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I have seen him on his bicycle.,
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This review is from: Whitstable (Kindle Edition)
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.