Novelist, actor, comedian, documentarian, director, producer, screenwriter, butcher*, baker, candlestick maker ― Mark Gatiss appears to be in another "League"; an erudite "Gentleman" of many talents… while also quite the connoisseur of Christmas horror. This is why he's here: for he loves nothing more than to discuss his most treasured time of the year, coupled (specifically) with the ghost story ― a spiritual union that has become a British tradition. Not only has Mark had the privilege to work on (and reinvent) some of his favorite characters ― Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, and Dracula ― but he has now, over the past decade, become the "unnatural inheritor" of the classic ghost story. With such a mantel comes a part of the literary legacy synonymous with those (definitive) hauntings of Charles Dickens and M.R. James… of which the Brits hold so close to their "lost hearts."
Let's begin with those early memories of a haunted eve: the young horror (and comedy) obsessive experiencing the unexplained, the uncanny... the ghosts of Christmas past.
One of my very first cinematic memories was seeing Albert Finney in Scrooge, so the fusion of Christmas and horror starts very early. I remember sitting there frightened in anticipation for my first scare; because I was already familiar with the material, having seen the first Carry on Christmas specials the year before. I knew that was funny, but this version ― despite being a musical ― felt like the real thing. As you know from Scrooge, it absolutely is the real thing because it's terrifying; Alec Guinness' Marley indelibly etched in my mind.
Your own performance of Marley in your stage version also captures the terrifying fluidity of Guinness' movements.
He can't rest, and that's what he captured so brilliantly. I love that part in Dickens' book that describes moments where he is "stirred by curious winds."
Such a performance picks up on those literary details. The text lends texture.
I've always loved these kinds of stories. There are very strong memories of Lawrence Gordon Clark's annual Ghost Stories for Christmas, particularly his version of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas." I watched everything supernatural ― every little thing ― and was so cross when they had a bogus ending. But, also, from a very early age, I always loved Christmas, and I always loved ghosts because the two things come together so perfectly for me. Then there's this distinct feeling at this time of year that you're teetering on the edge as we rollercoaster toward December 31st. The days become shorter, and we are very much aware of packing things in while also thinking about what's next… and also what's just happened.
There's something anticlimactic about it; you build up to Christmas day, and it feels as though it is over in five minutes.
That's why Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the year. I love that feeling. If I could encapsulate it, it's in the magic of Victor Hely-Hutchinson's "Carol Symphony" ― the theme for The Box of Delights [whistles] ― it feels like ice crystals in the air.
What is it with the British and ghost stories that capture such a peculiar energy ― especially at Christmas ― and does it go wider and deeper than just Charles Dickens and M.R. James, or is that the liminal moment where we always refer back to these particular works?
Yes, that's definitely the liminal moment. But it's an ancient tradition. It's like chocolate and orange: no one knows why they go together… but they also go together at Christmas, don't they? I think it's because of a fireside tradition. There's the end of the old year and the beginning of a new, so you're looking backwards and forwards. With this in mind, Christmas is a joyous time but also very sad because of the people we've lost. All those things make it feel like the boundaries are very thin this time of year.
Ghosts are the perfect metaphor.
They certainly are. And that's why Dickens absolutely solidified that, and of course, A Christmas Carol is subtitled "A Ghost Story of Christmas." That's where it belongs. The popularity of that story has very much embedded that in our minds, and then James and lots of other writers in the "golden age" of the ghost story ― the 1880s through to the 1920s ― continued the legacy.
You nailed it there. There's another tradition; that of British children's programming of the late '70s and through to the late '80s that carried such sinister vibes. There was such an atmosphere culminating in Nigel Kneale's terrifying adaptation of The Woman in Black.
There is no moment like that.
I've certainly never gotten over it.
What's interesting is that from a BBC tradition, ITV made the ultimate Christmas ghost story. I remember taking a video recording round to Reece [Shearsmith] when I was staying with him the following year ― Christmas '90 ― and when it got to that bit, he made a sound that I don't think I've ever heard a grown man make since; just a bellowing horror. It's so brilliant and relentless. A quintessential piece of work. A masterclass.
Speaking of quintessential, what do you feel defines ― and pardon the pun ― the 'British spirit'? How are these ghosts different from other nations' "skeletons"?
Well, it's no accident that M.R. James is regarded as the master. I've adapted "Count Magnus" this year, which is archetypal. I say this because it's about a repressed middle-aged actor of private means and no family ― who has little but not enough learning ― who interferes with things he doesn't understand. This has become such a template. As James would say, "It's a pleasing terror." That's what we enjoy. There's sort of a comfort in it. What's brilliant, though, is that all of these tropes feel very English; indeed, that's the "English ghost story." Then you go around the world and find entirely different traditions. They're equally enthralling and actually all the more so for being so odd and unfamiliar ― Chinese hopping vampires, etc. I find that all so fascinating. But in England, ghost stories are one of the things we do so terribly well; E.F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood, and so many others who are also regarded as the best in the form for all those complicated reasons mentioned. I'm sure an awful lot of it is down to "English" repression as opposed to "British" because I think it's an English thing, a specific repression that keeps leeching out in unexpected and horrific ways.
Those repressed by imperialism or even as far back as the more ancient kings and Kingdoms.
Indeed, and what's so lovely is it's so mixed up. "There's no digging here!" In other words, you shouldn't interfere with the things you don't understand. But equally, other stories are very much about imperialism and colonialism, such as the curse on the white man for going places he shouldn't.
What are the challenges in updating Dickens and James, in particular?
Well, to begin with, it's an annual battle to get one made. People seem to think I just waft in and say "I want that one and that one…" But it's not the case at all. It's really difficult because the half-hour format ― at least once a year ― doesn't exist anymore. It's a '70s format, so ideally, it's always about longer things you can sell abroad. It's always a fine balance between the cozy pleasing terror ― i.e. this is what you want to be on at Christmas ― and trying to push these stories forward a bit as with" The Dead Room."
It was superb how, as an original story, "The Dead Room" still managed to capture the spirit of James ― a contemporary version that would speak to younger audiences.
We didn't have much money at all for that. I knew I had to enclose the story, make it smaller but still apply M.R. James' rules about things being in the past but not too far away. Which meant those ghosts would be from the '70s, and that was a really exciting idea.
There's something metaphysical as the character reads one of these ghost stories while harkening back to an era the original annual A Ghost Stories for Christmas (1971-1978) aired. It all feeds into the timelessness of these tales. Do you think that's exactly why they still work?
Yes, and coming back to A Christmas Carol ― which is timeless ― and, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest stories ever written. Structurally perfect, it does everything a story should. That's why it's survived. The personal challenge for me would be if you were producing an anthology that could explore many different styles that would become more of an ultimate set of ghost stories that taps into other literary and contemporary horrors. For instance, I remember being a bit cross with Hammer House of Horror because it was modern.
The urbanization, the relatability of it all? Much like what Poltergeist tapped into a couple of years later with the suburban ghost story, capitalism, etc.
Yes… but now, in hindsight, that's what I love it for. They were doing a different thing, the intrusion into "normality" that brings the Gothic into an ordinary house. When I did Crooked House in 2008, my favorite story was the modern-day one because it's an ordinary Barratt home built on top of something else. The absolute plainness of that building was a fantastic challenge. It feeds into how modern living is only a scratch away from the uncanny; that you really could imagine coming down in the morning to turn the alarm off, and something is waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs.
Your History of Horror documentaries are some of the best out there covering our beloved genre. Can we expect any more?
They were a joy to do. I really wanted to do a third one which would have essentially been the rest of the world, but it was just too expensive. I'm still amazed we got Horror Europa off the ground; that was a real triumph. Interestingly I was watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched the other day, which is so fantastically detailed, and was so struck by how, even with its focus on folk horror, Kier-La Janisse managed to encompass so much more from around the world. What she has done there is quite brilliant, and that's essentially what the last History of Horror would have been. For want of a better term: a slight "mopping up operation."
To "wrap" this up, what would be your ultimate ghoulish present to open this Christmas morning?
Reece just sent me a replica of the whistle from Whistle and I'll Come to You ― it's been beautifully handmade and inscribed: "Who is this who is coming?" So, I don't know as I already have what looks like the best ghoulish present. But I guess I would just love to make these stories for as long as I can by unwrapping a commission, a firm commitment to providing you all with more of these stories each Christmas… and for the rest of time.
*The "Special Stuff"... of course.
The BBC summons a triple haunting of Mark Gatiss this year with A Ghost Story for Christmas: Count Magnus, a recording of his superb stage adaptation A Christmas Carol: Ghost Story, and a radio broadcast of Mark Gatiss And Richard Coles Are On A Ghost Hunt, in which they visit the most haunted parish in England. You can also track down Mark's "other" superb documentaries M.R. James: Ghost Writer and In Search of Dracula, online.