by Stephen Volk
140 pages, Spectral Press
Review by S.P. Miskowski
Grief and depression are difficult to portray in fiction. The writer always runs the risk that his prose will bog down with the weight of melancholy. The trick is to convey what a character is feeling without allowing the story to oppress or repel the reader with sadness. It says a lot about Stephen Volk’s expertise, as well as the originality of his premise, that he manages to hold our interest and emotional investment over the 140 pages of his captivating novella, Whitstable (Spectral Press).
At the center of this eloquent story, set in 1971, is the actor Peter Cushing, who has settled into his seaside home in Whitstable to grieve for the loss of his beloved wife Helen. From the first scene, in which Cushing must force himself to get out of bed and attend to the most mundane necessities of eating and going for a walk, our sympathy is roused by the author’s commitment to his protagonist.
Cushing is a decent man who has lost his soul mate. He isn’t trying to find his next film project or his next personal adventure. He is looking, simply, for reasons to go on. In his misery he contemplates suicide and rejects the idea because his wife would have disapproved, and because any chance that he might meet her in an afterlife of innocent souls must not be squandered.
After forcing himself to venture outdoors for fresh air, Cushing is spotted by a young fan, who mistakes him for his most famous character. The boy approaches “Van Helsing” with a simple request–to help him get free of the “vampire” in his life.
From this encounter Stephen Volk spins a fictional yet wholly plausible account of a man whose concern for a child’s welfare might have the power to bring them both back to life and vitality. Questions of morality and mortality plague Cushing. Yet he doggedly pursues the truth, proving that Van Helsing is far more than a role; he is a cinema entity infused with Cushing’s basic decency and regard for his fellow humans.
This year marks the centenary of Peter Cushing’s birth. Whitstable is part character study, part tribute to the man who played the legendary Van Helsing of Hammer Films in their heyday. Volk has done his research, and is uniquely qualified to explore that strange region between the natural world and the unknown. His credits include the notorious, controversial, and hugely influential 1992 TV special Ghostwatch, the series Afterlife, screenplays for Ken Russell’s Gothic and the very successful 2011 supernatural thriller The Awakening, as well as a regular column in the horror and dark fantasy magazine Black Static.
The era in Whitstable is perfectly evoked through attention to physical detail. The mood is established and maintained thanks to Volk’s unerring sense of timing. Every time you think he’s about to slip over into maudlin territory he allows Cushing a self-mocking gesture or a wry observation that reminds us we are looking at grief through the eyes of a very intelligent character, wrought by a superbly talented artist in his prime.