stephen volk

The importance of copyright to writers, in the words of a writer


green burning copyright

My post(s) about the Green Party copyright proposals are still getting a frankly embarrassing number of views, but a coherent defence from the Greens themselves has yet to emerge.

I don’t mean to dwell, but I saw this simple, three-sentence summary of the situation from Stephen Volk — the writer behind TV series’ Ghostwatch, Afterlife, and the excellent novella Whistable — which (With his permission, of course -Ed) I think deserves to be shared. it sums up the reason that this is such an important issue, and why people are so concerned about the policy, better and more succinctly than I ever could:

People who debate copyright often do not seem to realise that copyright equates with income for some people. It’s not a luxury it’s a necessity. How can we value creativity if it becomes free?

Green Party, take note…

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Black Static #41 (Jul/Aug) – A Review


black static #41

Regular readers — hello to both of you! — will know that I like my horror dark, and tailor my reading habits thusly.

Recently, though, rather than fiction I sometimes feel like I could just be reading the news. Probably I’m just noticing it more than usual, but it seems to have become a never ending cavalcade of misery and suffering; new stories of murder and worse on a daily basis.

Misery, it goes without saying, is not entertainment. What is fertile ground for exploration in the hands of writers of fiction, is bleak and unremittting in the cold light of the real world, shorn of analogy.

But fiction is where we explore the world. We can bring out ideas from today and test them, analyse them, know them. All fiction is analogy, after all. So when the world is become so dark a place, where does our fiction have to go in order for us to get a handle on it? How far into the dark night must we go to flush out the real monsters behind our fears?

And on that note, the latest issue of Black Static.

Read on…

Black Static #40 – A Review


black static #40

A friend of mine recently expressed an interest in short stories. Seeing as it was my introduction to the modern short story, Black Static was the natural choice. And it was this freshly finished issue which I proffered.

Thirty issues have gone by since my first issue , and a lot has changed. But the fiction hasn’t. My first real introduction to the cutting edge of modern horror was through those pages, and every two months the stories still snap with fresh ideas and new names.

The reason for this little spiel is this: you should buy Black Static. You should buy its SF sister magazine Interzone, too. I subscribe, which takes away the pressure of remembering to buy them every two months, and you should consider that too. If you love horror, you’ll love this. If you don’t love horror — well, maybe this will change your mind.

The other purpose of this little introduction is to point out that I don’t currently hold in my hands the current issue — so form an orderly queue to point out corrections please!

Read on..

Black Static #38 (Jan/Feb) – A Review


black static #38

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen an obituary in an issue of Black Static. Interzone includes brief notes on genre figures who have passed away, as part of Ansible Link. But the obituary — the glowing tribute to Joel Lane in Black Static #38, penned by Nicolas Royle, is something else.

I never met Joel, and I only read a few of his stories. They had a dark, brooding atmosphere which resonated with a distinct sense of place. He had a distinctive and powerful style of writing, focusing on very British locations, and the weird close to everyday life.

When he sadly passed away at the far-too-young age of fifty, my Facebook page was alive with people shocked, hurt and in mourning at the lost of someone key to the genre. Although I didn’t know, the shockwave which his death caused was undeniable and inescapable. A picture has emerged of a British genre stalwart taken too soon.

And as such, the idea of an issue of Black Static in tribute is very attractive indeed.

Read on…

Black Static #37 (Nov/Dec) – A Review


black static #37 Like  Interzone, Black Static has found its way to my doormat.

Despite the fact that it hasn’t yet gained the full-colour interior which its sister magazine already enjoys, I do think that the change in format has done Black Static a lot of favours. It has a professional, slick appearance, with a weighty feel in the hand.

The addition of a longer-form novelette to the fiction roster — which I presume is a standing change? — is welcome, broadening the scope of what really is the only game in town, in terms of a high-quality British print periodical dedicated to horror and general dark fiction.

And I warn you, this seems to be a particularly dark issue. The stories within it haunt the shadows, and pull you in a little closer. It doesn’t shine a light into the darkness, but pushes the darkness out into where you’re reading.

Into where you live.

(more…)

“Monsters in the Heart” by Stephen Volk – A Review


Monsters in the Heart by Stephen Volk(Gray Friar Press, 248pp, £18.99 hb, £8.99 pb)

I have a lot of time for Stephen Volk.

He has made some cracking TV — Ghostwatch, and the extremely underrated Afterlife — and I rather enjoyed his film The Awakening.

And he has good form as a prose writer too, with his novella Whistable being one of the most bleakly moving pieces of writing I’ve read recently. At the time I took great delight in describing it as “lovingly crafted, yet fundamentally honest and believable”, a description which I stand by today.

Short stories are one of the loves of my life. They are undoubtedly the path of less glory — nobody ever made their fortune writing tales under 5,000 words long — but there’s a delight to what can be conveyed with a minimum of words.

So when I received (unsolicited) in my inbox an advance review PDF of Stephen’s new short story collection Monsters in the Heart, I jumped at the chance to see how he took to and used the form to elucidate and entertain.

Read on…

Black Static #34 – A Review


black static 34As with my Interzone review last week, I’m afraid I have missed an issue of Black Static in my reviewing quest. Unforgivable, I know. But I’m back to it this month, and ready to give my thoughts on the stories and non-fiction within.

One thing I will say first, though, is just how striking the artwork is. Black Static usually does showcase some of the very best each and every week,  but to my mind issue #34 is particularly bold. From the electrically chilling cover artwork (by Ben Baldwin), to the images for each if the stories. Joachim Luetke’s deeply chilling KKK-esque image for Sean Logan’s story “The Tower of Babel” is particularly deserving of mention, especially from a name I don’t think I’ve encountered before — and worth checking out.

But anyway, you all came here for the reviews of the stories, didn’t you? So let’s get on with the show!

Read on…

“Whitstable” by Stephen Volk – A Review


whitstable by stephen volk(Spectral Press, 140pp, pb £12.50/eb £2.04)

To the very best of my knowledge, I have never read a short story, novella or novel by Stephen Volk. I do, however, know of him  from his columns in bimonthly horror magazine Black Static, as well as his work as screenwriter for the BBC’s seminal Ghostwatch, paranormal TV series Afterlife, and more recently the horror film The Awakening.

So Whitstable is my first encounter with Volk’s prosaic fiction, a hugely ambitious novella from Spectral Press, a small independent publisher which has lately been making big waves with its dedication to publishing high-quality short fiction.

Released to mark the 100th would-have-been birthday of that titanic figure of cinematic horror Peter Cushing, the novella centres around Cushing as the main character, and is a combination of chillingly grounded horror and a sincere homage to the man himself.

Read on…

Black Static #31 (Nov/Dec 2012) – A Review


Black Static #31So here it is at last. My long promised review of Black Static issue#31.

I’ve been reading TTA Press’ horror mag for the same length of time that I’ve been reading its sister magazine Interzone, and the heir to The Third Alternative was even then established as a monolith of the UK genre scene. I think issue #10 was the first one I read, and as I opened the glossy cover and dipped into the stories I think that was the moment I became truly hooked on the short story.

I think there’s room for a whole blog post of my musings on short form fiction, but this is neither the time nor the place. Instead, what I will say is that whether you love short stories or are simply curious about them, whether you are an adoring devotee and junkie of horror or just want to know what makes it tick, Black Static reallyought to be your first port of call.

Its present form is somewhat different from that first one I tore the plastic off. A recent redesign has seen it taking more of a comic book look — strongly reminiscent of the late Murky Depths. And if this issue is anything to go by, editor Andy Cox is moving towards including “novelettes” — loathsome terminology, in my opinion — as an integral part.

The stories, though, are still what the whole thing turns on, and so without further ado, my thoughts on them:

  • “Barbary” by Jackson Khul: We open with one of the above mentioned novelettes. I don’t think I’ve read any of Khul’s writing before, but this is a very good piece of fiction. It follows an ailing sailor, who discovers that the cure to his chronic pain is the embalmed deceased of ancient Egypt. I won’t go into details about the plot, as although it was very good, it was the peculiar and slightly archaic way in which it was written – fitting the plot like a glove – which fascinated me. It has a flavour of Lovecraft, with its dark subject matter, and its style of writing. Thankfully no racism here though. An excellent piece of fiction.
  • “Sister” by Seán Padraic Birnie: In contrast to the preceding story, this is a raw, personal and emotional form of horror. After his sister’s death, the main character builds an effigy of her, a monument into which he pours all his grief. The writing has a hollowness to it which will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever suffered loss, and the beautifully crafted ending is both moving and decidedly chilling.
  • “The Perils of War According to the Common People of Hansom Stret” by Steven Pirie: I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this. I liked it, I’m fairly certain about that, but it’s a rather strange little story. Set during the blitz, it’s unclear whether “…Perils…” is alternate history or not. It shows a bombing — or possibly German invasion — of an English street from the perspective of the various peoples present, with all the while one character looming like a spectre of death made incarnate through the War itself.
  • “The Things That Get You Through” by Steven J. Dines: another odd one. I spent most of the time reading it thinking that it was much too long, and that whilst the writing was sound it was dragging like an insufficiently supported canvas. However, once I reached the end I changed my mind completely. This is another grief-themed piece, using the five stages of grief as a mechanism to drive the story. The slow pace drives perfectly the process-like nature of bereavement, and sets up for a fantastic final conclusion. A really excellent story and piece of horror.
  • “Skein and Bone” by V. H. Leslie: the final novelette, this one following two sisters on a holiday to France. On their way from Paris to La Rochelle, they stop off at an apparently abandoned chateau, and – well, you can see where it’s headed. This is a tour de force of horror ideas, exploring sibling relationships, vanity and intrusion/isolation/otherness. You know the ending is coming, but it’s the manner in which it does that provides the fascination, and a thoughtfully sinister pay-off at the end.
  • “Two Houses Away” by James Cooper: Cooper is undoubtledly a very gifted writer, with a lot of ability, but I’m afraid to say that I often feel like his stories go over my head. And that’s true of “Two Houses Away” in many ways. Another grief-themed story – a theme for the issue, perhaps? — the central idea around which the plot revolves is the mysterious reappearance of an old man’s deceased wife. It’s well written, and raises a powerful atmosphere of anticipation, but I’m afraid the climax just seemed too ambiguous and open-ended for me.

So there we have it. If I’m honest, I more frequently find stories which don’t quite resonate with me in Black Staticthan in Interzone, and I think that’s because of the former’s tendency towards the experimental cutting edge of its genre. Horror is a very personal genre, and what doesn’t do it for me might well have the opposite impact on someone else. And, actually, I can’t recall reading a single bad story I’ve read on Black Static’s pages.

The magazine also features book and DVD reviews (which, again, I won’t review here). Additionally, it has two non-fiction columns, from screenwriter Stephen Volk and novelist Christopher Fowler. Volk’s column this issue is the concluding section of a two-part retrospective on his brilliant TV mockumentary Ghostwatch. And Fowler gives a frankly excellent summation of the career of a professional writer, particularly his thoughts on compromising your brand. Well worth a read, both of them.

If anyone reading this thinks that horror is just ghosts, gore and serial killers, I urge them to get hold of a copy of Black Static. I’m a firm believe that you can tell a lot about a society from the things that terrify it, and the stories which are on the front lines of the genre at the moment are a psychological, introspective crop focusing on grief, lost and exclusion. Make of that whatever you like, except that it does lead to some brilliant storytelling.

The Awakening – A Review


The Awakening (2011)

I love a good ghost story. There’s something about it that speaks to the primeval, the child in me hiding beneath the covers, shaking with fear and excitement. They don’t have a terribly good press- they are, often not unfairly, labelled cheesy, cliche and overdone- but when they’re done right there are few things better.

And The Awakening is one of the best ghost films I’ve seen in a long, long while. It certainly blows Hammer’s disappointing The Woman in Black straight out of the water- though some might think the lack of Daniel Radcliffe on the cast list gives it an unfair advantage.

But first thing’s first: my declaration of interests. I know Mr Stephen Volk, the writer (well, over Facebook and the like, at least). I’m a fan of his previous work (Afterlife and the excellent Ghostwatch), and of his columns in horror fiction mag Black Static. I’ve also been wanting to see this film since its cinema release, but due to the ineptitude of Odeon Cinemas had to wait until the DVD release.

Now that’s done, onto the review. The Awakening follows ghost-hunter and -debunker Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), who comes to Rookwood boarding school on the request of teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West, of The Wire fame, looking like he was carved right out of a block of manliness). There she sets about debunking the “ghost” that has been blamed for the death of a student, just in time for the kiddies to go home for the holidays. Which is when the real creepy goings on start.

The “debunking” story is a fairly uncommon, but nonetheless established, model of horror story- and one I have a lot of time for. It invariably comes down to a character analysis of the debunker. In this case, Florence’s motivations and history take centre stage of the entire film, but they do so almost subtly- so you don’t even notice until it’s already happening.

I won’t give the plot ending away (because it is rather special), but as befits the story type you know it will go either one way or the other. Either the occurrences will be supernatural, or they won’t. In that way, it’s a lot like watching a coin spin on a table. It’ll either finish heads up or tails up, and you just have to wait and see. But The Awakening is a lot more entertaining to watch.

And that is largely down to the atmosphere. This is something that is integral to horror films, but which so many seem to get wrong. They either don’t spend enough time getting the audience into the right frame of mind, or they do and then ruin it (see the Paranormal Activity films). Here, though, there is a constant air of subtle creepiness, rendered all the more creepy for being uncertain of whether it is malevolent or harmless. Through the setting, the music and the acting, I found myself on the edge all the way through.

So there you have it. Very highly recommended, particularly if you like horror to reach you through more than simply loud noises and “jumpy” moments. Best served chilled, in a dark room, on a big screen, and with the volume up a little too high. And probably not alone.