Whitstable by Stephen Volk – Review

whitstablefront22What is real horror?

That’s the question underlying Stephen Volk’s novella, Whitstable.

Is Dracula real horror? Vampires in general? Maybe the Frankenstein monster, then? Hammer films became a by-word for horror in the 50s and 60s. Do the classic monster images Hammer films brought us in its heyday fill us with the kind of revulsion and fear we would feel in the presence of real horror? Not really. These images are thrilling. For fans of the genre, they’re certainly fun. But real horror doesn’t reside in genre, no matter how talented the writer/director/actor. So what is real horror?

Volk’s intelligent mix of biography and fiction suggests many plausible answers. Ever seen a screeching gull tear into a hunk of rotten fish? Ever had a slab of your heart torn out by the death of a loved one and as a result had to face decades of grief and longing for death? Have you ever been the child victim of sexual abuse?

Real horror like that is almost impossible to face. We instinctively shun it, turn away, pretend not to hear or see — or, if we’re forced to experience it, we then pretend it didn’t happen. So we have the horror genre to act as a kind of filter. The unending stream of painful memories and the grieving heart’s refusal to accept the absence of a lost loved one becomes the ghost story. The abusive parent in your dark bedroom at night becomes the vampire story. And anyone who helps you overcome such horror becomes a real-life Van Helsing.

Cue Peter Cushing, Whitstable’s protagonist. Struggling with the recent death of his wife, Helen, Cushing goes for a walk along the coast one afternoon and meets a boy named Carl Drinkwater. Carl is a fan of monster movies. Or maybe he seeks solace in the idea of being able to overcome monsters. Because for Carl to stay sane, monsters must be real; a mere human wouldn’t be capable of the atrocities visited upon him in his bedroom every night. That would take the likes of a vampire. So, Carl believes his mother’s new boyfriend, Les, is a vampire. This being so, then the man whom he has just met on the beach must be the real Van Helsing. After all, Carl has seen the films. He recognizes the hero. All that remains is to enlist his help.

Despite wanting to sink into his grief alone, Cushing finds himself compelled to help Carl. Reluctantly at first, but as he uncovers the truth, and his worst fears about Carl’s situation are realized, he grows into the role. We follow him through a painful encounter with Carl’s mother, and a diabolically tense scene that night at Cushing’s home, as Les tries to convince Cushing to let him come inside. But Cushing remembers, you have to invite the vampire in, which he won’t do, no matter how often, or how violently, Les asks him to. At one point Cushing even imagines Les has something other than the smell of alcohol on his breath. He imagines it smells of blood, decay and “something of death”. It’s almost as though, if Cushing can believe Les is indeed a vampire, then he, Cushing, can become Van Helsing.

This kind of clever manipulation of the boundaries between real and make-believe drives the rest of the piece. Such that only one place will serve as setting for the final showdown between vampire-hunter and vampire: an old cinema, with only the two of them inside, while the screen shows a Hammer Horror film starring Cushing himself.

A work such as Whitstable can only be undertaken by a true Hammer fan, and it’s clear that’s what Volk is. The story is filled with all kinds of detail about Cushing’s own life, Hammer film trivia, and speculations about the nature of the horror genre. But it’s the tenderness Volk gives to the characterization of Peter Cushing that makes this piece work. If I’m honest, I thought the narrative ran out of pace after the scene in the cinema; and even this climax was somewhat stunted by an overuse of film references. Also (mild spoiler alert) the monster dies offstage. But none of that matters. I’d happily read this tale again—and most likely will—despite its faults, simply because Volk immerses us so well in the mind, the heart, and the emotions of its central character. We find him in the worst stages of grief, so much so that it becomes hard to keep reading about so much pain; and we watch him find a way to move on from that living death, and save a young life in the process. So, you don’t have to be a Hammer aficionado for Whitstable to mean something to you. Only the most passing interest in the Hammer Horror phenomenon, or even film acting in general, will suffice for this story take you to a place where frail, grieving middle-aged men really can become the heroes who kill the monsters in our rooms at night.

Whitstable is published May 26th, 2013 by Spectral Press.

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Posted on March 26, 2013, in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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