Q+A: Stephen Volk on Cushing tribute novella “WHITSTABLE”
Perhaps best known for his screenwriting work (GOTHIC, GHOSTWATCH, THE AWAKENING) Stephen Volk has also become increasingly prominent as a writer of short genre fiction. His new novella WHITSTABLE tells a fictionalised tale of horror legend Peter Cushing encountering a real-life monster; not in a Transylvanian castle, but in a humdrum English seaside town. An empathic, deeply melancholic work, WHITSTABLE sensitively handles not only its account of everyday, domestic horrors, but also the character of Cushing himself: a decent, dignified man racked with grief over the death of his beloved wife Helen. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the book is that it manages to capture the essence of what has made Peter Cushing so beloved amongst successive generations of genre fans, and in the centenary of his birth, he could receive no finer tribute.
STEPHEN VOLK: To be perfectly honest, as is sometimes the case, the idea for the story arrived fully fledged. My memory (which might be flawed) is that I woke up from a dream about two years ago. I don’t think it was a dream exactly – more that hazy state you get pre-waking. I said to my wife, Pat, that I’d had an idea for a short story. This is a rare occurrence, because I almost never tell people what I’m working on. But this seemed so complete in my head, I was excited by the thought and I was literally going to go straight to my keyboard to start it. I said to her: “Peter Cushing is walking along the beach at Whitstable, where he lives, soon after the death of his wife, and meets a little boy who thinks he really is Van Helsing and tells him he needs his help because his mum’s new boyfriend is a vampire.” Straight away she said: “And he isn’t a vampire.” And I thought – “You know, you’re right. Of course he isn’t.” And the story immediately had a whole other layer.
I hasten to add that, in my head, it was going to be a short story in those days. I thought, six thousand words, max. I had no idea it would go over the thirty thousand word mark. But it grew organically and I just let it. It seemed to want to find a different form, and I’m glad it did.
VOLK: I think I was attracted to the challenge. Of course I’m realising him as a fictional character in a fictional story, so I had to define him as the protagonist of my story first and foremost. As when I wrote Lord Byron in GOTHIC, it isn’t about the entire person – it’s just the aspect of the man that I’m interested in and I can relate to and convey. Other people using him in other stories would do it differently. But, yes, there is an obligation not so much to the “truth”, which is impossible, but at least not to get things wrong. To that end I did my best to cover my bases by getting feedback from people who knew Cushing’s films inside-out and in some cases had met the man. I’m happy to say that their feedback was universally that, according to them, I’d caught him pretty well.
But as I say, it’s a fictional extrapolation – just as the film GODS AND MONSTERS extrapolated a fictionalized James Whale, the director of the Boris Karloff Frankenstein. I am less keen on by-the-numbers biopics where the sole raison d’etre is telling you the “truth” about Johnny Cash or Ray Charles or Alfred Hitchcock. Paradoxically, they seem dishonest to me because you cannot know the whole story or whole person, ever. It’s an illusion.
FANG: How much research was involved?
VOLK: There are many books about Cushing’s films, obviously. I read several of those. Notably David Miller’s. And of course I have many books on Hammer, like THE HAMMER STORY by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes. But it was vital for me to read Peter’s two volumes of autobiography. They were immensely revealing. Also as part of the process I re-watched many of his films and discovered some startlingly good ones I hadn’t seen before, such as CASH ON DEMAND. Also, John Probert recommended to me a little-seen Hammer film called NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, which was relevant to the subject matter and I one thought Peter (in my story) might think of during his musings. I had to become immersed in it all, really, and took several trips to Whitstable on the Kent coast to walk around, get a look at Peter’s house, where he might have walked and sat. It was very important to me to do that. Essential, in fact.
FANG: The novella has a strongly melancholic tone – as well as Cushing mourning his wife, there is also a strong sense of his cinematic era passing, as well as an awareness of the limits of real-life heroism, as compared to Cushing’s movie roles. Did you intend the book as a sort of elegy, not only to the man himself, but that period of filmmaking? Did you have to resist the urge to make him more conventionally ‘heroic’?
VOLK: Well, to begin with, the game with this sort of story is to conform to the facts. I didn’t want Peter literally killing the bad guy, and committing murder. Not only did it seem wrong for this kind of story – which is (partly) about the difference between simplistic film tropes and the complexities of real life – but it didn’t seem remotely possible for Peter, my fictional Peter or the real Peter, to do something like that. And that was for the good, because it enabled a better and more subtle outcome. So that “movie” kind of heroism wasn’t on the cards. What I liked the idea of, as it emerged, was a quiet, more human heroism, one of moral heroism and care, where the turn in the plot in the end is about sticking your ground, about not being afraid, about having moral courage. And when you have that, in a mysterious way, fate intervenes. I didn’t even realise any of that until you just asked me the question, but I think that’s what came out of the process of writing it.
Similarly, I didn’t set out for it to be “elegiac” but I think things evolved to make it like that – the Oxford cinema being a den of Bingo, 1971 being a kind of threshold between “then” and “now” and the idea of Cushing representing “old” horror – the era of horror I grew up on and I still adore. So that was built-in, I suppose. My writing about an era that had passed. My own past, and childhood.
As for the melancholy, I knew it had to be set at the time of his wife’s death, because I wanted him at his lowest ebb, and to gain strength from this conflict where someone weaker than him needs his help. But I think there is another melancholy in it which is the pull towards death, and what stops us short, what makes us step back and choose life. And that can be a fragile thing. A frightening thing.
FANG: There is a sense in the book of the cosy Gothic horrors of Cushing’s movie career paling into insignificance against the real-life evil he encounters. Do you prefer your horror to be’ fun’? Do you think the genre should try to grapple with everyday atrocities?
VOLK: Always. Or often, anyway. Cushing always played his characters straight and I think there’s much more “fun” in the loosest sense of enjoyment or relish to be had in the genre if the writer plays it straight too. I enjoy some parody or pastiche horror, but not much, to be honest. I didn’t like SHAUN OF THE DEAD because I didn’t see the point – Romero’s zombie films were far subtler and more effective satires in their own right, so why spoof them? I suppose I think “spoofing” is very, very easy.
The horror I think of as “fun” is black humour or the absurd and surreal. I’ve just worked with Reece Shearsmith (LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, PSYCHOVILLE) and we have a lot of enthusiasms in common. Edging horror into absurdity can be good, but on the other hand relying on the usual clichés can be boring. I’m bored of zombies and I’m bored of aliens that look like Predator. These are just simplistic and don’t do anything new. They are just popcorn. I find them just emotionally arid. I think if horror writers aren’t writing about what genuinely horrifies them and frightens them, what are they doing? My objective in this novella was to confront a contemporary fear in the context of also examining the “fake” and “safe” horror that horror movies provide, and that we all love. I always think you come out of a cinema on a Friday night after seeing a scary movie, the real horror and terror is on the walk home.
FANG: For any readers who aren’t that familiar with Cushing’s work, how would you sum him up as an actor? What’s your favourite Cushing performance?
VOLK: There are readers unfamiliar with Peter Cushing’s work? Is that even possible? Well, first off the bat I’d say he is the absolute definitive Van Helsing in a few of the Hammer DRACULA series (BRIDES OF DRACULA probably being my favourite), and the definitive Victor Frankenstein in their FRANKENSTEIN films. On top of that, he is probably my favourite Sherlock Holmes of all time (he played him in both Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, and the eponymous BBCTV series in the late sixties). Other roles of his I treasure include the scientist in Nigel Kneale’s THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (why on earth did Cushing never play Quatermass? He would have been superb!), and the uptight bank manager in CASH ON DEMAND. But two of his classic parts, for the horror fans out there, are Grimsdyke in TALES FROM THE CRYPT and Dr Terror in DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, both for Amicus.
How I would sum up Cushing’s approach to horror (or as he preferred to call them, “fantasy”) films? That he took the story and the characters seriously. That, because he believed in them, however ghastly, however absurd, so did we. He always brought an element of pathos, too, I think, because of his innate humanity as a person. You always feel that in an actor. In my opinion, that’s why he is not just a great actor in a technical sense, but one beloved by so many fans.
FANG: As someone who makes a living as a screenwriter (with all the ups and downs that entails), was writing a book cathartic in any way? Was it a deliberate attempt to keep creative control and write something that was ‘yours’?
VOLK: Yes. I must admit with the travails of the film and TV business, a story or script goes through many hands and is pummelled, often, by many influences. There’s something about writing prose and being totally in charge with what the finished item becomes that is fantastically liberating. I know I will be judged, for good or ill, on my skill and what I want it to be – not on anybody else’s input or interpretation. And films take so bloody long to happen – if they happen at all! It’s nothing for a script to be several years in development, and I have several films still in development that were begun five, ten, sometimes twenty years ago! The lovely thing about a story is you can get it out there and people can read it. With a script, you can labour for years and years and sometimes only six people will ever have read it and then it’s dead.
It’s become absolutely essential for me to write short stories and novellas in amongst my screen work, for all those reasons. Plus I really admire the hard work that small independent publishers like Spectral Press do for the genre. They struggle to make a living, but they care about quality and originality far more than most people in the film and TV industry I meet. Sad, but true. And I have to tip my hat here to Simon Marshall-Jones of Spectral who has been prepared to bust a gut to bring out WHITSTABLE in Peter Cushing’s centenary year – in fact in the very month, May 2013!
Writing this was cathartic in a different way than you mean, perhaps – in that it returned me to the age when I really was awakening to the intoxicating power of those horror films – gothic films, fantasy films, films of the dark imagination, call them what you will. Alarmingly, I am the age now that Peter Cushing was at the time the novella is set, however I don’t identify with the middle-aged man, the “expert on horror” pondering mortality, so much as the little boy frightened of monsters. Perhaps as horror fans, to a certain degree, we become one but remain the other at the same time. Maybe that’s what the novella is about, too.
FANG: Some of the book feels quite cinematic – I’m thinking of the ‘cross-cutting’ between Cushing’s confrontation with Gledhill and THE VAMPIRE LOVERS playing on the cinema screen in front of them. Was your writing process any different from writing a screenplay?
VOLK: I didn’t write it the way I write a screenplay, which is usually strictly structural, breaking down an outline, usually on index cards. With this, though, I wrote a document which is the basic plot – just one page or so at first – which I fleshed out as I wrote another document in parallel, which was my research including various other random ideas that occurred to me along the way. Then I began writing with the two documents open in front of me. But, as many novelists will agree, I find with prose writing – in this, for sure – it was finding the so-called “voice” and following where the voice takes you, even though it’s not a first-person narrative as such. All the reactions and all the internal monologue had to feel right and you had to trust them.
But if the pictures or scenes I create are cinematic too, I’m not displeased. The confrontation in the cinema as an idea came quite late: I thought, “where will they meet? Oh, the local cinema. That would be nice. And what might be showing there in February 1971?” and it seemed inevitable that a Cushing film would be screening. The Vampire Lovers – even the title was perfectly appropriate in a queasy way to what was happening in my story. The juxtaposition was too delicious not to play with. And it ended up being one of my favourite scenes.
FANG: One final (possibly blasphemous!) question, but if the book were to be made into a film now, who do you think could play Cushing?
That’s a tricky one. Mark Gatiss (another LEAGUE alumnus) is a massive Peter Cushing fan and superb actor. One could imagine Ralph Fiennes, actually, though one idea that intrigues me – because I honestly think his voice is perfect – is Nigel Havers. He is the exact right age, and I reckon if he combed his hair back he’d look the part to a tee. Plus he has big, soulful eyes. And if anyone’s interested, I’ve got in my head that Cushing’s nemesis, the sexual predator Les Gledhill, would have to be played by Neil Maskell (KILL LIST, UTOPIA) – he is quite chilling in his absolute ordinariness – which would be perfect.
Ha! The weird thing is that I write my short stories and novellas as a complete antidote to my screenplays, but when they are finished, and I look at them, I can’t help thinking, you know – what if…?
The limited edition of WHITSTABLE is on advance sale now and will be published by Spectral Press in May 2013.