And now, for a little bit of fun…
Meghan: Hey Stephen! Welcome… back? Hahaha. What is your favorite part of Halloween?
Stephen: 1) My grandsons having fun!
2) The movies!……. It is the one day of the year when TV puts out horror movies or shows about horror movies. And it is the one night of the year when people who don’t like scary things like to be scared, And – see – that’s when we GET them! Heh heh heh!
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?
Stephen: Telling ghost stories by candle light. Except nobody does it any more. Our campfire tales are usually told in front of the latest wide screen plasma screen. And told by cinematographic storytellers. But there is nothing quite like the old tradition of HEARING a ghost story to truly chill the blood. The images you conjure up in your head are far worse than any CGI can deliver!
Meghan: If Halloween is your favorite holiday (or even second favorite holiday), why?
Stephen: I like ANY holiday because it means the phone won’t ring and I can get on with writing without being disturbed!
Meghan: What are you superstitious about?
Stephen: I’m not superstitious in the conventional sense, but I have a desk full of talismanic objects… A statuette of Peter Cushing, Poe and Alfred Hitchcock, skull money boxes, monster toys etc…
But generally I believe in “paying back” – so if I get paid for a screenplay, I like to spend money on a work of art. Be it a small print of £50 or a bigger piece of artwork I have fallen in love with – or indeed an expensive or lavish book. I love the visual arts – painting, etching, etc – lots of my friends are artists and you can pick up an original work of art rather than a mass produced print and feel you are supporting the artist. I like that! I also like to share all sorts of weird images on my twitter feed or Facebook timeline – they are great inspiration for stories!
Meghan: What/who is your favorite horror monster or villain?
Stephen: It would have to be Frankenstein’s creature. It isn’t just frightening it has a lot of tragedy and pathos – it was rejected by its father, so it wasn’t born bad, it was made bad by being treated badly. I love that as a metaphor for life. Maybe there is a story to be written where Viktor Frankenstein was a good daddy? That would be interesting.
Meghan: Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?
Stephen: The Jack the Ripper murders of Whitechapel in 1888, of course. I don’t think we will ever get to the bottom of the mystery. Not anymore, so long after the primary evidence has decayed and the witnesses and investigators are all dead. All the theories overlap and the territory is too muddy. My own theory is that “London” or specifically the East End was the murderer. There was no single killer of the canonical five. And the person who wrote the “Dear Boss” letter was an enterprising reporter called Tom Bulling. In fact, I wrote a TV script about him, and the creation of the first tabloid true crime story. Bulling “created” the myth of Jack the Ripper, I think. (I was always fascinated that Inspector Abberline was alive long enough to have watched Hitchcock’s “Ripper” film The Lodger in a movie house!)
Meghan: Which urban legend scares you the most?
Stephen: The phantom hitchhiker, probably. It’s very easy to hallucinate a figure at the side of the road but it turns out it’s only a signpost or tree, but the idea of a hitchhiker being a ghost sitting next to you is terrifying. We’re terribly vulnerable in our cars at night. I tried to dramatise this is a script I wrote called Octane (called Pulse in the USA) starring Madeline Stowe and Norman Reedus. It was about vampires who prey on people in car crashes at night. It was a cool idea but the movie didn’t quite work.
Meghan: Who is your favorite serial killer and why?
Stephen: I don’t find serial killers interesting or charismatic. In real life they are boring, odious non-entities. I think we have to grow up and face the fact that they aren’t comic book monsters let alone “heroes” – they are human beings who have gone badly wrong. And we can’t spot them in a crowd because they look like you and me. In my stories about people who do terrible things I always want there to be shadings of gray. Maybe a terrible person does something for a good reason, or a good person is forced to do something awful. That is much more interesting to me than a Freddy or a Jason.
Meghan: How old were you when you saw your first horror movie? How old were you when you read your first horror book?
Stephen: First horror movie was on TV and it was a black and white one called The City of the Dead. It was a British film, I think, but set in the USA, full of men in monks’ cowls and streets swathed in fog – it was terrific! There is one particular image that stayed with me ever since, and that was a man staggering through the fog holding a life sized cross from the graveyard to ward off the evil ones – who I think burst into flames! That, to me, was almost the equal of the iconic scene in Hammer’s Dracula where Van Helsing leaps up and pulls down the curtains letting in the sunlight that shrivels Dracula to a crisp – then holds the two candle sticks in the form of a crucifix to finish him off! Wonderful stuff!
First horror book was a magazine – FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine! I used to save up my pocket money and go to the local newsagent and buy it. The photographs were like nothing I’d ever seen. And of course long before I was old enough to see any of the movies themselves – which were “X” certificate in Britain – ADULTS ONLY! That’s how I got to know Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, way before I saw the films.
Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?
Stephen: Possibly Dracula at a young age – it sort of felt real because it was in diary form. Like the equivalent of a “found footage” movie today. You plunge into the immersive world and it doesn’t let go. When you are young you don’t understand the graphically sexual imagery – it is just the force of predatory evil and strangeness that is all-consuming.
Meghan: Which horror movie scarred you for life?
Stephen: Without doubt, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It’s my number one film of all time because when the ending happened (I was sitting in a movie house all alone on a wet Wednesday afternoon) I thought I’d lost my mind. I thought the reels must have been switched. I didn’t get it, then it all made sense. Then there was that marvellous montage of all the hints that had told you what was going on all along. It’s a true cinematic masterpiece, and I will watch it over and over till the day I die. Purely from the craft point of view there is so much to learn from the storytelling and the depth of character.
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween costume?
Stephen: I have a skinhead skullcap with a massive rubber Mohawk sticking up. I like it because my dad wore it one time and it looked hilarious so it reminds me of him. And, since I’m bald, it is kind of perverse to wear a bald skull cap on top of a bald head! But hey, that’s how I roll!
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween-themed song?
Stephen: Gotta be “The Monster Mash”. I can’t think of any other. And now I’ve got it playing in my head, damn you!
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween candy or treat? What is your most disappointing?
Stephen: Nothing. I’ll eat anything. If you were a chocolate bar, I’d eat you.
Meghan: Stephen, thanks again for joining us today. Not for one interview, but TWO. Before you go, what are your favorite Halloween movies?
#1 Halloween – the original and the best!!
#2 Ghostwatch (I wrote it – so, sorry!)
But for Halloween night, I’d always recommend these superlative cinematic treats:
#3 The Innocents
#4 The Haunting (black and white version)
#5 The Woman in Black (British TV version)
#6 Herzog‘s Nosferatu
#7 Dreyer‘s Vampyr
#10 The Devil’s Backbone
Thanks for the interview. To sign off here is George, my grandson, carving pumpkins and looking super chilled:
STEPHEN VOLK is best known as the writer of the BBC’s notorious “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch and the award-winning ITV drama series Afterlife. His other film and television screenplays include The Awakening (2011), starring Rebecca Hall, and Gothic, starring the late Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. He is a BAFTA Award winner, Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and the author of three collections: Dark Corners, Monsters in the Heart (which won the British Fantasy Award), and The Parts We Play. The Dark Masters Trilogy comprises of three stories (Whitstable, Leytonstone, and “Netherwood”) using Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock, and Dennis Wheatley as fictional characters, with a guest appearance by the occultist Aleister Crowley. His provocative non-fiction is collected in Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings on Terror (PS Publishing, 2019) and his most recent book, also from PS Publishing, is Under a Raven’s Wing – grotesque and baffling mysteries investigated by Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s master detective Dupin in 1870s Paris.
Under a Raven’s Wing —
The Apprenticeship of Sherlock Holmes
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.
What time is it?
Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings on Terror —
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.