A group of friends find more to trouble them than a hang-over when they wake from a Stag Party in a remote country cottage in Sussex. The world has gone mad, infected by a disease that turns people into ravening, mutating, flesh eating monsters. Who or what is the cause of the outbreak? Will they survive and find their families and loved ones alive and un-turned? Is there any hope for humanity? How far has the plague spread?
What sets this very bleak but effective apocalyptic thriller apart from the groaning weight of it’s undead filled cousins are the monsters themselves, and their mysterious origin. The origin is very sketchily explained and this is both strength and weakness. I’ll come to that later. But the monsters, what you become if you are unlikely enough to contract this plague, are basically every combination possible of the mutations in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and then some. The body horror also nods to David Cronenberg, but the main respectful nods must be to “The Thing.” Fanged mouths and eyes generate in very odd places indeed, as do slimy tentacles and spider legs and all kinds of weird animal shapes that really do reference that film. As do the grotesque ways the monsters consume their prey, from just chowing down to absorption.
The horror is merciless and the tone relentlessly bleak, even for a genre not known for casual optimism. The characters are well drawn and the writer knows how to develop them, their reactions are heartbreaking and believable. The survivors find a small child, a girl, which ups the ante, as they fight to keep her alive. The pace of the narrative is fast. Short chapters will speed by in a blur. That this is managed whilst maintaining the generations of suspense, mystery, and character development is testament to good writing.
What was more problematic for me was that a bit of ‘slow burn’ in a plague or zombie outbreak’s origins is something I usually enjoy, the gradual exponential dread, the story of a patient zero and the ripples outwards. We don’t have that here, there’s something like a spontaneous mass infection. And what spares our protagonists, and the uninfected they meet? Why some and not others? Yes it’s spread by bites and scratches as usual, but the initial mass outbreak was caused by huge, mountainous organic alien ships in the sky (full marks for originality and creepiness). But how exactly did they kick things off? I’m hoping these things are unpacked in the next few books in the trilogy.
It’s bleakness and gore is “Walking Dead” strength (the graphic novels) so be warned. You may need to lie down and / or watch a Pixar movie on finishing this. Definitely a strong brew, but a good one.
All over the world mysterious black stones appear. They begin to pulsate, shimmer and then project a shimmering arch, through which surge hordes of demons, intent on world conquest.
The story is told through multiple viewpoints: Mina Magar, photojournalists in London, Rick Bastion, a faded alcoholic one hit wonder rock star in the UK South West, Tony Cross, a Staff Sergeant on the Iraq/Syria border, and Guy Granger, a US Coastguard off the coast of a besieged New York. All of them are close to a stone when it becomes a Gate, and all of them are in the front-line in this new war against Hell.
The monsters break down into 4 main groups; giant fallen angels, complete with loincloths and frazzled wings; badly burnt humanoids, ape like creatures with razor sharp talons, and possessed humans. The humanoids are talkative but their conversation is generally unpleasant, forever calling people “maggot” and “worm,” and threatening to variously disembowel people or defecate in their skull. All have a beef with humanity and generally want it gone so they can take over the world and desecrate God’s creation and make Him appear so they can make Him vulnerable and attack Him. Or something.
This book is stark, staring bonkers. Even by the standards of apocalyptic horror, it’s out there. It makes like your average zombie novel read like common sense. It has an effective build up and when the demons first appear I was intrigued. The multiple plot-lines / viewpoints were an interesting juxtaposition and you waited for some kind of narrative cohesion that would help you to buy into this world. That does not appear. There are a lot of set pieces, some effective shocks and Game of Thrones-esque offing of a major characters (although one is rescued by a pretty gob-smacking Deus ex machina) but there’s a lot of laboured exposition and info-dumping, as demons taunt their prey and explain the plot in a way the villains used to do on bad tv.
The theology is cartoonish in its depiction and understanding of Hell and it’s hierarchies.
And yet, I did enjoy the book, and it rattled along at a good old rate. There is enough skill in evidence to keep you flipping teh pages and immersed in this utterly daft pulp horror.
The audio version is read by Nigel Patterson who does a good job of characterisation, clarity and pacing
Horror writer David Moody runs “Infected Books,” a publishing company devoted to horror fiction. Infected Books are completing a year long monthly series of novellas of zombie fiction by different horror writers. “The Plague Winter” is Rich Hawkins’s contribution.
I haven’t read Hawkins’s”Plague” novels that this derives from, but on the strength of this I will most certainly be checking them out. So not having read this this review will be not be informed by the wider canvas of this particular apocalypse. But from what we can gather from the novella, humanity is done, wiped out by a hideous infection that transforms people into deformed, tumescent, zombie like creatures. But that’s not all. Their flesh is likely to erupt at any given moment into gaping, extra mouths full of alien teeth and livid red, suckered tendrils. If you think “The Thing” meets “The Walking Dead” you won’t go far wrong.
In this novella a grandfather (Eddie) shepherds his grandson (Sam) through this nightmare landscape. The grandfather scavenges for food (and whisky to keep his alcoholic demons at bay), returning to the cottage where he guards Sam under lock and key. They apocalyptic setting, scenes of scavenging, and father/son relationship is reminiscent of “The Road,” and even has a staccato writing style not dissimilar to Cormac McCarthy’s. But it is a good, and skillful borrowing.
It is a brisk, riveting read and has a sucker punch at the end. Recommended, and a real hook to the rest of this series.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.