by Stephen Volk
140 pages, Spectral Press
Review by Pat Black
Booksquawk has taken a couple of cracks at this book already, and I can see why. Here’s my take.
Whitstable has a tough job on its hands. It takes for its subject a revered figure for lovers of the fantastic, Peter Cushing, and weaves a fictional narrative around him. Necessarily for the man who played classic characters such as Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing in the classic Hammer movies, that narrative is a horror story. But its terrors do not concern Gothic castles, shovelled grave dirt, flapping bats, stinging holy water or punctured necks. Whitstable’s horrors are depressingly mundane, familiar from any number of awful headlines on a daily basis. Only Cushing, cast in Stephen Volk’s story as a real-life hero, can stop it.
Stephen Volk is best known for creating Ghostwatch, a Halloween TV special monstermentary from the early 1990s. It used used real-life British media personalities like Michael Parkinson to investigate a mock haunting, supposedly live on air. It was played for real, and through a combination of innovative subliminal effects and good old-fashioned scares, the show led many viewers to believe that their television set had been taken over by a malevolent spirit. Although the idea might seem quaint in the current multimedia universe, this show terrified people at the time and caused the screaming hab-dabs in a few tabloids. I’ve often read that the national grid surges after big football matches or contest finales as the entire country clicks the kettle on; I wonder if the same was true for bog roll sales after Ghostwatch.
Reality and fantasy combine in a similar way in Whitstable, named after the town on the south-east coast of England where Cushing lived out his final years – although anyone expecting a schlocky parody on a par with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter should look elsewhere.
We meet the actor in 1971 in the aftermath of the death of his wife, Helen. Footage of Cushing from these days – it’s particularly apparent on The Morecambe and Wise Show, where he appears cadaverous alongside cheeky chappies Eric n’ Ernie – is distressing in the context of what he was going through. It’s well known that Cushing fell into a blue abyss after Helen passed, never quite recovering from that awful blow. Whitstable’s power is in addressing the physical and mental rigor mortis that depression stemming from deep grief can cause. Those days when you’d rather not get up out of bed at all; when you skip breakfast, and every other meal to follow, feeling that something has stuffed your mouth and guts with cotton wool. In the book, Cushing has even sent his beloved helper, Joyce, away, and is completely uninterested in life outside his four walls, never mind reviving his movie career.
Diction is the word. Cushing’s was perfect on-screen, the classic received pronunciation delivery, something like what you might expect when an impressionist from beyond Albion’s shores is asked to do a “British accent”. You can almost hear Cushing’s clipped consonants and flattened vowels in his speech and in his thoughts. It’s an advantage for both reader and writer to be able to draw upon a rich internal archive when it comes to a character, but Volk sketches his subject extremely well.
So, Whitstable succeeds as a moving portrait of a real person in grief. But there’s a plot. It involves a young fan, barely out of short trousers, approaching Cushing for help. He sees the actor in the guise of one of his most famous characters, Van Helsing; who better to approach when you want rid of a vampire plaguing your life?
This cracking concept could have gone in a different direction, by treating the boy’s story as genuine and placing Cushing in the role of real-life vampire killer. I was about to type, “this would have been dreadful”, but actually… imagine it. Cushing sees that there is a real-life vampire on the loose; he speaks to the police but they laugh him out the station… “Gone mad, he has, since his wife died… All those movies have warped his brain.” Hmm.
But Volk takes a more realistic route. After making a social call on the boy’s mother, Cushing understands that he is not dealing with the stuff of fiction, but genuine evil, as it turns out the stepfather is a child abuser.
This is controversial territory. Cushing may be 20 years in his grave, but it was a brave step to introduce such subject matter into a story detailing a real-life person. Cushing, of course, finds his courage and also a reason to live in an intriguing battle of wits with the monster. Their exchanges were compelling, and frightening in their own way. First of all, Cushing’s quarry is in complete denial, all jokey bonhomie. “That lad… the ideas he gets!” Then, as in my alternate storyline, the police dismiss Cushing’s early inquiries. Then it gets more sinister, as the abuser decides to turn tables on Cushing, accusing him of inappropriate behaviour. This part was most distressing to me, but Cushing remains resolute, using reason, decency and a sense of justice to combat the calumnies levelled against him.
There is a quite delicious section where Cushing hits back with sinister insinuations of his own, drawing upon his experience not as the heroes of the Hammer movies, but as its villains. His electric blue glare unnerves his opponent, penetrating the mists of deceit and obfuscation. It’s a brilliant touch, one among many.
Another wonderful part was in the book’s central clash, where Cushing goes into a decrepit cinema to watch his latest Hammer appearance, battling Ingrid Pitt’s lusty bloodsucker in The Vampire Lovers, only to be confronted by his nemesis in the seat alongside him. This part contained a horrifying insight into the minds of such creatures of the night, addressing not only their knowledge that what they are doing is wrong, but also the horror of having a diabolical compulsion they cannot control. Cushing’s character is aware that he could be killed here, but he remains brave and outlines his simple beliefs; that just as goodness exists, so does evil, and just as goodness must be protected, evil must be fought.
That’s a tad simplistic and reductive, but the ending to this book left me as uplifted as the denouement to any thriller I’ve read of late. And, fiction though it is, it left me with a new appreciation for an ever-present face from the small screen of my youth.