We chatted with the prolific British author and screenwriter.
Interview by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)
For horror fans, the name Stephen Volk will need no introduction. Stephen’s career has been long and varied, producing thoughtful, original and terrifying horror stories across film, television and print; Stephen was, of course, behind the infamous Ghostwatch television movie, and has written several screenplays including Ken Russell’s Gothic and, most recently, The Awakening. But for mainstream audiences the name should also be familiar, with Mr Volk scripting such prime time supernatural television shows as Afterlife (starring a pre-Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln) and last year’s Midwinter of the Spirit. Stephen writes a highly recommended column for the horror magazine Black Static, and has recently published a collection of short stories, The Parts We Play. We spoke to Stephen about his career, the nature of horror and dressing up as clowns for Hallowe’en….
Stephen, thank you so much for agreeing to answer a few questions for The Movie Waffler. What an absolute treat for our readers! From a personal point of view, I am especially thrilled because viewing Ghostwatch, the seminal television film that you created, was my earliest experience of horror and created an excitement which has endured ever since then, bringing me endless joy and influencing so many different aspects of my life. My first question, then, is what was your ‘Road to Damascus’ horror moment? Was there a single event - or film or book - that turned you on to the genre?
One was watching Nigel Kneale’s BBC TV production The Stone Tape one Christmas. What I loved – and it hit me at just the right age – was that here was a TV play about ghosts that had just as much attention to good dialogue, good characters and interesting themes as any social realist drama on the box such as Play for Today. It was a drama for adults, a drama with intelligence: it just happened to be a ghost story and was terrifying! That made me set my ambition to writing in the genre I love, but taking it extremely seriously and championing it as a noble cause.
The other Damascene moment was watching Nicholas Roeg’s magnificent Don’t Look Now in a deserted cinema on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Coventry when I was an art student. The ending came as such a massive shock to me that I literally thought I was going mad. Then, as the montage explained all the images that contributed to the misdirection and the truth (as you’ll know if you’ve seen it), I was so in awe of the cinematic brilliance of the film makers as storytellers – again, the intelligence, artistry, integrity and depth they brought to bear – it revealed to me the heights to which a horror film could soar.”
You grew up in Pontypridd which is just down the road from where I live in Caerphilly. I’ve always felt that in the Welsh valleys there is this prevalent folky interest in ghost stories and spiritualism; there’s usually a medium in the town hall every month or so, and lots of people seem to have a matter of fact account of something unexplained that happened to them or to someone that they know. The supernatural in your work often affects a community or families: is it possible that this formative environment was instrumental in shaping your imagination?
I don’t remember ghost stories as such. I remember my nan on one side being quite a storyteller with the gift of the gab, and my other nan being a strict Baptist type who went to church. She didn’t like it when we watched Star Trek because she believed that the only thing “up there” was heaven, and didn’t like me and my cousin talking about flying saucers and aliens! So I’m not sure if the dark is in my DNA, but the clash between science and superstition is because my dad was a science teacher. My wife, who is from Northern Ireland, says the Welsh are a gloomy bunch – something to do with being surrounded by slag heaps or spending time underground! But there’s something of hellfire preachers and the Tylwyth Teg in the air, maybe – between the Grogs shop and the nearest nail bar.
Funnily enough, I’ve found myself returning to Wales as a setting in my short stories lately. I think it’s under-used in favour of Scotland or Ireland for stories with a mystical undercurrent. I don’t know why: maybe we are labelled as the Land of Song (and Rugby) and anything else would be too confusing. My story Matilda of the Night is based on a Welsh banshee type of creature. Then there’s Wrong, which is set in Pontypridd; and Newspaper Heart – which won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novella – about weird events in the run up to Bonfire Night, 1971, again set specifically in my home town. As a matter of fact, you can read all three of these stories in my new collection, The Parts We Play.
You have worked in both television and film, most recently adapting Midwinter of the Spirit for ITV and working with BBC films for The Awakening. I wonder if you could talk about the difference for writing within these distinct mediums. For the viewer, the experience of telly horror and cinema horror is sometimes like the difference between eating out and eating in: both fulfilling, but the atmosphere is quite different. Interestingly, in Ghostwatch, the medium of television and how we ‘watch’ is integral to the film’s impact (it would be interesting to see it on a cinema screen!); is there a difference in how we ‘receive’ horror from either TV or film? How does this distinction affect how you write?
Well, Ghostwatch could not work as a cinema film – it relies entirely on being seen on TV by a TV audience, so it is rather a specific case. Similarly, I wrote a feature film called Horror Movie for Goldcrest back in the early 1980s – and that would have been very much a cinematic experience that wouldn’t have worked on TV nearly as well. Sadly it was never made. Goldcrest went under the day before principal photography started. Argh!
In general, though, I would say I do not write a TV script any differently than I write a film screenplay other than the obvious point that in TV you have to write to a specific length (and sometimes indicate ad breaks). Other than that a TV script of mine looks exactly like a film script. I certainly don’t regard one as in any way inferior to the other.
There are budget considerations in both and both are collaborative. The only difference I would say is that in television you work on the script with the producer and script editor, and the director only gets involved once the project is green lit – in film, the director is the visionary and the name above the title and is the be-all and end-all as far as the industry is concerned: so the director can easily fire the writer and rewrite them. In TV that is almost unheard-of: the director has to fit the vision of the writer and producer. Beyond that, the method of working on projects is exactly the same.
Big screen or small screen, there are differences of pacing, editing decisions, composition, lighting etc – but that is the realm of the director. I like to think that, coming from an art school background, my scripts are quite cinematic. I always value an image over a line of dialogue and I’m much more interested in using imagery to power the story rather than words. Even in TV. And I’m very influenced by painting and visual art, historical and contemporary.
Sticking with television, horror seems manifest on the small screen. The Walking Dead is unstoppable, Black Mirror is a remix of the creepier aspects of Tales of the Unexpected or even Hammer House of Horror, and there is of course American Horror Story with its mega-arcs (and I know that you have a lot of time for Hannibal, too). Horror cinema, meanwhile, is dominated by the likes of James Wan and his patented ‘jump scare’ ghost stories, which, although a bit samey, seem very popular. What is your take on the horror zeitgeist in 2016? Have you seen anything of late that has especially interested you?
I hate the films with the predictable jump scares (and, believe me, I’ve been made to put them in!) – because they never aspire to do what the very best horror does, and that is to get under your skin, and stay there. I loved the recent British film by Oliver Frampton called The Forgotten, which was beautifully subtle and chilling. The Gift – tremendously powerful, with an immaculate script. I also loved Midnight Special because for most of its running time nothing was shown and it was just a really good, disturbing character piece with loads of atmosphere. I thought Eye in The Sky written by Guy Hibbert, whilst not horror per se, was an amazing suspense thriller worthy of Hitchcock. But to me several mainstream films are horror by the back door – Room was horror, when you think about it. Absolutely a horror scenario, but beautifully realised, with real depth, instead of done with clobbering B-movie nastiness, and because of that, intensely moving. I was talking to novelist Adam Nevill and we both though that some of the most novel and interesting things in “horror” were happening in the mainstream, rather than things that labelled themselves “horror”. At the moment I’m enjoying Ripper Street (the final season) because I think it has finally found its feet as a ghastly, gothic, Victorian, brutal, melodramatic romp. Horror TV is surging forward and breaking more boundaries than movie horror is even trying. No British exec can say with a straight face now that horror, fantasy and SF are a “niche” market, as they did only a couple of years ago.
But in essence I think there’s a schism in horror right now between movies sold as Horror Movies (Young People, Jump Scares, Zombie Make-Up, SFX set-piece roller-coaster rides) and more thoughtful fare (IMO) that use horror in a different way... The Witch, Green Room, Van Diemen’s Land for example – all superb and unique in their individual ways. And that individuality is crucially important, as against the herd mentality of the others, which are all starting to look or feel the same.
Early in your career you worked with two important names in horror cinema: Ken Russell when you wrote Gothic and William Friedkin with The Guardian. I feel that our readers would think it remiss if I did not ask about this part of your career; could you talk a little about your experiences working with two such intriguing, flamboyant and, how can I put it, reputably challenging artists?!
Ken was a sweetie. He never rewrote my script. Just a few inevitable tweaks. Was very enthusiastic. Loved the material going in, said the script was as scary as Alien, immediately wanted to make it. Got going. Knew what he wanted...
Friedkin was none of those things. He inherited the book adaptation from the original director, who was Sam Raimi. Sam and I worked on a draft that was tongue in cheek – scary but funny. Friedkin didn’t do “funny” so it was a page one rewrite. He didn’t trust a single word I’d written so far, but also didn’t know what sort of film he wanted to make, either, so it was a nightmare. I wrote 10, 20 pages a day for three months in Los Angeles and it fried my brain. It drove me insane because nothing was agreed, nothing was focussed, and I’d like to say that all that blood, sweat and tears resulted nevertheless in a fantastic movie, but it didn’t. The Guardian was, I regret, a diabolical mess. But I presume it was what the director wanted to shoot. I know the draft I wrote for Sam Raimi was at least entertaining. But hey, that’s Hollywood!
Even in these earlier films, an insistent feature of your work is the presence of realistically drawn, strong willed women. This representation persists, with my favourite being Lesley Sharp’s Alison in Afterlife who is a fantastically complex character, along with your work adapting Phil Rickman’s novels for Midwinter of the Spirit with its central mother/daughter relationship. What inspires you to write such strong, heroic women?
I don’t know. I just can’t imagine writing weak, simpering, needy women – a) I don’t know any! And b) why would you? Strong women are all around us. And yet there is the historical idea in horror that they will be the Scream Queens and that Handsome Mike will come to the rescue. Sod that. I’ve always felt that is rubbish. I like characters to have strengths and weaknesses, hopefully a lot of both – so the strong have flaws and the seemingly weak have strengths. The parent/child bond is an immensely strong thing, always, so that is a very potent thing to be threatened in a drama. In Midwinter I particularly liked the fact that Merrily Watkins never felt she was up to the job –or the job of saving her daughter’s soul – but she had to be. She had bags of flaws holding her back but she found reserves and strengths within herself. I found that wonderful in the book and it made me want to do it. In a weird way, she did exactly what Alison would have done if Alison was a vicar with a daughter! Alison, after all, offered to die in place of Robert in Afterlife, but the hereafter was having none of it.
Regarding work such as Afterlife and The Awakening, a persistent theme is the fallibility, or even danger, of scepticism; characters like Rebecca Hall’s Florence are defined by a stubborn lack of belief in things ‘beyond the veil’, but she eventually accepts supernature and is rewarded for it. Andrew Lincoln’s Robert fulfils a similar course in Afterlife (and, in contrast, one of the features I loved about Midwinter of the Spirit was Merrily’s positive relationship with her faith - so refreshing). It is an interesting arc: whereas a lot of horror concerns protagonists overwhelming paranormal threat, your characters have to come to terms with it, and draw strength from this acceptance. Is this an accurate reading? Could you elaborate upon your interest in such a trajectory, and do you believe that we just ‘see what we need to’?
First of all I should say I’m a sceptic myself and I don’t believe in the paranormal – though it would be idiotic to say that strange inexplicable things don’t happen to people. However I don’t believe in the Spiritualistic afterlife in any way. I think if we live on, we live on in the memories of our loved ones and in what we leave behind, if we are lucky, and that’s it. The rest is biology.
But in terms of fiction or drama it’s another matter. I love the fictional form of the ghost story because it can do so many things. It can take characters on a journey of discovery, through loss, grief, revenge, tragedy. It can amplify all sorts of human situations and dilemmas (as I tried to do in Afterlife), but the key thing is my stories are about the people who see the ghosts, not the ghosts themselves. In other words, the ghosts tend to represent some flaw in the character, some unresolved business that has to be tended to. And sometimes with that comes revelation and sometimes destruction. In The Awakening the climax is the revelation of Florence’s past, which she has locked away and she has denied to herself, so it’s a sort of release (hopefully) from living a lie. In Afterlife the arc is different – at the very end, Alison can cope from now on because she has had someone who cared about her deeply as a person, which she never had before. Robert helped heal her damaged soul and she helped him to be reunited with his son in the afterlife. Each story is different. I don’t set out with a neat idea of what it is going to convey, positive or negative. The unknown can be terrifying or blissful. That’s why it’s called the unknown!
Even as far back as Gothic, this idea of the fantastique as a catharsis is evident, and in your work as well as a clear sense of unease and fear, there is also a sense of wonder in the horror; the beautiful moments at the end of Afterlife is a good illustration of what I mean. To my mind there isn’t much of this sort of transcendence in horror at the moment (although I feel that the end of this year’s The Witch is an example of horror that is both disturbing and perversely uplifting). In Black Static you recently discussed the Sarah Pinborough argument that horror ‘has to involve disgust’ and talked about violence in cinema, which you say can be lazy and pernicious. In the stories that you have written, horror has different textures and tones. Could you define what horror means in your work?
I find it difficult to discuss this. I think I can only do so by way of a horror writer I admire, and that’s Nathan Ballingrud, who has written the marvellous introduction to The Parts We Play. We connected soon after I read his excellent book of short stories, North American Lake Monsters, and I’ve written about him in Black Static too. We share the view that writing horror isn’t just about the effect – the scare, the shock, the monster – it’s about the purpose of that effect. What the ghost, the creature, the shadow thing represents in the story to the characters involved. I suppose we both think horror is there to serve a story about characters, not the other way round. Lots of horror writers use the characters to service the plot. But if you have a situation or relationship and then add the, say, supernatural element, and it really makes the situation both resonant and memorable and different and takes it to another level – well, that’s the goal, in a way. I know Nathan’s stories do, brilliantly. So there’s a plug for him. You won’t regret reading them. They’re beautiful, as well as scary.
Speaking of scary, whenever anyone asks me which horror film scared me the most, I always go back to Ghostwatch. I love Ghostwatch - I’ve seen all of the fan-made youtube clips, read your sequel 31/10 (available on your website) and have the 2013 documentary Behind the Curtains. The controversy surrounding the show has been well documented, and various interviews with you have focussed in on Ghostwatch. But is there anything that you haven’t yet been asked about Ghostwatch which you always hoped someone would? Are there any of Pipes secrets left to tell?!
I can tell you my car broke down on the way to the set one night. Three times. I had to call the RAC to jump start me – three times! “Maybe your poltergeist eh, Dr Pascoe?” Heh, heh!
The launch for your new collection The Parts We Play took place earlier this month and it’s on sale now. What can you tell us about this book? What is it about the short story format and horror that seems so synchronous? (By the way, I’m looking forward to the Professor Challenger pastiche - bravo for Conan-Doyle’s ‘other’ character!)
Thank you! I hope you like it. Yes, I enjoyed writing the Challenger story. And I’ve written a very off-beat Sherlock Holmes story in the small accompanying volume you get with the more exclusive, signed, slip-cased edition. The small volume is called Supporting Roles and it contains two new, unpublished stories: The Three Hunchbacks and The House that Moved Next Door.
Of course we could talk for pages and pages about why the history of horror stories is so rich – from Poe onwards. There’s obviously the short, sharp shock element, and the chocolate box enjoyment of a new anthology on the shelves which comes from growing up on those great Pan and Fontana paperbacks. A massive formative influence to many horror writers of my generation, I’m sure.
Why do I love short stories as a writer, though, not a reader? Quite simply because not all ideas are suited to the full length movie format or a format that TV strictures demand. So there are ideas you get that simply don’t fit anywhere, and you want to write them, so you do! Also the great thing is when I write shorter fiction or novellas I’m completely in control: I haven’t been commissioned and there is no script editor or producer to have to listen to! What I say goes! So they’re me, for better or for worse. Also, it’s tremendously liberating as a way of trying out new ideas and seeing where they flow. You don’t have to venture into the arduous rapids of pitching or selling to see if they float. And they are tremendously re-invigorating before plunging back into bigger, more troublesome projects.
I’m writing this as part of The Movie Waffler’s Hallowe’en coverage: I really hope that someone is reading it by pumpkin-light, and being interrupted by trick or treaters (or even something worse- yikes!). After making my Hallowe’en so memorable when I was a child, as a final question may I ask what a typical Hallowe’en evening at the Volk household involves?
I’m afraid quite boring, we often don’t do anything. I might have a Ghostwatch screening to attend on Halowe’en somewhere – this year I’m attending the Horror Film Expo in Dublin on Hallowe’en weekend. But other than that it is all huddled round the plasma screen watching Ripper Street on Amazon Prime, probably. All dressed as clowns, of course.
More information on Stephen Volk can be found at
The Parts We Play, a short story collection by Stephen Volk is available from PS Publishing: