Tim Lebbon | PAY THE GHOST

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Tim Lebbon has been writing for as long as he can remember, and primarily in the horror genre. With more than forty published works behind him, it is one of his short stories Pay the Ghost that has provided the inspiration for a new film starring Nicholas Cage. With the film’s release around the corner, we sat down with Tim to discuss his writing, his Halloween costume of choice and, most importantly, Transvision Vamp.

STARBURST: The film takes its primary inspiration from a Celtic legend but your source story is very different. Where did your idea come from?
Tim Lebbon: My memory is slightly hazy I’m afraid, as I wrote it some time ago now, but there were two main strands of inspiration. Firstly, I’d recently become a father back then so I’d started writing about children and families in peril as that’s what was scaring me. Secondly, I’d been asked to write a story quite quickly for a collection and I remember flicking through a book and coming across something about Halloween legends, with demons jumping over fire-pits and kidnapping children. That was the piece of imagery that kick-started things but it was the family breakdown at the story’s heart that was the most frightening thing.

How did you come up with the title, as Pay the Ghost is quite evocative?
Strangely, no one has ever asked me that before! It was actually from a band called Transvision Vamp, and on their debut album Velveteen there was a track called Pay the Ghost. I think it’s quite an interesting title, more so than just picking a random word out of the dictionary like Sinister.

Reading your story, there’s a sense of Lovecraft about it, with this evil that doesn’t need justification or reason, but just exists. In the film Nicholas Cage’s character actually mentions Lovecraft, and also Poe and Stoker. Was this something you thought about at the time?
I have to say I haven’t yet seen the film, but I have read the script. Story-wise I was probably in my Lovecraft phase at the time of writing and when I re-read the story just a few weeks ago, I noticed how grim and dark it was. Any links between the story and the film is purely down to the film’s writers though. I believe Nicholas Cage’s character is an English professor so that probably gives the character an understanding of Lovecraft and a way into believing there are evils in the word we can’t explain.

In your story, the character of Kate wastes away and it’s a very striking image.
The husband is suffering, trying to get on with life, but the wife is wasting away. She’s putting all her energies into finding her lost child and nothing else matters in the world. I understand why this has been lightened up a little for the film, as it is very dark.

As a great exponent of the horror genre, we wonder why you think it is that it endures so much.
I try not to analyse too much but it is important for someone who writes horror to understand why people are reading it. I think partly there’s the fact that you can step away from the story at the end and everything’s okay again, and also that death is something of a preoccupation for us as humans and a lot of horror is about death. We’re an imaginative species and I think we like the escapism of it. Ultimately it’s just what I do; it’s what comes out when I sit down to write.

Are there mixed feelings for an author when one of your stories is picked up, as you know there will be changes?
First of all, I’m thrilled I’ve had a film made and with Nicholas Cage! I’ve had around 15 options taken but this is the first to hit the screen so I’m pretty pragmatic about it. I understand that when they take your story it’s going to change for the screen. Perhaps if it was a novel that had a greater input of time then I’d be a little more precious about it. I dabble with screenplays so I know the process is very different from writing a book. And then if people watch the film, whether they like it or dislike it the book is always there to go back to.

You mentioned that the loss of a child scares you but I wonder what else in the horror genre does?
Jacob’s Ladder I found really disturbing and The Thing, not just because of the body horror but also the claustrophobic element to it, that your neighbour could be your enemy.

Finally, as the story to Pay the Ghost is set at Halloween I wondered if you have a go-to costume?
Haha! I don’t really, but I did have an open brain zombie thing which helped my family win best dressed award at our local Halloween bash a few years ago, so maybe that.

PAY THE GHOST is out now on DVD and Blu-ray - read our review here.


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