My new, wide-ranging, collection of stories, Lies of Tenderness, was not written with an overarching theme in mind—though it might well have one; they were all written by the same author, after all (and I try to eke out a common thread in my Story Notes)—but the book is said to contain 17 tales that explore “hidden truths and secret wishes, the paths not taken, and the creatures that make us human”.
With that last, potent, phrase in mind. I’d like to talk about one story in particular, called “A Meeting at Knossos”. It was the very last to be written, in late 2021, and last to be added to the volume, jettisoning another that didn’t quite fit.
I have been fascinated by the Minotaur for as long as I can remember. It’s always struck me as the archetypal monster story and I could never understand why it hadn’t ever, to my knowledge, been exploited in cinema. I first pitched The Minotaur as a film idea to Milton Subotsky (the producer of the classic Amicus horror and fantasy films) way back in the 1970s when I first came to London. I thought you could update the Greek myth, much as Hammer had done with The Gorgon, by setting it in their beloved mitteleuropean world of 19th Century gothic. Subotsky was far from convinced, so that was that.
More recently, visual influences rather than literary ones brought it to the front of my mind. I think it’s exceptionally hard to draw or sculpt a human figure with a bull’s head and make it work, let alone have it embody the horror and pity imbued in the legend. The artist Beth Carter succeeds in this brilliantly, and her Sitting Minotaur and Minotaur Reading are direct catalysts for this story, even though I know that such artists as Michael Ayrton and, obviously, Picasso, have been obsessed by the character before.
The double idea that Daedalus not only created the labyrinth but fathered Icarus sparked me to put pen to paper. I had no idea where the meeting of the fallen Icarus and the freed Minotaur would lead, but it turned out to be about someone who has the chance of redemption—of change—but the question is, are they capable of making it?
I admit, I set out wanting wanted to save the poor creature and rehabilitate the monster. Like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, I thought, he was damaged not so much by an accident of birth but by the way he’d been treated. Some of this was, I’m sure, influenced by my reading of The DevilYou Know by Dr Gwen Adshead and Eileen Home. Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist who has worked on the rehabilitation of violent offenders at Broadmoor hospital. I was struck when she described such patients as having been “witness to a trauma; the trauma which is their own life”.
That could be said to be the autobiography of my Minotaur—a retelling that I hope releases the age-old monster to be interpreted in a new way. Even if the outcome of the story didn’t go the way I was expecting . . .
“A Meeting at Knossos”
I followed the string, hand over hand, until I emerged from the belly of the earth. The scent of sea lavender and the tang of bergamot tickled my nostrils and made them widen. Blinded, I felt the sun on my fat, flat toes. It tickled the coarse hairs on my shin as I extended my left leg from my prison. They were as little accustomed to the light as I was.
“Theseus, my love.”
That last word caught like a nut in the throat of a lark, its beautiful song curtailed in a knot of sudden abhorrence. I lowered my hands from my eyes, allowing them in slats to endure the blaze of Helios, my grandfather, in the sky. My bull eyelashes fluttered.
A vision as though through water took form. I remembered water, vaguely. Not seen it for an age, other than the cavernous trickle tasting of iron and moss that had been my wine for too many days to count.
I took her first to be my mother, but no. Princess Ariadne, my half-sister. A pip when I’d last seen her. Elaborate hair, long dress, breasts exposed. Always the fashion-conscious one. Standing there with the ball of twine in her trembling fingers. Chest rising and falling in horror at the monster she beheld.
Hand over hand, I reached her.
She would have planted a kiss on the cheek of her lover, I was sure. But her half-brother? No.
I was not Theseus.
I was something else.
The Prince of Athens lay dead at the centre of the labyrinth.
He’d come to dispatch me, but I’d dispatched him. His club had snapped in two across my forearm. I remembered feeling his Adam’s apple jiggle against my palm. His neck had grown hot and pulpy. His shiny helmet had fallen off. So much for shiny helmets. He’d crept up on a sleeping creature to murder it. Not very sportsmanlike.
I dropped the ball of twine at my feet. I had need of it no longer.
“Sister,” I breathed, as if my first breath.
The dagger fell from her fingers before I realised she had cut her neck from ear to ear.
I backed away so that she didn’t splash me, but it was a bit late for that. I watched her girlish frame crumble and her limbs thrash in a scarlet, widening pool under her. Then, after a while, she was still. I had seen many a dead maid before. It was not new to me. But it was a disappointment. I would have liked to have caught up on old times, after all the years that had passed, but she’d put paid to that, well and truly. I wasn’t sure what to do. There wasn’t much I could do. So I knelt and lapped up the blood before it dried. No sense wasting it.
The taste reminded me of the time I nipped my mother’s breast with my teeth and got a slap for it. I could still feel the sting on my cheek. That was long before being confined to the bellowing dark. Back when I was loved, or thought I was.
Stepping over my sister, and with no destination in mind, I walked north, avoiding the Royal Road with its traffic and people. Crunched olives underfoot, juniper berries, thorns. Nothing smelled as strong as the fiery rot of the sun. My skin was unused to such attention, and oozed, and shone.
Half-cooked and half-exhausted—half most things—I reached the coast and took myself unto the waves, washing away the stuff that stained me. My sister reddened the surf. Poseidon hissed his thanks for the offering by means of the waves combing the sand then retreating.
Just as I turned back to face the beach I saw a strange shape adorning the rocks, so jagged I first took its inelegance to be the buffeted sail and mast of a wrecked ship. Yet it also resembled as much an arm stretching to the firmament.
What creature, then, was this?
I trod carefully closer.
White petals fluttered in the air about me. I caught one. Opened my fist. It was a feather. I snorted and let it off into the wind like a butterfly.
The thing had vast wings but I could not in all honesty call it a bird. And it had a man’s head and body but I could not in all honesty call it a man.
Whatever it was, it was dead, I was sure of that.
I leaned closer to see if the meat was fresh. Old habits die hard. I sniffed its pale cheek. Touched the long bones covered in feathers, thinking I might break off a piece.
The beast flexed its muscles with a rattling groan. The wing flapped out of my grasp.
I fell over backwards, bruising myself, and squatted silently on a rock formation for a while to see if it awakened.
I don’t know why I sat there, looking at its shape. Why did it interest me? Perhaps I thought it might metamorphose into a man. Or metamorphose into a bird. Either would have satisfied.
Neither happened, so I dragged it to the beach to prevent it being swept away by the tide. Why that mattered to me, I cannot say.
Only when I laid it flat did I see the straps and buckles that held the wings to its back. I loosened them and they came away in my hands. Not part of the creature itself but an attachment. Not of bone and flesh at all, but of wooden fronds jointed and planed by human hands.
I peeled away the broken wings and tossed them into a feathery pile of cracked beeswax and leather, revealing a man, a youth, blood-soaked from his wounds.
I revealed you.
“A Meeting at Knossos” is one of 17 stories by Stephen Volk collected in Lies of Tenderness, available now from PS Publishing. www.pspublishing.co.uk
Studio Bacchus in Bradford=-on-Avon says: Join us on Tuesday 19th April 7.45-9am. Hosted by one of our talented members @kim.youdan.
Stephen Volk’s big screen credits stretch from Ken Russell’s extravaganza Gothic (1986) starring Natasha Richardson and Gabriel Byrne, to period ghost story The Awakening (2011) starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. In television he wrote the BBC’s notorious Halloween “hoax” Ghostwatch, created ITV’s paranormal drama series Afterlife, and adapted Midwinter of the Spirit starring Anna Maxwell Martin.
In this talk about his journey from the Welsh Valleys to Hollywood, he promises to be honest about the delights and pitfalls of a career in the screen trade: the ups, the downs, the good, the bad, and the ugly of a life in the word mines. Expect an intimate glimpse into the passion, the doubts, the wins, the losses: an insight into what goes on behind the scenes, a few choice name drops, and how his love of horror, suspense, and supernatural fiction remains undaunted over the 30 years he has been practicing it. Because sometimes—just sometimes—the trials and tribulations are worth it.
Come join our community of amazing people and help us build the Bacchus culture.
"It was genius. It really was!" In this latest edition of the Straight to Video Podcast by Rob Lane, I discuss my earliest memories of writing and cinema, writing Gothic while working in an ad agency, adventures in Hollywood, and, unavoidably, Ghostwatch and its aftermath. "The fallout was legendary," says Rob, and he's not wrong. It's a lively interview and I really had a blast doing it. Enjoy!
Many thanks to Meghan of Meghan's Haunted House of Books for hosting a host of interviews with yours truly to coincide with the run up to Halloween this year.
The first is a general author interview with Meghan's usual set questions and, hopefully, some interesting answers.
The second is a more specific and light hearted dip into questions about Halloween and what it means to me. I've added some funny pictures for levity here - including the photograph of my grandson George carving pumpkins and looking uber-cool (see below).
There's finally a more personal Guest Post that tracks "My Halloween Memories" from my childhood experience of October 31st to the scary and memorable evening of October 31st 1992. (Exactly!... Don't have nightmares!)
In this podcast with the guys at Bergcast, I discuss the work of Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, one of my favourite writers, and his direct influence on my own career as a screenwriter. As well as the abiding themes of the master, we discuss The Stone Tape, his iconic, brilliant BBC ghost story from 1972; the reason perhaps for the prejudice of the British TV establishment against "genre"; my first feature script, Gothic; the extensive influence of Nigel Kneale on Ghostwatch; 2020's Host, and "passing on the baton".
"A Personal Anthology" is a fantastic project whereby writers, critics and others are invited to dream-edit a personal anthology of their favourite short stories. This is wjat I said in the introduction to my selection:
I grew up in the sixties in Pontypridd, South Wales, relieving the crushing boredom of secondary school byspending my pocket money at the local newsagent’s every Friday on volumes of short stories, seduced by the lurid covers of the Pan Books of Horror Stories, Fontana Ghost Stories and the Gunmen, Gallants and Ghosts of Dennis Wheatley. Later, much later, I’d sink into the warm Black Water of Alberto Manguel’s collections (which Amazon now calls “a kaleidoscope from the Magi of the imagination”), consuming countless other paperback anthologies along the way.
Through these, my love of the genre was undoubtedly unlocked (or unblocked? for it felt like a liberation) by such visionary writers as Poe, whose ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, with its unforgettable opening POV – (much imitated but never surpassed, even by Robert Bloch’s ‘Enoch’) – and M.R. James, with his rising bed sheets, unwanted wetnesses, and deeds best kept buried.
As time went by, the likes of Angela Carter with her carnivalesque symbolism, Robert Aickman with his “kitchen sink gothic”, J G Ballard with his stark unrealities, and many writers outside the field (Tobias Wolff, Bernard MacLaverty, Richard Ford, James Lee Burke, Joyce Carol Oates) became as important to me as the old masters I revered (and still do) like Conan Doyle, Machen, and Stevenson.
I hate any kind of top ten list - or top twelve - but here is a selection of newer discoveries and old favourites I’d like to share. Ones that instruct me how that magical frisson of the uncanny and weird can be achieved. Sparingly. Subtly. Intelligently. Memorably. And remind me that the cause I’m obsessed with as a writer to this day – the creation of nightmares – is a noble and ongoing one.
Read my full choices (with links to the stories where applicable) here
To find out more and to subscribe: look here
–And Now The Podcast Starts! is a critical, fun journey with four informed fans of film and TV. Each episode focuses on a different topic for review or discussion, usually taking the horror genre as a starting point, but going in an unexpected direction, and often featuring special guests. Check out:
Writer Stephen Volk on Under A Raven's Wing and a lifetime in the horror business
"Stephen Volk wrote Ghostwatch, the 1992 TV play which rated so highly on Kirsty, Stella and Dan's list of Movies That Scared Us The Most last year. And Ghostwatch is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Stephen's diverse array of horror output in a variety of media, including prose fiction: his new collection of stories, Under a Raven's Wing, featuring a teaming of the legendary literary detectives C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, has just been launched by PS Publishing.
"In this lengthy interview, Stephen discusses these new and old triumphs, and many things that came between them in his remarkable career, including times spent in Hollywood, his work with directors Ken Russell and William Freidkin, and what he thought of Inside Number 9's Ghostwatch tribute episode from 2018. Ian, Stella, Kirsty and Dan were just thrilled to be able to speak to him, as will probably be apparent to the listener."
My new book, Under a Raven's Wing, a paen to Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, is in many ways a tentative follow-up to The Dark Masters Trilogy, and in some ways harkens back even further, to my first work to hit the cinema screens, Gothic: a telling of the origin of Frankenstein through the eyes of Mary Shelley. I have grown to like using genre authors as a prism through whch to examine and explore my own infatiation and obsession with creating dark fiction. But the aim of this was a little more specific, as I elaborated to PS Publishing head honcho Peter Crowther when he asked me write a short blog to give insight into what spark ignited the project in my mind. I said this:
I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes, like, forever. I know everyone says that, but really. Hand on heart, the first thing that genuinely scared me as a young kid was a radio production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I couldn’t get off to sleep that night without my uncle explaining to me that the bone-chilling howl that echoed across Dartmoor was probably a bald man in glasses in a soundproof booth at the BBC. (I’m still only semi-convinced.) Still, the imagery, the chase, the detective, the clash between the rational and supernatural, all got in my blood and I’d never be the same again.
I grew up. (Well, slightly. Let’s not be rash.) My reading choices changed, and I gravitated from Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Famous Monsters of Filmland to the numerous Pan books of horror stories, which almost invariably included the obligatory tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Back then, I never had an inkling of the tragic narrative of the author’s life (or even that he was American), but his incredible stories—“The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Tell Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”—reeked of deep, tangible psychological terror, unequalled even now for sheer symbolic bravura.
I don’t know when it first occurred to me there was an inescapable connection between the two: between Poe and Doyle.
It must have been on my first reading of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—featuring, as it did, a brilliant Paris detective and his not-so brilliant assistant and amanuensis. The case, one of brutal and bloodthirsty slaughter seemed completely unsolvable. However, under the might of Poe’s quill, C. Auguste Dupin did solve it—by a process of deduction he called ratiocination . . . Elementary, my dear Watson.
And there it was. Hidden in plain sight, just like “The Purloined Letter”—another of Poe’s tasty conundrums.
Dupin was no less than the exact progenitor of Sherlock, both in style and substance. And you don’t have to take my word for that. Doyle himself acknowledges it on numerous occasions.
“Poe,” Sir Arthur said in his preface to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1902), “in his carelessly prodigal fashion, threw out the seeds from which so many of our present forms of literature have sprung, was the father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own.”
Countless scholars and writers since have agreed that Holmes owes his creation in no small measure to the “first detective” in fiction—Dupin.
Fast forward to 2010. Editors Charles Prepolec and Jeff Campbell ask me for a story to appear in their anthology Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes, the brief all to evident in the title, and I decide to submit something that dramatises Doyle’s indebtedness to Poe in story form.
The result was “The Comfort of the Seine”, which drew the curtain back from my C. Auguste Dupin and a callow young Englishman called Sherlock visiting 1870s Paris for the first time.
Little did I know, however, that this wasn’t the one-off story I thought it was, but rather the first of several featuring the duo of investigators I soon grew to love.
I increasingly wanted to return to that sandbox to play and have more adventures, involving the most outrageous and shocking crimes that could be imagined. (By me, anyway.)
Strangely, I am not constitutionally attracted to writing police procedurals. In a modern setting, their familiarity and ubiquitousness bore me. But in a Paris somewhere between the Franco-Prussian War and La Belle Époque, I found I could create a seethingly post-gothic world of crime and decadence that felt right in my wheel house.
Freed of the canon of Doyle, set as it is in Victorian/Edwardian London, I could paint my world unreservedly in vivid colours taken from Poe, populating my stories with baroque ideas, grotesque scenes, and concepts that nudge to the very edge of the inexplicable—even supernatural.
It was, I confess, as the stories added up year on year (and I wrote them really with no grand plan other than to please myself), a heady mixture and an intoxicating one. One that demanded I create impossible crimes—horrifying crimes—which would test the very limit of my detectives’ talent and resolve.
It was also a labour of love to not only the various actors I had enjoyed playing Holmes over the years—Cushing, Rathbone, Brett . . .—but also to the immense influence of the Poe films of Roger Corman had exerted over me, and still did.
But then something peculiar happened.
I realised that the solving of crimes was not what I was writing. The series wanted to be more, finally. It had to be about the passing of the baton. From master to pupil. From C. Auguste Dupin to Sherlock Holmes, before the young detective was to meet his Watson in London, and the rest is history.
That imperative took me on a journey to dig deeper into the two characters and what they meant to each other, and to me.
For that reason I feel intensely proud of this book. I hope it will find a readership as excited by turning the pages as I was when writing them. And, coming it does on the heels of my Dark Masters Trilogy, I hope they feel it is a fitting tribute to two magisterial authors who, probably more than any others, shaped my writing taste and abiding obsessions to this day.
Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. I salute you. And I hope Under a Raven’s Wing does, too.
To order Under a Raven's Wing go to www.pspublishing.co.uk
Another chance to listen to this interview from 2018 in the series Write Through the Roof, the podcast by Madeleine d'Este for writers who want to improve their craft.
In Episode 25, amongst he subjects we discuss are:
The Hidden Station Podcast presents "With All My Love Always Always Forever XXX" - a mini Christmas horror story by Stephen Volk specially written for the festive season. With James Hamer-Morton playing the narrator and Iestyn, and Charlie Bond as Michaela. Produced by Conor Dowling. Original music by Darren Lee. Check out Episode 10 of The Hidden Station podcast to hear their interview Stephen Volk about Ghostwatch.