Spectral Press. As with the previous novellas, it's a beautifully produced product, the limited edition hardback a real collector's item.
The story is set in 1971 and is a fictionalised account of an episode in the life of Peter Cushing following the death of his beloved wife Helen. It begins with Cushing a broken man, overwhelmed by grief and the writing in these opening pages is so, so powerful, capturing perfectly the conflicting emotions of a man who has lost the love of his life, his raison d'etre, unwilling - unable even - to move on with his life. It's beautifully written but heart-breaking, made all the more poignant by the fact that this is the description of a man everyone who reads this book knows, or at least knows of. Everyone will have their own impressions of Peter Cushing and it's a fairly safe bet that the majority will hold him in great esteem, a true gentleman who brought gravitas, dignity even to every part he played. Even at a young age I was aware of this, often using it as a counter-argument to my parents whenever they expressed concerns at the type of film I was watching and so obviously enjoying. "But Peter Cushing's in it," I would reply, "he's a proper actor..."
A chance encounter with a young boy on the beach (Carl Drinkwater, a name with resonances to Carl Bridgewater, another young boy with a tragic childhood in the seventies) provides the catalyst to pull the actor from the decline into which he's fallen. Making the assumption that Cushing is in face Van Helsing in real life, the boy asks him to deal with the "vampire"- his mother's new boyfriend - who "visits at night-time" and "takes his blood" - a naïve interpretation of events that both Cushing and the reader know refers to something much more disturbing.
At one point, Carl says "I can't move. I'm heavy and I've got no life and I don't want to have life anymore." It's almost a perfect summation of how Peter Cushing is himself feeling - and may be the impetus for his decision to help the boy but Stephen Volk skilfully "hides" the words in the middle of a section of dialogue, subtly adding it in without drawing attention to it. It's a masterful piece of writing.
The narrative of the novella then describes the newly galvanised actor's investigation of, and ultimate confrontation with the boy's tormentor, that confrontation occurring first at a market (where Cushing claims the man's sole) and then in a cinema in a cleverly written dialogue set against descriptions of the film playing on screen, Cushing's own The Vampire Lovers.
Whitstable was a joy to read, it's a perfectly pitched character study and Stephen Volk's admiration for the actor shines out from the pages. The period detail is lovingly created and rendered and references to the actor's body of work are plentiful without being a distraction. At times it's unbearably sad - a reference to the Morecambe and Wise show of all things brought a lump to my throat - but ultimately it's an uplifting experience and a fitting tribute to the great man.
As an actor, Peter Cushing battles countless on-screen monsters. This battle with an all too human monster, and his own personal demons, makes Whitstable an instant classic.