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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Whitstable by Stephen Volk: a review

WHITSTABLE by Stephen Volk (Spectral Press)
Review by Gary Fry

I was born in 1971, a few years later than a number of my peers, and in the horror world, that short span of time seems to make a critical difference. For instance, I didn't get into the Hammer Horror scene in the same way as others, probably through lack of exposure on TV and at the cinema (but also because I was a chicken-shit kid).

Anyway, the main impact this seems to have had is to deny me a substitute father in the form of the fine, venerable, benevolent and all-round good guy Mr Peter Cushing. I have no particular affection for this hero of young men and actually feel a little bereft, as if I've missed out on something. My loss, clearly.

So when I heard that Stephen Volk had written a novella starring Peter Cushing - a roman a clef, if you please - I was drawn more to the fact that it was written by the author of the wonderful Ghostwatch than anything else. What could the novella mean to me above the virtues of its story, I wondered? But in the event, I needn't have worried. It's a fine piece.

The plot basically involves Mr Cushing taking on a very real monster in his everyday life. And that's kind of it, really. But it's what Volk does with this material that counts: his remarkable, heartfelt depiction of grief; his building of tension as Cushing's detection unfolds; his clever intertextual weaving of Hammer films into the narrative, and their thematic relationship with the events of the tale. All masterly done, and leading to such an emotional finale that even a cynical old Yorkshireman like me, who keeps his emotions in a box and lets them out once every two years during a football tournament, was moved.

Material like this always runs in danger of becoming sentimental, but Volk doesn't allow that to happen, juxtaposing his obvious affection for the man with the absolute seriousness of the issue Cushing faces: a delicate trick. I guess there's also a danger of losing the value of old horror movies, when compared to very real horror in everyday life, but again Volk - through Cushing's constant defence of his "art" to cynical modern types - finds dignity in those creaking films, creating a paean to this form of cinema along the way (and who better than Volk to do so?).

The dialogue, as you'd expect from a screenwriter, is superb throughout; whenever Cushing spoke, I could hear the man's voice effortlessly in my mind (so yeah, I've seen rather more Cushing films than I suspected [but too late in life, damn it!]). The prose is typically snappy, and knowing, and literary; Volk has a muscular style that bleeds lyricism, if that isn't an oxymoron (and if it is, it is). If I had one issue with the writing is was with the use of certain stock phrases. Now, some authors I know don't worry about these, but I don't personally like them. So yes, it's a personal thing, but one I make regularly and will continue to do so (having signed up wholesale to Martin Amis's War Against Cliché). One example occurs towards the end of the novella when the phrase "for all the world" is used twice within the space of a page. I wouldn't personally use it even once, but maybe that's just me, and if it is, I apologise. Shoot me.

Production values? Smart, overall. But I was slightly surprised to see a number of words still with their pre-italicised underlines: not sure how they escaped the proof-reader. Also, although I didn't measure them, my jaded eye is convinced that a number of spaces between sentences were doubles and not singles. Do we really need doubles for any form of publication? That's debatable, I guess. But when they're mixed in with singles, that's just a lack of consistency, and one or the other must go. Otherwise, the typesetting (nice and spacey), cover art (oh boy, Ben) and presentation is superb, as good as we've come to expect from Spectral.

In short, a splendid novella, and here's the greatest testimonial I can pay it. After finishing it, I typed "Peter Cushing" into YouTube and started watching interviews with the great man. Hey, it's never too late for a father figure.

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