Paul Finch, Interviewed by Neil McRobert

Posted by Neil McRobert on September 24, 2014 in Interviews, Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Paul Finch

 

 

 

 

Following a career in the police force, Paul Finch has experienced huge success with the publication of the Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg series of detective thrillers. Beginning with Stalkers in 2013 the series as already yielded three further novels. In addition to this recent mainstream success, Paul is also the author of an impressive array of historical, speculative and ‘weird’ fiction. He was awarded a British Fantasy Award for his short story “Aftershock” and his short novel Cape Wrath was shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award in 2002. Paul’s interest in history and the occult is well evidenced by Medi-Evil, his three part series of short horror fiction devoted to medieval setting and folkloric tradition. In addition he is also a successful screenwriter with a number of film credits, including Devils Rock (2011) and the upcoming War Wolf.

More information about Paul can be found on his blog.

 

Your work encompasses a variety of ‘modes’ – including thrillers, mysteries, police procedurals, and fantasy. The majority of your work, however, shares an underlying horror. Do you consider yourself primarily a horror writer?

It’s certainly true that horror is always an underlying element, though I suppose that depends on how you define ‘horror’. Without wanting to get into this old argument again about ‘what is horror?’, I always try to take my work into a place that is dark, scary, edgy, disturbing—in other words far, far from the average person’s comfort zone. I’ve always believed in putting my characters, and therefore my readers too, through an absolute wringer, to confront them with one terrifying crisis after another. For example, in the next Heck novel – Dead Man Walking – it wasn’t enough to have our heroes pursued by a crazed killer up into the foggy Lake District fells, I had to have him chasing them over a derelict iron bridge spanning a thousand-foot chasm as well. I’m not really sure where that comes from, other than a desire to keep on raising the stakes, to keep on making my readers turn the page. Even when I pull back on this and allow a moment of humour, that’s only usually to create a lull in the storm. I suppose I do that because this is what I enjoy myself as a reader. I don’t read to be comforted, I read to be thrilled. I love that electrifying frisson of fear that a skilled thriller or horror writer can evoke inside you. I once gave a quote to a radio interviewer in Manchester, which might be worth re-quoting here, which is that horror is comedy’s dark twin. Both seek to prick elusive emotions that we, the recipients, find strangely satisfying to vent. To either laugh or scream—so long as you’re in the safety of the cinema or your own living room with a book on your lap— can be quite cathartic. Of course, it’s the latter of the two that I constantly seek, and I think I’m too old and set in my ways to change that now.

 

Your horror fiction incorporates a great deal of folkloric detail. Where does your interest in this come from? Is there something specific about British mythology that captures your imagination?

I think I can trace this interest back to my earliest days. One of the first horror stories I ever heard, when I was a very young child, was when my father, who was a great storyteller, related Beowulf and Grendel to me. As horror stories go, Beowulf contains at least as much substance as scares: a society on the edge of breakdown, a brave but flawed hero, a monster whose cruelties are indirectly explained, etc. But I think it was the setting as much as anything that caught my imagination. An ancient world in which people had to huddle together in long-houses to ensure their survival, passing each winter night gathered around a blazing hearth telling tales, while outside the ice and the mist swallowed the landscape. How could anyone fail to be entranced by that? This commenced a lifelong obsession with mythology and history and led to me seeking it out wherever possible, in schoolbooks, on television and such. One key moment, however—again, when I was very young and again this was thanks to my dad—was when I went to watch Jason and the Argonauts at the cinema. Even now my hair stands on end at the moment when Talos, to all intents and purposes nothing but a giant statue, suddenly turns his head and gazes down at Hercules and Hylas. I’ll never forget the impact that had on me at the same; the delicious terror that shot through me as I sat in that darkened theatre. If it’s ever possible that one event alone in life created your ultimate career path then that was it with me.

To answer the second part of your question, the British Isles ought to be high on anyone’s list of esoteric places. For such a small cluster of rocks on a remote edge of the continent, they are literally steeped in folklore and mythology. I guess most geographic localities can probably say the same if you dig down deep enough into their past, but in terms of the British Isles, the waves of peoples who have swept over these lands in the last two millennia alone is astonishing. So many diverse cultures have settled here and left their mark—Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans—and those are only the ones we know about. And of course so much evidence remains, not just architectural and archaeological, but in terms of our art and literature, our customs and folk festivals, etc. It’s no wonder we boast so many myths and fables or that it ranges from coast to coast. Even in the town of my birth, Wigan, a small industrial borough on the South Lancashire coal field (mainly memorable now for George Orwell and Rugby League) we can boast a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras, which was discovered in the foundations of the local Parish Church, and Haigh Hall, a stately home, which, thanks to the ceaseless bloodletting of the Middle Ages and the Civil War is reputedly one of the most haunted houses in the North of England.

 

I imagine that your folkloric expertise played a part in your position as editor of the ‘Terror Tales of…‘ series. Reading your blog, you seem to have a real enthusiasm for this work in particular. Do you have a favourite region of the British Isles to write about? 

The Terror Tales series is one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever embarked on. I am a writer; that is my full-time job. But much of my writing energy now goes into my Heck novels, which are dark police thrillers, and the various movie and TV projects I am trying to get off the ground. I don’t have as much time now to pen short stories or novellas, though I still love these formats, especially when it comes to horror and thriller fiction. Hence, I started Terror Tales way back in 2011 to kill two birds with one stone: to keep my hand in where short horror fiction is concerned (I still contribute a story to the series now and then, if we fall short), but also to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and get a series of regionally-themed British horror anthologies out that could stand comparison with the late, great R. Chetwynd-Hayes’ Tales of Terror books of the 1970s. As I wouldn’t be on full-time writing duty where such a series was concerned, there’d be no clash of interests. I could still do these and write my novels. It was a win-win situation, and long may it continue.

As regard to which is my favourite part of the British Isles to write about, well that’s a tough question. My immediate thought is ‘none’. I find all corners of our islands equally fascinating, and visit them with regularity (readers of my Heck novels will notice this too – DS Heckenburg has a investigative remit that covers all parts of England and Wales). That doesn’t mean to say that, in terms of folkloric horror, some parts of the British Isles aren’t slightly more fruitful than others. My previous answer about Wigan notwithstanding, heavy industrialisation and the spread of municipal zones has eradicated some of the ancientness from the landscape. Invariably, regions that are still primarily rural and where monuments from the past are more zealously preserved will yield greater numbers of treasures. For example, in the Terror Tales series, we only have plans to allocate two actual English counties their own book – Yorkshire, which is out already, and Cornwall, which hopefully will be out early in 2016. The reason for this is simple: both of these counties have very clear and distinct cultural and geographic identities, they are both of them large, extensively wild and rural, and heavy with history and legend. Other parts of the country – and we’re going to cover the whole country (at the very least) – will have to be content with appearing in regionalised titles. For example, my native Lancashire will feature in Terror Tales of the Northwest (2016, with luck), the likes of Gwynedd and Pembrokeshire appeared in Terror Tales of Wales (2014), Norfolk and Suffolk in Terror Tales of East Anglia (2012), while the various regions of Northern Scotland will appear in Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands (early next year) and so on. It would be a wonderful challenge to try and do one book per county, but in terms of time, resources and saleability, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.

Terrortales

I suppose a linked question is why do you have such a deep vein of medievalism in your fiction? Your three-part Medi-Evil collection is testament to your interest in the supposed ‘dark’ ages, and also places your work firmly in the context of the Gothic tradition. Is this engagement something you are consciously aware of? Are you a fan of the Gothic canon?

I think it all comes from the same source. As a teenager I didn’t write anything that wasn’t set in the Middle Ages, or in fantasy versions of the Middle Ages. I read Tolkien, Conan, and Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Count Brass novels when I was very young, when I was still in junior school in fact, again on the recommendation of my dad. I knew my Arthurian mythos, I knew my Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake, Alfred the Great, etc. I don’t know what it was that grabbed me about it. All these medieval and Dark Age adventure stories possessed a kind of stripped down reality, where the world had been reduced to a bleak, rugged wasteland, where the mere changing of the season could have an enormous impact on your life, where you relied on friends and family as never before, where the law-givers were as likely to kill you as the outlaws, where life was basically a lot simpler: you either fought or you died. It’s was a real Boy’s Own interest of course, as reflected in my age at the time. I mean crikey, I loved a good sword-fight. Who doesn’t?

Did this eventually feed through into a love for the Gothic tradition? Well yes, but not on its own. My love of Gothic fiction – and I guess we’re looking primarily at horror here – also stems from the kinds of movies and TV I watched as a child. Hammer was in its pomp in the late 60s and early 70s, so I was exposed to a constant stream of very traditional, very Gothic-toned horror. That came on top of the Universal and RKO outings, which as a child I was more likely to be allowed to watch, as they were less gruesome and sexy. So, throughout my formative years, horror meant castles, thunder and lightning, graveyards, mist, gibbets, etc. And in many ways it was the same on the small screen. Classic TV horror of that era – Beasts by Nigel Kneale, Supernatural (the BBC version), the Christmas Ghost Stories – were also loaded with werewolves, vampires, derelict churches, dusty libraries and so on. Even Dr Who dabbled – we had vampire stories, Frankenstein stories, mummy stories. It wasn’t much of a leap from watching that to reading Le Fanu, Poe, Lovecraft, Machen, James and such.

 

You are a Lancastrian by birth and live near to where I grew up. Was it not tempting to give Lancashire a more prominent, singular voice in the series? In personal terms do you think there is sufficient claim for the sub-genre of ‘northern Gothic’ and if so, what kind of qualities would be used to define it.

The only problem with the Terror Tales series is the lack of time Gray Friar and I have to do them. At present we are cranking out two books a year – which is about as much as the current budget and schedule will allow. If we were to extend it even more by doing each British county separately there would be no hope of finishing the project. There is also a danger that it might then be of lesser interest to readers. It would drag on interminably, and how different would Terror Tales of Worcester be from Terror Tales of Warwickshire? Hence, we took the decision to do easily definable regions rather than individual counties. Okay, Yorkshire got its own book and Cornwall will get its own too, but the former is a massive county, while the latter occupies a near-unique place in the annals of British folklore. But the rest of us have got to be content with being clumped together, and that applies to my beloved Lancashire too. Tempting though it was to do it otherwise, because I’m a Lancashire lad born and bred, Lancs will have go into Terror Tales of the Northwest along with Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire.

With regard to a Northern Gothic concept, I’m not totally sure. We tend to think of the North as being the North we grew up in rather than the North as it exists now. The chimneys and pitheads have largely gone, along with many of the terraced streets. I’m not being flippant when I say that. The evidence of muck and brass is still here: the industrial age architecture of central Manchester or Leeds, for example, still lowers over us, but the traditional picture of smoky skies and the coal-blackened landscapes we played on as children are history, and though that may be a good thing in some ways, it makes us a less sexy region in which to tell dramatic stories. Okay, maybe none of these old traits should be essential, but if you look at the Southern Gothic tradition in American literature, it is intensely redolent of the characteristic Deep South. Do we possess the same extreme and eccentric culture … especially in the light of the blandness that seems to have replaced our industrial heritage? As I say, I’m just not sure. That said, if my two late friends – Joel Lane and Graham Joyce – could create a Midlands Gothic, which I think they both did, then maybe we can look to a Northern Gothic as well. Maybe Joel and Graham’s writing should be the key to that, taking a look at our region through a magical realist context, mixing the past and the present, merging real places and fantasy places, using eeriness and mystery to explore those social issues which are still very much part of our daily northern life. Yes, on reflection, I think the Northern Gothic probably does exist. Ramsey Campbell, for example would be a practitioner of it, alongside Stephen Gallagher, Stephen Laws, etc. Definitely something to think about for the future.

 

Let’s turn to the work you are best known for—the Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg thrillers. What drew you to the detective genre? Do you find it as satisfying as your other work?

Well, it’s much more satisfying on one level in that many more people read it. Whether we like it or not, in sales terms, horror fiction seems to be of lesser interest than thriller fiction. I obviously can’t speak for other authors in that regard, but my Heck novels get a much larger and broader response than any of my horror work ever did. That’s not to denigrate horror. I still love it and write it whenever I can, but my Heck thrillers are my best-sellers by a country mile so I can’t help but be in love with those too. On a more aesthetic level, they’re hugely satisfying because I enjoy writing in a ‘realistic’ setting. When writing horror, I used to say that I loved producing stories that could be happening in the very next street to my own—which wasn’t always easy when you were dealing with the supernatural. It’s much easier to pull that off in thriller fiction, for obvious reasons.

Again I can’t speak for other writers, but I also find the human context of the story more interesting in my thrillers than I do in my horrors and fantasy, where my main interest lies in the jeopardy itself. Is that because this world of cops and robbers seems a bit more real? Possibly. I suppose a relationship between a policeman and a policewoman who love each other but can’t admit it as they struggle through a daily procession of squalid crimes and difficult investigations is of more interest to readers than it would be if our two protagonists were pitted against come colossal Lovecraftian jelly intent on absorbing the world. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of horror in my Heck novels too; there is, though not horror of a supernatural ilk.

 

Indeed, a major part of that horror is found in your gloriously twisted villains. For example, Stalkers, pits Heck against the ‘Nice Guys Club’: a criminal gang who orchestrate rape and murder for paying customers. How do you come up with such villains? Are they informed by your career as a policeman?

Thankfully I never encountered anyone like the Nice Guys during my days as a copper. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t encounter people who weren’t thoroughly despicable. The biggest problem with bringing real villains into a fictional context is that the real world is never black and white. It’s nearly always shades of grey. People often behave badly because of their circumstances, not because they are born bad— though I think maybe there are one or two exceptions to that rule. I like to think there are plenty of these realistic characters in the Heck novels. But whilst my police experience tends to inform my work in terms of procedure, attitudes and the day-to-day texture of police life, the extreme villainy mainly comes from my imagination. And yes, there are horror elements in there, always. We all of us love a truly malevolent villain, hence the endless online arguments about who was the best Bond baddie and so forth. Of course, sometimes it comes uncomfortably close to the bone. You refer to the Nice Guys who operated the rape club in Stalkers. When I first conceived that idea it seemed so nasty that I didn’t even want to write it. Initially— and this was many years ago now—I was discussing potential new ideas with my wife, Cathy and this thing about a rape club popped into my head. I immediately followed it through with “but I could never write that, it’s too awful”. Cathy replied that I could, but not as a horror story. Instead it should be a cop thriller, focusing on the investigation rather than the actual crimes. And thus the first Heck novel was born. Of course, back then I had no idea just how much grooming, sex slavery and abduct-to-order rackets go on in real life; it was something you almost never heard about when I was in the job. After the novel was written, both my agent and I had reservations about it, concerned that it might be too disturbing a subject, but thankfully Avon Books, at HarperCollins, had a different view.

Stalkers

When you are not writing, who and what do you read? Are you yourself a fan of horror and crime thrillers? 

I’m not much of a genre loyalist when it comes to reading. I don’t just read horrors or crime thrillers, though I do read a lot of both. At present, I’m developing an interest in classic science fiction and classic novels in general. Who are my current favourite authors? Well, in horror I tend to prefer short stories to novels, though I do love Adam Neville’s novels, and anything with Ramsey Campbell’s name attached—Mark Morris, Reggie Oliver, Simon Clark etc.—is going to attract my attention. In thrillers, it tends to be Peter James, Simon Kernick and Stuart MacBride. But I also have interest in historical novels and fantasy. I’ve yet to come across any book that gave me as big a thrill as The Saxon Tapestry by Sile Rice, John Gardner’s Grendel or Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy. Masterful works, all, and useful as well as fun. They serve to remind me that no matter how well I might think I’m doing there are always greater heights to reach for.

 

When thinking about your shared interest in police procedurals and occult or supernatural themes, the recent show True Detective springs to mind. The show was lauded for its marriage of crime and horror. As a successful screenwriter have you given any thought to penning a television show in this ‘golden age of (horror) television’? 

I suspect every writer with any ambition to see his/her work on the screen harbours desires to launch their own TV series. On the face of it, it may appear as if there are many more opportunities in TV now than there used to be. But sadly that isn’t the case. Most new quality television comes to us from the States, which doesn’t rule British writers out, but it doesn’t help them either, while over here, in drama terms at least, we commission a fraction of what we used to commission back in the 1970s and 1980s. That said, genre TV is certainly attracting more interest than it did. I’ve pitched numerous times to TV companies and though I’ve got close now and then my projects always seem to fall at the final hurdle. That may now change in the light of my Heck novels’ success. In fact there have been a couple of television enquiries about Heck but we’re not in a position where we want to move on that just yet. The message must be “never say never.” Even now, I’m working up new pitches for potential television projects, so let’s see how that goes.

 

Your screenwriting credits, like your early fiction, tend towards the dark and supernatural. At what stage in your career did you turn to writing screenplays? How does horror writing for the page differ from writing for the screen?

Actually, the very first serious thing I wrote was a stageplay called Cross And Fire, which concerned the small detail of soldiers charged with burning Joan of Arc in 1431, and their terror afterwards that they might have burned a saint. If it sounds religious, it actually wasn’t, it was much darker and more psychological in tone and concerned itself with war, conquest, vengeance, and the resulting trauma. Anyway, the point is that was my first real attempt to create something of literary value, and it was a stageplay, which was performed for three nights in 1991 at the Water Heyes Studio, then part of the Wigan Little Theatre. It seemed a natural follow-on to start producing screenplays. It was one such, Knock Off Job—about a murder in a police station—that caught the attention of The Bill (a long running British police drama in the 1980s and 90s). An independent producer bought Knock Off Job too, but it was never made. While all this was happening, I was also penning horror prose, primarily because that was what I liked to read. So for quite some time I had parallel writing careers, though I never expected the horror stories to lead to anything more than occasional appearances in anthologies and magazines. I regarded those as more of a recreational activity.

How do the two differ? Not by much now, as for me they’ve both assumed equal importance in career terms. But structurally, yes, they are different beasts. The most obvious difference is length. The average screenplay, if you’re talking about a movie, is 20,000 words in length, whereas the average novel can be anything from 90,000 to 120,000. So with a screenplay you’ve got to be succinct. In addition, if you’re writing a movie you need to bear in mind that ultimately it’s a story told in visuals. So that means minimal dialogue, no extensive stage directions or descriptions of time and place – all of that will fall into the director’s remit. This ownership issue is of course the other big thing. Writing the screenplay is only the commencement of the filmmaking process. If a producer likes it sufficiently to option it, you can then expect endless numbers of other people to come on board (those infamous ‘development execs’) and have their say. This will necessitate all kinds of changes, which if you resist or aren’t able to deliver them, may result in your services being dispensed with – which is why so many movies these days have multiple names under the ‘Screenplay By’ credit. Then, of course, if you actually make it to pre-production, a director will be attached, which will be the biggest challenge you can face, as he/she may well have very different ideas. Some directors feel no shame at all in completely rewriting scripts on principle, regardless of how effective the original was, though a strong producer can prevent that happening. Just make sure from the beginning that your contract is good—that, whatever happens, you get paid and have a very visible credit.

Needless to say, there is much less of this risk in novel writing. At least I’ve never heard of it. The thought that half way through your second draft of a novel your commissioning editor could ring you up and say “thanks, but we’ll take it from here” would surely be inconceivable. So, on reflection, yes, there are some very big differences. But both forms of writing require many similar disciplines: the gumption to get it down on paper in the first place; a preparedness to be ruthless. Keep it tight, keep it pacy, keep it interesting to today’s easily distracted audiences without sacrificing the story’s depth and detail, and keep it balanced—the structure has to work; if it doesn’t, rewrite until it does. And always, always, always maintain a willingness to take it on the chin if you get rejected. Professional writing, in any sub-divison of the craft, is no place at all for someone who is easily bruised.

 

Is this relinquishing of creative control must especially difficult in horror adaptations, where fear is such a subjective and personal response. Is it disappointing if the image you have in your mind differs from the director’s visualisation?

I don’t think in horror terms it’s any more difficult to relinquish control than it is in other fields of drama. You’re right of course, that fear is a difficult emotion to elicit from your viewers because it is so subjective. But the same applies to humour, sadness and so on. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, as they say. If it matters enormously to you that what you write makes it to the screen—and it doesn’t to some writers, who are so battered by the process that they’re simply happy to take the money—you’ve just got to write the script as well as you can, making it crystal clear on the page what you are trying to achieve, because shooting may take place in Romania while you’re sitting at home in Manchester. You won’t be around to advise, and that’s assuming the director would even ask you anyway. Of course, whatever I say, human nature will most likely kick in if it all goes pear-shaped. For example, if the director gets it completely wrong, or someone else involved decides that your original is so crap that it needs to be replaced, if a piece of horror you lovingly crafted simply doesn’t appear on the screen, you may well want to tear your hair out. It’s a ghastly feeling I know too well. But you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to be realistic, otherwise you’re in the wrong job. I asked for my name to be removed from a script once simply because there was nothing left I’d written in the finished substandard product, but that’s only happened to me once, and you’ve got to be careful even then. Your next job may depend on your last credit. In addition, if word gets around that you’re ‘awkward’ you’re less likely to be hired. So yes, you’ve just got to tough it out.

 

Your impending screenplay is titled War Wolf. Is the play on werewolf intentional? Will there be hairy palms and silver bullets or is the title a red herring

There’ll be no silver bullets because War Wolf is set in the 1350s. But you’re basically on the mark. It’s a heavyweight historical werewolf saga, which to date is one of the most exiting movie projects I’ve ever worked on. It came from an idea of mine (literally a one-page pitch) about a band of war-hardened English knights roving through medieval France after the battle of Poitiers, drunk on victory and the local wine, and taking possession of a magnificent castle whose owner died at their hands. Needless to say, their post-war holiday doesn’t go to plan, when an ancient curse is enacted and the Loup de Guerre, or War Wolf, is wakened—a ferocious werewolf, whose task is now to feast on these bold interlopers, and anyone else who gets in his way. For further info, there is even a promo page open for it now on Amber Entertainment’s preproduction site. Please check it out:

http://www.amberentertainment.com/#!pre-production/cbdw

 

I certainly will Paul. Thanks very much for taking the time to answer my questions and I shall wait expectantly for War Wolf, the new Heck instalment, but most of all, Terror Tales of the North West!

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