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In Association with Amazon.com
Whitstable
Stephen Volk
Spectral hardcover £21 / $45

review by Tom Johnstone

When I was a boy, I remember watching the late night horror double bills on BBC2 in the summer holidays. One year, the Radio Times launched the season with a splendidly lurid cover featuring the two opening movies, Night Of The Demon (1958), and The Ghoul (1975), accompanied by an interview with the latter's star, Peter Cushing, an actor almost synonymous with the English gothic cinema cycle ushered in by Hammer. In the interview, he commented on his use of his dead wife Helen's photograph as a prop for his character in the film, saying "we were together, in an oblique way..."

The sense of wistful sadness in this remark tinges many of Cushing's performances from this era, whether the dapper but lonely retired stock-broker Philip Grayson in The House That Dripped Blood (1971, filmed when Helen Cushing was dying of emphysema), or the persecuted, tramp-like dustman Arthur Grimsdyke in Tales From The Crypt (1972). In the novella, Whitstable by Stephen Volk (creator of TV supernatural dramas Ghostwatch, and Afterlife), his fictional version of Cushing decides to take the role of the widowed Grimsdyke in preference to another role in the movie and use Helen's photograph in it.

But Volk's story takes place in the raw and painful aftermath of the actor's bereavement, before he came to terms with his loss by throwing himself into the gruelling work schedule that led to such films. In the book, Cushing is barely up to leaving his house in the Kent seaside town of the title, let alone taking acting roles. When he does however, a little boy mistakes him for his fictional alter ego Professor Van Helsing, and asks him to defeat a real-life vampire. The terrible reality the boy views through the lens of Hammer fantasy is far more mundane than Dracula, but it forces the grief-stricken actor to take on some of his cinematic roles (such as monster hunter, detective, or general righter of wrongs) for real, as well as giving him a new purpose in life.

The premise and the plot of the novella are fairly simple, and Volk handles its difficult subject matter with sensitivity. What makes the story so gripping and moving is the way the writer, and thereby the reader, inhabits Peter Cushing's psyche, making the actor's inner life surprisingly accessible, in contrast with his often icily remote and diffident screen persona. On the other hand, Volk paints his portrait of Cushing with a fan's loving attention to detail, such as his attachment to 'olde worlde' tea rooms, his exaggerated gentlemanly civility, and even his habit of wearing a white glove for smoking to avoid nicotine stains! You can hear the oft-repeated phrase, "thank you so much," coming from the movie Cushing's lips, but Volk shows you the turmoil behind the cut-glass veneer.

There's also the humour of the man. There's something of the true-life anecdote about someone mistaking him for Laurence Olivier, in the fictional scene when a character remembers him from the Morecambe And Wise Show (not, as he'd assumed, Sherlock Holmes), puncturing his vanity. Another amusing scene is the greengrocer offering Cushing garlic, a running joke between them to which the actor replies, "very drôle" (presumably on a regular basis).

The 'supporting' characters, however, seem to belong to another world entirely to the rarefied (though traumatised) one that Cushing inhabits. One aspect of their characterisation that I had some small difficulty accepting was the boldness of the boy in approaching his hero in the way that he does. Given what's going on his life, wouldn't he be more withdrawn? However, children react to trauma in different ways. It's also a shame that he doesn't appear again until the end of the book, especially given that the tentative friendship seen here between him and the horror star is genuinely touching. But the contrast between Cushing's effeteness and the coarseness of the child's parents' world is jarring, and meant to be. In particular, the boy's sinister stepfather, his hands red and raw from his job processing shellfish, provides a frightening adversary for the crusading actor, with his threats and insinuations.

Though it's not a supernatural horror story, it is a tale of the banality of evil, of the real horror that can sometimes take place behind suburban closed doors, and of the drab inevitability with which victims can turn into monsters. That Volk tells this tale with restraint is somehow apt, given its hero's persona, as is the way one of the novella's most powerful and unsettling scenes takes place in one of Cushing's beloved tea rooms. Volk critically but sympathetically works Cushing's own Christian-tinged rationale for the appeal of his own brand of horror movie, which he preferred to think of as a fairy tale clash of good and evil, into the narrative, with its final confrontation in a cinema where The Vampire Lovers is playing, illustrating and contrasting the real drama with the celluloid one. Due for publication on Cushing's centenary date of 26th May 2013, Whitstable is a fitting tribute to a man who, as Mark Morris' afterword points out, made it safe to be scared.

Whitstable by Stephen Volk



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