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A review of Whitstable, if you please...
on 3 February 2015
Third in the series of novellas from Spectral Press sees something a little different from previous releases, yet is wholly in keeping with the atmosphere of the publisher.
It's 1971 and the famed actor, Peter Cushing, is still reeling from the recent death of his beloved wife Helen. He is all but become a recluse, receiving neither visitors nor offers of work and spends his days either in solitary misery in his house or wandering aimlessly around the town of Whitstable, where he and his wife had relocated in the vain hope that the sea air might help with her ailing health. It is on one of these sojourns that Cushing is approached by a young boy who tells him matter of factly that his mother's partner and future step-father is a vampire. What follows is Cushing's increasing involvement in the life of the boy, Carl, and his tormentor, who may be human but an all too real 'monster'... It is also a ghost story, albeit one in which the ghost lives on in memory.
The story unfolds entirely from Cushing's third person point of view. We are with him every step of the way as he first wrestles and, more often than not, succumbs to his grief and then is given almost a new lease of purpose in the problem of what to do about young Carl's situation. Thus, the tone of the story is to be expected – this is no happy romp through rainbows and fields of kittens (actually, that would be insane and terrifying – a field where kittens grow...). It is melancholic, emotional and heart-breaking. Yet it doesn't wallow in grief. Rather, Cushing is shown as being overwhelmed by his loss, to the point that life is grey and empty without Helen. If this sounds heavy-hearted, it certainly could be, yet there's a fragile, elegant touch on display that mitigates the potential danger of melodrama. Partly this is to do with how the emotions are conveyed, but much of it is down to the sheer sense of the late actor's presence. Volk manages to imbue the character with a strong feeling of Cushing's personality, even to someone like me who is only a passing fan.
This is probably the book's main strength, this accurate portrayal of the man most of us only knew through his many, many films and TV roles. And there were many. Some get name-checked throughout the book, as Cushing moves from one scene to another. To me, this actually felt quite a natural thing, unlike most stories where I've encountered it and many times, it serves to highlight or parallel what is taking place in the story. This is used most effectively in a scene set in a cinema (naturally), where Cushing has a confrontation which is for the most part, conducted by dialogue which is counterpoint to the film on screen – The Vampire Lovers, in which Cushing himself has a role. In fact, for me, the scenes of dialogue were the ones that most came alive. The initial meeting between the actor and Carl. Cushing's futile attempts to tell Carl's mother what has happening. The first confrontation between Cushing and the potential step-father. These scenes are filled with spark and life, tense emotion and a sense of the real. Not surprising considering Volk's pedigree as a screenwriter. It also highlights, though, that there is actually very little real interaction by Cushing. Not just because of this period of his life, but also because the story is presented as something that could have happened and, as such, it limits where it can take Cushing.
This was, for me, what let down the story overall somewhat, and I stress that this is my personal viewpoint, not a comment on the quality of what's written. The constraints of the tale mean that Cushing has very little he can actually physically do with regards to the situation he finds himself in. He is reduced to simply trying to talk to each of the people involved and while this is presented well, it feels to me that there should have been more. As well written as the interactions with the fictional characters are, they seem slight and play second fiddle to the emotional journey that Cushing goes through. In fact, I might have been more satisfied if there hadn't been this side to the story and the book was wholly concerned with Cushing pushing through his grief and coming to some sort of reconciliation with it. This, coupled with a few clumsy lines and awkward phrases in places, are what render the story just short of being great in my opinion. It's good and I very much liked many of the details and scenes, I just felt there could have, should have, been something...more.
I bought the limited edition hardback and as with all Spectral Press releases, it's a beautifully created piece of publishing. There's a thoughtful afterword from Mark Morris and a beautiful cover by Ben Baldwin.
Note: original review appeared on The Ginger Nuts Of Horror website.