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Tabula Rasa

A Genre of One

An Interview with Stephen Gallagher

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995

Stephen Gallagher wanted to make a career out of the things he liked. So he did. In a range of genres and mediums he has progressed into one of England's most respected thriller novelists -- but in the intricate detail of his locales, a sense of otherworldliness is never far away. With a new novel due soon, Stephen Gallagher writes here of his career, the horror story and the eternal temptation of Hollywood.

Tabula Rasa: Well, for a start Mr Gallagher, could you please fill us in on your background and how you started writing?

Stephen Gallagher: I was working in commercial television in a job that was okay but not hugely creative. It was control-room stuff, mostly making sure that everything went out on time and looking good. Prior to that I'd been a documentaries researcher for a very brief period, and before that I'd been hanging around London after University looking for a film job. I'd had the idea of getting into the cutting room as groundwork for directing, but then I'd gone down this other track altogether. Writing was an outlet at first, but then it became something in itself. In a very short time it became everything. I quit the day job as soon as I was able and never looked back.

Stephen Gallagher
Photograph © Stephen Morley.

TR: You spent you early career writing for radio and television, as well as the novelisations of your work. What are the differences between these media? How did it happen that you became a novelist?

SG: Radio was the start of it all. BBC Radio Drama was my writing school. Radio style and construction are wonderful foundation skills for a novelist; unlike TV drama skills, which can be too much concerned with accepting outside limitations. For TV you can sit down and write what you like, but you can only ever sell what they already want to make. The other disadvantage of TV can be that you hand the stuff over to a bunch of people who at best approximate your ideas or at worst take the opportunity to substitute some of their own. But prose fiction -- prose fiction is the state-of-the-art for a writer as far as I'm concerned. 100% responsibility and control. No collaborators. One-on-one with the audience. And having no-one to hide behind in case of disaster has a tendency to keep you sharp.

TR: You seem to move freely between thrillers, horror with overt supernatural elements and psychological drama. Do you see any real difference between these forms?

SG: I have to say that I'm very ambivalent about genre. I appreciate its value for readers as a means of sorting out what they might like from what they probably won't, but as a writer I don't consciously attempt to play the system. There are writers who say they'd switch genres overnight if their current one were to go out of favour, and I can't get to grips with that at all. I tell the stories I feel driven to tell. They're always suspense, but the market assumption is that suspense alone isn't a genre. Maybe when I've done enough of them I'll qualify as a genre of one.

TR: We have heard that one or two of your books have been adapted as films or teleplays. Was this a satisfactory experience?

SG: All my novels have been in and out of screen development at one time or another, and they go with the condition that I get first crack at the screenplay. If I'm crap they can fire me after the first draft and bring in someone else, but so far that's never happened. Any success I have had in this area I attribute to the time I finally got to spend at the editing bench in various film workshops in the early eighties. I don't know of any writer who wouldn't like to see his or her work realised on screen and I can hardly think of any who've felt satisfied by the results when it's happened, but the pull is still a powerful one. The big technicolour word-processor. I'd just like to get my hand on a storytelling tool as powerful as that. Development's fine -- you get paid and you get the chance to lay out in detail the movie you really want to make -- but the big and crucial step is to go beyond development and into production.

The full story of the Valley of Lights movie not getting made is one that would take up far more space than any sane magazine editor would be prepared to give it, so I'll give you the digest version. It was optioned before publication by a couple of MTV producers who wanted to break into features with it. We all went out to Los Angeles and they shopped the screenplay around every Hollywood independent and a couple of the studios. We then got into a spiral that I've sworn I'll never be persuaded to repeat, which involved rewriting the script on the basis of their rejection letters so that it could be submitted with its 'faults' supposedly removed.

Now, if some-one likes a script and it's flawed, they buy it in spite of that. Flaws can be fixed. If they don't like it and want to reject it, the flaws are actually irrelevant but they provide a hook to hang the no-thanks letter on. I went through at least twelve drafts of the script because each time the producers believed we were in an inch of a sale, and I've never seen a piece of work so comprehensively ruined. It all came to end when I found out that they had this cocky delivery boy who fancied himself as a writer, and they let him have a go at a draft as well. Well, that was it. I doubt very much my agent rendered the exact words of the message I gave her to pass on. I've since heard that one of the guys goes round town saying "We're the people who taught Steve Gallagher to write." They taught me something, all right.

But that wasn't the end of it. The rights passed on to another company, and to a producer who read all the drafts and effectively threw out everything after the third and returned it to the spirit and detail of the novel. This instantly made him a hero in my eyes. This company then raised production money from two sources; half from Canadian tax shelter funds, and the other half from pre-sales to European distributors. The Canadians didn't care who was in it, but they wanted it shot in Canada (the story's locale is the Arizona desert). The distributors didn't care where it was shot, but they wanted a star name. The budget was too low for this, but the director reckoned that if we changed the sex of the lead we could get a name actress for far less money than a male. So the script went out to a succession of twenty-six year-old actresses deemed acceptable by the distributors (the main character in Valley of Lights is a forty-two year old taciturn ex-marine). The romance with the next-door neighbour in the trailer park became Thelma and Louise in the Rockies. And I'm thinking, how the hell did we get from there to here?

While all this was going on, about a year after our Los Angeles trip, the first of several low-budget independent movies featuring a predatory creature able to inhabit the bodies of others started to come out. Some of these films came from those very companies to whom we'd originally taken the script. One of them even had my name on its main character. And what could one prove? Zilch. There have been so many body-hopping movies now they're almost a sub-genre in themselves. When I heard the current money deal had fallen through because the differences couldn't be reconciled, my main feeling was one of relief.

TR: Your settings are always incredibly detailed, they seem to have a geography and be located very much in the 'real world'. Where does this come from?

SG: Research. Walking the ground, taking notes, interviewing people. Pure, solid research.

TR: Is this the hardest part, of doing a novel? If not, what is?

SG: I don't know that there is a single 'hardest part'. Some passages can be harder to pull off than others and some material can be harder to get your head around, but as a general principal I tend to look at it as a steady series of equal challengers. I do cheat, though. At any given time I'm telling myself that the really hard part is either ahead of me or just behind me. It's a way of taking the stress out of the moment so you are freed up to be creative. Having said all that, I'll tell you what can be quite taxing. By the time you get to the page proofs of the US mass-market edition you've probably had to comb through the same text at least half a dozen times looking for typos and unwelcome editorial changes in the various editions, and that's on top of all the rereading and polishing you did when writing. You reach a point where you can feel the braincells dying off in hoardes; they don't just die, they suicide just so they won't have to go on. But you have to do it. Because although you can let someone else catch the typos, only you can know for sure when someone's been interfering with your style. And they do.

TR: And the easiest?

SG: I don't know about easiest, but I like it when they send you the text of the jacket blurb and you get to mess with their work.

TR: Can you tell us a bit about Rain, one of our favourites?

SG: I'd say the way Rain came about was slightly odd, if it wasn't for the fact that all of the novels have come about by weird growth-processes and not one has ever been calculated. I set out to write a variant on the old 'phantom hitchhiker' urban myth because I wanted to make a short film on 16mm and reckoned that two characters in a motorway service area at night would be atmospheric and maneagable at the same time. That's how I got Joe and Lucy, and once I had them I dumped the idea and went for their story instead. I structured it so that she slowly integrates and gains control while he slowly falls apart and loses it.

TR: You seem to give great focus to the hero and the 'good guys', especially the police. Can you explain your affinity for this much put-upon character?

SG: I think the simple answer to this is that when it comes to the big, dark confrontational subject-areas that interest me, police workers get closer to them than anyone. And yet they're common people, drawn from the rest of us; they're not fantasy-figures going out to do battle. I don't use police characters in every novel but I don't marginalise them artificially either, like in those stories of amateur detectives where the police are literally too stupid to function. If your material involves a peep into the abyss, they're almost inevitably players. You might as well embrace that and give them full humanity. Johnny Mays in Down River wasn't just a villain to me; I saw his story as the Fall of Lucifer.

TR: Is it possible to write a horror novel without monsters -- human or otherwise?

SG: It's all in your point of view. Tell Frankenstein from the monster's angle and you have a valid interpretatiton of the story as that of a tragic hero. King Kong is both. Macbeth is a good, complex human-as-monster story. I don't think you come close to realising the potential of horror as a medium untill you acknowledge that this isn't just a matter of interpretation, it's actually the agenda. Horror's not about the aesthetics of disgust, whatever its critics prefer to believe. Its message is, look again. Overcome the impulse to look away, and look again. And if the monstrous is the normal gone wrong, then surely that's always going to be your starting point in some form.

TR: While Ryan O'Donnell's demise completed the 'angel' imagery in Nightmare, With Angel, do you think a character like his could have survived the narrative? As this is your most recent work in our country, could you comment further on it?

SG: One of the questions I asked myself when I was getting into Nightmare, With Angel was whether it was possible for a person to be beyond redemption. I won't claim that I answer it, but I sure as hell do explore it. Ryan O'Donnell once killed a pre-adolescent girl, and now he sets himself the task of saving one. One's a repellent deed but the other's a commendable aim. They can't ever cancel each other out but they do co-exist, so you've got to take them both into account before you can judge him as a character. In working this through I realised that no matter how much good he tries to do, the loss and misery involved in his original crime wouldn't be diminished one iota. He's on an open-ended journey that he can never see completed. So I suppose the answer to your question would have to be that the story only ends when he does.

TR: Is there a more recent published novel in Britain?

SG: The new book's called Red, Red Robin and will be out early in '95. Bantam are publishing in both Britain and Australia and Ballantine will be bringing it out in the US shortly after.

TR: What do think the consequences of the recent video hysteria in Britain will be on the horror novelist?

SG: I don't know. Nothing significant, I suspect, although any hoo-hah boosts interest. They delayed giving Reservoir Dogs a video certificate over here and thereby gave it a hugely extended big-screen life at weekly midnight shows all over the country. When it finally does go to video, it'll be a big event and it'll get to far more people than it could ever have reached before. It'll get denounced all over again and then rental stores will have to buy twenty copies each to meet the demand, because the simple truth is that people are curious and interested in this stuff. William Castle used to get them in the cinemas by warning them they might be carried out dead. He offered heart-attack insurance, he put nurses in the aisles. The lesson; even when there's no current moral panic, there's always a ready appetite for one.

TR: We hear you are currently working on a television programme, could you tell us more about it?

SG: There's a series of five one-hour anthology stories called Chillers, for which I wrote the pilot (Here Comes the Mirror Man). My episode was shot earlier this year and I was pleased with the way it turned out, but I haven't seen the other material. A few weeks ago I got a call to ask if I'd be involved in a new BBC series created by Brian Clemens. They'd been caught out with an early start date and there wasn't time for the usual long development process. I'd grown up on The Avengers and I'd met Brian a couple of years before, and for the sheer kick of appearing on the same set of credits I said I'd do it. I can't tell you what it's called because they haven't fixed on a name for it yet.

TR: Finally, what may we expect from you in the future?

SG: I'm hoping to start getting my short stories together into a volume sometime soon, and I'm working on a new novel that'll have links of character and locale to both Down River and Nightmare, With Angel. Not a direct sequel to either, but the three taken together will form a very loose trilogy. There's a freelance producer who's pushing very hard to get the BBC to give the go-ahead for a four-hour version of Nightmare, With Angel; I don't know whether you'll have seen a show called Cracker about a forensic psychologist, but he produced the first series of that for ITV and it was unusually good. I've been working on a feature version of The Boat House with development backing from British Screen. Rain has been on-off as my directing project for a while. And I just had an interesting call about Red, Red Robin that I'll have to tell you about if it should shape up into anything firm.

TR: Mr Gallagher, thank you for your time and all the best.

Stephen Gallagher Bibliography


Chimera (1982)
Follower (1984)
Valley of Lights (1987)
Oktober (1988)
Down River (1989)
Rain (1990)
The Boat House (1991)
Nightmare, with Angel (1992)
Red, Red Robin (1995)


Doctor Who: Warrior's Gate (1981)
Doctor Who: Terminus (1983)
Moving Targets (1988)
Chimera (1991)
Here Comes the Mirror Man (1994)
Prophecy (1994)
Down Among the Dead Men: Assassins, Inc (1995)


The Last Rose of Summer (1977)
Hunters' Moon (1978)
The Babylon Run (1979)
The Humane Solution (1979)
An Alternative to Suicide (1979)
A Resistance to Pressure (1980)
Chimera (1985)
The Kingston File (1987)
By the River, Fortainebleau (1988)
The Wonderful Visit (1988)
The Horn (1989)
The Visitor's Book (reading, 1992)
Life Line (1993)

Plus several novelisations of his own work under the names Stephen Couper and John Lydecker.

Chimera is in your video shop now.


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