Whitstable may read like Stephen Volk’s billet-doux to Peter Cushing at first, but it’s not long before we discover this is a profound and layered tale of human frailty. A story of a man looking for a meaning to life and a reason to live it.
The novella’s setting is an astute choice by Volk. It’s a time of grief and introspection for Peter Cushing, recently widowed, doubtful of his talents; a perfect time to introduce a real life horror. Though the monster here is not the sort we associate with the late actor’s films. Volk replaces the Kensington Gore with the poisonous bile of real monsters that prey upon the weak and vulnerable.
The author transports the reader onto the windy beaches of the small town in Kent in 1971 where we meet the grieving Cushing. When a child approaches the actor and confuses him with his much loved Hammer character, the vampire hunter Van Helsing, the decision of using a real person as a protagonist makes perfect sense. Of course Whitstable isn’t biographical so the Cushing we meet is part real and part Volk’s creation to fit the story. The author has captured a Peter Cushing fans will recognise while adding real life attributes and a good dash of fictionalisation to suit the tale.
Spectral Press produced a daring book that could have failed by taking the chance of using a beloved actor as a protagonist. But in the hands of such an accomplished writer as Stephen Volk and deft editing by Simon Marshall-Jones, Whitstable is a resounding success. I’m surprised this technique isn’t utilised more often.
The boy asks for Van Helsing to slay a vampire his mother invited into their home. The creature now lurks between rooms in the darkness of night and preys upon the child. While the boy has no puncture holes on his neck, Cushing realises the child’s innocence has drained from his soul.
This understanding and the empathy it evokes in Cushing is the catalyst for the dark thriller that follows. Volk places enough doubt in the reader’s mind to empathise with Cushing while worrying he may be making a huge and damaging mistake. This tension suffuses each page with a nervous energy in the first half of the book.
There are many themes running through the book such as love, grief, the place for horror in society and doubt. Cushing is suffering a crisis of faith in what holds true. These doubts extend to the boy, the mother and even the accused monster. Most of all he doubts his ability to help the child, something which threatens to break him.
This spiraling of uncertainty locked together with threats and lies had me turning the pages with real enthusiasm and anticipation. This jousting between Cushing and the boy’s soon to be stepdad Les Gledhill is the main thread of the second half of the story. Cushing’s struggle to defeat the blue collar vampire with all its twists is a sizzling battle.
An exchange between Gledhill and Cushing in an empty matinee showing of The Vampire Lovers is one of the great set pieces of Whitstable. The film on the screen mirrors the exchanges between the two men. These inter-cuts between the pair heightens the tensions and takes us inside the minds of both men at this crucial point of the story. This technique serves to transform Cushing from frail widower to real life Van Helsing. This metamorphosis in the reader’s mind is a great example of Volk’s craftsmanship.
From that point on, including another revealing set piece in a tearoom in Canterbury, the novella drives to a thrilling and surprising climax.
Whitstable is a poetic homage to Cushing and the golden age of horror cinema. Volk’s knowledge and affection for the genre seep through each paragraph. As with his acclaimed series ‘Afterlife’, Volk’s Whitstable treats the genre with care, intelligence and love. It’s a book that peeks beneath the armour of a screen hero and asks if the actor with normal human flaws could stand as strong in the face of real horrors. It examines hope to be rescued from those black places life often drives us, or rescue others caught inside the same dark void. Rescue from despair, doubt, violence and grief. You’ll have to read the book to discover if Cushing achieves all of those things.