Friday 30 November 2012

Whitstable, by Stephen Volk (a review)

As regular readers of this blog might remember, I occasionally make mention on here of books that really strike me, that I feel ought to get as much attention as is possible.  Well, this post is about just such a book (which, even though I only finished it yesterday, has become my joint favourite read of the year).

When I was at FantasyCon, I went to the Spectral Press readings (my own Spectral Press chapbook - sold out in advance of publication - was delivered over that weekend too), which was a two-hander between Simon Bestwick, a friend of long-standing whose work I admire a great deal  and Stephen Volk, a writer I am - to be frank - somewhat in awe of.  He was reading from a novella called “Whitstable”, which wouldn’t be published until May 2013 and as he described the way his lead character smoked, wearing a glove, I thought ‘that’s Peter Cushing’ - and it was (May 2013 marks the centenary of his birthday).

The reading whetted my appetite and so when Simon Marshall Jones, head honcho of Spectral Press, mentioned that the book was available for pre-order, I put my name down and suggested that if it was possible to read it beforehand, I’d love to do so.  Simon sent me the ms as a Word document and I read it quickly, enjoying and savouring every last word.

This is my review, which I posted at Goodreads.

In 1971, a recently bereaved Peter Cushing locks himself away in his Whitstable home, intending to cut himself off from day-to-day life in order to grieve privately.  For years, as the star of numerous horror films, he has despatched creatures of the night with their fake fangs, pelts and blood but after a trip to the beach and an encounter with a young boy, he quickly discovers that some monsters are human.  With grief weighing heavily on him but a strong desire to protect the innocent, Peter Cushing now faces a very real terror. 

Using certain real-life events, Volk deftly creates a loving - if occasionally harsh and unblinking - fictional biography of an actor most (if not all) genre fans are familiar with and through the strength of his writing, we come to love Peter Cushing, feeling his immense hurt and pain and wanting the absolute best for him.  Interwoven with this is a beautifully underplayed horror story - with no ghosts or ghoulies - where Cushing comes up against Les Gledhill, a man whose step-son-to-be thinks of as a vampire but is, in reality, much worse.  Their two key exchanges, once on the doorstep of Cushing’s house and another, at the local cinema, are fantastic, with tour-de-force writing that managed to enthral, terrify and appal this reader.  In addition, the latter confrontation takes place whilst the two men are watching “The Vampires Lovers” and Volk intersperses scenes from the film in a way I’ve never read before, that is about as cinematic as it’s possible to be on the printed page. 

Richy detailed (1971 is lovingly and painstakingly reproduced and even if you’ve never been to Canterbury, you have been in that tea shop), with some amusing exchanges (Carl, the boy who starts it all off, can’t quite work out what connection this Peter Cushing person might have to Van Helsing ) and nicely written memories (of Morecombe & Wise and the personalities he worked with on the Hammer films) this is the kind of book you wish you could read anew each and every time. 

Darkly elegant and full of almost poetic moments (“Cushing trembled a smile…”), showing the horrors of life and the consequences of losing a beloved whilst also remaining strong in the belief that love is forever, this is a truly beautiful book, scary, moving and hopeful in equal measures, that should be read by everyone who has even a passing interest in the horror genre.  Highly recommended.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, the book can be pre-ordered direct from the Spectral Press website here

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