Regardless whether or not you’ve read Volk’s short fiction before, there’s a fair chance you’ve stumbled across some of his screenwriting at some point, knowingly or otherwise. Having written for both Hollywood and domestic television (creating most notably both Ghostwatch and Afterlife in the UK), it is through scripts that he makes a living. As he explains in his afterword, short stories are his escape from some of the restrictions and structures set up around the medium he works in. When he writes a story, he writes for himself, for the love of doing so, knowing that he is in sole control of everything the reader experiences. Very different, I imagine, from the convoluted collaboration of producers, directors, actors, technicians, and more, that cluster around a television or film script. The comparitive purity of short story writing appeals, then.
And it shows. Volk is obsessed with the rhythms and structures of the written word. Knowing I was about to read stories from a screenwriter, I somehow expected stripped down language, and rollercoaster pacing. On the evidence of this collection, those are among the things Volk occasionally wishes to escape from when writing fiction. That is no criticism at all, although it did cause me to take far longer reading the book, dipping in and out over a couple of months, than I had anticipated. Volk’s fiction is not hard work to read, but it confounded my expectations in terms of complexity.
Many of my favourite stories in the book are inspired by a seeming love of older horror works, such as Machen, James, Blackwood, even Conan Doyle. Gentlemen gather in thier clubs, smoking cigars in front of a roaring fire, and relating sinister tales, while amateur spiritualists seek out strange tales of haunted paintings and spectacles – all the stuff of the classics. The pace of such tales is slow, bucking the modern trend of horror stories that want to slap you in the face with the opening, and race you breathless towards the finishing line. They’re indulgent little wonders, with quiet, haunting endings, and all the more refreshing for it.
Volk can handle a more modern storytelling voice as well. There are several impressive modern pieces here, including Time Capsule, a chilling look at how evil can lie in the least obvious places, that demonstrates a gift for subtlety. In the book entire though, my favourite tale is Three Fingers, One Thumb. On first read, this story is a short shock, that leaves the reader sad and faintly appalled. You’ll find though, as I did, that each time you think back on the story it becomes bigger, broader, and more horrifying in its implications. That’s a neat trick, and demonstrates better than any other tale just how good Volk is.
Pick up this book, and give it a try. I think it will make you a fan of Stephen Volk’s written fiction. I think he deserves that. Don’t expect to read the whole thing in a sitting, but peck away at it at your own pace, and you’ll find it hugely rewarding.