Review: Whitstable / Author: Stephen Volk / Publisher: Spectral Press / Release Date: May
It's February 1971 and screen icon Peter Cushing is mourning the death of his beloved wife, Helen. As he retreats from humanity, unable to cope with his grief, he is approached by a young boy who believes him literally to be his most famous screen character, Dr Van Helsing. The child is convinced that his mother's new boyfriend is a vampire and wants his idol to slay the monster, before he too dies and becomes one of the undead. What Cushing realises is that, even though vampires do not exist, there are human monsters that are every bit as terrible as their fictional counterparts.
Whitstable is a novella of two halves. The sections that deal with Cushing's grief and his detachment from the world around him following his wife's death are beautifully written, heartbreaking and utterly convincing. They show Cushing as a real person, warts and all. He is stubborn, prideful but at the same time a complete gentleman who, despite the crippling loss that he has suffered, feels that he needs to maintain his moral values, perhaps now more than ever. As a character study of one of the most famous and well-loved actors in British cinema, it's compelling and absolutely heartbreaking. Stephen Volk took a huge risk in attempting to get inside the head of such a well known and respected figure, but he pulls it off in spades. By the end of the story, you feel that you actually knew Peter Cushing a little, and this is no easy thing to achieve.
Conversely, the other half of the novella, dealing with the predatory serial paedophile, is a chilling cat-and-mouse tale. Cushing can't help but look into the child's claims, despite his malaise, and this provokes an escalating response from the thuggish Les Gledhill who at first tries to charm Cushing before taking a much more threatening stance. This eventually leads to a scene where the two men attempt to out-manoeuvre one another in a dilapidated cinema, while The Vampire Lovers plays out on the screen, which is disturbing, clever and utterly compelling.
Whitstable is a triumph. It's probably the best title that Spectral have published to date, and by far one of the strongest novellas to have come out in the last few years. It offers a glimpse into the very heart of one of the nation's best known screen icons, woven around a taut, disturbing thriller, and, in the lead-up to Cushing's 100th anniversary in May, is as fitting a tribute to the man as could be imagined.