Here’s a little something I prepared earlier…
From Black Static #34:-
A bright star in the firmament of Hammer Films, perhaps best known for his role as Dracula nemesis Van Helsing, the actor Peter Cushing (1913 – 94) has become an iconic figure, loved and admired by generations of horror aficionados. This year on May the 26th we celebrate the centenary of his birth, and Black Static columnist and Ghostwatch creator Stephen Volk has elected to mark the occasion with a novella dedicated to Cushing’s memory, and in which the actor plays a central role.
The story takes places in 1971 just after the death of Cushing’s beloved wife Helen, an event that left him so distraught the actor contemplated suicide, retiring to his seaside home in WHITSTABLE (Spectral Press pb, 112pp, £15) and shunning all company. A chance encounter with young Carl Drinkwater is the jumping off point for the plot, the boy conflating the actor and his screen role as vampire hunter. Carl believes that his mother’s new boyfriend is a vampire and wants Cushing to stake him through the heart and cut off his head. Reading between the lines, both we and Cushing suspect something more prosaic than vampirism but no less monstrous is taking place inside the walls of the Drinkwater residence. Cushing knows that he should walk away from this situation, but he is unable to let the matter go, even though it puts him on a collision course with the brutal Les Gledhill and opens up the possibility that his own motives – an elderly man taking an interest in a young boy – will be called into question. A deadly game of cat and mouse, bluff and counter bluff begins.
This is a story that works on several levels. On one it’s the tale of a man coming to terms with the loss of a loved one and the grief that engenders, with Volk bringing a rare sensitivity to his portrayal of the bereft Cushing, one that deftly avoids the maudlin and unduly sentimental, while at the same time giving us a genuine and convincing picture of a man coping with an incalculable loss, one that threatens his sanity and world view. On another level it is the story of an actor who is gifted the chance to play his most famous role for real and become the hero he pretends to be, like Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent in the film Fright Night, a work I couldn’t help finding similarities to as I read Whitstable. Where Volk’s story differs is in the nature of the monster at its heart, not some supernatural menace to be defeated with cross and garlic clove, but an all too human evil, one that at the end presents us with reasons to feel sadness and some sympathy for Les Gledhill, even as we despise what he does. For Cushing the challenge is to rise to the best in his nature, to put the innocent Carl ahead of any concerns for his own safety or hard won reputation, and in doing this he finds strength from knowledge of how Helen would have wished him to act. He is empowered to become a better man.
The third strand is perhaps the most important, with Volk’s subtext identifying the link between reality and the stories we tell to better understand it, the tales in which we preserve and celebrate the best things in our nature and try to contain and declaw the worst that the world has to offer. For Carl’s mother and Les Gledhill, the horror films that the boy so loves are a form of sickness and corruption, filling his head with unhealthy fantasies and unwholesome distractions, but to Cushing they are a means of demonstrating that the world is not without compassion and reason; parables grounded in morality and ultimately showing that evil can be defeated and good triumph. The cleverly understated final confrontation between the two men takes place in a cinema where The Vampire Lovers is showing and, at one level, is nothing more than a conversation played out as the film spins, with their dialogue and the action on the screen feeding into each other, so that Cushing is buttressed by the example of his fictional counterpart, the balance of power shifting between him and Gledhill even as the tide turns against Carmilla Karnstein. One can even, at a stretch, make a case for Cushing’s conviction that he will be reunited with Helen in some life to come, a belief grounded in religious faith, being simply another form of empowering fiction, a story that enables him to rise above despair and accept the loss he has suffered, just as tales of monsters give young Carl hope of a kind and offer an escape from the hell to which he appears condemned. The two characters, the man and the boy, are each suffering in their own way, and stories are the clew they follow to escape from that labyrinth of misery, their eyes adjusting to the darkness of horror fiction better to see the light and hope that remain in the world. At the heart of this novella is a subtle and beautifully realised portrayal of the power of fiction in our lives, for better or worse, and in Cushing himself we see a man who embodies that principle in all its pleasurable ambiguity. With the possible exception of his wonderful story ‘After the Ape’, Whitstable is Stephen Volk’s best work to date, and I loved it.
The book has an afterword by Mark Morris, and for those who prefer something more upmarket/collectable than your common or garden paperback, there are various hardback and limited edition options on the Spectral Press website, among them a package that includes 2 CDs of Cushing talking about his experiences with Hammer.