Stephen Volk Interviewed
In the latest issue of Black Static I review Stephen Volk's novella Whitstable (Spectral Press) and by way of a follow up to that I enlisted him as the guinea pig for our very first 'identikit interview', with half the questions posed by me and the remainder chosen at random from a 'crowd sourced' pool.
NB: Sunday the 26th of May will be the centenary of Peter Cushing's birth, and on the 25th Stephen Volk will be attending a launch event for Whitstable at Whitstable Museum, details of which you can discover by clicking the appropriate link at the end of this interview.
PT: Why did you use Peter Cushing as your protagonist in Whitstable? What appeals to you about this actor compared to other horror icons, such as Lee, Price, Karloff?
SV: I didn't try to find a way of using Peter Cushing; the idea for the story very much came first. My novella starts with a child in real danger appealing to a fictional monster hunter for help. And that had to be Cushing, the embodiment of Van Helsing (to me, anyway! I can't abide the leather-clad hunk that was Hugh Jackman - to me that movie epitomised everything terrible about big, flashy, CGI, studio-produced "horror" films - but I digress!). Also, I think Cushing appealed to me naturally and instinctively because that was "my" era, the Hammer era, and that's what I wanted to explore about my own growing up and infatuation with the genre. The first Hammer production I saw was Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and I remember The Vampire Lovers vividly - for its shocking violence and shocking nudity, amongst other things. To say it was a formative experience would be a vast understatement. I wouldn't be writing what I do now without my love of Hammer paving the way.
On your second point, I like the other actors you've mentioned but there is something about Cushing that sets him apart. First of all he brings severity and gravitas, an absolute conviction to whatever role he plays, however ludicrous - and I think we love him for that because we fans want to take it seriously too. That's the fun! Karloff had a lot of pathos, especially in his latter years (you only have to watch Targets - which Whitstable echoes, you could say) but he belongs to my Dad's generation of monsters rather than mine, and Price (though I love the Corman films) was too tongue-in-cheek for the story I had in mind. There is something about Peter Cushing that conveys the humanity, the poignancy of a character, the tragedy - however cold or selfish that character might be. Furthermore I think his generosity of spirit in life and the qualities and values as a gentleman he held dear shine through, and that's what makes him not just a great actor but a favourite actor of so many people - including me.
PT: Do you find that using a real person as your lead character places greater pressure on you as a writer? How conscious were you of the expectations of people who had known Cushing and might read your work?
SV: Very - but that was also the appeal. The idea was exciting to me, but I knew I daren't get it wrong. I had a few people I could lean on (critics and experts like Jonathan Rigby, David Pirie, Tony Earnshaw and Wayne Kinsey, many of whom gave fantastic notes, as well as massive encouragement and support) but also I had the great resource of Peter's own autobiographies, which were invaluable. I also knew that what I was doing was creating a fictional character. Nobody can recreate the "true" Peter Cushing in a make-believe story: what on earth would that even mean? We have just had two films about Hitchcock and they both give drastically different interpretations of the man. So it's no good thinking that a story is going to give you the truth. The most it can do is convince. But that was the challenge, and the fun - very much so. It was also writing a character I came to love, on so many different levels, quite honestly - so it was a privilege, in fact. I wasn't intimidated by it, even though one could easily be intimidated by the idea of the criticism one might get.
PT: Why do you feel horror stories are important to us?
SV: I'm going to have to think of a short answer to this, otherwise it will be a thesis! I think my work is often about the very question of what our fiction is and why we need it. Writers gravitate to the genre that most represents what they feel about the world, and I think horror writers perceive a world of anxiety, fear and chaos. They're basically neurotic, or more neurotic than most. Like Hitchcock, who I mentioned earlier. His mother once asked him what he was afraid of, and he said "Everything!" My wife often says the same about me. I have to remind her, that's what earns me a living! So I think the genre appeals to, or is essential, to those of us who know what it's like to be terrified. There is a great essay by a psychologist called something like 'Terror Tales of the Formerly Terrified', where she groups Poe, Hitchcock and Stephen King as authors who have all had traumatic incidents in their past that recur throughout their work. I think trauma, or a sense of hurt, lurks deep in horror writers and we write as an act of control to put order on a universe we find terrifying and uncontrollable. I like the quote that says, look for the wound in a character and that's where the revelation lurks. All my characters are wounded, more or less. They just have to acknowledge the wound in some way and deal with it - that's usually my story. So that's why horror stories are important, they give us the illusion that we can defeat or control things that threaten to harm and destroy us, physically, mentally or spiritually. I think J G Ballard said that a sane person can only decipher the modern world through science fiction, but I'd say a sane person can only look around the world every day and see terror. Horror. The people that don't (people I call "The Squeamish") are walking round with their eyes closed. I don't know how they get by.
PT: What's your favourite Peter Cushing film and why?
SV: I find some hard to watch now. I find The Vampire Lovers hard to watch, because I know that his wife Helen was near to death when he was filming that. And Twins of Evil - he looks so terribly haggard and skeletal, it's painful. I think his Hound of the Baskervilles is one of my favourites, but if I had to choose one sequence it would be the leap from the dining table in the first Dracula. Which still sets my heart pounding.
PT: What software or devices do you use for writing?
SV: Just Word for stories and Final Draft for scripts. I work on a desktop, I don't have a laptop. But I rarely edit on the screen. I like to print off pages and scrawl and scribble. I'm a dinosaur like that. It's just that, too many times I've deleted and wished I hadn't! Oh and I don't use any fancy script type software to help me plot or outline. When I use index cards they are real index cards.
PT: Who has had the biggest influence on your work and how?
SV: Tricky how to answer this one. I could talk about producers or publishers I've worked with, or the many writers or film-makers I've admired over the years - but I could also talk about people responsible for big turning points in my life. I think I'll do the latter. Bill Stair was an art director and writer who worked a lot with John Boorman and he was one of my tutors at Bristol University when I did my Post-Grad Radio, Film and TV Course. I'd come from art school, like him and I was dickering around making animation films, designing book covers, writing short stories, radio plays, screenplays... and nobody'd ever pointed me in the right direction. I thought I was lost in a limbo between visual art and writing. It was Bill who said, "You know all these things aren't separate things. You're a screenwriter. You think visually and you like narrative - like me." It was a revelation.
Secondly, a big thing to happen to me (and it will embarrass him to read this) was meeting Tim Lebbon. He encouraged me to write fiction for the independent press (something I never even knew existed!) and, not least, introduced me to the British Fantasy Society and the horror/fantasy genre convention scene. Now it's a community of like minds that's extremely important to me. In fact, I honestly couldn't do without it. The writers I have grown to know in the ten years since I met Tim are amongst the closest friendships I've ever had in my life. They know who they are, so I won't name them, but they are not only the best buddies in the world, they are allies. And in the very isolating business of writing, they are like gold dust.
PT: How do you deal with negative reviews and other criticism of your work?
SV: I'm human. I'm sorry! I want people to like me and love my work! I want a pat on the head like a puppy and hopefully a biscuit! But, seriously - it depends on the reviewer. Funnily enough it depends on the quality of the writing. Because good writing usually means good thinking. (The other week I binned a review not because it was bad - it wasn't - but because it was so shoddily written I had to go over the sentences two, three times to get my head around what the guy meant!)
The problem with films is, the finished film is very rarely my work, or even mainly my work: so I'm reading a review of something I almost didn't write. So dealing with that dichotomy is a bit of a head-fuck. My preferred version is usually draft seven and they made draft fifteen. That's hard.
With a piece of fiction, it's mine, so I have to take it on the chin, but there's not much you can do about it. The story is done and it's supremely rare that any comment will help you with the next story. You just hope the reviewer might enjoy the next one more.
PT: What can we expect to see from you in the near future? What work do you have in the pipeline?
SV: I'm working with the BBC on a new drama series, but it's very early days. I'm very excited but I try not to think of the many tiers of approval it has to pass through. And I have a few proposals out there to other TV companies and film companies as well as a new spec script or two on the go. I'm also hoping that the finance will come together at Cannes for my script Telepathy, a low budget SF drama to be directed by Lesley Manning, who directed Ghostwatch.
I have a 'Hammer Chiller' audio drama out for download in June or July, so that's fun. I had tremendous fun writing it. Also I have a story coming out in Beyond Rue Morgue (Titan) edited by Paul Kane and Charles Prepolec featuring Poe's detective Auguste Dupin. That story is a follow up to my story 'The Comfort of the Seine' - I was keen to revisit that particular duo. Charles also has a story from me for his forthcoming Professor Challenger anthology. And I have a story called 'The Peter Lorre Fan Club' coming out in The Burning Circus, a BFS Publication edited by Johnny Mains, which should be out soon. I may even have news of a new collection of my stories quite soon, too. So, fingers crossed!
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