"My two favorite authors in the field are Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Now both of those gents are -- trust me -- more than capable of making you check the lights and lock the doors but that's frankly the least of their skills. The inculcation of metaphysical awe is their ultimate aim and once you've had a shot or two of that particular hard drug you really don't care to go back to the watered-down beer of Grinning-Jimmy and his finely-honed letter-opener." -- Peter Atkins
Peter Atkins, despite more than a decade's acclimation to Southern California, still retains a Liverpudlian accent thick enough to make one instantly wax nostalgically about the Beatles. Since he has done (and still occasionally does) stints as a rock'n'roller, this really isn't much of a stretch. It's when you realize that he's written three of the Hellraiser movies and created his own horror franchise (for Wes Craven) when he wrote WISHMASTER (its three sequels have been written by others) that the Fab Four connection starts to fade.
Atkins is a fiction writer as well as a screenwriter. His collection of short fiction, WISHMASTER AND OTHERS, came out to critical acclaim in 1999 from a British specialty press, but was so difficult to obtain few readers ever found it. Two novels -- MORNINGSTAR and BIG THUNDER -- received rave reviews in England, but appeared in paperback in the US just as "horror" became a bad word for Big Publishing.
Both MORNINGSTAR and BIG THUNDER are being given new life by Stealth Press, a publisher of high quality hardcovers sold directly over the Internet. MORNINGSTAR has just been released and BIG THUNDER will follow in 2001. Two more novels are in progress.
How did this well-educated, erudite Liverpool lad -- albeit possessed with a streak of rockstar ambition -- wind up messing about in horror? One path was via a long-time friendship with Clive Barker. "We were introduced by a mutual friend in 1974. I was just finishing the British equivalent of high school and he'd just graduated university. We were immediately simpatico and became best friends astonishingly quickly despite the age difference. (Can you remember being young enough that three years constituted an age difference?) As much as anything else, it was the range of our tastes that bonded us. I had highbrow friends with whom I could discuss T.S. Eliot and Jean Cocteau and blue-collar friends with whom I could discuss comic books and King Kong. What Clive and I found in each other was someone completely comfortable talking about both Beckett and Batman. That willful ignoring of an artificial high-culture/low-culture divide seems a much more common attitude now, thank God, but back then it was like water in the desert for guys like us. Actually, if I'm going to be completely honest, I think we were also drawn to each other's sexual melancholy. Neither of us had partners when we met. Clive had yet to find his Great Dark Man and I -- despite the minor one-night miracle of some hippie-chick at an outdoor rock festival a couple of years earlier -- was a nerd in cool-guy clothing, ill-at-ease with girls and still three years away from anything resembling regular sex."
Atkins and Barker proceeded to work together in avant-garde theatre and independent film for the next five or six years, along with a small group of like-minded friends (including Doug Bradley, later to become famous as Pinhead). Working under the name "The Dog Company," they remained based in Liverpool while Atkins was a literature major at university. "Though I emerged with a BA with honors, my real education was in The Dog Company and the work we all did together. I eventually quit the Company in order to play rock'n'roll but then -- as I guess most people reading this already know -- Clive, Doug, and I re-teamed in the late eighties for the Hellraiser pictures."
But Atkins really discovered the delights of horror through an altogether different -- and somewhat shocking -- route. "Up to about three years ago, though I would have believed I was answering the 'how did I discover horror' question honestly, I wouldn't have been able to answer it accurately. Turns out I'd completely blanked from my mind my first traumatizing experience of the uncanny in fictional form," he confesses.
"Three years ago, I was watching a rerun on a cable station and suddenly felt like the hero (or, more typically for the genre, the heroine) of one of those pop-psychology thrillers who, in the third act, is finally confronted with the repressed memory that has all along been the unacknowledged key to the mystery of those strange experiences he/she has been having. Because there I was -- a grown man watching an old black and white TV show -- and feeling suddenly overwhelmed by a gut-churning terror completely out of proportion to the episode itself.
"I realized, with a shock of recognition, that I had seen this episode more than three decades ago as a little boy and had been completely freaked out by it. So freaked out, in fact, that until that revelatory moment I had wiped it utterly from my memory. I realized much more than that, though. I understood that this was the prime source of certain aspects of fictional fear-making that had always worked on me. The story featured a protagonist driven way past paranoia to utter certainty that he was trapped in a world in which he was the last of his kind, a world in which friends, lovers, colleagues, had all become "the other". And worse, they all knew. And were simply playing with him, stringing him along, until the final terrible moment of confrontation when the masks would be ripped off and they'd come for him.
"The plot sounds familiar, I'm sure. We've all seen or read variations on it. THE PUPPET MASTERS. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. INVADERS FROM MARS. I AM LEGEND. It's a staple of fifties paranoid fantasy. The episode I'm talking about was later than all those and was doubtless a riff, consciously or not, on that theme. But it was the first version of the archetype that little Pete had seen and it terrified him. So what was the show? TWILIGHT ZONE? OUTER LIMITS? HITCHCOCK? THRILLER? No. I'd love to pretend it was. In fact, the snob in me would love to pretend it wasn't TV at all, would love to tell you that it was a first reading of "The Great God Pan" or "The Willows" or "A Warning To The Curious" that sent the seven year old me into such a state of terror.
"But it wasn't any of those things. It was THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. The episode was called "It May Look Like A Walnut" and featured Dick's character Rob Petrie caught up in an invasion of thumbless walnut-eating aliens who had systematically replaced/possessed all the people in Rob's life. I make sure to catch it every time it's rerun. It's extremely funny and very well done. Not scary at all. Not really. But if it's a late-night showing and my wife's already gone to bed, I always check she still has her thumbs before I get in and turn out the light."
Atkins youthful encounter with even satiric horror conveys just how powerful a role modern day media play in forming the public's emotional responses. What does Atkins think of public/political outcry against violence onscreen? After all, he DOES write those wicked horror movies and books...
"My basic position," he says, "is of course anti-censorship so any stance from authority figures (even the benignly rabbinical Joe Lieberman) that seems to me to be the apparently-reasonable thin end of an ultimately-repressive wedge makes me suspicious. I don't buy the 'influence' argument because its reductio ad absurdum is Charles Manson finding instructions to slaughter in Beatles' records. You can't legislate for lunatics. If some retard kills people because he got all worked up watching RAMBO then lock him up. But don't put David Morell or Sylvester Stallone in the cell next door. Crime is an act, not a thought."
Having said that, however, Atkins points out he is not opposed to classification -- "provided it remains classification and not censorship. There's such a proliferation of all kinds of material today that I don't think it hurts to give parents or teachers a short-hand indicator of the nature of a piece. When I write, the ideal audience in my head is both adult and intelligent. I don't particularly want an eight year old reading my books or seeing my movies and so I don't object to the adults in a child's life acting as gate-keepers. Of course, the eight year olds I admire (because it was the kind of eight year old I was) are the ones who'll find a way to read that stuff anyway."
Atkins tends to write supernatural horror in an age where many writers feel that the fantastic is no longer as frightening as reality. Being frightened, however, is quite low on the list of the reasons he loves this type of fiction. "It's on [the list.] It's just not as important (for me) as the other stuff. My two favorite authors in the field are Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Now both of those gents are -- trust me -- more than capable of making you check the lights and lock the doors but that's frankly the least of their skills. The inculcation of metaphysical awe is their ultimate aim and once you've had a shot or two of that particular hard drug you really don't care to go back to the watered-down beer of Grinning-Jimmy and his finely-honed letter-opener.
"Before I'm accused of insulting my betters, let me hasten to add that Robert Bloch's PSYCHO and Ramsey Campbell's THE FACE THAT MUST DIE (to pick just two examples) are magnificent achievements. I admire both of them very much and there's nary an eldritch shambler in either of them. Good writing, as ever, transcends any predisposed likes or dislikes. But the current gestalt in the field (as evidenced by sniveling and shame-driven euphemisms like 'Dark Suspense', the consensus among certain writers and editors that supernatural horror is somehow less profound, less 'relevant', than its reality-driven sibling, just pisses me off.
"Look, nobody wants to be buggered up by some psycho with a sharp implement and certainly the clever fictional deployment of said psychos can induce fear in the receptive reader. But it's a pathetic kind of fear, isn't it? We don't want to be hurt and we don't want to die. Duh. People (readers and writers) who find those fears 'better' or 'more real' than metaphysical dread are creatures of paltry imaginations and dormant souls."
What doesfrightens Atkins, then? "Laura Petrie with no thumbs. Thought I'd made that clear."
When not startled into shuddering incapability by this dire dark visage, Atkins writes. "I just spent a year and a half doing draft after draft of a screenplay adaptation of Sheri Tepper's GRASS for producer Michael Phillips. I'm finally done, thank God, and Michael is currently trying to recoup his investment by setting it up with a studio. I hope it happens but this is Hollywood -- where you cross your fingers but you don't hold your breath."
Atkins has also collaborated on a spec script with friend (and multiple-award-winning author) Dennis Etchison that's currently being shopped around.
He's also working on two novels right now. "One I'm hoping to do quickly. I've always been a huge fan of the great pulp writers and admired the stamina that let them produce novel-length manuscripts in short periods of time. Walter Gibson knocked out a Shadow novel every two weeks for eleven years. And yes of course it shows in the prose. but give the guy a break. Every two weeks! Eleven years! Anyway, I have the novelization rights to a screenplay I co-wrote with Tony Hickox (the director with whom I worked on HELLRAISER 3) and, though the script is still under option and might one day surprise us both by actually being made, I love the story and I'm annoyed it's just sitting there without an audience so I want to turn it into a book. It's a big old-fashioned high adventure fantasy (Tombs! Lost races! Undead monsters! Gods from the Underworld!) so I want to bash it out like an old pulpmeister. I'm trying to invoke the spirit of Walter Gibson to perch on one shoulder and the spirit of H. Rider Haggard to sit on the other. I should be so lucky. That one's called THE SOURCE OF THE NILE. The other, CHILDREN OF FIRE, is more ambitious and will doubtless take the year or so that both MORNINGSTAR and BIG THUNDER took me. Full of big talk, aren't I? Call me in three years and maybe I'll have half of one of them done!"