The Gentle Man of Horror’s Dilemma: Stephen Volk’s Whitstable

The Dark Masters Trilogy-coverPS Publishing has released an omnibus edition of Stephen Volk’s novellas/short novels under the title THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY. The contents are a triptych of individual stories; over the next few weeks, we will be exploring these individually and perhaps seeing how they all work together. Each of these tales is an historical work about a real horror celebrity: actor Peter Cushing grapples with grief and finds himself mistaken for one of his characters, a young Alfred Hitchcock has a run in with police that will provide a lifelong fear of authorities, and occult author Dennis Wheatley meets with the twentieth century’s Great Beast for a chance to face real evil.

When I first heard about THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY, I was intrigued. The PS Publishing edition is a lovely thing, fine cover art and great production value. When I read the cover copy to Trista, however, she was dubious, remarking, “It sounds like it’s going to piss you off.” As usual, she has a point.

I am no fan of many attempts to understand artists, since there is a trend (in films at least) to relegate these sorts to mere mimics of things occurring around them. Case in point, early on in the otherwise charming SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), we see a young Will Shakespeare heading through the streets from his playhouse to an appointment with an apothecary, and along the way we get folks on the street reciting the origins of what would become several famous lines and situations that would appear in both the play he is working on as well as some of his future works. The scene itself is clever, making The Bard a part of his world and grappling with the things happening in it. It makes a savvy use of creativity drawing from everyday experiences. However, that scene has become a sort of blueprint for the biopics to follow, which pose an artist (be it writer, filmmaker, painter, etc.) as a mere parrot of what he/she has experienced. The creative spark that lets a person assimilate direct life experience along with numerous other inputs are absent. Instead of a synthesis, a creative ramming together of various inputs, the artist becomes a piss poor journalist who can only report (almost verbatim) events, dialogue, and plots they have witnessed firsthand. This can often be laid at the feet of a misunderstanding of the famous Hemingway line about writing “what you know,” but it is far too limiting a lens in terms of trying to understand creativity and an artist’s role as a receiver, a weather vane for the many (many, many, many) bolts of inspiration required to complete a work (some real world, some deriving from exposure to influential works, and some arising whole cloth from the artist’s own imagination). It’s not only what a person sees and hears that gets turned into art; a whole bunch of other elements go into the process. Needless to say, such short sighted, low hanging fruit portrayals irritate the hell out of me (I am looking at you, 2013’s SAVING MR. BANKS, which has the charm of Emma Thompson but is annoying AF).

You see? Criticism tells us as much about the critic as the work under consideration.

So, I came to WHITSTABLE, the first part of THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY and a story involving an actor I have no small amount of affection for, with equal measures of excitement and dread. Would the work hammer my bias? Would it, in short, piss me off?

Lucky me, Stephen Volk sidesteps the topic entirely, choosing instead to find Peter Cushing at a crossroads in his life. The novella opens in 1971 with Cushing in his seafront house in the town of Whitstable, grappling with grief over the recent death of the love of his life.

These days, Peter Cushing is most widely known for his character Grand Moff Tarkin in 1977’s STAR WARS (as well as the eerie simulacrum of a computer generated version of him playing that character in 2016’s ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS TALE), but he had a healthy career apart from those flicks in numerous English and American gothic horror productions.

While walking on the beach in search of some fresh air, he gets mistakenly recognized as one of the characters he played on screen in the film HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), by a boy in need of help:

“You’re Doctor Van Helsing.”

The man’s pale blue eyes did not waver from the sea ahead of him.

“So I am.” (Volk, 18)

Ever the gentleman, Cushing engages in conversation, gets the sort of rundown of “his” defeat of Dracula in that early film that an impassioned, detail-oriented kid could deliver. When he asks the nature of the Carl’s trouble, the boy gives a surprising answer.

“My mum’s boyfriend. He visits me at night time. Every night now. He takes my blood while I’m asleep. I know what he’s doing. He thinks I’m asleep but I’m not asleep. It feels like a dream and I try to pretend it isn’t happening, but afterwards I feel bad, like I’m dead inside. He makes me feel like that. I know it. I can’t move. I’m heavy and I’ve got no life and I don’t want to have life anymore.” He rubbed his nose. His nose was running. Bells tinkled on masts out of view. “That’s what it feels like, every time. And it keeps happening, and if it keeps happening I know what’ll happen. I’m going to die and be buried and then I’ll rise up out of my coffin and be like him, forever and ever.” (Volk, 22)

Harrowing stuff. The boy is in some real trouble indeed. While Cushing ponders the situation, the boy comes to his point:

“So will you?”

“Will I what?” In a breath.

“Will you turn him to dust? Grey dust that blows away, like you did with Dracula?”

“Is that what you want?”

The boy nodded. (Volk, 22)

Although it may not be a case of a literal vampire, Cushing becomes convinced that the man Carl has come to see as a supernatural monster is actually a real, ugly world equivalent. As the actor grapples with what he can do about the situation, tries to do the right thing by visiting Carl’s mum and mentioning the general conversation (though not the details), and ultimately receives threatening visits from the man himself, leading to the first of three or four major encounters between the two. The man, one Les Gledhill, goes through several emotional extremes, from chummy to beleaguered to angry, until he finally shows his true colors and raises the stakes once Cushing states:

“But to God, innocence is precious. It’s to be valued above all things. It must be protected. Our children must be safe. It’s our duty as human beings.”

“Too right. They do need to be protected,” the creature that was Gledhill said. “From old men talking to young boys on the beach. Boys alone. What did you say to him, eh? That’s what the police are going to ask, don’t you think, if you go to them?” His voice fell to a fetid, yet almost romantic, whisper. “That’s what people are going to ask. What were they talking about, this old man who lives all alone? This old man who makes horrible, sadistic films about cruelty and sex and torture, someone who’s never had any children of his own, they tell me, someone who adores other peoples’ children? This old man and this innocent little boy?”(Volk, 48)

Should Peter Cushing intervene or should he try to withdraw from the whole matter? Can he allow this evil to flourish or should he instead take a stand and potentially get his name and reputation (as well as that of his beloved, departed wife) ruined? This is drama at its finest, and Volk’s lyrical prose finds adequate room to explore these questions as well as exploring the nature of grief and a widower’s doomed efforts to move on.

All of these questions are accompanied by a biographer’s attention to his subject. Cushing’s character comes across as authentic from the details of his insisting on wearing a white glove while smoking (in order to prevent yellowing of his fingers) to the lines he is given. As a longtime fan, I could hear the actor in my head enunciating the dialogue in his particular fashion, occasionally tossing up a finger for emphasis here and there as he was wont to do. The words feel right coming out of the character’s mouth (no easy feat).

Author Volk did his homework, and it shows. This time in the actor’s life is portrayed in a considerate and compassionate fashion, and even the fictional details are boldly presented, tucked away beneath verisimilitude. Peter Cushing’s own memoirs cite the death of his wife as one of the greatest trials he copes with. Were he not a man of faith, he likely would have killed himself to be with her. However, his religion prevented this since he believed that suicides would linger in Purgatory, and he would never be reunited. The opening to his memoirs is lovely and haunting:

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on ’til you come to the end: then stop.’

What better advice than Lewis Carroll’s when attempting to write a life story? However, since my life as I knew and loved it ended with the passing of my wife Helen, I intend to take this narrative no farther than that fateful Thursday in 1971, January 14th. (Cushing, 29)

So, as the novella unfolded, I found myself charmed. Cushing soon becomes a secondary target for Gledhill, and the two men share a curious game of cat and mouse. Peter Cushing is a man of conscience, and Gledhill is a man who suspects others of being as monstrous as himself. These two men vie with one another both directly and indirectly, and the work builds to a delightful extended sequence of the two men verbally sparring in an otherwise empty moviehouse, which is screening one of Peter’s “current” films. It’s a thrilling sequence, with Volk juxtaposing the events on screen with the push and pull between these two men.

WHITSTABLE is a powerful piece that manages to be suspenseful without being hokey, to be emotional without being melodramatic, and to tackle challenging subjects without shocking for shock’s sake. The story’s conclusion brought tears to my eyes. Stephen Volk’s short narrative is elegiac, a well-told tale that also serves as a fitting, compassionate tribute to the gentle man of horror.

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WHITSTABLE is available in both an original paperback edition from Spectrum books as well as part of PS Publishing’s massive THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY hardcover omnibus. No eBook edition as yet that I am aware of. Hopefully this will change in time. I recommend the PS edition, it’s weighty and lovely.

Next week, we will check out the second work in this trilogy, LEYTONSTONE. In addition to THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY edition, the tale of a young Alfred Hitchcock’s run in with the police (an incident that would shape his career and life), is available in a stand alone edition as well.

WORKS CITED

Cushing, Peter. PETER CUSHING: THE COMPLETE MEMOIRS. Signum Books: Cambridge, England. 2014.

Volk, Stephen. THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY. PS Publishing: Hornsea, England. 2018.

“A Gentle Man’s Dilemma: Stephen Volk’s Whitstable” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Excerpts taken from the above mentioned editions of Cushing and Volk’s works. Image taken from the PS Publishing edition.

 

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