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Sunday, 26 May 2013

PETER CUSHING CENTENARY CELEBRATIONS: 'WHITSTABLE' by Stephen Volk ~ A celebrated novella featuring Hammer star Peter Cushing // "A great deal of sinister and awful things riding in on the tide. . "

~ This review contains plot spoilers ~ read the book first! ~

Stephen Volk is the man who terrified an entire generation writing BBC Halloween drama 'Ghostwatch' over 20 years ago. He also wrote the screenplays for Ken Russell's 'Gothic', William Friedkin's 'The Guardian' and Nick Murphy's 'The Awakening' and is known for dark, poignant short fiction and a celebrated novella - 'Vardoger'.

Volk's latest novella, called simply 'WHITSTABLE' has an unusual hero; a man by the name of Peter Cushing. Yep, that Peter Cushing!


The 26th May 2013 is an important date for all classic horror fans, being the centenary of that most gentlemanly doyen of dissecting, heart-staking, vampire lovers - Hammer  films star Peter Cushing. Born 26th May, 1913, Cushing died in August 1994. He had spent the last years of his life in his beloved Whitstable, beside the sea, enjoying the respect and love of locals and visitors alike as they waved to him as he rode past them down the narrow coastal streets on his trusty and rusting bicycle, probably on his way to taking lunch in the Tudor Tea Rooms, which he did every lunchtime.

As an actor, Cushing appeared in some of the greatest horror movies ever made, often battling Christopher Lee's Dracula as Van Helsing or chopping up body parts as Victor Frankenstein. Yet in real life he was always described as perhaps the kindest actor - kindest man - you could ever hope to meet.

Celebrations for the Peter Cushing centenary, include an exhibition of his life at the Whitstable Museum that showcases memorabilia including Cushing's own paintings, lovingly recreated models of theatre stages and productions and collections of toy soldiers and film props, such as the cane used in Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles as well as exclusive video footage of a surprise 80th birthday party held for Peter by his friends in Whitstable.

Also among the exhibits at the Whitstable Museum is a picture from the mid-80s, of a talk Cushing gave at a local school in Kent that I went along to as a Hammer obsessed teenager. A thrilling, warm-hearted evening had Cushing sit centre stage, his slender frame perched in a fragile looking black chair, a glass of water on a table beside him, engaging with talk of the many films he had made and a life behind the cameras and on stage. Of course, there was mention too of his darling, devoted wife Helen. Cushing rarely attended any event or spoke for any interview without mentioning her at least a few times.

When Helen died in 1971 after a long illness, Cushing ran up and down the stairs at home in the hope of giving himself a heart attack. Luckily he didn't succeed, because shortly after Helen's death, Cushing found a note from his wife telling him that she wanted him to live a full life for her sake after she was gone and not one ruined with sadness or regret. Cushing went on to appear in many more films soon after and never once did the sadness he felt show through; he was always the professional, always had time for fans and friends, always the kind-hearted man of horror - as strong as Van Helsing himself. Of course, after the cameras shut down and the stage curtain fell, the sadness ruled his life. Often Cushing would claim in interviews that he was waiting to die, just so he could be reunited with the great love of his life. Being a deeply religious man, Cushing's faith probably kept him sane over the many years he had to wait until he earned his wish.

I met Cushing after the talk he gave at that school in Canterbury all those years ago. I was shy, but he wrote inside the book I had just bought (PETER CUSHING: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY) - "To Mark, So glad my work gives you such pleasure, Peter Cushing" upon learning of my devotion to his movies. Teenage memories never got much better than this.

Stephen Volk's novella, WHITSTABLE, features a lightly-fictionalised but still recognisable Cushing as himself, and is set shortly after the death of his wife Helen in 1971. Cushing encounters a boy on the seafront at Whitstable who tells him about his mother's new boyfriend being a vampire and causing him harm; draining him of blood. Reluctant to get involved, Cushing eventually relents, only to find himself threatened by the man (or vampire) in question who promises to smear the actor's reputation and accuse him of being a child abuser if he carries on with his interfering (a very modern day kind of threat or fang through the neck).

Cushing, at first scared of the burly man who works down at the Whitstable fish market and intimidated by his threats (being as he is - still wounded by the death of his wife), only comes back stronger - a slow rebirth in the face of threat, for a final confrontation with his latest adversary in the town's local (and once a very real feature in the town) cinema; the Oxford Picture House, during a screening of Cushing's own THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1971). This was Cushing's last film before his beloved wife died and the moment his life suddenly crumpled away into a temporary stagnation.

The town of WHITSTABLE today is adorned with memories of Cushing's time living in the area. The old Oxford Picture House mentioned in Volk's novella, has now been transformed into a rather fantastic Wetherspoon's pub called THE PETER CUSHING, with a huge picture of the actor placed high above the bar and all the walls in this cavernous room adorned with memories of Cushing's films and other classic movie screenings that the cinema once projected from a flickering booth.

In Volk's story, Wally the legendary projectionist from the cinema is mentioned, and on some of the online forums devoted to the history of Whitstable past, this man's association with Cushing (the actor would often join Wally in the projection room) is remembered fondly by many. Around Whitstable today you can find tributes to Cushing at every turn of a corner - the bench that Peter and Helen donated to the town and that remained a favourite view or you can visit the street now named 'Cushing's Walk' or the Tudor Tea Rooms that Cushing loved and frequented.

Some while back, I found out that on a steep road I used to drive down in Kenley, Surrey there was an art deco building that was once home to Cushing himself as a young man (he also worked for a time in the area and the house was built in this art deco style by his father). There are, unbelievably to my mind, no memorials to Kenley's most famous resident in the area as far as I know, but Whitstable has done the actor proud and he is still fondly remembered; his life celebrated.

Moving to Canterbury in my teens, I remember how many people spoke of meeting or seeing Cushing on the streets of nearby Whitstable (it was either Cushing or film director Derek Jarman who lived in nearby Dungeness!) and of how kind and generous the man was to those who knew him, and to those who didn't - a real gentleman; to friend and stranger alike. Now, for his Centenary, the town of Whitstable itself has come out to celebrate the life of their favourite adopted son with some special events, including a reading from Stephen Volk himself at the Whitstable museum from his novella that itself celebrates the very town that Cushing loved so much as well as all the films the actor made and that have clearly had such an impact on the author.

So does WHITSTABLE as a work of fiction do Cushing the man and the place itself justice? Initially I was concerned that the resurrection of Cushing could end up the literary equivalent of those advertising campaigns that revive with CGI the likes of Marlon Brando for a car advert or some similar atrocity - an uneasy acquisition of the dead. Volk gets away with his act of literary grave robbing through an unflinching reverence to Cushing's good standing and a clear fondness (deeper than that; an almost ritualistic devotion) for the man and his movies and an obsession with his life. He presents a beautifully realised, downbeat but enthused character in Cushing that rivals the famous fictional detectives and their nuances, from Holmes to Poirot.

Never once is the memory of Cushing dented, and it feels authentic too, but - despite this - I still wanted to remind myself that WHITSTABLE is a work of fiction, and that the real Peter Cushing is probably only just a little bit like the character with the same name that Volk channels a memory of in this book. That, I think, is a fair approach that I expect Volk would thoroughly agree with; the placing of a safety catch on the dramatic licence on display;  separating the fictional Cushing from the real-life.

There are, alongside the biggest shock of Cushing being hinted at being (by his quite deranged protagonist, and as a defence against his own probable crimes - but - still!)  a child abuser, other eyebrow-raising descriptions of the man that certainly unsettle the reader: Cushing vomiting in fear many times before cleaning away the stench with bleach or the actor sitting in a bath considering the shrinkage of his penis in the water after he'd been lying there for so long (raising a quite unique mental image, if humanising one, of the legendary Van Helsing).

These are only slight heresies, if at all, that Volk commits. But Cushing being called a cunt shocks  more - even if it's just in a 'How dare you? This is Peter Cushing you are talking to here!' kind of way (and the use of strong language of the kind that so shocks Cushing here is a good way to introduce the idea that the actor himself is said to have never used swear words).

There is a suggestion - championed by some film critics - that Cushing's image of being the gentleman of horror and a man who spent his later years pining for Helen, was not entirely accurate and that he was known to have something of an eye for the ladies; for his co-stars on set. Is the  image of respectability we have of Cushing a flawed one anyway? Not in my mind. The Cushing in Volk's novella is certainly flawed but commands respect - his biggest flaw could just be in the way he is chasing a man who has only probably committed a crime, without really any proof initially at all.

So - don't expect a nice stroll along the Whitstable shore with scone and jam all the way home in Volk's novella, there are plenty of thundering dark clouds across the shoreline throughout.

Although WHITSTABLE is often a reflective book, it's the sinister and awful things riding in on the tide at this seaside retreat (that has always, in Cushing's real life, seemed such  a safe place for the actor to be living; where everyone treats him with respect and love) that remind us of Volk's preference for dark fiction. But the swerve into murkier waters is a natural one. We forget perhaps, that whenever a claim is made that a local famous resident is 'loved by all', it doesn't mean that some may think quite the opposite and it's refreshing to have that casual assumption bled away by Volk as if our expectations of how the novella will proceed are also being cut away from the flesh of the pages by a crueller kind of pen-like scalpel in tiny, but not too irreverent, nicks.

The ending of such a bleak and sinister work of fiction rightly has no easy resolution as such; it ends cruelly. The defeat of the 'monster' (really just a local man working at the harbour - not a monster at all) may not be worthy of any punishment as severe  as he gets and Cushing is not entirely blameless in this punishment: he represents the baying mob crying 'kill the monster' or 'kill the paedophile'; without evidence; without conviction and the kind that would have burnt down the castle ramparts in the way the precursor of Hammer's Frankenstein movies - Karloff's own monster for Universal Pictures, once did. There's no 'happy ending' in WHITSTABLE but there is a resolution of sorts - and some hope that there might be a happier ending for some. Oh, and Cushing gets to make movies again. Isn't that good enough?

The end cruelness in WHITSTABLE is appropriate and real. The fictional developments in the story (as opposed to the semi-biographical realities of Cushing's life) hang on the idea of a damaged childhood; a lifetime of consequences from keeping quiet about abuse (represented by the character of the young boy Cushing meets while strolling along the shore and who initiates and closes the narrative with a plea for help; the boy appears at the start and is mentioned at the end of the novella, like a moral bookend - so, did everyone do the right thing?).

There are some references in the novella to a breakdown that Cushing had and that his wife nursed him back to recovery from. Depression is overriding, but often hidden out of sight; under an imaginary rug - the Cushing we know and love in public or in films, not the same as a crumpled existence behind closed doors. It feels authentic; the author himself has publicly acknowledged suffering from severe depression. Perhaps Volk identifies with much of what Cushing went through in real life; living under those same sometimes gathering clouds, kept standing on the grass looking up at the sky instead of lying flat and facedown - kept upright by friends and family, as Cushing himself once relied upon at times.

Volk is described, in the afterword to the book from friend Mark Morris, as (describing his first meeting with the author): "A man who was both open and open-minded, unassuming, personable, sensitive, empathetic.. and who liked nothing better than relaxing with friends and having a good laugh". And for the most part, Volk's novella remains upbeat about Cushing's life even in the face of initial misery. There's a revival for Cushing of sorts - thanks to being involved in the local mystery he is reluctantly confronted with, he regains his  recently depleted energy to investigate further (and that in real life was channelled by Cushing through a huge rush of horror movies made shortly after his wife had died as the only kind of therapy he could embrace - after initially drifting towards being a recluse in the months after Helen's death).

What exactly drove Cushing to suddenly reinvigorate himself back into that unexpected headlong rush into working routine after sinking so low is an idea that Volk addresses in WHITSTABLE.

Throughout the novella there's a strong focus on the illness; the emphysema, that plagued Helen's life and left Cushing struggling to balance a career while also caring for her. There's an element of regret introduced in him not being there for Helen when she slipped into the final stages of her illness (although as soon as Cushing heard that she had been rushed to hospital and was close to death, he hurried to be by her side). 

The novella includes achingly desperate descriptions of Helen struggling for breath so often during her illness and of feeling 'less than a wife' (something Cushing tells her he never sees as being the case). Their move to Whitstable for possible respite and the breathing of clean air was expected to be the start of a new chapter for them both. For a time it was. Then the inevitable happened. Cushing was left in Whitstable alone, but he never moved away - this was their home and Cushing would never leave the memories that remained after her death; that lived on while strolling along the Whitstable shoreline, or down those winding roads and special quiet places around town that they both had once fallen in love with.


WHITSTABLE also celebrates the many films that Cushing made, especially from the Hammer era but also from across a lifetime of great movies. In the novella there are references to real life career events for Cushing such as the film he quit (BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB/ 1971) upon learning of his wife's death to one of his comeback films (TALES FROM THE CRYPT/ 1972) in which Cushing's character of Arthur Grimsdyke appears alongside, and talking to, a photo of his recently deceased wife Helen on his own suggestion  to the director (a move cathartic to Cushing at the time; for him and Helen to appear on screen together as they had often promised they one day would).

Cushing's role in TALES FROM THE CRYPT of a widower trying to contact his deceased wife is blending reality and fiction seamlessly. It's perhaps what Stephen Volk has also attempted to do in his own novella; as deliberate homage to Cushing's legendary role of Grimsdyke that many claim to be Cushing's best and that the actor himself was so keen - determined - in fact to play, that he took a lower fee that usual to do so.

Mr Grimsdyke is himself a man mourning the death of his wife and who eventually comes back from the dead following his suicide for revenge on those who taunted and smeared him - accusing him of being a child molester for their own personal gain. Cushing's opponent in Volk's fictional story is also a man willing to tarnish the wonderful image of 'true gent' that Cushing has - almost as if this is the only way a man such as Cushing can be harmed, certainly not by a conventional bite to the neck.

Of course, as much as the novella is about Cushing and his films, it's also about a place, lovingly described: the taste of the salt-washed shores of Whitstable and intricate descriptions of fishing boats, local pubs and asbestos-sheeted boatyards; the eating of fresh oysters and the decaying old cinema with the smell of popcorn and Kia-Ora all bringing the place alive.

The wildly inventive and flamboyant brushstroke of an ending to WHITSTABLE balances descriptions of scenes from THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (made just before Helen's death) and the film's lurid confrontations with vampires being watched by Cushing on a cinema screen with his own confrontation at the same time with a man who sits next him and holds an oyster knife to his throat.

Before the end credits, this man intends to slit the old man's throat in a possible analogy to the fast approaching more sadistic horror films of the 1970s - the old Hammer movies are ridiculed by the young man in a devastating rant against Cushing's outdated career, to little concern from the man himself. However, I feel the man holding the knife hasn't encountered some of Cushing's more sadistic movie roles including (the one he apparently hated) a brutal psychopath wielding a deadly medical-grade laser in the less often seen 1968 shocker, CORRUPTION!

I still see (perhaps by forcing myself) the actor Peter Cushing as separate to the hero of Volk's book, but I like to think I have a fuller understanding of how his life may have been in the weeks after the death of his beloved wife Helen. I can picture Volk's description of Cushing's possible nightmare behind closed doors as one of a kindly but tormented fighter of demons in-between rounds of cheese on toast with HP sauce and Heinz tomato soup as being, if not entirely accurate, at least not impossible to imagine.


Stephen Volk ©Jonathan Hall/ Clerkenwell Films/ITV

For me, the novella feels personal, as it should be for all of Cushing's fans; it reminds me of the thrill I used to get watching these movies growing up. The boy walking on the shore in this story at the start - is he one of us? Is he - perhaps - really Stephen Volk; the horror fan as a boy; gazing over at his hero and thinking of fluttering capes, of bolts of lightning, of teeth sunk in necks and creatures coming back from the grave?

I wonder what Peter Cushing himself would say about Stephen Volk's novella if he were still with us today. I think, maybe, he would chuckle to himself as he turned the final page and look rather flattered: "Oh wonderful and most amusing - if not entirely accurate dear boy," and with a glint in his eye, tapping the edge of his cap goodbye, he'd climb back up on his bike and head down the winding lanes of Whitstable for another round of poached egg on toast at the Tudor tearooms on his way back home.

I like to think that the central character of WHITSTABLE; that quiet defender of the innocent, Mr Peter Cushing, deserves at least another few fictional outings and mysteries to solve - not just on the great man's 100th birthday!



In memory of Peter Cushing, who helped allow my imagination to be full of monsters ...

(Cover image by Ben Baldwin)

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