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Snapshots: Stephen Volk interviewed

Whitstable by Stephen VolkQ: Just published by Spectral Press is your new novella, Whitstable, a creepily disturbing mixing of fact and fiction that pays homage to the Hammer House of Horror and the Gentle Man of Horror, Peter Cushing. Why Hammer? Why Cushing?

Because the idea centres around a young boy who needs a monster-hunter, and to me a monster-hunter is Van Helsing – and Van Helsing is Peter Cushing! It’s really as simple as that. The idea of the boy came first, a boy who is the victim of harm of the most despicable kind, and the only way he can assimilate it and deal with it is through the metaphor of fiction. Of the horror films he watches. The only kind of evil he understands is the vampire and the only hope he can expect is that of a vampire-hunter. The surface lore of the story is all about the horror genre I love – but underneath that, it is about real horror, the horrors of real life.

Having said that, I wouldn’t have become so excited about the story if it wasn’t about my favourite actor and my favourite film company. I grew up on Hammer films, and in many ways their mythos has informed everything I’ve wanted to write since – it certainly contributed to my wanting to become a horror movie writer. When I saw names such as Tudor Gates or Jimmy Sangster on the screen, I always thought: how brilliant would it to be to have that job, to dream up stories like this and be paid for it? So I was happy that my idea for “Whitstable” allowed me to indulge in my passion for the films of that era and, more importantly (if I got it right) pay an incalculable debt of gratitude to Peter Cushing, the actor who made many of those films so vivid and unforgettable.

Q: Given that this story centres around a rather well-known actor, did you feel constrained by needing to stick to the facts and the desire to pay tribute to Cushing, or was it more the case that fiction freed you to do so?

I knew I had to go as far as possible to get it to feel right. I knew I was putting him in a fictional situation, so there was a point where research runs out and my imagination or skill has to take over – and that is the fun of it, and the challenge. To worry about whether people might pick holes in this or that detail would completely stymie me, so I tried to forget about that. First of all I had to please myself and feel I’d done a good job. A case in point (spoiler!) is that I was wondering how Cushing could defeat his nemesis. I found it impossible that he would kill or be violent to the antagonist: it simply didn’t feel in character, even in fiction, to do that – and I felt desperately that even though this is fiction, it had to be plausible. The good thing is that the solution to this was much more fitting to the story – it really added another layer, which is that Cushing finds the strength to stand up to this monster, and in doing so, destiny takes over. Fate takes a hand. He doesn’t cause the ending physically, but somehow that seemed better, to me. Like his moral strength had nevertheless vanquished the enemy.

Q: How important is sense of place to you in your work?

I think in most stories specificity is important. Well, authenticity is important. If you are trying to convince the reader or viewer that something weird or outlandish really happened, the trappings of real life are often useful to give a feeling of realism, in a way. If somebody lights a Silk Cut rather than a cigarette. All those touches – not to belabour them, obviously – add to the feeling this could happen.

Beyond that a sense of place also helps with the symbolism and theme. I’ve always found off-season seaside towns evocative, even ghostly, in their dry, slumbery atmosphere. This was excellent in Don’t Look Now, of course – somehow making the place itself otherworldly. And in “Whitstable” – look, the place is the title, even! – the image of the bereaved man looking out to sea seemed fundamental. There’s something about the constant nature of the sea and our fickle, fragile lives. And then, of course, I thought about the industry there of fishing and fishermen. I didn’t want my “vampire” to be a nobleman or toff, or office worker, or weirdo with pervy glasses – I didn’t know what he could be without it being a cliché. Then I described him as a hippie, very much of 1971, in contrast with the fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned Cushing, and I thought Cushing would probably observe that he looked like Jesus Christ (as people often said of John Lennon). Then, bingo – the connection with being a fisherman was complete. Les Gledhill became the exact reversal of the Saviour that Cushing felt had abandoned him. The themes all came together, largely by thinking about the place.

Q: Official publication date is 26th May, but I believe the hardcover edition has already sold out. What kind of response has Whitstable received?

To be honest it has been beyond my wildest dreams. It got 5 out of 5 stars in SFX magazine and an amazing review in Starburst. I’ve girded my loins for a bad one but there simply hasn’t been, touch wood! I’ve even had some tremendous feedback from people who knew Cushing and are experts on his work – David Pirie, Jonathan Rigby, Wayne Kinsey, to name a few. They’ve all been massively encouraging. But of course it was vital for me to get input from people like that to reassure me I’d “caught” the great actor convincingly. I’m happy to report that, to a man, they reported I had. Director Mick Garris and critic Kim Newman have also said they love it. I feel a bit humbled by the positive response, to be absolutely truthful.

Q: What brought you to horror fiction?

Growing up with Hammer, with comics, with Famous Monsters of Filmland. Gravitating to Pan and Poe and Stephen King. I think it is a familiar route, except for some bizarre reason I didn’t particularly want to be a novelist, I wanted to write movies. I picked up a paperback of the screenplay of Westworld just after it came out, and that was my Bible. I actually loved the screenplay form. I loved seeing films in my head. The only way to do it.

Q: As well as prose fiction, you’re a successful scriptwriter for TV and film. What makes an idea a book or short story, rather than a TV or film proposal and script?

A short story is a succinct idea with a definite voice that you can bite off as whole, I find. You know how to do it. A film is simply a drama of definite length with dramatisable action and good roles. A TV show is a proposition – a set-up with open-ended possibilities: an engine that can run and run. The format, the way it works as a drama, is everything – and that can take months or years to work out. Even Call the Midwife, which you’d think would be a no-brainer, was in development at the BBC for ages. That’s what people don’t realise about TV when they watch it, and it works or it doesn’t work. It takes bloody forever!

Of course, some ideas are perfectly suitable as a film or a novel, so there’s malleability sometimes. One idea that I’ve just had turned down by a broadcaster I might turn into a proposal for a series of books – I don’t know. You can waste an awful lot of time re-circulating ideas and sometimes it’s better just to ramp up new ones. But you don’t want to waste that perfectly good idea just because that one person didn’t get, either.

Short stories for me are “instant gratification” – and I do it for love, certainly not money. I can tell a story exactly as I want it, and it gets in a book. That is a very welcome contrast to films, which take five, ten years to get into production – if they get produced at all. I can spend a year on a TV script and even then only six people will ever read it before it’s rejected and that’s that. So it’s very soul-destroying at times. I write short fiction because I’ve got to write stories and I have to get them out there, and getting a story accepted in an anthology, as happened today, can be just as much of a thrill as having a big screen movie released. It sounds insane – but it’s true!

Q: What has scriptwriting brought to your prose fiction?

Planning. And not planning! I’m punctilious about organising my thoughts on a screenplay because a script is about concision – less is more. It’s about structuring the scenes and what happens within the scenes, and that is 99% of the work. Thinking, not typing. So I bring a sense of structure to story writing, I think, and a sense of dialogue and subtext, which you would expect.

Paradoxically, though, what I like in writing fiction is what you don’t do in screenplays which is the voice, the voice of the story or the tone of the narrator, be it first or third person. I also enjoy that fiction can meander – you can go “off piste” with little thoughts or big thoughts, but in film it is all about the spine and forward motion. Then again the reverse is true and I like to think that the freedom I have in fiction filters back in to my scripts, and I’ve learnt there are no rules – break them, divert, do whatever the hell you like. They can’t shoot you for it.

AfterlifeQ: What are the highlights of your writing career to date?

Wow. Tough one. Most enjoyable moments? Walking along the South Bank after the premiere of Gothic at the old NFT. Felt I was walking on air that night. Felt like it was all taking off (…but of course it wasn’t!). Being with Lesley Sharp and everyone at the Royal Television Society Awards when she picked up Best Actress for Afterlife. That was very special. And of course, the night I collected a BAFTA for writing the short film The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans. I stood on stage between Sean Connery and Sigourney Weaver. I’ve never been so excited in my life! Unless you count going to a party at Carrie Fisher’s house in LA and lining up for barbecue chicken next to Harrison Ford, Danny De Vito and Jack Nicolson! That was pretty nuts!

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m head down in a new series for BBCTV. Early days yet. But I’m very excited about it. And quite a few spinning plates with TV and film companies, including Playtime, a script I’ve written with Tim Lebbon, and Telepathy – which I hope will get its financing confirmed at Cannes and be filming later this year. On the fiction front I’ve stories coming out in a Professor Challenger anthology soon, in Beyond Rue Morgue (Titan), in Terror Tales of the Seaside (Gray Friar) and in The Burning Circus (BFS Publications). I’m also hoping to hear news soon about a second collection, my follow-up to Dark Corners. Which is very exciting.

Q: Describe your typical writing day.

Yikes. Must I? I’m a chronically slow starter and mornings are useless (unless I’m on a deadline) – paperwork, noodling, the inevitable emails, and coffee. Afternoons, I get stuck in, but I’m at my most productive in the evening and night time. If I had no family or social life I’d probably work from 4pm to 2am. But a lot of writing happens when you’re not writing. You’re never off work because problems and ideas are always percolating. They come together when they need to. I get panicky if I haven’t sat at my desk for a certain number of hours, but the work always gets done. Though doing 10 pages a day on a script is different kind of work than working on a treatment or outline, which is different from rewriting, which is different from writing memos or notes or having meetings, or pitching. There is no typical day!

Q: What would you draw attention to from your back-list?

The best of my drama is probably Afterlife. The best of my fiction is possibly “Whitstable”. But others might tell me differently. In terms of “back-back” list I’d like the old BBC series Ghosts to be released on DVD – I wrote two of those, and they weren’t bad. Is Network TV listening?

Q: Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?

I’ve just read Joel Lane’s collection Where Furnaces Burn, which is marvellous. I loved Mark Morris’s latest collection from PS too. And of course Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairytale. And Stephen Gallagher’s The Bedlam Detective. One of the joys of joining the community of writers in the independent genre press or via the BFS (British Fantasy Society) is that I now count all the above people as my friends. I’d also like to plug Pain Cages, a great collection by Paul Kane, for which wrote the introduction.  And for no personal reason other than it’s brilliant, I’d recommend Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson.

Q: If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?

First of all, if you are a genre writer interested in Horror, SF or Fantasy, join the British Fantasy Society. Then, I’d say:

Perseverance + Talent = Luck

You can’t do anything about your innate Talent (you’re either a storyteller or you aren’t) but you can work on the Perseverance part. And make sure when Luck comes along you are ready for it because you’ve been working your arse off!

Whitstable by Stephen VolkMore…

Stephen Volk is best known as the creator of the TV drama series Afterlife and the notorious 1992 BBC “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch. His screenplays include The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, Ken Russell’s Gothic and The Guardian directed by William Friedkin. He has been a finalist for the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards, and his short fiction has been selected for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror and Best British Mysteries

And more:

 


Guest review by John Grant: Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies by David L Robb

(Prometheus, 384 pages, hardback, 2004)

This is an important book, and thoroughly to be recommended. It is also, unfortunately, a flawed one in terms of its presentation, filled with clumsy writing and egregious repetition: it reads like a collection of essays written, rather hurriedly, at different times, and it’s somewhat shameful that neither the author nor his editor made the least effort to knit these into a coherent text.

The appeal to moviemakers of enlisting the cooperation of the military is obvious. For a fraction of the outlay that would otherwise be incurred, the military can lay on helicopters, battleships, nuclear subs and a cast of thousands. The peril of accepting such a huge cash savings — which may very well represent the difference between a movie being made and not made — is equally obvious. The non-cash price the military demands is script-approval, more usually euphemized as “technical advice.” In Operation Hollywood Robb draws up an almost mind-numbingly wide-ranging roster of movies that have been substantially — often absurdly — compromised by the military’s refusal to support enterprises that they feel fail to convey “the right message.”

The ethical core of the book is summed up in a few lines about two-thirds of the way through:

And to get an idea of what’s been lost by the sanitizing of hundreds of movies that the Pentagon has assisted, imagine what the films that the Pentagon refused to assist might have been like if they’d been subjected to the military’s approval process. Imagine a “toned down” Jack D. Ripper, the mad army general obsessed with the purity of bodily fluids in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; or a “more positive” Colonel Kurtz, the insane renegade army officer in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; or a less bitter Ron Kovic, the paralyzed hero-turned-war resister in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July; or a less goofy, more soldierlike Forrest Gump [italics sic]. How would we have known if the producers of these films had toned down their characters in order to get the military’s cooperation? And how would we have known that our movie-memories had been tampered with?

The answer, of course, is that we wouldn’t, without the help of assiduous researchers like Robb. A case in point is the relatively recent movie Windtalkers, concerning the so- called Code Talkers, Navajos enlisted to serve alongside Marines in World War II because their language was totally incomprehensible to the Japanese and, as an evolved rather than a created “code”, was invulnerable to decryption techniques. I saw this movie after I’d read Robb’s book; the person I was with had not. My companion assumed the historical underpinning of the movie was, aside from the obvious Hollywood-blockbuster conventions, fairly accurate, and was quite horrified to find this wasn’t the case. In particular, among countless smaller changes, institutionalized racism toward the Navajos was downplayed (there is a single violently racist Marine, and even he “learns better” as the movie progresses), and, most specific of all, the instruction given to each Marine teamed with a Navajo that, should his charge fall into enemy hands, his imperative duty was to kill him, in case the “code” could be tortured out of him, was almost completely written out of the script: it’s still there in tacit form, but it’s no longer an important dynamic of the plot.

The list of movies that have been similarly tampered with is a long one, as noted, and it spans decades up to the present. Even a listing of the more famous titles would be too long to reproduce here. I can guarantee, though, that many of your illusions about the integrity of your favorite movies will be shattered.

Also of interest are the tales Robb recounts of directors and producers who simply refused to be cowed by the military “script advisers” and who either scrapped their projects altogether or had confidence enough in their own box-office draw to be able to eschew the Pentagon’s cooperation. Most such moviemakers have been well established figures, for obvious reasons, but not all. I was particularly struck by the story of Cy Roth, widely regarded as one of the worst low-budget moviemakers of all time, the qualities of whose three completed movies can be judged by the title of one of them: Fire Maidens from Outer Space. In 1953 he wanted to make a serious movie called Air Strike about racism aboard a World War II aircraft carrier. The Pentagon not only refused all cooperation — how preposterous to countenance that there might be racism in the military! — but also went out of their way to try to insure the movie never saw the light of day: at one point they even enlisted the FBI to see if charges of Communism against Roth might be made to stick. Despite such persecution, Roth refused to lie down and shut up, and finally he made his movie. By all accounts it’s a rotten movie — and not just because of the lack of cooperation — but one cannot help admiring his courage and gumption in managing to make it against all the very considerable odds.

An additional point of interest in Operation Hollywood is that Robb has managed to obtain copies of various bits of correspondence between moviemakers and the military censors, and these he reproduces in facsimile form. He also presents a convincing counter-argument to the defense of the Pentagon’s attitude that refusing cooperation is different from censorship in that no one would accuse (say) Exxon of censorship if it refused to assist a movie fiercely critical of the company’s approach to clearing up oil spills. Robb points out forcefully that, unlike Exxon, the Pentagon is not a private company: it is in fact the property of the US public, and thus has no moral license whatsoever to rewrite its own and US history for the purpose of keeping that public in the dark.

Despite the irritation — even exasperation — generated by the total dereliction of auctorial and editorial duty in the preparation of its text, Operation Hollywood is one of those must-read books: no understanding of movie history is remotely complete without it. It certainly deserves far more attention than it so far seems to have received.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis review, first published by Crescent Blues, is excerpted from John Grant’s Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews, published on September 19 by infinity plus ebooks:

A bumper collection – over 150,000 words! – of book reviews, many of full essay length, by the two-time Hugo winning and World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor ofThe Encyclopedia of Fantasy and author, among much fiction, of such recent nonfiction works as Corrupted Science and (forthcoming) Denying Science.

Scholarly, iconoclastic, witty, passionate, opinionated, hilarious, scathing and downright irritating by turn, these critical pieces are sure to appeal to anyone who loves fantasy, science fiction, mystery fiction, crime fiction and many points in between … and who also enjoys a rousing argument.

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

amazon.com (Kindle format, $1.99)
amazon.co.uk (Kindle format, £1.44)
Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $1.99)



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