Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a 1980s horror novel. So, for today, I thought that I’d re-read one that I bought in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton about a decade ago (mostly on account of the awesome cover art) called “Plasmid” By Jo Gannon & Robert Knight.
Surprisingly, this book seems to have had a rather interesting history. Although Gannon’s name is the only one on the cover, a note inside the book explains that it was written by Knight based on a (seemingly unproduced) screenplay by Gannon. So, this book seems to be that fascinatingly rare thing – a novelisation of a film that was never made.
So, let’s take a look at “Plasmid”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
“Plasmid” begins on the south coast of England (seriously, it’s always awesome to see books set here 🙂 ), in the fictional seaside town of Oakhaven. Near the town, there is a problem with one of the test subjects at the Fairfield Institute – a government-sponsored laboratory. When a couple of the scientists go to investigate, they are brutally murdered by a mutated man with superhuman strength. The mutant then escapes into the sewers.
A while later, an investigative reporter at the local radio station called Paula Scott is about to get a few stern words from her boss because of complaints about a rather daring investigative report on some important local people. However, she produces a secret recording that proves the facts in her report. After this, she is sent to a press conference about the deaths at the Fairfield Institute – but she soon suspects that there might be a cover-up……
One of the first things that I will say about “Plasmid” is that, despite the gnarly cover art and the fact that it was published by Star Books, this is not really a splatterpunk novel.
Yes, it follows the same “disaster and government response” plot template as 1980s splatterpunk novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” do. Yes, it even uses the splatterpunk technique of introducing many (short-lived) side characters and it also contains a typical splatterpunk-style “shock” ending too. But, if you are expecting the gallons of gore that you’d expect from a proper 1980s splatterpunk novel, you’re going to be disappointed.
Apart from a surprisingly small number of mildly to moderately grisly (by splatterpunk standards) moments, this novel is remarkably tame. A lot of the story’s gruesome and risque moments are either described in a relatively undetailed and brief way or are left “off screen”. The story also mostly focuses on other types of horror than gory horror (eg: suspense, tragic horror, moral horror, political horror, bleak horror, scientific horror etc..) too.
All of this stuff is probably a hangover from the fact that this novel was originally a film script, and would have had to pass the BBFC censors (who were notoriously stricter during the 1980s) if it was produced. So, the style of horror in this novel is more “horror movie” than “splatterpunk novel”.
Even so, this novel is a rather compelling and gloriously cheesy story that could have only have come from the 1980s. If anything, this novel almost reads more like a vaguely splatterpunk-influenced thriller than a horror novel. Most of the story is taken up with Paula trying to investigate what is going on and the scientists trying to deal with the fanatical Dr.Fraser who is behind the evil experiments. Likewise, this story also contains a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia about the government, press censorship etc.. too.
Plus, in addition to the fact that “Plasmid” is set in the kind of town that I know quite well, another surprising thing is this novel’s wonderfully cheesy, immature, groan-inducing sense of humour too. Yes, some of this hasn’t aged well – but, on the whole, it is an amusing relic of another age that includes things like a rockstar called “Big Willie”, a cat called “Fido” and this hilariously clunky attempt at political correctness when describing a group of homeless people: “Nearby another ‘citizen of the road’ was stretched out on a mouldering sofa, fast asleep.”
In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Paula Scott is a realistic, determined reporter in the classic ’80s horror novel tradition. Likewise, many of the scientists seem like fairly realistic and ordinary characters. Plus, some of the short-lived side characters are fairly interesting too (such as a homeless aristocrat), although many of them are just the typical “ordinary people” characters you’d expect to see in a 1980s horror novel.
Likewise, the plot of the novel is reasonably good. As I mentioned earlier, it reads a lot like a thriller novel, with some splatterpunk-style plot techniques. In addition to this, some hints of the novel’s cinematic origins can be seen in things like cutaway-style flashback scenes that are printed in italics. Plus, at a lean and efficient 191 pages, this novel never really gets bloated or slow. I’ve said it many times before, but I miss the days when paperback novels could be short 🙂
In terms of Robert Knight’s writing and third-person narration, it’s reasonably ok too. This novel is written in a slightly more descriptive, but “matter of fact”, way that is pretty much par for the course in British horror novels of this vintage. It’s still very readable but people who are more used to modern novels may find it a little bit slow-paced or formal.
As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. In other words, this novel is very much a product of the 1980s (eg: the emphasis on local radio, the ominous government conspiracies etc…). But, although a few moments seem creepily sleazy when read these days, there isn’t that much shockingly dated stuff here. So, if you want to read something that is decidedly “retro”, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. Seriously, it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of the culture and imagination of this part of history.
All in all, this novel is “splatterpunk lite”. If you like the idea of splatterpunk fiction, but don’t have the stomach for too much gore or horror, then you’ll probably like it. Likewise, it’s a reasonably ok thriller novel and it is also gloriously retro too. So, if you want something that is decidedly ’80s and can be read in a small number of hours, then “Plasmid” might be worth looking at. But, honestly, you’re better off reading Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” instead – it has got most of the stuff that this novel has, but turned up to 11.
If I had to give “Plasmid” a rating out of five, it would maybe get a three.