Written by: James Keen
“I know evil when I see it” – ‘Whitstable.’
An author who chooses to use as his chief protagonist a figure with a rich public life – be they popular or otherwise- arguably runs the risk of reducing their subject to indelicate caricature when mounting a narrative that depicts a fictional event taking place in said person’s private life. It’s a dangerous literary folly that can besmirch an author’s reputation – be they famous or a promisingly nascent talent. A grand way in which to establish – or destroy- any respectable merit a writer of credible and thought-provoking fiction might hope to become associated with. It’s something of a relief to document that Stephen Volk has managed to craft a singularly masterful work here, a profoundly moving paean to an actor whose reputation anyone who considers themselves an aficionado of the horror genre cannot possibly be unaware of.
In 1971, the film actor Peter Cushing famed for his work in various celebrated movies that dealt with the darker side of human preoccupations suffered through a horror of his own, devoid of set-decorators, props and a soaring orchestral soundtrack. This was the year Cushing lost the love of his life, his beloved wife Helen. It’s this understandably pivotal moment in the man’s life that Volk chooses to use as his narrative springboard for what is to follow. Cushing, utterly bereft and shut in at home, “shambling like something lost and misbegotten” struggles to make sense of his loss. He’s painfully cognizant of the maddening dilemma he faces, clinging to a hope to be reunited with her in an afterlife and driven by sentiments like those expressed by Samuel Beckett in his novel, ‘The Unnamable’, “I can’t go, I must go on, I’ll go on” and adhering to his own fundamental beliefs about not taking ‘the easy way out’ no matter how unbearable his life has become.
At the seeming nadir of his misery, Cushing encounters a young boy while taking in a visit to the seaside to clear his thoughts. The boy intrudes upon his solitude by uttering the words, “I know who you are”. The resultant conversation between the boy, Drinkwater ( who, much like the author does in an entirely different fashion, confuses reality with cinematic fiction) and Cushing the man sets in motion Volk’s primary conceit involving a personal crusade undertaken by Cushing. It would be remiss of this reviewer to elucidate further even given that this is a rather lengthy novella, but it proves to be a relentlessly compelling, horrifying read.
Volk’s obvious affection for the man bleeds through the pages, as does the abject sorrow his ‘character’ must have felt. But rather than allowing his cross-pollination of the real and the fictional to warp the narrative into little more than hero-worship, the author highlights the self-doubt and crippling self-awareness as this startling and terrifying story plays out, without a hint of mawkishness or embarrassing sentimentality. Volk’s portrayal of a man who raised the quality of some dreary efforts from the film studios, often elevating plagiarized schlock to stirring and appealing drama, is superb. No matter how groan-inducing the premise in the film might be, if Cushing showed up you invariably sat up straighter in your seat and paid extra attention, willing to forget whatever flimsy conceit you’d settled down to take in. The horror element here is alluded to, never explicit and proves to be all the more resonant because of the restrained manner in which the writer relays his tale. It is ultimately a deeply affecting novella and, though it was published early last Spring- certainly the best piece of writing this reviewer has read in this or any other genre thus far this year.