Coffinmaker's Blues - a review
Ally Wilkes reviews Coffinmaker's Blues, an entertaining and timely look at the perils and joys of genre fiction by screenwriter and author, Stephen Volk...
Stephen Volk, I suspect, needs little introduction. A Welsh screenwriter best-known for BBC’s seminal mockumentary, Ghostwatch (1992), also Afterlife (2005-2006) and 2015’s adaptation of Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit, among others.
He has published short story collections, novels and novellas; horror fans may also have encountered him as a columnist for Black Static (previously The Third Alternative) between 2004 and 2016. This book is a collection of those columns.
Together, they add up to an entertaining and deeply relevant body of work. It’s a time when horror fans – and genre fans – have been treated with more-than-usual disdain by the mainstream media: see Lucy Mangan’s jaw-dropping review of The Haunting of Bly Manor which started with a near-ritualistic disavowal of the entire concept of a ghost story. As David Pirie’s introduction wryly notes: “you can still find plenty of snobbery and the old prejudices die very hard. They are especially virulent in the UK, where “realism” has consistently been elevated. The result is that, even now, TV drama reviewers may actually start their reviews by confessing how much they hate fantasy, blissfully unaware they are dismissing a field, so huge and diverse, they might just as well say how much they hate drama.”
Coffinmaker’s Blues is a brilliant broadside against genre snobbery (particularly ‘The Fallacy of the Real’): Volk’s joy in the craft of the ghost story leaps off the page. His arguments about the value of horror and science fiction – on one view, he says, the only kind of fiction capable of truly reflecting the real world – both pre-date and post-date the contentious label ‘Elevated Horror’, which he locates in the mainstream’s “snobby terror” of being associated with an “ubergeek” image.
But genre fans have always known there is a continuum capable of taking in both the exquisite slow-burn of The Innocents and Don’t Look Now, and campy ‘giant crab’ adventures. Both have their own merit: on the other side of the coin, Volk dislikes the tendency amongst producers to set out specifically to make something “very brave and very dark”, noting that “there is such a thing as facile pessimism, and it’s no better than facile optimism.”
Volk makes a convincing case that – to borrow from a hundred 2020 advertising campaigns – genre is more important than ever in these ‘unprecedented times’. You may remember the studies purporting to show that horror fans were coping better with the coronavirus pandemic (entirely unsurprising to anyone familiar with the zombie genre, which offers a crash course in narratives of contagion, isolation, and the failure of containment). Volk acknowledges the importance of horror to the mental health of its enthusiasts, even making a case for its evolutionary purposes: “because on a primitive level, when something Different or Other reared its head, we learnt that we better take note, or get eaten.”
In 2011’s ‘Chasing the Dead Babies’ he engages with the idea that in times of crisis people turn to the comforts of the spirit world, whether it’s via mediums or angels: is communally watching a TV show or film that “reaches out to the other side” (for example, The Haunting of Bly Manor – or Host, another smash hit of lockdown) so different as a manifestation of the human need for contact?
When those working in the arts are also being faced with the governmental accusation that the industry is “unviable”, Volk’s observations are so timely it hurts. In ‘Run, Writer, Run! Extinction is Forever!’ he lets loose at the idea that we have to justify our existence by means of the balance sheet, offering the memorable image of Lord Sugar leaning over a boardroom table and bellowing: “Dostoyevsky, what was you thinkin’?”. As you’d expect, Volk is similarly excoriating about the “smash and grab” culture in which creators should no longer expect to be paid for their art (“Pay for it? Why the fuck should I? Because somebody created it, asshole. And they have bills to pay, twat head”). If there’s “no money for screenplays”, he notes, the inevitable result is writing as the activity of the privately wealthy: a shocking regression to the 19th century, with an inevitable lack of diversity.
Elsewhere, Volk covers a range of subjects as wide as our own relationship to suffering (taking in the commercialisation of victimhood in ‘abuse porn’ books with titles such as Daddy Don’t Hurt Me), the disappearance of Madeleine McCann as modern witch hunt, Doctor Who as Eastenders in Space, and a lovely retrospective on the making of Ghostwatch (‘The Ghost That Spooked The Nation’). He has an entertaining and immediately likeable conversational style; reading Coffinmaker’s Blues is like having a close friend – or a particularly fascinating new acquaintance – telling you their stories from the front lines.
To repeat the anecdotes would be to rob the reader of the pleasure of discovery, but there are plenty of absolutely jaw-dropping moments, including this fantastic nugget of advice from a producer: “What you need, Steve, for your career to take off, is a really big hit.” Volk’s wonderfully self-deprecating humour sings throughout, even when dealing with big – and sometimes very hard to tackle – issues like diversity and cultural appropriation, writer’s block or impostor syndrome.
Finally, Volk’s tips for writers are a joy. While so many guides are prescriptive, he takes a hammer to the sacred cows of scriptwriting, in a rambling bullet-point list of observations (‘What We Learn About When We Learn About Writing’) which ranges from the easily-applied note to what must surely be the overarching summation of Coffinmaker’s Blues:
“Genre lies. But we like it.”