To the very best of my knowledge, I have never read a short story, novella or novel by Stephen Volk. I do, however, know of him from his columns in bimonthly horror magazine Black Static, as well as his work as screenwriter for the BBC’s seminal Ghostwatch, paranormal TV series Afterlife, and more recently the horror film The Awakening.
So Whitstable is my first encounter with Volk’s prosaic fiction, a hugely ambitious novella from Spectral Press, a small independent publisher which has lately been making big waves with its dedication to publishing high-quality short fiction.
Released to mark the 100th would-have-been birthday of that titanic figure of cinematic horror Peter Cushing, the novella centres around Cushing as the main character, and is a combination of chillingly grounded horror and a sincere homage to the man himself.
It takes place in 1971, in the aftermath of the death of Cushing’s wife Helen. After a chance encounter with a young boy on Whitstable beach, Cushing comes to suspect he is being abused and grapples with the morality of what to do as he copes with his own grief.
This is a powerfully emotionally piece, and Volk introduces us immediately to a despondent and world-wearied man, in the throes of his bereavement. The bleak descriptive language coupled with pointed use (at times verging on overuse) of rhetorical questions places the reader perfectly into Cushing’s mindset, leaving him raw and vulnerable as the story begins to unfold. Purely as a construction on the portrayal of the misery of loss Whitstable would be notable in quality — it would be hard, if not impossible, to remain unmoved by it.
But whilst Cushing as a character and a person is the undeniable focus of the novella, it is — mercifully — more than simply 140 pages of an old man wallowing. The introduction of a child, who sees no difference between Cushing and his signature Van Helsing character, provides the catalyst for the story, but also an interesting insight into the way he is viewed. To Carl, the child, he is the protector, the saviour, the one who fights the dark things in the world and triumphs with a blaze of sunshine.
And so Volk’s Cushing tries to live up to. I found I had to keep reminding myself that this was a character, not the actual Peter Cushing. Volk has created an emotionally authentic and believable version of a famous film star, and propped it up with the scaffolding of very intimate details about his life. The amount of research which went into this must have been breathtaking — indeed, I imagine it took a lifetime of fandom.
But where I felt this came into its own was in how effortlessly it brought together the subject matter of Cushing’s Hammer films with the darkness which walks everyday streets and lurks in ordinary English houses. The parallels drawn between the vampiric and supernatural which Carl perceives and the darker truths which Cushing — and the reader — see are more deeply chilling than a lot more violent, gory or explicit horror novels.
And just to take a moment for appreciation here; Spectral Press have done a fantastic job. Not only have they published an excellent piece of work, but they have done so in a beautiful physical edition, as well as a bargain price Kindle e-book at £2.04. I don’t usually do it, but click on this link, and go buy it. Do it now. I’ll wait. If Spectral Press can repeat this excellent balance of quality and price (which there is every indication that they will) then it can only mean good things for short fiction.
In summary, I found Whitstable an excellent and powerfully moving read. It was a brave decision for Stephen Volk to try and write about such a well-known and -loved individual such as Cushing, and in the hands of a lesser writer he could have ended up either being Van Helsing, or simply coming across as a caricature. But Volk was more than equal to the task, and the result is a lovingly crafted, yet fundamentally honest and believable, profile of the man wrapped in a powerfully and sinisterly creeping story.