Booksquawk interviews Stephen Volk – author of “Whitstable” and writer of BBC's “Ghostwatch.” Interview by Hereward L. M. Proops
Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about your novella “Whitstable”.
Stephen Volk: It’s set in the Kent coastal town of its title in 1971, and is a fiction about probably its most famous resident, the horror actor Peter Cushing. It takes place at the absolute nadir of Cushing’s life, just after he lost his wife and soul-mate, Helen. As he is sitting looking out to sea one day he is approached by a young boy who mistakenly thinks he is the great vampire hunter of the Hammer Dracula films, Dr Van Helsing. He is desperate for the man’s help and, initially at least, Cushing feels sorely inadequate to rise to the challenge and be the kind of hero the boy wants in real life. Facing monsters when you have a screenplay, he finds, is much easier than facing one in real life. But he cannot ignore the pleas of an innocent child.
Booksquawk: Peter Cushing is such an iconic figure. Was it a challenge capturing his personality and voice when writing the book?
Stephen Volk: Perhaps arrogantly, I felt at the outset I could do that fairly well. I’m a massive fan of his films and as a fan, it’s not difficult to hear his voice, see his mannerisms or even imagine his reaction to things in a story. That didn’t worry me – in fact, that was exactly what excited me. I would have been foolish not to be concerned about accuracy, however and I went to great pains to get as much factual input as possible: I did a lot of research from books and I got notes on the manuscript from acclaimed Cushing experts, film critics and those who had met him. I was thrilled that, to a man, when they read it, they thought I’d captured him perfectly.
But I hasten to say – this is only a piece of fiction. This is my Peter in my story and another Cushing in another story would be different. You only have to look at the two “Hitchcock” films out there at the moment – vastly differing portrayals of the same man. You cannot really aim for “truth” of any kind, just to be convincing – or convincing enough, hopefully.
Booksquawk: The book makes reference to a number of classic movies starring Cushing. Do you have a particular favourite?
Stephen Volk: I do like “The Vampire Lovers”, which I use in the book, though Peter doesn’t have a huge part in it. I remembered the thrill of watching it in the cinema when it came out and the beheading in the opening sequence was the most graphic violence I’d ever seen. And terribly shocking, at the time. You forget that.
It’s hard to watch it now, mind. Peter was going through a terrible time with Helen’s deteriorating health and when you know that, you can see it. Consummate actor though he was, it really shows in his features.
But to be truthful, I love all Cushing’s Hammer and Amicus films, but my favourite two Hammers are actually ones without him in them – “Quatermass and the Pit” and “The Devil Rides Out”. Although, in my head, I must say, he would have been a perfect lead in either of those, too!
Booksquawk: The novella pits Cushing against a very different type of monster than those he faced in his films. What made you decide to take the character on this particular journey?
Stephen Volk: It began with the idea of a child needing help and the only way the child can deal with the harm inflicted and threatened is through the prism of horror films. I’m very interested in this idea of trauma in relation to horror and vice versa. I think horror gives the vulnerable and the frightened a vocabulary to discuss things that are unspoken and in some ways unsayable. Maybe that’s even what it’s there for. I don’t know. So that was the start point.
But in terms of the arc of what Peter undergoes in my story – well, I knew it must start with his at his lowest ebb and I knew that initially after Helen’s death he turned down all offers of work point blank. Then, in time, he changed his mind and decided to throw himself whole-heartedly back into acting. And I thought: what if that is the arc here? What if my story enables him to go on? Once I had that notion it was logical to start with him rejecting the God he believed in, and at the end feeling that God looks after him after all. A feeling that, yes, he could cope because his love for Helen would give him strength. That developed and probably became the most important thematic strand in the book, in the end.
Booksquawk: You have made a career out of scaring people. What scares you?
Stephen Volk: Apparently that question was asked of Hitchcock and he said “Everything!” That’s a brilliant answer because it’s true of me and it’s true of most horror writers I know. We are not tough people. We are neurotic and scared of our own shadow. We see fear and terror everywhere. That’s where we get our stories. If we looked around and saw fun and jollity we would be comedy writers. Hang on – that’s not true because comedy writers are far more miserable than horror writers! Meet a bunch of them in the pub and you’ll see what I mean. They never laugh at anybody else’s jokes! But horror writers are the nicest, most supportive and generous people imaginable. They really are!
I don’t have any phobias or specific things that creep me out. I don’t like loud noises or that ghost train “things jumping out at you” crap. I get claustrophobic underground – that’s just physical discomfort. I get scared in the middle of the night sometimes, but that’s usually because I think the cat has brought in a dead bird or something. Or my imagination. Not anything supernatural. I don’t believe in ghosts or anything. I’m a complete sceptic when it comes to all things paranormal – even though I love writing about it.
Booksquawk: What is your favourite horror novel / movie?
Stephen Volk: My favourite film, I always say, is “Don’t Look Now”. It’s a masterful work – the first film I saw that conveyed everything exciting about a supernatural thriller with really good, multi-layered characters you completely believed in, but with this whole metaphysical/philosophical layer that was pure cinema. Every detail and cutaway questioned the meaning of the story, or life almost. I was blown away by it. To me it was the first film that conveyed the mystification of life and our utter inability to make sense of it until it is too late.
My favourite book, in that it’s one that has stayed with me and influenced me most, is Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. The fact that there have been so many versions – from “The Munsters” to Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production – just shows what an absolute icon of popular culture it is. It’s a brilliant allegory and really emotional storytelling. OK, the language is a bit stale – but get over it! For God’s sake, it was written 200 years ago! It’s staggering - in terms of its narrative scope, the scene changing, the ideas - and at its centre this perverse father-son relationship, almost. I simply never tire of it. And, of course, my first produced screenplay was “Gothic” (1986, directed by Ken Russell) – which was my re-telling of the famous night at Villa Diodati when “Frankenstein” was “born” in young Mary.
Booksquawk: Do you have a routine for writing?
Stephen Volk: I try to keep office hours. Would probably get more done if I worked through the night and slept during the day, but my wife wouldn’t be too delighted. I’m not very productive in the morning unless I’m on a strict deadline. But I try not to beat myself up if a day doesn’t bear too much fruit. You can often have a productive hour which makes up for a day of sludge. Sometimes you have to just go through the sludge and quite often you look back and it wasn’t sludge after all.
Booksquawk: Are you working on another book at the moment?
Stephen Volk: I’m thinking about a few ideas, but I’m also thinking about earning some money, and the independent press is not the best place to do that!
Besides, I like alternating between fiction and TV and film work because the latter takes so damn long in development and hardly anybody reads it. The good thing about getting short stories and novellas published is, they get to readers. And I like to get stories out there – otherwise what is the point?
Booksquawk: “Ghostwatch” managed to terrify my entire generation. Did you anticipate it having such an impact?
Stephen Volk: No. I thought people might twig what we were doing ten minutes in, but honestly I had no idea some people would believe the whole thing was real from beginning to end. I wasn’t delighted that people thought they’d been hoodwinked in some way – that wasn’t the intention at all. The intention was to create a good old fashioned ghost story for television (with a bit of well-aimed satire thrown in).
None of us could have expected it would be getting packed out screenings twenty years later, and even have a documentary made about it (“Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains”) – which is excellent, by the way, and I recommend it to all the programme’s fans. It interviews all the key players – Sir Parky, the lot. The director, Richard Lawden, did a fantastic job. He really did. It told me things even I didn’t know about “Ghostwatch” – and I thought I knew everything!
Booksquawk: Do you think “Ghostwatch” has influenced other “found footage” movies such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity”?
Stephen Volk: I think we were the first scary movie to use that hand-held camera technique: (we used infra-red because the technique was being used in news footage in Iraq at the time so I thought it was perfect to see in the dark in a ghost story). But Oren Peli who directed “Paranormal Activity” was quoted in Time Out as saying that “Ghostwatch” was an “undiscovered gem” – which definitely means he was aware of it! As for the Blair Witch people – I have no idea. I think they deny it. (Or rather, when asked they said: “What’s that?”)
Booksquawk: Was it a challenge to bring something as innovative as “Ghostwatch” to television?
Stephen Volk: Of course. Nobody fell over themselves to say yes. They never do. In fact they said no almost every step of the way – right up to the day before! They didn’t want real presenters. They didn’t know why it wasn’t shot on Super-16. Everything. Luckily I had a strong producer in Ruth Baumgarten and a smart director in Lesley Manning and they knew what it needed to be and they “got it”, thank God.
Needless to say, nowadays it would never get through the BBC Editorial Policy Unit. It simply would never happen in a million years. It would never get within a stone’s throw of development because everything is mainstream and everything is designed to make granny feel happy. Meanwhile youngsters download movies and don’t watch terrestrial TV at all. Most broadcasters are way behind the curve because the writing’s been on the wall for years, with cable channels and the internet, yet still they’re obsessed with “ye olde” overnight ratings. I don’t know why.
Booksquawk: How did you react to the furore surrounding the show after it was aired? Do you think it will ever be shown on television again?
Stephen Volk: It won’t be shown on the BBC, I doubt that very much. It would be opening an old wound to them and I think possibly they know they didn’t shower themselves with distinction in the way they over-reacted. Then again, perhaps they did the right thing. I’m only the writer. The documentary shows very clearly that there was a lot of arse-covering going on when the shit hit the fan. I was rather protected from that because I wasn’t a BBC employee – it was the producer and exec who had to front those negativities. I just had to sit back. I couldn’t really understand the uproar. It wasn’t so much that people had been scared – which they were, in many cases – but they felt that they’d been made a mug of – by the BBC! And that wasn’t on! So the anger of the public was directed more at the BBC than at the programme itself. So my reaction was one of detached bemusement, because nobody asked my opinion at the time about any of it!
It was only after the ten year anniversary of “Ghostwatch” in 2002 when the DVD came out from the BFI (and the director, producer and I managed to record a commentary about our influences and intentions) that people came out of the woodwork and it became apparent that there were hundreds if not thousands of genuine fans of the programme all this time! Here were all these young people suddenly telling me it was the best programme the BBC had ever made, that it had put them on the road to becoming film-makers themselves, and such like – which was extremely gratifying, I can tell you.
But I don’t regret that “Ghostwatch” shook people up – I think that’s what drama has to do. Rattle cages, offend a little bit if necessary. Otherwise there’s no difference between it and the commercials.
I would hate all TV drama to become cosy and heart-warming. In fact, I told a producer once the only way I’d write anything “heart-warming” was if said organ was being roasted on a fire!
Read the review of Whitstable here.