Hello, and Happy Halloween to all the readers of Meghan’s House of Books. Yup, its that time of year again, where Meghan allows me to come here and do a thing. So, I thought I’d have you all sit around the campfire and offer a bit of a short history lesson. Some of you might already know all this, but some might not. Here goes…
Any writer worth his salt is also a historian of the genre they write in. In an effort to understand how the genre works, what makes our writing that suitable for that genre, what the rules were from the outset and how they’ve changed and developed over time. We search with a rabid knowledge-lust to find out exactly where we came from, in a similar way someone might research their familial history.
Horror isn’t any different, especially in a world where the genre is constantly being divided into categories and sub-categories. We go back to move forward, discover where our cues came from and how we can best serve what we’re doing ourselves. By their own admission, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell would scarcely have been the same writers if not for HP Lovecraft, MR James, and writers of their ilk. So, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on where I think horror came from, how it developed and who were the main players in its development. Be warned, there’s some left field ideas in here, but its all about the discussion. Disagreement is allowed in any debate.
Where to begin?
Well, I would arguably go back to written works like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and other ancient texts which document mythologies and spoken histories. Are they horror? Well, yes and no. My view is that there are elements of horror in all of them, alongside a heavy dose of fantasy. I would posit the notion that the earliest overt writers of horror did likely look to writings like these, if not those writing specifically, and take some inspiration from some of the stories told there. Remember, this is about finding the primordial ooze which gave rise to horror, and I think this is most likely where it’s to be found. Some of the imagery in these texts is pure horror, and we still use those images today.
Homer’s Illiad is, to my mind, the first real horror story. Like the ancient texts I referenced above, it is as much fantasy as horror, but I find the two genres are inextricably linked in many ways. There are many horrific moments in that work, and many tropes we still see in horror today. There are meek and mild maidens who rise to be badass warriors, there are evil antagonists who creep you out and make you want to see them die in messy ways, and sometimes Homer shows you those deaths. For an ancient Greek philosopher, Homer was definitely a hell of a horror writer.
Taking his cue from Homer, I would cite Dante Aleghieri. The Divine Comedy, and particularly the Inferno section, is truly overt horror. It gives us a view of Hell, and one man’s trip through the seven levels of it. If we have to look hard to find horror DNA in the ancient texts I described, or in Homer, we certainly don’t with Dante. There is beauty in the horrific, and Dante revels in its description. Is he the first true horror master, the grandfather and architect of it all? Well, I’ll leave that for you guys to debate.
Goethe is another one from a little later than Dante. His Faust poem has given rise to the term “faustian,” which is a trope often used in horror. Clive Barker is a great proponent of the faustian pact trope, where a protagonist accepts a gift or an offer, only to be confronted with unforeseen and often horrific consequences. In Goethe’s Faust, the title character makes a pact with Mephistopholes, or Mephisto in some translations, and finds he has actually sold his soul to the devil himself. Is this horror? I’d say so.
Another early writer who often saw beauty in the horrific is William Blake. Alongside his paintings, Blake was a polymath who certainly delved into the darker literary arts. His work is often cited by horror writers as an inspiration.
Which brings us to, quite likely, the more familiar architects. I’ve skimmed through several hundred years of history here, highlighting writers who shaped the future of what would become horror. When we hit the 19th century though, we see a massive shift in sensibilities and matters which suddenly become acceptable to write about. Horror, the supernatural and erotic are no longer the things of taboo they once were, particularly in Britain, where horror and science fiction seem to take root first and strongest.
Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley are perhaps the first real horror writers we would think of from this period. Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde, which has all the hallmarks of horror and science fiction. There is a psychological element to both, as we witness a descent into madness for the main characters in both those works. For me though, it’s Mary Shelley who truly broke the boundaries and addressed what horror would become later. It’s Shelley who confronted the idea that mankind may really be the monsters. I would ask, is Prometheus really the monster in Frankenstein, or is it the doctor who creates and abandons him? This is the question which horror writers wrangle a lot of the time, whether the monsters in their tales are archetypes for the worst of human traits, or whether mankind truly is portrayed as the monster for their treatment of anything they consider other. For me, Mary Shelley was the true risk taker of this generation, and her work certainly pushed the boundaries of taboo like few others dared.
Moving on to Bram Stoker, and the later 19th century writers. Stoker wrote Dracula, and we know what that one book gave rise to. It’s a franchise before anyone knew what such a thing was. Another taboo breaker, which gave us horror with a hint of the erotic. He provided another element to throw into the primordial ooze of the horror blueprint. I would also cite Lair of the White Worm too, which has elements of Lovecraft’s weird fiction before such a term was ever coined.
Writers which may seem like left field choices here would be Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. Although their work is not, in the strictest sense of the word, horror, there are certainly elements to be found in their stories. Hounds of the Baskervilles certainly leans heavily into our world, and Dickens was a great writer of ghost stories which he often incorporated into his studies of life in Victorian London. Both are more than worthy of deeper investigation.
In the early to mid-20th century, horror still continued to burgeon. It was, however, branching out from the gothic sensibilities of the previous decades. Writers like HG Wells and Aldous Huxley were writing with a far more futuristic vision, imagining new worlds and visitations from warrior races from other planets. Some would call their writings science fiction, but there is certainly horror in there too. Tell me The War of the Worlds or Brave New World are not both works of horror. Shirley Jackson and MR James flew the flag for gothic horror and ghost at this time. Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a staple which entertained and inspired for generations to come, while MR James’ short ghost stories are a staple diet for many modern writers trying to learn and hone the craft of creating atmosphere. But, the real trailblazer of this time was HP Lovecraft. Totally unappreciated at the time, Lovecraft’s contributions and importance didn’t gain popularity until the 60’s and 70’s, but his ideas have been the springboard for a good many writers since. He’s more than just the Cthulu mythos though. His ghost stories, tales of rats in the walls, and other gothic style stories are absolutely as important as the Old Ones stories.
All of these writers, in some way or another, have shaped horror in the last century. Without each of them, or some combination of them, we would not have had Ramsey Campbell, Robert Bloch, James Herbert, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and the other horror masters who have rightly taken their place in the pantheon in the years since. Horror writers like me look back on these creators in awe of their inspiration, their vision, their bravery to explore ideas which were certainly counter to societal conventions and often considered dangerous or immoral. Without that bravery, none of us would be here.
So, I raise a toast to all of those who went before. All any of us who write can hope for is that we honour their legacy, and keep the flames of their creations alive for the generations to come.
Boo-graphy: Paul Flewitt is a horror and dark fantasy writer from Sheffield, UK, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Paul began publishing in 2012, beginning with the flash fiction story, Smoke, for OzHorrorCon’s Book of the Tribes anthology. He went on to pen further short stories, including Paradise Park, Climbing Out, Apartment 16c and Always Beneath.
In 2012, he also published his first novel, Poor Jeffrey, which was received to much critical acclaim.
Paul continues to write, contributing to Matt Shaw’s The Many Deaths of Edgar Allan Poe anthology in 2020 with The Last Horror of Dear Eddie. He also began releasing free short stories and fanfiction on his Wattpad account for fun.
When Stephen and I discussed what he wanted to do in this year’s Halloween Extravaganza, he told me that he was impressed with an interview I had done of a fellow author, a serious one. How can I deny someone who is impressed by one of my interviews, right? After some back and forth, and my suggestion of doing both, he agreed. So here, first, is the serious interview. Ladies and gentlemen, Stephen Volk.
Meghan: Hey, Stephen. Welcome to Meghan’s House of Books. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Stephen: My name is Stephen Volk. In spite of a name that sounds German, I’m Welsh. I’m a BAFTA winning screenwriter best known for writing the so-called “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch which was transmitted by the BBC on Halloween night 1992. Astonished that thirty years later people still talk about it! I’ve also been creator and lead writer of two TV shows (Afterlife and Midwinter of the Spirit), have written lots of other screenplays and television scripts, as well as dozens of short stories and novellas, and a few stage plays. Mostly, but not all, in the horror genre.
Meghan: What are five things most people don’t know about you?
Stephen: I have a cat named Asbo. I was once at a party with Jack Nicholson. I grew up in the same town as Tom Jones. My house was built in 1692. I hate jazz.
Meghan: What is the first book you remember reading?
Stephen: A large illustrated book of The Pied Piper, when I was about four. I don’t remember if it was the poem or just the basic tale. The illustrations were magnificently terrifying, complementing the innate horror of the story. Its impact sank deep. I later wrote a story related to The Pied Piper, called “Best in the Business”. I’d also one day like to tell it in a film, set post-US Civil War, in the style of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter.
Meghan: What’s a book you really enjoyed that others wouldn’t expect you to have liked?
Stephen: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. It’s a novel about nurses working during the flu epidemic in Dublin in 1918. It has no genre element whatsoever, but I will read anything by the author of the brilliant Room. She is such a great writer.
Meghan: What made you decide you want to write? When did you begin writing?
Stephen: I started drawing before I started writing. My granddad, who ran a pub, used to give me shiny squares of paper and I would hide under the table and draw on them – continuous images, as if each square was a comic book panel. I think I started writing proper in my early teens. My cousin and I were both mad keen on books and films, so for our fifteenth birthdays our mutual grandmother bought us each a typewriter. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever had. It was like receiving a travel ticket to anywhere you can imagine.
Meghan: Do you have a special place you like to write?
Stephen: I write at home, in my study, at my desk – smallest room in my house. I didn’t get a lap top until recently so if I wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be working (unless I took a notebook with me). It’s not a monk’s cell exactly, but most of my stuff is produced in that room, with a window over the garden and the cat whining in the background.
Meghan: Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?
Stephen: No, I have no superstitions. I know all the smart advice about getting started: get writing as soon as your ass hits the chair, etc. I can give them, but I rarely obey them. As far as process goes, I have to know roughly what I’m going to do before I start. Ramsey Campbell says, always start knowing the sentence you will write. That’s pretty good advice. In general, I plan a lot. Obviously in screenplays it’s a requirement, but even in short stories, for me, there will be several pages of scribbles figuring out whether the thing is worth doing, and sometimes that goes in a drawer till it is. I don’t know if it’s a quirk, but I love the feeling of typing THE END or FADE OUT. That moment is what you live for – the story exists! But always, about half an hour later or even ten seconds later you wonder if it’s complete shit.
Meghan: Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?
Stephen: Yes, most of writing is challenging! I would definitely say getting notes, be it from an editor, script editor or producer. You can’t reject them all and usually you can’t address them all, so there is a give and take. Negotiating that in order to make this nebulous thing called “the story” better is really complex and only comes from experience. I still find it enormously difficult, but everything needs work, and you are a fool if you don’t listen to feedback.
Meghan: What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve written so far?
Stephen: I’m not ducking the question, but it’s literally the last thing I finished. Both generally and specifically. I think you almost have to feel that. Yesterday I finished a kind of monster story/mythic fantasy short story that has been bugging me for ages – possibly all my life. I had ideas but I didn’t know what to do with them. Only by getting them on paper did I arrive at what I wanted to say, or rather, what I wanted to explore. And the story did that. The story throws back at you what it needs to be. I’m really glad that happened, so I’m on a little bit of a high that I pulled it off.
Meghan: What books have most inspired you? Who are some authors that have inspired your writing style?
Stephen: Oh, too many to mention! Sometimes it is very clear. My recent book Under a Raven’s Wing, in which a young Sherlock Holmes is educated in his art by Poe’s master detective C. Auguste Dupin, is very obviously inspired by my love of Poe and Conan Doyle. It might sound funny, but sometimes I get the voice of a story by imagining it written by someone else – when I wrote my story “Sicko” I wondered how Joyce Carol Oates would write it. For “White Butterflies” it was Cormac McCarthy. “The Airport Gorilla” needed to be a bit more loose and poetic, so I channelled the wordplay of Dylan Thomas a little bit. Another story came alive when I thought of it being told by Alan Bennett. Sometimes you unlock how to do it that way.
Meghan: What do you think makes a good story?
Stephen: Honesty. Telling it from the heart. Making opposites clash, or making the story the opposite of what it seems: I often say my “horror” stories are about love. Nail the theme – what it is about underneath – but don’t be dictatorial. Let the reader fill in the gaps. The wonderful director Billy Wilder said if you give the audience two plus two and they make five, they will love you forever.
Meghan: What does it take for you to love a character? How do you utilize that when creating your characters?
Stephen: Truthfulness. I hate the boring Hollywood note that a character isn’t “likeable”. It usually means they don’t feel real. And the whole process of making them lovable makes them more boring. Make them interesting in the way real people you know are interesting and complex and compelling and unknowable and contradictory. Mine your own life for detail and authenticity. Observe. Be curious. Above all, give them a flaw. The flaw, the wound is everything. The wound is where the light gets in.
Meghan: Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?
Stephen: Dr Robert Bridge, possibly, the psychology lecturer character played by Andrew Lincoln in my TV series Afterlife. He is a rational man and thinks logically, it is his job to think things out, put them in their place (like a writer) but he is faced with a person – Alison Mundy, a spirit medium who is entirely instinct – and he fears that, fears letting himself go to emotional upheaval.
Meghan: Are you turned off by a bad cover? To what degree were you involved in creating your book covers?
Stephen: Oh, listen, I trained as a graphic designer before I became an advertising copywriter. I am a design junkie. I love book design, illustration, typography, just as much as what is inside the covers, and it literally makes me squirm when I have to buy a book with a terrible cover because I love the author. I almost will not do it. I’d rather buy a book with a terrific cover that I never read. It’s not my place to be involved in designing book covers for my own books – though I feel I could, at a push, but they wouldn’t be really excellent. One of the reasons I love doing the meticulous small-run books that PS Publishing create is that I know Pedro Marques will design mine, and he is an absolute genius. Opening the box when I receive then is always mind- blowingly thrilling.
Meghan: What have you learned throughout the process of creating your books?
Stephen: After working for thirty years writing for film and TV, that I have learned a few things about storytelling. Most of all, that I like to be in the position, now, where I get input, but at the end of the day, what I say goes. The book is mine and nobody else’s, for good or ill. I’m tired of taking the flak for other people’s mistakes in my career.
Meghan: What has been the hardest scene for you to write so far?
Stephen: I don’t find scenes that are emotional or that cut deep difficult, even death scenes – death scenes are very gratifying, actually, because you get to be with someone dying but nobody actually dies – you can rehearse it, over and over, in the way that horror is perhaps rehearsing death over and over in a way, or what it feels to be hurt, or to lose your identity. All these things aren’t hard – they are exciting. You just have to be honest with yourself and go there till you get it. The hard scenes are where you get stupid notes to address and you can’t solve the problem, or something isn’t working – those are the killer. And sometimes later on you go: “Oh course, that’s how you do it – what’s the problem?” But at the time you felt like killing yourself or handing the money back. “Here! Take it! I’m not a writer anymore! Leave me alone!”
Meghan: What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?
Stephen: Speaking for books and scripts and plays all together? I have no idea. Maybe they’re not in “the genre” in terms of mainstream at all. PS is a very select and exclusive edition type publisher and I’m fine with that. They don’t turn around and ask for a shark on the cover, or a bleeding skull. If I started to wonder where I sat in the genre I think I’d go mad. I have tried to figure out what the genre means to me over many years. I wrote think pieces in Andy Cox’s Black Static magazine which were compiled in Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings on Terror. So that’s the nearest you’ll get to me analysing myself or my writing.
Meghan: How important is the book title, how hard is it to choose the best one, and how did you choose yours (of course, with no spoilers)?
Stephen: There’s sometimes a clever story about a title and sometimes there isn’t. It often just pops out of the air – as Under a Raven’s Wing did, the idea of mentoring and Poe in one neat phrase. I tried it out on my wife and she said: “Yeah. Obvious.” (Ha! I wish “obvious” ideas came that easily more often!) Many times, with me, the title of a story comes at the early stages – it is sort of part of the overall package of the idea that is what turns me on. That’s why when someone wants to change the title (as they always do, in films, without fail) my heart plummets. I wrote a screenplay called The Interpretation of Ghosts (which I loved) but they changed it to The Awakening. Don’t ask me why!
Meghan: What makes you feel more fulfilled: Writing a novel or writing a short story?
Stephen: I have only written a novel or two (the Gothic film novelisation of Netherwood; and a couple of unpublished ones), but I will answer in terms of writing a short piece as opposed to a big piece such as a film screenplay. Basically, I think a short story has immediate gratification – you can write it in weeks, if not days, sometimes, and there it is: done. A screenplay or novel will takes months at best and sometimes several years. So the two are very different beasts to handle in terms of control, focus and stamina. Your love for a novel or screenplay will have peaks and troughs, depending on collaborators. With a short story you may have no collaborators at all. You are left to your own instinct and skill, and that can be a huge liberatio. At the moment I am into short stories and novellas, but that might be a passing preference, depending what comes up next as the pandemic lifts.
Meghan: Tell us a little bit about your books, your target audience, and what you would like readers to take away from your stories.
Stephen: I’ll shift a little and talk about my next short story collection, coming out in March 2022 from PS Publishing, which will be called Lies of Tenderness. What I’d like readers to get from this wide range of tales in many different settings is that we are all given choices between empathy and selfishness at various points in our lives, and how we react to that situation and those pressures is what forms us. I’ve spelled it out in a way I would never want to, really. But that’s what I want “horror stories” to achieve – to take you to a place you think one thing will happen, and it’s actually another. You were perhaps expecting a sharp shock like the genre habitually delivers, and it’s not. It’s something else.
Meghan: Can you tell us about some of the deleted scenes/stuff that got left out of your work?
Stephen: Again thinking of Lies of Tenderness, I left out one story – which was actually fully on-theme – but was a period piece that didn’t fit the flow of the book. I’m sure it will find its way into a future book, though. In the latest story I’ve written, three characters enter the story halfway through, they rapidly get killed, and I just cut those four pages out – it made a huge difference. I always say crossing out is just as important as word count!
Meghan: What is in your “trunk”?
Stephen: I have several things are are half-baked because they are not ready – it is best to put them aside and come back to them when the penny has dropped. Of course sometimes the penny never drops! But that is part of the game. I have numerous film projects that have never comes to fruition which makes me sad, because some of them are far more interesting than movies I have had produced. For one we had Michael Caine, Danny DeVito, and Kristin Scott Thomas all signed up, but still couldn’t get the finance. It’s quite baffling. Which is why you have to get the pleasure from the actual writing, if you can. I also have a massive novel written in archaic language which nobody will touch. I don’t know about bottom drawers, I think I have a whole warehouse full of these things!
Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?
Stephen: Lies of Tenderness will be out n March 2022. I have a couple of TV series in development, and a couple of feature films with producers. Very excited about all of them, but I really can’t give specific details as the business is fickle at the best of times and what seems like a slam-dunk can turn into a dead duck. As ever I will split between screen work and books. I actually want a stretch of clear blue water in front of me to see what will happen.
Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say?
Stephen: Thank you for reading this far and thank you for reading or watching my work. By the way, if you read something (or watch something), try to reach out and let the writer know about it. Don’t imagine they will be too busy to hear some words of praise. Some people might be, but most of us all have dark nights of the soul and your words could mean a lot to that person at that point. It is a tough old business, writing for a living, and in some cases, those moments of contact and support are all that keeps us going! Thank you!
In 1870s Paris, long before meeting his Dr Watson, the young man who will one day become the world’s greatest detective finds himself plunged into a mystery that will change his life forever.
A brilliant man—C. Auguste Dupin—steps from the shadows. Destined to become his mentor. Soon to introduce him to a world of ghastly crime and seemingly inexplicable horrors.
The spectral tormentor that is being called, in hushed tones, The Phantom of the Opera . . . The sinister old man who visits corpses in the Paris morgue . . . An incarcerated lunatic who insists she is visited by creatures from the Moon . . . A hunchback discovered in the bell tower of Notre Dame . . . And—perhaps most shocking of all—the awful secret Dupin himself hides from the world. Tales of Mystery, Imagination, and Terror
Investigated in the company of the darkest master of all.
The Dark Master’s Trilogy — Whitstable – 1971. Peter Cushing, grief-stricken over the loss of his wife and soul-mate, is walking along a beach near his home. A little boy approaches him, taking him to be the famous vampire-hunter Van Helsing from the Hammer films, begs for his expert help…
Leytonstone – 1906. Young Alfred Hitchcock is taken by his father to visit the local police station. There he suddenly finds himself, inexplicably, locked up for a crime he knows nothing about – the catalyst for a series of events that will scar, and create, the world’s leading Master of Terror…
Netherwood – 1947. Best-selling black magic novelist Dennis Wheatley finds himself summoned mysteriously to the aid of Aleister Crowley – mystic, reprobate, The Great Beast 666, and dubbed by the press ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ – to help combat a force of genuine evil…
The Little Gift — The nocturnal scampering invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.
The Parts We Play — An illusionist preparing his latest, most audacious trick… A movie fan hiding from a totalitarian regime… A pop singer created with the perfect ingredients for stardom… A folklorist determined to catch a supernatural entity on tape… A dead child appearing to her mother in the middle of a supermarket aisle… A man who breaks the ultimate taboo—but does that make him a monster?
In this rich and varied collection of Stephen Volk’s best fiction to date, characters seek to be the people they need to be, jostled by hope, fears, responsibility, fate, and their own inner demons—and desires. These tales of the lies and lives we live and the pasts we can’t forget include the British Fantasy Award-winning novella, Newspaper Heart.