For many readers, Stephen Volk’s Whitstable was one of the books of 2013, a gripping, affectionate and moving portrayal of Peter Cushing’s twilight years. Now Volk has written a spiritual sequel in Leytonstone, a novella about the early life of Alfred Hitchcock.
If you’re reading this review simply to find out if Leytonstone is as good as Whitstable, then be assured: the answer is very much yes. Leytonstone is another triumph.
The novella is built around an anecdote that Hitchcock used to tell, in which his father took his seven-year old son to the local police station and left him in the cells for the night as some kind of obscure lesson or punishment. In Volk’s version of events, Fred (as the young Hitchcock is known) is understandably bewildered and terrified by the experience of sleeping alone in a 1906 East End jail. Leytonstone tells of the ramifications, which are darker and more far-reaching than Fred’s father could ever have expected. Fred is a child who likes his world neat and ordered – he collects bus numbers, writing them down in his notebook – and the idea that punishment should be so arbitrary affects him deeply.
Fred’s world is seemingly built around the concept of punishment, particularly the punishment of religious sin. He goes to a Jesuit school, whilst the mysterious creatures known as ‘girls’ attend a school run by nuns. And the policeman who locked Fred up is a recurring figure in the narrative, coming to Fred’s school, stopping outside Fred’s house, and drinking in the saloon bar of the public house his parents frequent. A symbolic figure for the law in Fred’s mind, he doesn’t see what the reader sees: that the policeman is as much a wrongdoer as those he punishes.
There’s the ever present hint of sex as well, as inexplicable and scary to Fred as anything else. Into this volatile mix of feelings and guilt comes Olga Butterworth, a girl from the convent school, who Fred takes an interest in. A guilty interest. Fred starts to feel that if he did deserve to be punished, maybe others do as well…
The dynamic of Leytonstone is very different to that of Whitstable; in the latter Peter Cushing was looking back on his life and career, whereas Leytonstone is centred on a young ‘Fred’ Hitchcock, unaware of what is to come. But Volk avoids making his story a trite ‘how Hitchcock was made’ tale; whilst there are references to his future films and personality, Fred is already portrayed as an odd and even manipulative character. He is significantly less sympathetic than Cushing in Whitstable. Some readers may baulk as his schemes and unconscious desires become darker; Fred seems driven to reflect the punishment he received at the hands of the policeman back at Olga. It’s a testament to the author’s superb characterisation that Fred seems both manipulative and a victim.
Fred isn’t as clever as he thinks he is (not yet, anyway). He is good at endings, he thinks of himself at one point, but Fred never knows the true ending of his scheming, never sees the consequences for his parents. But Volk, who is very good at endings, weaves together a final third as dark as it surprising.
There’s much else to admire here: the skilfully drawn setting, the vibrantly drawn secondary characters, the surprisingly moving coda depicting Hitchcock’s later years. Volk’s precise and supple prose is the perfect vehicle for his tale and the novella is expertly paced. Whether you view Leytonstone as horror, historical fiction or character driven literature is irrelevant. It’s quite simply one of the first must reads of 2015.
Publisher: Spectral Press
Release Date: March 2015
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