A Celebration of Stephen Volk
The Dark Masters Trilogy
Ann Laabs delves into Stephen Volk’s The Dark Masters Trilogy, a triumvirate of novellas featuring a grieving Peter Cushing, a very young Alfred Hitchcock, and Dennis Wheatley’s mysterious summons from ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’…
Reading The Dark Masters, a 2018 triptych of novellas by author Stephen Volk, I realised a couple of things.
One, I have a LOT to learn about the minutiae of British life. From “Airfix Blue” to Pontefract cakes – there’s so much Doctor Who, Masterpiece Theatre and Agatha Christie mysteries didn’t cover. Second, The Dark Masters is a spellbinding, sometimes confounding, journey into the dark heart of mid-20th Century British masculinity. Volk takes three legends of British popular culture – actor Peter Cushing, director Alfred Hitchcock and writer Dennis Wheatley, and extrapolates each man’s private and professional lives into fantastical journeys as they confront their own heart of darkness.
The first story, ‘Whitstable‘, focuses on the lowest point of Peter Cushing’s life: the death of his beloved wife Helen in 1971. The real agonies of loss hedge this story’s fantastical elements; we find ourselves suspending our disbelief along with Cushing as the tale develops. We, like Cushing, must decide if the evil he fights is supernatural – or all-too-real. Can an actor channel the courage of his frequent on-screen alter ego Abraham Van Helsing to fight a corruption that nobody, including himself, believes exists in the real world?
Cushing’s journey, from a man so crushed by grief he can barely function:
“He was an actor. He would act. Act as if he were alive.”
to reluctant avenger, reminded me of the protagonist of Peter Medak’s 1980 movie The Changeling. Like the oh-so-rational music professor, Cushing finds renewed purpose and a reason to live through a reluctant rescue mission. In its portrait of grief and a man recalled to life, ‘Whitstable‘ is a beautiful, melancholy, and ultimately life-affirming story.
In this collection, the first and third stories chronicle the struggles of basically moral men compelled to embrace, however reluctantly, the darkness within themselves. The second story, ‘Leytonstone‘ (or ‘Portrait of the Director as a Young Gaslighter‘), is very, very different. We read of a young man gazing upon that same darkness with a detached fascination before holding it tight. It blends a (probably) apocryphal story from director Alfred Hitchcock’s childhood with Hitchcockian hallmarks, tales of the director’s real-life treatment of actresses on his film sets, and general suspense/horror tropes into a ‘school story’ so utterly dark, I had to take a break before going on.
‘Leytonstone‘ is undeniably compelling reading, but for me, it has some issues. As the suspense builds, so does the humiliation, cruelty, and physical/emotional torture of the main female character. For me, young Fred Hitchcock’s embrace, indeed his enjoyment in inflicting these elements on a young woman, felt over-the-top, as if Psycho (1960) veered from suspense to torture porn to cruelty for the sake of cruelty. Secondly, the subplot involving Hitchcock’s mother and a corrupt policeman was an awkward fit. It felt shoehorned in just to add extra servings of Oedipal ickiness and sexual humiliation and to take the darker subtexts of Hitchcock’s movies to their most disturbing, explicit conclusions.
Despite featuring “The Wickedest Man in the World” in a supporting role, The Dark Master Trilogy‘s third story, ‘Netherwood‘, brings the collection back to the light. It also added Dennis Wheatley to my ‘new to me’ author list. Volk skilfully weaves in enough information on Wheatley’s work to spur readers unfamiliar with his writing to the nearest bookstore. While Wheatley is ostensibly the protagonist of this tale, it’s his old frenemy Alister Crowley who steals the reader’s attention. Through sly manipulation and guild, an faded, elderly, and ailing Crowley lures Wheatley to the titular hotel/B&B for a rescue mission. As in Cushing’s story, ‘Netherwood‘ involves an attempt to save a child in peril.
If, as the cliché goes, the bad guy is always more attractive, in this story, Volk makes a has-been, sclerotic wizard an object of the reader’s simultaneous sympathy and contempt. Like Wheatley, we’re both fascinated and repelled by Crowley. Compared to Wheatley’s mundane reality, Crowley’s life, however diminished at present, is still a life lived beyond limits. But as the aged wizard learns, it’s also a life that damages himself and everyone around him. Crowley is desperate for attention, pathetically grateful for anyone to take him seriously, then somehow shocked when a new acolyte takes his words to their literal and logical conclusion.
‘Netherwood‘, like Hitchock’s tale, did drag a little towards the end, especially during Wheatley’s drugged-out occult ritual at the finale. But I mean this in a good way – I couldn’t wait to find out if Wheatley and Crowley succeeded in their mission. And unlike Peter Cushing’s tale, we find out with a bit more certainty if they succeed or not.
After reading these three tales, I think that Cushing and Wheatley’s takes best fit what I took to be the overarching theme of the collection – the fight to save and value life. After his experience, Wheatley resolves, like Cushing, that “Life was what mattered.” Hitchcock’s tale, while a little too much in the Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme) vein for my taste, is a disturbing change of pace that I appreciated more than I enjoyed. All three stories are fascinating jewels that fans of dark, melancholy horror will find well worth their time.
The Dark Masters Trilogy may be my first experience of Stephen Volk’s writing, but it certainly won’t be the last.