In the bleak winter of 1971 a gaunt prematurely aged man walks along the beach at Whitstable in Kent. A boy approaches him and pleads for help against the nocturnal predations of his stepfather; a man he claims is a vampire. You see to this boy, this is no ordinary old man; this is the fearless Abraham Van Helsing, the vanquisher of Count Dracula from Hammer’s classic horror movie. The man is of course not Van Helsing, but the actor Peter Cushing, a man battling with his own personal demons following the death of his beloved wife Helen. Despite his initial reluctance to get involved, Cushing finds himself being inexorably drawn into resolving the boy’s problem with his abuser and on the way exorcising at least part of the grief he felt at Helen’s death and returning to his film career.
What makes Volk’s novella so interesting for us Horror fans is his remarkable evocation of the actor’s personality at this pivotal time in his life between abandoning the filming of the ill fated Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (not only did Cushing’s wife die during the shoot, causing Andrew Kier to take on his role, but director Seth Holt suffered a fatal heart attack on the set) and later returning to work on features like Twins of Evil, Dracula AD 1972 and eventually Star Wars.
The narrative is packed with references to Cushing’s films and TV work. Volk really seems to get under the actor’s skin and into his consciousness when Cushing reminisces about ‘dear old Terry Fisher’ (director of The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy), ‘sweet Milton’ (Subotsky who along with Max J Rosenberg founded Amicus Productions, the Hammer rival that made all those portmanteau horrors like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt) and of course ‘Chris Lee’. The blow-by-blow denouement even takes place alongside a performance of The Vampire Lovers (released the year before in 1970 and starring Cushing alongside Ingrid Pitt) at Whitstable’s Oxford Cinema. Even comedy duo Morecambe and Wise get a mention, and no Cushing never got that fiver for appearing in Little Ern’s play ‘what he wrote’.
Aside from a totally engaging story Volk’s description of Whitstable, the seaside town where Cushing and Helen lived, in the early 70s is spot on, if my own recollections of the Kentish coast at the time is anything to go by and the period accuracy is bolstered with references to the Pan Books of Horror Stories, George Harrison singing My Sweet Lord on the radio and Jon Pertwee as Dr Who.
Whitstable is a loving tribute to the actor, who along with Hammer Films and Sir Christopher Lee defined the British Gothic Horror movie, in this the centenary year of his birth.
STEPHEN VOLK is best known as the writer of TV’s notorious Halloween “hoax” Ghostwatch, starring Michael Parkinson, which caused outraged viewers to jam the switchboards and even raised questions in Parliament. He also created the ITV drama series Afterlife and the feature film The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, and has worked with directors William Friedkin and Ken Russell.
Whitstable is available in Paperback and as an eBook from: Spectral Press.
Review by Simon Ball
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