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.