Written by Stephen Volk
Published by Spectral Press
After framing a slice of gripping historical fiction around the subject of a retired Peter Cushing in the thoroughly excellent Whitstable (review), author Stephen Volk turns his sights to another legend of cinema: Alfred Hitchcock.
Leytonstone is the name of the novella, so called after the East London borough in which the young Hitchcock grew up. In his approach on this occasion, Volk flips things around in comparison to his previous Spectral Visions entry: Where in Whitstable, we followed the elderly Cushing as he tried to protected a monster-obsessed young boy, here we have a young school-age Alfred Hitchcock as he tries to find his place as a not-quite-everyday boy in society.
In the early stages of the book – and bringing to life a tale recounted a number of times in interviews with the director – Alfred is taken to the local police station and locked up in a cell overnight, at the request of his father. Volk extends this sequence, wringing it for every single drop of atmosphere, terror and introspection that he can garner. Alfred (referred to as ‘Fred’ throughout much of the novella), has no idea why he has been led here by the trusted hand of his dad, and the horror generated by a child’s mind when feeling abandoned in such a place is superbly realised.
Following Fred’s release, Volk takes us on a trip through Hitchcock’s tumultuous home life – with a strict, stern father and a loving mother regularly crippled by bouts of depression as she laments the star-studded life she lost grip of – and his school days at a devoutly Catholic institution run by Jesuit priests. Larking about with his friends, but never quite feeling a part of his peer group, Alfred is constantly trying to stay out of trouble and avoid the harsh punishments meted out by the educators – not to mention a still-lasting fear of the local constabulary.
Things take a brighter turn when he meets the acquaintance of Olga Butterworth, a young girl from the nearby convent school who catches his attention with a level of childish attraction that he finds difficult to ignore. Being the social oddity that he is, however, Alfred’s obsession with enacting tension and fear takes his new relationship on a sharp detour into very uncomfortable territory. And while he can’t quite understand why things in reality play out much differently than his fantasies, the repercussions for his family will be deeper than he’ll ever know.
Just like with Whitstable, Volk does a tremendous job of creating a sense of place in Leytonstone. The streets, the buildings, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and, yes, the soul-rending desolation of the jail cell are all brought vividly to life. His skills as a screenwriter stand at the fore with an almost screen-ready interpretation of events, including an emotionally climactic sequence which draws every single piece of its heavy dramatic weight through nothing but descriptive gestures, physical movement and sly grins. Reading Leytonstone already feels as though you’re viewing it through a lens, much like the young Alfred uses a matchbox to frame his.
There has been much speculation – seemingly just short of confirmation – that Alfred Hitchcock may have been affected by Asperger’s Syndrome, and Volk does extremely well in stepping into the shoes of a young boy living with the disorder. He’s different from everyone else in his age group, but can never really manage to figure out just why. Obsessed with learning and numbers, he has almost encyclopaedic knowledge of potato varieties and trains, and is often completely immersed in the fantastical creations of his own mind – good or bad.
Unchecked, this leads him down a dark path – but even as Alfred acts the way he does, Volk always manages to confidently lay out the thought patterns, perceptions and realisations that have made him act in the manner that he does, such that the interesting mix of villain and protagonist that Hitchcock is enamoured with is sympathetically embodied in himself. This is also intensely dramatic, as the dark sacrifice made by his parents in the latter stages of the story lead indirectly to his redemption, palpably avoiding a darker path which, had it been true and unfolded, could have deprived the world of one of history’s greatest cinematic figures. The words given to young Alfred by his ‘bollock-faced’ schoolmaster resonate in this moment: “Find some kindness in your life.”
Thankfully, it’s there to be found.
Leytonstone is intensely vivid, handled with sensitivity and poise, and every bit as impeccably crafted as Whitstable was. Just like its forebear, it’s a thoroughly compelling and elegant tale given that special something extra by the considered addition of its choice of protagonist. Volk likely has another award winner under his belt, here. And rightly so.