Well, it’s been a while since I last read a proper vintage splatterpunk horror novel (and, no, “Plasmid” doesn’t count). So, after looking online for splatterpunk novels and finding this review of the US edition of Richard Lewis’ 1979 novel “Devil’s Coach-Horse”, I just had to take a look at it.
After all, I’d quite enjoyed Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” and this looked fairly similar, albeit with beetles rather than scorpions.
Interestingly, according to the review I linked to earlier, this book was retitled when it was released in the US. Although I prefer the original UK version’s title (it has a certain Victorian ghoulishness to it), the cover art for the US edition looks cooler and creepier than the UK edition that I read.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Devil’s Coach-Horse”. Needles to say, this review will contain SPOILERS.
The novel begins in Italy where British entomologist John Masters is travelling to another scientific conference with his American colleague, Michael Borowski and his wife Clare. However, when their plane crosses the Alps, they run into a cumulonimbus cloud that causes ice to form on the outside of the plane. Unfortunately, the aviation systems designed to dislodge ice from the wings malfunction and the plane crashes.
The only things to survive the crash are some samples of unusual beetles that Masters had been taking to the conference. These beetles are cold, hungry and need somewhere warm to lay their eggs. Needless to say, when the weather conditions reach a point where the bodies can be recovered, they are transported back to Cambridge and Chicago for post-mortem and burial. Of course, the beetle eggs have been laying dormant in the cold weather and when they hatch, they quickly develop a taste for blood….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, about a third of the way through reading it, I quite literally felt a warm glow of familiarity and nostalgia. This book was exactly like the kind of lurid second-hand retro horror novels that I read as a teenager during the 2000s and, even as a more jaded and cynical adult, it was so much fun to read. It is gloriously cheesy, hilariously melodramatic and wonderfully over-the-top 🙂
In terms of the horror elements of this novel, they work really well. The main type of horror here is, as you would expect from a splatterpunk novel, good old-fashioned gory horror.
Although this novel doesn’t quite reach the sheer level of wall-to-wall gore as something like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, it certainly comes close during a few scenes.
However, whilst Hutson’s “Erebus” overloads the reader with almost-constant scenes of grisly horror until they become an atmospheric background element, Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” takes a slightly more traditional approach.
In other words, the gruesome scenes are slightly less frequent – and more shocking in contrast to the rest of the story. Lewis also takes a slightly more sophisticated approach to these scenes, leaving one of the most horrific moments (involving a picnic) mostly to the reader’s imagination – which makes it even more shocking.
One other interesting feature in many of the moments of grisly horror in this novel is how Lewis approaches the topic of death. Often, the characters who are devoured by beetles will die with a smile on their face (for some ironic reason or another) and/or death itself will be presented in a peaceful manner. Not only does this contrast well with the horrific scenes that precede it, but it also helps to emphasise the sheer pain and terror of the events leading up to a character’s death too. It’s a really interesting literary technique.
But, in addition to the gory horror that you would expect, this novel also uses other types of horror too. These include things like scientific/medical horror, insect-based horror, vulnerability-based horror and even a moment or two of tragic/poignant horror too. All of this grim horror is also contrasted with a few moments of dark comedy too.
Whilst this novel includes many of the standard features of a splatterpunk novel, one interesting difference is how authority is portrayed. Often, in splatterpunk novels, authority is shown to either be the cause of the problem, dangerously incompetent and/or a threat to the main characters. However, in this novel, the main character (a scientist called Paul) works closely with the police, military and government – who are presented as competent, intelligent and good people. So, it’s a little bit like a traditional disaster story in this respect.
Another innovative feature of this novel is that the events of the story take place in both Britain and America. Most British splatterpunk monster novels from the 1970s/80s just focus on one town and/or city in order to create a sense of claustrophobic tension. However, in this story, the focus on multiple locations works really well since it helps to emphasise the scale of the problem that the characters face. This also links in with the book’s theme of ecology and environmental damage. For the most part, the US-based scenes seem to be fairly well-written, although the US President’s office is referred to as the “Oval Room” at one point.
This novel’s approach to morality is also wonderfully unpredictable too. In other words, whilst you can probably guess how some scenes will turn out (eg: a sleazy rich man having an affair with a woman who wants to rebel against her traditionalist upbringing) some other scenes gleefully fly in the face of traditional horror story morality. So, this novel never really feels like it is lecturing the reader and the scenes of horror remain at least somewhat unpredictable too.
In terms of the writing and narration, Lewis’ third-person narration works really well. It is probably very slightly formal by modern standards, but it is still extremely readable. Lewis gets the balance between descriptions, dialogue, characterisation and action right – to the point where the book sometimes reads like an old thriller novel.
Plus, one amusing feature of Lewis’ narration is that he occasionally includes wonderfully melodramatic asides (eg: “Later he would remember his discovery. By then, however, it would be too late.”), which just add to the theatrical charm of this story.
In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is excellent. I’ve already mentioned the brilliant contrast between shocking moments and non-shocking moments, but this novel also moves along at a reasonable pace too.
The only criticisms I have with regard to the pacing are the fact that the same information is relayed to the reader twice (during briefings to the Prime Minister and the US President) and the fact that the solution to the beetle infestation appears “out of the blue” near the end of the story. However, this “deus ex machina” moment could be there for the sake of realism – since major scientific discoveries are often made by many scientists working in different locations.
Plus, at an efficient 168 pages in length, this story never gets bloated. I’ve said it many times before but I really miss the days when paperback novels could be short 🙂
As for how this forty-year-old novel has aged, it has aged extremely gracefully 🙂 Not only are the moments of grisly horror still fairly shocking and/or gruesome by modern standards, but the story still remains fairly compelling too. Likewise, the narration is still very readable too. Plus, this is one of those old novels that feels wonderfully retro rather than awkwardly dated too (eg: kind of a bit like a more modern film set in the 1970s/80s).
All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a fun, cheesy, retro horror novel that you can read in a couple of hours, then this one is well worth checking out. It has also stood the test of time surprisingly well too. So, if you’ve already read James Herbert’s “The Rats” and are in the mood for a classic vermin-based monster story, then this is definitely one of the better ones out there 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.