No creaking gates, no gothic towers
An interview with Stephen Volk
From watching ghosts to making coffins, Stephen Volk is rightly regarded as one of the great British horror writers. Horrified's John Clewarth interviews the man about his life and work...
Horrified: Born at the height of summer, in Pontypridd, would seem to be the ace of calm. So, can you tell us what drew you towards your interest in the darker side of art?
Stephen Volk: I don’t think I knew at first. I certainly didn’t know at the moment of birth. It slowly dawned on me through reading and film, really. I think dark fiction and cinema – horror, let’s say – appeals to, largely, people who are anxious by nature. Neurotic, perhaps. And because you see the outside world as a place full of terrors – real or imagined – you gravitate to fiction that mirrors your mindset. It’s reassuring, paradoxically. So given that temperamentally I grew up “afraid of everything” (as Hitchcock said he was), this was the kind of storytelling that drew me in. The first book I remember reading was a huge illustrated telling of “The Pied Piper”: it had these vivid images and of course the story is sheer horror. So that was the start of it. Later I got into comics, and the Pan horror stories, and Hammer, but that was the start of it. The genre in some ways chooses you, not the other way around.
H: Has your environment influenced your writing?
SV: The dark slag heaps of The Valleys had an impact. The fact if you didn’t do well in school you could end up working in perpetual darkness in fear of death underground, had an impact. Feeling a million miles from London, let alone Hollywood, had an impact. Watching movies in The White Palace in Ponty had an impact. My Baptist grandmother who didn’t like us watching Star Trek because she thought beyond the clouds was heaven, and my dad the science teacher, had an impact. It all has an impact.
H: James Herbert once said that he used to work in advertising and ‘had the feeling’ that he must write a book – and that many of his colleagues had a manuscript tucked away in a drawer. Did the skills you used in your work as an advertising copywriter transfer into your early fiction writing endeavours?
SV: I always say the advantages of starting in advertising taught me three things: 1) How to think concisely and visually (I used to storyboard my own scripts for commercials—I’d been to art school after all, and it was quicker than explaining it to an art director); 2) How to come up with five ways to do something by lunchtime, and C) How to stand up in a meeting and justify your creative ideas. OK, the idea might be an ad for dog food, but, boy, were those skills useful later on when I had ideas I felt passionate about. As a shy boy from The Valleys, I slowly learned that the world wouldn’t cave in if I spoke up.
H: Your first commercially produced screenplay was for Ken Russell’s Gothic in the mid-80s. Could you tell us a little about the process that led up that breakthrough?
SV: I didn’t even conceive of it as a Ken Russell film or anybody else’s film when I wrote it. I’d been writing a range of things – plays, short stories, right through college, and one agent asked me outright which I wanted to do because I was spreading myself too thin over too many disciplines. Totally instinctively, I said “Screenplays.” He said, “Then concentrate on that. You can do the rest later.” So I did. Burning the midnight oil while working a 9-5 in an ad agency. And one of my screenplays was Gothic—inspired by reading David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror (which I can admit freely because I have told him and he is now a good friend!)
In those days I simple licked a stamp and sent my scripts out to producers and they (often) read them. You could in those days! Through a circuitous route, I got an agent, and she sent Gothic to Virgin Films and they liked it, but it was a two-year gap before they said they had got a director and that director was Ken Russell, coming off Crimes of Passion. I didn’t know what to expect. But he didn’t want to mess around with “the development process” and wanted to shoot the following Spring—which he did!
H: Screen-writing is obviously a strength of yours and Ghostwatch is certainly one of your most famous successes. There are parallels with Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds announcement of 1938, with its realism – but that was never the intention, was it? How did the idea for Ghostwatch first occur to you – and what was it like putting the show together?
SV: Well, first of all, the Welles broadcast wasn’t all that realistic, if you listen to it. Yes, it begins with a dance band apparently being interrupted with news bulletins, but it quite quickly reverts to being a straight adaptation of the novel. Ghostwatch began as a five-part drama series idea, and when that was turned down by the BBC the producer and I thought again. She asked if I could in any way do it as a 90-minute single drama. That was when I had the brainwave for a “live” BBC broadcast from a haunted house. I remember the day vividly. We were both very excited, but that was only the beginning.
H: What were your expectations for Ghostwatch?
SV: To be honest, my expectations were not about its effect, they were all the worries about – can we do this well, or at all? That is, to make a good TV ghost story. I’d been very absorbed by The Stone Tape by Nigel Kneale on the BBC. That was a major influence—the idea of the past being something you can peel away in layers. But immediately I said the idea to Ruth Baumgarten we both knew that it had the potential not only to be a “mockumentary” (if you will) and therefore be dramatically effective, but also we had a chance, under that, to fire some barbs about television and the media. To me, it is almost a big joke which is – how would TV treat the most important question that Mankind ever asks: “Is death the end?” – the answer being, they’d do it as mass entertainment!
H: How do you think Ghostwatch would play if it were released today? Obviously, Inside No.9 experimented with the ‘is it real?’ format in 2018 to great success and far less controversy. Do you feel that, almost 30 years later, the casual television watcher has become largely desensitised to horror (amid the horrors we’re presented with on a daily basis) and there wouldn’t be this strange standoff with regard to re-running the programme?
SV: I don’t give that too much thought because Ghostwatch is 100% of its time, and I like that: it is a little flag pole stuck into TV history in 1992. (In fact, it has a place on the wall of TV history at BAFTA, which pleased me no end when I saw it.) It’s undoubtedly a period piece now. People ask me to do another one as if that could be a thing, and I say no, it can’t, don’t be ridiculous.
People watch differently now and the TV landscape in 1992 was radically different in so many different ways: the fact that nobody could watch it again being paramount. And possibly paramount in conferring it with a kind of cult status over the years. Nobody could rent it out or watch it or check the footage; all they had were their subjective memories. I kind of love that. Didn’t love it at the time because we felt desperately short-changed and vilified by the BBC Powers That Be. They really battened down the hatches and disowned us (and it).
I don’t think consuming horror desensitises one to real-life horror at all. Watching horror since the age of sixteen would not help me in the slightest deal with a real-life car accident or seeing a dead body. But what is immediate and different now is the proliferation of “fake news”—we are almost so suspicious of everything we watch that the concept of Ghostwatch would be totally castrated. It’s a strange world in 2020, we seem to believe everything, and believe nothing. But belief is what Ghostwatch was about—do you believe what you are told? Do you believe your eyes?
H: Your writing endeavours are wide-ranging – screenplays, novels, short stories – and each format holds its own challenges. Which do you prefer writing most and why?
SV: That’s extremely difficult to answer succinctly. To have a preference would be to cast the others as of lesser importance. I like it when I’m the boss: in other words, I’m open to feedback but in the end, what I say goes. That is the case with fiction, more or less, but almost never in screen work. But the reason I come back to screenplays is that I love cinematic storytelling, the use of images and cuts, the way cinema holds in its hand all the art forms and crafts: acting, theatre, architecture, painting, photography, sound, dialogue, storyboarding, music. I will never tire of the excitement of a story told in pictures. It has been my lifeblood. But if you have stories inside you bursting to get out they can’t always be films or even scripts so they find another form. And a piece of work can begin in one form and end up in another. Chopping and changing can reveal a lot about what a story wants to be.
H: Have there been any writers who have influenced your writing, and in what way?
SV: Endless examples. I could give you 10,000 words on just that. In fact, I have a Personal Anthology online, thanks to Jonathan Gibbs’ fine website of that name, in which I choose my favourite dozen short stories. I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of authors and many have had an influence. Arthur Conan Doyle was a formative influence. Edgar Allan Poe continues to be (in fact my next book is about Sherlock and Poe!) I grew up a massive fan of both Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson for the way they alternated seemingly effortlessly between films, TV and books. Along with Dennis Wheatley, the master of occult thrillers, they were who I dreamt of being – my name on book spines and my name on the screen, too—“screenplay by Stephen Volk”. I used to love those ITV investigator shows like Department S. That was my dream, too—to be creator of a TV show, and blimey, I did it. A major influence too was Nigel Kneale of Quatermass and The Stone Tape fame. Absolute genius at putting intelligence into genre writing. Kneale convinced me not to be embarrassed about writing genre—just try to be bloody good at it! But I’ve barely scratched the surface, honestly.
H: Do you have a specific writing place? Routine?
SV: Yep. An office. Smallest room in the house! Once my wife goes to her studio it’s just me. I circle work like a vulture before descending on carrion. In short, I fart around until I guilt-trip myself into doing it. I don’t like mornings. It might be metabolic disposition or it might be the fact I used to have a day job, but evenings are most productive for me. I frequently get more done between 5 pm and 7 pm than the whole of the rest of the day, and I used to regularly work till 1 am or 2 am (less so now).
H: Are your works ever based on someone you know or events in your life?
SV: Yes, but the people would never recognise themselves. To be truthful you pick fruit from their tree and by the time you construct a story, it’s not them. It might be the essence of them, or partly them. The story comes first, then you think: who fits that? And a real person might be a clue. An attitude. You are always thinking, how would a person express this, say that—so the only toolbox or ammunition box you have is your life experience. You use it all. So it’s piecemeal. However, there are stories absolutely taken from life. “Newspaper Heart” was a story based around my brother’s attachment to a Guy Fawkes effigy when he was a child. Another one was “Wrong,” which was based on something strange and unbelievable my mother told me that had happened in the next street. I set both in my hometown for that reason.
H: What would you say is the hardest part of writing?
SV: Making a living! Keeping going! By far. Some people say they have difficulty getting ideas. I think ideas are by far the easiest part. The world is full of ideas. I could fill books with them, no problem—but pitching them, selling them commercially, as well as the attendant cut-and-thrust of endless feedback and rejection—that’s hard, and you need to be resilient. In some ways, it is the exact opposite of what you need as an artist, which is sensitivity. So you have to care and not care because if you care too much it will destroy you.
H: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
SV: Yes, definitely. I have had it—big time. The myth about writer’s block is that it doesn’t exist. You know those sceptics that go into the haunted house and don’t believe in ghosts? That’s people who don’t believe in writer’s block! I tend to quiz them. Then they tend to say “Oh yeah, that! I get that!” So it’s not far different than admitting you get depression. Some people baulk at the mere word or phrase. I think there are degrees of writer’s block, though, or stages. There’s the plain old bad writing day. Can’t do it. Not flowing. So go out, forget it, write something else, go bowling. But if you’re not careful, it spirals down—I can’t do this scene, this script is no good, it never was any good, it’s shit—then, before you know it—I’m shit! I always was shit! I’m never going to write again! But if I never write again my children will go hungry!… Then it’s out of control, and I’ve been in a position (coming off writing The Guardian in LA with William Friedkin) where I never wanted to write again. I was literally staring into space for months. I was fucked. But thanks to a short course of what I now see was CBT therapy, I crawled back to some semblance of enthusiasm for the written word. But I’m still periodically flirting with the notion that it’s all pointless and I may as well give up. Always.
H: Do you plan thoroughly? Or do your works evolve organically? How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
SV: I am a planner, generally. I get a shiver at the idea of writing a story and not knowing where it’s heading. I don’t know how you can make decisions on scenes if you don’t know what a story is about. I won’t start without an ending because the ending is often what informs the theme. Even if it changes, when I have that I can get started. There’s no formula. I guess I know the three-act structure in screenplay terms but increasingly I try to ignore that and think in sequences that trigger other sequences. I don’t talk myself out of a good scene because the inciting incident isn’t on page 27! And it helps to be perverse. How To... books say, never have a speech longer than four lines, so I deliberately have a monologue for a page—or they say, never use voiceover: I’ve just written a script with a V.O. all the way through! As far as developing plots and characters, things take a while to gel—you might have one element for years or half an idea but you are waiting for the other half, maybe the character or the way to tell it. Then you get that “aha!” moment and you’re off. An “idea” isn’t one thing but a cluster of things.
H: Do you have a favourite of the body of work you have written?
SV: Not really. You like all your children equally. You’re happy when they do well of course, but you don’t only like the successful ones. Some of them are treated badly by other people but you can’t hold that against them. I like a short story I’ve written in two days as much as I might like a screenplay that has been developed over two decades. If I were to rank them the ones at the top would be those that have not been fucked up – either by other people or by me.
H: Do you have a favourite line or passage from your work, and would you like to share it with us?
SV: I’m really fond of, and proud of, the climactic scene of Afterlife (Season 2, Episode 8), where the spirit of the sceptical psychologist Robert, played by Andrew Lincoln, appears to the medium Alison (Lesley Sharp) in the hospital ward.
H: Halloween is one of our favourite times of the year! Do you have any fun Halloween experiences you can tell us?
SV: Ha! I guess my fun Halloween experience was on October 31st 1992 when my TV drama Ghostwatch went out, pretending to be a live transmission from a haunted house! It caused a bit of a stir if I remember correctly. We were all at a secret location watching it go out on a big screen. Mike Smith was there with Sarah Greene. We watched her being trapped by the ghost in the cupboard under the stairs. It wasn’t until Ruth Baumgarten arrived, pale with shock, and told us that the BBC phone lines were jammed with complaints that we realised our programme had had a bit of an impact—one that people still remember nearly 30 years later, so we must’ve done something right!
H: What scares you? And can you tell us about a time in your life when you were really scared?
SV: I have been in the odd situation where I thought “Hello, this situation could turn very nasty very quickly,” but I’ve never had that deeply scary encounter the sort of which I write about, no. I’ve never had a paranormal experience either that couldn’t be explained away fairly quickly. Once on the set on Afterlife I was wandering around and saw a figure and when I turned the corner it wasn’t there. I put that down to fatigue, but perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps the spirits were keeping an eye on that particular show.
H: What is your favourite horror movie?
SV: Don’t Look Now. It changed the way I thought of cinema and the supernatural. It told me that nuance and intelligence could go into a story about things we don’t understand. I love The Innocents as a perfect ghost story, but Don’t Look Now is always number one in my top ten. It was the chemistry between Sutherland and Christie as a stubborn non-believer and grieving mother respectively that I wanted to mirror in Afterlife. It’s an incredibly powerful story of grief and the “psychic” element only serves to heighten and make more poetic the human dilemma—that’s what I try to aspire to.
H: What are you reading now?
SV: I’ve just started the new Oliver Stone autobiography, but I’ve just finished the complete stories of Flannery O’Connor. She wrote the novel upon which John Huston’s Wise Blood was based. Her writing is fantastic and it is tragic she died so young (the same age as Poe, in fact—39.) Some of the tales are perfectly realised; a kind of combination of Dennis Potter and the Coen Brothers. One critic said her stories were “all about the operations of supernatural grace in the lives of natural men and women”—and maybe that’s what some of my work is about, too. I’d like to think so.
H: Have you ever used contemporary events or stories “ripped from the headlines” as inspiration in your work?
SV: Yes. Headlines, or more often history, is a great catalyst. As an example, my story called “The Airport Gorilla” which appeared in New Fears 2 edited by Mark Morris. It was inspired by that Russian rocket attack on an airliner over the Ukraine. I remember seeing a man on the front pages of newspapers dressed in paramilitary gear wandering through the wreckage, holding up a child’s cuddly toy. I thought, what is the story of that toy? What happens to it next? But the story came together in fits and starts. It ended up being narrated by the toy itself!
H: Do you ever come up with anything so wild that you scare yourself, leaving you wondering where that came from? Do you ever censor yourself? Is there a point you won’t go beyond?
SV: Absolutely never censor myself. (In TV or film, yes, they have certain restrictions: for instance, when I adapted John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids as a movie script we were told we could not have children firing crossbows.) But in terms of writing or choosing a story—quite the opposite. I am actively drawn to subjects where I sense someone might say, going there is dubious or not allowed, or someone might be offended. That is catnip to me. I can’t understand writers who are put off controversy or shy away from difficult subject matter. Isn’t that why we are here?
H: What advice would you give to writers who have not yet broken through?
SV: Persist. And commit to stories you believe in. That way, published or not, produced or not, it will have not been a waste of time.
H: What are your current projects? Can you share a little teaser of your current work with us?
SV: I am spinning many plates at the moment, as I always try to. Many are not in the kind of shape to share yet or are not ready to be announced. But I have a book coming out next year from PS Publishing, called Under a Raven’s Wing. It’s set in Paris in the 1870s and concerns a series of investigations into bizarre crimes investigated by Poe’s famous detective, Dupin, and his eager young apprentice in detection. Here’s a flavour.
H: Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
SV: Career-wise, it’s difficult to have plans, as such—the film and TV world is incredibly fickle and things you think may be in fashion or a commercial slam-dunk suddenly aren’t, and vice versa. From the outside it may look like my output over the last thirty years is a straight line, but in fact, it’s a series of stutters and jumps across bottomless pits, and many things—good projects, I think—crash and burn along the way. Creatively, I am determined to concentrate on ideas I find compelling, even if I don’t fully understand why. When you are young you take jobs to further your career, to add something to your credits, or to collaborate with the right people, or to make money; all sorts of reasons—when you get to my age your priorities become different. It’s no longer appealing to work on a “commercial” me-too to every studio film out there. I’d find that crushingly dull. It’s not me, so I have more of an idea what is “me” these days, and want to delve into that. The killer is trying to please other people. But as David Bowie said, “If you listen to what the audience says they want, you’re dead.”