An Interview with Peter Atkins and Glen Hirshberg

Glen Hirshberg (L) and Peter Atkins (R) founded the Rolling Darkness Revue in 2004.

Glen Hirshberg (L) and Peter Atkins (R) founded the Rolling Darkness Revue in 2004.

Fresh from the PstD vault! The following is excerpted from a transcribed interview with Glen Hirshberg and Peter Atkins, conducted by Sean Moreland and James Greatrex on October 24, 2010. Atkins and Hirshberg had just performed as the Rolling Darkness Revue at the Mayfair Theatre the night before, as part of that year’s Ottawa International Writer’s Festival. This interview originally appeared in our inaugural issue, Postscripts to Darkness Volume 1. We owe a great deal to these gentlemen for the inspiration. Read more about how the Rolling Darkness Revue helped ignite our project.

Peter Atkins was part of Clive Barker’s The Dog Company in 1970s Liverpool. He is an actor, composer, and novelist, and is perhaps best known for his work as a screenwriter. Credits include the Hellraiser and Wishmaster series. He has twice been nominated for a British Fantasy Award. Glen Hirshberg is author of The Snowman’s Children (2002) and The Two Sams (2003). His latest novel, Motherless Child, is due out spring 2014. His work has earned him a Shirley Jackson Award, several International Horror Guild awards, and has been nominated twice for a World Fantasy Award. Hirshberg and Atkins founded the Rolling Darkness Revue in 2004.

JG: Could you talk a little bit about the origins of the Rolling Darkness Revue?

GH: At a World Horror Convention, I think? Pete and I had met…not bonded!

PA: Not unbonded, either.

GH: [Laughs] No, right. I wound up talking to Dennis Etchison, the great American horror writer, and to hear him tell the story, he handed me the idea of the Rolling Darkness Revue.

PA: Fully formed. Absolutely.

cover-tor-motherlesschild-800GH: Right. My memory of it is somewhat different. Regardless, in conversation the two of us were talking about how boring readings—even most ghost story reading—are, how hard it is for most writers to really get to that place where they can tell a story well. And since most of them take place in mall bookstores under fluorescent lights in the middle of the day and whatever, it’s just very difficult to do, and we started talking about the idea of a troupe that would spin through the countryside every season and tell ghost stories and perform. So Dennis and I were imagining how great this would be, talking about how there is nothing good for adults to do for Halloween, who don’t want to dress up as nurse vampires, and so that bubbled away for a year or two, and then eventually—

PA: I think Dennis recommended you call me, right?

GH: Yeah, and the three of us started meeting to talk about it, and Dennis definitely came up with the title.

PA: I must say that I tend to believe Glen’s version of the immediate history, but I do know that Glennis—

GH: Glennis?

PA: [Laughs] Glennis Etchison! The well-known cross-dressing mashup! Dennis had been throwing the name “The Rolling Darkness Revue” around for many, many years ahead of that World Horror Convention. You know, in fact, it dates back one or more literary generations from us, in the sense that, I think originally, Dennis had tried to do it with George Clayton Johnson, who was the great Twilight Zone writer—and writer of Logan’s Run. But yes, carry on! Carry on, Glennis!

GH: [Laughs] Thanks for jumping in there, Pete. So the first year we did it, we just read past stories of ours—

PA: Or extracts.

GH: —and we’re both, sort of, musicians. We both have bands.

PA: We both got away with it. Put it that way. There are other people who think we are musicians, even though we know better.

GH: And we were exposed. The first show we did—

hellraiser_3_poster_01PA: It was when we were about to do it the next year. A very enthusiastic reader-fan came up to me and said “I hear you’re doing Rolling Darkness again,” and I said yeah, yeah, and we’re doing this and doing that, and we’ve got a couple of professional musicians coming in so that Glen and I… And the sentence I wanted to complete was “so that Glen and I can concentrate on reading and performing the fiction,” but as soon as I’d said “we’ve got a couple of professional musicians coming in,” our fan said, “yeah, that’s a really good idea,” having seen us do it the year before.

[Both laugh.]

GH: The next evolution was that we decided we were going to do original stories. We weren’t just going to use this to flog our old, tired work, especially in my case. Everything I’d written was too long to be read at the RDR. I’m a long-winded chap. It’s been an interesting evolution in my fiction, ’cause I had to really think about, OK, “I don’t want to go over twenty-two minutes of reading.” So after that, the show gradually evolved. The goal was always, from the first, to get it away from the mall bookstores, toward theatres, and we’ve had really good luck on university campuses. We’ve done it in a cave, in Napa—

PA: In a winery. But an actual cave!

GH: —we’ve had shows where the musician couldn’t come so we’ve had to improvise, with audience participation, which actually turned out to be one of my favourite RDR shows of all time. We had the audience making train noises for us and got a seven-year- old kid to permanently traumatize his mom

PA: Yeah, the kid was into it!

GH: —by making him our demonic conductor. We gave him the scary H.P. Lovecraft mask and had him come through the curtains and escort us to our deaths. Pete and I have died every year.

PA: Every year. The framing story usually involves, “How are we going to die this time?”

GH: Dennis was with us for the first, hmm, three?

PA: He was with us for the first two, and then he made a couple of alumnus/emeritus appearances.

snowmanGH: Dennis no longer wants to plan the Rolling Dark. And Dennis, probably wisely, very early on, looked at us one day across the table, when we were getting all excited. We had a show booked outside a bookstore, we had chapbooks, and we were going to, not make money, but make back some of the money we were spending every year on the show, and I, particularly, was doing my boundy-Hirshberg thing, and Dennis sort of looked down into his Big Boy hamburger and then looked at me and said [in raspy sotto voce] “You know, it is all folly.” That’s become sort of a tour motto.

PA: That was Dennis’s ethos, for a while.

[GH laughs, boundily.]

SM: So has preparing stories for the RDR changed your approach to the craft of writing?

GH: For me, it is a different kind of writing. For better or worse, my ghost stories, all my stories, tend to be kind of quiet, generate a lot of atmosphere, and this is much more old school, almost radio drama, quick and efficient, […] as atmospheric and cinematic as I like to be when I write. It’s also made me almost obsessive about being efficient.

PA: I’d certainly second the efficiency thing. One is very aware that this thing is going to be read to patient people who are sitting down, so I try to never go over the twenty-one minute mark. I think it was Glen’s friend Lucius Shephard, talking about a brief short story, who said, “Three thousand words? It takes me three thousand words to clear my throat!” Whoever it was, it was a great quote. And then there are the people who have to pump desperately into a novel to get it up to sixty thousand words…and I’m more one of them.

GH: It comes out of screenwriting, maybe?

PA: Yes, screenwriting experience teaches you clarity, precision and economy. It teaches you many bad habits as well, but those are very positive things that many writers could benefit from. It discourages verbosity. But the other thing about the stories written for the show is that I’m very conscious that they’re going to be read, performed. I try to go back and read them like a reader, rather than read like a performer, because sometimes, you can take a shortcut. Often I know how I’m going to sell that in performance. I arrogantly assume we are good performers of our own stories, but good or bad, you’re going to put that performance element in, spin a line, sell a line, give an accent to a line, so it has taught me to both write for performance again, and also to write not for performance, but for readers. Do you find that?

GH: Absolutely. Pete and I are very different writers, which has been good for the show. But in a weird way, there is not a lot of overlap in our technique. There are notes that Pete hits, that I have been aware of thinking, especially in performance, there‘s a note I really like.

PA: I agree with Glen that one of the nice things is that whoever the guest reader is, we can pretty much guarantee a range of styles, but there’s a need to be careful, learning and feeling each other’s rhythms and styles, so I can say, “Wait, I’m going for a Hirshberg moment here—not that it wouldn’t be a good thing to go for, but that’s his schtick. You don’t steal another guitar player’s riffs. Let me put that back in the Atkins blender.” Or I’ll go back to the other people I usually rip off, rather than ripping off my partner. [Laughs]

GH: Neither one of us is a born collaborator, and I think we’re both just too serious and obsessive about what we do for that to be an easy thing for us. But last year, we closely collaborated when we “discovered” a story, “The Memory Pool,” by a forgotten Edwardian writer. We sat in the room together and wrote, and I can’t imagine doing that with anybody else.

PA: What the hell are you talking about? Are you suggesting for one second that Thomas St. John Bartlett was not a real Edwardian ghost story writer? Good God, man!

[Both laugh.]

wishPA: I was really trying to persuade Glen that we shouldn’t do that. We loved the idea and wanted to do it, but I was a big proponent of “We don’t get angry with one another when we do the plays because we work by email. I love you, Glen, but don’t want you sitting near my computer.” I think it helped that it was—I use the term loosely—a pastiche. We were consciously attempting to imitate a style, but a style we both love, which is the style of the late 19th century, primarily British fantasists: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, and E.F. Benson. Though the names we mentioned earlier we revere more, we certainly don’t unrevere Benson—he’d just be a little lower on our list. We found a template in one of Benson’s stories, just in terms of the pacing.

GH: The first page or two of “The Memory Pool,” the story that Bartlett wrote through us. We actually followed the Benson story “Caterpillars.”

PA: It’s like discovering another’s script…if we were mediums!

SM: Sort of like a Yeats, Crowley, spectral dictation thing?

PA, GH: [In syncopated simultaneity] That’s right, yes, right.

GH: But we were very consciously following this E.F. Benson story “Caterpillars,” almost sentence by sentence, asking “Where does the turn come in this paragraph?” We were trying to catch that rhythm, which is a rhythm that has almost gone out of literature, it’s a dead end on the evolutionary tree. These guys went down this path and into their little glen [Glen?] and disappeared—

PA: Into their sacred grove…

GH: It’s really beautiful stuff, and it’s very hard, discovering, learning that spell, really difficult. Well, by the second or third page, we were just writing. Also, the story had a terrible ending and we just didn’t want to go there.

PA: Apparently in those days, people, or at least Benson, thought cancer was contagious. So the punchline, the payoff of “Caterpillars,” involves catching cancer. So the story doesn’t quite work. But E.F. Benson and his brothers wrote some really terrific ghost stories. Whoever you are, [reading] this, you should read them, if you haven’t.

GH: After Blackwood and Machen.

PA: Well, yes, but the person Benson is inferior to is James rather than those other two, because that is the line of descent, wouldn’t you say?

GH: What you’re listening to now is a typical RDR conversation. Whatever question you asked, we forgot a long time ago.

JG: OK. Which writer would you most like to work with in the RDR? Whether living or dead, in some kind of mediumistic way?

PA: Living or dead? Great. Let’s go for the dead ones. We don’t want to have phone calls from the assholes we only pretend to want. “Oh we’d love to have…” No, we wouldn’t. Can we stick with the dead?

SM: [Laughs] Sure.

PA: Well, the original Artie and Algie [Machen and Blackwood] would be very welcome.

GH: I’m going to name one of the living.

PA: No. Really?

GH: At least one, because he expressed interest. In that very first conversation, [he was] one of the people floating around at that convention…and then again at another convention where Dennis and I were also kicking around this idea…and Pete’s good friend Ramsey Campbell was there—

PA: Oh, is it Ramsey you’re talking about?

GH: Yes! Can I mention him?

PA: Yes…Yes.

GH: I would love to do this with him. He seemed interested in doing it. He’s a wonderful reader and storyteller and a lot of fun to hang around with. So I’d love to work with him.

PA: It’d be a nightmare to keep him out of the wraparound, though—

GH: Not that we’d want to.

PA: No! But Ramsey wanted to be a standup comedian. If you’ve read any Ramsey Campbell fiction, you’re doubtless laughing now—

GH: So who are your dead ones?

PA: Oh, any of them, as long as they’re safely dead. Listen, If you’re really talking about the writers we admire, and feel certain affinities to, within the parameters of what we’re trying to do with the RDR, any of the greats, really; the names you’d expect. I’d love to pull some obscure, satisfyingly poseur-like name that people would have to go out and look up—

GH: Machen. People won’t know Arthur Machen, sadly.

PA: Do you honestly think that anybody interested in this interview isn’t going to?

GH: Yes.

PA: Really? Shame on you.

GH: Just to shatter my poseur credentials forever, I didn’t know about Arthur Machen until my young pup days as a journalist. I was interviewing a much younger Neil Gaiman, also a friend of Pete’s—Pete’s a little star-magnet—

PA: Friend of the rich and famous.

GH: —about Sandman, and he started reeling off [snaps fingers] a list of names of people I should read, all of whom I knew—except that one—and he is now among the top five all-time writers for me. And if Shirley Jackson was feeling well, and sane—

PA: As long as we just met her at the venue, ’cause I hear she was…hard to get along with. But talented. We’d want the fiction, we just wouldn’t want to be on the road with Shirley. Maybe she was a happy drunk? I don’t know.

GH: I don’t know. I’m just saying I admire a lot of the fiction. There are also a lot of really terrific contemporary writers. The field is deep.

PA: Of course. We want to work with every one of you. Each and every one of you. Because we love you. Don’t call us…and we certainly won’t call you.

[Both laugh.]

GH: I’m not gonna touch that. We’re done with that.

Sean Moreland is founder and fiction editor at Postscripts to Darkness, and a part-time English professor at the University of Ottawa. James Greatrex is a Kingston-based filmmaker.

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