April 2, 2013

Peter Cushing: A Gentleman of Horror: a guest post by Simon Marshall-Jones

Spectral Press will soon publish a novella by Stephen Volk, which acts as a bit of an ode to one of the best actors to ever grace Hammer Horror Films, Peter Cushing. Whitstable is its name and I invited Spectral Press' head honcho, Simon Marshall-Jones, to share a few words on the novella and its subject. Enjoy.

26th May 2013 marks the centenary of one of Britain’s most iconic actors who is also seen as the most quintessential of English gentlemen, Peter Cushing. He is, of course, best known for his appearances in a string of Hammer Studios films, especially for his portrayals of Baron Von Frankenstein and vampire hunter Van Helsing. Looking at these films in isolation would lead anyone to believe that such roles were his only oeuvre – nothing could be further from the truth, as he also trod the boards alongside another stellar British actor Sir Laurence Olivier in Macbeth. And who could possibly forget his turn as the wholly malevolent Grand Moff Tarkin in the first of George Lucas’ Star Wars films?

One of his most endearing facets was his utter professionalism – no matter how absurd the plot of the current film he was involved in, he would always approach the role seriously. After all, it is fair to say that his philosophy, as an actor and professional, was probably something along the lines of “If I’m being paid to do a job, then I am going to do it properly”. In every role he took on, he brought a certain gravitas to it, making it that much easier to suspend disbelief and get sucked into whatever was going on onscreen, however preposterous. And, let’s face it, much of Hammer’s output could be seen on one level as being utterly preposterous.

The range of roles he played onscreen was broad, testament to his versatility. But, there was another side to him – Peter Cushing the private individual and human being. Impeccably dressed and with perfect diction, he was the epitome of the ideal English gentleman. Over and above that, however, he possessed a strong faith, one which carried him through both the good times and the bad. That faith was particularly tested when his soul-mate Helen died in 1971.

This latter fact forms one of the plot strands of Stephen Volk’s novella Whitstable, due to be published on the date of Cushing’s centenary, and which weaves fact and fiction together to great effect. Peter is grieving deeply for his lost love, hiding himself away and isolating himself from people: he even briefly contemplates suicide at one point, before realising that his faith precludes such an action and, crucially, would prevent him from being with Helen in the afterlife. This, without a doubt, he considers worse than being consigned to the pits of Hell. It is at this point that, at the very nadir of his existence, fate decides to take a hand in things.

Sitting on a sea-front bench one day smoking a cigarette, a young boy confronts him, mistaking him for Van Helsing. The boy believes that his mother’s boyfriend is a vampire and that, eventually, he too will become one. Naturally, Peter being Van Helsing, he’s the ideal person to turn to in order for the vampire to be vanquished. And so begins Peter’s long climb out of depression and grief, and into a new kind of fulfilling life.
The reason for this metamorphosis is plain: the conviction his faith gives him means that he cannot let an innocent suffer – in other words, it is plain that the young boy desperately needs help, but what sort of help remains to be seen. What follows is a tour de force of pinpoint characterisation, as Volk paints portraits of the contrasting figures of Peter Cushing and Les Gledhill (the stepfather) in sharp chiaroscuro. Cushing is at his frailest, but nevertheless possesses an inordinate amount of inner strength, which allows him to confront Gledhill’s brute strength and overpowering personality and, moreover, able to show the latter who he truly is.

This is the strength of Volk’s writing: it allows us to sympathise with the plight of Cushing, deep in mourning and not knowing what to do to fill the vacuum left behind by Helen, and simultaneously being utterly repulsed by the predatory Gledhill. This is naturally a very simplistic prĂ©cis of the plot, as I don’t want to give anything away: plus nothing is ever as simple as that. The plot is further complicated by twists and turns, underscoring the precarious situation in which Cushing finds himself. It’s all entirely believable, however, and the reader is drawn breathlessly and inexorably into the lives of all the dramatis personae.

However, for this publisher at least, there is one remarkable thing about the novella, an aspect that was one of the prompters which pushed me into grabbing onto the book when it was initially pitched to me. The boy only makes two appearances in the book, at the beginning and the end, yet through the power of the writing his presence hovers over every page. That, to me, is what makes the book – we are never allowed to forget about the character that lit the blue touch-paper and set events in motion. The boy is a catalyst for the change in Peter’s outlook (and to a lesser extent Gledhill, too), that new spurt of inner growth which he experiences throughout the course of the narrative. It’s an extremely powerful message, one that we should all take to heart.

I shall stop here, lest I give any more away. Suffice it to say that urge and encourage you to get hold of a copy – this is a piece of writing you really can’t afford to miss.

Thanks, Simon. As for the rest of you, if you'd like to get your hands on a copy of Whitstable, just follow this link to the pre-order page: http://spectralpress.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/whitstable-by-stephen-volk-pre-order-still-available/

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. I love Peter Cushing, so I think this would be something I would really enjoy.