Hidden in the Marble
Andy Hedgecock talks to Stephen Volk, writer of Ghostwatch and Afterlife, explorer of Dark Corners.
“Why aren't we demanding the new, the different? Laziness and apathy. We have become passive, anaesthetized sheep: we absorb crass ideas from crushingly dull Sunday newspapers; we buy books from Tesco or Amazon rather than our local bookshop which will close down soon as a result. In the end writers can only try to get some dissenting ideas out there…”
There’s a dash of exasperation in Stephen Volk’s take on contemporary culture. His Electric Darkness column, an essential ingredient in the Black Static nonfiction mix, focuses on the joys and challenges of creating idiosyncratic narratives at a time when bookshelves and airwaves are choked with the detritus of a celebrity and shopping obsessed culture. It’s clear Volk values opportunities to share his enthusiasms – the HBO series Carnivale, the Steven Shainberg movie Fur – as well as the chance to lob brickbats in the general direction of predictable bestsellers and blockbusters.
“Andy Cox gave me carte blanche. I didn't want it to be based on reviews, other folk do that better, and I didn't want to do an academic thesis every two months. What I did feel I could do was to talk about being a professional horror writer, having done it for over 20 years. I wanted structured mini-essays rather than just opinionated blogs so that, over time, they would create a picture of the concerns, problems and pleasures of being of a horror writer: a view from a grunt in the trenches, so to speak.
“The corrosion of culture is a common concern to all Black Static columnists. Have you noticed? When I get together with other writers this is what we talk about: the commissioning foibles of the BBC, the state of the business and our artistic worries.”
Stephen Volk’s voice is a balanced and authoritative baritone that could convince you all was well in a crisis. David Cameron would kill for a voice like Volk’s. There’s a reassuring quality to it: not what I expected from one of the most provocative and unsettling of contemporary writers. One of the key motifs in his writing – fiction and nonfiction – is the numbing nature of the worst of popular culture; its tendency to suggest all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
"It’s the opposite of what you want to achieve as a writer: you want to outrage, shake, or give a wake-up call. Things that numb and pacify through mediocrity are exactly the things that rile me and scare me about my emotional wellbeing. Funnily enough that theme - entertainment's ability to desensitise us – is present in a few of my stories. For example, ‘Who Dies Best’, in Postscripts #10.
“I try to avoid obvious rants but the anger in my pieces comes from a feeling of unfairness about individual voices being stifled and the maintenance of a spurious status quo by the few in positions of power. I'm not being selfish here – it's not just my voice I worry about. A tremendous cultural/imaginative entity such as science fiction is threatened while bogus crap – such as those Jordan novels not even written by Jordan – is marketed beyond the limits of reason. Frankly, these contrasts strike me as insane.
“Would a controversial, disturbing play like Pornography be put on by the BBC? Almost certainly not. Would it be made by BBC Films as a feature? No, because that would need US finance and there is no US interest in the subject and no parts for US actors. In that case is the answer to write plays? You try getting a play read by the Royal Court if you are a horror or genre writer. The best things I've written, the most challenging and unusual, didn't get made because they didn't tick the little boxes provided by our cultural industries. It sounds like sour grapes, but honestly, it's true."
A quick scan of the TV schedules, theatre and film listings or the shelves in Waterstones will tell you Volk is right. So why have the arts drifted onto these right little, tight little islands of mediocrity?
“By definition big business wants to make money and, therefore, doesn’t want to offend the masses. So they tell writers not to provoke. The BBC would like everything to have no impact whatsoever. I blame the autocracy of marketing. Studios, broadcasters and publishers defer to marketing people who, in turn, make decisions based only on past success. This is a complete contrast to creators of fiction who, if they are any good, want to create something that hasn't existed before. At times I’ve had to succumb to people dumbing down my work to make it more palatable. And, of course, the finished work was both blatantly idiotic and financially unsuccessful, as anybody with an ounce of common sense would have predicted. Once again the individual's voice has been crushed. Insanity.”
A Good Old Shake
Volk’s anger is rooted in his early career in the advertising industry. He spent ten years at Ogilvy, Benson and Mather, sitting at the desk once occupied by Salman Rushdie, and is convinced the present publishing and broadcasting climate makes it all but impossible to break away from the mania for brand recognition.
“If it’s all about feeling good, and knowing exactly what to expect from the brand, a fucked-up disgusting detective crime torture novel by a brand-name author is ‘good’ because the bad guy is caught in the end. But a ‘horror’ novel with much more underlying morality or humanity or depth is ‘bad". Detective stories get away with murder.”
If there’s a strand of humanity and morality underpinning the best contemporary horror, is this a source of hope for readers seeking more than reassurance or titillation from their fiction? I ask if Volk believes writers willing to peer into the darkest recesses of the human experience can have a positive influence on the way we react with the world.
“I doubt that horror fiction creates an antipathy to real world horror, but I think the genre must reflect the fears of the real world. It can’t merely be gross-out escapism: it must, above all, come from the heart. And your heart must be in the right place.”
If horror fiction isn’t about conditioning people, would it be more accurate to say Volk aspires to re-sensitise his readers to genuine horrors – those aspects of life from which many spend time, and often a great deal of money, trying to insulate themselves?
“Exactly – that's a much better way of expressing it Andy! Nic Roeg tells us all art says: ‘I feel this – what about you?’ Nowadays I'd amend that to: ‘I'm feeling this. Why the hell aren't you? Am I going completely crazy?’
“Paradoxically, uncensored, no-bullshit honesty can be life-enhancing. I know someone who cannot bear horror films and cannot bear to watch cruelty in drama. There are many people out there who want art and literature to be a Disneyland and protect us from horrible things. I need to hold up the horrible things – sexual abuse, kids who kill, the power of religion, heartbreaking grief, our fear of death – and give them a good old shake by writing about them. I want to understand it because by doing that I feel some semblance of control. I can't believe that if we shut our eyes it will all go away.”
If horror and dark fantasy really do have the power to give our world a ‘good old shake’, are there particular metaphors and symbols that make those genres particularly suited to subverting a complacent worldview?
“The archetypes of horror survive because they are great mechanisms for slipping big and important ideas under the door. And they are malleable metaphors. Look what vampires have emblemised over the years! Not just sex: Let The Right One In is a weird coming-of-age story. Ghosts provide excellent ways of embellishing and expanding stories of loss and grief: and they can be extremely cinematic, as they are a literal projection of that grief. I have used witchcraft to dramatize prejudice or the clash between rationalism and belief. I could never do a zombie story without getting to grips with what people believe happens after death – whether to confound, contradict or satirize those suppositions. You can take old symbols and use them in a new, unexpected and topically relevant way: in my short story ‘Notre Dame’, set in the near future, Quasimodo is a victim of obscene religious power.
“I admit to being somewhat iconoclastic: taking horror myths like Jack the Ripper or the Hound of the Baskervilles – or a typical poltergeist as in Ghostwatch. I put a spin on these things to say, you believe in that? It's not true. Don't trust anybody. Everybody lies. Even writers. Even me.”
So is horror a privileged genre, one with the power to delve into experiences and psychological states that others cannot?
“Horror has always been the most visceral of wake-up calls - but that can, literally, be a turn-off. I prefer a kind of under-the-skin ethic combined with emotional involvement with the characters. It’s not just about how you kill 'em. I find this harder and more rewarding: you can explore human stories with more subtlety, psychological ambiguity and richness. Rubber masks, gore and CGI can be dismissed too easily. That's why in Ghostwatch I have Craig Charles wearing a rubber mask early on, to get a laugh. I was telling the audience this isn't going to be like that. Forget that shit.
“In Afterlife I tackled a child abduction in a way many viewers would have found too on-the-nose if presented in a straight naturalistic drama – EastEnders for example. The genre element made it watchable. In supernatural stories you can explore important themes in a semi-disguised form and the enjoyment is the genre revealing different things about the subject through that process.”
The Soil in Which the Stories Grow
Volk’s reference to Afterlife steers the discussion onto one of the most original and underrated television series to deal with the clash between rationality and the supernatural. The programme focuses on the complex relationship between über sceptic psychologist Dr Robert Bridge and Alison Mundy, a compassionate, but seriously damaged, psychic. I ask to what extent the conflict between Alison and Robert reflects turmoil in the inner landscape of Stephen Volk.
“They absolutely represent two sides of me: Robert, the side that writes and analyses and tries to understand the realities of the world; and Alison, the side that wakes in the middle of the night and is afraid to go to the bathroom because of what my imagination conjures up!
“But consider the psychology of our reaction to seeing a ghost in reality: we'd mistrust our own perception and sanity. A ghost story must have an element of doubt in the ‘seer’ to be believable. The more doubt the better! The most doubt is held by the sceptic, so that is usually the best protagonist in a ghost story. So Afterlife is about the battle for Robert’s soul: in a way it’s the ultimate nightmare of a rational man, and that rational man happens to be me!
“But I don’t inflict my personal ideals on a story. In Afterlife I could have wanted the rationalist Robert to ‘win’ – he could have convinced Alison she was mad and she would have ended up in an asylum. But that wouldn't have worked style-wise or content-wise. Because we had to see the ghosts, the character who had to change was Robert. I couldn't fight that story: it’s as if it was always hidden in the marble, just waiting for me to chip the irrelevant stuff away.”
Volk goes on to outline some of the influences that informed the tense relationship and clash of frames of mind at the heart of Afterlife.
“I have to tell you about the effect of seeing Nic Roeg’s Don't Look Now. It didn't just blow me away as a piece of film-making quite different from anything I'd seen before; it changed the way I thought about the world. The way Donald Sutherland plays with the light switch in the church. The gold ornament the bishop wears. Layer after layer of rich, symbolic imagery that was both visceral and existential. I really felt ‘this is what life is like’. The clash between the rational man, who might be misguided, and the instinctive, sensitive woman, who might equally be misguided. How do we know if the other person isn't right and we're wrong? Those were the ideas and characters I had in mind. That was in the pitch document at the beginning. A series that was like Don't Look Now. The first director, Maurice Phillips, even put in a direct reference by having Robert’s ghost child Josh in a very Nic Roeg red. That Don’t Look Now or Robert/Alison conflict is in all of us.
“I was also taken with ‘The July Ghost’, an immaculate short story by A.S. Byatt about a bereaved woman haunted by the ghost of her daughter; except she does not see the ghost, her male lodger does. The idea of a stranger being able to see what the bereaved person does not is immensely potent – as potent and simple as the device of the exorcist and the possessed girl in The Exorcist.”
Critics tell us the ghost story is as vital as the Savery Steam Engine – a curious and entertaining period piece, a mere opportunity for pastiche, with little or no resonance with the modern psyche. And yet, the two series of Afterlife had considerable popular appeal and tackled the relationships between deception and self-deception, cynicism and scepticism, critical thinking and faith. Enormous issues in contemporary life. So are there aspects of the way we live now that make ghost stories more than a footnote of literary history?
“The way we live now is the soil in which the stories grow – if that doesn’t sound too pompous. The particular post 9/11 sense of insecurity is there in Afterlife, so too are the dangers of blind belief and blind scepticism. The ghost story was supposed to die with the invention of the light bulb, but people still have weird experiences. More importantly, people still have to deal with the absurd and crushing experience that is death: the death of someone close, public deaths on TV, tragic deaths in the paper, bombings or tsunamis in some far flung land. If the ghost story dies it may mean we don't care anymore. In a strange way it’s a symbol of our humanity. There are ghosts even in the age of the ipod and laptop. We have to be haunted, we deserve to be and we need to be.
“However I'm not immune from the impulse to create pastiche ghost stories, as anyone who has read Dark Corners knows, but let's lay that to one side.”
More Than Great Fun
Let’s not. We’ve focussed on Volk’s writing for the screen so far, but Dark Corners, his first collection of short fiction, published by Gray Friar Press, is a tour de force. His mastery of a range of forms is showcased in 16 tales with an astonishing intensity of focus. Themes include obsession, morality, fear, loss, dislocation, emotional uncertainty and the die that is cast in childhood. And a defining characteristic of the book is the range of influences and sources to which the author pays homage. For example, one of the stories, ‘Best in the Business’ remixes the Pied Piper legend:
“It was almost wholly based on an incident that happened to a friend, and the ending only occurred to me later. I liked injecting a folkloric element into an otherwise quite believable story. The Pied Piper legend has personal resonance for me: it was my first library book. And lately I've found my stories riff on the cultural influences of my life. It's a way of re-examining the myths and icons I love and putting a new spin on them, conferring my respect for the genre, but adding my bit of iconoclasm.
“The nice thing is you can get a request from an editor that makes you think of a story you otherwise wouldn't. Christopher Golden asked me for a Hellboy story. I ended up writing ‘Monster Boy’ which is 95% documentary about my childhood, family and the death of my father. The rest is me wondering what monsters are and why we need them. I'm always thinking puerile things about popular culture – horror films, monster movies, SF – and sometimes those thoughts come in the form of stories.”
I suggest that the voice behind Volk’s stories is that of a rationalist who uses the symbolism of the irrational to deal with emotionally challenging issues or ideas with fuzzy boundaries.
“An excellent description! Dickens wrote a ghost story about regret and called it A Christmas Carol. If people think I write horror just to scare people, they are very wrong. I use those tropes to reveal something new about human beings – new shading or new connections. New to me, that is: I'm not claiming great intellectual insight!”
But, I suggest, isn’t Volk’s work also driven by a relish for parapsychological themes and a real interest in spirituality and the numinous?
“Well, I do have an abiding interest in the archetypes of horror, but, consciously, I am absolutely like Robert the rationalist in Afterlife. My wife claims I secretly believe in ghosts, or I wouldn’t write about all that, but it’s an accusation I tire of rebuffing! I have never seen a remotely convincing medium; I've no time for organized religion; and I despair at the rise of irrationalism and superstitious thinking.
“Besides, I don't see a contradiction. The ghost story writer Oliver Onions didn't believe in ghosts and I know lots of horror writers who are rationalist, atheistic Darwinians like me. The intelligent ones anyway.”
“Having said that, one theme that comes naturally to a supernatural story is the idea of values beyond blunt materialism. This is an increasingly important idea, post-Thatcherism, post-crash. Even if it clashes with the resurgence of religion as a pernicious force. I love contradictions.
“I resent the implication that higher concerns are exclusively the province of religious people. That's idiotic. I do work really hard at these underlying themes and ideas, perhaps only for my own satisfaction but I hope some people pick up on that stuff. If they're moved, something must have worked. It's hit them. I've connected. I was very pleased when a friend of a friend stopped me in the local car park and said: ‘By the way I love Afterlife. Great fun!’ Then she stopped and turned back to me and said: ‘No. More than great fun, actually.’ The ideal response to my work!“
Stephen Volk is co-writer of The Awakening, currently in production and starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton. His other film writing credits include Octane (2003), starring Madeleine Stowe; the BAFTA winning The Deadness of Dad (1997), with Rhys Ifans and Lisa Palfrey; The Guardian (1990), written with and directed by William Friedkin; and Gothic (1996), directed by Ken Russell. His 2009 novella 'Vardoger', nominated for a Shirley Jackson and a British Fantasy Award, is available from Gray Friar Press as is his 2006 collection of stories, Dark Corners.
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