It turns Balthazar, one of the Wise Men, into a swashbuckling thief, who ends up helping Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus escape the clutches of Pontius Pilate, while encountering supernatural things along the way.
The book is a fun read. Fans of his earlier bestseller Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will not be disappointed and new readers will appreciate his love of action and his strong characters.
Grahame-Smith talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the inspiration for the book, his fears about tackling such a religiously charged subject, his worship of Stephen King, the possibility of an Unholy Night movie, and what’s happening with the rumored Beetlejuice sequel.
The Hollywood Reporter: Where did you get the idea for the story of Unholy Night?
Seth Grahame-Smith: It was just a bolt out of the blue. I was driving on Robertson [in Los Angeles] in the middle of the summer. I was literally returning a movie to Blockbuster when I just thought of a simple question: Who were the three Wise Men of the Nativity and what were they doing there that night? Immediately, I got excited by the idea. It was so in the vein of what I've done but it was also totally different. It didn't have the crutch of a real life like in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
So I did the same thing I always do when I get excited: I started researching it. That meant going back and reading the New Testament, reading the Gospel of Luke and Matthew, where they are mentioned the most, and researching the traditions that sprung up around the Wise Men in the ensuing centuries. It’s interesting how there's such a legend around these Three Kings but there is so little about them in the New Testament, just a handful of lines really. They come from the East, they show up Herod's, they burn incense and myrrh, they show up at the manger, and they leave never to be heard from again. Looking at the most famous birth story of all time: What if I could tell that through an unknown lens? That got me really excited.
What immediately followed that excitement was fear and hesitation. Am I going to be offending people? Is this literally sacred ground? So I had to establish some parameters for myself before I set out to write: One, don't put any words in Jesus' mouth. Ever. In fact, the word Jesus doesn't appear in the book. It’s always the infant or the baby. Two, When dealing with Jesus' parents, Joseph and Mary, they must always be the upholders of virtue. When it came to the Three Kings that's where the story lived for me, especially Balthazar. Another rule: Don't pander to the deeply faithful but don't disrespect anything they believe in. That wasn’t an easy act. I had to be delicate but I also wanted to write a really riveting, kick ass, bloody and dark book.
So basically the approach I took was, "Let's assume everything the Bible says is true without pandering." This isn’t a Christian book but it is a pro-faith book in the sense that if you look at Balthazar he goes from non-believer to believer and in the process he heals himself and begins to understand the power of faith. That was very important. I wanted people who didn't have any faith to read it and say, "Wow, what a fun ride.” Then I wanted people who were deeply faithful to read it and say, “Wow that touches me in a positive way on a spiritual level.” That wasn't an easy thing to try to do. That's what I tried for better or worse to do with the book.
THR: I ended up staying awake until past 1:30 a.m. last night because I was so hooked on the book. It's great fun.
SGS: Thanks, I try to take those big brash genre concepts and I try elevate them somehow, to execute them as elevated a way as I know how.
THR: This is great schlock and I mean that as a compliment. I love schlock.
SGS: Me too! Some of my favorite pieces of art are schlock whether they be movies or art.
THR: This is a great fun, pop read. I totally enjoyed it.
SGS: It’s really satisfying for me to hear that. I'm not out to write the great American novel. I'm out to entertain the hell out of a reader to pull them through book mercilessly with these big bombastic characters and sequences.
THR: Who were your influences growing up?
SGS: I grew up in a very book friendly household. My mother was the editor for a small Connecticut publisher. My stepfather was a rare used-book dealer so we had five thousand books in shelves in our basement, which had been converted into a library.
I always loved to read, but when I was twelve I got interested in genre, specifically Stephen King. I read the whole canon, got everything I could get my hands on. Every birthday gift was a new Stephen King or a first edition. I worshipped unapologetically at the altar of Stephen King and still do in way that's probably detrimental to my own development as a writer. It’s always nice to have a variety of influences. I was so mono-focused on one writer, on imitating him, on reading and rereading one writer in particular, everything he wrote no matter he wrote that's my fear. I also loved Bradbury and Asimov. I read Koontz and Orson Scott Card.
But King always has a special place in my heart. He has such a simple and direct way of telling stories and such an exciting way of pulling you through narrative. Also, I can't help but be in awe of how prolific he is and how consistent he is.
THR: Me too. He writes smart genre.
SGS: He cares about character. He knows his way around those dark corners of genre, how to write to great effect, how to imagine and feel -- but it's always the "But." He's very imaginative. He likes to play in a lot of different sandboxes. I really admire that and always have and only recently have I been able to articulate what that idol worship was between me and Stephen King .
THR: The movie rights to Unholy Night have been optioned. When might we see that on the big screen and what do you have coming up next?
SGS: My company is producing it with Heyday David Heyman's company and its the next the script on my docket to write. I'm right in the middle of writing an animated movie for Tim Burton right now called Night of the Living.
THR: Weren’t you going to do a movie set in the a cemetery?
SG-S:That's Living in the Necropolis, which is a book we optioned and have a writer on now. Night of the Living is an idea I have had around for years that I'm doing with Tim Burton. When we were shooting Dark Shadows last year I worked up the nerve to tell Tim about it because I always thought it would make a good movie. When I saw what he had done with Frankweenie and Corpse Bride, it always struck me as a great idea for that form. I'm writing it at Warner's Bros. for him (as a stop-motion monster movie). As soon I'm done with that draft, I'll move into Unholy Night, probably in a matter of weeks. Once we have a script and we'll get together with David Heyman and the studio, we'll go looking for a director.
THR: Where does Beetlejuice fit in your schedule?
SGS:The Beetlejuice sequel will come after Unholy Night in my schedule. The first opportunity to tackle that will probably be later this year.