An appreciation of horror pulp fiction of the 70’s and 80’s

As an inky fingered school boy, of 13 and 14 I remember certain lurid paperbacks being passed from sweaty palm to sweaty palm, avoiding the sweeping laser of the teacher’s glare.  Chief amongst these was James Herbert’s “The Rats,” and someone would know where you could find the choicest passages of sex and horror.  This was a window to the more shadowy areas of the adult world.

The first thing to grab you was the cover.    A bright, bloody image of a rat, huge gothic lettering, and punching back cover blurb basically saying “enter if you dare.”  The publisher of this and many other such works was New English Library.

The Rats.jpg

The next stage in my exploration was seeking out “the Rats” and “Lair” (sequel) and then the wider works of James Herbert in the public library.  Huddersfield library in this instance.   I remember reading of illicit lovers and tormented souls eaten alive, and the “boss fight” at the end, a battle with  huge mutant, two-headed I think, in “the Lair.”  I remember getting a disapproving comment off a well meaning old dear who saw me engrossed in such a tome.

herbertlair

So in my journey of puberty I hit on the timeless and intertwined themes of sex and death.  I reached out further into the genre and discovered the oeuvre of Guy N Smith.  His blog shows a decent, kind looking family man still writing and with his own cult following.  His books are wonderful cult fare.  They are short snappy hits that make the Rats look like War and Peace.  And one of his most beloved work of rampaging creature horror is not based around rodents but around crustaceans.

crabs

Welcome to “Night of the Crabs” and its series of sequels and prequels.  These monsters prove to be the terror of the Welsh coast.  And they are big.  Really big.  Capable of turning over a tank.  And in one memorable scene they do.  Their nemesis I remember was Professor Cliff Davenport, a pipe smoker and divorcee and expert in marine life.  In both the Rats and the Crabs series the formula for this rampaging creature strand of 70’s and 80’s pulp horror was set.  It is as follows:

An introductory scene describing the death of a character or characters.  Given the unfortunate person/s will only feature for one chapter, if that, some effort is made at a potted biography  and chain of circumstances that has led them to this particular moment of crisis.  In the Rats it was an outed closet homosexual, drunk and ashamed.  In Night of the Crabs it was the niece of Cliff Davenport and her boyfriend having a moonlight swim.  The chapter ends with these walk on characters being eaten, much to their shock and dismay.

This horror is followed by an introduction to the heroic protagonist.  Some biographical material may be given, and somehow they will be launched on their struggle with whatever mad horde of deranged creature is at hand.

Another minor character is then described, some biographical and situational information given, and they will meet the foe and be eaten.  Sometimes they will have sex and then be eaten. Sometimes simultaneously.

There’s a lot of sex.

There’s a lot of swearing.

There’s gore a plenty.

There are (initially) disbelieving and ineffectual authorities.

The heroic protagonist will go mano a mano with the monster boss.  The monster boss will have revolting mutant qualities.  In the Rats it was fur-less and giant and blind and in a sequel two-headed.

The hero may live but don’t count on it.  The books tended to eschew the movie trick of a shock teaser laying the way open for a sequel.  But nevertheless sequels or prequels may appear.

So that’s the template.  There were some wild and wonderful examples of the hordes of critters genre; I remember Richard Lewis dwelt on the unpleasantness of “Devil’s Coach Horse” going rampant.  Spoiler alert: this is memorable for the shocking death of the hero when the creatures get inside a tear in his protective suit.  Shaun Huston went for sliminess over speed when he penned “Slugs.”  Don’t think I finished this one, although the death by slug  of someone’s pet rabbit sticks in my mind.

dch.jpgslugs

The recent (2016) “The Hatching” could revive the genre but it really is light weight when compared to the literary nasties of the 70’s and 80’s, and it’s counterpart then would be Richard Lewis’s “Spiders.”  The Hatching has product placements by Diet Coke and everything is diet or lite including gore and terror, and there’s are no scenes of sweaty love making.

Of course it wasn’t all nature on the rampage (although I remember one book called “Folly”  where even rabbits got a go).  There were other things for 70’s and 80’s horror to do and explore.  There was pestilence, madness, aliens, demonic entity.  Witness James Herbert’s “The Fog” where what seems bad weather actually turn people bat-shit crazy if they go into this particular poor visibility condition.  If you have read James Herbert’s the Fog you will know what happens to the PE teacher at the hands of his class and wince.  Guy N Smith also envisaged “Thirst” about the pestilential effects of a chemical spill in an estuary.  And lets look to James Herbert again for a rampaging demonic entity in “the Dark.”

fogdark

So to recap that formula; shock opening death; hello hero; sex and death; hero says “hmm this looks suspicious”; sex and death; hero meets love interest; sex and death; authorities say “move along, nothing to see here, nobody panic;” hero says “you fools!  Can’t you see what’s going on?”  The hero and love interest have sex;  death; sex and death; mass casualties make authorities sit up and take notice; the hero has the boss fight.  In most cases the hero lives.  The end.

Back to my smutty early teen self.  Mum and Dad found me reading some examples of the above.  Mum and Dad banned such works from the house.  They thought such books might turn me into a serial killer (which they haven’t, honest).  But banning made them even more enticing and of course soon I was hoarding them in a lockable LP case in our “Summer House” (a shed with windows) where I stored all contraband such as cigarettes.  I remember that box full of lurid horror covers culled from book stores.  You could get quite a haul in second hand stores.

case

Then I grew up to the point where as a 16 year old, I could read James Herbert’s “Domain” in front of my parents.  Nuclear war and killer rats anyone?  The opening scenes of  nuclear attack in London stay with me to this day.

And I haven’t even mentioned Stephen King who in those days was just getting started, with “The Shining” and “Carrie” leading the way.  I remember my copy of the Shining with its bright yellow cover based on the Kubrick film.  It had stills from the film in the centre (film tie- ins tended to in those days).

shining

Today the horror novel is still very much in play but the lurid pulpy punchy days of the 70’s and 80’s are gone.  Now it’s emo vampires and lots and lots and lots of books about the dead rising.  Zombies, it would seem, are the new Rats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A review of Ezekiel Boone’s “The Hatching”

The Hatching is about two things; killer spiders, and Diet Coke.

So the spiders.  They are a vicious flesh eating horde that hunt in packs, swing through the air on silken threads, and incubate and hatch in live hosts (e.g. people).  They invade the world pretty much, and the invasion is told through differing perspectives; a troop of US Marines, an FBI agent struggling to protect his family, the US President and her staff, a family on a Scottish island, a group of survivalists in the US town of Desperation, and more.

Diet Coke meanwhile is a multi million dollar brand that has already taken over the world.  But you already knew that.  How do these themes come together?  Through product placement so obvious it’s offensive.  Diet Coke is mentioned roughly 10 times, usually with a complimentary description of its effects and taste and powers to revive.  If it was a film, the characters would be raising the tins to the camera and smiling.

If it was a film.  That’s another brazenly cynical thing about the book.  It is a project engineered to make moohlah through a concept sure to sell books and pack movie theatres.  It reads like it.  It’s a brisk, pacy read (352 pages, around 8 hours for the audio book), full of rapid cuts between scenes (especially  the final chapter) and spectacular set pieces (such as a freighter ship full of spiders running aground in LA).  The gore is pretty dialled down given the subject the matter, so it won’t scare away the studio bosses.  You could probably get away with rating it a 12, 15 at a push.

Characters and situations are left undeveloped and hanging for the next sequel instalment.

The audio book is a crisply read by George Newbern, who sounds like he is enjoying himself, and who probably consumed a crate of Diet Coke on the job.  He certainly sounds preppy.

Diet Coke is appropriate, this is horror lite, quickly consumed to give you a brief, forgettable buzz.

 

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength.”

The last of his “Space Trilogy,” this is widely held to be the most problematic of the series, and / or people’s least favourite instalment.  See my reviews of the previous books here and here.

My feelings are indeed mixed.  On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.

Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe.  In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham.  Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in.  N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day.  Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…

Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood.  Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood.  Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels.  The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.”  And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.

So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew.  What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E.  Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas.  He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress.  Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.

The baddies are hugely entertaining too.  Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage.  There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more.  Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining.  At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.

What I found problematic are found in the following strands:

Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book.  Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values.  Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror.  Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there.  This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.

This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”

In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology.  The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful.  His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging.  And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence.  It’s nothing if not audacious.

Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.

To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.

 

 

 

 

A review of Scott Smith’s “The Vine.”

‘The Ruins’ is a horror novel that proves that young, entitled twenty somethings remain the dish de jour as far as slaughter fodder in this genre.  There is a certain nihilistic pull in seeing such entitlement count for nothing in the face of some larger malignancy that eschews morality and the rules of civilisation.

This sees a group of back-packers holidaying in Mexico becoming embroiled in the hunt for the brother of a young German they meet, Matthias, last seen heading to an archaeological expedition in Mayan ruins in the jungle.

They consist of Jeff, practical problem solver and de facto leader of the group, Amy his partner, a practical young woman destined to be a high achiever, Eric the joker of the pack, a bit of a slacker and about to begin a career in teaching, and his girlfriend Stacey, promiscuous and as close to an air-head as the group have.  Later in the novel as the group discuss their predicament and joke about it being made into a film Stacey is described as the “slut” of the group destined to be killed first.  Bear with me and I’ll re-visit this point later.

So their predicament?  Well on reaching the ruins, after, of course, ignoring different warning signs from deliberately concealed paths, warnings from locals and an increasing sense of foreboding, they arrived at the titular Ruins.  Titular indeed, as we are told that it is shaped like a breast.  It’s covered in a profusion of coiling vines and star shaped red flowers.  They are suddenly confronted by armed, horse riding Mayans and a desperate local warning them away.  But Amy wants to take a photo of the scene, as you would, and in stepping back to get the whole scene in picture, steps into a mound of vines.  The Mayans become less Lassez faire in their outlook and immediately threaten the group to ascend the mountain, where they then maintain an armed guard around the perimeter, effectively quarantining the group.

The Vine turns out to be a cannibalistic, evolved intelligent  form of life that is capable of setting bait and traps, mimicking sounds including speech, and capable of lateral thinking and pro-active action.  You may not be startled to learn that the group have their numbers slowly reduced by said vine.

Firstly, what works?  Well it’s certainly an efficient page turner, and their is an amount of grisly inventiveness and some very nasty and prolonged suffering described shudderingly well in the pages.  There is a rank, fetid, oppressive atmosphere successively conjured by the writer.  You will want to take a shower yourself as you read of these poor trapped people, suffering from festering wounds and lack of bathing and sanitary facilities in stultifying heat.  The deprivations of hunger, thirst and terror are effectively portrayed, and there is a lot of description of the mental coping mechanisms the characters employ, reminiscing of better times, constructing hopeful scenarios, and so on.

But there are problems.  Firstly the premise.  The malignant plant is shown to have a number of abilities including problem solving, mimicry and indeed speech.  We can accept that plans already have evolved to create baited traps to hook prey such as the Venus fly trap being an obvious one.  And at one stage it’s hinted that it may only look like a plant, it could be something wholly other.  But that’s left ambiguous.  There’s not enough world building to give us a credible origin of this monster.  And as to why the Mayans are able to quarantine it in a ring of salt is another ill explained mystery.

Also I did not find it believable as to why the captive group do not audibly curse and rail against their Mayan captors.

And personally I did not find it a suspenseful read.  I turned the pages out of mild and morbid curiosity as to what the next horrible death would be, and if there would be any survivors.  But the outcome is pretty clearly telegraphed along the way.  It’s the lack of a credible premise and a lack of warmth towards to the characters that are principle causes of this, I think.  Also, as above mentioned, there’s a clumsy attempt at ‘Scream’ type irony as the characters describe who would play them if their predicament was turned into a film, and what type of characters they would be, i.e. the boy -scout, the joker, the slut, and so on.  Given that this was rapidly translated into a film betrays the point.  And Stacey’s character does nothing to subvert the role assigned to her.

So it’s worth a beach read, pages to whistle by quickly.  It’s just, in the end, unpleasant and unsatisfying