Celebrating Our Elders: Interview with Stephen Volk
Stephen Volk created BBC TV’s notorious Halloween mockumentary Ghostwatch and the award-winning ITV drama series Afterlife. His feature screenplays include The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall, William Friendkin’s The Guardian, and Ken Russell’s Gothic starring Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. He is also the author of four collections – Dark Corners, Monsters in the Heart (which won the British Fantasy Award), The Parts We Play, and Lies of Tenderness. His other books include the acclaimed Dark Masters Trilogy, featuring Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock, and Dennis Wheatley, while Under a Raven’s Wing teams Sherlock Holmes with Poe’s detective Dupin in 1870s Paris.
Did you start out writing or working in the horror field, and if so why? If not, what were you writing initially and what compelled you to move into horror?
It would be tempting to say I’ve always been interested in the horror genre, but I think as a reader and writer your focus develops over time. Your genre, in some ways, chooses you, and I think those who gravitate to horror are drawn to it because they see fear all around them and the horror form gives them a way to deal with it in symbolic terms. Alfred Hitchcock was once asked, “Mr Hitchcock, as the master of screen terror, what frightens you?” Hitch answered “Everything!” That’s me to a tee.
I grew up in the South Wales town of Pontypridd in the 1960s, spending my pocket money on Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Marvel Classics, and the Pan and Fontana books of horror and ghost stories, but I always had an equal obsession with the cinema and TV and glutted myself on the fare of fantasy shows of that era. I also consumed a lot of fantasy and science fiction books, and became a voracious consumer of Moorcock and Ballard, but had the erroneous urge as I reached adulthood to be a writer of “serious fiction” — that is to say, fiction that people took seriously. Happily, the phase soon passed. The British screenwriter Nigel Kneale taught me that if you are drawn to a genre, and it chimes with you, then embrace it: your only obligation is to write it to the best of your capacity. With subtlety, commitment, and intelligence. And never, ever to look down on the audience.
Who were your influences as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?
A big influence was British novelist Dennis Wheatley, who is largely forgotten now but in the 1960s of my childhood he was really the equivalent of Stephen King, with countless best-sellers about Satanism, starting with the classic The Devil Rides Out (brilliantly filmed by Hammer starring Christopher Lee). Now fallen out of favour for his rather turgid writing style and non-PC politics, he was responsible, some might say, at least in part, for the “occult explosion” of the sixties which led to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. For all his faults, as he was my gateway drug to horror, I found myself writing about Wheatley as a fictional character in “Netherwood”, one of my stories in The Dark Masters Trilogy.
The other writers I always mention in this regard are Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch because they did this marvelous thing that was magical to me: I saw their names on book covers AND I saw their names on movies. From The Incredible Shrinking Man to I Am Legend, from the Corman Poe films to Psycho, from Star Trek to The Twilight Zone. You can imagine, to a 12-year-old kid in the Welsh Valleys this was mind-boggling. But there must be something of the Protestant work ethic in my DNA because, when I saw the “created by” or “screenplay by” credit on screen, I thought secretly: “Well, someone has to do that. If I work hard, maybe it could be me.” Never ever dreaming in reality I would ever do it for a living.
As for current influences, new voices blow me away every day – too numerous to mention. Ally Wilkes (I’ve just finished her phenomenal novel All The White Spaces), Benjamin Myers, Stephen Gallagher, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Mariana Enriquez, Emma Donoghue, Patrick McGrath, Flannery O’Connor, Maupassant! Some of them not “new” but always ripe for rediscovery!
How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?
To be honest, I have largely not been a part of it. I met an agent early on, when I first moved to London after art school, who told me I was spreading myself too thin. I’d been writing all sorts of things – radio plays, bits of a novel, short stories, scripts. He said I should choose one discipline to concentrate on, I couldn’t be a jack of all trades because I’d be a master of none. What did I really want to write? Put on the spot, I said “Screenplays”: which might or might not have been the right decision at the time.
So, I was not really affected by the publishing “horror boom” in the 1980s because I was writing films. Unless I was part of it amongst Dream Demon, Hellraiser, and Company of Wolves. My first produced feature was Gothic, directed by Ken Russell (1986), which starred Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley and Gabriel Byrne as Byron, followed by others including Universal’s The Guardian (William Friedkin, 1990), then Ghostwatch (1992), right up to The Awakening (2011) starring Rebecca Hall, and a bunch of stuff before and since. Screenplays were my main career, in the US and UK, but I always loved novels, especially horror novels. I just hadn’t gone down the route of writing them. It was hard enough to crack open the door to the film industry.
My first dipping of the toe into publishing in the late ‘90s was through Darren Floyd, who had organized a small “Con” in Cardiff. It was there I met a friendly group of other horror and affiliated writers (including Tim Lebbon and Ramsey Campbell, who was being interviewed). This was the first time, to my astonishment, I found out there was a market for short fiction and horror short fiction at that! I thought horror publishing was dead except for the behemoths like King and Herbert, but here were young, enthusiastic publishers like Gary Fry and Chris Teague and there were readers and fans. And the idea of putting stories out into that market was thrilling, not least because, for the most part, as I found out, they REMAINED the stories I wrote. They didn’t get messed up along the way! So I was hooked and have been ever since.
Today, the work I do for print is at least as important as the work I do for the screen. Maybe more so. I think I’ve become a better writer because of it, and many times it has reconnected me with my core values after a bruising experience in “showbiz.” So, far from being a side hustle, it’s very much a parallel career now. It’s vitally important to me, and I’m deeply thankful to the publishers and editors who have got me there, most notably the marvelous Peter and Nicky Crowther of PS Publishing. I get massive, intrusive commercial pressure in my day job, so I feel blessed to have more control over my fiction. It’s a welcome change and a necessary palliative to the soul.
Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?
I do think there’s ageism in the film/TV industry because the obvious fetish is for new names. People want to dream big, be the great discoverer. Inevitably, over time, as a writer you become familiar to them, and I’m sure there’s a sense of: “Oh, him. We know that guy.” And they’re less excited for the very reason that they know you.
There’s a terrible story in This Is Not A Pity Memoir by screenwriter Abi Morgan, where she is undergoing cancer treatment and having to deal with her husband being in a coma, and she goes into a café in Shepherd’s Bush and hears two people from BBC Drama discussing her, saying, “Oh, Abi Morgan, everyone says she’s over the hill now.” And I read that and thought My gosh: they are saying that about Abi Morgan! (The award winning writer of The Hour, Brick Lane, The Iron Lady, Shame, Suffragette.) What chance have I got?
I don’t know what you can do to counteract it exactly except to be aware of the changing world around you and the changing market. It’s no good writing like you always used to and expecting it to fly. Make sure your work is — and I hesitate now — “relevant.” Oh, how I hate that word! I received a brief the other day from a commissioner looking for genre ideas that were “zeitgeisty and relevant”: I replied to the producer, sarcastically, that I was sorry but I only had irrelevant ideas at the moment. I mean, honestly. The idea that writers go around writing ideas that are not relevant is so insulting!
The truth is, if you think about ageism, you’d curl up your toes and die. You’ve got to believe it’s about the work, and if the work is good they’ll notice. That’s a lie, I know. But what alternative do you have? You’ve got to live that lie or simply accept that your time has passed and there’s nothing you can do about it. Like the scene with Brad Pitt’s character in Babylon where he hears the audience sniggering at his performance. I could hardly watch that scene. He has to live with it… or what? You can yell into the void. That’s what I do. But mostly I try to ignore it because there’s nothing you can do except try to prove them wrong in their prejudice.
What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?
When you are young (and I was no exception), you have this illusion that, if you have talent and luck, you get to a certain age as a writer and “make it” – that everyone will want you, sign checks, your career will go stratospheric and you will have no more worries, financial or creative for the rest of your life. But that is the exception, not the rule. For most writers, it is a case of lurching from one project to the next, stepping over the debris of failures and tossing a new spinning plate in the air. The vast majority of my writer friends agree: there is no sweet spot where it’s suddenly easy. It never was, and if anything it’s even harder now. I don’t know how young writers will survive in a world where nobody wants to pay for anything. But they will. They always do. They’ll thrive and be brilliant.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
I always keep it real simple. Don’t chase fashion and don’t chase money. Money will come when you get good. Concentrate on finding your voice and there’s no magic trick to that except read the books that excite you and watch the movies you like: if you love it, unpick it, try to figure out how that worked – what the writer did in that scene, what the actor did. Feed yourself that way but put your ear to the ground and listen to your own heart.
Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?
Yes and no. The great Steve Rasnic Tem, who springs to mind immediately, does it brilliantly and consistently, as do others. Despite getting older, I try NOT to confine myself to only writing from the POV of a character my age. (When I wrote about Peter Cushing as an old man in my novella “Whitstable” it never occurred to me that he was younger than I was. The character I identified with was the frightened little boy.) Although I’m particularly proud of a story called “Orr” in my latest collection, Lies of Tenderness. It’s about an elderly guy who has lost his wife and he has the peculiar gift of having been struck by lightning nineteen times. I have no idea where the idea came from but it evolved into something about mortality and the question of how we choose to live our lives. I liked how it turned out and there it is. Maybe it is related to COVID. I wrote another story in the same collection called “Bad Language” which is about my mother’s dementia and her death. It was painful to write (right down to the details of her funeral) but I felt duty-bound to be honest. Emotional honesty is one of the most important ingredients in horror.
On the other hand, there have been a rash of films in which the “old” are demonized for no particular reason. The idea of aging somehow conflating with monstrousness. I’m thinking of The Visit, Relic, Old, and X. Full disclosure: I’m not greatly impressed by American culture’s disgust at the aging process, particularly as regards women. To me, it’s cruel, neurotic, and deeply immature. (But perhaps that makes it the ideal subject for horror?)
What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?
I loved Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters and in Mr. Holmes, both wonderful. Karloff in Targets, oh my word… and both Karloff and Catherine Lacey in Michael Reeves’s The Sorcerors. I always liked fellow Welshman Anthony Hopkins in the film, Hearts in Atlantis. I loved little touches like him cleaning his shoes. Apparently, Hopkins remembered his father doing that, and I remember my father doing things I now do – which is troubling. Hopkins was of course astounding in The Father, the recent film about Alzheimer’s. I found the film utterly devastating. No doubt partly due to my seeing my mother go through a similar process of losing her sense of reality, and her memory eroding until finally there was nothing left. You might say, The Father is not a “horror” film. I would say I can’t think of a more horrific experience than watching it. Heartbreaking and unforgettable.
Do you have anything you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?
I’m tired of the lazy presumption that people get more set in their ways and right-wing as they get older. Yes, it might be true of some writers who cling to the mores of a lost world, and feel threatened by change, which is sad, but that is not a catch-all for writers of a certain age and I resent that implication. If anything I am far more left-wing and radical now (as a person and a writer) than I ever was when I was younger. So I’d like to knock that prejudice on the head. It’s not only young writers who want to rattle cages and shake people out of their complacency. That’s, after all, what horror is for.
But I have to say, as I get older – and I’ve been making a living as a writer for over 40 years – I’m more and more conscious of a sense of time wasted. In his new novel The Shards, which I started reading last night, Bret Easton Ellis (or the character named “Bret”) talks about not writing screenplays anymore, stopping “chasing that game” which he says was a decade of “being well compensated for TV Pilots and screenplays for movies that mostly never got made” – then he says that the book he is writing is “beckoning” to him. I know the feeling.
When I came off my first produced movie in 1986 I met with an exec at Tri-Star. He pitched me an idea and I bit his hand off: yes, I can do it, of course, I’d write it. My first studio gig. I was hungry. For a living. For a career. To get noticed. Now, 30+ years later, other things matter. I remember reading an interview with Anthony Minghella on the set of Cold Mountain and he was asked why he focused on adaptations rather than original work. His answer was “Time.” He said he figured he only had time for another seven, or eight movies, and adapting books saved time. Tragically, he didn’t even have the time he thought. Which is why the story sticks in my mind.
So, at the age of 68, I find myself being picky. I might not take on something like that Tri-Star gig (which was a sh**ty idea anyway, and turned into a terrible movie): I might, I don’t know. I’d weigh it up. More important things “beckon.”
I’m writing a novel. You could call it my first. (“Netherwood” was over 60,000 words but part of the Dark Masters Trilogy, and Gothic was a novelisation.) I first worked on it thirty years ago and it won’t go away and now I’m 112,000 words in. Wish me luck. I just don’t want on my headstone “He never finished that g*d*mned book.” It’s got to be done. And I’m as excited about it, at 68, as I ever was about anything. To the point of not wanting to think of much else. But that’s good. As the great director of Don’t Look Now, Nic Roeg, once said: “What is the point of life, but being continually obsessed?”
The viewpoints expressed in this interview are the opinions of the individual being interviewed and do not necessarily represent the views of the Horror Writers Association.