Written by Stephen Volk
Published by Spectral Press
Released just in time to mark the centenary of British screen legend Peter Cushing, Stephen Volk’s intimate and dramatic novella Whitstable sees the recently bereaved Hammer icon struggling to manage his grief after the loss of his beloved wife, Helen. Dredging up the courage to step out for a walk on the beach of the titular seaside town where he lives, Cushing is approached by an enthusiastic young boy by the name of Carl. Addressing the actor as his on-screen vampire hunter persona, Van Helsing, Carl’s discussion takes an ominous turn when he asks Cushing to eliminate his soon to be stepfather, whom he insinuates hurts him in the night.
Taken aback by the young boy’s strange allegations, and wrestling with an internal quandary of responsibility versus the already overwhelming burden of grief, Cushing takes it upon himself to locate the boy’s home and speak with his mother. His questions are unsurprisingly not taken particularly well, prompting an evening doorstep visit by the accused man — blue-collar dock worker Les Gledhill. What initially appears to be a friendly clearing of the air quickly metamorphoses into a much more uncomfortable and threatening encounter that sees the beginning of a battle of wits between the conscientious old Cushing and the abusive, monstrous Gledhill.
Whitstable stands proud as a literary triumph for a number of reasons, most notably Volk’s painstaking effort in his research and understanding of Cushing’s life and behaviour, coupled with his ability to generate palpable gravitas and a profound sense of connection to the people and places around which the story unfolds. Volk’s opening chapter alone is a deeply heart-rending distillation of grief, expertly placing us in the shoes (or slippers) of man who feels that the very soul has been ripped from his world. From the first sentence, the emotional connection to Cushing is so authentic — so human — that the weight of his despair will put a knot in your stomach and pressure on your chest.
As a low-key drama, Whitstable never veers into the realm of the supernatural — the monster here is most assuredly a human one — and this realistic sense of restraint extends also to the climactic battle of words between Cushing and Gledhill, which takes place over a stunningly realised sequence as the pair sit in a darkened auditorium during a screening of The Vampire Lovers that impresses with its own remarkably cinematic style. Volk’s research and determination to paint a realistic world here lends a huge amount of minute detail to almost every sequence, and while the ultimate fate of one Les Gledhill feels slightly too dismissive and casually presented, the passion behind Whitstable wins out at every turn.
Volk’s novella is a beautiful piece of work — heartfelt, respectful, elegant and brave, it’s also a perfectly fitting tribute to one of horror’s greatest artists and essential reading for anyone harbouring an admiration for the inimitable gentleman that was Peter Cushing.
5 out of 5