A 29-minute interview with Selina Packard about the making of Gothic for the Open University's OpenLearn site. "Screenwriter Stephen Volk talks to Selina Packard about his script for the 1986 film Gothic, about working with director Ken Russell, about the evolution of the Frankenstein myth and its place in the British horror genre, and also about the politics of being a writer, both in the early 19th and early 21st centuries."
Afterimages is a podcast for cinephiles that takes a deep dive into moving images. Each episode features a special guest who is invited to explore a film of their choice with your hosts, film writers Franck Boulègue and Marisa C. Hayes.
They say: "Travel with us to wintery Venice for some chilling scares during your summer holidays as a way to beat the heat! Here's our eighth episode about Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, with our guest Stephen Volk."
[Use the links to listen via Spotify or Amazon music] [text also available but beware of numerous typos]
This month (May 2023) the HWA is Celebrating Our Elders. Each day we'll share an interview from the Horror Writers Association blog.
Read the interview with Stephen Volk here or read below:
Did you start out writing or working in the horror field, and if so why? If not, what
were you writing initially and what compelled you to move into horror?
It would be tempting to say I’ve always been interested in the horror genre, but I think as a reader and writer your focus develops over time. Your genre, in some ways, chooses you, and I think those who gravitate to horror are drawn to it because they see fear all around them and the horror form gives them a way to deal with it in symbolic terms. Alfred Hitchcock was once asked “Mr Hitchcock, as the master of screen terror, what frightens you?” Hitch answered “Everything!” That’s me to a tee.
I grew up in the South Wales town of Pontypridd in the 1960s, spending my pocket money on Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Marvel Classics, and the Pan and Fontana books of horror and ghost stories, but I always had an equal obsession with the cinema and TV and glutted myself on the fare of fantasy shows of that era. I also consumed a lot of fantasy and science fiction books, became a voracious consumer of Moorcock and Ballard, but had the erroneous urge as I reached adulthood to be a writer of “serious fiction” – that is to say, fiction that people took seriously. Happily the phase soon passed. The British screenwriter Nigel Kneale taught me that if you are drawn to a genre, and it chimes with you, then embrace it: your only obligation is to write it to the best of your capacity. With subtlety, commitment and intelligence. And never, ever to look down on the audience.
Who were your influences as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?
A big influence was British novelist Dennis Wheatley, who is largely forgotten now but in the 1960s of my childhood he was really the equivalent of Stephen King, with countless best sellers about Satanism, starting with the classic The Devil Rides Out (brilliantly filmed by Hammer starring Christopher Lee). Now fallen out of favour for his rather turgid writing style and non-PC politics, he was responsible, some might say, at least in part, for the “occult explosion” of the sixties which led to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. For all his faults, as he was my gateway drug to horror, I found myself writing about Wheatley as a fictional character in “Netherwood”, one of my stories in The Dark Masters Trilogy.
The other writers I always mention in this regard are Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, because they did this marvellous thing which was magical to me: I saw their names on book covers AND I saw their names on movies. From The Incredible Shrinking Man to I Am Legend, from the Corman Poe films to Psycho, from Star Trek to The Twilight Zone. You can imagine, to a 12-year-old kid in the Welsh Valleys this was mind-boggling. But there must be something of the Protestant work ethic in my DNA because, when I saw the “created by” or “screenplay by” credit on screen, I thought secretly: “Well, someone has to do that. If I work hard, maybe it could be me.” Never ever dreaming in reality I would ever do it for a living.
As for current influences, new voices blow me away every day – too numerous to mention. Ally Wilkes (I’ve just finished her phenomenal novel All The White Spaces), Benjamin Myers, Stephen Gallagher, Graeme McRae Burnet, Mariana Enriquez, Emma Donoghue, Patrick McGrath, Flannery O’Connor, Maupassant! Some of them not “new” but always ripe for rediscovery!
How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?
To be honest, I have largely not been a part of it. I met an agent early on, when I first moved to London after art school, who told me I was spreading myself too thin. I’d been writing all sorts of things – radio plays, bits of a novel, short stories, scripts. He said I should choose one discipline to concentrate on, I couldn’t be jack of all trades because I’d be master of none. What did I really want to write? Put on the spot, I said “Screenplays”: which might or might not have been the right decision at the time.
So, I was not really affected by the publishing “horror boom” in the 1980s because I was writing films. Unless I was part of it amongst Dream Demon, Hellraiser and Company of Wolves. My first produced feature was Gothic, directed by Ken Russell (1986), which starred Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley and Gabriel Byrne as Byron, followed by others including Universal’s The Guardian (William Friedkin, 1990), then Ghostwatch (1992), right up to The Awakening (2011) starring Rebecca Hall, and a bunch of stuff before and since. Screenplays were my main career, in the US and UK, but I always loved novels, especially horror novels. I just hadn’t gone down the route of writing them. It was hard enough to crack open the door to the film industry.
My first dipping of the toe into publishing in the late ‘90s was through Darren Floyd, who had organized a small “Con” in Cardiff. It was there I met a friendly group of other horror and affiliated writers (including Tim Lebbon and Ramsey Campbell, who was being interviewed). This was the first time, to my astonishment, I found out there was a market for short fiction and horror short fiction at that! I thought horror publishing was dead except for the behemoths like King and Herbert, but here were young, enthusiastic publishers like Gary Fry and Chris Teague and there were readers and fans. And the idea of putting stories out into that market was thrilling, not least because, for the most part, as I found out, they REMAINED the stories I wrote. They didn’t get fucked up along the way! So I was hooked and have been ever since.
Today, the work I do for print is at least as important as the work I do for the screen. Maybe more so. I think I’ve become a better writer because of it, and many times it has reconnected me with my core values after a bruising experience in “showbiz”. So, far from being a side hustle, it’s very much a parallel career now. It’s vitally important to me, and I’m deeply thankful to the publishers and editors who have got me there, most notably the marvellous Peter and Nicky Crowther of PS Publishing. I get massive, intrusive commercial pressure in my day job, so I feel blessed to have more control with my fiction. It’s a welcome change, and a necessary palliative to the soul.
Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?
I do think there’s ageism in the film/TV industry because the obvious fetish is for new names. People want to dream big, be the great discoverer. Inevitably, over time, as a writer you become familiar to them, and I’m sure there’s a sense of: “Oh, him. We know that guy.” And they’re less excited for the very reason that they know you.
There’s a terrible story in This Is Not A Pity Memoir by screenwriter Abi Morgan, where she is undergoing cancer treatment and having to deal with her husband being in a coma, and she goes into a café in Shepherd’s Bush and hears two people from BBC Drama discussing her, saying, “Oh, Abi Morgan, everyone says she’s over the hill now.” And I read that and thought My fuck: they are saying that about Abi Morgan! (The award winning writer of The Hour, Brick Lane, The Iron Lady, Shame, Suffragette.) What bloody chance have I got?
I don’t know what you can do to counteract it exactly except to be aware of the changing world around you and the changing market. It’s no good writing like you always used to and expecting it to fly. Make sure you work is – and I hesitate now – “relevant”. Oh, how I hate that word! I received a brief the other day from a commissioner looking for genre ideas that were “zeitgeisty and relevant”: I replied to the producer, sarcastically, that I was sorry but I only had irrelevant ideas at the moment. I mean, honestly. The idea that writers go around writing ideas that are not relevant is so insulting!
The truth is, if you think about ageism, you’d curl up your toes and die. You’ve got to believe it’s about the work, and if the work is good they’ll notice. That’s a lie, I know. But what alternative do you have? You’ve got to live that lie or simply accept that your time has passed and there’s nothing you can do about it. Like the scene with Brad Pitt’s character in Babylon where he hears the audience sniggering at his performance. I could hardly watch that scene. He has to live with it… or what? You can yell fuck ‘em into the void. That’s what I do. But mostly I try to ignore it because there’s nothing you can do except try to prove them wrong in their prejudice.
What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?
When you are young (and I was no exception), you have this illusion that, if you have talent and luck, you get to a certain age as a writer and “make it” – that everyone will want you, sign checks, your career will go stratospheric and you will have no more worries, financial or creative for the rest of your life. But that is the exception, not the rule. For most writers it is a case of lurching from one project to the next, stepping over the debris of failures and tossing a new spinning plate in the air. The vast majority of my writer friends agree: there is no sweet spot where it’s suddenly easy. It never was, and if anything it’s even harder now. I don’t know how young writers will survive in a world where nobody wants to pay for anything. But they will. They always do. They’ll thrive and be brilliant.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
I always keep it real simple. Don’t chase fashion and don’t chase money. Money will come when you get good. Concentrate on finding your voice and there’s no magic trick to that except read the books that excite you and watch the movies you like: if you love it, unpick it, try to figure out how that worked – what the writer did in that scene, what the actor did. Feed yourself that way but put your ear to the ground and listen to your own heart.
Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?
Yes and no. The great Steve Rasnic Tem, who springs to mind immediately, does it brilliantly and consistently, as do others. Despite getting older, I try NOT to confine myself to only writing from the POV of a character my age. (When I wrote about Peter Cushing as an old man in my novella “Whitstable” it never occurred to me he was younger than I was. The character I identified with was the frightened little boy.) Although I’m particularly proud of a story called “Orr” in my latest collection, Lies of Tenderness. It’s about an elderly guy who has lost his wife and he has the peculiar gift of having been struck by lightning nineteen times. I have no idea where the idea came from but it evolved into something about mortality and the question of how we choose to live our lives. I liked how it turned out and there it is. Maybe it is related to COVID. I wrote another story in the same collection called “Bad Language” which is about my mother’s dementia and her death. It was painful to write (right down to the details of her funeral) but I felt duty bound to be honest. Emotional honesty is one of the most important ingredients in horror.
On the other hand, there have been a rash of films in which the “old” are demonized for no particular reason. The idea of ageing somehow conflating with monstrousness. I’m thinking of The Visit, Relic, Old, and X. Full disclosure: I’m not greatly impressed by American culture’s disgust at the ageing process, particularly as regards women. To me it’s cruel, neurotic and deeply immature. (But perhaps that makes it the ideal subject for horror?)
What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?
I loved Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, and in Mr Holmes, both wonderful. Karloff in Targets, oh my God… and both Karloff and Catherine Lacey in Michael Reeves’s The Sorcerors. I always liked fellow Welshman Anthony Hopkins in the film, Hearts in Atlantis. I loved little touches like him cleaning his shoes. Apparently Hopkins remembered his father doing that, and I remember my father doing things I now do – which is troubling. Hopkins was of course astounding in The Father, the recent film about Alzheimer’s. I found the film utterly devastating. No doubt partly due to my seeing my mother go through a similar process of losing her sense of reality, and her memory eroding until finally there was nothing left. You might say, The Father is not a “horror” film. I would say I can’t think of a more horrific experience than watching it. Heartbreaking and unforgettable.
Do you have anything you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?
I’m tired of the lazy presumption that people get more set in their ways and right wing as they get older. Yes it might be true of some writers who cling to the mores of a lost world, and feel threatened by change, which is sad, but that is not a catch-all for writers of a certain age and I resent that implication. If anything I am far more left wing and radical now (as a person and a writer) than I ever was when I was younger. So I’d like to knock that prejudice on the head. It’s not only young writers who want to rattle cages and shake people out of their complacency. That’s, after all, what horror is for.
But I have to say, as I get older – and I’ve been making a living as a writer for over 40 years – I’m more and more conscious of a sense of time wasted. In his new novel The Shards, which I started reading last night, Bret Easton Ellis (or the character named “Bret”) talks about not writing screenplays any more, stopping “chasing that game” which he says was a decade of “being well compensated for TV Pilots and screenplays for movies that mostly never got made” – then he says that the book he is writing is “beckoning” to him. I know the feeling.
When I came off my first produced movie in 1986 I met with a exec at Tri-Star. He pitched me an idea and I bit his hand off: yes, I can do it, of course I’d write it. My first studio gig. I was hungry. For a living. For a career. To get noticed. Now, 30+ years later, other things matter. I remember reading an interview with Anthony Minghella on the set of Cold Mountain and he was asked why he focused on adaptations rather than original work. His answer was “Time.” He said he figured he only had time for another seven, eight movies and adapting books saved time. Tragically, he didn’t even have the time he thought. Which is why the story sticks in my mind.
So, at the age of 68, I find myself being picky. I might not take on something like that Tri-Star gig (which was a shitty idea anyway, and turned into a terrible movie): I might, I don’t know. I’d weigh it up. More important things “beckon”.
I’m writing a novel. You could call it my first. (“Netherwood” was over 60,000 words but part of the Dark Masters Trilogy; and Gothic was a novelisation.) I first worked on it thirty years ago and it won’t go away and now I’m 112,000 words in. Wish me luck. I just don’t want on my headstone “He never finished that goddamned book”. It’s got to be done. And I’m as excited about it, at 68, as I ever was about anything. To the point of not wanting to think of much else. But that’s good. As the great director of Don’t Look Now, Nic Roeg, once said: “What is the point of life, but being continually obsessed?”
I once read an extraordinary short story by A. S. Byatt called “The July Ghost” (from Sugar and Other Stories, 1987). It describes a man, an academic writing a paper on Hardy’s poems, who, sitting in a summer garden at his lodgings, finds he has a ten year old boy as a companion. When he describes this young boy to the woman from whom he has rented his room, she tells him—unable to see the ghost herself—that it was her only child, killed two years earlier, knocked down by a car on a hot July afternoon.
Aside from additional poignancy that comes with knowing Byatt’s own son died this way, so imbuing the weight of personal experience to the writing, the story, for me, presented an aching, almost unbearable, contradiction and dynamic, one that certainly influenced the creative process when I was developing Afterlife, my ITV drama series (2005-6)—which I always paraphrased as being about a troubled psychic medium and the even more troubled psychologist studying her. In my series, avowed sceptic Dr Robert Bridge (Andrew Lincoln) is paralysed by the loss of his son, Josh. Alison Mundy (Lesley Sharp) can see him, but he himself cannot.
Since ghosts are about presences but also absences, I find the symbolism of who can see and who is psychically “blind” one that returns to my writing again and again. What is gone is often as important as what remains. And if you can see nothing, does it really mean there is nothing there? As Alison says to Robert in Afterlife: “Who’s to say I’m mad and you’re sane?”
And so to Baby on Board.
Which first came to me as a short story idea, the catalyst being a request from Holly Blades for a late night ghost story to be read aloud at EdgeLit, the bijou genre convention at The Quad in Derby, upcoming in July 2023.
As many genre writers will tell you, sometimes a creepy story is sparked by something quite innocuous in life. In this case, it was the ubiquitous sign or sticker you see on the rear windows of cars—"Baby on Board"—which somehow, to me, with its catchy alliteration, and its implication of a fragile cargo, has a sinister, or potentially sinister, ring to it. With the title firmly in mind, I pictured an empty baby seat, something we see every day with no attendant anxiety, imagining that the parent must have extracted said child for some undefined period of time after which the occupant would be returned. But what if that isn’t the case? What if the child is gone forever?
Presences and absences.
I wondered if I could use a baby seat as a totemic object and one to which a grieving father must cling. I knew of many instances (we probably all do) where a treasured possession or piece of clothing comes to symbolise a lost loved one and the bereaved person is understandably loath to part with it. This seemed one such instance, albeit an invented and bizarre one. The set-up of one father enduring loss meeting another, expectant, father in the dead of night struck me as an eerie one, but this tale needed to be about sadness; taking it in an overtly horror direction would have served to cheapen it, I felt, so I pulled back from that.
No gag. No twist. When it comes to horror stories, I often ask myself: “What’s the least I have to do to make this horror?”
And so it was written, and became accepted as part of a new collection—all ghost stories by me—which will be published later this year. Details TBC.
It will also—as you know by now, dear reader—be a short film directed by the excellent Andrew David Barker. As soon as it was on the page I thought, this is basically a two-hander which could be realised on film without bursting anybody’s bank balance. I thought it was performable—not all stories are—and, importantly, I thought it might, for all its brevity, stick in the mind of the viewer if we got it right. In my opinion, many short films are beautifully produced but sometimes feel like show reels for the director’s next job. I wanted this to be a film the director wanted to make, not the next one.
And so, it seems, it is.
God knows, using the ghost to represent a projection of inner psychological turmoil isn’t new, but nevertheless it’s one of the most potent metaphors I know. Ultimately, I think, and hope, embedded in Baby on Board is something a little different in a supernatural story—if it is a supernatural story, even. The idea that hurt can be painful to the point of being unbearable, but to continue without that hurt, perceived as a kind of betrayal of the deceased, can be more unbearable still.
Hosted by HorrfiedMag, Andrew David Barker will be writing a diary about the making of his next short film "Baby on Board" - based on a short story of mine, with a script adaptation by me. I hope this will be an exciting adventure and you can be with us every step of the way. Take it away, Andrew.
This is an ongoing production diary charting the making of the short film Baby On Board, written by Stephen Volk and directed by me, Andrew David Barker. With each entry, I will detail the production, from pre to post, and beyond. This will all be exclusive content to Horrified, and as we go on, it will include production stills, interviews, and more. I hope you will join me on this adventure and enjoy what’s to come.
If you would like to support this project, I have a BUY ME A COFFEE page. Any contribution will go directly into the film and would be greatly appreciated.
Andrew David Barker
Follow Andrew's "Baby On Board" Production Diary here
A short interview about ghost stories and writing, hosted by Mark Norman of The Folklore Podcast - recorded live at the 2023 UK Ghost Story Festival at the Museum of Making in Derby.
Film (Year) Director:
Don't Look Now (1973) dir. Nicolas Roeg
The Innocents (1961) dir. Jack Clayton
Taxi Driver (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese
The Devils (1971) dir. Ken Russell
Macbeth (1971) dir. Roman Polanski
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) dir. Peter Weir
Apocalypse Now (1979) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Requiem for a Dream (2000) dir. Darren Aronofsky
The Night of the Hunter (1955) dir. Charles Laughton
Dracula (1958) dir. Terence Fisher
Don't Look Now
1973 United Kingdom, Italy
This film had a profound and visceral effect on me and has been embedded in my psyche ever since. A masterpiece of every aspect of cinematic art.
1961 USA, United Kingdom
The most effective and precise rendition of a ghost story in cinema, with an unforgettable central performance.
The first film where I found myself experiencing an abnormal mind from the inside. Rewards endless rewatching.
1971 USA, United Kingdom
A physical onslaught of a film which changed my idea about organised religion, and history, forever. I have never been the same since. The fact the film has not been released in its intended form is a travesty.
1971 USA, United Kingdom
Polanski achieved at a stroke what my English teachers never had: he made Shakespeare not only intelligible but compelling.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
A film that is not just a mystery, but about the nature of mystery and the inability of human beings to accept the inexplicable. Masterful and eternally resonant.
Far more than a war film or mythic quest, it throws of the shackles off its genre to become a meditation on madness and horror. Unforgettable.
Requiem for a Dream
Simply unrelenting and unapologetic. Funny, disturbing, extreme, challenging - all I ever want from cinema. The fact that some people find it unbearably grim only makes me love it all the more.
The Night of the Hunter
This nightmarish horror with children at the centre, full of classic imagery and a blood and thunder perforamance from Mitchum, always had to be on my list.
1958 United Kingdom
There had to be one Hammer here, and it's this. There is no better scene in the history of horror than the climactic confrontation between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Etched into my mind and absolutely treasured. It never gets old and never fails to get the blood pumping.
I have chosen these films with two strict criteria: That they had to have had a profound effect on me on first viewing. Secondly, that their lasting legacy had to have stayed with me and imbued my own creative life. All the films on the list have done, some directly and massively influencing my writing, while others have provided constant inspiration by their greatness. Thanks for the opportunity to share them.
Close, but no cigar:
A Clockwork Orange
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
The Devil Rides Out
Quatermass and the Pit
I was up in London recently to meet Charlotte Colbert, the incredibly talented director of the excellent horror film She Will. On the train home, I ran out of things to read, so I idly wrote down - in vague response to Boris Starling, who'd written something similar online - my CONTENTIOUS ADVICE FROM A CONTRARIAN WRITER. Obviously, your mileage may vary.
But here goes:
1. Arrive on time, every time. No excuses.
2. Nobody will die if they don't get it Monday.
3. If a project is suffering or you are suffering, quit. (I have walked 3 tmes in 35+ years - all for good reason, but all painful decisions.)
4. "No" is a beautiful word.
5. They never give you enough time to get it right, but, miraculously, there is always time to do it again.
6. Shouters have already lost.
7. Take inspiration from other people's writing, but unless you add something of your own life experience, it's worthless.
8. "Resilience" is a dangerous concept - writing skill is nothing to do with strength of character. Be aware that there are those who have trouble setting one foot in front of the other (creatively or psychologically) - and it is not a flaw. Support them, because they might be the smartest person in the room.
9. Don't take every job that is offered. Your career is your choices, and you have to live with that. (Then again, no sin to make a living.)
10. Have self doubt. Those who don't tend to be pricks.
11. Not all criticism is valuable and too much can capsize a perfectly good boat.
12. Bottom line, look after your own soul and the writing will take care of itself.
13. You might be a sceptic and an atheist, but it doesn't mean your characters aren't on a spiritual journey.
14. Lose yourself in your writing - in every sense.
15. An actor's question, and the director's answer, might be about something you never thought of.
16. You don't choose your subjects (or obsessions), they choose you.
17. Don't say you're "lucky" - you are talented and you work hard. 99% of the population would love to do what you do, but that doesn't mean you shoulod be embarrassed or "grateful" for doing it for a living.
18. On those days you might, god forbid, hate what you're doing - for whatever reason - don't resist the pull to the dark or try to talk yourself into believing it's all rosy. Take a deep breath, sink deep, and, god willing, come out the other side with renewed vigour. (In short: fucking wallow.)
19. No job is beneath you, or beyond you.
20. Social media is an addiction, and like all addictions, both loathsome and offering certain irresistable benefits.
21. A director once told me the world is divided into nice people who don't get films made, and absolute shitbags who get movies off the ground.
22. Writing free for "exposure" is toxic and unrelenting. And now they aren't even guilty about asking you to write for no pay. It's a disease.
23. Occasionally write a story for yourself that nobody else will eer read. It's the best way to recalibrate your inner writer. The secrecy of exploring an idea without any commitment to outcome.
24. Remind yourself of the time that script note you resented, and resisted at all costs, turned out to be right.
25. Dickens might not have written for EastEnders if he was living today. He might have become Guillermo Del Toro or Steven Spielberg.
26. People will always ask you questions about that scene the director wrote.
27. Sometimes writing is like beating sheet metal with a sledgehammer. Sometimes the sheet metal is you.
28. If you have spare time on a train journey, don't write a list, write a scene.
Stephen Volk is an upcoming guest at the UK Ghost Story Festival in Derby, February 2023. These questions were put to him by festival director Alex Davis.
For someone who counts himself a sceptic and unbeliever, Stephen Volk has always had an unhealthy interest in ghosts. He’s probably best known for being the evil mastermind behind Ghostwatch, the BBC drama which pretended to be a “live” broadcast from a haunted house, starring Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene. Some cages were rattled at the time – questions were even raised in Parliament - and, 30 years later, the programme is oft remembered by fans as one of the standout moments of pant-wetting TV. He also wrote Gothic, the Ken Russell film on the origin of Frankenstein that starred Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley and Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron. Amongst many other scripts and books (including the recent Under a Raven’s Wing), he has created and written the multi-award winning ITV drama series Afterlife, starring Lesley Sharp as psychic medium Alison Mundy and Andrew Lincoln as the psychologist studying her, as well as the stage play The Chapel of Unrest which was performed by Jim Broadbent and Reece Shearsmith at The Bush Theatre in London. As if that weren’t enough, his fourth collection of short stories (after Dark Corners, Monsters in the Heart, The Parts We Play and Lies of Tenderness) will be published later this year – and this time it’ll be exclusively ghost stories.
What was the first ghost story you read?
I can’t tell you the first one I ever read, but I can tell you the first one I ever saw. It was called The Live Ghost and, of all things, it was a Laurel and Hardy short. Yes, I hear you say, but that was supposed to be funny, not scary! I’d honestly beg to differ. Because on my first viewing, aged about four or five, it scared me to death. True, when the drunk falls into the vat of white paint and staggers out, with Stan thinking he’s a spectre, it is meant to be hilarious. But for some reason – I don’t know if it was the grainy black and white – the image gave me the creeps. I’m adamant, to this day, that you can’t tell what is going to terrify young kids, and if you bar them from seeing what is deemed “scary” they will find something scary in the innocuous. I know I did. And in some ways I’ve been on that path ever since.
Do you have a favourite ghost story, be it on the page or on the screen?
The ghost story that is top on my list, and one that I return to time and again, has to be The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s immaculate adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. I love that he got Truman Capote, a gay writer from the South, to work on the script, bringing a whole new dimension of implied perversion to William Archibald’s stage version. The cinematography is luminous, the chilly moments unforgettable: The tortoise. Miss Jessel across the lake. Quint’s face in the window pane. The illicit kiss of Miles. James’s novella itself is multi-layered and erotically subtle, but somehow in its conversion to the cinema improves upon what is on the page. The house, with its church-like architecture, fighting against the encroaching forces of nature, as the governess’s faith is beleaguered against the pagan and earthy intrusion of the dead. Just genius.
What was the first ghost story you wrote?
I’ll tell you a secret. The very first thing I ever wrote on my new typewriter when I was fifteen years old was a ghost story. In fact, it was a series of ghost stories! My mates and I were obsessed with those marvellous ITC adventure series that were on TV at the time – The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk, Strange Report, The Prisoner. We all wanted to make our own. Mine was called Ghosthunter and had two characters called Heller and Cavendish (who were basically Peter Wyngarde and Joel Fabiani from Department S), in swinging 1970s London, investigating ghosts. I wrote the ten-page “series format”, drew the standing set, visualised the costumes, and wrote six episodes. Mind you, each one was five pages long, single spaced. Still, when you think about it, it has echoed down the ages and sowed the seeds for many scripts I’ve written since – the sceptic and psychic in Afterlife, the female ghosthunter played by Rebecca Hall in my screenplay The Awakening (StudioCanal / BBCFilms, 2011).
What do you think is the enduring appeal of the form?
For me the appeal of the ghost story is that the ghost can stand for many things – grief, unfinished business, injustice – and any sort of unresolved flaw in the central character. For me the ghost is often a wonderful projection of what is wrong with them, which is why they have to sort it out – as well as a massive disruption of the status quo of everyday reality, so those two things go hand in hand. I always say if someone proved the existence of ghosts tomorrow, or proved they didn’t exist, it wouldn’t matter to me, I’d go on writing ghost stories, because the ghost as a symbol, as a potent metaphor, remains, and I am interested in what people believe in. And I’ve learnt that most of my characters are on some kind of spiritual journey, which is a hell of a thing for an atheist to admit, but it’s true.
Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to at the Festival itself?
What I love about festivals is the sharing. The cross-pollination of ideas you get, from other guests, and from the audience. The notion you have been to four or five talks and certain ideas overlap or others contradict. I love listening to writers discussing craft, always, it’s just the best and most inspiring thing, and the buzz of that never gets old. You never get so sure of how to do this shit that you don’t need to listen. I may be doing an interview on the Friday and I may be doing a talk about my TV work, but really, I’m all ears.
The Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill, Derby, DE1 3AF
Sat 18th February 2023
Dialogue with the Dead: The Writing of ITV's Afterlife / Stephen Volk
Saturday 18th Feb, 3:30pm-4:30pm (Tickets £7.50)
Stephen Volk's talk will give you a peek behind the scenes of the much-loved supernatural TV drama starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln. Starting with pitch and concept, he will take you through the long journey to production, lifting the lid the collaborative process, and revealing his passionate belief in the importance of "unreality TV".
Part of the UK Ghost Story Festival - https://www.ukghoststoryfestival.co.uk/
There will also be a Stephen Volk In Conversation Interview/Q+A at 2:00pm-3:00pm on Friday 17th February and lots of other author events (see above link for full details).
Screenwriter and author