Stephen Volk: ‘Coffinmaker’s Blues’ reviewed

❉ Songs of the happy undertaker, reviewed by Ken Shinn.

“…Horror is not about comfort. It should be like mainlining carrion and caffeine. Keep you awake at nights. Be a memory of passing insanity – or victimhood.”

A lot of writers of the macabre tend to look like their work, personified. The cadaverous dignity of Howard Phillips Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe, the leather-jacketed bad boy stylings of James Herbert and Shaun Hutson. Even the face can be enough to turn the trick. Robert Bloch’s visage was largely open and friendly but look at his eyes and there’s a constant dark mischief twinkling away: Alfred Hitchcock’s dry humour was set against his jowly, lugubrious face and funereal garb.

Stephen Volk is an exception. With features that verge on the cherubic enhanced by the large snow-white beard that he’s cultivated, he looks very like Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas, a role which (as this book recounts) he’s even taken on for his family on occasion. His face is made to smile, if not outright beam. You could look at those other gentlemen mentioned and not be surprised to learn what they wrote. Then you could look at Volk and be shocked when you discovered what he’s been responsible for – Ken Russell’s Gothic, the un-nerving television series Afterlife, his trilogy of novellas – Whitstable, Leytonstone, and Netherwood, recently collected as The Dark Masters Trilogy and presenting fictionalised accounts of incidents in the lives of great horror icons, and the legendary Ghostwatch, to name but a few. But then that’s Volk for you. Full of surprises.

Stephen Volk at We Are Cult: Bristol Meet, 22 June 2019 (Photo: Steve Alexander)

And accordingly, his latest book, Coffinmaker’s Blues, is packed with revelations. A collection of essays on whatever subjects he felt like talking about, taken from the magazine Black Static, from ghost stories to actors, from children to censorship, leaping with aplomb from one to the next like Quasimodo pealing the bells of Notre Dame. Almost always relating them to horror, or at the very least to the fantastic.

Have a quote.

‘And Horror is not about comfort. It should be like mainlining carrion and caffeine. Keep you awake at nights. Be a memory of passing insanity – or victimhood.
And if that’s too much for the squeamish, they’ll just have to do what they always do.
Look away.’

As someone who’s written published horror myself (albeit nowhere near as well), I agree completely. Even comedy horror, at its best, needs to be uncomfortable, to say disquieting things about Humanity’s nastier impulses, from the sick belly-laughs of Bloch or EC Comics to the arguably wittier but no less creepy revelations of the League Of Gentlemen in general and Jeremy Dyson in particular. Something should always be there in good horror that, to state the obvious, horrifies us. And often, the best way to do that isn’t via the ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties – indeed, they can often be almost a backdrop, rather than the starring role. Often, the best way is to dig up the potential for horror in us all: sometimes buried deeply, so that we strive to unearth and refine it, sometimes so near to the surface that we can scratch with our hands and bring the dark treasure to light.

Often, his pieces in here become philippics, as he tears into the state of current fantasy, especially in film and television. But these are no easily-dismissed grumblings of an embittered old fart, scowling over a pint of blood down at The Old Ghoul And Ghost (tra-la-la-la-la…): rather, they’re the impassioned and informed opinions of someone who knows and loves his subject, and is close to appalled at how little it frequently strives to achieve.

Have another quote.

‘Doctor Who is admittedly an achievement, but is it heresy to state that it is after all, a remake? And, is it me or is it sometimes just a little bit rubbish? If he has another chirpy Cockney assistant it’ll become Eastenders in Space. And if he solves yet another alien invasion by some piece of deus ex machina technobabble, I’ll squeam.

‘My wife tells me to relax, it’s a kid’s show. I don’t actually think that’s an excuse. At all.’

Throughout all of these essays, shining through like a more benign version of Stephen King’s all-pervasive deadlights, you’ll find Volk’s enthusiasm. His humanity, his intelligence. Sometimes the subjects on which he discourses are old hobbyhorses ridden many times by many people, yet he always finds a way to make them fresh, make them personal, make them matter. At other points, he’ll charge off into the undergrowth to deliver articles about Mr Punch or such luminaries as Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Nigel Kneale and bring along all of his formidable literary arsenal to aid him as he delves fascinatingly into history and memory. It’s perhaps an odd comparison, but what this book reminds me of strongly is another Stephen – Fry’s – collection of essays, Paperweight. As with that tome, this one is filled with intellect, insight, anger and humour, delivered in a way that never talks down, that always intrigues.

Here’s another quote, also an anecdote (says the poet who didn’t know it).

‘…I attended the Q & A after a performance of mega-hit play Ghost Stories when one of its co-writers, Jeremy Dyson, was asked by a naïve but eager creative writing student: “What advice would you give on writing Horror?”. Dyson thought for a minute, then said, politely but firmly, “Sorry, but there is no advice. You either find things scary, or you don’t. You can’t teach it. You can’t learn it. In the same way, you can’t learn what’s funny. You either know or you don’t.” Dyson said: “People talk about having a funny bone, but there’s also a Horror bone. It’s exactly the same thing.”’

And that is exactly right. Without a healthy sense of fear, without the capacity for being frightened oneself, a writer can throw all of the bucketsful of blood and bathtubs of giblets at their audience that they can muster, but at best they’ll come up with enjoyable yet undeniable pulp, and more often with a wearying barrage of shock-for-nowt’s-sake. Dyson and Volk, to name but two, understand this all too well, and avoid it adroitly in their own works again and again.

I’ve used some words too often throughout this article, but some of them need that to be the case. Humanity is one. I’ve just used it again, and I’ll also throw in the similar humane. Because what truly makes a good horror writer – and Volk is a superb one – isn’t how many eyeballs they pop or lurid sex scenes they write. It’s their understanding of their fellow beings.

Yet another quote, on Alejandro Amenabar’s film, Agora.

‘I realised, this was my Avatar.

‘For me, more emotion was conveyed in the simple scene where Hypatia uses a stick to draw an ellipse in the sand describing the astronomy of the Solar System than the entire sequence of James Cameron’s army of dragons wheeling through a multi-coloured sky.

‘And, no, I didn’t have to “leave my brain at the door”.’

Read this book, and you’ll learn a lot about horror that you didn’t know, or maybe just hadn’t thought about recently. There’s a wonderful anecdote about witchcraft and how it helped Volk’s wife stare down a teenage yob which is hilarious and thought-provoking in equal measure which is worth the price of admission by itself, and then there’s Volk’s unabashed appreciation of old Punchinello. There’s more and pithier insight into the worlds of film and television production than, for my money, you’d find in the works on such subjects by the likes of William Goldman or Charlie Brooker.

And, most of all, there’s a lot of well-argued, well-written, material about horror itself. And why Volk loves it. His fondness for Hitchcock and short tales of the macabre makes me wish that he’ll one day propose, and get, his own television anthology series – just picture Stephen Volk Presents, with the man himself ambling amiably on camera at the start of each edition with a cheery ‘Hello, folks!’ before plunging us into darkly entertaining waters…hell, I’d watch it…because, in the end, and like Hitchcock, Volk is a happy undertaker.

Well, mostly happy, anyway.

One last quote, taken out of context from its piece, but for me it says it all:

‘We could be shocked. We could be perplexed. We could be horrified. But isn’t that our business?’


❉  ‘Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings On Terror’ by Stephen Volk is available now in hardcover, price £25.00, from PS Publishing. Order your copy of Coffinmaker’s Blues here

 Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

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