Well, although I hadn’t planned to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1986 horror novel “Deathday”, I found that the other book I’d planned to read just wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped. So, worried about losing interest in reading altogether, I needed to read something I knew that I’d enjoy. And quick!
Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to find the small pile of vintage Shaun Hutson paperbacks I’d found in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a few months earlier.
Although I first read a 1990s/early 2000s reprint of “Deathday” when I was about fifteen or so, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about the story other than I’d enjoyed it. So, I was curious to see what I’d think of it these days. Plus, after reading a slightly more modern 1980s-influenced horror novel recently, I was in the mood for more of this awesome genre 🙂
So, let’s take a look at “Deathday”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in the year 1596, with a horrifying scene showing the church authorities cruelly interrogating someone they suspect of witchcraft about a mysterious amulet. Eventually, they learn that only the first person to touch the amulet will be tainted by whatever lurks within it.
Then we flash forward to the 1980s. In the small Derbyshire village of Medworth, Detective Inspector Tom Lambert is standing in front of his brother’s grave, racked by survivor’s guilt about the car accident that he escaped from unharmed. In another part of the graveyard, two gardeners are getting ready to clear a patch of overgrown land. The work is gruelling and is made worse by a stubborn tree stump that refuses to budge.
But, one of the gardeners – Ray Mackenzie – isn’t going to give up without a fight and insists that they continue. Fetching axes and crowbars, the gardeners give the tree stump everything they’ve got and it finally gives way. In the pit below the stump, a giant slug sits atop a wooden box. Summoning all of his strength, Ray kills the slug and prises the box open. It contains a skeleton wearing a golden medallion. Feeling like he deserves a reward for his efforts, Ray grabs the medallion. Needless to say, things don’t go well…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is even better than I remembered 🙂 Seriously, this is the kind of gloriously fun ’80s horror novel that shows the genre at it’s absolute best 🙂 By the end of it, I was reading with the kind of huge grin that is usually reserved for things like cherished old computer games, corny late-night horror movies and the best heavy metal music. This novel is classic Shaun Hutson and, if you enjoyed Hutson’s “Erebus” or “Relics“, then this novel will absolutely knock your socks off 🙂
So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. It contains a brilliantly unpredictable, and yet reassuringly traditional, mixture of paranormal horror, suspense, a theme of mourning/death, ominous horror, gothic horror, vampire/zombie/demon horror, slasher movie style horror, jump scare-like moments (plus a few playful fake-outs) and, of course, lots of the ultra-gruesome gory horror that you’d expect from a splatterpunk novel. Although experienced horror hounds probably won’t find this novel that frightening, it is still a brilliantly enjoyable horror novel nonetheless 🙂
Shaun Hutson’s 1984 classic “Erebus” blended the vampire and zombie genres in a really cool way and “Deathday” takes this a step further by adding slasher movie-style elements and “glowing eyes” evil sorcery to the mix 🙂 This keeps the scenes of horror in “Deathday” excitingly unpredictable, whilst also allowing Hutson to add the most dramatic elements of each genre to the mix. Seriously, if you like any of these four genres of horror, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this novel.
Not only that, like “Erebus”, this novel is also something of a thriller too 🙂 This is handled extremely well, with lots of tense ominous moments gradually giving way to more intense scenes of frantic suspense before climaxing in a spectacularly dramatic, grippingly fast-paced and action-packed final segment 🙂 In addition to this excellent pacing, there are also detective/police procedural elements, some gloriously cheesy “80s action movie” one liners – with the best probably being ‘I am the law’ – and a good number of dramatic set pieces sprinkled throughout the novel.
Seriously, I love how this novel blends it’s horror and thriller elements 🙂 Unlike most horror thriller novels, the emphasis is firmly on the story’s horror elements – with the thriller elements taking a slight back seat for most of the novel. Then, when the thriller elements finally take centre stage in a furious blaze of gunfire, there are still enough horror elements remaining to give these grippingly fast-paced scenes a level of drama and impact that you wouldn’t usually find in a typical action-thriller novel.
I’ve said it before, but this novel is pure, unadulterated fun to read 🙂 In addition to the expert blend of horror and thriller fiction, this novel takes itself seriously enough to be dramatic whilst also being knowingly cheesy enough to bring a smile to any reader’s face.
Whether it is a scene where the police find an empty coffin with a broken lid (‘As if some powerful force had stove it out… FROM THE INSIDE’) or the brilliantly tongue-in-cheek way that the novel’s action movie-style “lock and load montage” is handled (it goes on for quite a few pages and shows what happens when unarmed policemen try using guns for the first time), this novel walks a brilliantly fine line between grim, shocking horror and gloriously cheesy late-night B-movie schlock that is an absolute joy to behold 🙂
In terms of the characters, they are reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there’s enough here to make you care about the characters. Plus, although the main character – D.I. Lambert – is a bit of a stock character (who goes from grizzled, brooding protagonist to loose-cannon cop to badass action hero), this is handled in a slightly more realistic way (eg: he actually has emotions etc…) whilst still giving him the kind of stylised persona that you’d expect from a 1980s thriller protagonist. Likewise, many of the background characters feel like realistic people and even the less realistic characters – such as DCI Baron – are stylised enough to bring a smile to any reader’s face.
In terms of the writing, this is a Shaun Hutson novel 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is this brilliant mixture of atmospheric formal descriptions, fast-paced thriller narration and the kind of personality-filled cynical observations and quirky narrative moments that really make this novel unique 🙂 Yes, the paperback edition of “Deathday” I read had a few typographical errors and the writing can be a little corny at times, but this is all part of the charm. However, long-time fans of Shaun Hutson might be a little disappointed to realise that there aren’t that many classic Hutsonisms here (the only one I spotted was “cleft”, used in the usual context).
As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although it is a relatively long 383 pages in length, it never feels bloated or padded. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the novel’s pacing is absolutely stellar 🙂 This is a novel that is compelling from the first page and then gets more and more compelling as the story gradually turns from an ominous gothic horror tale to a suspenseful slasher story to an action-packed zombie thriller 🙂
As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it still holds up fairly well. Although it is very ’80s in a lot of ways, this often just adds to the story’s late-night “video nasty” charm – with the grimness of 1980s Britain (eg: crime, loneliness etc..) being contrasted with the kind of moments you’d expect to see in a cheesy late-night TV show (eg: loose-cannon police-work, an evil druid etc..). Not only that, the story’s plot is still as compelling and dramatic as ever. Even so, this novel is probably slightly on the “politically incorrect” side of things these days – but not as much as you might expect.
All in all, this is the most fun that I’ve had with a book in a while 🙂 It’s an expert blend of horror and thriller fiction, which walks a brilliantly fine line between amusing cheesiness and gripping drama. It’s an even better novel than Hutson’s “Erebus”, and I never expected to say that. If you like zombies, vampires, gothic graveyards, slasher movies, heavy metal music, cheesy ’80s movies and/or thriller novels, then this one is well-worth reading 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get six hundred and sixty-six.