Genre Chat with Stephen Volk

What’s in a Label?

THE-LITTLE-GIFT_coverOn the occasion of the publication of THE LITTLE GIFT, my new novella from PS Publishing, a thought comes to me unbidden, and it’s this:

Sometimes I have absolutely no idea of the genre of what I’ve just written.

It’s true.

It’s not like they come with the labels sewn on: “XL” or “Hand Wash Only”; “PG-13” or the late and much lamented “Certificate X”.

I’m not reluctant to call some of them Horror, and I’m certainly not disapproving of the word, like some people. Personally, I consider it a perfectly respectable, nay noble, appellation. It’s also where I come from, culturally speaking. My home turf, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

But the truth is, sometimes the stories I want to tell have Horror writ large—supernatural, frightening, disturbing—with monsters, often the human kind—and sometimes they don’t.

Increasingly, I must admit, I want to rein in the “H” quotient so it doesn’t splatter you with gore. Maybe it’s just a pinprick on your thumb that you have to suck. Maybe it’s not a painted skeleton dropping in front of your face on a ghost train ride, maybe it’s a line from today’s newspaper, or one of those thoughts you get before you drift asleep, or in that paranoid hinterland before waking.

To scare the pants off you and nothing more interests me less and less, because (here’s a secret not many will divulge . . . ) it’s kind of easy.

So what does interest me?

Not sure.

Never sure, until I start tapping the keyboard.

Science Fiction? Yeah—but never stuff that would turn on fans of Robert Heinlein or Greg Bear.

Fantasy? Once in a blue moon, but they’re as far from Terry Pratchett as even Terry Pratchett (were he alive) could imagine.

One or two might be Humour, I think (others might strenuously disagree): but they’re not exactly Martin Amis, let alone P. G. Wodehouse.

Then there’s Crime. A genre without boundaries, if there ever was one. And then it becomes complicated . . .

The simple fact is, like all writers, my touchstones are manifold—not just H/SF/F authors.

(And that’s, surely, as it should be.)

One person who lit up my imagination with a mega-ton bomb of illumination as to what a short story could do was Raymond Carver, who (some say with the aid of scissor-wielding editor Gordon Lish) honed a pared-down style of poetic naturalism that pretty much held in thrall every aspiring fictioneer who came after him.

Richard Ford and Suri Hustvedt are two contemporary writers who follow in that tradition, demonstrating (to me) that the deep observation of seemingly ordinary lives can reveal contradictions and dark, spiky insights, all the more effective than weary, tried-and-tested Horror tropes because they came from psychological realism and a kind of honest, un-showy reportage.

Ian McEwen’s early stories, too, had a big impact, using as they did disarmingly benign prose to convey shadowy perversions, straight-up grotesquerie and creepy menace without recourse to the safety net of the gothic. As Poe said all along, you don’t have to look further than the human mind, and its endless abnormalities, to find what to be fearful of.

(Yet what was McEwen dabbling in, if not Horror, or at least Crime? The Comfort of Strangers is about a psychopath. Enduring Love, a stalker. Saturday, a home invasion. Literary, schmittery!)

Furthermore, I’ve always had a very soft spot for Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell, unfettered from her Inspector Wexford), whose protagonists are often shambling, unremarkable creatures shoved reluctantly centre stage. Absorbingly, if there’s a crime, you seldom know who’s going to commit it, or why, or when. And that’s riveting.

For the exact same reason I have been engrossed by certain recent television dramas of a similar bent—Bloodlines from Netflix and the excellent BBC drama Apple Tree Yard—both of which have hardly a police officer in sight.

They’re all about broken lives, not neat, Cluedo resolutions. We get a chance (as one actress recently put it in an interview), to “sit with the character’s pathology” and “see them unravel”.

That fascinates me far more than the crossword-puzzle allure of Inspector Morse, (and for that read Endeavour, Lewis, Foyle, and for that matter Rebus and his army of hard-drinking, hard-boiled clones). If I ever use a detective I always think they should be, like James Stewart in Vertigo, part of the mystery, not the solution. My characters should contribute to the mess, not merely the tidying up.

So which of the above notions, you might ask, amidst all this rambling, has directly influenced my rather uncharacteristic, I’m told, novella, THE LITTLE GIFT?

I couldn’t tell you.

Well, I could. But I don’t want to.

For a start, I think a guy who reveals to you the punch line of the joke he is about to relate is the very definition of a pub bore.

Secondly, the bottom line is, I don’t think many writers want their work to be labelled. Most want to simply see it out there amongst readers and have a life, like a paper boat you put in a stream you hope doesn’t run aground or get swallowed by a drain.

The rest in is the lap of the gods.

But if a story takes you, the reader, by surprise, even unsettles you because you were expecting something different? Great. I’ll be happy.

And if you can’t put your finger on what genre it is . . . I’ll be even happier.

Order yours, here, and decide for yourself.

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