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 are you reading now?
Stephen: I’m reading My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. (A new spin on Lolita in the age of #metoo.) It’s a spellbinding and gripping read. Before that I read The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the new story collection by the incredible Mariana Enriquez.
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: Where can we find you?
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!
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?
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.