A novella seems to suit Peter Cushing rather well. He was angular and slight, with those remarkable thin features and cheekbones. So when he’s resurrected in fictional form, a very spare, elegant volume seems just the right home for him.
And so does Whitstable itself. We come to know the place very quickly, in the short space of this mournful, disturbing story. We come to know it as a quaint, perfect retirement home for Peter and Helen – and we get a good sense of their contentedness, their fussiness and a very great sense of their devotion to each other. Her death precedes the events of the novella and, in her absence, the town becomes a frightening, gloomy place. The seagulls themselves are horrid, voracious monsters. The most ordinary suburban homes hide nasty secrets.
It’s a deceptively simple tale. The mourning film actor is mistaken by an abused child for the heroic Van Helsing – the character he has played in many films over the years. The boy wants rescuing from his mother’s boyfriend, who he explains in vampiric terms to the bewildered Cushing. Despite the venerable gent’s assuring the kid he’s only an actor, and can’t actually do anything heroic, Peter finds himself drawn into the frightening life of this boy.
There are some electrifying scenes. When Cushing goes to talk to the boy’s mother and she stands ironing and denying everything, with the TV playing constantly in the background, we’re awash with the feeling of this being a courtly gentleman displaced from his own time and his own world. When she snaps and swears at him and he bravely maintains his standards of good manners it seems to the reader like he’s lost his purchase on this deracinated world of the 1970s. With Helen’s passing he has lost his footing. Similarly, when the mother’s boyfriend comes to ‘talk to him’ at home and wedges his stolid, donkey-jacketed self in the doorframe – it’s a stunning, absolutely terrifying moment – and Cushing seems to lose hope against these modern day forces of darkness.
There are some lovely exchanges about the nature and relevance of different kinds of horror – with the Cushing character resolutely on the side of folk tale, fantasy, whimsy and how these things equip you to deal with the ordinary horrors of the everyday. He’s absolutely on the side of love, and opposed to cruelty, barbarism, exploitation. But his opponent in the 1972 conjured by Stephen Volk is like something out of ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘The Omen’ – Les Gledhill is a kind of demonically-possessed creature against whom Cushing seems at first powerless. I found the extended scene in the cinema riveting. With one of Hammer’s cheesiest vampire flicks playing in delicious, ironic counterpoint the whole time, we get a dialogue played out between Cushing and a very modern day Satan: the Cushing character summoning every shred of decency, courage and intelligence from every hero he’s ever played. It’s a marvelous climax to the book – played out almost entirely verbally, in a wonderfully atmospheric setting – heavy with dread and the sickly scent of warm Kia-Ora.
I love novellas because, being longer than stories, they can reach into the back story of their characters with greater confidence, and they can dwell in the longer, lyrical, atmospheric moments that a short story might deliberately gallop through. Novellas can give you the pin sharp scenes of a single story – a handful of them – so that they live in your memory the way a story’s highlights will.
Volk has already given us horribly convincing personifications of human evil in ‘Ghostwatch’ and ‘Afterlife’ – and here he gives us his most striking vision of redemption, helped along by the mildest-seeming of heroes. But that was always Cushing’s strength, for me – under the genial quirkiness of his heroes, there was always a very steely edge and that’s something captured wonderfully here.