Well, since I’m re-reading another classic ’80s horror novel by Shaun Hutson (“Deathday”, if anyone is curious), I thought that I’d talk about what these books can teach us about writing. However, I should probably start with some background information before getting on to the main part of the article.
If you haven’t heard of Shaun Hutson before, he is one of several horror authors who rose to prominence during the splatterpunk trend in horror publishing, where horror novels could finally include things like ultra-gruesome descriptions and cynical social commentary.
Although Hutson didn’t really get the “household name” fame of some other 1980s horror authors, he still has a loyal fanbase and – like many great horror authors – is still writing fiction these days (returning to horror fiction after writing several gritty thriller novels during the horror publishing drought of the 1990s/2000s). Even so, I’ll mostly be focusing on his “classic” 1980s horror novels in this article.
Even though I only discovered Hutson’s 1980s novels quite a while after they were published (eg: during my teenage years in the early-mid 2000s), they were one of the main things that made me a lot more interested in both reading and writing at the time. And, returning to them again more recently, I’ve started to notice all sorts of interesting writing lessons hidden within them.
Needless to say, this article may contain some SPOILERS for “The Skull”, “Relics”, “Deathday”, “Erebus” and his later novel “Exit Wounds”.
1) Familiarity and difference: One of the cool things about old Shaun Hutson novels is how he’s able to use both familiarity and difference to reward fans of his novels. In short, each novel tells an interestingly different story- but there are enough familiar features, references and “easter eggs” for fans to spot too.
These include things like familiar descriptive words (eg: “mucoid”, “liquescent”, “coppery”, “scapula”, “cleft” etc…), occasional heavy metal/rock references or the fact that the main character’s love interest will almost always be a blonde woman who wears jeans. Although these things might sound like they would make each novel repetitive, the fact that the plot of each novel differs quite a bit means that they are a bit more like an artist’s personal style or the distinctive tones of a musician’s favourite instrument. In other words, they are something that tells fans that “yes, this is a Shaun Hutson novel” 🙂
In addition to this, he also does clever stuff with his previous novels in order to keep fans on their toes. For example, his 1986 novel “Relics” initially seems a bit like an enhanced remake of his 1982 archaeological monster novel “The Skull“, before going in a different and more dramatic direction.
Likewise, there’s this brilliant scene in one of the earlier parts of his 1986 novel “Deathday” where two gardners tasked with clearing an overgrown part of a graveyard finally dig up a stubborn tree stump, only to be confronted by a giant slug lurking beneath it. At the time that this novel was first published, readers would probably have thought “Cool. This is a sequel to ‘Slugs’ and ‘Breeding Ground‘“, two of Hutson’s earlier monster novels about giant slugs. However, in a genius twist, the giant slug is swiftly killed with an axe and the novel then goes in a very different direction.
So, in short, having familiar features can be a good way to give something extra to your fanbase. However, in order for these to work well, they also have to be paired with creativity, difference and a willingness to catch your audience off-guard.
2) Genre-mixing: Another cool thing about Shaun Hutson’s 1980s novels is how he’s able to blend familiar horror tropes in all sorts of creative ways. For example, his 1984 novel “Erebus” is technically a vampire novel. However, the novel’s vampires – whilst still displaying some vampiric traits – actually act and look more like zombies than vampires. This makes the novel more interesting, and unpredictable, than either a traditional vampire or zombie story would be.
This is expanded upon in “Deathday”, where an ancient curse turns it’s victims into a hybrid of light-sensitive vampires, undead zombies, red-eyed demons and slasher movie serial killers. This blending of horror monsters not only provides a good contrast between familiarity and novelty, but it also means that the reader is genuinely curious about the monsters too. As such, they seem a bit more formidable than just another zombie, vampire etc… would be.
You can also even see this in some of Hutson’s later novels, such as when he temporarily moved away from writing horror fiction (probably because publishers turned their back on the genre) and wrote gritty thriller novels instead. Not only did some of his older horror novels (“Relics”, “Deathday”, “Assassin” etc..) include elements from the crime/detective genre, so that the change wasn’t too jarring – but he also included some elements from the horror genre in his thriller novels too.
For example, his 2000 thriller novel “Exit Wounds” memorably ends with an extended 15-20 page gunfight scene that is as grisly and brutal as something from one of his horror novels. Compared to the faster-paced and slightly more sanitised violence you’d expect to see in a typical action-thriller novel, this can really catch you by surprise.
So, yes, Shaun Hutson novels can teach us quite a bit about the value of genre-mixing. If you want a memorable story that will both surprise and appeal to fans of a particular genre, then don’t be afraid to blend in stuff from other genres too.
3) Do your own thing: One of the cool thing about Hutson’s 1980s horror novels is that you really get the sense that he was having fun writing them and that he was writing the kinds of stories that only he could write.
Whether it is the occasional reference to his favourite music (eg: an Iron Maiden song plays in the background of one scene in “Breeding Ground”, there are song-lyric epigrams in some novels etc..), the way that his brilliantly cynical attitude towards the world emerges in his stories or even the rural southern English settings, most of Hutson’s 1980s novels really feel like his own distinctive thing.
And, you should try to do the same. In other words, look for the things that really fascinate you, which make you you etc.. and then find a way to incorporate them into your novel whilst also telling an interesting story at the same time. Yes, even if you think that you are “boring” or “ordinary”, then do this nonetheless – there will be readers out there who will either find it fascinatingly different or fascinatingly familiar.
I mean, when I was a teenager, there was nothing more amazing than finding an author who not only wrote horror stories set in the kind of places I knew fairly well but who also had the same favourite heavy metal band as I do 🙂 So, yes, even if you feel that you are “ordinary” or whatever, then you should still do your own distinctive thing. There will be readers who are interested in it.
4) Don’t be afraid to be intelligent: One of the cool things I noticed when re-reading Shaun Hutson’s 1980s horror novels is that, whilst they tell the kind of fast-paced, focused stories that are relaxingly enjoyable, they are also written in a more sophisticated, formal and descriptive way than you might expect.
In other words, despite probably being considered a “low-brow” author during the 1980s, Hutson’s writing is sometimes more “literary” than you might expect. Here’s a descriptive sentence from “Deathday” to show you what I mean: ‘The sky was heavy with clouds, great, grey, washed out billows which scudded across the heavens, pushed by the strong breeze.’ It’s a long and formal descriptive sentence, yet it is placed within a fast-paced horror novel. And it works 🙂
What I’m trying to say here is that, even though there is a trend towards narration in fiction becoming more streamlined and informal these days (to compete with smartphones, the internet etc..), don’t be afraid to show off your writing talents. It’s ok to use long words, formal descriptions etc… occasionally if they are interesting or if they add something to the story.
Not only that, don’t underestimate your readers’ intelligence either – I mean, although I didn’t consciously notice all of this formal stuff when I first read “Deathday” when I was a teenager, I still really enjoyed the thrilling fast-paced horror story it told. In fact, from everything I’ve read, most of Hutson’s fans first discovered his novels when they were teenagers. So, yes, slightly sophisticated or formal moments in stories are something that most readers can easily handle.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂