What first attracted you to horror writing?
The first thing was probably the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland with its startling covers and terrible pun-laden prose by Forrest Ackermann, which I used to buy at my local newsagent in South Wales when I was about eleven. I can still remember the stills (and the puns) in that mag. I probably graduated to it from Marvel Classic comics based on famous horror novels like Frankenstein or Moby Dick. Then it was the attraction of those Karloff black and white stills long, long before seeing the actual Karloff film. The allure of forbidden fruit. I think the attraction to Horror was to something larger than life, more imaginative and wild and exciting, not the “kitchen sink” of realism like you saw on TV at the time. As I grew older I became more interested in the supernatural and the psychological aspects of the paranormal as I read more around the subject. Nowadays, I must say, I’m not especially interested in purely horrifying or repulsing or grossing-out the reader or viewer, as such, but I love to create an atmosphere of the uncanny, the off-kilter, the disturbing. It’s a way, to me, of questioning reality and questioning the quick answers we are given about life all through our lives.
I suppose the work I’m probably best known for is my TV drama Ghostwatch which aired on Halloween 1992 in England on the BBC. It caused a huge stir at the time because it pretended to be a live broadcast from a haunted house and some people viewing thought it really was exactly that! And they got scared and not a little angry about it! Questions were raised in Parliament, one of the presenters had to appear on TV the following week to assure viewers she wasn’t dead, some preachers said we’d raise demonic forces, and the programme was cited in the British Journal of Medicine as the first TV show to cause post traumatic stress disorder in children (Which is a badge I wear with pride, as a Horror writer, naturally).
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a short story right this minute for a dark-themed anthology. I’ve just completed a new screenplay, a first collaboration with my great mate Tim Lebbon (a very fine fantasy novelist), called Playtime. We’re very excited how it turned out and we’re going to do it again because it was a blast. I’m working on a new TV series idea for BBCTV and several movie scripts in various stages of development, though the first of those to be released, later this year, will be The Awakening (BBC Films/Canal+/Optimum) a period ghost story starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton. It’s directed by Nick Murphy who made the BAFTA-winning TV mini-series Occupation. It’s his first feature and I can’t wait to see it.
Who do you admire in the horror world?
There’s a cluster of people I admire who keep the British horror-fantasy scene alive: Steve Jones, Pete Crowther, Ramsey Campbell. As contemporary writers I’d mention Tim Lebbon, Conrad Williams, Mark Morris, Adam Nevill. In film, the directors I admire vary depending what I’m writing, but Guillermo Del Toro is always at the top. Michael Mann for Manhunter if nothing else. And Danny Boyle actually directed a pure horror film in 127 Hours, if he but knew it. I find a lot of Horror movies overblown Hollywood-style and I like underplayed Horror that tends to get under one’s skin like the excellent British film Tony, which I saw recently. Far more genuinely chilling than many a fashionably-shot Spanish fright-fest.
Do you prefer all out gore or psychological chills?
Definitely the latter. I think once you see the CGi or rubber mask you’re thinking “I wonder how they did that?” and that brings you out of the moment. It’s the old question about the opening of Night of the Demon: should they have put in the shot of the monster? No. To my mind. What you never see is scarier. Look at Alien. For my taste, one of the most chilling moments was the kitchen doors scene in Sixth Sense – no special effects at all (unless a length of fishing line!). To work on an audience to achieve that effect with the minimum of effort is real skill. Ghostwatch took 45 minutes to set up scary moments that would pay off – pow, pow, pow – in the second half. Hopefully.
Why should people read your work?
I have no idea! Oh gosh. I don’t set out to sell anything or convince anyone of anything – except perhaps the dangers of belief and the frailty of certainty. Even that sounds pompous! Ideas occur, and if you are a writer you simply have to follow them, work it out, see where it goes, see where the water flows. You can’t let it rest. But why someone should take an interest in what I have to say, I couldn’t answer. I know what I try to explore. I know what themes I tend to return to. Really, I can only go by what other people have said about my writing – in prose and on screen – they say generally that there’s an unreal element, be it horror or fantasy, but it’s there to heighten and lift the emotions. It’s the human emotions that matter, in the end. Not the shock value – which is cheap and really rather easy to achieve. Not that I don’t like to shake people up. That’s what storytelling is for. I certainly don’t want to have people feel more secure afterwards. What would be the point of that?
I’ll do that but it might not be a Horror book! Spooner by Pete Dexter is just delightful, and unforgettable. James Lee Burke’s stories in Jesus Out To Sea. All right, and for horror it has to be The Road by Cormac McCarthy – just awe-inspiring in its style and content. For a film, since I’m a screenwriter, I should also mention Never Let Me Go (script by Alex Garland) which was one of my favourite films of last year: science fiction but you’d barely know it. Using a familiar SF trope to create a real world of the uncanny in order to illuminate the way we are now. I like that very much.
For more information on Stephen Volk please visit his official website.