A review of Whitstable by Stephen Volk

Reviewed by Geoff Nelder

by Stephen Volk
A Spectral Press: Spectral Visions III publication
May 26th 2013, £17.50 (UK)
http://spectralpress.wordpress.com | Email: spectralpress@gmail.com

I have not reviewed a novella quite like this. The protagonist is a real person. Yes, I’ve reviewed fictional biographies but they’ve been of people in the distant past – eg The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, not of someone I could have met and who, via the film media, we all have an intimate connection. It is kind of a fan fiction then, but far superior to most.

Peter Cushing was born on May 26th 1913. Exactly a century later this novella will be released as a homage to the legendary actor, who lived with his wife in Whitstable.

Stephen Volk clearly researched Cushing’s life in great detail but this is not a biography. It is fiction and yet, as a film goer and Doctor Who watcher, I fell under the spell of Volk’s narrative and can say my disbelief was suspended in its reading. A reader should be forgiven if he or she believed this story was based on a real event.

The story is set in Whitstable in Kent in 1971 shortly after Peter Cushing’s wife died. He’s fraught with grief, feeling more like an old man than the young fifty-seven-year-old he really is. Morbidly insular he leaves his house to keep away from prying visitors but encounters a young boy who thinks the actor is Doctor Van Helsing, Cushing’s vampire hunting character in the Hammer films. The boy seeks help to vanquish his mother’s boyfriend, who is a vampire, or some other form of evil.

Although the story is woven around the boy’s concerns, transferred to Cushing, who takes on the vampire-hunt challenge for real as a welcome distraction from his grief, we experience much more than the plot. Between the bread of the main story is whole-fruit cinema jam, enough to make any horror fan salivate. Volk makes Cushing relate everything to something filmed by him or his contemporaries in a smorgasbord of cinema delight. Accordingly, the action in the novella reads as if a camera follows Cushing. For example he sees a boy about ten years old standing at an inquisitive distance, head tilted to one side with slats of cloud behind him and a substantial book under his arm.’ And in his conversation we have the boy picking at flaking paint on a signpost.

Resonance for me exist in little asides. Cushing is deluged with unopened manuscripts teetering in piles in his house. I had a literary agent in Stirling who vanished. When one of her clients persuaded the police to force her door there were heaps of unopened manuscripts, mostly in brown paper parcels tied with string, all the way up her stairs. She’s still missing but that’s another story.

There are aspects of the narrative that don’t ring quite true for me as a teacher and recipient of childspeak for decades. I don’t think a ten-year-old boy would make such long speeches so coherently from such an inarticulate family background and use words like ‘determined’, ‘crumbled’; although as a horror film enthusiast he might well say ‘vanquished’. Would an English junior schoolboy say ‘Movies’? Perhaps he would as he is surrounded by movie books and films, but it jarred a little. Not so much jarred as shocked when I found Volk had named the boy as Carl Drinkwater. Grief, I taught him at a school in Chester!

Volk certainly grabs other characteristics of children. ‘“No,” the boy said, sounding supremely affronted, as if he was dealing with an idiot.’ Haha my grandson does that to me and he’s only four. As do my granddaughters though by then I’m thinking it’s more about me.

A fascinating dialogue occurs between Cushing and Carl’s mother. She accuses horror films of being a bad influence on children. Interestingly this debate is in my family too. Batman’s activities create nightmares in my grandson. (though it could be a scam by him to have extra hugs in bed with mum). Cushing’s response, which I rather like, is that he doesn’t make horror films so much as enable an experience of fantasy , an escapism from the humdrum but one in which Good prevails over Evil.

Whitstable offers us insights into the acting profession. Love such quotes that I assume are either legitimate, or should be, such as the one from Olivier to Cushing: “Be sincere, dear boy, always be sincere—and when you’ve faked that, you’ve cracked it.” Note the ironic humour, and there are other lighter moments in what otherwise could have been too gloomy in its poignancy particularly the unwritten point that Cushing’s heavy smoking was probably a factor in his wife’s fatal emphysema. I admit to amusing myself, as Cushing does, in this clip:
“You’re Christopher Lee aren’t you?”
He corrected her with consummate politeness, tugging on his white cotton glove.
“No, I’m the other one.”
“Vincent Price?”
He kept his smile to himself. “That’s right.”

I also like his conversations with his deceased wife – consoling and urging him to have faith in himself. And as a reflection of his view that fantasy represents his work more than horror, he says: “Concentration camp: that’s true horror.” I say the same to my wife when she says something a tad awkward is a nightmare. No, a giant slimey monster eating you from your toes up is a nightmare!

There’s so much more in this novella, which has the depth and characterization of a novel. As a story it really finishes before the end, but aficionados of Cushing’s films, including Stephen Volk, and I, clearly didn’t want to stop.

The Afterword by Mark Morris is homage in action, a declaration of love and appreciation of the genre as portrayed by Peter Cushing and of the man himself.

About the reviewer: Geoff Nelder lives in rural England within easy cycle rides of the Welsh mountains. He is the author of Escaping Reality, Exit, Pursued by Bee, and Aria: Left Luggage. Geoff is an editor for Adventure Books of Seattle.