Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 7 February 2011

Paul Finch interviewed by David McWilliam

Paul Finch is a former police officer and journalist, who has been working as a full-time author since 1998. He first cut his literary teeth during the 1980s and 1990s penning scripts for the ITV crime drama The Bill but he also wrote extensively in animation and for children’s television. However, it’s probably in the fields of horror, fantasy and sci-fi wherein he’s best known. To date, Paul has had over 300 short stories and novellas published on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s also had nine collections published, and two novels: Stronghold and Sparrowhawk. His third novel, Hunter’s Moon, is a Dr Who adventure, and will be published by BBC Books later this year. Paul’s other forays into Dr Who include three audio dramas for Big Finish. Again, two of these will be issued later this year. Paul’s horror movie work is also extensive. He co-wrote the cult horror film, Spirit Trap, which was released in 2005, while his most recent movie, The Devil’s Rock, is now in post-production and will be released in spring. In addition to these two, Paul has 11 other projects currently under movie option. Paul has won the British Fantasy Award twice – for his collection After Shocks in 2002, and his novella, Kid, in 2007, and won the International Horror Guild Award for his short story ‘The Old North Road’ in 2007. Paul lives in Wigan, Lancashire, with his wife, Cathy, and his two children, Eleanor and Harry. His regularly updated blog and webpage can be found at:

DM: What made you want to write horror fiction? What do you consider to be its attractions over other genres and mainstream fiction?
PF: It’s difficult to recollect a time when I didn’t like horror fiction, though my interests within horror range widely – from the Jamesian supernatural, to the cerebral nightmares of Robert Aickman, to the cosmic weirdness of Lovecraft, to the 60s and 70s slasher-pulp of the Pan horrors – and maybe that emphasises the ultimate strength of the genre. It’s a massive field. Truly massive. There’s almost no limit to what you can write about, and how you write about it, under the horror umbrella. Of course, darkness is endemic throughout horror, along with the fear factor. Without darkness and fear, it wouldn’t be horror. But I don’t see those as necessarily negative things. We all like the quick thrill of the Ghost Train ride or the Big Dipper. Fear has often been used as entertainment, so long as it’s in a controlled environment, and, at the end of the day, we read horror stories or watch horror movies to be entertained. As a writer, I definitely view it that way – I’m in the business of putting my readers through the emotional mill. The more frightening I can make it, the more satisfied I am with the job. Likewise, as a reader – who started at a relatively early age (at my dad’s suggestion, I began reading Lovecraft, and the violent fantasies of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was about seven or eight, and I was an avid Dr Who fan long before then) – I saw it in exactly the same way. For some reason, I needed that raw edge of fear, that heart of darkness. Nothing else seemed to give me the kick I desired.

That said, if, as a horror writer, you can edify as well as entertain, then all to the good – and horror most certainly can edify, because there are some excellent literary practitioners working within it. That’s one area where I get a little bit pugnacious. Even at small and medium publisher level, there is some staggeringly good writing in the horror field. Without thinking too hard, I can throw a handful of names at you right now, which the mainstream book buyer is unlikely to be familiar with – Reggie Oliver, Steve Duffy, Simon Bestwick, Gary McMahon, Mark Samuels – and, purely as authors, I reckon they’re the equal of almost anyone you’ll find on the ‘bestseller’ shelves in the average high street bookstore. I’m not whining about some kind of injustice here – that’s the way the cookie has crumbled, but the general public’s perception of horror as something dingy and designed to appeal to our basest instincts is hugely inaccurate.     

Of course, the worth of any field of creative endeavour is entirely subjective. So I don’t think you can sit there and say: “Horror deserves better.” In some ways, horror’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It’s a very busy genre. You only need to look at how many horror movies are made each year – vastly more than in other fields. Likewise, the majority of the small presses tend to turn out horror and science-fiction first and foremost. But inevitably, when you get an awful lot of material, quite a bit of it is going to be poor quality. Even as a horror fan, there are times when I’m watching yet another bad movie or reading yet another disappointing story, and I wonder for how long I’m going to waste my time on this sort of thing. Something keeps drawing me back to it, though – something deep rooted, and that, I guess, is the rule right across the horror fan-base. So to answer your question somewhat less long-windedly, what are the attractions? … I honestly don’t know, but they’re there. Despite the genre’s problems, certain among us have an innate need to venture into that dark unknown, and not be fazed by what we discover there, no matter how horrible it is.

DM: Which writers influenced your early work and how, if at all, have your influences changed throughout your career?
PF: I think it’s more a case of which ones haven’t? Try as I may, there are certain authors in the genre who always leave me cold. Not because they’re bad writers, but because they just don’t deliver what I’m looking for. But those are an exception rather than a rule. The vast bulk of the field I find inspirational. I’ve always kept a detailed list of my favourite horror stories, adding to it on a regular basis – and it’s now 85 pages long! On my blog, I have a weekly feature called ‘The Power of Three’; each week, I focus on three particular stories that have affected me over the years. It’s no more than a thumbnail sketch in each case – a token gesture really to try and draw people’s attention to these tales. But the names of horror authors who’ve impressed me are so many and varied, that I wouldn’t know where to start if it came down to lining them up in order of preference. I think the two authors most responsible for ‘bringing me back to horror ‘– after my years in the police service, when there were far too many distractions for me to sit down and enjoy any kind of reading – were Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell.

The short horror stories I’d read before then, when I was college age, were mainly in the Pan and Fontana series. Though there was much more literary merit in those books than many give them credit for, folk will remember that later volumes increasingly comprised lots of short, nasty vignettes, which didn’t leave a lasting impression. When I finally returned to horror after such a long break, things had moved on significantly from that. The Books of Blood had been published, which I found startlingly visceral. They were far more violent and sexually explicit than the Pan stories had ever been, and yet the pace of the narrative and the quality of the writing were outstanding. Likewise with Ramsey – I’d never read anything quite like it before. The unreal nature of his settings, the isolation of his heroes, the eeriness of their predicaments – they made for compulsive reading. The other thing about Ramsey was his ‘kitchen sink’ quality. Nearly all his stories were set in his native Merseyside, and took place in recognisable inner city areas and on drear housing estates. There was nothing exotic about them, and yet their depth of weirdness and their sense of a world off-kilter was amazing. It genuinely made you believe that strange and ghastly things could be going on in the house next door, and you would never know.

Campbell and Barker were certainly a driving force behind my shift towards horror, but it was a neat switch-over. After I left the police, initially I wrote solely about crime and ‘broken Britain’, which wasn’t far removed from what writers like Campbell and Barker – and other writers who were really up-and-coming around then, like Joel Lane, Chris Fowler, Nick Royle, Simon Clark and Mark Morris – were also doing. That was in my early days. My first horror stories tended to be urban nightmares, often with grotesque psychological undertones. Later on – now, I suppose – though I often still use police officers and journalists as key characters (go for what you know, as they say), I’ve developed wider but not unrelated interests – such as folklore and mythology, particularly with regard to the UK. My 2008 collection, Ghost Realm, consisted entirely of new horror stories set in specific UK locations and drawing on their history and legends. My 2010 collection, Walkers in Dark, followed a similar path. I’m not sure what the inspiration behind this is, except that I’m fascinated by the history and geography of Britain. There’s probably a Jamesian element in there too – many of my settings, these days, are rural, and many of my evil forces are now drawn from the supernatural rather than the damaged psyche of my characters.

DM: In consideration of your increasing involvement in the horror film industry, which writers and directors currently working today provide you with inspiration and open up new ways of exploring the genre?
PF: Sad to say, I’m not blown away by the general standards I’m currently seeing in English language horror movies. This is not because there’s a lack of talent here and in the States. But as I touched on in another answer, it’s because we – and I mean US film companies primarily – really churn them out. There are so many horror movies made each year that a huge percentage of those will inevitably be trash. That’s the risk you always run with indie, ultra low-budget, sometimes even guerrilla film-makers. Some of them have got enthusiasm but very little else. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some gems produced, but outside the major Hollywood studios I’d be surprised if anyone – no matter how talented and well meaning – would be able to raise more than three million dollars for a horror movie project. That may seem like a lot to us, but it’s startling how little it buys you in film terms. But enough of that. Let’s concentrate on the positives.

At the big budget end of the spectrum, I still regard Guillermo del Toro as the great hope for horror and fantasy. I thought Pan’s Labyrinth was pure artistry on celluloid, and not only that, it made for cracking scare-fare as well, incorporating all kinds of elements from the genre. Further back, I enjoyed his Mimic, though it gained minimal response from the general public. I hear he’s now working on Frankenstein and At the Mountains of Madness. I’m looking forward to the second one more of the two, though that’s only because the former has been made and re-made so many times, but if del Toro can’t put the flat-headed fiend back into the public’s imagination then no-one can. I should also mention James Wan, who I suspect has now moved into this higher price bracket. I haven’t a great deal of time for the Saw franchise – I think it’s quickly become very samey, but there was no doubting the quality of the original, and I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Silence – pretty much a straightforward ghost story, which passed under many people’s notice, but very stylishly made. I look forward eagerly to seeing what his vampire opus, Nightfall, will be like.

At the lower budget end, it’s not all bad news. Plenty of indie films have caught my attention. I loved Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek, though it pushed the slasher envelope about as far as I, personally, like to go. I was impressed by Gareth Edwards’s Monsters – how could you not be given what he had to spend and the product he eventually conjured from it? Other relatively low budget movies that hit me hard in recent times were Jaume Balaguaro and Paco Plaza’s [Rec] (without doubt, one of the best horror films I’ve seen in ages), Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (bone-numbing chills in broad daylight), Juan Bayona’s The Orphanage (another very classy ghost story, beautifully written by Sergio Sanchez) and the tautly scripted Them (or Ils, as it is in French), which I’ll be reviewing soon for Twisted Tales. It’s no surprise, but it’s a comment on our industry that three of those last four were European productions. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we don’t lack the talent over here in the UK, but we do seem to lack the finance. As such, my most recent script, The Devil’s Rock, has been put on film with New Zealand money. The director of this one, by the way, is an English guy, Paul Campion. He learned his trade at the knee of Peter Jackson, working on The Lord of the Rings. He has great artistic flare, and is another one to look out for in the near future. He’ll definitely be going places.

DM: You have an incredible range of experience as a writer: short stories, novellas, novels, scriptwriting for television and film, tie-in fiction, etc. How do you think that this has helped you develop as a writer and do you consciously draw techniques from one form to use in another?
PF: The answer to the second part of that question is a definite yes. I first started writing for The Bill in the 1990s, a period during which I learned an awful lot about the disciplines of television. Film, of course, is very different – it’s far leaner in terms of dialogue and much more concerned with visual elements. I’ve now been writing movie scripts at what I hope is a professional level since about 2000. Only two of these movies have thus far progressed into actual production, but half a dozen others have been in full development for several years, which means they’ve gone through numerous drafts and have been work-shopped with script editors, producers, directors, etc. Film writing has become a style I’m very comfortable with, and it’s definitely had a positive effect on my prose. I’ve been told several times that my stories, novellas and novels have a ‘filmic’ quality, in that they’re delivered to the reader on what’s almost a scene-by-scene basis, and that much of the exposition – thought processes, and what-not – which sometimes can drain the energy from a story, are dealt with through snappy dialogue. Not every reader prefers this, of course, but it’s served me well generally. Likewise, having a background in prose can prepare you to write film. The director is the creative genius who will eventually make your ideas real, but if you can do half the job for him, by scripting quick, concise scenes with regard to atmosphere, visuals and so forth, and not overload it with extraneous chat, then he’s going to want to work with you again. A solid schooling in short-form prose gives you an excellent grounding for writing film.

Yes, the most important lesson I’ve taken from my script work is to say as much as possible with far fewer words. Okay, we all overwrite now and then – we’re often the worst judges of our own work, and we can’t be sure if we’ve got the message home – but there’s no more instructive an exercise for an aspiring writer than to find that he or she has to tell an intelligent and entertaining story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, at the same time introduce and maybe dispose of a dozen fully-fleshed characters, and also wow the audience with the sort of meaning and subtext you’d normally find in a full-length novel, in a script no longer than 100 pages (which is usually about 20,000 words). If you can even half-master the level of imaginative discipline that requires, then you will definitely come out of it a better writer. Whether I have or not is another question, but at a personal level I feel I’m writing better now than I ever have, and one of the tricks I use is to mentally approach each project – short story, novella, whatever – as if I’m writing a script.

DM: I’d like to discuss your forthcoming movie, The Devil’s Rock. What is it about, how have you found the development process and, if you have seen a near-finished cut, are you happy with the results?
PF: The Devil’s Rock sprang from lengthy conversations I had with the film director, Paul Campion, while we were working on two other projects of mine – Voodoo Dawn and Dark Hollow – both of which are still in development, though hopefully they’ll soon be in pre-production. For various reasons, Paul was looking for a period horror movie, which we could make at a relatively low budget. Initially we discussed several Roman and medieval projects, and though we advanced one of these to treatment stage, it soon became apparent that, no matter how clever we tried to be, it was still going to cost an arm and a leg. We finally knocked the idea on the head, but then – in the same conversation (over bangers and mash in my local) – Paul wondered about the possibility of developing a World War Two story. I was up for it, and at first we discussed the potential of a novella I’d recently had published called The Retreat, which concerns a German unit falling back from Stalingrad and blundering into a supernatural trap. It seemed like a goer to me, and Paul was quite keen, but a few days later he came back with this idea set in the Channel Islands on the eve of D-Day. Apparently, he’d uncovered some information related to witchcraft and black magic on Guernsey in the seventeenth century, and had even flown down there to research it. We got our heads together, and quickly thrashed out a storyline concerning an Allied commando raid which uncovers a Nazi plot to unleash dark forces.

That’s about as much as I’m allowed to tell you at present, but I wrote a detailed synopsis, and Paul put feelers out to see what kind of financial interest we could kindle. There wasn’t much in the UK, but he has good contacts in New Zealand, where he worked on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, among other blockbusters, and it was a different story down there. I was finally commissioned to write the script shortly before Christmas 2009. If you remember, we had hellish weather – heavy, prolonged snow and bitter temperatures. This curtailed my normal method, which is to take long walks and dictate copious notes. Instead, I was stuck in my office most of the time, but by the end of January we had a first draft. We workshopped it a bit – occasionally meeting up at neutral venues, occasionally emailing it back and forth between the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere – probably producing another three drafts before we were happy enough to send it to our potential financiers. That’s always a nerve-wracking moment, of course, though to sweeten the pill Paul had done something he’s very, very good at, which was produce a detailed selling document, full colour, laminated and packed with pre-production artwork, sketches, mood photos, letters of intent from actors, plans for locations he’d scouted, and so on. Even so, after making the approach around April, we only got the green light in July. My job normally ends at that stage. All I usually do from them on is sit at home and watch my computer screen jealously as I’m copied in on all the on-set gossip, but this time there were still some last minute rewrites to do – often a necessity when the financial reality of actually putting your ambitious dreams onto celluloid kicks in. But, despite the odd moment or two of panic, we still brought it home on time. Principle photography commenced in early August, and had wrapped by September.

Post-production has been underway ever since, though it’s now nearing completion. I’ve been in more or less constant touch with Paul (we have plans to work together again, hopefully this year), and in late November I got to see some of the early rushes. These were lacking special effects, music etc, but I got a positive vibe from what I saw. Paul is a terrific visual director. He comes at film from an artistic perspective, so it looked absolutely great. The acting also was exceptional, though it’s not very easy to appreciate how your dialogue is being handled when you have to listen to it via computer in a noisy London pub. But hey, that’s the movie business.

DM: What are your writing plans for 2011 and beyond?
PF: That’s a more difficult question than it may sound. Given the financial climate, my programme this year will be similar to my programme of last year, in that I’ll be concentrating on higher-paying projects, even if some of them are purely speculative. Unfortunately, this means that, yet again, I won’t be submitting short stories to anthologies or magazines with anything like the regularity I used to. Someone queried this at the end of 2010, saying that they hadn’t seen as much from me as usual. All I can say about that is that it’s nice when your absence is noticed. But alas, though I love writing shorts – they’re the horror form I cut my teeth on – it’s just not cost-effective to write them all the time. That said, I am actually putting together a new collection of stories, which will be published by Gray Friar Press at the end of the year. Some will be reprints, but most will be originals. I’ve no title for this yet, but it would be pretty neat if it was all done and dusted in time for Fantasycon in September. So I won’t be completely absent from the short story scene.
Now that Hunter’s Moon, my new Dr Who novel, is finished, my next major gig will be The Upper Tier. That’s my ghost story presentation at Haigh Hall (Wigan’s own version of Borley Rectory), in Easter. That’s now been fully green-lit and must be considered a live operation, so I’m working full-tilt on that. In addition, I have a book-signing at Wigan’s branch of Waterstone’s in late February – mainly I’ll be inscribing copies of my novel Stronghold and my novella Sparrowhawk, which both came out late last year – and I have several Dr Who-related events a little later: two conventions, where I’m a guest, and the recording of my next Big Finish audio. I’m hoping to pick up another Big Finish in 2011, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. I also have several pitches with publishers, for novels both inside and outside the genre. As I mentioned previously, the movie front is ever active. I have several scripts at various stages of development, all of which are under option. Two are likely candidates for pre-production in 2011, but you can never say for sure until it actually happens.

You’ll notice that I’m a bit hesitant to put names to these projects. You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m only usually forthcoming on this sort of thing if I think it’s a real goer. That way, my blushes are spared if it doesn’t happen, and it’s so often the case that it doesn’t. It’s a stressful way to run your personal business, I suppose – when you’re never sure what your next earner is going to be until the day it suddenly arrives. But the upside is that good things can happen at any moment, and usually you never see them coming. Sew enough seeds, and sooner or later the flowers bloom.

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