The Organ Grinder
“I am come of a race noted for vigour of fancy and ardour of passion. Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence, whether much that is glorious, whether all that is profound, does not spring from disease of thought, from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”
Edgar Allen Poe, Eleonora
In June 2001, Dr. Wang Guoqi testified before the United States Congress about the “perverse trade in human body parts by the People’s Republic of China”. Matthew Warner read that testimony. Warner says that testimony “opened his eyes” and, with that awakening, he began to formulate the plot for The Organ Donor.
The book, while fiction, is based on the reality that is China today. The Chinese government’s prosecution of Falun Gong practitioners (those who are imprisoned and subjected to torture and brainwashing, and sadly, sometimes killed while in detention) is not a figment of Warner’s imagination. It’s not a stretch, considering how the Chinese government is currently handling the SARS information, to believe in a plotline of governmental deception and greed. Warner takes his research and formulates a riveting story, a horror thriller fit for the most ardent fan of the genre. It’s about harvesting organs and executing political prisoners according to a waiting (and cash carrying) recipient’s need.
What happens when the wrong organ donor is chosen? Warner’s not talking about matching blood type here, he writes about the kidney taken from an immortal 5,000-year-old being. An undead ancient king, from Chinese mythology, who follows the kidney recipient to Washington, DC, willing to do anything to get back his “parts.” This would be the “horror” in the term “horror novel”.
Last year, PopMatters’ Matt Cibula reviewed Crazy Rhythm by Leonard Garment. It was through Garment that I learned of Matthew Warner’s book. Warner was Garment’s administrative assistant and helped with the research for Garment’s In Search of Deep Throat. I became as interested in the process of writing the book as I was in the book itself. I contacted Warner and asked him a few questions about his writing career and Organ Donor.
The Senate hearing—and the testimony of Dr. Wang Guoqi—how did you hear about it?
“Like most Washingtonians addicted to the news, I read about it in The Washington Post. The June 27, 2001 front page article, “Chinese Doctor Tells of Organ Removals After Executions,” reported on Dr. Wang Guoqi’s testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives about China’s repugnant practice of selling the organs of its executed prisoners. Like Dr. Li Jun in my novel, Dr. Wang had been a transplant surgeon responsible for removing prisoners’ skin immediately after their deaths by gunshot to the head. Meanwhile, Dr. Wang’s medical colleagues—in a tableau repeated hundreds of times each year across China—would remove the prisoners’ kidneys, corneas, and any other body parts that had been purchased by the hospitals. Keep in mind that Chinese hospitals, courts and prisons all collude via under-the-table transactions to perpetuate this scandal—corrupting their criminal justice system. Dr. Wang was disgusted by all this and tried to quit, but his superiors responded with retaliation and threats, so he defected to the United States. Late last year, I hooked him up with the fine attorneys of Piper Rudnick LLP, where I’m an administrative assistant, and as far as I know his political asylum application is still ongoing.
“Back in 2001, however, I was just a part-time horror writer (I’m still part-time) with an idea for a novel: what if an organ donor returned from the dead and wanted his organs back? And when I learned about Dr. Wang, I saw an opportunity to tie the story to current events and perhaps raise awareness of a human rights issue. It was also an excuse to delve into the fascinating realm of Chinese mythology.
“At the same time, I tried to approach the subject with humility. Organ transplantation touches the lives of so many people worldwide; in the United States alone, the rate at which people die while on waiting lists (17 per day) now surpasses that at which American servicemen died during Vietnam (15 per day). It’s a sensitive subject, so I tried to be as respectful and sympathetic as possible in my portrayals of Tim and Paul Taylor as they try to cope with Tim’s kidney disease. Writing the story also left me wondering: if I were in their place, desperate to save a dying family member, would I pass up the opportunity to go to China and buy what I needed?”
I knew that Warner worked for Leonard Garment as an assistant and researcher. I asked him if his experiences influenced his writing. I felt that basing a story on Senate hearing testimony wasn’t the “usual” muse.
“The four and a half years I spent as Leonard Garment’s assistant influenced me in many ways, and my writing was only one of them. First and foremost, Len has become my role model: he’s wise, active, resolute, knowledgeable, and well respected and liked. He’s also a terrific punster. It was fun working for him; when he was writing In Search Of Deep Throat (Basic Books, 2000), I spent some time immersed in the Nixon collection at the National Archives, helping to sleuth the identity of Woodward and Bernstein’s fabled supersource. The ISODT experience gave me some practical exposure to the world of mass-market publishing as well, for which I’ll always be grateful.
“But as far as muses go, I don’t believe those fickle creatures come in any “usual” form. The House testimony was the lightning bolt that The Organ Donor needed, while other stories are inspired in other ways. A comedic-horror short story that’s been published a few times, “And That’s When the Bathroom Exploded,” started with the superstitions of my ex-girlfriend’s Japanese mother. The story “Middle Passage” in the Extremes III anthology (Lone Wolf Publications, 2001) came from anecdotal accounts of the 18th-century slave trade. “The Forgiving Type,” coming this fall in The Decay Within anthology (3FPublications), is a take on the scandal at the Tri-State Crematory of Noble, Georgia. As you can see, fiction can have a diverse range of origins, and each story presents its own unique challenges; where the idea comes from is certainly a large one.”
I questioned Matthew further. Even though it might be a silly question—I asked—what are your 5 favorite horror movies? Have you ever seen The Blob? How about Attack of the Killer Tomatoes—my personal favorite? I asked him to wax poetic on horror films.
“Yeah, I think I’ve seen those two, but it’s been a long time. (Good excuse for me to go to the video store and procrastinate from writing—I mean, er, “conduct research,” right?) My five favorites, in no particular order: John Carpenter’s The Thing (the scene where the severed head pulls itself along by its tongue and then sprouts spider legs is the coolest scene EVER), The Sixth Sense (the ending caught me completely by surprise), Pet Semetery (Stephen King is god), Nightmare on Elm Street: Part I (a truly ass-kicking movie; all the sequels sucked), and Hellraiser (even the toys on sale now are scary).
I’m not a film expert, but my offhand opinion is that there’s a lot of crap that’s come out in the last twenty years, but there have been many gems as well. If recent cinema is any indication, horror films and horror in general are making a comeback. With a few exceptions, the stories are surprisingly sophisticated and textured without going for the cheap gross-outs. As for books, this is more so; anyone who thinks that horror is all just Stephen King, Anne Rice and Dean Koontz owe it to themselves to check out some of the other incredible authors out there like Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon and Bentley Little.”
Curious about ebook publications, I wanted to know why Matthew opted for to publish an ebook first.
“When Double Dragon Publishing offered to publish The Organ Donor last year, that was the deal: e-book first, and then if the book performed well, a paperback. (Few of DDP’s titles are reissued on paper.) Some other publishers were interested, but I went with the bird-in-hand. And it’s probably worked out for the best. Since its debut last September, The Organ Donor has received some great buzz and favorable reviews, which should help the paperback edition this June.”
H. P. Lovecraft wrote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Horror novels seem to never go out of style or lack for an audience. Edgar Allen Poe and popular culture?