Well, since I was still dealing with the tail end of a cold and because I was in a bit of an unsettled mood after the previous horror novel that I read, I thought “What I need is a nice, relaxing Shaun Hutson novel“. And, after looking through my bookshelves, I found my copy of Hutson’s 1982 horror novel “The Skull” and decided to re-read it.
This was a novel that I first read on a summer holiday in Cornwall when I was about fifteen. If I remember rightly, I’d read somewhere that “The Skull” was one of Hutson’s earlier books that wasn’t reprinted very often (when compared to his other horror novels). And, naturally, I was absolutely overjoyed when I randomly stumbled across a second-hand copy of it in a bookshop back then.
So, let’s take a look at “The Skull”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel is set in the Derbyshire village of Lockston, which has been cut off by ten days of solid rain. Early one morning, chartered surveyor Nick Regan gets a call from the building site and rushes over there. Thanks to the rain, the ground is too waterlogged for work to continue – so, Regan sends the crew home for the day. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down well with Regan’s boss who, from the cosy comfort of his office, decrees that work on the planned luxury hotel must continue.
Meanwhile, Regan’s wife Chrissie takes a school group on an archaeology trip. The children discover a mysterious buried bottle, which Chrissie takes back to the local museum for further study. Chrissie’s boss, Peterson, dates the bottle to 1650 and decides to try opening it. When he does, everyone in the room hears screaming and glimpses a mysterious face.
The next day, there is an accident at the rain-sodden building site. A JCB falls into some kind of sinkhole. When Regan and a couple of the other workers go down to inspect the damage, they find an underground cave system. Regan also finds a strange half-buried skull and decides to take it to the museum to see if they can work out what species it belongs to.
During an inspection of the skull at the museum, it’s jaws suddenly snap shut and injure an assistant called Swan. The wound quickly becomes hideously infected and Swan is rushed to hospital. Meanwhile, skin has started to grow on the skull…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good” in the best possible way 🙂 It is a gloriously cheesy, brilliantly silly and thoroughly fun monster story that was an absolute joy to read. If you’re a fan of horror parody TV shows like “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this novel. This is cheesy low-budget ’80s horror fiction at it’s pulpiest best 🙂
I should probably start by talking about the horror elements of this novel. Although it isn’t that frightening, it contains a really compelling mixture of ominous suspense, scientific/medical horror, occult horror, body horror, monster horror and, of course, Shaun Hutson’s usual ultra-gory splatterpunk horror. Unlike some of Hutson’s other novels, this one actually starts out as a relatively bloodless story and then becomes more and more grisly as it progresses.
Another cool horror-related element of this book is a sneaky reference to James Herbert’s “The Rats” later in the book: ‘Rush trotted out a story about giant rats being sighted‘. Although, given the rural setting, it could be a reference to Herbert’s 1979 sequel “Lair” instead.
Interestingly, like with Hutson’s “Erebus“, this novel is as much of a thriller novel as a horror novel. It contains lots of mystery and ominous suspense, some dramatic monster encounters and a couple of wonderfully badass moments (Viking battle axe, anyone?). It also has a rather fast-paced thriller-like structure too. Plus, just like “Erebus”, it is set in a wonderfully gloomy and rainy rural village too – seriously, I absolutely love these kinds of atmospheric locations 🙂
Although it isn’t focused on outside of the earlier chapters, one interesting theme in this book is the contrast between the experienced construction workers and their snobbish, upper-class bosses. Yet, unlike the cynical anti-establishment satire in Hutson’s “Erebus”, the police in this novel are actually shown to be sympathetic and vaguely competent characters.
In terms of the characters, there isn’t a giant amount of ultra-deep characterisation but there is enough characterisation and backstory to make you care about the characters. Likewise, Hutson also does the classic splatterpunk thing of introducing a new character, giving them a couple of pages of detailed characterisation and then bumping them off in a grisly way.
In terms of the writing, it is unintentional comedy at it’s best 🙂 This novel was one of Hutson’s earlier novels and it shows. The novel’s third-person narration is this glorious mixture of fast-paced “matter of fact” descriptions and some of the funniest purple prose and most random similes you’ll ever read.
To give you one hilarious example, a 19th century manuscript is described thusly: ‘The writing was jagged like the teeth of a badger‘. Plus, even at this early stage in his career, there are a few classic Hutsonisms like “mucoid”, “putrescent” and blood being described as “coppery” too 🙂 Seriously, if you’re a fan of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”, you need to read this book!
However, I have to criticise the editor/publisher of this edition of the book. Despite being a book by a British author that is both set in Britain and reprinted in Britain, the 1999 UK edition of “The Skull” uses US spellings for some bizarre reason. Whilst I don’t usually care about this sort of thing, the US spellings just seem ridiculously out of place in a Shaun Hutson novel.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 324 pages (with relatively large print), this novel doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, it is written in a reasonably fast-paced way and structured a bit like a thriller too, which helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Whilst it isn’t quite as fast-paced as Hutson’s “Erebus”, it’s still a surprisingly quick and compelling read.
In terms of how this thirty-seven year old book has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. Although this novel is a bit “politically incorrect” in some places, the general attitude of the book isn’t as dated as you might think (eg: it takes a critical attitude towards various forms of bullying, assault etc.. Albeit in a more subtle way than modern writers would). Likewise, although the settings and characters are very 80s, this just gives the book a wonderfully retro atmosphere. Not to mention that the underlying story is still just as suspenseful and compelling as ever too 🙂
All in all, this is an incredibly fun “so bad that it’s good” 1980s monster novel 🙂 It’s an early work by a writer who, a mere two years later, would release the zombie vampire masterpiece that is “Erebus”. Plus, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, if you’re a fan of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”, then you need to read this book.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four. It’s “so bad that it’s good”.