I HAVE come late to the writing of Stephen Volk (left).
I shall attempt to explain why.
My interest in the literary strange, particularly in the form of the short story, is a long-standing one. It has taken me through work by myriad writers from different eras: Thomas Hardy, Henry James, H.G, Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Walter de la Mare, Daphne du Maurier, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, William Golding and – to name-check a lesser-known figure – the Welshman Glyn Jones, to bring to mind but a few. For some of his stories (‘Viewfinder’ and perhaps also ‘Fat’), Raymond Carver is someone else I ought to mention, and, having mentioned Carver, I ought also to mention John Cheever (left) for his at times enigmatic and unsettling fiction (‘The Enormous Radio’ and ‘The Swimmer’, for example). The one-time English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (for his story ‘The Rain Horse’) is another name I should include. And there isn’t time or space for me to go into detail about the likes of the French (Guy de Maupassant, ‘Le Horla’) and the Russians – Dostoyevsky and a certain amount of axe-slaying (Crime and Punishment) and maybe even Chekhov, in whose ‘In The Ravine’, if I remember rightly, a baby is tossed into a boiling cauldron.
The point about those listed above, of course, is that publishers, booksellers, libraries, academics and critics have conferred on them the status of literary figures who wrote literary fiction. Granted, my inclusion of de la Mare and du Maurier and possibly even Wells might be slightly taxing to those who seem to judge these things. But the names I’ve listed would, I think, on the whole be seen as safe picks in terms of ‘seriousness’. In summary, these writers might be characterised as figures who occasionally contributed the odd ghost story, tale of the supernatural or account of a gruesome crime, but – having been excused for doing so – on the whole, had their minds on higher – and nobler – things.
Writers for whom the majority of their output is in that cumbersome catch-all called ‘Horror’, however, tend to have received – and continue to receive – a somewhat different press.
Sure, there are cross-over figures who get to sit on the ‘literary’ shelf – mainly writers long dead such as Poe and Stoker and, just maybe, the relatively recently departed Roald Dahl (left).
But my impression is that, horror is something that, in the eyes of not a few in the ‘book world’, merits as little house-room as possible (maybe with the exception of a poorly-illuminated basement or attic, where polite folk, on the whole, tend not to go).
To be fair, pigeonholing occurs with other ‘oeuvres’: crime, romance, thrillers. But, unless I’m seriously mistaken, the handcuffs seem tightest on horror.
Having, in the latter stages of a PhD, founded this website (horla.org) as a hobby in support of storywriters with an interest in horror and supernatural fiction, I found myself paying greater attention to authors whose work was primarily in this genre. Frequently, this meant figures from the past, such as M.R. James, Arthur Machen (left), J.S. Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood and – as already mentioned – Daphne du Maurier. Among contemporary writers, the likes of Stephen King (of course), Clive Barker and the screenwriter John Carpenter were names known to me. Stephen Volk, Ramsey Campbell, Alison Littlewood and more have come onto my radar in the ‘second wave’ of this exploration of mine.
Volk probably remains best known for Ghostwatch, a drama (or ‘mockumentary’, as it has been called) that aired on BBC TV in 1992. I’ve yet to see it (possibly I was working or out of the country at the time of its original broadcast). Volk’s work in fiction and his commentaries on the horror genre have seen him come to be regarded by many as one of the senior British figures in his field (possibly the most senior). My awareness of him came not through the review columns of the ‘broadsheet’ press or through scanning the shelves of any public library, but via a reference to his background that I came upon by chance: he’s originally from an area of South Wales where I have family ties. Having made contact with him, he very civilly agreed to a Q and A with this website (the interview can be found here). He was also kind enough to read and react positively to one of my books, Keyhole. Lucky for me, perhaps! His views in one of his books, Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings on Terror, have – I believe – been described as sometimes ‘astringent’.
Anyway, that, for the purpose of what follows, is disclosure of our past connections.
As luck would have it, I’d been re-reading Poe only a few days before Volk’s latest book, Under a Raven’s Wing (PS Publishing), arrived through my letterbox.
This 384-page hardback brings together under one cover seven (longer form) stories by him. Six were published in a variety of anthologies between 2011 and 2018. The seventh – and final – story in the volume makes its debut. Volk is pictured on the volume’s dust jacket (left). (In passing, I’ll quickly mention that if any genre has eye-catching books then it is surely that of horror. This is another impressive-looking volume.)
Discussion of a book’s contents in an article such as this is a balancing act. For the purpose of an overview, I would say this (and some might want to ‘look away’ here): if you believe Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore aged 40 in 1849 (mystery has long surrounded his demise), prepare to think again. Further, if you’ve ever wondered how Sherlock Holmes (Volk has long been intrigued by Arthur Conan Doyle) might have learned his craft as the world’s greatest detective – a ‘skill set’ surely not easily acquired – then open your mind to the possibility that he might have done so at the knee of a great Parisian detective – a certain C. Auguste Dupin, referenced in Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. Finally, contemplate the possibility that Dupin might in fact be the alias of a certain undead American writer who created a new life for himself in the French capital… and the relevance of Volk’s title, Under a Raven’s Wing, might begin to become clear.
I knew – in advance – very little about this book.
I can be somewhat hesitant about contemporary writers attempting period fiction. In an introduction to this volume, Charles Prepolec, an authority on the Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, suggests such reservations are – in general – not without justification. Prepolec alludes to ‘thousands’ of new Sherlock Holmes stories by ‘hundreds’ of writers, often sadly proving to be ‘empty, flat, formula fiction’.
When it comes to period fiction / ‘historical novels’, the cookie can crumble in different ways, of course. Umberto Eco’s 1980 The Name of The Rose (left) has sold 50 million copies and became a much-watched film. Meanwhile, the reputation of Norman Mailer was seriously dented by his Egypt-set Ancient Evenings (1982), often described as Mailer’s worst novel.
Then there can be the familiarity of the settings and storylines: conspiracies at court, wrongful detention in Victorian asylums, Ripper-like killings.
Yet, good writing, whatever the genre and historical setting of a story, can, of course, change everything, even when it comes to well-visited tropes.
This piece of mine is headed ‘I am reading’ because my exploration of Volk’s book is ongoing. I have read the first and last stories and am now ‘into’ the fiction that lies between.
(Continued next column)
My opinion, of what I have read thus far, is that Volk seems to have delivered a masterclass in how fiction of this kind should be written: stories of striking ingenuity, whose turns have at times taken me by surprise in a very satisfying way.
Sometimes a storywriter can be competent in the matter of structure or plot, but lacking when it comes to language. Volk, however, conjures images that, even if unsettling, tragic, or downright macabre, have a haunting beauty. A poor, young flower-seller entering the perilous mudbanks of the Seine in pursuit of a blown-away parasol gifted her by a stranger, being one – very sad – gem. A near-giantess of a child-killer walking in her chains in a moonlit prison exercise yard, being another (very different but) lasting image. I could list more…
Volk’s descriptions seem to me pretty much always ‘on the money’ and, at times, are poetic: a woman’s face is said to have ‘the patchy skin of a russet apple’; fresh rain ‘speckles’ the shoulders of a coat worn by Holmes; the physical state of the elderly and ailing Poe is said to be one of ‘drifting on the broken raft’ of his ‘corpse-to-be’.
So, how does Volk get things so right, where others seem to fail? Well, for starters – wisely, I think, for the form of the short story – he seems to know to avoid windy descriptions of land and cityscapes, adjusting the reader’s telescope to much tighter foregrounds, such as the basement of the Paris morgue. When longer descriptions (of, say, a property or rooms) are used they are deployed in a way that more often than not seems precise yet pleasingly ‘atmospheric’. Take this account of a chamber in an apartment in the French capital:
‘… a Louis XI room so packed with all manner of artefacts (once my eyes had accustomed themselves to the gloom) it had all the semblance of a fusty and abandoned museum. A museum of clocks was my first impression: pendulums from the Black Forest; cuckoo clocks from Switzerland; automated clocks from America, all blending to a whispering, clacking, clicking chorus of ticks and tocks. But there were other denizens in the shadows. Vast collections of pinned butterflies hung like oils. Not one human skeleton, but several. Stuffed birds of extravagant plumage. I reached out to touch a macaw—quickly to realise, as its beak nipped my finger, it was not stuffed at all. To my greater astonishment, it spoke.’
The above – by the way – is a description given by the young Holmes, coming in the opening story, ‘The Comfort of the Seine’, in which we witness Holmes not as the outwardly cold machine of later life (as we perhaps think of him) but in a very human form: the young man even weeps.
From what I have read, Volk’s stories have momentum. When, say, a shift of scene occurs, it is not for any sidebar or digression, but to move the story on. Where a certain slowing occurs in the final story, ‘The Mercy of the Night’, those who read it will, I suspect, agree that it is in keeping with the subject matter: Poe’s final days (albeit – even then – there is urgency: the story being bookended with anxious passages from the pen of Inspector Lestrade, and a final one from Holmes).
When it comes to dialogue, Volk is clever: giving us neither the seeming unending monologues that can at times be heavy going in some Victorian and Edwardian-era literature, nor forcing on us the ‘cod’ period English that can be encountered in inferior contemporary writing. Volk is far too smart a writer to get mired in any of that. His characters’ exchanges are unlaboured and to the point.
As I suggested earlier with my comment about surprises, mystery is very much present in these pages. In ‘The Mercy of the Night’, for example, the reader is made to wonder about the meaning of a seeming code that a priest carries in his Bible from the cell of a murderess. And who is the mysterious priest? Is he even a proper priest? I was keen to know the answers. And Volk answered in ways I had not foreseen. A book with Holmes and Poe as its principals simply must deliver in matters of enigma and solution (or risk all manner of darts from fans of both). From what I have read thus far, Volk does indeed deliver.
Features of Volk’s writing that add plausibility to the events are his references to the science of the era – the Marsh and the Schonbein (forensic) tests, for example; likewise, mentions of grim establishments such as the floating morgue at Lyons. Having myself written about some quite recently, I found an account by Volk of poisonous fungi to be interesting (and used cleverly by the author), likewise an account of a cave system in Kentucky; the aforementioned all working in a way (authoritative without being overbearing) that enhances the credibility of the underlying narrative.
As far as technique is concerned, Volk demonstrates skill in his use of perspective and tense, and he handles narrative presented in the form of letters and entries in journals with great confidence and ability.
One touch I liked was his use of something akin to cinematic zoom, the narrative in his opening story flying, like the bolt of a crossbow, to a clock located in a hall. Not any old clock but a Mathieu Lejeune ‘white marble and gilded bronze, flanked by two dolphins and sur-topp’d with a lyre’. Its striking of the hour (the eleventh) – momentum, again – serves to speed Volk’s story in a compelling way.
Who – I have found myself wondering – does Volk – in terms of his writing in this volume – remind me of? Although I’m familiar with a number of stories by Conan Doyle and Poe (while being no expert in either), I feel that the answer is neither of them. For one thing, and let me whisper it quietly, Volk’s writing to my eye and ear is much more accessible than that of his Baltimore man.
I should stress that I don’t have the sense that Volk’s work is imitative. My sense is that these are stories by a capable writer ‘doing his own thing’. My reaction: that I’m not reading a writer who’s actively seeking to replicate – in slavish fashion – Poe or Holmes (as presented by Watson / Conan Doyle).
But I do find myself thinking – in a complimentary way – of Henry James (left) and the likes of his novella Daisy Miller. Volk, I seem to remember, is an admirer of the Jack Clayton film The Innocents – James’ story The Turn of the Screw. So, maybe my instinct is not misplaced.
All of which brings me back to my opening… about the snootiness with which writers of horror can sometimes be viewed. As far as I’m concerned, Volk’s writing in the pages that I’ve read is of a very high – indeed admirable – standard. And if it isn’t literary fiction in the eyes of those who judge these things, then I’d like them to explain to me what is.
I plan to go on reading this book. I’m pleased to say that several stories await me.
Matthew G. Rees (left) explored the influence of mentally-held imagery on the writing of short fiction in a PhD at the University of Swansea, Wales. He founded Horla in 2018 as a website for writers of short stories. His books include Keyhole, a collection of stories – with photographs by him – set in Wales and its borderlands, leaning to the liminal and supernatural, and Smoke House & Other Stories. More at www.matthewgrees.com