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“But Terrifying People Was What He Did Best”: The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk

Stephen Volk’s name is well established among horror fans. His writing is iconic: from the screenplay for Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) to Ghostwatch (1992) – the mockumentary that traumatised England – to the acclaimed ghost story, The Awakening (2011). This year, as the days grow shorter, we get something new from this horror writer to occupy our late evenings: The Dark Masters Trilogy.

The recently published book is a collection of three novellas that focus on the horror and mystery icons: Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Dennis Wheatley. I was excited to read the book since the first time I heard about it, being not only a fan of Volk’s works but also a fan of the titular dark masters. Although the first two novellas – “Whitstable” and “Leytonstone” – have been previously published as stand-alone books (in 2013 and 2015 respectively), it is a treat for horror lovers to read the whole trilogy together – 450 plus pages of dread and mystery in a hardback.

In the first story, “Whitstable”, it is 1971 and the Hammer Horror icon Peter Cushing is grieving after his wife Helen’s death. From the very first page, Volk’s writing is masterfully crafted – the details and mournful tone set the story. Volk writes about Helen Cushing’s death with respect, and the reader can sense real-life loss and sadness Cushing felt. This is evocative writing that with precise descriptions transports the reader to Whitstable. The vivid smell of the sea and of the town’s famous oysters is in the air, fresh cold breeze touches your cheek, and the gulls cackle in the background.

The novella opens with the mourning actor, then in his late 50s, who suddenly finds himself in a kind of Fright Night (1985) situation as he befriends a lonely boy who claims his mother is dating a vampire. The boy believes Cushing to be vampire hunter Doctor Van Helsing and Cushing, although sceptical at first, takes on his most famous film role once more. Not only in this story but in the entire The Dark Masters Trilogy, Volk touches upon rather dark and difficult themes – and I don’t mean only bloodsucking vampires – and he does it with carefulness, realism and respect. He stresses the importance of heroes and monsters and that often people are scarier and more dangerous than any supernatural villain.

In the second novella, “Leytonstone”, Stephen Volk transports the reader to the childhood of Alfred Hitchcock. Here we follow young Fred, his strange relationship with his parents (a strict father and a very emotional mother), and we see how he behaves among his peers at school. Very soon the story takes a darker turn and Fred finds himself in the midst of a very Hitchcockian crime story. We come across hints about women – Hitchcock’s feelings towards them and his relationship with them, especially his mother and The Girl With Yellow Hair (iconic blond female characters anyone?). We also learn about Hitchcock’s real lifelong fear of policemen.

In the last novella, “Netherwood”, writer Dennis Wheatley gets embroiled in a tale of the occult. The year is 1947 and Wheatley is summoned by none other than occultist and magician, Aleister Crowley aka The Beast 666 and “The Wickedest Man in the World”. Wheatley has to use magic rituals to fight dark and devilish forces, with Crowley by his side. Volk’s outstanding research together with realistic descriptions and actual real-life characters make the fiction vividly real.

Alfred Hitchcock

The Dark Masters Trilogy is a unique book and a fantastic read, and definitely a must-read for any horror fan. Throughout the three novellas, Volk emphasises the significance of storytelling – whether in writing or on the big screen – and his characters confirm this. To the boy in Whitstable, and oftentimes to the reader, Peter Cushing is Van Helsing, the vampire hunter. Hitchcock – even in his early life experiences – terrifies us, and Wheatley continues to play with dark magic. So, get the book and walk by the sea with Peter Cushing, solve a mystery with Alfred Hitchcock, and fight devils with Dennis Wheatley. Immerse yourself in the parts of England with the dark masters, then go and watch their films, read their stories, and don’t let them be forgotten.

THE DARK MASTERS TRILOGY is now available from PS Publishing.  

About Magdalena Salata

Magdalena Salata is a MA Contemporary Literature and Culture student, and Diabolique's Web Editor. She is especially interested in Gothic, Neo-Victorianism, haunted houses and vampires. Magda previously completed her BA in English and wrote about Edgar Allan Poe, women, and death. She reads a lot and lives in London.

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