Not content with only turning Blood on Satan’s Claw and Hellbound Heart into acclaimed audio dramas, Bafflegab Productions are back at it again with a new production of M.R. James‘ Casting the Runes.
The tale, which features a Crowley-inspired occultist who deals with rivals by setting a fire demon on them, will feature the voice talents of Anna Maxwell Martin, Tom Burke and Reece Shearsmith. The script is the brainchild of author Stephen Gallagher.
We caught up with Stephen to talk about his take on James’ classic chiller.
Tom: Can you describe your first encounter with the stories of M.R. James and how they have influenced your work up to this point?
Stephen: Hard to pin a date down but my local library most likely played a part in it. I used to haunt the place, an armload of books every week, and they were particularly good for anthologies… Bester, Wells, the Detection, Mystery and Horror volumes from Dorothy L Sayers. And most Saturdays you could find me at the bookstall on Eccles market where, quite literally for pennies, you could pick up shabby old hardbacks from the Victorian era up to the 1940s. That’s where my habits were formed and my tastes were shaped; I’ll have encountered individual stories in isolation and then the Penguin Ghost Stories of an Antiquary came later, I think, when I was at university.
Then there were Lawrence Gordon Clark’s Ghost Story for Christmas TV adaptations, which are classics in their own right. Little did I know that I’d later end up working with Lawrence on Chimera and Chillers.
Tom: How do you account for the enduring influence of M.R. James and his stories?
Stephen: I think it’s significant that the stories were written to be told, which makes for a read that’s always on-point. They’re like literary campfire tales. And although they’re set in a comparatively rarified world of books, libraries, churches, and academia, you get the sense that they’re driven by some very specific personal fears and anxieties that strike a chord in all of us. Also, they tend to be anchored by some strong and vivid image that James understates to exactly the right degree.
Tom: Many people will be familiar with the story of Casting the Runes because of Tourneur’s Night of The Demon (AKA Curse of The Demon – US). Did his film have any influence on your adaptation or did you draw purely from the source material?
Stephen: I love Night of the Demon. It’s a terrific movie and a classic of the genre. Great Charles Bennet adaptation and more than a dash of Val Lewton in what Tourneur brought to it. I followed the model in that I wanted to play James’s story out in a contemporary setting with modern-day characters, but I was careful to take nothing from the film itself. Not just because of rights issues but because… well, where would be the point? So while I viewed Night of the Demon before diving into the script, it was for the specific purpose of ensuring that I wouldn’t be channelling it, even unconsciously. And what that viewing showed me was just how much of James was intact within the narrative, and the extent to which putting the story on its feet in the ’50s setting produced something remarkable.
Tom: Can listeners expect a straight adaptation of the story or were concessions made to the audio medium?
Stephen: I’m not sure that concessions come into it. Bear in mind that I got my professional start in radio drama with science fiction serials and a string of BBC Saturday Night Theatres. I had crashing spaceships, fogbound airports under siege, angels falling out of heaven… there are issues of technique to ensure that you order your information in a way that the listener sees what you want them to see, but otherwise it’s enormously liberating. And James is brilliant for that because provoking the imagination with a few well-chosen aural strokes is a close parallel to his literary craft.
Tom: Are there any other classic or modern horror films that you feel would be ideal for this type of adaptation?
Stephen: I’ve carried this one with me for a while, and when Bafflegab gave me the opportunity to realise it I was more than ready. I can’t say that I have any others in mind or lined up. It was kind of special.
Tom: The adaptation features a stellar cast. Can you provide any insight into how they were assembled?
Stephen: That was all down to producer Simon Barnard. The same week that I delivered the script I got a Friday email from him to say that Reece Shearsmith was looking at Karswell. Monday morning I got a second email to say that Reece was in. Within a week or less the whole powerhouse cast was assembled. I was in the studio for voice recording and I have to say, I was blown away. Not just by the big scenes but by the tiny details, the wildtrack backgrounds, the clips and snippets of half-heard atmosphere. Everyone 100% committed, everything perfectly on point.
Tom: Lastly, are there any other upcoming projects that you are able to talk about?
Stephen: Scott Free are developing an updated take on my 90’s miniseries Chimera, and I’m in an Executive Producer role on that. As writer I’m developing a big 8-part international thriller for German/French coproduction, and whenever I can squeeze a spare day I’m working on a spinoff novella from my historical novel series. There’s always stuff cooking, but those are the ones I can mention.
We would like to thank Stephen for taking the time to speak to us and wish him every success with Casting the Runes!