Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Books of the Laws

In the run-up to Halloween, UK horror maestro, Stephen ‘Midnight Man’ Laws, talks to Remy Dean about horror, music, being a 'nice' Northerner… and sharing secrets.

Stephen Laws plays 'The Stranger' in The Secret
(photograph copyright Hydra X Productions)
If you know anything about the UK horror scene, Stephen Laws will be a familiar name, having written numerous short stories and a dozen novels within the genre. He is one of the definitive authors of the Industrial Gothic sub-genre and is amongst a handful of writers that have shaped the form of contemporary horror literature.

Stephen Laws gives the horror reader what they want, and often a little extra that they may not have expected. Genres rely on repetition - of themes and scenarios - laced with innovation and challenge. Unlike some contemporary authors, who seem embarrassed to be writing in a genre, Laws relishes the conventions of horror and is not one to shy away from big, satisfyingly imaginative climaxes. His love for classic Hammer films is palpable and scenarios that may have come across as ‘silly’ in the hands of lesser writers remain effectively thrilling when you have been sucked into the fully fleshed-out mythos of one his stories. It is an achievement that few contemporary writers can match – perhaps shared by the likes of Graham Masterton, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell – masters of the suspension of disbelief, capable of immersing their readers in a story and for a while making them accept the reality of a challenging fiction, as if it were a real world… like a dream… or a nightmare.

When researching what Stephen Laws has been up to lately, I came across a rather cool short film adaptation of his short story, The Secret. YouTube presents a relatively new medium for story-tellers to reach new and potentially vast audiences with simple-yet-effective, low-budget videos. A great transmedia way to tell a story and make it accessible – I asked how it came about and if this a method of storytelling that he will be returning to?

Stephen Laws explained, “The Secret came about as a result of meeting with independent film-makers Andrew Leckonby and John Raine (Hydra-X Productions) after they’d returned from a visit to the Cannes Film Festival. They’d made a series of shorts and were trying to attract funding for a full feature. They were also Stephen Laws fans and we got on really well together.

"They bought the rights to one of my stories, The Fractured Man and tried to attract funding to develop it as a film; part of which entailed creating another short movie based on the characters in that story – entitled Schism, later re-titled to Fractured Boy.

“Frustrated at the usual, endless round of financial meetings trying to drum up finance, producer/director Andy was keen to make something more substantial, so I suggested The Secret which had been anthologised several times, and is in my collection The Midnight Man - published by Samhain. But only, on my insistence, if it was done in a black-and-white ‘retro’ style, reminiscent of the 1940’s Val Lewton movies."

Stephen Laws acting opposite John Raine in The Secret
(photograph copyright Hydra X Productions)
“I adapted the story into a short screenplay and pressed on with other work while Andy and John began to set up the production. After a long while, they came back to me and said – ‘Look, you wrote the story and the screenplay. Why don’t you play one of the main parts?’ So that’s how it came about."

Stephen is no stranger to the acting game…

"I’d done bits and pieces over the years, including a stint in the main role of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound years ago at Wallsend’s Buddle Arts Centre. Hardly a claim to thesp-fame."

The location, Byker in Newcastle, used for filming The Secret, has a personal connection and may have brought back memories…

“They hired The Cumberland Arms pub for a week with filming taking place between closing time and dawn the next day. The Laws family lived in a terraced house just behind that pub back in the fifties and sixties – and it still looks the same as it did when my Dad had his Sunday pint there back in the day."

Although the video is very watchable and professional, I am guessing it was very much a low-budget affair?

“It was a very low-budget production. Micro-budget, really. The story, screenplay and notes on the writing all appear in The Midnight Man short story collection. So The Secret came about as an interesting happenstance. A one-off really. Andy sadly died last year, shortly after placing trailers and the short itself on Youtube for what was intended to be a short period. They’re still there if anyone wants to see them."

Yes please - and here is The Secret:

So, which of his other stories would he most like to see developed for the big-budget big-screen?

“All of them! One of the most frustrating things over the years for me has been the number of times that my novels have been optioned for filming, rights have been paid for, screenplays written and nothing has come of it. All part of the game in the industry, of course. But frustrating."

The first Stephen Laws book that I read was Ghost Train, which was his first published novel in 1985. Being a Jethro Tull ‘completist’, I was attracted to it by the lyrics for Locomotive Breath which were quoted in full as part of the frontice. I felt the story was in the tradition of Quatermass, with modern industrial age technology set on a collision course with ancient powers, eventually merging in a runaway fusion of metal and flesh that took the reader right to the end of the line. I asked Stephen about his love of music and how he used it as part of his writing method.

He recounted how music has played a big part in his life, in general, and in his writing, in particular. From an early love of the rousing film soundtracks for big action films he saw in the cinema as a child and the Hammer film music - forever merged with his formative experiences of the Horror genre - to his own piano playing, music has been an integral component of his creativity… Sometimes, when writing a piece, he will think of a sequence or character in a film that shares a resonance and play that section of the movie theme to evoke a suitable mood. He has already explained this process in more detail at: The Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog.

Ghost Train - All aboard for the Stephen Laws ride!
What was the first book that Stephen can remember reading that really carried him off into its world and left a lasting impression?

"Probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. But at around the same time, when I was perhaps nine years old and had just joined Byker Library, I was being equally thrilled by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard – and, importantly, Nigel Kneale."

What authors have been his enduring favourites and what has he learnt from them?

"My God, where do I start? Richard Matheson, Nigel Kneale, Peter Straub, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Graham Masterton, Stephen King, Robert Bloch, Stoker, Wells, Robert McCammon, the esteemed Mr Campbell, Dean Koontz, John Farris etc... This is a very long list and could go on forever!

""I’ve learned everything I know about writing from their writing, and my love of it."

Who or what, if anything, excites Stephen about the British horror scene right now?

"I’ve been more excited in recent years by emerging British writers than ever before. For a while, I became a little disillusioned by the tidal wave of self-publishing on the internet that led to very poor work indeed. But there’s such a long list of British talent now that I’d feel rotten giving a list that might leave someone out! It’s certainly in a very exciting situation."

People speak of a North-South devide and I wonder if Stephen perceives such a division in the quantity of quality imaginative fiction (from Robert Louis Stevenson to Iain Banks… and his contemporaries such as Ramsey Campbell, etc.) and the answer is 'no'...

"I’m not aware of a north-south divide on the lines you suggest. Quality is quality, and I’ve not perceived a geographical split here."

Has living ‘Oop North’ had any effect on his own writing, though?

“I do think that ‘The North’ has had an effect on my writing... I’ve been told that there’s a ‘northern’ style in my means of expression and I’m sure that being a Northerner, my character was forged here and my creative work is reflected in some way. There’s a staccato-rhythm style to some clipped Geordie dialect which lends itself well to what you might call ‘hard-boiled’ – and although I hadn’t been aware of its use in Spectre, I was chuffed to have it pointed out to me after the event."

Jethro Tull are often labelled as folk-rock and there has been a recent increase in the folk-horror sub-genre.I am interested to know if he wold consider at least some of his work - The Wyrm comes to mind - to be ‘folk-horror’, and if so, what he sees as defining features of the genre?

“I suppose you could say that The Wyrm is ‘folk-horror’, but when it was published, it was regarded more as something in the Lovecraft/Cthulthu Mythos style – which I was happy for people to assume, although that was not my intention. You ask me to define ‘folk-horror’ but I’m not sure that I can, since it’s not a genre of which I’ve been consciously aware of, or working in. For years, I considered that I was working in a style that I categorised as ‘Industrial Gothic’."

One thing I have noticed is that horror writers – mostly - are lovely, down-to-earth people (and through my career as a rock journalist I found the same to be true of punk and metal bands – mostly). Those who the ‘wider society’ may view as ‘extreme’ seem to be the most well-balanced and happy folk there are. (I suppose horror is the heavy metal of literature.) I wonder if, through experiences of meeting and mixing with fellow horror writers at conventions, he may concur with this assumption?

“We’re not nice. It’s all a big trick. We’re secretly thoroughly evil, and the way we trap you is to pretend that we’re nice. Just before we strike,,."

"It’s interesting what you say about punk and metal bands – and the fact that horror writers are down-to-earth, lovely people. The fact of the matter is that in all the time I’ve been a published horror writer, I’ve only ever come across two writers who were unpleasant personalities – and no, I’m not going to say who they are. But there’s a clue in that last sentence, because I said ‘are’ rather than ‘were’.

"So why are writers who revel in horror, and go out of their way to disturb us, so nice? Over the years there’s been an over-analysis of why writers who revel in horror are so ‘nice’, tied in with what ‘horror’ actually is – what purpose, if any, that it serves in the writing and reading. I’ve been guilty in indulging in that over-analysis myself. The ‘niceness’ suggests that we’ve come to terms with the horror in our souls. Not so. Decades ago, I was interviewed in a magazine that called me ‘The Therapist of Horror’. Some truth in that, I think.

"Just last year at a World Fantasy Convention and during a panel debate on ‘What is Horror?’ Ramsey Campbell - a very dear friend, declared his disgust at the concept of horror being ‘therapy’. I twitched, but took that slap – and have thought in depth about it since. He’s right and wrong. I’m wrong and right. Pick the bones out of that."

Why do we like to be ‘disturbed’? Where is the beauty in horror?

"Well, this ties-in with what I just said - the analysis of ‘horror’, what it is and why it’s attractive. I go back to something I said years ago: “People like to be frightened for fun because they don’t like to be frightened for real”. There’s a line from my first novel, Ghost Train, where ‘The Ghost Train Man’ says: 'You paid to come in, didn’t you? You wanted to be scared'. The key word here is – danger. Horror literature is dangerous literature. While you’re reading it – if it’s written well, and you’re drawn in – it can be dangerous both physically, philosophically, emotionally and morally. It’s dangerous in that it can temporarily skew you while you’re turning the pages. It can make your heart pound, your blood race. Then you can shut the book and you’re back home safe again.

"Beauty in horror? Yes, of course – but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?"

His time has come - Stephen Laws is The Midnight Man
Does he subscribe to a writing ritual, regimen or a tried-and-tested process?

"I worked nine-to-five in local government before I became a full time writer. So my writing during those pre-full-time years was done - usually - after nine at night, and into the early hours. That’s stuck with me, and is the reason for the title of my short story collection: The Midnight Man. That’s always been my best time. But when I’m working to a deadline and I’ve outlined – and things are going well - it can be any time of the night and day. But everyone will have a different routine.

"There’s no one way. Just make sure you apply bum to seat, fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and write."

Presumably, he has been taking your own advice, so what can we look forward to, from Stephen Laws, in the near future?

"A bunch of short stories will be creeping out in various anthologies, I’m finishing a novella and returning to a novel project that I’d abandoned some time ago. I’m once again in negotiation on a film adaptation of one of my novels...

"I'm currently compiling 25 years of genre celebrity interviews that I've undertaken at events like the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films, together with inside stories and personal reminiscences - to be titled The Laws of Horror."

After a long-running writing career, can he share any advice or ‘words of wisdom’ for the aspiring young writer of imaginative fiction?

"Read. If you’re not reading and enjoying – you can’t possibly be a writer. I’ve been shocked to come across would-be writers who just don’t read. Incredible, I know – but true. Also, I’d thoroughly recommend looking at older work. When I need some revitalisation, I go back to the Old Masters and read them again. For new would-be writers, I’d recommend picking up some of the great old novels and paperback collections like The Pan Book of Horror Stories."

Thank you, Stephen Laws ...just a couple of final questions: 

The Secret is set in a pub – what is your ‘tipple’ of choice?

Bell’s whisky.

…and how do you celebrate Halloween / Samhain?

"We don’t. We just have a bowl of sweets ready for the kids who come trick or treating. And a cattle prod."

For more info and up-dates check out Stephen Laws' official weblog

Most of Stephen Laws works are now available as Kindle editions at amazon

Thank you Stephen Laws!

Stephen Laws was interviewed by Remy Dean

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