I’ve reviewed Spectral Press chapbook titles in the past, but Stephen Volk’s novella Whitstable is the first longer work the press has published. Volk — who’s known for everything from the early ‘90s BBC chiller Ghostwatch to the co-written screenplay for the excellent film The Awakening to the engaging recent novella Vardoger (reviewed here) to his ongoing column in Black Static magazine — here delivers a tale that’s a loving tribute to famed horror actor Peter Cushing.
The story is set in 1971, when Cushing, staggered by the recent death of his much-loved wife, Helen, has become a depressed recluse. While on a rare, melancholy walk, he encounters a boy, Carl, who recognizes Cushing from his role as Dr. Van Helsing, conqueror of Dracula, and beseeches him for help in defeating a real-life monster in Carl’s own house: his mother’s boyfriend, one Les Gledhill. The following passage summarizes Carl’s desperate plea:
“What’s movies got to do with it?” The abruptness was nothing short of accusatory. “I’m talking about here and now and you’re the vampire hunter and you need to help me.”
Although Cushing initially believes the boy is simply demonizing a man who can never measure up to his real father, he soon begins to suspect there’s something real, and dark, at the root of Carl’s fears. As he comes to know more about Les Gledhill, a definite picture begins to form, as Cushing reflects here:
He knew many films where the house outside town harboured inconceivable evil, and had starred in quite a few where the villagers marched up to it demanding justice or revenge, but in this picture fear has the upper hand. The family is powerful. The hero, weak. The community knows how old Mr Olderberry “can’t keep his eyes off children”, but the townsfolk choose to keep their heads firmly in the sand. Even the police think it must be the girl’s own fault.
The child’s own fault.
Once the true nature of the situation becomes apparent to Cushing, he resolves to do something about it, somehow, even though he is a frail, damaged man who by his own admission looks easily ten years older than his age of 57. Gledhill, meanwhile, is gradually revealed to be a truly nasty piece of work, more vile than any of the creatures Cushing has faced in films.
As one of Cushing’s directors says to him, rather pompously:
“You see, Peter, real evil is not so easy to spot in real life … In real life, evil people look like you and me. We pass them in the street.”
Although the crimes at the heart of Whitstable are decidedly ugly, this novella is, as horror fiction goes, quiet and gentle. It’s a beautiful melding of fact and fiction, clearly told from the heart, but it does move at a leisurely pace, and is likely to be of most interest to fans of Hammer and aficionados of quiet horror, as epitomized back in the day by Charles Grant’s Shadows series.
The 100-copy hardcover edition of Whitstable is already sold out, but the paperback and e-book versions are still available.