April 22, 2013

Facing True Evil: a review of Stephen Volk's "Whitstable"

Whitstable
by Stephen Volk

I discovered the Hammer Horror films during my college days in the late-90s, but didn't really gain an appreciation for them until years later, particularly the work of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. And by that time, Peter Cushing had already passed away. Over the last couple of years, I've had the chance to revisit a few of those films, most notably for me are The Mummy and Brides of Dracula, and Cushing's screen presence really is something to behold. Seeing him portray Van Helsing, he seemed like a natural fit for those kinds of horror stories, but I never would have figured his real life persona would be a fit--until I read Whitstable.

Published by Spectral Press (a tried-and-true place to find quality, literary horror, I have found), Whitstable offers a what-if glimpse of Peter Cushing late in life and faced with a truly horrific ordeal. This book also marked my first opportunity to read Stephen Volk's work.

Grieving the death of his beloved wife, Peter barely muddles through his existence with a dark cloud overhead in her absence. One day, he manages to step out into the light of day and while sitting on a bench near a fish-and-chip spot in the little village of Whistable, he's approached by a young boy who addresses him as Van Helsing, his most famous role. Assuming the boy's merely starstruck, Peter is taken aback when the boy tries to enlist him to kill a vampire--his mother's new lover. Peter tries to console the boy and cure him of his delusions, but there's something to the kid's story that puts the old man on edge and it's only when he meets the boy's mother and the man in question that he begins to suspect there is truth to the boy's words.

Interspersing a public figure into your fiction can be a tricky prospect at times, so I can only imagine the perilous attempt to create an entire story around someone as famous as Peter Cushing. I recently watched The Raven, a horror/mystery film starring John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe investigating murders that use his own stories as a theme. A quirky and risky project that proved entertaining, but ultimately flawed. I can find no such flaws, however, in Stephen Volk's Whitstable. The care and reverence he bestows upon Peter Cushing is visible on every page, where even his frailties endear him to the reader. Far from a biographical work, I still felt I had gained a better appreciation for Peter Cushing the man by reading this story. Nothing feels exploitative, and it very well could have given the subject matter, but there's a remarkable balance struck in honoring Cushing's memory and still thrusting him in a harrowing tale like this one.

I was really impressed by what Volk accomplished here, and I'm really going to need to find some more of his work to read down the line. What's more, I'm now in the mood to seek out some of Peter Cushing's performances, whether they be in the horror milieu of otherwise. If you were ever a fan of Peter Cushing and/or the Hammer Horror films, this is a story that is really going to resonate with you.

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