The Frighteners: An Interview with Peter Laws
All right, let’s start with an obvious question: What’s a church minister doing writing horror novels?
You might not be surprised to hear that I get that question, a lot. I do understand the confusion, too. There’s a view that says: “a church pastor ought to be ‘nice’ and avoid horrible books and 18 certificate films. They certainly shouldn’t be producing new material which adds to the morbid corruption of the world!” Yet this all comes from an assumption that macabre stories are bad for us, or something to be avoided. I simply don’t agree. I think human beings, and even the Bible itself, has long used the shocking and creepy to help us explore what it means to be human. So if God can do it, it’s not a surprise to find humans do it to, if indeed they are made in the image of God, you’d expect that.
Plus, I’ve been a fan of horror way before I ever set foot in a church. It’s just part of who I am. It’s part of the personality of millions of other people across the world. Fans of the dark side can feel like there’s something wrong with them, but I want to say there really isn’t. That was the entire point of my non-fiction book, where I travelled in Transylvania, Rome and the UK meeting folks who love scary things, like I do. The point of that book was to say that being intrigued by the shadows is perfectly natural – even for a church minister.
I love your attitude of inclusion, which came through very strongly in The Frighteners, that no one should feel excluded or ostracised due to their lifestyle or even hobbies. Is this something you have experienced with your love of horror and your Christian faith?
I’ve found that Christians in general have been surprisingly open minded about my love of horror. There are very few people who have told me that my writing scary novels or enjoying horror is wrong. However, there are people who have had a problem with it. Some have told me that I’m helping the devil warp young minds. I’ve had some people think I might have a demon in me – but then that person was dead against Harry Potter! So yes, there has been criticism from some, but not many.
I’ve had more Christians struggle with the ideology of my novels, which are written from the perspective of the main character, Matt Hunter. He’s an ex-vicar turned atheist academic. He’s very open about his distrust of Christianity, and since he’s the hero in the books, the stories come from his perspective. I see no problem in me, a Christian, writing a book that offers an atheistic view of the world. It’s more interesting too, at least for me, to explore both sides of the argument. But yeah, some Christians have not been impressed with how badly the church can come across in the books, ha ha. When the first book starts with an evangelical serial killer who thinks it’s kind and loving to baptise people and murder them straight after, to fast track them to heaven, it can raise a few eyebrows in congregations. But most have been totally fine with it.
About thirty years ago I was a faithful church member and believer in God. The church had a, mostly, positive impact on my life but I was criticized for my love of horror literature and film and told it was bad for me. Consequently I went for many years avoiding all things horror related (and I’m still playing catch up on what I missed!) Christianity seems to have moved on now in its censorial attitudes along with, thankfully, attitudes towards LGBT issues, but do you still get criticism for being a Christian who is also a fan of horror? And if so, what is your response?
I can well believe that you were criticised in the past, for your love of horror. I first became a Christian in my early 20s, and I remember being told that my interests (which include the paranormal) were incompatible with my faith. In fact, I went cold turkey from horror for a while, which was a challenge. But during that time, I started to reassess the genre and simply felt that it was the only one to take the supernatural seriously. It was the only one that was willing to talk about themes like life after death or objective good and evil. Ironically, it was also one of the few genres in which the clergy were heroes (The Exorcist, for example). So I soon realised that people who dismissed horror were often doing so because it wasn’t their personal taste.
Yes, The Exorcist, a film notorious at one time in Christian circles, is mostly made up of people standing around in chilly rooms discussing matters of faith! And one of the priests is played by a real priest, not an actor, and he has a major role in the film. Once you stand back and look at these arguments against horror it so often comes down to a person arguing from that point of personal taste rather than reasoned thought.
Thankfully times are changing, and people are becoming more nuanced in their views.
I think the Internet has helped with that, more than we know (though it has also simultaneously caused the opposite in some – a fixing on singular views). But yes, the last few decades has seen an openness in Christianity to challenge long held ideas (LGBT issues included). Some see that revising of theology terrible, and just a pandering to society. But it’s often a move toward understanding the original Biblical languages better and also being more inclusive and therefore Christ-like – who, after all, is the very hub of what Christianity is supposed to be. It’s exciting for me to see that even horror fans (who may have been seen as degenerates at one point) are starting to be welcomed to.
Unleashed is a terrific book and I flew through it while reading it on holiday. And I love Matt Hunter too. His crisis of faith very much mirrored how I felt, and sometimes still do, about the contradiction between Christianity’s belief in God’s love and the horrors we see in the world. I’m a big fan of Lawrence Block’s series of crime novels about Matt Scudder, an ex-cop who gradually turned from a drunk alcoholic to a sober one as the series moved on. As the Matt Hunter series progresses, will we perhaps see Hunter gradually return to his faith, or perhaps move on in some other way?
I’m so glad you enjoyed Unleashed. I really enjoyed writing that, and it’s a special book to me. It also gave me the creeps – and so I’m always delighted to hear when others find it scary too. I’ve had people say they couldn’t finish it, because they were too scared. That made my day, ha ha. As for Matt Hunter, I don’t really have a set trajectory for his character and I certainly don’t plan on making these books a kind of evangelical ruse, so that by book ten he renounces the error of his ways and comes back to church! Don’t get me wrong, if the story goes there, then you never know. But I have no plans to do that. What I do want is for him to have more exposure to the supernatural – so that his purely rational view of the world is at least challenged. But he’s the type of guy who can find a reason for everything. Which can be both a great skill and also an avoidance technique.
I jumped in to the Matt Hunter series, by mistake, in the second book and there are references to events in the first one. This didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all as the stories seem to very self-contained, but is there an overarching plot line to the series?
I want the books to stand alone – almost like old episodic TV shows that I used to enjoy as a kid. Watch something like Knight Rider or Columbo or The Love Boat (yeah, I’m, watching reruns of that at the moment) and each show is its own story. However, I do want to have some overarching development going on. For example, I’m writing the fourth novel at the moment, and I’m possibly going to explore what effect all the trauma from the first three books might have on Matt’s psyche.
We are both fans of the 1976 horror movie Grizzly. I can remember seeing it at my local cinema as a youngster with my friends, and it was a pretty riotous experience in a packed screening with lots of horrified laughter and screams. The year before that I had seen Jaws, which had a profound effect on me, especially at the end when the audience rose to its feet and cheered as the shark exploded. Are there any horror movies you have seen where there was a significant element of audience reaction?
I really enjoy that collective reaction to films, especially when the horror isn’t particularly serious. For example, my Grandad took me to see Friday the 13th Part IV when I was in my early teens (I somehow got in). It was a midnight showing, and there was that buzz of the crowd – so when people were killed on screen, people would squeal, or shout at the screen. That’s always fun. Another time, I was at a press screening in London for the Evil Dead remake (I write a horror movie column for the print magazine, The Fortean Times) – and I was fascinated when a cinema full of journalists broke into cheers and applause at a very shocking chainsaw to the head scene.
I wrote about that moment in The Frighteners. Mind you, I do watch the majority of films at home these days, which is great in the age of 4K UHD, Dolby Atmos Sound etc. And sometimes I prefer to be just me, when watching more thoughtful or serious horror.
Oh, and yes I do love Grizzly. In fact, I’m a big fan of any of those retro – nature goes mad – films.
What’s your favourite horror movie, and why?
When I speak at events or festivals I get asked this a lot, and it’s impossible to answer fully, as I have so many favourites. But if you’re asking for some core horror movies for me, they would be The Changeling, Salem’s Lot, Dawn of the Dead, The Amityville Horror, The Brood and Evilspeak (a video nasty slasher, which most seem to think is crap, but I have a big soft spot for it). They all come from a similar era, when I was first discovering horror. I think that often becomes the seminal, memorable stage for horror fans. Or any fan, I guess.
What’s your favourite horror novel, and why?
I love Pet Sematary by Stephen King.
That’s a fantastic book, and a lot of the horror for me came from the non-supernatural elements involving the parents losing their child, and then there is that very final line which still sends a chill through me!
Absolutely, that really got to me. And also Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, which made me cry in parts. It’s not a novel, but I’m a sucker for The Shadow Over Innsmouth by HP Lovecraft. I also love old retro horror paperbacks. The Howling trilogy by Gary Brandner was great fun. I wrote complete original soundtracks to those books in my twenties. I did the same for my own books too, and people even buy those albums too, would you believe! My score to Purged got nominated for a Reel Music award, which kind of blew my mind. But yeah, I always wanted to be a film composer – so my books give me a slight excuse.
How many Matt Hunter books do you think you will write? I can see the potential for many more books.
I’d like to keep going as long as people read them, but I guess it’s like going on a book to book basis. I also have ideas for non Matt Hunter books, which I just need the time to explore. My non-fiction publisher want me to do another non-fiction too. So lots of potential, but it’s just making sure I have the time.
Lawrence Block has been writing Matt Scudder novels since the 1970s, and Scudder has aged at the same rate as Block which means he is in his late seventies now. Do you intend to do the same with Hunter, or will he be timeless like James Bond?
You know what, I’ve never really thought about that. At the moment, I do refer to the passing of time in the books. So perhaps Matt will simply age naturally. The good thing is that Matt is about ten years younger than me, so who knows, perhaps if I reach 100 I can vicariously live out the dream of getting in and out of a chair without help, through a 90 year old Matt.
The first two novels I wrote (neither of which will ever be published as they were ‘practice runs’) were very personal and dealt with a crisis of faith, which I was going through at the time. I certainly don’t get the feeling that this is the case with the Matt Hunter novels, but are there elements of faith issues you have faced in these books?
The phrase ‘crisis of faith’ is an interesting one, because it’s often applied to situations to which it is too strong a label. If one thinks that faith (let say, in a God) must be 100% certain at all times, then yes, when doubts come it can feel like a crisis. Especially if those doubts last a long time. However, this is a misunderstanding of what faith is.
Faith is, by definition, not 100% certainty. Faith is trust in a particular way of viewing the world. And sometimes we doubt it and sometimes we don’t. I have atheist friends who sometimes doubt their atheism, for example. We simply don’t have every single box ticked in our understanding, and so faith has this ebb and flow to it. That’s not only normal and to be expected, it can also be valuable. It can help us see things from other perspectives, and can make out belief deeper and more profound.
It saddens me to think that there are folks giving up on any sort of religious faith, because they think they aren’t allowed to doubt or question it. To think that is to succumb to dualistic thinking, which to me, is more human than divine. Sometimes life, and faith, is this fascinating sense of paradox – and that’s where the beauty often lies. Like in the life of a horror fan, for example, where there is both light and darkness. Having 100% of one or the other is simply unworkable. Instead, life is the place where those two things somehow work together. Faith has a natural up and down flow, and we all live by it. From the atheist who puts their trust in purely rational, material world or the passenger getting on a cruise ship or commuter train. We live on a basis of trusting others and objects to do what we hope, but when we think about it, it’d be false to rule out space for doubt.
Doubt, I think, can be a friend to faith, and a sign of spiritual maturity.
But dualistic thinkers assume that faith is having all the answers, and so when that doesn’t happen they give up.
By the way, maybe those two novels might come out one day! Have faith.
Do you have any other stories you want to tell that don’t involve Matt Hunter?
Yes. In fact I have a full psychological thriller novel which I wrote a few years ago. My agent has suggested I should adapt that and offer it to publishers, alongside the Matt Hunter stuff. I’d love to work in screenplays too, exploring other stories and non-fiction. But for now, Matt Hunter is the core of my fiction work, which I’m fine with. When I finish this interview, I’ll be straight back into Matt Hunter 4. He’s dealing with demonic possession in this one. Ha ha.
Thank you, Peter, for a fascinating chat about faith, horror, literature and movies, some of my favourite things to talk about. And I look forward to reading more of your books.
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