Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Thirty-Year Lunch Time - an interview with Lydia Lunch from The Scrawl archive

Please note that this is an archival interview and much of it previously appeared in the Questing Beast Grimoire Edition, Lydia's 20-Year Lunch Time, and appears here in a revised and extended version.

Lydia Lunch is unstoppable...
The Boston Phoenix called her, "one of the 10 most influential performers of the 90s," now The Scrawl nominates her as, "the most potent writer of the past two decades"

Little Lydia's big self first hit the scene back in 1976 with the New York punk band Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, whose music, branded 'No Wave', consisted of ear bleeding guitar assault with an angry-aggressive little girl screaming 'No!' at all and everything. Over the 20 years since, Lydia has not mellowed. The intensity is still undeniable and the anger, aggression and depression has been focused and tempered.

The sphere of music has never been big enough to contain Lydia's multi-media manifestations. Her creativity soon spilled into spoken word performances, writing, acting and film making. Any such manifestation demands a reaction from its witnesses.

Delivering her spoken word performances on stage, she has been described as a "hideous sreaming bitch", by herself. Her words can split your skull with hatred as cold and hard as an axe blow or split your sides with dark direct scathing wit. A sarco-masochistic onslaught that thrills and unsettles in equal measure.

As an actress she is able to portray victor and victim simultaneously. As a writer she can convey personal experience and confession with a direct honesty that becomes quite discomforting. As a musical performer, her facets and assets are many and varied, unnerving, exciting, swampy, sexy, vicious, powerful, direct, rock'n'roll, blues, soulful ballads or ballistic bombardments...

'Seminal', is one word that has been used again and again to, accurately, describe Lydia's life and work. Indeed, her life and work are indivisible. The openness and frankness with which she talks about her life in her work, though refreshing, is often shockingly off-putting...

Lydia Lunch, born Lydia Koch, 1959, grew up in Rochester, New York State, and later New York City, where she had run away from 'home' to, after her childhood had been stolen... She had been sexually abused by her father from the age of six, or earlier, and from the age of 14 had been running off to New York.

...At the age of 17 she moved into a large house occupied by a kind of commune of friends and acquaintances, among them Lenny Bruce's daughter, Kitty.

Lydia had been writing poetry and stories since she was 10, so the underground creativity of the Big Apple was instantly appealing to her.To begin with she inflicted her rants and speeches on the not-so-innocent by-standers in the streets of New York, but soon realised that thisformat was just not loud enough. What she needed was a contained audienceand some amplification!

She saw Emilio Cubeiro, a poet and playwright with whom she would later collaborate, perform at CBGB's club in 1972, and became a regular patron.

Experimental, indeed 'seminal', bands such as MARS and Arto Lindsay's DNA used the house she lived in to practise, so she came into contact with many important figures in the New York New Wave scene, which at that time was a New Movement! Among these was also James Chance (aka James White), with whom she first started to put together a band for herself. However, the Chance - Lunch meeting turned into a conflict of charisma and personality, though it provided the spark that lit the fuse that detonated the incendiary device that was to be known as Teenage Jesus And The Jerks...

A sound and a voice that could not be ignored had ripped its way out of one girl's anger and dissatisfactions, and into the sub-culture of the City. Teenage Jesus And The Jerks live shows consisted of 10 minute blasts of screech and sound which gave 'the finger' to music scene - but only as a distraction whilst Lydia bayonetted its complacent guts. Remember, this was B P (Before Punk).

Lydia in the 'No New York' era
The Lydia we know now had begun to emerge. The observer and documenter, able to look back on herself and her problems and speak out for those who had suffered, who are suffering, too. Commenting on her own predicament, and hence becoming the critic of the white middle-class-male dominated culture that had placed her, and all of us, there to begin with...

Before the New Wave New York punters knew what had hit them - and coined a phrase to label it with - Teenage Jesus ripped themselves apart.

The next incarnation, Beirut Slump, was an equally anti-trend assault. Though still at the forefront of the creativity, Lydia contented herself with torturing guitars and left the lyrics and vocals to Bobby Swope, who 'collected' most of the lyrics from down-and-outs on the streets.

The line up also included Vivienne Dick, an underground film maker who collaborated with Lydia on several short films. The sound of Beirut Slump was sluggish, ugly and cruel, exploring the single mindedness and percussive intensity later taken to its conclusion by SWANS on the Raping A Slave EP and Cop album.

The Slump eventually stalled and was scrapped when Lydia moved on to give us her first solo LP, Queen Of Siam - a kind of melancholic, comic-book jazz dream, arranged with help from Billy Ver Plank, who was the composer of the 'Flintstones' theme and soundtracks.

Lydia began the 1980s with a return to a more traditional rock format with the sticky-steamy-swamp-sex combo, 8 Eyed Spy.

Though the five piece set-up can be described as 'traditional', and indeed there was a nod to trad rock with a couple of cover versions, including Jon Fogerty's Run Thru The Jungle, the outcome was far from. The intensity of Lydia's own lyrics, and voice, combined with frenetic sax and guitar couterplays to create a fusion reaction that melted through rock... 8 Eyed Spy was primarily a live phenomenon and little material was released on vinyl.

After the Spy defected, Lydia formed the short-lived Devil Dogs. The line-up included Jim Sclavunos and Kristian Hoffman and the material was mainly re-workings of standard blues songs. The Devil Dogs did a handful of gigs, one show in Italy was recorded with the intention of releasing an album, but the master tape went (a)stray...

Lydia then became the nucleus of an amoebic collection of collaborators. Her 'career' henceforth took on the form of a slowly spinning diamond: hard edged, clear and reflective, bringing each facet into the light in its turn...

One of the most notable releases in the next few years that followed was The Agony Is The Ecstasy, an epic 16.5 minute track which is both musically and lyrically quintessential. A wound in progress, laying open many obsessions and fascinations that she would return to again and again. The version of this ever-developing, mutation of a song, was recorded live and appears on the shared EP with the Birthday Party's Drunk On The Pope's Blood.

The album, 13.13, was another flirtation with the mainstream. Of course, Lydia jilted it before there could be a favourable response and continued to work with others who operated in a similar mode, or who she respected, among them Birthday Party guitarist, Roland S Howard - with whom she has worked with repeatedly, No Trend, Thurston Moore, Sort Sol, Lucy Hamilton, Nick Cave, Marc Almond, and consistently with Clint Ruin (aka Jim Thirwell).

There was a one-off show with an all girl guitar trio comprising Pat Place, Connie Burg and Lydia, Again the show was recorded but never saw release. The only vinyl evidence of the event is the instrumental soundtrack album The Drowning Of Lucy Hamilton - a Lunch-Burg collaboration which became the debut release on Widowspeak - Lydia's own record and publishing company.

By the mid 1980s, it was difficult for anyone to deny her credentials as a musical innovator. The next facet to catch the light was as writer, when she collaborated with Exene Cervenka of LA band X, to produce a collection of writings, Adulterers Anonymous.

From the written word and the lyric, Lydia quickly moved on to the spoken word performance. She put her self on stage and spoke: it was a powerfully bitter and malevolent manifestation. Honest though aggressive. Sensitive, yet abusive...

She hissed and spat and spake. The audiences trembled and quivered. Lydia's stories recorded on the first collection of spoken word pieces, The Uncensored Lydia Lunch, were autobiographical and cruel in their detail. Lydia has since shared vinyl with other speakers of the word, including Henry Rollins, Don Bajema, Hubert Selby Jnr and Emilio Cubeiro.

Her ability to spin a brutal yarn led to her, now notorious, collaboration with another underground film maker and musician, Richard Kern. The Right Side Of My Brain, made on a budget of around $500, was an expose of abuse addiction in the form of a filmicly illustrated monologue. Equally infamous is Fingered, a kind of black and white Lynchian hybrid of gritty sex and violence.

To round off the 1980s, Lydia paid homage to Harry Crews, a writer she particularly admires, by forming a band with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and wrestler-drummer, Sadie Mae. The band, also named Harry Crews, released a one-off LP and toured with a collection of songs inspired by the spirit and words of Harry Crews, the writer.

With Shotgun Wedding, her more recent collaboration with Roland S Howard, she went for the whole rock trip. After recording the album she took the band on a promotional tour... The material was uncharacteristically accessible, even acceptable, though the dark desires and dissatisfaction still lurked beneath the surface.

The 1990s revealed yet more facets of the Lunch phenomenon: she released a retrospective compendium of prose and plays, Incriminating Evidence - collaborated with award-winning comicbook artist, Ted McKeever, as writer for the graphic novel, Toxic Gumbo - she has merged spoken word with atmospheric soundtracks to create 'illustrated word' performances such as Mantrikamantra - penned a full-length biographical novel, Paradoxia, A Predator's Diary - and delved deeply into sculpture and photography...

...and she ain't done yet!

It was while she was in the UK for the Shotgun Wedding dates that Remy Dean first met Lydia Lunch in a dungeon-like bar just off Oxford Street.

The main body of this conversation occurred there and then, though more recently it has been supplemented and updated with comments from Lydia when she was once more in the UK, along with Richard Kern, in 1996 to discuss and defend their collaborative movies at the National Film Theatre - a record of some ten years earlier when the films had been their first transgression together.

The year also rounded off Lydia's second decade of 'No-Wave' confrontation and documentation.
Lydia Lunch filming with Richard Kern 
How do you feel about the interview situation?

Oh, I like it.

You seem to have little fame and fortune considering the type of work you have been doing for a relatively long time... Do you have an anti-commercial-success policy?

I have to do what ever suits me at the moment. I don’t have a strategy. As far as a career... I consider my career as what I do... but it certainly doesn’t pay like a career. I have to amuse and entertain myself and express myself, so usually that means a different thing every two or three months. Which has always been the case, I didn’t set out to become a commercial pop star and don’t see why I should change at this point.

The mainstream just doesn’t interest me - nothing creative is being done in that format - and I have to jump from one vehicle to another at a fast pace, as fast as possible. So it’s not really an issue.

It’s not a definite policy...

Well, I have to say that there are very few people that are successful that I can respect. What is there to respect when people are propagating the lowest common denominator in order to reach a success. I am completely successful - I’ve documented everything I’ve had to, and have managed to do that for 13 years.

Just because my bank account hasn’t swelled astronomically I don’t consider myself any less of a success.

I’m very successful in the sense that a lot of people who create on a similar level of intensity and diversity don’t have the opportunity to find a vehicle for release of their material. I’ve been stubborn and tenacious enough to ensure that every thing I’ve done has been documented on record, film, or some kind of release. That’s where the success comes in - I’m more interested in documenting these periods of emotional instability than making sure everyone gets a copy.

I’m speaking for a minority in the first place so why should that translate into majority appeal.

What is the worth of your work - why do that minority like it?

Because they’re frustrated, angry, hateful, confused and they need a voice to articulate their problems and my problems are not so unique. All problems are universal, and I think the appeal comes in from just being a voice for the dispossessed.

Why is that more valid, rather than trying to fight those problems and depressions with positivity?

Well there’re enough happy assholes out there, why should I be another one in the line... There’s a lot of mopey bastards too but I mean, how many are really delving into the root of the problem instead of just crying and whining about it. I’m trying to analyse the situation as I document it not just whinge and complain... So I think the validity is that I go in as deep and as far as I can with it, taking it to the extreme with complete intensity and compassion. I think that’s what people latch on to...

I’m only dealing with what I know - I can’t espouse thoughts that have no relation to me like happiness and complete positivity in spite of absolute adversity. I’d be a liar if I started speaking about flowers and sunshine. A complete fucking liar - which is not to say my life is so drastically miserable, it isn’t, but I have a conscience. I see what goes on and I see how people continually fuck themselves over in their private lives what they’re not being fucked over by the government and anyone in a higher and better position than they are. So I have to deal in reality - that’s all I’m dealing with, I’m not making any of it up.

I’m not saying that I won’t one day release a more cheerful presentation, but I can’t imagine one at this point. It wouldn’t impress me, doesn’t amuse me or interest me.

Don’t you think there’s a risk that people who are feeling pretty bad might just be dragged down further by it?

Brings me to the ‘Suicide Sundays’ that some girls in the mid-west held in my honour... is it going to be the last straw that broke the camel’s back? I wouldn’t be sad if it did, I mean if you can’t take it any more then you have every right to get the fuck out - but it’s possible that these spates of depression are just temporary and environmentally controlled and if you removed yourself from the environment that compounds your misery you would, no doubt, be able to be a lot happier. I mean, living in a place like London is a very depressing environment. Places like New York can be very depressing. In spite of the energy that is intrinsic to these places that offer up a lot of alternative vehicles, it’s still the amount of brick mortar concrete corruption that’s gonna compound it - remove yourself.

Are you occupied in the pursuit of happiness at all?

I’m a total pleasure seeker. I pursue anything that satisfies me. I usually get it. I have specific needs and I know what they are so I can achieve satisfaction. Most people can’t be satisfied because they don’t know what the fuck they want. They know they don’t want this, but they don’t know what they do want. My life is very simple in that I want to create, I want to document it, I want to do exactly what I want to do, where I want to do it, with who I want to do it with - and I achieve that.

Setting an example?


You seem very existential - all very much from within. Do you ever think about tackling wider issues, like politics?

I tackle them in the spoken word format. I wouldn’t do them musically because what’s the point: there’s nothing worse than political music, it’s a complete fucking bore. It’s bad enough to give a speech that deals with these issues, but through the vent of my spoken word performances I am tackling the basic white-male-middle-aged-power-structure which dominates and destroys everything. How much wider a breadth can you cover?

Have you seen the work of Candida Royalle?

Yes. I think it’s good. More women should delve into pornography formed by women, I mean they’re very sensitive. I have a lot of respect for Annie Sprinkle, though she’s coming from what I call the hippy-tofu-sexuality genre, I’m coming more from hate-fucking and trying to understand that aspect of personal relationships. What causes people to destroy each other and love it.

There should be more women speaking about their sexuality and their problems and frustrations and there are just so few examples...

You don’t go with the view that all pornography exploits women, then?

No pornography exploits women. It exploits men. It’s the men that are made to look stupid, silly and ridiculous, chasing after the golden elixir. Women look beautiful, do what they wanna do and get paid for it. It only exploits men, the fact that more women don’t produce it is disturbing to women who enjoy pornography because there’s not much erotica out there. Fortunately in America there is Candida Royalle, there is On Our Backs - a lesbian magazine - there are some lesbian film makers, but I mean, lesbians and the average woman might not have a lot in common, so all factions should start speaking up.

Have you been making any more films since the Richard Kern stuff?

I did a ten minute film with Beth B about war, the day to day abuse of being privy to the consequences of war. I’m planning another film with Richard Kern set in New Orleans about a woman who marries a cop to set him up for her gun running schemes - la a 50s noire detective... It’s the first time I’ll be dealing with fiction with Richard Kern, so that should be interesting.

What do you think about the films you made with him before, being viewed as pornography?

I guess it’s whoever’s opinion you’re listening to... Pornography is not an insulting category to me. Fingered certainly is pornographic, it’s not erotica it’s meant to be very ugly, which I think it is, and funny. It shows how a woman under the strain of abuse is gonna turn that around, but at the same time be trapped by the intensity, the emotions the fervency of it all. It’s hard not to be addicted to adrenaline, which I think most people in abusive situations are. Addicted to the adrenal rush of the possible violence and then the lull and psychology of the make up, it’s all drama and I think the psychology of abuse is based on adrenal addiction, speaking from my own experience.

To me, pornography is erotic, beautifully shot and sexually stimulating and titillating and the point of it is to get off. The point of my films is not to get off - if that happens to you and you’re sexually stimulated, then ask yourself why. The point of the films I made with Richard (Kern) is not to erotically stimulate, but to show a psycho-sexual dynamic in a drama of real life experiences and try to understand the psychology of this kind of behaviour.

In doing these films, it really helped me to understand what my own afflictions and twisted desires were about. It’s very hard to read the subtext, which I hope Right Side Of My Brain delivers, which is: If you’ve been placed in a victimised position, eventually you will become the victimiser.

For me, doing these films was therapy to try to break that cycle. I’m not trying to say there’s anything wrong with being titillated by something like Fingered - which I see as an atrocious depictation of a perverse sexual reality which a lot of us are afflicted with and enjoy - great when you enjoy it for the right reasons , horrible if you’re sucked into that lifestyle without any idea of what the basis is.

I think there is a big difference between these films and pornography for the sake of pornography - which I am all for and watch copiously. In America, the quality of pornography is incredible - sorry, you probably luck out over here in the UK - the budgets are huge, the storylines are great, the themes are really outrageous, so I enjoy pornography whenever I can.

How much of your work is actually the truth about your experience, your own life?

All of it’s the truth about my own life. Depending on which day of the week you catch me on...

But is it symbolically paraphrased?

No. I deal with reality. I can’t speak about abuse that I don’t know. I can only speak about what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced, knowing that a lot of other women have gone through it too. And men.

Pornography may not be an offensive category, but you feel that ‘poetry’ is?

It’s a very weak title... What was the last good poem you read and when was it written? The last great poets must have died about 100 years ago and I couldn’t even think of one if I had to. I think it’s an inappropriate title... I don’t like most titles.

Most of my songs are not written like poetry any way, they’re prose to begin with. I like the term ‘writer’ because it’s more ambiguous.

The people you admire tend to be writers...

Absolutely. Because the words are the most important thing with what I do, the music is there to illustrate that.

Does the sound of the words ever come before their meaning?

I’m not speaking that much gibberish... I think the meaning comes first.

Why do you think people are offended or disturbed by your work?

I think because there weren’t many other aggressive, powerful icons that were women before, so they have nothing to compare it too. So when they see me they’re a little intimidated, also the fact that I’m not smiling and kissing their asses might scare them: I’m not an entertainer, I don’t like the term ‘performer’, so I think that it’s my unrelenting lack of compromise, they might find hard to swallow. I don’t know why they’re affronted by me.... If I was a man doing this they certainly wouldn’t find anything to complain about.

Shotgun Wedding 
What about the references to the Church Of Satan on the Shotgun Wedding album? Are you a Satanist?

I’m not a Satanist... No religion, I’m atheist. What is that song really about? Just because Alice Cooper left it out in his version, doesn’t mean I’ll leave it out in mine. Basically it is about death destruction and power, so the Church of Satan in that one specific prayer, which is quite a beautiful one considering that most of the literature is ridiculous, I just thought it was appropriate to the song... and it’s appropriate to my feelings toward the audience in the general sense, I do not condemn them, they condemn themselves.

Why do you put yourself on stage? Is it as a service or do you get a kick out of the power?

I get more power on a one to one basis, than I do on one to 400, although I often feel I out number no matter what the crowd size... I often feel that I completely out number them, because it’s one mass, one body and when it’s one body to one body, I know mine is going to be infinitely more powerful, ever ready and long lasting. Having complete faith in my power source and its regeneration.

I think more of it as a service. With Shotgun Wedding, it was different, because I know Rowland really shines in the live format and it’s a pleasure to work with him, and I would be too disappointed to just release the album and not give him the full treatment. Recording the album is one thing, playing the songs live is another, and I wanted to see how that transmuted and to continue the collaboration with Rowland. It’s the first time I’ve ever recorded an album and gone on tour. Totally against my rules before this point because I find that it’s too commercial, too easy...

But just to work with these specific people in live format and see how that goes, and see how the songs transmute from the static and staid studio situation.

What is Jim Thirwell (Clint Ruin) like as a producer?


Is he a contributor or a megalomaniac?

Absolute contributor - he’s not a megalomaniac: his way is right and he knows it. Megalomania doesn’t really come into it.

He always seems very much in control of his own projects.

Absolutely! He’s an ideal collaborator for me because usually in my collaborations I have to conceive, execute, find the people, document, see it out, birth it, shit it out... and wait for the repercussions, but with him he can take a lot more control. I can say ‘this is the concept, these are the words’ and he can create the music around that. I don’t have to birth every process.

It’s very easy to collaborate with him and also we’ve known each other for eight years and are very close and intimate friends so that’s an ideal collaboration where there’s only one other person to deal with not four musicians. It’s a lot easier to translate things that way.

My job is a lot easier when I work with him. I like to relinquish control some-times, you know, and he’s one of the few people that can take on the burden of what needs to be done to see things out... Most people are just guitar players, or bass players, or drummers, they want to do what they do and not have to burden themselves with all the details, which is extremely tiring.

A thankless job.

Is that the case with Rowland at all?

Well, Rowland should just play the guitar. No one’s asking him to baby sit the rest of the band or do any of the details. A talent such as his should be mollycoddled to do exactly what he does best. But my job is the mother of all of them and is far more exhausting.

Because I am the stubborn one that makes sure it’s gonna come out the way I want it to, that’s just a job I have to take on, no one else to... It’s part of the procedure, the creation, the execution, the documentation, although it takes up most of the energy, what comes after that is usually the head ache... the pain, fucking constipation, waiting... waiting is a very irritating past time.

Harry Crews, band named after the novelist,
(Left - Right) Lydia, Kim Gordon, Sadie Mae
I saw you over here with Harry Crews, which must have been your first gig with a band here for years...

Well, not really... seems that way.

Is there something you don’t like about the UK?

Yeah. I don’t particularly care to perform here... The press is too fickle: they like what’s trendy at the moment, not that I’m playing for the press. The audiences are quite often drunk, what else is there to do here but get drunk anyway? They’ve seen it all, the clubs aren’t all that great, whatever, not that I just want to go and play to the converted, I don’t know... I just try to avoid this country. There’s no real need for me here. I don’t like the politics of the music scene, it’s all politics, all bullshit, all ass kissing, all start a fad, it becomes a trend, it’s over next week.... I don’t really work in fads or trends, though I may have created a few unknowingly, I certainly don’t work to that format.

Also, the problem I find with the English music scene is that although there’s not much of a difference between the underground and the over ground, people are more likely in a so called ‘alternative’ vehicle to try to penetrate that, whereas in America there’s a huge difference between top 40 radio and the underground. People are not afraid to stay in the underground. Here it seems there are a lot of people trying to get over, which I think is not an integral part of creation.

I think what you have in America is such a large number of people, that however underground you are, you’ve still got the culture to support it, whereas in Britain, there are not enough people to support some cultures...

In a sense...

Do you like being thought of as a musician?

Fuck no!

You prefer to be a ‘writer’?

Yeah... ‘musician’ is not a very respected title. I’m not a musician.

You’re a kind of all rounder...

Oh yeah, Jack of all trades, Master of none...

Who or what were the Immaculate Consumptives?

Nick Cave, Marc Almond, Mr Foetus and myself...

Will there ever be a reprise?

No-no-no! No: one time is enough for a lot of these projects. you go for it with gusto, you get it, you do it, it’s done. Why beat a dead horse? Even if it was great at the time, enough is enough. I think there were three performances and it was just a concept of mine to do these Halloween shows in New York with certain people... to see what would become of it when we were working in different formats, no bands, just songs that somehow strung together this attitude. It was an interesting project at the time.

Another band you worked with, one of my all time faves but very obscure over here, is No Trend.

Mmm... The most hated band in America.

What happened to them?

They’re over. Deceased. When I tell people I was working with No Trend, they just go ‘Oh, my God! I hate them!’, I’m like: ‘Well, that’s one vote of confidence...’ Great, anyone who’s that hated - even Sonic Youth banned them from playing with them - they can’t be all bad! Mostly it was their lyrics, I loved the No Trend lyrics... they had sent me a tape asking me if I would sing some songs and the lyrics were just so basic and so right: ‘Quick! Two seconds to non-existence, so what the fuck do you want?’ - how can you beat that, I mean the curtest lyrics I’ve ever heard, ‘Too many fucking humans, You breed like rats, And you’re no fucking better!’ - brilliant, y’know, great! So they were just a band who could not really find their niche, put out a few records, I helped them get out a record or two and then they just disappeared into obscurity, and hence forth the lead singer and main man, Jefferson Scott, went on to make a film about John Holmes life, the porn superstar, Johnny Wad - can’t vouch for it, haven’t seen it. Love ‘Johnny Wad’ though, absolute hero.

What about your visual content? Your self image, how conscious of that are you?

I’m vain. Why not, most women are, they should be. The female format is a beautiful one in which to function. Foolhardy as it may be. I change my image all the time, it’s whatever suits me at the moment... I was a long-haired, shaggy red-haired hippie before I came on tour this time. The way I look just depends on my mood, basically. The image, or personality, is propagated mainly by the press, who don’t know jack shit about me anyway... That’s why I like doing interviews, at least you have some personal contact with people - they realise you’re not a man hating, man eater and that you’re quite reasonable and sensitive underneath the scowl.

You want to be known for what you’re doing and what you are... are you worried about the glamour and sexuality of you image detracting from that?

I’m not sure about a glamorous or sexual image, but I’m not hiding my sexuality, but then again I’m not sticking my crotch in people’s faces or rubbing myself like Madonna either... I think it’s an aggressive sexuality because I’m not hiding it, but it’s not perceived or put forth in the usual fashion of a smiley hot go-go dancing chic on stage, I’m not trying to please anyone out there. I’m just being the way I am.

Some of your album covers could be considered erotic...

Why thank you... Well the Stinkfist cover because of what could better suit the music - which was to illustrate the final fuck of all eternity - other than a nude shot bathed in mud with mon amour, Mr Foetus?

As far as the Queen Of Siam re-issue cover, I wanted to do something that was based on the exotica albums of the 1950s - which were this instrumental Hollywood soundtrack that always had exotic women in bizarre floral locations on the covers. That’s what that was based on, but again, with Queen of Siam or Stinkfist, you’re not seeing anything except for naked arms, torso, and thighs. Yet because of my attitude, people immediately find it so obscene when you don’t even see nipples, don’t see fur, you’re not really seeing anything... What’s a little butt cleavage?

Queen of Siam re-issued
I think it’s because my attitude is so aggressive that people find it more obscene than if I was doing a full open thriving beaver shot, with a smile on my face. I think if it was just a close up of my face on Stinkfist, people would still be perturbed, those who are going to be perturbed...

You just mentioned Madonna - what do you think of her?

I wish she’d get a better band! I like her outfits. I think she’s playing a good trick on everyone. Anyone who makes $60 million a year I’m not gonna argue with, I just think that the music seems secondary to the image. She’s a conceptualist in that way too, but I don’t really have much of a comment on her. She does what she can.

She is a charitable character to a lot of organisations, she is conscientious, she’s a business woman, she is in control. It’s just unfortunate the music suffers, ‘cos it’s fucking shit, pop pulp pap, crap! But she’s very good at what she does. Also she is really in a field of her own. I consider myself the anti-Madonna! There you go - I wish she’d collaborate some of her $60 million a year in my direction. But I’m not gonna force the issue!

I think we could be quite good friends if we knew each other... Because I don’t think she takes any shit either. However, I think she likes her ass kissed a lot more than I like my ass kissed. I really don’t like people kissing my ass - it annoys me. I’m not out there looking for that, and I think that she can’t live without it. Can’t live without the camera, without hundreds and thousands of people kissing her ass. That would be the most repugnant thing I could think of - people hounding after me... especially 12 year old girls. God forbid.

I only have interest in being true to the way I feel. And to the way other people feel .

Who do you admire?

Hubert Selby Jnr, Henry Miller, the Maquis De Sade - who I think is the greatest philosopher of the last 400 years. Juan Goytisolo - a Spanish writer - is one of my absolute favourites - Serpent’s Tail puts him out. I enjoy a bit of pulp detective fiction too like James Ellroy, James Lee Burke - from Louisianna, Seth Morgan’s Homeboy, Anais Nin...

Most of those were male writers. Not even mentioning Harry Crews...

Yeah, because they’re dealing with reality... the harshness of reality, OK. The problem I have with Anais Nin is that it’s just not real enough. Not harsh enough. It’s very dreamy, very beautiful and erotic, but it doesn’t really get down to the nitty gritty and that’s what I need in writing. I wanna read it as non-fiction. These people like Henry Miller and Hubert Selby - they may be fictionalising the examples, but they’re dealing with real situations. That’s what I really need - I’m not that big a fan of fiction.

What film-makers do you like?

Polanski would be my favourite until his last two films. Odd films like In A Glass Cage, the Spanish film that won a lot of awards, Santa Sangre, I like the Peter Greenaway films because they’re so fascicle and so huge. Giant films, annoyingly British but so massive, and the massiveness and the glamour and beauty of them are just undeniable. I love a film called Possession with Isabelle Adjani who’s sexually possessed by this being, which is basically her own urges...

Is that a recent one?

It’s old, I tried to get that one for the Scala, but it’s hard to obtain a print - it is on video though, here.

Any musicians you admire?

I like The Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop from New York, on Matador records in the States. Not that I don’t pay attention to what goes on, but it’s been a long time since I heard anything that really sounded new to me. I like Die Haut from Germany, and Matador - an all girl group. I like John Zorn, I’d like to work with John Zorn - I think I might in the future. I like Diamanda (Galas). But it’s few - you don’t hear anyone doing anything really new that you haven’t heard before. That’s a priority in music for me.

Basically I listen to Ligeti, Penderecki, Stockhausen... instrumental music in my spare time.

2001was an influential movie then?

I just prefer instrumental. I don’t need to hear what other people are singing. And if I need music as a backdrop to work or to think, I need to have that part of the brain clear - I don’t need people feeding their fantasies into my vision.

What has been the most asked question?

They’ve all been pretty unique...

You chose to live in New Orleans for a while... Why?

There’s no alternative music scene there. It’s very hot and humid and lush, and lurid, thick, sweaty. A very false sense of quiet and calm, relaxed slow paced lugubrious, lengthy long days. It’s architecturally divine. It smells fantastic. It’s cheap. I didn’t know anyone there... All good reasons to go.

You’re usually thought of as very New York.

Yeah, they forget I lived in London for two years - as I would like to also - and they forget I lived in Los Angeles, and I’ve travelled extensively, it’s not like I feel that any one place is my home. I don’t feel like a New Yorker, even though I could probably be the epitome of the ultimate New Yorker... I feel it’s important to move around.

New Orleans has a very violent reputation over here (in the UK)...

Absolutely violent. It’s the fifth highest crime rate in America for murder, rape and burglary. But it doesn’t have that appearance. In New York you see this every day, but in New Orleans you never see it, you just know it’s there waiting to happen. It’s very integrated, but the violence happens in the most segregated areas.

It’s South?

It’s very South...

Bible belt?

Bible belt... Very conservative. Louisianna is one of the most conservative states in the nation - the worst politics, most corruption, strictest abortion rules. It’s a fascinating dichotomy there because it seems so placid and enjoyably luxurious on the surface, but you know all this stuff is boiling under the belly. You can lead a very laid back lifestyle, but you know that at any time you’re bound to be curtailed by the legislature.

But that doesn’t really affect my life as an artist - I’m living outside the law anyway. But it has the worst education in America, 50th in position of education! In spite of two of the best universities in the Country being there. It’s a very contradictory place.

That contradiction drew me to it. It was one of the first places where people cross dressed, it has a very large gay population - it has a very liberal overtone in spite of all the corruption and bullshit.

The videos and films you made - what sort of exposure did they get in America? We can’t get hold of them over here except by mail order.

Well, they were kept pretty much under wraps though they did play in a lot of cinema festivals and we showed them where we could - Foetus, Richard Kern and I used to do tours together but we like to keep them pretty much underground. That’s what they are, they aren’t feature films they’re small art films, basically.

Film and video are almost by definition a mass media -

- Until you get to my back yard.

They played in a lot of festivals - in Europe too - it’s not as if we kept them under wraps. It’s right time right place... I think the right place for them to be viewed is privately in people’s houses, but I’m not going to deliver them door to door... Sorry pals.

What are your views on the subject of censorship?

Well it doesn’t affect me personally, although it has affected a lot of people that I have either worked with or have knowledge of. As for as I’m concerned they haven’t really latched onto what I’m doing either because they think I’m too underground or I’m just a single woman screaming into the void how dangerous can it be.

Of course they don’t know what the fuck I’m saying, but that’s the problem with censorship! Most of the things these people like Jessie Helms or the Bush administration want censored are things they are not exposed to. They don’t know what the fuck Maplethorpe did, they don’t know what the fuck Andre Serrano did, or Karen Finlay. They only know that it’s a threat...

So not really functioning in the art circles, and being only as underground as I am, they haven’t really picked on me yet. Let’s hope it stays that way... Although I would go with them tongue to tongue on any kind of debate no problem, absolutely no problem! I’m just glad I haven’t been involved in it. I mean why the Dead Kennedys had so much controversy with art they didn’t even create only propagate, was that the name was the Dead Kennedys and that, right there, was a slap in the American Government’s face.

I mean with a name like Lydia Lunch they probably just think I’m a porno star anyway so they probably just leave it out.

OK, can you do my work for me now, take control with one last statement to draw a conclusion to our conversation?

No ...I just think that it’s important for people to know that they should seek out the things that aren’t readily available and they shouldn’t settle for what’s shoved down their throat and there are various formats of artistic creation and documentation in all forms - music film literature - that are going to speak to them that are going to speak the abused and the victims and people who can’t take it anymore and they should seek that out as a form of relief because that is what people like myself are offering: an oasis from all the other forms of abuse that’re pounding in - even if it’s only that we articulate that frustration. And there are other people like myself...

Thank you Lydia Lunch!

Lydia Lunch was talking to Remy Dean

For more up-to-date info check out the Official Lydia Lunch website

Lydia Lunch was more recently Brought to Book by The Scrawl 

Friday, 30 October 2015

For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow! The Joy of Horror with Ramsey Campbell…

Ramsey Campbell needs no introduction, but if you would like one have a read of this potted biography from when he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University earlier this year.

Yes, Ramsey Campbell is a horror writer - and proud of it - yet he has managed to transition from great genre kudos to writerly acclaim in the wider literary world. He has been garnered with scores of major awards, including ten British Fantasy Awards, four World Fantasy Awards, three Bram Stoker Awards, and the Horror Writers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ramsey Campbell is a prolific writer and reader...
The Scrawl is proud to present a very special Halloween treat – in this extensive interview, Ramsey Campbell talks to Remy Dean about people, places, the past, the present and generously shares some top tips that will benefit any writer… 

Remy: I grew up near Ormskirk, on the Lancashire flatlands, and the house you describe in Again seemed unnervingly familiar – I feel that I have hurried passed it on country walks, because of a disturbing reflection caught in one of its windows… Such a sense of place is a prominent part of your writing.

What usually happens – does a story come to you and then you think, ‘where shall I set this one?’ or, does visiting a place suggest the story? Either way, is this strong sense of place created ‘poetically’ or through ‘proper research’ into the past of a place and ‘location visits’?

Ramsey: “Very often the place is the seed of the tale. I believe I owe some of this perception to the great Fritz Leiber, in particular one of his earliest and most important tales, Smoke Ghost. Instead of being invaded by the supernatural, the mundane setting – forties Chicago – is now its source, and the grubby half-glimpsed spectre its genius loci.

"In my case the fruitful setting is Liverpool. It has been for forty years, ever since I wrote my first tale set there in 1965 – The Cellars, which grew out of an actual underground location in the city centre – and is still enlivening my imagination, recently in Creatures of the Pool, my ultimate Liverpool novel. That’s founded on decades of research into local traditions and history, and I’m weirdly pleased that because the process was so protracted, I no longer always recognise which bits I simply found in obscure volumes and which I made up. Since the book is to some extent about Liverpool as a pool of legends, I’m rather pleased that it has the potential to become one.

"By contrast, stories using invented settings – Moonwell, Goodmanswood, and so on – tend to build their locations out of my memories. I’m intrigued you found the house in Again recognisable. In fact that tale came out of an idea – my having, as a child, once had to climb in a window of the house when my mother left her keys inside... and then the kind of train of thought we writers have, wondering what might happen if an adult found himself in the same situation. The Wirral Way was just a convenient spot to start from."

You may have invented the urban gothic genre, consolidated in the early 1980s by the likes of Clive Barker, and you both hail from Merseyside – was there a scene (I mean a literary one) based in Liverpool back then that you both were part of?

"Well, I rather think I was writing that kind of tale more than a decade earlier. The Cellars was first published in 1967, and Cold Print not long after. They typify a tendency in my tales to explore the darker areas of city life. Again, I don’t think my stuff gets much more urban or Gothic than The Face That Must Die from 1977.

"Clive – well, I gave a talk on horror to the sixth form at his school back in the early seventies, and he was in the audience. He cites it as a formative experience – meeting someone who actually did the kind of thing he wanted to do for a living. The Liverpool literary scene back then mostly involved poets, and I wasn’t part of it, while Clive was already involved in the theatre, writing and directing friends. All that said, I do think Liverpool has produced a lot of creativity in all sorts of fields, and Clive and Pete Atkins and I were the dark trio it set loose on the world."

The English Eerie is a term being used quite a lot recently (as an example see Adam Scovell’s magnificent weblog, Celluloid Wicker Man). I would say that you are the leading contemporary proponent of this sub-genre - with M R James sowing the first seeds. So, what do you think are its defining components and what marks it aside from the Gothic? Also, with your evident interest in and love for Lovecraft and Poe, what do you think differentiates the American Eerie?

"Well, thank you! I suppose it involves more of the spectral or fantastic than the Gothic generally does - after all, one of the great modern Gothic trilogies is Peake’s Gormenghast series, which involves nothing actually fantastic, though much that is grotesque. As to national differences – I really don’t know...

"In a way Poe and Le Fanu were similar, both refining the Gothic novel and concentrating the uncanny and fantastic elements while also scrutinising the psychological. The English tended towards the mystical and numinous for a while – Machen, Blackwood – but then of course Lovecraft united that tradition with the American, and later Leiber was to bring the unification up to date. Indeed, later writers such as T E D Klein do."

Why do you think English-language cinema shies away from producing your material for the big screen? I am truly surprised your stories are not continually optioned by British indie film producers – so why are the only two major adaptations Spanish language? With Guillermo del Toro making movies like The Orphanage, Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peakhas Spain finally hijacked the Gothick genre?

Los Sin Nombre aka The Nameless - Spanish film adaptation
"Well, there are English-language options on some of my work, and I’m hoping they’ll prove fruitful. The first Spanish film led to the second – I was in Madrid helping to promote Los Sin Nombre on a radio show and talked about my new book, which the producers immediately wanted to buy. Sadly, they bought the first submitted draft to develop, and it needed a great deal of work, which I put in on the novel while another writer did so for the film.

"I don’t know that Spain has snaffled the field for ever. There’s some pretty fine work being made in Britain and America and elsewhere."

Drawing on your experience as a film critic – which of your own stories would you most want to see adapted for cinema? Who would be in that ‘dream’ cast and crew?

"Needing Ghosts often strikes me as the basis for a disconcerting film, as does The Grin of the Dark. But who would be in the films or make them I couldn’t say, though I do dream of David Lynch."

Whilst we are on the subject of films, what recent films (horror / dark fantasy /  other) would you suggest for my watch list?

"It Follows, Kill List, The Borderlands, The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, Absentia, Oculus… those have all kept my enthusiasm for disquieting horror alive. Outside the field as it’s generally perceived, Paddington - which is sometimes unexpectedly reminiscent of Wes Anderson, whose films I’ve also grown fond of, Certified Copy and almost anything else by Kiarostami that I’ve seen - especially Shirin, The Turin Horse, Tu N’avais Encore Rien Vu - which I admit I liked far more than Resnais’ next film, his last, Amour - Haneke, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I Wish…"

Probably my favourite of your books in my collection is the edition of Alone with the Horrors, featuring illustrations by J K PotterI believe he has repeatedly produced work inspired by your stories and their locations – did you have any creative input on this and what do you think of those graphic representations?

Essential Ramsey Campbell reading - with illustrations by J K Potter
"No indeed – I trusted J K to follow his own remarkable instincts, and I’m delighted I did. I did show him around locations I’d used, and so his image for The Companion was based on the fairground that had suggested the tale, though the park shelter from Mackintosh Willy had, sadly, been demolished. By contrast, his illustrations for The Face That Must Die were made long before I took him to the actual place, but I for one couldn’t tell. His images for The Influence actually star our daughter, on whom Rowan in the tale was to some extent based, and my wife, Jenny, shows up cradling her."

Have you, or would you, consider writing specifically for a word-based visual medium, such as scripts for graphic novels or teleplays?

"Never have, except for a horror comic I wrote many years ago, which Barry Forshaw drew. We sent it to Warren Comics, but to no avail, and it has vanished into limbo. I remain to be tempted."

Do you have a writing ritual, regimen or a tried-and-tested process?

"I’m here at my desk every morning I’m at home - Christmas and my birthday too - usually in time to see the dawn. Certainly, I’ll be working on the first draft of a tale about six in the morning, when I’m generally most creative.

"One thing I’ve learned in fifty years as a writer is always to compose the first sentences before I sit down to write. I generally work until late morning on a first draft, sometimes later. If we go away the tale in progress goes with me, and when I’m out I always carry notebooks – usually one for the novel in progress or next to be written, another for more general ideas.

"I was also lucky to learn very early in my career – even before August Derleth sent me editorial advice – to enjoy rewriting. These days I do more of it than ever. Absolutely everything in a first draft has to justify itself to me to make the final version, which is pretty nearly always significantly shorter than the first one - anything up to twenty per cent shorter, I’d estimate. The first drafts of fiction are always longhand - with the solitary exception of A Street Was Chosen, written in the form of an experimental report, which I couldn’t write except on the computer - and the rewrites are at the keyboard.

Is there a difference in approach to writing a novel and a short story?

"My approach to both is pretty instinctive, eschewing any kind of prepared synopsis and trusting to my sense that I’ve gathered enough material to get started. I’d much rather the tale grew of itself and surprised me. I would say novels are more likely to do the latter, and gain more energy from the time they take to write."

You have mentioned Lovecraft a few times already, my favourite of his tales would be Dreams in the Witch House… What would be your favourite Lovecraft story?

"The Colour Out of Space. For me it finds the perfect symbol to convey his sense of the alienness and awesome vastness of the universe, even more eloquently than his suggestive mythos. I analysed its style and structure at length - along with other Lovecraft tales - in an essay in Ra Page’s critical anthology Morphologies."

What is it about Lovecraft that inspires respected authors in their own right, such as yourself, to ‘write in the style of’?

"In my case – that is, in my recent attempts, not my slavish youthful bids at imitation – his extraordinary care with language, his use of the precise voice at the particular point in the narrative to convey what he wants to convey, his modulation of style within a single work, his eloquent structure, the gradual accretion of telling detail. There’s a great deal to learn from without modelling one’s work too closely on it."

OK, back to cinema – what films do you think have best captured that Lovecraftian vibe, so far?

"For me no film has come closer to Lovecraft’s ambitions for supernatural horror than The Blair Witch Project. In its documentary realism, its use of hints and allusions to suggest horrors vaster and more terrible than are ever shown, and the psychological authenticity with which the characters react to their plight, it virtually sums up his rules for the genre. That said, I also admire the H P Lovecraft Historical Society’s films of two of his tales, made in the style they might have had of they’d been filmed in the years the originals were published."

What was the first book you can remember reading that really carried you off into its world and left an impression on you?

The horror of Rupert...
 (cover of the 1947 annual)
"Well, if we discount a Rupert Bear annual I seem to have read in late 1947 - one tale therein was my first experience of sheer supernatural dread - it was probably George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, which proved pretty well as terrifying when I was five or so. I believe that despite being aimed at children, both employ the technique of showing enough to suggest far worse – certainly to me."

Who have been your favourite writers and what did you learn from them?

"Lovecraft – see my ‘thumbnail’ analysis above – and M R James, specifically his ability to convey more terror in a single glancing phrase or sentence than most writers achieve in a paragraph. Graham Greene was certainly an influence in terms of social realism and terse keen imagery, and Nabokov – not just Lolita, though that was my introduction to his work – was a revelation: his joy in language, his discovery of comedy in the unlikeliest places, his use of words to make you look afresh. And Thomas Hinde for comedy of paranoia."

After such an impressive and a long-running writing career, do you have any advice or ‘words of wisdom’ for the aspiring young writer of imaginative fiction?

"I’m not the first to say that the most important thing for a writer to do is to write, but I’ll add that you should work on whatever you’re writing every day until it’s finished; to do otherwise is to court writer’s block, every blank day adding to the hurdle that prevents you from getting back into the story and making the task seem more impossible. An example of this is my story Litter, where six months elapsed between my first day’s work and my return to the story, which I took up by writing the line 'That’s how he enters the story, or this is.' I should have rewritten the story to improve its shape, of course.

"Now I rewrite more and more severely, and take great pleasure in cutting thousands of words out of first drafts; I think that’s a pleasure worth learning as early as possible in one’s career, not least because realising one can do it helps one relax into writing the first draft, where it’s better to have too much material for later shaping than not enough. Learning to relax enough with the technique of writing novels comes easier to some than others; you may feel you need to plot a novel in advance - maybe all the way to breaking it down into chapter synopses - before you begin the first chapter, but it’s worth trying to regard the synopsis merely as a safety net once you begin writing, trying to let the novel develop itself as it takes on more life. I did that first in Incarnate, and since then I’ve avoided plotting or constructing too far ahead, trying to know only as much as I need to know to start writing and head in the right direction. It can be fearsome to find yourself losing your way halfway through a novel, all by yourself in the unknown, but I find that the solutions are usually somewhere in what you’ve already written, and I can tell you that the bad days are worth the days when you feel the novel come to life.

"I’m still stressing the arduousness, but let me see if I can pass on some tricks I’ve learned. We all have an optimum period of creativity each day, and it’s worth beginning work then if you possibly can. Mine is from about seven in the morning until noon or so. It’s easy to get distracted away from your work, but music may help; my desk is between the speakers of the hi-fi on which I play compact discs - which last longer than records and keep me there longer - of all sorts of music from Monteverdi onwards. Steve King uses rock, Peter Straub jazz.

"Don’t be too eager to feel you’ve exhausted your creative energy for the day, but if you sense you’re close to doing so, then don’t squeeze yourself dry: better to know what the next paragraph is going to be and start with that next time. Scribble down a rough version of it rather than risk forgetting it. Always have a rough idea of your first paragraph before you sit down to write, and then you won’t be trapped into fearing the blank page. If you must take a day or more out from a story, break off before the end of a scene or a chapter, to give yourself some impetus when you return.

"Always carry a notebook for ideas, glimpses, overheard dialogue, details of what you’re about to write, developments of work in progress. If an idea or something larger refuses to be developed, try altering the viewpoint or even the form: if it won’t grow as a short story, it may be a poem. Sometimes two apparently unproductive ideas may be cross-fertilised to give you a story. Then again, you may not be ready technically or emotionally to deal with an idea, and it can improve with waiting.

"What else can I tell you? Only to write. Surprise us, astonish us. Enjoy your work. Above all, don’t despair. The frustration you will inevitably experience sometimes, the feeling that you don’t know how to write, may be the birth pangs of something genuinely new. I know I still suffer that experience every time I write a story. Believe me, it’s preferable to playing it safe with a formula."

Thank you for giving such a considered and full answer there, full of actual, practical advice for any writer! It certainly seems to have kept you in good stead… I lose count of how many books you have written – in excess of 30 novels and 20 or so collections of short stories - so… if I’d never read anything by Ramsey Campbell – where should I start?

"Since you have, I think you should say. Let’s see if I agree with your choices."

My recommendation as a starting point is always Alone With The Horrors - that's the one I lend out to friends to get them on the road to Ramsey country. Possibly because it is one of the first books of yours I read myself, and also because I do think that you are a master of the short story form and this is a great showcase of 'essential Ramsey Campbell' material. Also the Waking Nightmares collection... As for novels - and I must admit that I have not read them all, then probably Incarnate for its inexorable immersiveness(?)...  and Ancient Images for the evocative and effectively chilling milieu...

...what do you say to that?

the funny side of paranoia...
"Those choices sound good to me, Jeremy. That said, I might add Needing Ghosts and The Grin of the Dark to represent my comedy of paranoia."

Finally, how will you be celebrating Halloween / Samhain?

"In no way at all, though I’ll be at a convention."

Well, have a good one! Thank you very much for such a stimulating interview and for the well-considered full answers to my questions.

For more info and up-dates check out the official Ramsey Campbell weblog.

If you are somewhat serious and scholarly, you could access the Ramsey Campbell archive, held at Liverpool University...

- Thank you Ramsey Campbell!

interview by Remy Dean

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."

Well, as a Halloween bonus, you can watch Fractured Boy below, though it works equally well as a Christmas treat! Be warned, though - Viewer Discretion required as the video is full-on horror tainted with the blackest of humour:

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