June 8, 2013

WHITSTABLE

by Stephen Volk
140 pages, Spectral Press

Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops

Halloween 1992 was, without a doubt, the scariest Halloween on record in Britain. That night, the BBC broadcast “Ghostwatch” and effectively traumatised my whole generation. It was a ninety-minute film that purported to be a live television broadcast from a haunted house in London. Starring familiar television presenters instead of actors, it was easy to believe that it was real life and not a scripted drama. It was absolutely terrifying and the BBC was flooded with complaints (an estimated 30,000 in the space of an hour). The tabloid newspapers went to town, questions were raised in parliament and the BBC imposed a decade-long broadcast ban on the show. The British Medical Journal recorded a number of cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in young boys who watched the show. To date, “Ghostwatch” has never been been repeated on British television. For those of us who were lucky enough to see this wonderful piece of TV history, it is so indelibly stamped in our minds and whenever the radiators start making a funny noise, we soil ourselves and hide under the covers.

When I heard that Stephen Volk, the writer of “Ghostwatch”, was releasing a novella, I was definitely interested. When I learned that the novella was about Peter Cushing, one of my all-time favourite actors, I was so excited that I did a little dance before going online and pre-ordering a copy. When two horror heavy-weights come together in this way, it's a big deal. The fact that one of them has been dead for nineteen years makes this all the more exciting.

"Whitstable" is set in 1971, shortly after the death of Cushing's wife, Helen. The grieving widower is approached by a young boy who believes that the old man is Professor Van Helsing, the vampire hunter he has seen on the cinema screen. Young Carl asks his hero to help him by destroying his step-father who he believes is a vampire. He's not, of course. Carl's step-father is a very different kind of monster, one who is all-too real.

You might have guessed that this is not a traditional horror story. It would have been easy for Volk to construct a semi-serious romp with Cushing battling supernatural fiends in the vein of Joe R. Lansdale's Elvis in “Bubba Ho-tep”. Though it would have undoubtedly been fun, it would not have done justice to the thoroughly committed actor Cushing. Whatever role he was playing, regardless of the clunky dialogue or ridiculous situations he was placed in, Cushing always played it straight-laced and with utmost sincerity. This was his gift as an actor. He could bring gravity and poise to the silliest of films. Volk has captured this aspect of Cushing's character and exercises admirable restraint in telling his story. “Whitstable” is about Peter Cushing the man, not Peter Cushing the screen icon. The author sensitively recreates a painful period in the actor's life, using this to springboard into a fictional story that does not require the readers to suspend their disbelief.

Stephen Volk has clearly done his research. His character of Peter Cushing is never less than totally believable. Softly-spoken, charming and impeccably well-mannered, Volk's Cushing feels like the genuine article. Cushing was very much a product of a bygone-era and Volk's protagonist reacts as such when faced with the real-life cruelty and depravity of Carl's step-father. This is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the novella. At the time the story was set, the decline of Hammer studios had begun and the lurid thrills of such old-school horror movies were about to be swept away by the new-wave of horror with films such as “The Exorcist” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. By setting his rigidly old-school protagonist against a very modern kind of monster, Volk defies the expectations of the readers whilst highlighting the changing face of horror. Beasties with fangs and men in rubber suits just don't cut the mustard any more. One only has to glance at the tabloid newspapers to see what really scares people these days... the paedophile.

Volk's sinister step-father is a very realistic and chillingly convincing villain. His denial of his terrible crimes seems to echo the protestations of innocence that we hear from convicted paedophiles on the news. His domineering, physical presence contrasts wonderfully with the elderly, frail Cushing. There are a number of extremely well-written exchanges between the protagonist and antagonist. This verbal sparring is as exciting and dynamic as any scene from Cushing's younger days on the silver screen. Indeed, the whole novel is so well-paced that it never feels laboured, despite the elderly hero and the lack of traditional “action”.

 “Whitstable” is a fantastic little book. Intelligent and unsettling, touching and provocative, the novella manages to be a very effective horror story without resorting to any hoary old clich├ęs. Written with genuine respect for his subject, Volk's novella will captivate Cushing's fans. It is a million miles away from the bold shocks of “Ghostwatch” but no less disturbing. Highly recommended.

“Whitstable” can be bought from Spectral Press here: http://spectralpress.wordpress.com/

Stephen Volk's own website can be found here: www.stephenvolk.net

Read the author interview here.

Hereward L.M. Proops

No comments:

Post a Comment