Stephen Laws talks to Sandy Auden

A combined interview taken from 'Trauma' magazine and from the Horror Writers Association bulletin, courtesy of Nicki Robson.

What's your background, Stephen?

I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1952, where I still live with my wife Melanie and our two children, Eve and Jonathan (I have an older daughter - Ellen - by my first wife) After twenty years working in local government as a committee administrator, I became a full-time novelist in 1992. Notwithstanding my local government career, I've been a number of other things in my time: a parachutist with a fear of heights, an accounts clerk who can't add up, a skin diver with claustrophobia and asthma, an actor with stage fright, a pianist with a slightly wobbly left hand whose compositions have been given the full symphonic treatment on pre-Civil War Yugoslav television and a pseudononymous cartoonist in a national magazine whose identity, if known, could lead to charges of libel.

What started you on your career as a writer?

I began to write at a very early age, probably about seven or eight years old. I suffered very badly with asthma and spent most of the winter months in bed. So I suppose I 'escaped' by reading and writing stories a great deal, when most of my peers were out on the football pitch. The urge to create stories never left me after that, and I kept on scribbling on various bits and pieces over the years. But I began to take it more seriously in the late seventies, when I attempted to write for radio and television. After a major disappointment with the BBC, when one of my plays was not produced on 'grounds of cost' (i.e. the outside location work was too expensive), I decided to concentrate instead on something close to my heart: supernatural horror thrillers. My first short stories in the genre in the early 1980s won a number of awards, leading me to attempt my first novel - GHOST TRAIN - which was published in 1985 .

But in terms of what 'started' me as a creator of 'horror' stories,I believe this goes back to my father. When I was very young, he used to give me detailed re-tellings of the horror movies he'd seen at the local cinema on the previous night, and the scary television shows that I was too young to stay up and watch. He was a superb storyteller, and really got me hooked. Later, at school, I used to sneak in to the cinemas underage to see the latest Hammer films, for example, and then end up telling the stories of the movies in just the same way in the schoolyard. Pretty soon, I'd have a crowd of twenty or thirty kids listening to me telling the horror-movie story. Sometimes, the bell would ring for us to go back in for classes, and no one would notice! I think that's when I was bitten by the story-telling bug. That special 'buzz' of being able to hold a crowd enthralled with a story was really inspiring. Sometimes, if the movie was a real let-down or hadn't been scary at all, I'd 'jazz it up' a little with embellishments of my own. So, if not for my father - maybe I would be doing something very different today. I've had a great love for the genre since I was about seven or eight years old. Peter Cushing remains my Number One hero - and it was very special to me when he got in touch, following a dedication to him in my second novel SPECTRE. We corresponded regularly after that, but unfortunately never met up face-to-face before his sad passing.

Your work has a very 'cinematic' quality. Bearing in mind what you've just said, were you heavily influenced in your writing by the horror movies you saw when you were younger?

Absolutely. My second novel, SPECTRE, was set in and around a real-life fleapit cinema that I used to frequent: The Imperial, on Byker Bank in Newcastle. The novel contains a number of homages to the movies which influenced me, and was written in a very 'linear' way; in other words, written very much in the way that you'd expect a movie to unfold (together with various 'flashback' techniques).

For instance ... I saw two movies when I was a kid that put me off ventriloquist's dolls for life. DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) and DEVIL DOLL (1964). Both featured dummies that could move around on their own, and had unpleasant anti-social habits. I decided to take it a step further in SPECTRE, by trying to create an even scarier, more dangerous doll. I was subsequently delighted when the French edition of the novel (La Nuit des Spectres - Night of the Spectres) featured that doll prominently on the cover. (See SPECTRE section of the website for cover reproduction). However - this is important - books aren't films, and vice versa.  So whereas it's true to say that the horror movies I saw as a youngster certainly influenced me, I'm not writing 'movie-books'. Celluloid isn't literature. Celluloid puts pictures into your head. Literature puts words and ideas into your head - and you create your own pictures from that, which is much more potent.

Having given a 'tip of the hat' in SPECTRE to the horror movies I loved, I took this a great deal further with my novel, DAEMONIC which is a supernatural/horror/thriller fantasy set very much in the world of the B-Movie horror film. I had a great deal of fun creating a monstrous villain who's a cross between Citizen Kane, Howard Hughes and Roger Corman. Without giving too much of the plot away, this character - Jack Draegerman - is a fabulously rich recluse who once made a series of infamous horror movies back in the Seventies. He invites a number of people to the huge Gothic tower which he inhabits in the middle of the city. Once there, they're trapped inside and hunted by Draegerman's own B-Movie monsters come to life. You'll have to read the book to understand the whys and the wherefores, but I had the chance there to draw on the whole horror movie genre and drop a few in-jokes on the way. One of the dedications in the novel is to Roger Corman, and it gave me great pleasure to let him have a copy of the book when I interviewed him at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films.

Is it true that you nearly drowned while researching MACABRE?

Yes, that's true. I'm committed to researching my projects thoroughly - but almost drowning in a Stockport Canal made me wonder if I should spend more time just looking stuff up in the library or going on the internet (See Articles). For the record, I've also nearly blown my head off with a Browning Automatic .38 researching firearms, been behind the wheel of a runaway bulldozer for DAEMONIC, dangled eight-storeys high on an elevator shaft maintenance inspection for DARKFALL and personally assisted in the destruction of Killingworth town centre for CHASM.

What 'fires' you to work in the horror genre?

My over-riding passion in the horror genre is 'ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances'. I like writing about 'ordinary' people who suddenly turn a corner in their lives and - wham! - find themselves in the Twilight Zone. And it's a genre where you can have fun breaking the rules. For instance, in THE WYRM, I wanted to create a completely new monster that has its own modus operandi. Something that had never been seen before. Here in the North East of England, we have a very specific legend about the 'Lambton Worm', which isn't a 'worm' or serpent n the usual sense, but more dragon-like. I hijacked the legend, and used it to create that new monster. In Olde English, 'wyrm' means 'evil spirit' - nothing to do with serpents or snakes, at all. As to GIDEON, I'd always wanted to write a vampire novel. But I also wanted to experiment with it. In the process, I took everything that we know or have read about vampires - and threw it out. So, in my novel, Gideon can't be stopped with a stake through the heart, he doesn't fear the cross, or daylight, or garlic, or running water. He can't transform into an animal, he can't fly, he doesn't have pointed teeth - and he doesn't drink blood. How's that for a new vampire? I'm pleased to say that my new 'take' on the legend must have had something, because it won the 'Children of the Night Award' (and a rather neat little Bela Lugosi figurine) from the Count Dracula Society of England.

If you'll pardon the cliche, where do you get your ideas from?

This is always the most difficult question to answer. For me, story creation is a little like making wine. One idea may hit me, and I put it into this 'belljar' in the back of my mind, then later something else strikes me as unusual, and that goes into the jar as well - apparently unrelated. Then something else, and something else - all unrelated but fascinating 'What if?' ideas. After a few months, I give the jar a shake and see what's fermenting. More often than not, I begin to see that all of these ideas are related after all, and that they've coalesced to form the beginnings of a story. So there's never just one idea for a story, it's usually an inter-related series of ideas that spin around in the back of my mind.

Are your characters based on real people?

Yes and no. I guess that any writer stays 'sensitive' to the people he or she  encounters, and that fictional speculation on character types (and interaction) all goes into the creative mix. It all feeds speculation on your own emotions as you might apply them to fictional situations. However, I never do what HG Wells did. He most definitely based his characters on real and identifiable people, and caused terrible trauma for everyone involved.

Which subjects do you find difficulty in writing? Why? How do you cope with them?

Sexual abuse of children. Why? Well, because I come from a strong family background and I have children of my own. The whole issue fills me with loathing, dread and horror. But as a writer, you'd be a coward to shy away from anything that is a legitimate literary and dramatic issue. It featured in my novel GHOST TRAIN, and is one of the central themes of SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF MIDNIGHT - where one of the characters, Mercy, goes on a quest for vengeance against her abuser. How do I cope with it? Well, if it's an issue that is central to the drama, the character interaction, and the essential point I'm trying to make - the honesty of purpose sees me through. In MIDNIGHT I was not only trying to harness my personal sense of outrage, but also the readers' - through the prism of Mercy's experience. I had a story published in CEMETERY DANCE a while back (entitled 'Outrage') which deals with rape, its consequences and the poison it spreads. It was turned down originally by a major genre editor for being too horrible, and I can understand why. It was intended to be hard-hitting on a number of levels, and whereas I expected it to be misunderstood and reviled when it appeared, it wasn't.

Is there any area of your writing, if you could go back and change, you would?

Only the product placement aspects of my early work. References to then popular rock bands, household brands and popular dance-styles, aLl of which now date novels I wanted to be un-datable (is that a word?). Back when my first novel was published, I wanted to ground my supernatural/horror/thriller style in reality - with Richard Matheson, Stephen King and Peter Straub as my gurus. It worked very well at the time - but God, I hated that break-dancing reference in SPECTRE. So when it was republished by Telos, I had the opportunity not only to reinstate text that had been excised (and the reasons for that are detailed in the introduction to the new edition) but to take it out those dated references altogether!

What type of music are you currently into?

My musical tastes are eclectic: although I adore Sixties pop (Beatles etc). But my passions are with the film music of Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, Basil Poledouris, Elmer Bernstein … and many others. The marriage of drama, celluloid, emotion and the heartbeat of music that can often emotionally transcend the medium for which it was created. Quite simply, wonderful - and inspiring.
Your favourite books, and films?

The list could go on and on. I take it we're still talking about horror? (There is so much other stuff non-horror related that I love). If so, then I'd cite Richard Matheson's novel 'I Am Legend' as being one of my favourites. King's 'Salem's Lot'. The ghost stories of M.R. James, Peter Straub's 'Ghost Story' was a huge influence on me. Films - 'The Haunting'(The Robert Wise 1963 original, that is), 'Night of the Demon', 'Them!', Hammer's 'Dracula'. Believe me, my list could go on and on.

Does anything frighten you in the genre?

I find myself less and less horrified by books and movies as time goes by. Maybe I'm getting used to it all! Being a novelist, you become aware of the creative' tricks of the trade' as you're reading a book or watching a movie, so it takes something really special to take you by surprise. I tend to find myself more 'impressed' by the story telling technique of a good horror novel or movie these days than 'horrified'.

Why have you stayed in the horror genre?

Because the genre is so wide. Just as westerns are not just about 'Cowboys and Indians', the horror genre is not just about blood and guts and gore - or at least, in my view, it shouldn't be just about that. There's such a wide range of stories that can be told in the 'horror' spectrum. I love it, because it's dangerous fiction; it presents situations which are not only dangerous physically and literally, but also psychologically, intellectually and even spiritually. Within that range you can tell stories of alienation, confrontation, subversion or even tales of redemption, bravery and rebirth. As it deals with the things of which we're most afraid, then the genre is wide open. I've always been attracted to the horror field, strangely enough, because of the amazingly 'positive' charge that it can give, when ordinary people face up to the most terrible situations. Above all, of course, the horror genre is - dangerous! And people like to play with fire sometimes. The difference in reading a horror novel is that you may well be terrified out of your wits, but your fingers won't literally be burned. For the time that you're turning the pages, you're in dangerous territory.

Oil painting by Eve Laws - using an old, black and white, forgotten photograph found in a charity shop (circa early 1940's). Subject and photographer unknown, but inspired by the image, Eve has combined the found realism of that photograph with her own surrealism. I should point out that there is no Photoshop here - Eve worked purely from a small 3 x 4 photograph, using oils straight to a full size canvas.