Book review: The Pillbox - darkness in a seaside town

Richard Hughes' sensationally atmospheric story is born of the feeling that holiday towns are not just seedy, but fugitive, transient, and sepulchral

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm


Going somewhere nice on your holidays? Well, wherever you're off to, I hope it's nothing like the east coast resort in David Hughes' creepy new graphic novel. I wouldn't wish that on you, or anyone.

Yes, there are wide expanses of primrose-coloured sand, pristine and rather lovely. But they're also, just like the nearby promenade, patrolled by a collection of grotesques, skeletal and mostly half-naked.

In this part of the world, when someone asks the question: "Fancy a Mr Whippy?", you wonder what exactly they have in mind.

Our hero is Jack Crawford, who comes to this place every year with his parents and his wire-haired fox terrier, Dexter, his tedium relieved only by the occasional game of pitch and putt with his father, and by his explorations of the beach.

It's on one of these trips that he discovers a second world war pillbox - or at least he thinks he does. Later, it will seem to have been a figment of his imagination, rather like the mammoth he saw disappearing round the nearest cliff (in fact, a self-referential joke on the part of Hughes, who has also written children's books).

If this sounds whimsical, it really isn't. In 1945 something awful happened in the pillbox: a News of the World splash brought to life. A boy was killed, a handsome, knowing kid who, when he was alive, very much resembled the teenager Jack met there only the other afternoon.

Hughes' sensationally atmospheric story is born of the feeling - anyone who's ever strolled along a British pier has surely experienced it - that seaside towns, for all their bright lights, are a good deal darker than most places.

Seediness isn't the half of it. In their midst, it's possible to hide in plain sight. Their mood is fugitive, transient, and yet sepulchral, too, their populations shifting with the seasons, even as they remain stubbornly resistant to change.

All this is a difficult thing to capture in pictures and scant words but Hughes, an award-winning illustrator whose drawings have appeared in The New Yorker, is more than up to it. In fact, he's off the leash, every page stranger than the last, every frame more thoroughly infused with horror.

Sometimes he makes you laugh, and sometimes he makes you shiver, violently. Like the seaside itself, his book is salty (in one sense of the word if not the other), and its weather apt to change.

The Pillbox  by David Hughes  (Jonathan Cape )

The Guardian