Earlier in the year, I was fortunate enough to acquire a copy of Stephen Volk’s book Whitstable, published by Spectral Press. The story, concerning the profound emotional crisis that Peter Cushing experienced after his wife’s death, was one of the most moving stories I have read this year – Mr Volk managed to invoke the spirit of Mr Cushing so deftly, and the desperation of his circumstances so clearly, that the result was both mesmerising and deeply melancholy, without ever becoming maudlin. As a result, I was very excited to see what would come next. When I heard the project was to be a telling of Alfred Hitchcock’s childhood, and in particular a re-telling of the (possibly apocryphal) childhood incident where his father bribed a policeman to lock him in prison overnight (to ‘scare him straight’, one must suppose) I was excited, but also a little nervous. Mr. Hitchcock is a very different proposition to Mr. Cushing – aloof, even cold, possibly misanthropic, definitely all around a more prickly and less likable character than the essentially decent, quintessentially English gentleman portrayed in Whitstable. Additionally, the story takes place in Hitchcock’s childhood. What could this man possibly have been like as a boy? How might the shadow of the man he would become be reconciled with a child’s character? Didn’t the whole exercise run the risk of lapsing either into cod pop psychology, or reference laden foreshadowing in the place of an actual story?
I needn’t have worried. Mr. Volk handles all these potential pitfalls with the kind of skill and sure footedness I am coming to expect from his writing. His prose style is direct and uncluttered, but he nonetheless manages to skilfully, even poetically, invoke the bygone age of pre-war London, and the aspiring working class/lower middle class background the young Fred grew up in. His father’s grocer’s shop, the Catholic school he attends, his bedroom – all are expertly conjured out of the past and brought into our imaginations. The sense of place and time are meticulously rendered, whilst never feeling ‘researched’ or overly pedantic. In this, the primary perspective of young Fred is a canny, if not brilliant choice – through that slightly dreamlike quality of a child’s perspective, the world of Leytonstone is given a quality that is at once sharply rendered and yet ethereal, slightly dislocated.
That fact that the child is Alfred Hitchock adds another layer, of course. Even at this tender age, it’s clear that ‘Fred’ is a most untypical child. Fiercely observant and intelligent, but also shy and awkward, in many ways the quintessential outsider, his mind becomes the perfect filter for the foreign country of the past, even as it drives forward the narrative. Similarly, the child’s perspective of a night spent in a cell is both heart-breaking and terrifying, not least because young Fred, whilst clearly badly frightened, is nonetheless removed from much of the histrionics or more obvious sentiment which one might normally expect a child to feel. Because of this, the tension and horror of the situation is exacerbated rather than mollified or lessened, and this entire section of Leytonstone is a tour-de-force of tension and fear, even edging onto gothic horror, all while rooted far too uncomfortably in reality.
The plot of the story is similarly surprisingly meaty, given the constraints of working with such a prominently historical figure. That this book manages to contain both heart-stopping twists and a genuine sense of suspense and tension for much of it length is a staggering achievement, and again testament to the extraordinary writing talents of Mr. Volk.
That said, the reason the book felt so special to me was for that wonderful invocation of the time, the place, and this singular child. Hitchcock buffs will no doubt revel in the ghost of future movies that haunt the text throughout (and rightly so), but I think the greatest strength of this book is that I genuinely believe you could know almost nothing of Hitchcock’s work, and this would still stand as a powerful, gripping, and amazingly evocative narrative – one that will stay with you long after the pages have all been turned.
It’s a huge achievement. I cannot wait to see what Mr. Volk does next.