For those who visit upmarket Whitstable these days, it is difficult to visualise quite how drab and neglected it was in the 1970s. Yet Peter and Helen Cushing found its very sleepiness a refuge from metropolitan life, and it was here that Helen died in 1971.
Stephen Volk has written a novella to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Peter Cushing’s birth in May 1913. He picks up the story a month after Helen’s death, with Cushing, actually aged only 58 though he seems much older as depicted, grieving desperately. With no interest in life, unsustained by his faith and cut off from those who care about him, he looks forward only to his own death so that he can rejoin his wife.
One day, sitting by the beach, he is approached by a young boy who thinks Cushing is Van Helsing, and has the power to slay monsters. The boy confides that there is a vampire who visits him at night: his mum’s boyfriend Les. Cushing realises that he is morally bound to do all in his power to defeat this horror, so different to the stylised and contained version in his films.
To do so he turns detective, and the plot draws a portrait of two damaged individuals. One is damaged by the loss of all he holds dear, leaving him emotionally stunted and unable to cope because of the strength of the relationship he had had with his late wife. The other is scarred by having experienced the same kind of abuse that he now inflicts on another in turn, acts predicated on self-deception and rationalisation of perversion.
The climax occurs in the local flea-pit – a dispiriting place as many cinemas were at that time, more bingo hall than cinema – while the pair sit together watching Cushing’s performance in The Vampire Lovers. No stakes are employed in their off-screen confrontation, but words are just as devastating in their consequences.
His crucifix firmly in his pocket, Cushing, surprised at the strength of his inner resources, quietly but firmly shows that, while outwardly frailer, he is the stronger of the two in their verbal duel. Finally Les sees himself for what he is, and acknowledges what made him. In urging Les to redeem himself, Cushing is able to let go of the self-absorption of grief, and learn to live again, even if waiting for the day he can be reunited with Helen.
Volk very convincingly fleshes out what we know of how the loss of his wife affected Cushing. We see an icon from the inside, the narrative interweaving biographical details with the fictional story of how he found meaning outside his obsession with Helen, learned to face the world again, and in so doing made one sleepy little corner of Kent a better place.
Whitstable is the third in the series of SPECTRAL VISIONS novellas
Publication date: May 26th 2013
Available from the publishers: Spectral Press, 5 Serjeants Green, Neath Hill, Milton Keynes, Bucks, MK14 6HA, United Kingdom.