For aficionados of the macabre, this is industrial-strength catnip — a truly beguiling trilogy of novellas by a writer who has long been a master of the genre. What’s more, the sequence of three books — as well as functioning as atmospheric pieces in their own right — also serve as affectionate tributes from Stephen Volk to three British masters of the art of chilling the blood: Netherwood creates an adventure for the now-neglected black magic novelist Dennis Wheatley, while Whitstable is set in the town of the actor Peter Cushing, and Leytonstone is where Britain’s greatest film director, Alfred Hitchcock, grew up.
As a writer with a penchant for the uncanny, Volk’s considerable skills have occasionally been utilised in re-energising notions initially created by other hands, and finding new and fascinating territory to explore in previously explored paths (it’s a welcome and serendipitous predilection that the writer shares with Kim Newman, with whom Volk collaborated – along with other writers — on the portmanteau horror play The Hallowe’en Sessions, directed by Sean Hogan). Whitstable is a quirky novella that explores two of Volk’s favourite subjects, the great British Hammer Films and the latter’s most reliable actor, the late Peter Cushing (the title refers to the actor’s much-loved seaside home). The conceit here is to place the actor’s screen personality in a contemporary setting where the kind of supernatural evil he routinely battled is given a modern equivalent. The book works both as a tip of the hat to one of the British screen’s most imperishable icons and as a piece of utterly engrossing narrative of the kind that we customarily expect from this writer.
After his ingenious and winning homage to Peter Cushing, Volk turns his attentions to another much-esteemed Englishman who specialised in menace, the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Throughout his lengthy career in Hollywood, Hitchcock assiduously maintained his English identity, formed in the streets of his native Leytonstone — and it is this period in which Volk sets his elegantly written, always fascinating narrative. The author is one of the most ingenious practitioners of the horrific at work today, but this new speciality — inventing well-crafted narratives concocted around familiar British figures in the film world – has proving to be one of his most rewarding areas yet. This one is a piece to relish – even if you’re not an Alfred Hitchcock aficionado (although that certainly helps). The Dennis Wheatley section is equally winning in its off-kilter fashion, and admirers of all three subjects need not hesitate.
The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk is published by PS Publishing