Fans of classic horror cinema, particularly from the likes of Hammer and Amicus, may well know that 26 May marks the centenary of the legendary Peter Cushing. To coincide with the occasion, veteran horror writer Stephen Volk – perhaps best known for creating the infamous Ghostwatch back in 1992 – has penned the novella Whitstable. Released courtesy of Spectral Press, Whitstable intelligently intersperses the fictional narrative with loving winks, nods and autobiographical detail about Peter Cushing. And loving this is, for it is both a love letter to the man who alongside the likes of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt inspired a generation of horror fans and a standalone story which will entertain and delight horror fans experiencing Cushing for the first time through Whitstable.
Whitstable takes place in 1971 just after the death of Cushing’s wife of almost thirty years, Helen. Longing to be reunited with his beloved, Cushing is wrought with grief and suffering from almost unbearable loneliness. The only thing which drives him on is a poem which Helen left telling him to not end his life until he has lived it to the full. And it’s this determination that moves both Cushing and the narrative forward. The story opens with Cushing grieving inside his house. Volk perfectly depicts the sorrow that Cushing must have been feeling with short, simple and very effective sentences. Take, for example, the opening lines:
He couldn’t face going outside. He couldn’t face placing his bare feet into his cold, hard slippers.
After establishing the tone of Whitstable we are treated to the meat of the story in the next section when Cushing is approached by a young boy, Carl. The youngster doesn’t see Cushing as Peter Cushing but rather as Doctor Van Helsing, the infamous vampire-hunter he was cast as in Dracula. The encounter starts off innocently enough when Carl asks Cushing if he’ll slay a real-life vampire. The good natured and kind character that Cushing is, he humours the boy at first, but as their exchange develops it takes a sinister turn. Carl wants Cushing to stop Carl’s stepfather from abusing him. At first it appears that there must be a breakdown in communication or that what Carl seems to be implying isn’t what he actually wants to say. Yet when it’s revealed beyond reasonable doubt that he is saying his stepfather abuses him, Cushing finds himself in an uncomfortable and terrible moral dichotomy at first reacting with defiance:
He felt pathetic and cruel and lost and selfish and small—but he wasn’t responsible for this child… The vast pain of his own grief was enough weight to bear without the weight of another’s.
But despite his reservations Cushing sets out to unravel the root of Carl’s complaints starting with an uncomfortable encounter with the boy’s Mother.
The biggest strength of Whitstable is its sense of pacing. Each scene has a cinematic feel – so much so that a television adaptation is surely inevitable, and no doubt something that Volk (who also penned Afterlife and The Awakening) has considered – and never outstays its welcome. Volk’s craftsmanship as a writer and his screenwriting background shines through, each scene meets its objectives at a delightful pace and we move onto the next without ever feeling as if the passage outstayed its welcome or that we weren’t given enough information. This is compulsive, fast-paced writing at its best and it serves as both an enthralling read and a tutorial in how to write a story. The visual style of writing means that there are many images that will stay with the reader long after reading Whitstable. Perhaps most powerful of all is the scene in which Cushing is confronted late at night by the stepfather who may or may not have abused his stepson. He visits Cushing because:
There’s been a really, really big misunderstanding.
What follows is a scene filled with palpable tension and unease. An atmosphere that is replicated throughout Whitstable.
For fans of Peter Cushing there’s enough autobiographical detail and references to classic films to keep you smiling, reminiscing and nodding along in recognition. Volk has bravely decided to juxtapose the main story with the famous Hammer movie, The Vampire Lovers. Volk doesn’t wax lyrical on The Vampire Lovers for so long that those not versed in Cushing will come away cold, but does manage to recreate enough of an atmosphere of the film that fans really will revel in its authenticity.
The only minor complaint is that the story’s climax feels a little rushed and underwhelming when compared with the magnificence which precedes it. It’s by no means a bad ending, but one can’t help but feel that if it had been handled differently it would have felt ultimately more satisfying. Unfortunately the scope of this spoiler-free review won’t allow for a more in-depth discussion of the climax; you should just read the book and see if you agree. And make no mistake, you should read Whitstable.
Whitstable is a wonderful tribute to one of the great icons of horror and is up there with both Volk’s best work and Spectral Press’s best releases. With Cushing’s centenary just days away, you could do far worse than rush out and buy one of these collectables right away.
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