Friday 20 February 2015

Leytonstone, by Stephen Volk (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.

I came to this novella with high hopes.  I’ve long been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock - from the books to which he lent his name, to the masterful films that have thrilled and scared me over the years - and Stephen Volk’s previous novella, “Whitstable” (which I reviewed here), was one of my top reads of the year in 2012, a true five-star classic.

“Leytonstone” revolves around an anecdote Hitchcock told many times, that when he was seven his father had him locked away in the police cells with the warning “This is what happens to people who do bad things.”  The incident apparently left the great director with a morbid fear of the police and was also cited as the reason for his recurring use of “wrong man” themes in his films.  Volk takes this information and runs with it.

Fred Hitchcock is a chubby seven-year-old, who has friends but prefers time on his own and finds solace in lists - bus and train numbers, timetables - rather than the often unpredictable nature of the people around him.  His mother often seems poorly and he’s made to stand at the foot of her bed when he gets home from school, reciting what he’s learned that day whilst his greengrocer father is strict and distant.  A pupil at the local Catholic school, run with an iron-fist by the various priests and overseen by Father Mullins, Fred is only vaguely aware of girls, especially those in the school next door, apart from the one “with hair the colour of ripe bananas”.

When he is taken to the police station, we are introduced to Sergeant Stanley Sykes, a formidable presence with a Kitchener moustache, whose dark shadow hangs uneasily over the rest of the book.  He locks young Fred up and taunts him and the night spent behind bars is genuinely harrowing and unpleasant.  Released the next morning, the dynamics between Fred and his father (as well as those between his father and Sykes) are different, damaged in ways none of them really understand.  Following this event and the discovery of a peephole at the school, the tone of the book starts to grow darker.  After scaring the schoolgirls, Fred and his friends go to waste ground where there’s an abandoned, dilapidated house and there they try to kill a mouse - he doesn’t want to (he’s glad when it escapes), but he’s caught up in it.  Exploring the house later, he’s scared at first but also “tired of trying to imagine what fear is like all the time” and when he discovers a small cupboard, he realises he can do something about it.

Fred discovers the “girl with yellow hair” is called Olga Butterworth and she lives with her parents next to the railway.  They develop an uneasy acquaintance and when he decides to show her the old house, he sets into motion the last third of the book that will see everyone’s life change.

Set in 1906, an era Volk deftly captures of a changing (now largely gone) London, with the language, the dress, the rituals and customs (especially in the shops and pubs) vividly captured and brought to life.  The social mores, the confusion of young Fred, the overbearing nature of both the police (as typified by Sykes) and the harsher still priests and nuns, create an atmosphere that points to something awful happening.  And when that something happens it's shocking, with the fall-out of Fred’s action causing huge repercussions for everyone (especially his parents) apart from, it seems, himself, though perhaps this is addressed in the moving coda.

The characterisation, always difficult when dealing with real people, is something Volk does especially well (his version of Peter Cushing in “Whitstable” was a culmination of both everything you wanted him to be and everything he came across as in interviews) and here is no exception. Fred is a little boy, at once an innocent and a manipulator, at odds with his contemporaries and his parents and scared of people he sees from his bedroom window, being adults in the night and acting in ways he doesn’t - and shouldn’t - understand.  His parents often seem as confused but as the book gets darker they reveal heretofore hidden depths of love and understanding, which make the emotional impact all that much stronger.  The villain of the piece, the unpleasant, perhaps sadistic, sleazy policeman Sergeant Stanley Sykes is a real monster, at once dedicated to upholding the law whilst at the same time making sure that he picks up his own little perks.

As a Hitchcock fan, I loved finding the allusions to his later career - the poorly Mother, coddling her son; the concept of “the girl with the yellow hair”; the voyeurism of late night windows and Olga with her parents; the body in the bag of potatoes; the stuffed bird in Father Mullins office and I’m sure there were many more - but none of them felt shoehorned it, they had a place in the fabric of the story and they contributed to the weight of the tale.  And it is a weighty tale, sometimes innocent and charming, often darker and grittier, but never once putting a foot wrong.

Superbly written, atmospheric and tense, this is perfectly structured and never less than gripping.  A wonderful read and a worthy successor to the powerful “Whitstable”, I look forward to whichever master of British cinema Mr Volk chooses to write about next.  Very highly recommended.

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