on 23 July 2013
My mother was a massive Hammer Horror fan and I hold her personally responsible for my love of the Horror genre. growing up watching her heroes' Cushing,Price and Lee films at too young an age from behind the sofa I soon became an avid fan. I would listen to her tales about the lives of her favoured actors,her major crush on Christopher Lee,how much of a gentleman Peter Cushing was and the love story between him and Helen. I remember before he died writing a letter and sending it to the place my mum told me in Kent and receiving an autographed photograph of a self portrait and a brief note of thanks from Mr C himself! it was my pride and joy but over the years I misplaced it and will always regret that.
I remember my mum being sad when he died but saying that he would be happy now as he'd be with his wife.
This story is remarkably beautiful on so many levels. Peter Cushing is exactly how I imagined,exactly how he was rumoured to be and more importantly,how my mum told me he was.
Sadly my mum passed away five years after her hero and with her took the only other person I've known to love the horror genre like I do. I miss swapping books with her and us introducing one another to authors previously unknown to each other. She would've cherished this story even more than I do.
on 10 June 2013
Peter Cushing was in the business of re-animation. Whether it was stitching together corpses to make Christopher Lee and Dave Prowse, or hunting down the Lord of the Vampires freshly awoken, Cushing in his professional life could not move for the undead. The great tragedy of his private life was that his beloved Helen remained beyond his reach. His life after her death was a hollow ache punctured by despair. It is one of 'Whitstable's great achievements that it brings Cushing so vividly back to life- it becomes as act of re-animation too. This time however, the creature that returns is the real thing- not a dead-eyed shambling soulless husk, but the Hero of successive generations- recalled to action and written back into being for one last mesmerising assault upon our affections.
In his longing for Helen, Cushing becomes a true gothic hero, and 'Whitstable', Stephen Volk's new novella from Spectral Press, becomes not only an essential purchase for his admirers- of which there are legion- but a potential modern classic.
There are no ghosts or vampires here, no graveyards disturbed. Volk has summoned Cushing to ponder some very real horrors of our modern world. Young Carl, a fan of Cushing's films, who lives in the actor's home town approaches him for help in killing "a vampire"; his mother's boyfriend, who may just be doing unspeakable things in the night. The lad sees Cushing in terms of his screen persona, and in his confused and traumatised state believes the actor able to slay his nemesis with a stake through the heart. From this, Volk goes on to write a taut thriller, in which the actor investigates a horror all the more real than those he faced on screen.
This is also a story about the relationship between parents and children, possibly one about how parents can let us down- Carl lives with a vulnerable mother always a spit away from turning her back on him, who looks the other way when he is most in need. Carl's real dad is long gone, and his surrogate is a monster. Cushing and Helen never had children, but it's fair to say that we- or at least those of us who fell in love with his screen presence- happily took on that role. He was known as the "gentle man of horror", certainly his was the first face of horror to whom I attached. I never met the man, but I loved him dearly. Were I in Carl's position in early seventies Whitstable, and found Peter Cushing sitting on the beach, I don't think I would have behaved any differently.
Crucially, in my imagination, Cushing would have behaved exactly as he does here. And this is the thing- because in this act of re-animation, Stephen Volk has done more than give us an idealised version of a human hero. He has summoned the essence of the man entirely: a man who never once let us down.
If the book stumbles, it does it once and once only. Cushing is at one point stymied by the fear of accusations of child-abuse himself. This seems informed by current events, and I would question whether at the dawn of the seventies, such worries would present themselves. Celebrities coming under scrutiny for sexual crimes against children is a relatively new phenomenon- many of them got away with it their entire lives in plain sight, and I wonder if the simple act of talking to a child on the beach would have been enough in 1970 to start tongues wagging. I can forgive 'Whitstable' this conceit though, as the novella succeeds so dramatically in all other ways.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, Stephen Volk's Peter Cushing is the most gothic of heroes. He stalks bleak and windswept beaches, collapses in grief when suddenly overpowered by the crushing reality of Helen's death and loves purely and passionately the things around him. Impeccably mannered, a humorous figure on his bicycle, the only "staking" his does is of the investigative kind- watching the boy's house for an opportunity to speak to his mother. It is impossible to speak of this story without at some point screaming for it to be filmed. It has a clarity of vision that recalls the kind of movies we all loved back then, and which they don't make anymore. There are set-pieces that jump off the page, and any director would salivate at the chance to put Cushing's doorstep encounter with Carl's aggressor, or his clash with the boy's mother, on the screen- the former being one of the most terrifying bits of prose I've read in many years. Do we have an actor of Cushing's caliber, who could "do" him, though? And without becoming a "stand in dad" and therefore adding a whole other layer of meaning to it?
'Whitstable' is a work of joyous love. Yes, it concerns itself with repellent things we'd rather not think about- but so, in their own way, did the movies that Peter Cushing spent his life making. He understood why we tell stories like this, and why we couch them in the terms we do. I did not have the pleasure of meeting him, but I saw his house and he paid for a meal I ate in his restaurant by way of apology for being too ill to see me. Soon after, he was gone. This story is an act of celebratory resurrection and I so desperately want to see more. It so much acts as the pilot, a lead-in to a 'Peter Cushing Investigates' series. But maybe that's just my lingering grief at his death, and my sadness that I never had the chance to shake his hand and thank him. Maybe, just this once, we should now give the dead their peace.
on 6 June 2013
In 1971, the British actor Peter Cushing, famed for his starring roles in many classic British horror movies for Hammer and Amicus, went into a period of deep depression and grief following the death of his beloved wife, Helen. She had been his comfort, his inspiration and his friend for thirty years, and life without her seemed intolerable. He considered suicide, but Helen had urged him, when her health began to fail, to put aside such thoughts and live life to the full; eventually, he returned to work, making many more film and television appearances (including, of course, 'Star Wars') until his eventual death (and, he fervently believed, subsequent reunion with Helen) in 1994.
It is this period of Cushing's life that Stephen Volk visits in this beautifully written novella. Cushing retreats into seclusion in the home he shared with his wife for so many years in the Kent seaside town of the title, spurning all attempts by friends to draw him out. Only when he meets a lonely, frightened boy on the beach - a boy who knows him only in his role of Van Helsing (vampire hunter and nemesis of Count Dracula) - does he find a focus outside his own grief. The tale the boy tells is of an evil very much rooted in the real world, but which only one who has faced down monsters and terrors of the night can vanquish. Cushing puts his reputation and his life on the line to show the boy that good and light can, and must, triumph over evil and darkness.
Volk is an acclaimed screen writer, (Ken Russell's 'Gothic', and the recent British ghost story 'The Awakening') as well as creating the tv series 'Afterlife' and the mould-breaking (and nerve-jangling) 1992 BBC presentation 'Ghostwatch', which pretty much kicked off the now rather over-used 'found-footage' genre of horror film-making ('The Blair Witch Project', 'Paranormal Activity', etc.). So it can safely be said that he knows something about the presentation of evil, in all its forms, on screen and on page.
But with 'Whitstable', he does something quite different, and altogether trickier. Volk provides us with a vision of human goodness (in the form of Peter Cushing) that manages to avoid being either sickly or implausible. Cushing (despite the attestations of his great friend Christopher Lee, who considered him 'a candidate for sainthood') was a normal human being, with all the attendant foibles and weaknesses of that condition. Some of the most moving scenes here are Cushing's remembrances of how Helen stood beside him through all his moments of weakness and doubt, giving him the strength to fight the monstrousness of a world without her, a world that terrorises innocent children and corrupts the adults they will become. And that goodness seems to reflect, in the end, off those around him, making even the 'monster' at the heart of this story seem somehow vulnerable and sympathetic; and in the monster's last moments, our hearts go out to him, because we see the innocent child he once was.
'Whitstable' is a love story. It's a story about a man who finds that even the memory of love can inspire a man to heroism. And Stephen Volk has brought Peter Cushing, the man who played characters who either fought against supernatural evil or danced with it (and was, paradoxically, one of the most adored men in an industry not noted for its finer qualities), 'back from the dead' with a vividness and tenderness that biographers can only dream of, to tell that story.
This is a wonderful, moving work, life-enhancing and unforgettable. Spectral Press have brought us one of the best books of the year, and I hope that they and Stephen Volk will be working together again soon.
on 10 July 2013
In 1971, as actor Peter Cushing is shattered with grief over the recent death of his wife, he is approached by Carl, a boy believing him to be vampire hunter Van Helsing not only in the movies, but in real life. Carl wants Van Helsing's help ridding the world of his stepfather, whom the boy thinks is a vampire. Cushing soon finds reason to suspect that the stepfather is in fact molesting Carl.
If someone publishes a work of fiction where the protagonist is my favourite actor, I will automatically be all over it, abundantly foaming at the mouth, so the fact that Whitstable also happens to be quite good is really just a delightful bonus to me.
I wasn't sure what tone Volk would have chosen for this actually rather tricky writing challenge, but since he's dealing with the darkest period in Cushing's life, I correctly assumed that this wasn't going to be a mirthful romp about a kid who has seen too many monster movies. It's a somber book told exclusively from Cushing's third person point of view, which gives us fans a whole lot of Cushing presence to enjoy, while we perhaps react with some consternation as to the author's selection of story matter.
I think I understand the reasoning: Cushing, known from his films as a monster hunter, has to confront a real life monster. What kind of beastie could be encountered in his sleepy little seaside hometown of Whitstable? A child molester. So far the idea seems perfectly logical, but I can't help but think of how Cushing himself would have reacted to it, not to mention all the obscenity and profanity littering the novella. Personally I don't mind, but the book being intended as a celebration of the actor and the man, it seems odd to pick material which would have put him off to such an extent.
It should be pointed out that Whitstable isn't really a thriller, apart from one confrontational scene at a fish stall and a potentially more dangerous one in a cinema. The story is good enough, though hardly remarkable, which is quite all right, as it really only serves as the wall hook on which to hang an intimate, psychological portrait of Peter Cushing in a state of agonizing grief. In terms of bringing Cushing to life, Volk succeeds admirably, perfectly essaying the man's manners and mannerisms, idiom and idiosyncrasies. More than once, the author evokes Cushing so believably that it's almost as if he had returned from the dead. Psychologically, of course, Volk has had to speculate as to what his protagonist was thinking, feeling and doing during that first lonely month after his wife's Helen's death, but he has ample help from Cushing's autobiographies and later interviews. And of course, grief is one of the shared human experiences, with many similar aspects from case to case. Suffice to say, the portrayal of Cushing's purgatory of grief is realistic, and quite moving in spite of its sometimes less appetizing naturalistic outbursts (vomiting and so on).
More than anything, Whitstable exists to gratify Cushing's fans, which is does superbly, but this leads to one of its flaws: while deep in thought, Cushing keeps endlessly namedropping his own movies, and drawing parallels between them and the events he's currently experiencing. Cushing was an actor, and as such more egocentric than most of his fans care to mention, but nothing can make me believe that he spent most of his waking hours wallowing in his own past successes. It's indulgent on the part of the author and subtracts from the otherwise excellent reproduction of the man Cushing was known to be.
It's difficult for me to assess how much value this book is to readers not particularly interested in Cushing (blasphemers!!!), but I'll go out on a limb and say that it's still a decent, well written character study. For proper Cushing fans, Whitstable is of course required reading.
Rating: 4 of 5 for Cushing fans, probably around a 3 of 5 for less discerning forms of life.
There is a great misconception that horror is just about big scary monsters and buxom women who need saving. When horror is at it's best it becomes more about the human condition than many so called non genre literary works. Whitstable is one such book. Stephen Volk has produced a novella that is works both as a gripping thriller and as a beautiful and heart breaking tribute to one of horrors finest stars.
This is a story of two polar opposite, but interwoven narrative threads. Firstly there is extremely moving and intimate account of Peter Cushing coming to terms with the death of his beloved wife Helen. These passages are achingly beautiful, very few books have actually caused tears to well up in my eyes. The love and respect that the author has for peter Cushing is laid bare on the pages, and as a reader you cannot help but become totally immersed in this poignant tale. It is not an easy read, Volk paints a factional biography of Cushing with a warts and all. By showing, that Cushing was a man full love for his wife and those around him, while also being a stubborn man, and at times a man too full of pride. Volk ensures that you the reader will feel nothing but compassion for Peter in his time of mourning.
As for the second thread, it couldn't be more different. Where the passages with Peter as the main or sole protagonist have a for want of a better term quaint and cosy, almost picture postcard feel to them, Those that feature Les Gledhill are shocking to say the least. The way in which they explode into the narrative and rip apart the the safe world of a 1971 Whitstable is really impressive. This is not just a clash between hero and monster, it's clash between a true English gentleman and a thuggish brute. The passage where Gledhill first confronts Peter is truly gripping, and when Gledhill swears at Peter for the first time I was truly shocked, it just felt so brutal, and animalistic.
Volk capitalises on these feelings with a chilling scene set inside a film house, where the two protagonists confront each other while The Vampire Lovers plays in background. This i one of the most enthralling and terrifying passages I have read in a long time.
Not all monsters are real, but sadly some are all too real.
Sadly the limited edition has sold out, but never fear folks you can still pick up a copy of the paperback, from the Publisher by clicking here.
on 14 June 2013
In less than 150 pages, Stephen Volk has created something enticingly original: an imagined interlude in actor Peter Cushing's life, one in which he is forced to to perform perhaps his greatest ever role; an act that will change forever the future of a small, star-struck boy. What's so extraordinary is not the subtle, beautifully observed prose, the affecting character insights or the clever interweaving of Hammer horror film locations with the drab and ordinary seaside setting of Cushing's former home in Whitstable. All these are impressive enough. No, what sets this novella aside is the fact that Volk has chosen to fictionalize an episode in the life of one of our most famous horror actors, Peter Cushing, a man for whom so many - including myself - hold a great deal of admiration and affection. It's a brave - some would say, daring - thing to do, but boy, has he succeeded.
In Whitstable, Volk has achieved that rarest of things: the ability to put us inside the head of a real person; someone who many of us feel we know through his many films (not to mention the numerous books about the actor). It takes a brave soul to attempt it, but as a lifelong Hammer - and particularly, Cushing fan - I can honestly say that Volk perfectly captures the essence of both the actor, but more importantly, the gentle human being we know and love as Peter Cushing. Not only does he make him sympathetic - how he deals with the loss of his wife, Helen, is, after all, the core of this story - but he also portrays a person of rare talent and insight; someone with qualities that to this day make him one of the most memorable British actors of the previous half century. Considering the short length, this is a remarkably moving and well told tale, one that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, Cushing/Hammer fan or not. Simply wonderful.
on 11 June 2013
This novella is simply beautiful. It captures both both time and tone of the early 70's wonderfully. I cannot recommend Whitstable enough. It really is one of the finest novellas I've ever had the pleasure to read. Mr Volk has a wonderful way with words and I really did feel immersed in Peter Cushing's all encompassing grief.
on 28 June 2013
A deceptively simple tale, that is at various times a thriller, a love story, a meditation on the pain of loss, a reflection on the cyclic nature of child abuse, and a portrait of one of the greats of British cinema. Spending time with Peter Cushing, even at such a traumatic time of his life, is a strangely seductive pleasure, and the direct yet subtly moving style places you completely inside him, at that time, in that place. A beautifully written little masterpiece of suspense.
on 29 June 2013
Peter Cushing is the hero of this charming evocation of life in the seaside town in the 1970s. When he is befriended by a boy who thinks he's the real Van Helsing, Cushing must battle an evil all too human, though no less destructive than in any of his films.
Stephen Volk's deep love of his subject shines through his writing (which is a pleasure to read). The story parallels the underlying morality of Cushing's Hammer horror movies, with Cushing as thoroughly decent and gentlemanly as he apparently was in real life. The way he ultimately defeats the big bad is just beautiful - as dramatic in its own way as anything achieved by Van Helsing, while remaining completely believable for a frail middle-aged actor.
And I was delighted to find that he does indeed appear in the story going shopping on his bicycle, and buying vegetables.
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.