As Hollywood sniffs around Stephen Laws, the North East horror writer tells DAVID WHETSTONE about a home-grown film premiere and a tour of Tyneside haunts
LESS than 24 hours before I am due to meet Stephen Laws, something ominous happens. It goes black in mid-afternoon, a fortnight’s rain falls in an hour, cars float, power supplies are cut and the Tyne Bridge is struck by lightning.
It’s like that scene in Macbeth when Duncan’s horses go mad and a quivering Ross exclaims: “By th’ clock tis day, and yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.”
Or it’s like one of the equally stomach- churning scenes in the Tyneside-set horror novels Stephen has been turning out since the 1980s.
I first interviewed him after publication of The Wyrm, a modern spin on the legend of the Lambton Worm in which red-eyed hellhounds prowl around “shaking ectoplasm from their backs”.
We met back then during his lunch break at Newcastle City Council where he managed committee meetings. His horror fiction seemed to me the perfect antidote to council minutes.
But he had no intention of giving up the day job back in 1987. “I’ve got the best of both worlds really,” he insisted. “For these kind of books you’ve got to write about believable people. In the job I’ve got, I meet an awful lot of people from all different backgrounds.”
Five years later, though, he decided the time was right to become a full-time novelist and he’s been in the horror game ever since, bar a blip or two when the genre slipped down the popularity league table.
He gets back in touch because horror is back on the Hollywood radar and the rights to his fifth novel, Darkfall, have been bought by Miramax, the influential studio founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
The aftermath of last Thursday’s violent storm prevents Stephen making our cafe appointment the following morning. But it’s the same friendly, measured voice on the phone that I remember from all those years ago.
Now living in Forest Hall with second wife Melanie and the father of three children, Stephen isn’t getting too carried away about the Miramax deal. After all, when I first interviewed him, he told me a copy of his first novel, Ghost Train, had reached Steven Spielberg’s desk. Nothing came of it.
But there is reason for optimism. Stephen says Miramax acquired the rights to Darkfall before the company left the Disney empire.
“It tends to be the case when a company gets taken over that every project in development at the time is discarded.
“But this very strange thing happened. A new director of development came in, went through the projects that had previously been discarded and said, ‘How did we let this one go?’
“So they bought it again and this time it’s looking extremely promising.”
Darkfall, set in an office block, takes us into familiar Laws territory, the mundane made gruesome and threatening.
As the blurb on his website states: “DI Jack Cardiff and his investigating squad are about to discover the Hell that is Darkfall, where bricks, plaster and stone have a life of their own, where the inexplicable and the insane become horrifyingly real.
“And for those trapped in the block and cut off by the violent weather, a terror beyond imagination is about to descend from the howling tempest.”
Stephen says he set the novel in the concrete block in Jesmond once occupied by Tyne and Wear County Council, where he worked for a spell.
“I suspect this will become an office block somewhere in New York,” he says without rancour. For the big budget treatment, it would be small price to pay.
Stephen seems destined to have become a teller of horrific tales. Born in Newcastle in 1952, he started writing “at about seven or eight” when his asthma meant he had to find an alternative to football. He read and wrote voraciously.
He also listened to his father, a marvellous storyteller and fan of horror films who would relate the plot of each new release to his young son.
Stephen inherited this knack. He recalls sneaking in to see Hammer horror movies under age and then regurgitating the plots for his goggle-eyed classmates. If the film had lacked gore, he would tart it up a bit in the retelling.
The actor Peter Cushing, famous for his horror roles, was one of his early heroes and Stephen dedicated his second novel, Spectre, to him. He was thrilled when Cushing got in touch.
Whatever becomes of the Miramax deal, there are Laws-inspired horrors to chill the blood on home soil tonight.
The writer will demonstrate his knack for making the mundane seem creepy when he leads a tour of the Ouseburn Valley – a favourite source of Laws locations – which culminates at the Cumberland Arms in Byker for a premiere screening of The Secret.
Neither Spielberg nor Miramax had anything to do with this one. It was made by North East film company Hydra-X, run by producer and director Andrew Leckonby.
Stephen says he got in touch to say congratulations after a short Hydra-X film won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
It turned out that Andrew knew and liked Stephen’s work. The pair of them got talking and decided to collaborate on something scary.
“We decided to make a retro-style, film noir thing, a supernatural horror film shot in black and white,” says Stephen.
“I had in mind the kind of thing I used to see as a kid.”
The Secret was adapted by Stephen from one of his own short stories, telling of a deadly secret that has to be passed from person to person. For the holder of the secret, danger lurks in the shadows.
It was shot largely in a room at the Cumberland Arms, although there was a chase scene filmed outside. The 20-minute film has a cast of two, actor John Raine and Stephen himself, making his debut, and it has already picked up an award at the Macabre Faire Film Festival in New York.
The Cumberland Arms, says Stephen, had the right kind of old-fashioned look. “Only when we started shooting did I remember it had been my dad’s local. We lived in a street nearby when I was a kid and we made the film in the room where he’d go for his Sunday night pint.”
Stephen’s tour begins tonight at 7pm with a pint and a chat at Ouseburn Valley pub The Ship. It finishes at the Cumberland Arms for a 9pm screening and anyone with a healthy appetite for horror is welcome to tag along.