After the rich fare of The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine, Stephen Volk’s Whitstable is a much simpler dish – but no less powerful for that. It is a much smaller, more intimate story, about an old man, a boy and his family. And whilst it does contain moments of fear and horror, they are totally believable, and very much of the real world – and potentially more affecting because of this.
Whitstable is set in 1971, in the town of the same name. It has as its central character the actor Peter Cushing, stalwart of countless horror films from Hammer, Amicus and others. Cushing is isolated from the world, and in mourning for his beloved wife Helen. The effect that her death has on him is profound, and is one of the strongest themes in the book – his yearning to be with her tempered by his strong religious faith, which holds his own thoughts of suicide at bay. Resigned to carry on in the world, he uses his experience as an actor to conceal the deep hurt he carries inside.
It is during a walk on Whitstable beach, which Cushing takes precisely to avoid human contact, that the opposite happens. A young boy, Carl Drinkwater, mistakes him for Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing, and asks for Cushing’s help. Carl believes his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire – an initially laughable suggestion, until we hear him describe an evil which is altogether more believable. ‘He visits me at night-time… I know what he’s doing. He thinks I’m asleep but I’m not asleep… Afterwards I feel bad, like I’m dead inside. He makes me feel like that… I’m heavy and I’ve got no life and I don’t want to have life anymore.‘
Whilst Cushing senses the reality behind the boy’s story, his initial instinct is to pretend it doesn’t exist, and not become involved. And yet events conspire against him, and despite his own reluctance he is drawn to the family. Cushing is visited by Les Gledhill, Carl’s ‘vampire’, and the scene between them on Cushing’s doorstep is both cleverly written and very unnerving. The threat of violence hangs in the air, alongside a wider sense of uneasiness, and uncertainty. Is there really something wrong in Gledhill, as Cushing suspects, or is he taking Carl too much at his word? This theme of doubt is very powerful, and parallels Cushing’s own equivocation about being in the world without Helen. And it is only by helping Carl, initially against his own instincts, that Cushing properly returns to it. In helping Carl, Cushing is forced to show his own fear, rather than maintain a calm facade; and by doing so, he starts to come to terms with the loss of his wife.
The climax of the novella is as shocking as it is unexpected, and follows a second meeting between Gledhill and Cushing, this time in a cinema. Again, the dialogue is taut, and heavy with meaning, contrasting directly with the action scenes happening on the big screen. Rather than a physical contest, this is a battle of wits, and a struggle for the soul of a young boy – and one that is just as thrilling as anything found in Cushing’s films.
For me, the two scenes described above are the novella’s highlights, as is the portrayal of Cushing. Volk draws a man of many aspects – humane but short-tempered; loving yet private; courteous whilst grieving – who is drawn into a situation over which he has little control. And yet, in doing so, Cushing is drawn back into a world which was ripped from him with Helen’s death. As a story of one man’s accommodation with grief, I found it very moving indeed; and I look forward to reading more from Stephen Volk in the future.