The Good Unknown: Exploring Stephen Volk’s Ghost Stories

Nov 28, 2023
HORROR INTERVIEW The Good Unknown- Exploring Stephen Volk's Ghost Stories

Stephen Volk – The Good Unknown and Other Ghost Stories – Interview

Following the release of his new collection The Good Unknown and Other Ghost Stories (review here), Stephen Volk sat down with Gingernuts of Horror to discuss the inspiration and process behind the collection.

Gingernuts Of Horror: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us again about the new collection. I’d like to start by asking about your affinity for the ghost story; as a Humanist and a writer, what is it about the ghost story specifically that you find yourself drawn to?

Stephen Volk: Yes, I’m a patron of Humanists UK. The organisation represents a lot of my secular, non-religious values, but I don’t think my love of ghost stories is in any way related to whether I believe or don’t believe in ghosts or an afterlife. I think that’s a different, and possibly more complex discussion. I basically consider myself a sceptic, but I do believe people have genuinely strange experiences for which there might be a whole range of explanations; scientific, psychodynamic, psychological, even geological! Also I don’t think we can, at this present moment in time, presume in our arrogance we know everything about the universe and how it works, so an explanation for some of these weird occurrences might well be lurking around the corner. Or not. We don’t know. So I carry with me that sliver of doubt along with the heavy dose of atheism. That’s my personal standpoint. So that’s one thing.

What I feel drawn to in writing ghost stories is partly to do with being drawn back to the nostalgia for a genre of literature I love (I don’t need to spell out those influences, on the page or on the screen) but also to do with what the ghost story offers uniquely in terms of metaphor. The ghost can stand for something. Many things. The most obvious being grief and loss. But also injustice. Impotence. Stupidity. A warning. A lack, or something missing, in the character. The question I almost always ask myself is: why is this character experiencing the ghost? It’s the perceiver that’s interesting to me. The ghost is just a device to get to the psychological core of a person and to amplify or magnify it. It’s a way of examining human dilemmas in a poetic way rather than on a conventional, naturalistic level.

GNoH: Yes, that’s one thing that struck me very strongly about the collection – the diversity of characters and narrative you found within the form. Baby On Board feels like an exemplar, in terms of exploring someone’s psychological core (interestingly, in that case, I would argue the core of both the haunted and of the ‘witness’). How do you approach writing about the kind of elemental emotional pain that the protagonist is experiencing? And I see this story has also been made into a short movie – which came first?

SV: The story came first. Once I’d written it, it struck me it could be a very simply realised two-hander. I’d seen a short film by Andrew David Barker in which he’d caught very nice performances, so I offered it to him, and he gobbled up the opportunity, I’m happy to say. 

I don’t know if I have any method at all when it comes to getting to characters’ “elemental emotional pain”, other than just to try to be truthful. In Baby on Board, for instance, I would have found it extremely difficult to tell the story in the bereaved father’s voice – it was easier and better having another person’s point of view, and to convey the other person’s grief by the policeman’s observation of behaviour and dialogue. Kind of an Ancient Mariner “who stoppeth one of three” situation. More generally, I think I try to avoid weeping and wailing melodrama because that’s often not how people react or cope with death. I remember Michael Caine saying about “drunk acting” is that you don’t “act drunk”, because an actual drunk is trying not to look drunk. And it’s the same with grief. In real life, people express things obtusely. They might talk about a small thing that encapsulates a very personal relationship. In this case, the man fixates on the child seat as a talismanic object, as a connection to his dead son, and he can’t allow himself to get rid of it. I thought that was a very powerful metaphor for absence; it is using a “prop”, in a way, to emblemise his psychological state. Also the idea of his driving around the streets at night, alone. It’s another way to portray his sense of being lost. How do you say it without saying it? Because that’s where the reader steps in and fills in the gaps.        

GNoH: In terms of ghostly phenomena having a range of possible explanations, I felt that The Flickering Light did an incredible job of expressing that ambiguity in a really thoughtful and respectful way. When writing that, how conscious were you of the importance of that ambiguity? Are there earlier drafts where the (possible) phenomenon was more or less explicit?

SV: No, it was exactly like that from the beginning. Minimal, I’m afraid. It’s all based on real life, to be honest. My wife stood on the bed adjusting the light bulb just like Bell does. And her telling the story about the flickering light when her father died – all that is true. Her saying what she told her sister the night her father died; absolutely true. And at that moment I thought: “There’s a story right there.” Just connecting those incidents built up into a little tapestry of oddness (including the friend of ours who died), and, a bit like the symbolism I talked about in Baby on Board, I thought, if the flickering light symbolises or foretells the moment of death, what’s the end of the story? And that presented itself as the last line of the story.  

GNoH: The Waiting Room visits not only Dickensian England but the man himself. Given your past work weaving fictional narratives around historical figures, what in particular attracted you to Dickens as a figure?

SV: To be honest, it was coming across the true ghost story upon which my story is based. My jaw dropped when I read about it. This young painter approaching the famous author and saying he’d had the exact experience of a ghost Dickens had described in a published story. Incredible! Literally! As with Byron, Mary Shelley, the Villa Diodati and Gothic, I thought: “Why has nobody written this?” Yes, in some respects it was another “dark master” as in my trilogy of that name (which features Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Dennis Wheatley), but it also serves to illustrate the answer I just gave earlier as to why I’m drawn to ghosts. I had to find out why, in fictional terms, this ghost was there for Dickens – what its meaning was and why it had picked on him. That meant delving a bit into biography, digging in the dirt, but I love doing that. Dickens was so admirable in many ways but utterly despicable in others (as we know from the book The Invisible Woman) and that is always catnip to me.The contradictions, I mean.Also it was a call from the past, in that it enabled me, in some respects, to revisit my love of The Signal Man, a chilling tale born of Dickens’s surviving the Staplehurst train crash, and my favourite of the BBC TV Ghost Stories for Christmas, starring Denholm Elliot.So it was the nostalgia, and the intriguing challenge to find out: What does this spirit want with Dickens? In a Scrooge-type way. That was an obvious parallel, too.     

GNoH: Cold Ashton, I felt, did a superb job of allowing the bulk of the narrative to be revealed by the investigations of the tale’s protagonist. To what degree were you channelling your own experiences of historical research (for Dark Masters and Under A Raven’s Wing for example)? It occurs to me there are parallels with what you’ve described regarding The Waiting Room, also…

SV: A number of things to say about this one, aside from the fact I set it in a very specific town not far from where I live. Cold Ashton struck me as a delicious title.  But I’d always wanted to do a story about a man coming back from war in medieval times, and there being a difference of opinion about whether he was alive or a revenant: a kind of creepy riff on The Return of Martin Guerre. Then along came Dan Coxon, who asked me to do a story for his anthology This Dreaming Isle – the brief being to do a spectral or uncanny story using the British landscape in the manner of M. R. James. So I thought a Jamesian-type scholarly narrator could be rummaging in old books and come across this ancient story of rural witchcraft. That was the version I did for Dan, but on re-reading it I didn’t find the scholar, or the ending, that satisfying. So for this book I rewrote it with a new narrator, a bookish widow, and that bounced off the internal story much more interestingly, for me; and provided a more emotionally resonant, and eerie, ending (I hope). 

GNoH: I loved the protagonist for this story, as I highlighted in the review. In fact, your character work is a consistent strength of your writing, in my opinion. You discussed in Coffinmaker’s Blues about how you’ll often ‘collect’ images or fragments of ideas; I wonder, is it the same with characters? Do you find the situation suggests the protagonist, or the other way around? Or does it vary? 

SV: It depends. Both. With a short story you might want to have a very detailed character, or you might simply want a point of view and it serves the story to be sketchy or vague. That’s why in some stories (like Baby on Board) I don’t even name the characters. It’s not necessary. And it’s not necessary to know that much about them. In Cold Ashton I got the protagonist wrong, or at least I felt it could be improved from the stereotype of the stuffy bachelor scholar. A gender flip is often a good start! But I suppose I start with the character’s function in the story in a very basic way – the type, the attitude, which is terribly important, then just apply shading and detail. Sometimes that comes from just trying it out and hearing them talk. In Cold Ashton I thought, oh, she’s going to a wedding, oh, she’s lost her fiancée. That’s interesting. But rather than grieving-grieving she is a very independent and self-contained woman. Spiky, and a fish out of water.

I know some writers who like to keep their protagonists unspecific so that the reader can “identify” with them. In other words, they don’t say if the character is Black but you can think they’re Black if you want to. And they don’t put in a lot of background for fear of turning the reader off because it doesn’t match their life experience. I can’t think like that. I like to give details – not necessarily a lot of details – but enough to make the person vivid and specific and convincing. In Cold Ashton there’s a line or two about her school, not for information’s sake, but it beds her down and makes you feel this is a real person, I hope.        

GNoH: Three Fingers, One Thumb landed for me like an absolute hammer blow. Can you recall anything about the inspiration or originating thoughts that led to this story?

SV: I wrote it a long time ago. Now, to me, the story seems somewhat terse in its brevity, but I’m glad it worked for you.It was really the title, to be honest. I read somewhere once that early animators make their drawings have three fingers and a thumb because that made it easier to animate. Whether that is true or not I don’t know. I just liked the phrase and its oddness. Then there’s my lifelong antipathy for feelgood fare. Mickey Mouse and suchlike. Things that are designed to make you happy. I distrust them intensely. They somehow go hand in hand with grinning American televangelists asking for your money which always seems to bypass God’s work and end up in their bank account. A theme park where you are promised wishes come true seemed to be such a horrible counterpoint for a couple enduring grief. A bit like dreary, off-season Venice for the couple in Don’t Look Now. And I’m always really suspicious of who is hiding inside those cuddly life-sized figures with the fixed grins. As with clowns, when you can’t see the actual face, it’s scary. 

GNoH: You revisit two of your most celebrated creations in this collection – Ghostwatch and Afterlife – we’ve talked before about the differences in writing for screen and writing prose, but what about those two stories compelled you to revisit them in this form? 

SV: I thought it would have been churlish not to include 31/10 as it is a riff on my most well-known ghost story, Ghostwatch. It was written in 2002 for the tenth anniversary of its original (and only) broadcast on Halloween night 1992. I didn’t really want to write it but did so as a favour for a fan who ran a website, and wrote it longhand on holiday in Morocco. Didn’t take it very seriously, but if I was going to do it at all, I had to acknowledge I was complicit in the programme’s effect on the public – <SPOILERS> which is why, at the end, I am Pipes. A joke, of course, but also the truth! <SPOILERS>

As for Afterlife, on and off, ever since ITV cancelled the series in 2006, I wondered (especially when I visited Bristol), what Alison – my troubled psychic medium, played so memorably by Lesley Sharp – was up to, regretting the many ideas we didn’t get to explore on screen after the death of Robert (Andrew Lincoln) at the end of season two. Perhaps the story was over. Perhaps it wasn’t. Cut to 2022, and during the mid-July heatwave I was compiling the stories that comprise The Good Unknown and Other Ghost Stories for Tartarus. I suddenly remembered I had a ghost story script on the shelf called Lost Loved Ones which I developed, again with Clerkenwell Films, as the pilot for The Calling (aka Empty Chairs). Back in 2016, it had been an unashamed attempt on our part to resurrect Afterlife in a different guise: ITV has said they’d rather see new ideas from me rather than a spin-off of our old show, and the BBC were after a “story-of-the-week” paranormal series, until it turned out they weren’t, so our efforts fell on deaf ears. The series was dead in TV terms, but it suddenly occurred to me that, with a little tweaking, the story could be a perfect fit for Alison Mundy and would enable me to pick up the character, after a hiatus of 16 years, in 2022. 

The prospect of writing about Alison again in a short story (or, as it turned out, a novella) – especially the notion of a spirit medium in a Britain coming out of the COVID pandemic lockdown – was tremendously exciting, but I realised there wasn’t much point in thinking about it further, since Clerkenwell Films owned the rights. I asked my agent to email Petra Fried, who had been script executive on Afterlife and is now Managing Director of Clerkenwell Films, asking for permission to use Alison in a story for a book. To my delight, Petra replied “Of course!” So I got stuck in, and it worked like a dream. I hope it’s something Afterlife fans will enjoy, and holds its own on the page for those who don’t know the show at all. For my part, it was fantastic to return a world I had immense satisfaction in writing, as well as the great joy of watching it come to fruition in the hands of exceptionally talented actors, directors and producers. For once, in the world of screenwriting, I was blessed, and I knew it. 

Feeling the need for Lesley’s approval, since she had made the character so much her own, I was overjoyed when I sent Lost Loved Ones to her and she wrote back to say it had made her cry.  

GNoH: And I understand she’s now recorded an audiobook edition of the story with Bafflegab, which I imagine was a thrill for you…

SV: Indeed it was. As I say, she said it made her cry, and if I ever wanted it recorded, she’d do it. Well, that was an opportunity too good to miss! I’d done one of the Hammer Chillers audio dramas for Simon Barnard at Bafflegab, so I contacted him and – long shot – asked if he would be interested in producing and directing. He read the novella and said he would, so that was wonderful. I went to London for the recording and, to my surprise, by the time I got to the studio they were already halfway through. Of course Lesley is an incredibly experienced reader so she could crack through it. But my main reason for going was to meet up again, fifteen years on. Which was lovely. If you go to that link to the Lost Loved Ones audiobook there’s a free download of me chatting to her about our experience of making Afterlife and what it meant to us both.  

GNoH: The collection closes with The Crossing, which, as I noted in my review, I found to be resonant on a number of levels. Can you recall what led you to realise the narrative would work best in second person? I know you usually plan out your stories ahead of time; how early in that process did the second-person decision happen?

SV: I hope this isn’t a prosaic answer, but the truth is, it didn’t feel right to tell it in first person; it would have been enormously fake for me to presume to ventriloquise a thirteen-year-old. I was aware I could easily come off the rails if I attempted that. But, on the other hand, the distance you get with third person was too remote and godly or (worse) adult-like, implying scrutiny or judgement. So second person was a way to get a degree of intimacy balanced with the objective. I knew readers might balk at the decision because it’s rarely done and can come across as an affectation, but for this story it felt 100% right. 

Yes, it was planned in some detail. I knew it should be over one weekend, so that gave me three acts. I knew the climax I was building to, but much of it was tonal building blocks. I’d been reading stories by Lucie McKnight Hardy in her terrific collection Dead Relatives, and the way some of those stories reflect psychology through landscape was revelatory to me. They persuaded me to trust in place and trust in the description of events. I’m always looking for how little you have to do to make something horror. Not how much – how little. To finish the book I craved writing a story that was about nuance. Where the reader had to fill in the spaces, let it linger, let it seep in, the way the incoming tide seeps into the shingle. I had what I thought were two powerful elements – the fragile mental health of a teenager, and the perilous journey of migrants crossing the channel – so it was a question of calibrating those two elements in parallel. 

Stories always develop in the telling but I think The Crossing became about how a psychic emptiness can be filled. How a soul can be saved by someone who considers themselves worthless. Nobody is worthless in this world, I believe. Every life is sacred. So, simply put, it’s a possession story. The recent rash of exorcism films I find completely boring, lacking as they are in originality and jam-packed with cliché. I’d always aspire to the subtlety of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw – though in that novella the children are in a “possessed” or “influenced” state at the beginning of the story. Perversely, I wanted to end my story at the moment of possession, if you will. I knew very clearly that once that happens the story is over. I didn’t want to write (or know) what happens next. That’s it.

The other thing is, more generally, I don’t see why you can’t use real, contemporary issues in a ghost story. Why can’t I? Is it decreed out of bounds? Are we writers supposed to be strictly confined in 2023 to the realm of “pleasurable terror” as defined by M.R. James? I think that is rubbish, and that goes for TV ghost stories too. If we stick to that, the genre is destined to be toothless, dull, and preserved in aspic. Not vital and changing and valid in a way that holds its head high amongst contemporary literature by modern, living authors.       

GNoH: I agree very strongly with that last observation; quite apart from anything else, the vast majority of work we consider ‘classic’, in any genre, often has that status precisely because it evokes the time it was written so keenly, I think. And the more I reflect on it, the more I think, sadly, the central image the story is haunted by is an entirely apposite image for the current moment, in a lot of ways…

SV: That’s exactly right. Thank you. That newspaper front page image you are talking about does haunt us. It haunts me. How can it not? And I think we have to look around us for stories, not just look over our shoulder at The Mezzotint. I actually wrote a script for Afterlife which was about the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. It got canned by the production team, and perhaps they were right – perhaps horror torn from the news is just too raw and upsetting and it’s easier to retreat into the cosy past, but then again, a ghost story, which is all about loss and grief, should be able to go there, shouldn’t it? I don’t know. 

I suppose that’s, in part, why I wanted to do a collection of “just ghost stories by me”. I specifically wanted to see how they bounced off each other, whether I’m riffing off the tropes of the past or using ghosts to explore contemporary issues in the here and now. If I’ve revealed a little bit of my take on how I write these things, what grips me about the subject, and the wide and exciting range of possibilities I still find within the subgenre, I’ll have done my job. If I’ve shown the flea-ridden old dog till has some new tricks, I’ll be more than happy!        

GNoH: Finally, congratulations on The Good Unknown limited hardback selling out so quickly – are there any plans for a mass market release? And more generally, where can fans of your work keep up to date with your latest news and releases?

SV: Yes, I am pleasantly astonished the hardback limited book is already sold out. But fear not! I am talking to Tartarus about a reprint in some form, however I can give no firm news yet. In the meantime, remember the ebook edition is still available to buy directly from their site. More generally, for those interested in my prose and screen work, I will always post updates on Twitter and Facebook when I can, or you can keep up to date with my website, which is: www.stephenvolk.net  

Thank you for the interview. As always it was great fun. And thank you to Ginger Nuts for its stalwart support! 

The Good Unknown and Other Ghost Stories by Stephen Volk

The Good Unknown and Other Ghost Stories by Stephen Volk

In this new collection of eleven stories, Stephen Volk explores the wide span of possibilities of the ghost story in its various manifestations—from hauntings set in the quotidian modern world, to ones that hark back to traditional, but no less chilling, tales of the past.

When battle-scarred army veterans are recruited for an archaeological dig in Wiltshire, more than bones are unearthed, in ‘Unrecovered’. A pleasure park becomes anything but pleasurable in ‘Three Fingers, One Thumb’. In ‘31/10’ a notorious, fateful BBC TV studio is revisited, while in ‘The Waiting Room’ a supernatural encounter makes Charles Dickens himself come to question both his creative inspiration and his fundamental beliefs.

Three brand new stories are included here: ‘The Crossing’, ‘Baby on Board’, and ‘Lost Loved Ones’—the latter novella being a sequel to Volk’s television series Afterlife and a welcome return for him to the much-loved character of Alison Mundy, the troubled psychic medium, in a world post-Covid.

As with the rest of the book, these have the author’s trademark mixture of ‘horror and heartbreak’ (Nathan Ballingrud); qualities that have earned him praise as ‘one of our genre’s foremost practitioners in the short form’ (Peter Tennant, Black Static) and ‘one of the most provocative and unsettling of contemporary writers’ (Andy Hedgecock, Interzone).

 Order the book directly from Tartarus Press here 

About the author

Stephen Volk’s ghost stories for the screen include BBCTV’s legendary faux documentary Ghostwatch (1992), which gave the nation nightmares and caused questions to be raised in Parliament; the award-winning ITV drama series Afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln. He is the author of four collections of short stories (Dark CornersMonsters in the HeartThe Parts We Play, and Lies of Tenderness) as well as The Dark Masters Trilogy. He won a British Fantasy Award for Monsters in the Heart and a BAFTA for the acclaimed ghost-adjacent short film The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans, set in his Welsh home town.

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