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.
Screenwriter and author