Interview: Stephen Volk

Stephen Volk may still be best remembered by screen genre fans for his scripting of the infamous Ghostwatch programme, but he is a prolific writer in many fields. His new story collection, Monsters in the Heart (Gray Friar Press) was available at World Fantasy Convention at the end of October, and a new play The Latin Master was due to receive a premiere at the Bush Theatre in London on October 30. In the summer two very different pieces were released: his contribution to the Hammer Chillers line, Don’t Go There; and the novella Whitstable, featuring Peter Cushing. He spoke with Paul Simpson about the two projects – and the business of horror…

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 Don’t Go There seems to be the first audio that you’ve written…

Hammer Chillers is the first audio drama I’ve written, although I worked in an advertising agency for about ten years, and during that time I did work on quite a few radio commercials. I enjoyed the discipline of radio when I’ve done it, but I haven’t done a drama before now. I took to it, really.

Hammer ChillersWhat I love about radio is that you can do anything; you don’t have the expense because you just visualise it in your mind. That has to be the challenge of radio – not to do something that you can quite happily do as a half hour play on TV, but something which works in the listeners’ imagination.

I remember a thing that was on American radio in the 1950s: someone doing live commentary about helicopters dropping an enormous cherry on a vast, building sized pot of jelly. That was the most absurd sort of surreal picture but with sound effects and words, the image was conjured up. The amount of work you would have to go to to do that visually would be absurd, but you can do it with a few clever effects and the right words. That really appeals to me, in the same way that it appeals to me in theatre, where all you’ve got maybe is two actors and not much set. Actors engaging with the audience can do many different things. I particularly liked the fact that in my audio drama I had a beheading which comes across quite well because you visualise it far more gruesomely than it could possibly be if you saw it.

I knew I could play with that. I already had this idea based vaguely on the Gorgon legend, which seemed to have a Hammer connection in my brain but was a modern idea. So when Simon Barnard approached me about doing a Hammer Chiller, I thought that would fit.

Did you watch the Hammer House of Horror TV series when it was on?

Yes – I’m not sure I saw all of them but I loved those anthology shows like Journey to the Unknown. I think that was my favourite. I wasn’t so keen when they turned it into Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, although I think there were individual good stories across all those kinds of series from that era.

It’s a shame that nobody really wants to conceive of an anthology series in this country now. Mick Garris, I know, has done a few  in America: Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, that kind of thing. I say Mick Garris because I’m working with him on a feature at the moment. Here, it’s very difficult to persuade people that an anthology will get an audience but I have been trying to persuade them for about twenty-five years that they should bite the bullet and do it.

GhostsWe did have a brief go at an anthology series in the mid-1990s for the BBC which I worked on called Ghosts. I always said if you’re going to do this kind of thing you need to do at least twelve or ideally twenty-four so that people know that it’s there. Six individual stories are going to be forgotten in two months’ time. With a longer run, you keep doing them – some will work, and some won’t. But they didn’t really understand the logic of that.

People might be happy to do a set of pilots…

But that’s very different from an anthology series. A pilot is more about answering the question whether something has legs for a series – but you wouldn’t ask that question of anything in Tales of the Unexpected. It’s just a very different beast, I think.

I loved the idea of doing the radio piece because I was brought up on Hammer, and more than anything else Hammer Films got me into horror and that whole fantasy universe. That period from the late Sixties to early Seventies is one I absolutely fell in love with, and I don’t think I’ve ever fallen out of love with it. Just the name Hammer  and being associated with it was very important.

It was a good experience.

dontYours is the longest of the six in the first season…

I don’t know why that was. I wrote it about thirty-five pages which might be a bit long but because it was a download, I don’t think Simon was that bothered; it didn’t have to fit a radio slot so it naturally came to the length it did. I don’t know what I would have cut because I was cutting it as I was writing it to get it as short as possible. I think if Simon had said this really has to be twenty-five minutes, no longer, then I’d have to rethink the whole story and tell it in a different way.

I like the long scene in the middle between the guy and the psychiatrist, for instance, which is about four minutes long: I love that little two-hander in the middle of the story, because I think there are important beats in it. I think cutting it down, in this particular case, would lose some of the tone of it. It would boil down to quite a straightforward story if it was trimmed too much.

Of course I didn’t know when I sat down to writing it that it would come to that length but I knew what kind of atmosphere and what kind of characters I wanted to write. Luckily in the end Simon didn’t want to cut it, and gave me some notes which were really little tweaks.  They weren’t about cutting, more about style.

1990Did you ever consider you might be going too far and going beyond the Hammer “style”?

I had the picture in my mind, and I thought it had the Hammer style. I thought the idea of the father figure in opposition to the hedonistic lifestyle of their son really was an echo of a lot of what Hammer did in the Sixties. The hedonism of the Sixties was emblemised by vampires and Christopher Lee; it was always the old guard – the Peter Cushings and the father figures – who were trying to hang on to respectability, authority, in the face of these invaders. That for me was very much Hammer in the Sixties. That’s why I continued that thread of the father figure threatened by a sexually active force, the complicated mechanisms that are threatening him. If this was a film that was made maybe twenty years ago, the father would have been Edward Woodward.

That was only part of it, though. I didn’t want to write it as a pastiche of Hammer. I certainly didn’t want to poke fun at Hammer. I just was conscious of that tradition. Because it’s very clear what that tradition is, I could forget it: I knew that was in my DNA, so to speak. I didn’t have to work at it to make that happen; it was intuitive what that vibe might be, but also I wanted to tell a story that was my story. I didn’t want to censor the story I wanted to tell and make it something it wasn’t. I was happy that it became both: the story I wanted to tell but also it had a flavour of Hammer.

Were you writing this before you wrote Whitstable?

I wrote Whitstable two or three years ago and kept it on the stocks, really because I realised I wanted it to come out ideally to coincide with Peter Cushing’s centenary. I bit the bullet and said I wanted it to come out in 2013 even if I have to wait a year and a half. I approached one publisher, but they said they couldn’t do it until 2014 although they really wanted to do it. But I said I really wanted it to come out in 2013 for obvious reasons. So then I went to Simon at Spectral and that fitted with his plans. I think I wrote the Hammer Chiller in summer 2012.

Whitstable(frontcover)How much did you go back in and rewatch the Cushing films before writing Whitstable?

It might be easier for me to tell you how it came about – it was one of those rare instances where the whole idea came to me in one go: the idea of Peter Cushing at that time of his life being approached by the boy who thinks he’s Van Helsing and can help with a  vampire. I woke up with that idea and mentioned it to my wife, who said, “But it’s not a vampire is it?” I thought, “no it isn’t”, and that made it a much more interesting story. That was one of the most important decisions I made.

I think people are starting to think now that it was written as a tribute to Peter Cushing, almost like I was trying to get a book out for the centenary, and I thought, what story can I tell about Peter Cushing? That wasn’t the case at all. It just happened I had this idea about two years ago, wrote it, and then thought it would be crazy not to coincide it with the centenary, as an act of thanks to him, and a way of paying tribute to what he’s meant to me over the years.

Then as we got nearer to the centenary, things started falling into place, which was lovely – someone coincidentally was setting up a Whitstable festival, Googled Whitstable authors, and found me and my book and said “Would you like to come to Whitstable and launch it in September?” I said September wasn’t really right for it, it should be May, and she said to leave it with her. It turned out, with very little effort on me or the publishers’ part, that we had a book launch in Whitstable of Whitstable at Whitstable museum. It was lovely because there were lots of people – local people and invited guests. It was kind of blessed in that way. Things fell into place really nicely.

In terms of how much research I had to do into Peter Cushing, because I’d seen the films, and the interviews with him, I had a feel as to how I was going to write it, but I knew immediately that I couldn’t write it as I felt he might be. I had to know a bunch of stuff that a lot of other people knew about him. So I read lots of books on Hammer and the making of Hammer films and crucially I read the two books of autobiography that Peter Cushing wrote which strangely sometimes were not as revealing as the books that other people write about him.

CushingIt’s a case of gathering all the pieces of information that hopefully give the book a feeling of authenticity. But research is only as useful as it is to the theme and the telling of your story. Even though it’s a third person narrative, it’s really told from Peter Cushing’s point of view and what’s going through his mind. If I didn’t genuinely think that he might be thinking that at that time – or at least, my Peter Cushing rather than the Peter Cushing would – then it wouldn’t go in. It’s like when they found out that after Clyde Barrow robbed banks, he used to sit and play the tuba – they couldn’t use that in the film. It’s such a bizarre fact but was it right for the story that they’re telling? Just because something’s a fact doesn’t mean it’s useful or right for your story. You have to be aware of things that might skew your story.

If someone was telling a different story about Peter Cushing, then they’d write that character in a different way. There is no “true” way of depicting Peter Cushing. If you think of the two Hitchcock films that came out recently, the personality of Hitchcock in one was completely different from the personality in the other. They were both purporting to be vaguely factual, yet the portrayals were very different.

I don’t think I gave myself the burden at the beginning to catch any kind of truth because that would be impossible. In fiction, all you can do is try to be convincing and to that end I did get a lot of feedback from people who knew or met Peter Cushing – people who had interviewed him, film critics who really knew his films inside out. I got feedback and notes from those people – very positive but also correcting details that I’m glad I did correct. It needed it to be right as I could possibly get it.

Did you add details in regarding the films during your edit of the piece?

When I decided there was going to be a confrontation in the cinema, it literally went like this: Where are they going to meet? In the cinema, because that’ll be a lovely thing to do. So what’s showing in the cinema? Would it be too much of a push if it was a Peter Cushing film? And I thought, dammit, it has to be. So what film would it be?

the-vampire-lovers-I looked at the release dates of the films, and of course in those days, it wasn’t like now where there’s a release date and the film comes out and then disappears. Films came back and might get another short release. In any case, I was fairly sure that it would be possible for The Vampire Lovers to be showing. Anyone who looks it up and discovers that at the Whitstable Oxford Theatre The Vampire Lovers wasn’t showing is, I think, missing the point.

So I did sit down and watch that again, as it seemed likely it was on. It was made when he was agonising over the imminent death of Helen so it seemed poignant as well. I wanted to watch it for the story structure and the flavour. The more I made notes about that, I realised it was such a fantastic counterpoint to the conversation that was going on, and that became very enjoyable.

That’s one I rewatched and funnily enough, horror writer John Llewellyn Probert recommended Cash on Demand, which is where Peter Cushing plays a bank manager. I’d never seen it, and when I watched it I thought, this very prissy bank manager getting flustered again might be something that Peter Cushing thinks about when he himself is getting flustered. That was a little tweak that I put in.

The other revision that I put in was another film John recommended: Never Take Candy From a Stranger, which Cushing wasn’t in but was a Hammer film about a paedophile enticing young girls into the woods. I thought even though he wasn’t in it, he would have been aware of it and weighing it up when getting a picture of what he was getting involved in.

Vampire Lovers 1It is a stretch, and anybody would be entitled to say that Peter Cushing didn’t spend as much time thinking about the films that he was in as he does in my story. But the whole story is about the difference between real horror and make believe horror. I feel that justifies my Peter Cushing thinking about his work in relation to what it means in the world. The whole story ultimately is about that – why horror is there, and why people need horror.

I’m always surprised by this assumption by people who don’t like horror that horror writers and horror fans have this sadistic streak that makes the films appeal to them. My experience is that by and large, nothing can be further from the truth. I don’t think there’s a harmful bone in the body of most of those people: I wouldn’t want to be friends with those kinds of people.

What I find more generally is that horror writers are fearful, neurotic, very morally concerned about issues in the world, such as harm to victims – the exact opposite of what the general public think of them. I find that really intriguing – and kind of worrying – but it doesn’t make me stop wanting to write about horror. It’s a debate we all have with ourselves: horror is sometimes a debased word. But what’s wrong with calling myself a horror writer?

Author photo by Alex Yallop

Check out our review of Whitstable here

and our review of Don’t Go There

For more details on Stephen Volk’s projects, click here for his website

Click here to order Whitstable from Amazon.co.uk

and here for Hammer Chillers series 1 from Amazon.co.uk

and here for Monsters in the Heart from Gray Friar Press

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