Tuesday 16 October 2018

The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk

Three of Stephen Volk’s recent novellas, portrait stories of significant figures in the fields of horror and the macabre, have been lovingly and lavishly repackaged and conjoined as the ‘Dark Masters Trilogy’. Here we meet, in youth, middle age and premature old age, ‘Fred’ Hitchcock, Dennis Wheatley and Peter Cushing in the environs of Leytonstone, Netherwood and Whitstable. It’s a resonant overarching title. The real characters embedded in these tales of psychological suspense, uneasy horror and occult powerplay were all masters of the dark arts. But the darkness is also the existential void, the crisis of the soul with which Volk confronts them. Peter Cushing’s sense of desolation after the death of his beloved wife Helen; ‘Fred’ Hitchock’s childhood bewilderment at the strange machinations of the adult world; and the sense of inadequacy and social inferiority which bedevils Dennis Wheatley.

There is a thematic coherence which fully warrants the use of the word ‘trilogy’, and subtle links are included which connect the worlds of the three focal characters. In Whitstable, a waitress is referred to as ‘a Kentish Kim Novak’; Both Hitch and Aleister Crowley are likened to Buddha; Alesteir Crowley recalls an encounter with a young and enthusiastic Christopher Lee, who professes to be an ‘enormous fan’ of Dennis Wheatley (a gentle dig at Sir Christopher’s tendency to name drop); and Dennis Wheatley recalls his friendship with Hitch and Alma. But is this testing, this drawing out through the psychic scouring of adversity and terror, which draws the three portraits together and provides us with such a rich, ambiguous and ultimately loving depiction of legendary figures made human, revered icons rendered vulnerable. The stories, inflected with biographical detail but straying far from the straight path of fact, nevertheless feel true. Volk’s investment in the lives and the work stamps them with the hallmark of authenticity.

Novellas they may be, but Whitstable, Leytonstone and Netherwood are highly concentrated, multi-layered works which encompass a complex array of themes. As the titles suggest, they are partly evocations of place. The East End London of Leytonstone, where Fred’s father owned a grocer’s at 517 The High Road; The Kentish fishing town of Whitstable where Peter Cushing became such a well known resident; and the Hastings guest-house where Alesteir Crowley lived out his declining years. But these are also places rooted in particular historical moments, hence the appending of dates to the titles in the contents pages. Leytonstone is set in 1906, the pre-First World War twilight of Empire; Netherwood takes place amidst the post-war ruination and austerity of 1947 – ‘the blighted land’ as Dennis Wheatley thinks of it whilst gazing out of the train window; And Whitstable is situated in 1971, at the beginning of the steady decline of the decade following the euphoria of the 60s.

Together, they offer a kaleidoscopic portrait of England (more particularly, South Eastern England) across the twentieth century. Volk has a way of nailing time and place with a keen, haiku-like phrase. An ‘airfix blue sky’ is the perfect simile for a clear 70s day. And the use of the word ‘malachite’ to describe the particular shade of green livery employed by southern railway carriages somehow immediately fixes them to the 40s world, to British Transport Film colour. Indeed, the very fact that Dennis Wheatley, a writer at the height of his bestselling renown with the wealth attendant upon it, travels by train says much about the nature of post-war, pre-Beeching Britain. Small details are also used like cuttings in a nostalgic scrapbook to summon the particularities of an era. In the case of the 1971 of Whitstable, songs on the radio (Grandad and My Sweet Lord), Pan Books of Horror and a Doctor Who Radio Times cover heralding the first appearance of Roger Delgado’s Master.

This national portraiture also encompasses a keen sense of class division, which Volk delineates with great subtlety. The ‘monster’ of Whitstable is a working class character, and Peter Cushing’s entrance into his ‘lair’ and encounter with a working class mother is a finely observed distillation of the bristling class conflicts boiling to the surface at the time. It’s a measure of the novella’s loving tribute to Cushing (it was first published in his centenary year) that he is shown as being entirely understanding of her verbal hostility towards his refined accent and bearing, even though he feels each ‘fuck’ thrown at him as a blow. The class distinctions of the East End Edwardian milieu are exemplified by the division of the local into saloon and public bar areas. Even within the fairly narrow economic range of this neighbourhood, there seems some inherent need to put up barriers to make the stratifications of social position visible, to ensure they are correctly observed. The tensions created by the maintenance of such appearances are one of the barely understood influences which go towards forming the character of young Fred, and thereby, of course, his subsequent art.

Dennis Wheatley is plagued by a sense of social inferiority, of the hollowness of his achievements. Joan, his wife, is from an aristocratic background and he never feels a part of her circle; ‘they were Joan’s people, not his’, as his inner chorus comments during a recollection of a grilling at a particularly awful party. Like Hitch, the persona put on by the adult Fred, he feels the obligation to put on a front, an affable, clubbable façade. Peter Cushing, feeling utterly hollow in his grieving for Helen, also finds himself compelled to don his outward cloak of charm and gentile courtesy when all he really wants to do is hide from the bright life and expectations of the world. Pedro Marques’ cover art captures this aspect of the trilogy perfectly. The sense that we are glimpsing a series of authentic, troubled selves behind a carefully fashioned masquerade. This is not to say that we are offered the kind of one-dimensional ‘dark-side’ portraits of well-loved characters which have been a staple of TV biopics for some time now. These three stories are an attempt to create rounded, human characters by taking biographical details and fleshing them out with themes and preoccupations distilled from the work.

It’s an interesting fictional form, a blend of tribute, biographical meditation and auto-commentary on the subjects’ work. All three masters are caught within refractions and inversions of their own archetypal tales. Peter Cushing’s confrontation with a monster whose ‘evil’ seems inherent and ineradicable; Fred’s early reification of the ‘fair-haired girl’ icon, his manufacture of a suspense narrative whose ultimate, ever-receding aim is self-discovery; and Dennis Wheatley’s reluctant involvement in an occult thriller with the model for one of his own villainous magi, Alesteir Crowley - A scenario which complicates his own need for a world in which the forces of darkness and light are clearly defined, as they had seemed to be during the war.

These all work magnificently as tales of terror, unease and suspense in and of themselves. But the moulding of the fictional narratives around psychological portraits of actual artists (whether their artistry comprised of writing, film directing or acting), the splicing together of art and biography, results in a reflection on the extent to which authors, auteurs and actors invest truthful elements of their own being into their work (to whatever degree of self-consciousness or fanciful disguise). This also becomes a comment, particularly pertinent in an age of rampant celebrity, on the way that readers or viewers can mine books, films or performances for seams of the creator’s authentic inner life, which may be hidden by the cultivated public persona presented to the prying world. Dennis Wheatley’s experiences at Netherwood, his co-option and testing by the arch manipulator Alesteir Crowley, leads him to contemplate the theme for his next novel, the book which will free him form a debilitating period of writer’s block, a crisis of self-belief. He comes up with the title and the character sketch of the protagonist: The Haunting of Toby Jugg. With its portrayal of an airman physically and psychologically traumatised by the experience of war, it’s generally considered his most substantive and personally nuanced achievement.

Oddly enough, I have recently come across two further pieces of writing which have directly reflected upon the Dark Masters Trilogy. Earlier this year, I saw the film The Ballad of Shirley Collins and later read Shirley’s excellent autobiographical memoirs All In The Downs. Collins was a young girl growing up in Hastings during the post-war period. Her mother was a member of the local Communist party and would send Shirley and her sister Dolly out into the town to sell the party magazine the Daily Worker. Dennis Wheatley would have been horrified to see it. In the film, Shirley is seen watching the revived Jack In the Green ceremony in her old home town. More Pagan rituals in Hastings. She was aware of Crowley’s presence at Netherwood at the time. She notes that she and Dolly first sang in public at Oakhurst Hotel on The Ridge as part of a Hastings Communist Party social weekend. Netherwood was just nearby. Crowley ‘had a reputation as a person to keep clear of – and I know that when Dolly and I were walking along The Ridge to The Harrow where our Uncle Wally and Aunt Nell in their Tudor farmhouse, we’d always cross to the other side of the road and creep by. Then run!’ This is no doubt an anecdote which she has regaled to her good friend David Tibet, who was instrumental in encouraging her back to singing once more. Tibet creates powerful music of an incantatory, recitative nature with Current 93, constructing his own occult mythologies in which the forces of good and evil battle struggle for ascendancy in scenarios of Gnostic apocalypse. He was also one of the authors of Netherwood: The Last Resort of Alesteir Crowley, by a ‘Gentleman of Hastings’, a book which Volk found in a bookshop in the Old Town (an area which Shirley’s mum considered ‘rough’) and which proved indispensable for the writing of his own Netherwood tale. The introduction of All In the Downs is written by Stewart Lee, a great fan and supporter of Collins. Lee is one of the writers appearing in an anthology of horror stories written by comedians and edited by Johnny Mains and Robin Ince, Dead Funny (and its follow up, Dead Funny Encore). Volk dedicates the Dark Masters Trilogy to Johnny.

Another comedian with a story appearing in Dead Funny is Matthew Holness. His story Possum, about a tormented puppeteer, is the basis for a forthcoming film of the same name (with a very, very disturbing poster, particularly if you are an arachnaphobe). Holness was interviewed by the Guardian about it. He talked about his childhood in Whitstable, and his early obsession with the horror genre. He met with Peter Cushing in town, of course. Cushing ‘expressed concern that the six-year old asking for an autograph knew so much about Hammer’. Did young Matthew have a copy of Dennis Gifford’s Monsters In The Movies, I wonder. When he passed his 11-plus, Cushing gave him a copy of his autobiography with a lengthy inscription (yes, he really was a lovely man). Connections, connections.

In telling tales whose focal characters are key figures in the literature and cinema of horror and the macabre and incorporating them within contemporary variations of their own archetypal narratives, Volk also interrogates the nature of the genre. He suggests the insights into human nature, the understanding of the moral struggles constantly at work in the world and, strangely enough, the comforts which it can afford. Dennis Wheatley, in being granted a glimpse of his eventual obscurity, comes to the conclusion that there is a certain nobility and honour, an essential usefulness in providing people with imaginatively diverting and luridly exciting entertainments in a post-war era which has left people in a state of psychological shock. The names of Dachau, Buchenwald and Belsen are recited like an appalling dark litany in both Netherwood and Whitstable. In Leytonstone, the celebration of Empire Day, a tableau which is built around the famous photo of young Fred, clad in military attire, sat upon a pony outside his dad’s grocers in a street bedecked with Union Jacks, anticipates the clash of Imperial powers in the First World War, and the disastrous fractures of world politics and economics which ensued. What can a literature of terror do to encompass (or even to attempt to exclude) such terrible knowledge of the depths to which humanity can sink? How can the old Romantic and Gothic traditions continue to provide their sublime terrors, their subtle frissons in the face of the numbing extremity of the horrors starkly presented in newpaper photos or on the TV screen throughout the 20th century. Peter Cushing perhaps speaks for Volk in his self-defence of the genre for which he had unwittingly become such a defining figure. Answering a no-doubt oft-voiced question as to why he made such ‘horrible films’, he explains ‘I think the best so called “horror” shows us our worst fears in symbolic form and tries to tell us in dramatic form how we can overcome them’.

For Volk, a romantic humanist, the answer is connection, always connection. It is Hitch’s tragedy that he never truly seems to find it. There is always a hollow chamber within, a cell inhabited for life by the confused and frightened boy who must keep the world at bay with ordered systems (from train and tramspotting to the plotting of perfect cinematic thrill rides) and a bluffly remote façade of macabre joviality. The damage sustained in childhood and carried through into adulthood, and the threat to children from the damaged or simply monstrous is a theme which recurs in Volk’s fiction, from Afterlife to Ghost Watch and The Awakening. It is present throughout this trilogy too.

Both Cushing and Wheatley are firm believers in a benevolent Christian God, a force for good in the world. Their worldview is strongly moral, with an underpinning commitment to confronting evil wherever it might be encountered. For Wheatley, as for so many others, the Second World War was a fight against the encroachment of an evil ideological poison in the world. The ritual battle he takes part in with Crowley as an unlikely ally is a struggle against a kind of occult fascism, an attempt to use magic potency attained through pitiless cruelty and brutish bullying to exert a violent, self-aggrandising power. The dark magus whom they oppose is the antithesis to Wheatley’s values and it turns out, surprisingly, Crowley’s. His utter disconnection from all human connection, fellow-feeling and compassion are what makes him truly monstrous. The same is true for the monster whom Cushing confronts in Whitstable. He talks of life being about satisfying ones appetites, and talks of developing the taste for the once prevalent local delicacy of oysters (a scene with uncomfortable echoes of Laurence Olivier’s seduction of Tony Curtis in Spartacus). This is stated as if it were a self-evident truth. Cushing quietly offers an alternative credo in his mind. Life is given meaning through love. Peter’s love for Helen, and Dennis’ love for Joan. This is the redemptive force. Whether it derives from a benevolent God or from the shining heart of the Human spirit.

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