Today’s Art (20th November 2019)

This is a digitally-edited drawing that I made for the Transgender Day Of Remembrance.

As usual, this drawing is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Transgender Day Of Remembrance 2019” By C. A. Brown

Three Reasons Why 1980s British Horror Fiction Was So Shocking

Although horror fiction has had something of a resurgence in recent years, it’s interesting to note that (with the exception of the zombie genre) it has mostly gone back to a more traditional focus on atmosphere, suspense, implication, psychological horror etc…

This isn’t a bad thing. These traditional elements have stuck around because they are effective. When brought up to the modern day and placed in modern settings, they can still be extremely disturbing. So, this article isn’t too much of a criticism of modern horror fiction.

On the other hand, when I started to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 splatterpunk monster novel “Breeding Ground” before writing this article, I was reminded at how different it was from modern horror fiction. How much more transgressive it was compared to the scarier, but perhaps not as shocking, horror that you’d typically find in a more modern novel. This is a novel that absolutely revels in grossing the reader out – and you don’t really see this sort of thing that often in modern horror fiction.

If a modern horror novel is an ominous piece of classical music that sends a shiver down your spine, this 1980s novel is a heavy metal song turned up to eleven (and, yes, the one and only Iron Maiden are referenced in it too 🙂 ).

So, naturally, this made me think about why 1980s horror fiction – here in Britain especially – was a lot more transgressive than modern horror fiction often is. Here are some of my theories:

1) Historical context: Ok, there’s a lot of stuff here. The first is probably that, unlike the stylised US-influenced popular image of “the 1980s” these days, 1980s Britain was apparently a fairly miserable place to live in.

Although I haven’t studied 1980s history in a gigantic level of detail and didn’t even exist for most of the ’80s, even the comedies from that decade ridicule the general grimness of the country back then.

One of the side-effects of this was that horror authors noticed all of this stuff. They rebelled against it and they used it as a source of horror. They wrote stories set in miserable places where horrible things happen to people who live dreary, precarious and/or second-rate lives because, in a world like that, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible. They satirised the supposed bastions of goodness (eg: politicians, religions, celebrities, the police etc…) that everyone was told to trust in those troubled times. Or, to put it another way, there’s a reason why the genre is called “splatterpunk”. Like old punk music, 1980s horror fiction had a lot to rebel against.

The second is that horror fiction was in a fairly unique position at the time. In mid-1980s Britain, there was a ridiculous moral panic (is there any other type?) about “Video Nasties” – gruesome horror films that had been released on the newfangled VHS format. This led to film censorship being extended to cover videos, with the censors actually becoming stricter. However, thanks to a very enlightened court decision a couple of decades earlier, literature was (and thankfully still is) pretty much a safe haven from official censorship.

Needless to say, there was clearly an appetite for shocking transgressive horror entertainment at the time. Horror authors were in a unique position where they could reflect these changes in the genre in a way that films weren’t allowed to. And, with this added freedom, they were able to write stories that were gorier, grosser and generally more shocking than even the most “extreme” modern horror movies. Of course, since horror movie censorship has been relaxed over the past couple of decades, horror authors have less reason to make their stories as transgressive as they once did.

Thirdly, horror fiction was actually popular back then 🙂 Although I was somewhat late to the party, I remember seeing loads of old 1980s horror novels in charity shops, second-hand bookshops etc.. during the early-mid 2000s. It seemed to be as much of a fixture on 1980s high street shelves as crime thriller fiction is these days. Of course, since there were more horror novels for readers to choose from, there was probably more incentive for horror authors to out-shock the other authors, to provide horror fiction that was scarier, grosser and generally more extreme than the competition.

2) Respectability: One of the cool things about horror fiction in the 1980s was that, like with computer and video games in the 1990s, it wasn’t a “respectable” genre.

This meant that the genre had a lot more freedom. Since it was “trashy” entertainment that was made by and for fans of the genre, it didn’t have to worry about winning mainstream accolades. It could be as high-brow or low-brow as it needed to be in order to provide the kind of experience that readers would enjoy. Everything from the no-nonsense grisly grittiness of Shaun Hutson to the sophisticated dark fantasies of Clive Barker could thrive in this environment.

Because it was seen as “low culture” that fans enjoyed for the sake of enjoying it, it didn’t have to hold back because of what “respectable society” might think. It didn’t really have to advertise itself because horror fans knew an interesting horror novel when they saw one (even when I got into reading horror fiction during the early-mid 2000s, you could always tell that a book was a 1980s horror novel just by looking at the cover). Like modern heavy metal music, 1980s horror fiction was pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, media etc… and could do its own thing in a way that other genres couldn’t.

Of course, these days, horror fiction has had to regain some of it’s former popularity by appealing to more “respectable” audiences. This means that the genre also has to have an eye on things like professional literary critics, reading groups, large publishers, awards and what modern culture thinks is “acceptable” entertainment. But, like with modern videogames trying to gain some of the respectability of cinema by becoming more “cinematic”, this has resulted in major changes – some good, some bad- in the style, techniques etc.. of the modern horror genre.

3) Novelty: Horror fiction has existed for over a century at the very least. But, transgressive, shocking and/or ultra-gruesome horror fiction only really started to become a thing from the mid-1970s onwards (with James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats” being one of the earliest popular examples). Back then, this type of horror was something new.

It was shocking because it was so different from the horror fiction that had come before it. It was a type of horror fiction that would have been pretty much unthinkable in the 1950s or 1960s. And, as such, it was something that authors were eager to explore and readers were eager to experience. It was the literary equivalent of ID Software releasing the original “Doom” at a time when computer games were mostly cartoonish platform games aimed at children.

Of course, novelty doesn’t last forever. Over time, “shocking for the sake of shocking” lost some of it’s appeal. The readers became jaded and the authors probably wanted to expand their repetoire. So, transgression and shock value went from something that a horror novel could rely on to being just one ingredient of many that horror authors can use. And, with the novelty value lost, authors also felt more free to look back at the older elements of the genre and find ways to bring them up to date.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Review: “England Expects” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from reading spin-off novels and take a look at a detective novel that I’d planned to read about two or three years ago. I am, of course, talking about Sara Sheridan’s 2014 novel “England Expects”. This was part of a boxset of the first three of Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” novels that I was given by a family member for Christmas in 2016.

At the time, I read the first two books (but only got round to reviewing the first one) and also ended up getting a copy of the fourth one . A couple of months ago, I ended up reading the fifth novel because I couldn’t find my copies of the third and fourth books at the time. Needless to say, they turned up shortly afterwards and I’ve been meaning to read them ever since.

Although “England Expects” is the third novel in a series, it can be enjoyed as a standalone novel. Yes, you’ll get slightly more out of it if you already know the characters from the first two books, but it tells a fairly self-contained detective story.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “England Expects”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) paperback edition of “England Expects” that I read.

The novel begins in Brighton in 1953. It is a bright summer day and Express reporter Joey Gillingham has just arrived in the city to investigate a story. But, since he has a bit of time to spare, he decides to stop off at a local barbershop for a shave and a haircut. Whilst the barber goes into the backroom to get some tea for Joey, a mysterious man strides into the shop and slashes Joey’s throat.

Needless to say, ex-military intelligence officer turned debt collector and unofficial detective Mirabelle Bevan is intrigued when she hears about the murder. Her friend and colleague, Vesta, has other things on her mind though. Her partner Charlie has proposed to her and she isn’t sure whether to accept or not, because she worries that it might affect her job with Mirabelle. So, the case provides a welcome distraction for her too.

Not only that, the lead detective on the investigation (McGregor) is shocked to hear that one of his detectives has moved Joey’s body before he had a chance to examine it and that Joey’s notebook is missing. And, after someone dies in suspicious circumstances at the local masonic lodge, it soon becomes clear to all concerned that the case is more complex than it first seemed….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly compelling detective thriller novel, which is a little bit like a blend of classic Agatha Christie, modern historical fiction and a hardboiled detective novel. Even though it has a couple of small flaws, the novel has a fairly good historical atmosphere and a plot that becomes more thrilling as the story progresses.

In terms of the novel’s detective elements, they’re fairly good. There is the usual thing about seemingly separate crimes turning out to be part of the same case, and the investigation includes a really good mixture of Agatha Christie-style questioning scenes, some suspenseful sneaking around, a couple of red herrings, a few Sherlock Holmes-like deductions and a few elements that wouldn’t be out of place in an old hardboiled crime novel. These elements work really well and it’s really cool to see an Agatha Christie-style mystery, but with a slightly grittier and more hardboiled edge to it 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements, which mostly consist of suspenseful spy-like snooping and a couple of more dramatic moments, appear more prominently in the later parts of the story and help to keep things fairly gripping. Likewise, one of the major themes of this novel is secret societies, which helps to add a bit of extra suspense and drama too – even if this topic is handled in a rather cheesy and/or stylised way during some parts of the story.

In terms of the novel’s historical elements, the novel has a really impressive historical atmosphere and, like in many of Sheridan’s other novels, is also critical of the problems and narrow-minded attitudes lurking behind the twee respectability of 1950s Britain. Although this element of the story is mostly handled well, a couple of moments would probably have worked better if they had been handled in a more subtle way.

The novel also includes some rather amusing satire – such as in the opening scene involving the Express reporter (who, for example, wants a conservative military haircut). Not to mention that, if you’ve ever visited the modern version of Brighton, it’s fascinating to see what the city would have looked like during the 1950s (with, for example, the Royal Pavillion being in a state of disrepair etc..) too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. In addition to seeing a few familiar characters from other novels in the series, the characters all seem like fairly realistic (if mildly stylised) people with realistic motivations, imperfections and personalities. The characters really help to add a lot of drama and historical atmosphere to the story and are probably one of the best parts of the novel.

As for the writing, it’s really good too. This novel’s third-person narration is formal and descriptive enough to add some historical atmosphere to the story, whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to be fairly readable and relaxing too.

Likewise, the novel’s length and pacing are really good. At an efficient 271 pages in length, the novel never feels bloated. Likewise, although some of the earlier parts of the story are closer to a slower-paced traditional detective story, the story gradually becomes more thrilling and fast-paced as it progresses in a way reminiscent of classic vintage thriller novels like Agatha Christie’s “N or M?” and classic hardboiled detective fiction.

All in all, this is a compelling historical detective thriller. It’s an atmospheric and intriguing blend of traditional Agatha Christie-style fiction and more hardboiled fiction that combines it’s detective and thriller elements really well. Yes, there are some small flaws, but it is still a good novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

What Can A Computer Game Teach Us About Writing Horror Fiction That Focuses On One Type Of Horror?

Although good horror fiction relies on using multiple types of horror to frighten the reader by keeping things unpredictable, there is something to be said for focusing on one type of horror. This was something that I was reminded of by a computer game, of all things.

Although it might be a while until I review it, I’ve been occasionally playing a modern survival horror game called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) recently and, unlike many of the survival horror games I played during my youth, it is terrifying. Literal heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, panicked “I shouldn’t be this scared by a game!” terrifying. Yet, the game mostly focuses on just one type of horror. Suspense.

This is a screenshot from “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) showing the main character hiding beside a bookshelf. And, yes, I’m using the low graphics settings.

A lot of what I’ve played so far involves sneaking around, hiding and/or constantly worrying that danger is nearby. Yes, the game includes other types of horror (eg: jump scares, gory horror, ominous horror, creepy locations, creepy characters etc..) but the main type of horror here is suspense. Everything from the relative lack of weapons, to the scarcity of save points, to the sound design is designed to create a constant feeling of suspense. And it is terrifying

But, what does any of this have to do with horror fiction?

Well, horror fiction and horror computer games are two very different mediums, but this game can teach us a few things about focusing on one type of horror. The first is that everything in your story should be set up to emphasise that one type of horror. The characters, the premise, the plot and even the writing style need to emphasise this type of horror.

For example, if you’re focusing on psychological horror, then you should think about using things like unreliable narration, settings that will unnerve the reader, characters that don’t seem entirely trustworthy, subtly creepy descriptions etc…

All of these elements may not be directly related to the main plot, but they will help to emphasise the psychological horror elements of your story. They will make the reader feel constantly on edge because everything in your story seems to be a potential source of psychological horror.

The second thing that this game can teach us is that focusing on one type of horror doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include other types of horror. Again, good horror fiction relies on multiple types of horror. If you focus on one type of horror, then you still need to include small amounts of other types of horror too. These don’t have to be the main focus of the story, but they need to be there to keep the reader on their toes.

Not only that, including a brief moment of another type of horror will make it even more dramatic because your reader won’t be expecting it. A great literary example (SPOILERS ahoy!) is Ryu Murakami’s 1997 novel “In The Miso Soup”. This novel mostly focuses on suspenseful horror and character-based horror, so the novel’s one scene of gory horror is considerably more shocking because of its suddenness.

The brutal grisly violence of this scene has much more impact than similar scenes in splatterpunk novels for the simple reason that the reader has got used to other types of horror and isn’t expecting gory horror. So, remember to include other types of horror occasionally.

The third thing that this game can teach us is the value of allusions and knowing your chosen type of horror. Amongst other things, the game possibly seems to take inspiration from 1970s/80s “giallo” horror films. Everything from the style of the settings, the characters, the focus on suspense and even the style of acting made me think of the time, when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I tried to watch Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” on TV and stopped after about half an hour because I was too scared to watch any more.

So, know the type of horror that you are focusing on. Know how and why it works, know what the cliches are (and either play with them or avoid them) and find ways to subtly evoke other things in the genre that may have terrified your audience in the past.

If done well, subtle allusions to other works in the genre will make the reader feel scared without knowing exactly why and, if done less well, then it’s still a fun little easter egg for fans. A way of saying “I’ve seen this horror movie too. So, you’re going to enjoy this…

Finally, the game can teach us about the value of pacing. In short, less can sometimes be more when focusing on one type of horror. For most of what I’ve played of “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” so far, there isn’t a terrifying murderer in sight. Yes, you’re constantly worried that one might appear, but there are long stretches of time where the nearest murderer is several flights of stairs away. This means that the moments when one does appear and you have to run for your life are considerably more scary.

One of the reasons why horror writers are often advised to use multiple types of horror is because too much of one type of horror will desensitise the reader and make them more difficult to scare. For example, the first gruesome moment in a novel that focuses on gory horror will be shocking. The twentieth one will just be “oh, this again”. This is important to remember if you’re focusing on one type of horror.

So, choose your moments of horror carefully. Be sure that there are more subtle moments of horror between the stronger moments of horror. Give your reader a little bit of a break, so that your more dramatic moments of horror will actually be shocking.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂