Horla: Why do people – well, quite a lot of us – enjoy horror stories?
Stephen Volk: That is something I have pondered a lot in my thirty-plus years of toiling (or toying) in this nebulous genre we call “Horror” (I use cap ‘H’ to be distinct from the emotion). I think the answer is complex. That’s why I have a whole book, in a way, trying to answer the question (Coffinmaker’s Blues, from Electric Dreamhouse / PS Publishing, comprising 60+ articles I wrote across over a decade for the magazine Black Static).
Putting the pros and cons of violence in art to one side, I think the key word is fear. I think most people who respond to (and relate to) Horror are of a fearful temperament. I think the wider public’s idea that Horror aficionados are more sadistic or more perverted than normal people couldn’t be further from the truth. Horror writers and fans are, by and large, lovely, sensitive, socially-aware people – they are, mostly, more fearful than most. And they get satisfaction from seeing that anxiety-based view of the world reflected in the stories they read and watch.
Hitchcock, for instance, was once asked “Mr Hitchcock, you’re the master of terror, but what terrifies you?” Hitchcock said: “Everything!” I feel exactly the same. I’m terrified by everything! I enjoy and need stories that terrify, safely, when you can shut the book or switch off the film, because I am terrified of facing terror in real life.
It’s been said that the short story is the best medium for horror because horror belongs to a moment. What’s your thinking on that?
When you say a “moment” I suppose you mean the kind of story that delivers a short, sharp shock? Of course that’s completely valid, but I find myself increasingly bored by that kind of short story. They often leave me wanting more. I am weary of reading a story where somebody, or somebody and his girlfriend, arrive somewhere, usually on holiday, something weird happens, and that’s it. Unless there I something else going on, I’m not that interested. I suppose I’m looking for the reason for something to be horror. Shock alone is a pretty paltry motivation.
There’s more real horror in a story like Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close To Home” than many stories published under the Horror banner, because it’s about people, and the people are realistic and the circumstance truthful. Maybe that is what I look for these days. The revelation that a husband isn’t the person you thought they are is heartbreaking and unforgettable, but maybe not “Horror.” I don’t know. I don’t really care how people define it, or how they label my work, actually. That’s their business.
I think short form horror is easier, though, than trying to maintain suspension of disbelief in a long form narrative like a novel or feature film. It is far easier for a reader or viewer to question the narrative as it develops, for instance finding the character’s actions or reactions unrealistic, as opposed to a short story where you get in then get out. Much of my work is structuring how much to show and how much to keep up my sleeve. Show too much and you might blow it. Keep too much hidden you risk boredom. So it’s tricky.
Mind you, I love short stories when they deliver, and some I’d say are perfection. Dickens’s “The Signal Man” is one, as well as Doyle’s “Playing with Fire.”. “The Monkey’s Paw” is another. There are many contemporary short story writers I absolutely revere, like Nathan Ballingrud, Conrad Williams, Joyce Carol Oates, and Mariana Enriquez, whose story “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt” (Things We Lost In the Fire, left) is one of my favourite tales of all time. These examples give me a shiver just to think of them.
Picking up on your mention of Raymond Carver. Dominic Kildare wrote something on our site a while back suggesting Carver might be seen as a writer of horror. ‘Viewfinder’ and ‘Are These Actual Miles?’ are stories he cited. ‘Fat’ – as an unsettling story – is another that comes to mind.
Given that we’re talking about Carver (and therefore a figure associated with what tends to be referred to as literary fiction), do you ever feel that authors writing in the genre of ‘horror’ – be that the supernatural, the uncanny, the paranormal, or whatever sub-species – perhaps suffer from being boxed off and not given the hearing they ought to have?
In his introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story,Professor Philip Hensher writes: ‘It is perhaps no accident that the dullest short stories I read from the last fifteen years were winners of competitions: a lot of the most interesting short stories, on the other hand, were science fiction, fantasy and horror.’
I think Hensher is commenting on the narrowness of the sort of writing that is taught by Creative Writing courses, and, in turn, submitted to, and designed for, literary competitions.
I might actually put it the other way around – that the stories I respond to as great stories tend to have an aspect which, to me, puts then in the broad envelope of Horror. For instance, many of the films I like in any given year, I’d say, have “Horror” in them in some from, be it in the war story Kajaki, about men trapped in a minefield, or Foxcatcher (both based on true stories).
The former is an intense, terrifying suspense piece worthy of Hitchcock, the latter a gothic story complete with mysterious aristocrat, family secrets, big house, madness, etc. Similarly, I read a book of stories by Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) called The Pier Falls, and the title story, as well as several others, verge on Horror, for me. So it is one’s personal definition, in a way.
And so many of the classics feature horror, don’t they? In characters and situations – from axe murders in Dostoyevsky to repugnant grotesques in Dickens. Hardy, of course, was fascinated by folklore. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre just wouldn’t be the same novel without her use of the sinister and the dramatic.
A gothic classic, I’d say.
I suppose it could be said that the shock factor has always been with us in the novel (which in its early forms was seen in so-called ‘polite society’ as something scandalous and disreputable).
Indeed. Gothic novels and “Penny Dreadfuls” were always said to corrupt. In the same way, Hammer films were seen as deplorable and sick on first release, if you read the contemporary reviews. It is interesting that now they are so tame as to be quite comfortably shown to a family audience. King Kong, the original and best, is regularly show in the afternoon! So over time, the outrageous becomes assimilated.
There’s certainly horror in the likes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Orwell’s Animal Farm, yet neither would be classed as ‘horror novels’. To go back to your earlier reference to it, horror is a pretty ‘nebulous’ term, for sure.
I don’t particularly like it, but we are stuck with it. Any other term doesn’t really encompass the breadth, either – be it “fantastique” or “gothic” or “new gothic” or “uncanny fiction” – perhaps because of its very wide parameters, especially today, it’s almost impossible to have an effective label. So generally we writers just suck it up.
In passing, we daresay that writers ‘tagged’ by other genres are probably just as ambivalent about this business of labelling. We’re thinking here of frequent references to Daphne du Maurier ‘the romantic novelist’ – never mind ‘The Birds’ , ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Apple Tree’ and her many other dark stories.
Yes, and there is always rather annoying talk of an author “transcending their genre” which is totally condescending when you think about it. Does Barbara Vine “transcend” crime fiction because she happens to be very good at it? I rather like Stephen Gallagher on this business. When writers or publicists rather grandly talk of a book “widening the definition” of the Horror genre, he tends to remind them that the genre has been doing pretty well, thank you very much!
Having said that, though I’m happy to be called a Horror writer, I never say every story I write is “Horror,” because it might not be. I’m aware that the labelling might put off a wider readership: but where is the readership of short stories anyway? Not in the general public, according to publishers. Short stories are the life blood of the small press, and the genre presses at that.
I do agree that certain excellent short story writers suffer from a snobbery about Horror – but Horror is almost certainly the most valid or sane way of commenting on the world at present.
In the horror genre, is there a story that really presses your buttons? Why so?
Ralph Robert Moore’s “Even the Cops Didn’t Make Jokes” – I think because it leaves a gap the reader has to fill in. It doesn’t give you the answers at all, and yet it seems a perfectly “real” depiction of events – a bit like a Carver story. But actually, in its ability to wrong-foot you, and haunt you by what it leaves out, more like Robert Aickman.
If you force me to give another example I’d say “Small Animals” by Alison Moore. A minimal story that packs a heck of a punch, again because of what it doesn’t say more than what it does. That kind of writing is a great inspiration to me. I often, these days, ask myself: “What is the least I can do to make this Horror?” Because it is easy go weird or over the top. Harder to rein that impulse in, and get under the skin.
Same question in terms of a novel
Too many to mention!. Hundreds! To restrict myself to recent reads, though, I loved Nicholas Royle’s translation of Vincent de Swarte’s Pharricide – very Poe-esque – and Priya Sharma’s Ormeshadow, for different reasons.
A book that I always return to and always rewards me is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. As you know, I wrote about the genesis of the story from Mary’s point of view in my screenplay Gothic, which was directed in 1986 by Ken Russell. I just find Frankenstein enormously rich territory in terms of Horror, SF, and myth. It’s an enduring cultural icon because it offers so much depth and so many interpretations,
What I love is that Mary melded her inner feelings about the death of a child and the arrogance of manhood with the current (sic) scientific theories about electricity, the threat to religion, and ideas about Man replacing God. Man replacing Woman, actually! Everything around her went into this melting pot which became Frankenstein and it has persisted for two hundred years as an astonishing, vibrant legacy to a teenage girl’s incredible imagination.
Again, too many to think of! I’ll say a few that spring to mind, but there’s no way I can summarise a lifetime of TV watching or have a choice of one! I’ve enjoyed The Sinner (Netflix) as it centres on an interesting, conflicted or ambiguous character in each series rather than simply the cop. To my mind, crime is far too complex a subject to simply boil down to right and wrong, which TV does far too often. Given my gothic (Gothic) proclivities, it won’t be vastly surprising that I loved Penny Dreadful.
I almost feel the makers must have said: “Stephen, this is for you!” because it resurrected all the things I love about the old Hammer horror films, my absolute lodestone in terms of influences when I was growing up. I liked Ripper Street too, especially when it moved from the BBC to streaming, and seemed to shrug off a straight jacket. The final episode in particular was magnificent.
For the supernatural, one of my favourite shows was HBO’s sideshow period piece Carnivale – a marvellous dust bowl epic of Biblical proportions. Fantastic, and cancelled, sadly, far too soon after two seasons.
The Australian series The End (Sky) is also amazingly brilliant, with pin sharp writing (a masterclass in fact) – one of my favourite recent watches, about a woman working in palliative care who starts knocking off people. In its mixture of comedy, tragedy, and moral complexity, it reminded me of Six Feet Under, one of my favourite series of all time, and it’s interesting to see a similar use of “ghosts” to represent conscience and memory in the Israeli series Shtisel, a wonderful family saga on Netflix I’d highly recommend to anyone.
And cinema film?
Again, I can only restrict myself to recent raves. The Lighthouse was an amazingly visceral tragi-comic allegory with tremendous performances. Willem Dafoe just made me grin throughout its duration. Vivarium was a great movie, a kind of Black Mirror / Truman Show type piece that was truly disturbing, and, luckily, didn’t explain itself into oblivion (the curse of Us).
Australian directors seem to be flying high at the moment. I adored The True History of the Kelly Gang (with another knockout performance by George McKay after 1917) ; Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is breathtakingly brutal and affecting, and Judy and Punch a brilliant, feminist retelling of the puppet show story in a fantasy historical setting. Another film that has had a deep effect lately is Horse Girl. What I love is that it starts as one sort of film then gradually turns into another. I didn’t see that coming, and it was very satisfying, if alarming.
I haven’t even attempted to give my favourite films, but again, if you forced me on pain of death, I would have to say Don’t Look Now is number one, always, depicting as it does the absurdity of the human condition wavering between scepticism and belief, with The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s version of Henry James’s immortal ghost story about the persistence of the past, “The Turn of the Screw,” running a close second.
We’re certainly with you on some of those choices. Deborah Kerr is brilliant in The Innocents. Henry James could be so effective in the field of the cruel and the ghostly. And there’s just something about lighthouses, isn’t there?
Picking up on what you’ve said about TV dramas, we notice that your choices are from subscription channels. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Any comments though on what’s going on – or possibly isn’t – at free-to-air channels.
Some of us are old enough to remember the Seventies and Eighties: the likes of Tales of the Unexpected, Thriller and Armchair Thriller on ITV, West Country Tales and Salem’s Lot on the BBC, not to mention various adaptations of works by M.R. James and Thomas Hardy.
It’s true we tend to get something ghostly on our screens at Christmas and, of course, we had the Gatiss-Moffat Dracula earlier this year on BBC1. Shearsmith and Pemberton’s Inside No 9 should be mentioned too. But do you sense that horror / the supernatural isn’t the presence it was on our free-to-air channels? Given the popularity that series such as Tales of the Unexpected had, why has the presence of this kind of material seemingly waned on our free-to-air stations? Any prospect of this being reversed?
Or are our imaginings of a heyday all illusion and rose-tinted spectacles?
Yes. Rose tinted. Very much so. (I could certainly cite a few terrestrial favourites, by the way. I was going to include The Fall, an excellent BBC2 serial killer series by Alan Cubitt, set in Northern Ireland, with a fantastic authorial tone.) But no, I don’t feel the sense of a past Golden Age – or, at least, I think we are living through a present-day Golden Age of TV drama the equal of any previously.
The standard of writing is better than ever, and has departed entirely from the set-bound affliction of TV “plays” of the Play for Today era (much as I am a fan of Dennis Potter et al) and become more imaginative and cinematic (note my comment about “ghosts” above) and the narratives far more challenging, in some cases (e.g. The Leftovers, The O.A., for just two) – though, I admit, bemoan the loss of the hour-long single drama slot.
Yes, I could have rhapsodised about those old BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, of course, they were extremely formative influences, but that has all been said, and I don’t like the idea of doing M.R. James’s work on TV ad nauseam. There are other authors out there, for Pete’s sake; Aickman, Machen, Doyle, Campbell, equally good in the field of the weird, if not better for dramatic adaptation. The country is knee deep is excellent supernatural stories!
Television commissioning, though, is annoyingly myopic and risk-averse. I was asked to work on a modern reboot of Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected but the broadcaster turned the idea down as something not recognisable enough as a name or “I.P.”. Astonishing, really.
May we jump in there? To clarify: it’s your understanding they felt Roald Dahl’s name and the Tales of the Unexpected ‘brand’ weren’t big enough to cut through with the viewing public? Is that what they were saying?? (double question mark to express our astonishment / sadness).
And while we’re butting in, we’ll mention that the story we perhaps most often hear in general discourse about weird tales is Dahl’s ‘Royal Jelly’, filmed for that series, starring Timothy West.
It wasn’t a recognisable title to cut through, as they say, and stand out in the schedules. God knows how they work out that, as everybody recognises the name, if you ask me. But once they express these opinions, that is it. You don’t get a chance to cross-examine. To be honest, the one I would mostly want to retell would be ‘William and Mary,’ I think. Some – like ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ were perfection, but I wouldn’t know how to re-do them.
Anthologies are horrendously hard to get off the ground. Impossible, in fact. Nobody wants them in the UK. You may as well save your breath.
The Number 9 guys get away with it – as did Black Mirror – because they are commissioned by Comedy, not Drama. Why, is anybody’s guess. Maybe, as Chris Petit once said, “All genre becomes comedy in the end.”
We agree that some writers have become over-relied on. The adaptation of M.R. James’s ‘Martin’s Close’ by Mark Gatiss for last year’s BBC’s Christmas ghost story slot seemed a case in point. James’s place ‘in the canon’ is assured. But the story isn’t one of his strongest and, given the wealth of writing that exists out there, we wondered why the film was made. Adam Sweeting felt the same in a review at theartsdesk.com/tv/martins-close-bbc-four-review-where-did-scary-bits-go
What can I say? I wondered too.
We take and agree with your point about there being horror in TV dramas like The Fall but we remain of the mind that there could be more supernatural, uncanny material, call it what you will – I think we broadly know what we mean – on our screens, from our free-to-air broadcasters, particularly: drama of a more atmospheric kind, that has a dose of uncertainty and less reliance on procedure and settings that have perhaps become rather familiar.
We felt Welsh cop drama Hinterland (BBC) pulled this off well at times. Occasionally one also comes across a brilliantly acted classic, such as J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (again BBC, doing the rounds as a re-run on the Drama channel). Such viewing can leave one wanting more.
Well, I always want more supernatural drama! There are imports like Supernatural and Buffy that seem to last for season after season. We seem to have a lack of commissioning drive to make supernatural fare here. I don’t know why, because the bedrock of our land is ghosts and that is eminently exportable, you’d think. There was a good ghost story on the BBC called Remember Me with Michael Palin, which relied on atmosphere. It was directed by Ashley Pearce, who directed a couple of episodes of my paranormal TV series for ITV, Afterlife. He is very good.
But I know for a fact that the BBC sees supernatural fare as a “niche” audience. I know because they have told me to my face. They do one a year, half out of obligation, half out of pity. But they have no faith or belief in the fact that well-made scary drama will have a wide appeal. It stems from the same innate prejudice that makes the literary highbrow look down at Horror fiction as a poor and rather embarrassing cousin.
You’ve been in the game a long time…
Thanks, though it doesn’t feel it! It still feels like beginner slopes to me. I seem to have gone from “new discovery” to “veteran” without ever stopping at “rising star” or “flavour of the month”!
Survival often implies evolution. Has horror as a literary genre changed since you were starting out? Why and how has it changed? Can you give some examples of how your writing has changed?
When I was starting to write screenplays seriously in the eighties, there were no Horror films being made in the UK. Not till Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, and then he buggered off to America! Gothic was seen as neither fish nor fowl – too literary for Horror fans, and too Horror for the Merchant Ivory audience. I gravitated to writing films for the US studios because nobody was interested in Horror here. It’s still very much a cottage industry, I think.
In terms of film evolution generally over the last few decades, to me, Horror has taken a forked path around the time of The Mummy and Van Helsing. One path is mainstream “adventure horror” that intends to entertain, not disturb. Jump scares and gore are part of the promise.
The other path, generally in the independent sector, leads to more off-beat films that are subtle and more character-based (“elevated Horror” is the phrase producers use: meaning not just fodder for the gore-hounds). In the latter camp I’d say Mike Flanagan’s Absentia and Oculus, but, funnily enough his Dr Sleep, for me, sits in the first category. Wounds is another film that dares to be subtle and genuinely disturbing rather than a bog-standard ghost train ride. The productions of Blumhouse vary. Get Out is somewhere in the middle – mainstream, but subversive.
How my own writing has changed is difficult for me to say. I guess nowadays I tend to avoid the tried and tested clichés I might once have dived into with abandon, opting for a swift career move. Exorcism, zombies, slashers, torture porn, don’t really interest me. What puts me off exorcism in particular is that it really is a psychiatric ailment and I feel we Horror merchants might be guilty of perpetuating a very dangerous untruth if we are not careful. People are being abused and murdered because people think they are possessed or witches. Look at that twitter footage of a mentally ill person on the New York subway with people calling her a demon. We need to be cognisant and responsible about these things in the real world when we put pen to paper.
I think if I’ve changed as a writer over the years, that responsibility to choose a subject that means something has become paramount. As Joe Lansdale recently said: “If I don’t care, I’m lying.” I’m not prepared to lie in my writing any more.
In terms of subject matter and writing style, what advice would you give to a writer starting out today seeking to make his / her mark? What, above all, do they need get to right?
Do not wait to find your voice. Start writing. Even start imitating! Your own voice will emerge. I think I’m only just beginning to find my voice, and I’m doing that partly by discovering what I say “No” to. The ideas that come and you reject, and the things you decide to dedicate your time to. As Robert de Niro once said: “Talent is in the choices.”
The other thing is, be aware of the market, learn about the market, but write from the heart. Not what you think the market wants, because what you think it wants is already two years out of date. Choose the thing to write about that you are compelled to write, and only you CAN write. That way your story will never be out of date, and never be less than unique. And if it doesn’t sell, it will open doors.
The final thing is persistence. When I met my first and only agent, I had six scripts already written, and lots of ideas. And I’ll always remember what she said. “I can see you are in this for the long haul.” So be serious about your writing as a long term career, because if you aren’t, nobody else will be. And work hard. It’s mysterious, the harder you work, the more opportunities open up. It’s true. The only way to fail is to quit.
Lastly, enjoy each story for what it is – 120 pages of script or 50 pages of a novella that didn’t exist six weeks ago, characters that now exist in the world outside your head. That’s exciting, and nobody can take that pleasure away, and, however shittily you might be treated by the process along the way to fruition, it never gets old.
Following up on that generally, how do you know in your own mind the best medium / form to put to work an idea that you have? Does your mind have a method where you say to yourself ‘This is a short story and that is a script for a tv drama or a movie’?
Or is there always a certain adaptability? (i.e. ‘I’ll write this as a story / novella, but I can see it has potential in other directions.’) Is it ever the case that you think of one of your own stories or the stories of another as being best left in print form because that’s where they’re at their strongest? (There’s a line from Mick Jagger somewhere about the impossibility of filming the writing of Arthur Machen.)
I usually start to write believing a project is one thing not another – often that it CAN’T BE another – but sometimes I am proven wrong. I wrote a short story ‘Little h’ that became a screenplay and then a novella (‘Leytonstone’). I’ve just written another screenplay based on a short story of mine, Bless, which I’m really excited about, and which was very exciting to write. In both cases the original story struck me as a starting off point for something bigger. I’ve written a screenplay which, years later, I turned into a play.
Nothing is wasted. Different forms tell you different things about the story and characters; that is what’s interesting. The solving of problems reveals different possibilities. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to me it might work in another medium, then it does.
We can’t conduct this interview without reference to the state we’re in. Which means Covid. None of us knows exactly how all this is going to end. But, from where we are now, how do you think it’s going to affect what we write? Must all of our writing be seen through its prism? Can we go on writing about a non-Covid world?
And what’s your sense – in this strange era we’ve entered – of what the public wants to read and wants to watch?
I have no idea, and if anyone says they do they’re a fool! I never ask myself that question ever, anyway, other than unconsciously. David Bowie said if you start to ask yourself what the audience wants to hear, you are dead!
I said in March that I had no intention of writing anything about the current pandemic any time soon. It was far too real and far too raw. Having said that, I have written two short stories and two novelettes since then, and the two novelettes and one of the stories are definitely reflections on the feelings surrounding the pandemic – though none of them are set at this time, or during these circumstances.
Are appetites the same as previously or have they shifted? Do they expect to read about characters who wear masks and gloves, and see actors doing the same on TV and cinema screens? Or is that a point we’ve yet to reach? (Sorry about the glut of questions!)
I’m not interested in watching that, frankly, and I’m not interested in writing it. Everybody else can write that if they want, but to me fiction isn’t reporting the facts like a journalist by staring out of the window and writing it down. It is using things like poetic imagery and metaphor to convey the feelings at a far deeper level. Reportage of the facts can be completely arid. It’s a writer’s job to put their experiences through the sieve of their moral and emotional sensitivities to touch the heart and soul of the reader or viewer.
To make my point: My mother died in April of Covid, so my fiction is going to be affected by that. There will be no “new normal” for me. But I have written a story of a little boy during The Black Death, not a 93 year old lady in a nursing home.
Is there a project – there may be several, but we’ll stick with one! – that throughout your career you’ve always wanted to work on and get ‘out there’ but which, for one reason or another, has foundered or stalled? Can you tell us what that endeavour has been / is, why it hasn’t ‘got over the line’, and whether you still have hopes for it?
The Glamour by Christopher Priest was a project I always wanted to adapt but only got as far as writing a treatment, and I wrote an adaptation of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham as a feature film that was never made. Most cherished of all, I wrote a spec screenplay in 1984 called Telepathy about two twins involved in an experiment ESP during the Russian space race. I have always really loved it, and it has gone through countless iterations over the years. More recently I got the rights back and the director attached to it now is my friend Lesley Manning, who directed Ghostwatch, and is incredibly committed to seeing it made. I have every faith that she will do it brlliantly, so it is a question of the long, winding road of finance and casting. Now called Extrasensory, it is one that I really do not want to see gathering dust for the coming decades. It’s very close to my heart.
What can we expect next – and when – from Stephen Volk?
I have a multi-author book out from PS publishing soon, called Studio of Screams, which comprises of four novellas by myself, Tim Lebbon, Mark Morris and Christopher Golden, based on seldom-seen horror films made by Blythewood Productions in the sixties and seventies. I have another book, Under A Raven’s Wing, coming out early next year – the title of which may give you a clue as to who one of the major characters might be. That one has been several years in the writing but I’m thrilled. And I have a TV series – a bold, transgressive reboot of Jekyll & Hyde – in development, as well as a couple of film and TV projects co-created with my good mate Tim Lebbon. As well as lots of other irons in the fire, as always! The most exciting idea always being… The Next One!