Whitstable by Stephen Volk
1971. A middle-aged man, wracked with grief, walks along the beach at Whitstable in Kent.
A boy walks approaches him and, taking him for the famous vampire-hunter Doctor Van Helsing from the Hammer movies, asks for his help. Because he believes his stepfather really is a vampire…
I like the premise of Whitstable, it’s most definitely intriguing. Taking a celebrity like Peter Cushing and crafting a horrific tale around events of his life seems like an ideal fit.
The first element of the plot follows a man dealing with the loss of his wife. Volk’s writing effortlessly captures the grief in Cushing’s character. Society has a tendency to put those in the limelight on a pedestal. I think it’s easy to forget that at the end of the day they are people just like the rest of us. Traumatised by his spouse’s sudden departure, he longs for peace, actively isolating himself from the rest of the world whenever he can. In those rare occasions when he does set foot outside, he falls back on the only thing he knows, acting. He goes about his business behaving the way he supposes people would expect him to; inside however he is numb.
In this respect, Whitstable is almost a ghost story. Everywhere he looks, every thought he has, reminds Cushing of his past. He is haunted by the spectre of his wife. Coming to terms with her absence in his life provides a strong narrative strand that is fascinating to behold. Cushing is painted as a shadow of his former self, almost a ghost in his own right. The moments that describe the relationship between the couple were the novella’s highlights for me. They were so wonderfully observed it almost felt as though, at times, I was intruding on genuine heartache.
As an aside, it was wonderful to discover the plethora of information about Peter Cushing and his career that is included in Whitstable. I felt like I was gaining genuine insight into the man himself. I can only assume an encyclopedic knowledge of the actor must have been required.
The second strand of the narrative, the story of the fan who Cushing befriends is much darker in tone. Is the young boy genuinely troubled by something supernatural, or is there something equally sinister but far more real at play? Stephen Volk takes a calculated risk, allowing the reader to fill in some of these blanks themselves. There are key areas in the plot that are left open to interpretation. These deliberately ambiguous moments are the ones that are most likely to prompt debate. I can certainly imagine that different readers will come to differing conclusions about exactly what is going on. Be warned, this is dark stuff and some may find this too unpleasant for their tastes.
Overall this is the subtlest of horrors, and manages to be at times touchingly poignant in one moment, and then heart-stoppingly dark the next. When it succeeds, Whitstable is a true masterclass of horror in the short form. I’d urge everyone to read this novella. Some will like it, others probably won’t, but one thing is for certain it will most definitely make everyone that reads it think.
Whitstable was published on 26th May (Peter Cushing’s birthday) by Spectral Press. For more information checkout the Spectral Press website.