Well, I thought that I’d take a short break from sci-fi novels and read a 1980s horror novel 🙂 In particular, I thought that I’d take a look at Guy N. Smith’s 1983 novel “Accursed”.
And, yes, as soon as I saw this novel’s wonderfully melodramatic title and noticed that it had an ancient Egypt theme to it, I just had to get a second-hand copy of it. Plus, although my reaction to the other Smith novels I’ve read over the years (like “The Undead“) was fairly lukewarm, this one seemed to show a bit more promise 🙂
So, let’s take a look at “Accursed”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in Egypt during the early 1920s. An English vicar and archaeologist called Mason is arguing with a local guide called Suma. To Mason’s arrogant dismay, Suma also refuses to have anything to do with the latest tomb that he has discovered. Most of the local workers leave too. Undeterred by this, Mason breaks into the tomb and discovers two mummies and a mysterious serpent amulet. Ghostly voices speak to him, begging him to remove them from this place.
Mason ends up taking both the mummies and the amulet back to England for further study. However, in our humid climate, the mummies begin to rot and – after some complaints about the smell from his housekeeper – he decides to bury them near the river. However, in the middle of this, the serpent amulet glows and speaks. Frightened by this diabolical turn of events, Mason throws it into the open grave. The mummies howl with anguish and betrayal. Mason flees to the house and begins to write a letter before suddenly dying of a heart attack.
Then we flash forwards to the 1980s. In the midlands, a grumpy and unemployed middle-aged man called George Brownlow lives in a posh part of town with his wife Emily, who has become a snob ever since she won enough money to buy the house. They argue regularly. But, after seeing a story on the news about nuclear tensions in Libya, George decides to build a fallout shelter in the garden, regardless of what Emily might think about it. But, when he starts digging, he quickly finds buried treasure! An amulet…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel was that it was a lot creepier than I’d expected. Yes, it can be amusingly melodramatic at times, but if you’re expecting a gloriously cheesy and gleefully fun 1980s cursed amulet splatterpunk novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Deathday“, then you might be in for a frightening surprise. Seriously, this was a much more effective horror novel than I’d thought it would be 🙂
So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s excellent horror elements. Although it contains a few infrequent moments of 1980s-style gory horror, this surprisingly isn’t the main focus of the story. Instead, this novel contains a wonderfully disturbing mixture of claustrophobic horror, psychological horror, disease horror, death-based/macabre horror, suspense, apocalyptic horror, tragic horror, paranormal horror, ghostly horror, insect horror, character-based horror and religious/mythological horror.
Guy N. Smith is a much better horror author than I’d previously thought. Although this novel will rarely shock you, it is filled with a creepy, uneasy and oppressive atmosphere of dread that will weigh heavily on you. It will unsettle and disturb you with bizarre occurences and the slow spectacle of a dysfunctional family becoming more and more dysfunctional. Plus, even though they shouldn’t “work”, the scenes that transplant the Biblical plagues of Egypt to 1980s Britain not only work well but are actually more scary if you already know this old story.
And, yes, the parallels between Ancient Egypt and Christian mythology in this novel are fairly interesting – with the ancient Egyptian god Set taking the role that the devil would typically take in more traditional horror stories. And what a monster he is. Although you don’t really see him directly, he speaks to the characters in a wonderfully creepy – yet melodramatic – way, not to mention that the eyes of his serpent amulet also glow bright red at almost every opportunity. Although all of this stuff should be hilariously silly, the novel is written in a way that actually makes it scary (well, most of the time at least).
The novel is also made more unsettling through the theme of ancient tragedy too, with the events of the story paralleling the tragic fates of an ancient Egpytian priestess and a commoner – whose doomed love is forced to play out again through the possessed bodies of the Brownlow family. Far from ruining the suspense, this sense of knowing what has happened and what will happen again actually adds to it – and this novel is almost like watching a horrific tragedy in slow-motion and feeling powerless to prevent it. This gut-clenching feeling of inevitable doom is also enhanced by the cold war nuclear paranoia in the background of the story too.
The ancient Egypt-themed elements of the story work fairly well, and really help to add a lot of atmosphere to the novel – especially when they are transplanted to the more familiar setting of 20th Century Britain with, for example, spiders replacing scorpions and the country being stricken by a terrible heatwave that reminded me a lot of the one that happened in 2018 (although, of course, the novel’s heatwave is based on the famous one in 1976).
Smith has obviously done his research, since there are lots of Egyptian terms and little bits of mythology sprinkled throughout the novel, in addition to a few Biblical-style elements too (eg: lots of snake imagery, plagues etc..). My only complaint is that the mummification scene doesn’t involve the most well-known part of the mummification ritual, which (as anyone who has read a “Horrible Histories” book or ten when they were younger will know) involves the removal of the brain with a hook. I was kind of expecting, perhaps even dreading, this… and was a little bit disappointed, for want of a better word.
In terms of the characters, this novel is surprisingly good. The novel’s characters are one of the main sources of horror here, and they all come across as very realistic and normal people, with all of the flaws and emotions that you would expect. Although you shouldn’t expect hyper-detailed backstories, the characters really do feel like real people leading tragic lives. Likewise, the character development sometimes goes in some surprisingly unexpected ways too, such as downtrodden George slowly becoming a possessed fanatic and the tyrannical, snobbish Emily very gradually becoming more of a sympathetic character.
In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is ’80s horror fiction narration at it’s best 🙂 It is formal and descriptive enough to add atmosphere and weight to the story, whilst being “matter of fact” enough to keep things moving at a decent pace and give the story a more realistic feeling. This novel is also written in a very dramatic way and although this adds extra horror most of the time, it can sometimes veer into hilariously amusing melodrama (with sentences like “Death!” and chapter titles like “Snakes!” and “Horus!”). Still, given the overwhelming and oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere of the story, these moments of unintentional comedy add some much-needed relief 🙂
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good too. At an efficient 239 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, although this novel relies on gradually building suspense, it never really feels slow-paced when you’re reading it thanks to lots of exquisitely creepy moments of horror.
As for how well this thirty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, there are some very ’80s elements here, like the class politics, the cold war nuclear fears etc… and some moments are probably a bit “politically incorrect” by modern standards too. But, the novel’s horror and atmosphere are pretty much timeless. The story itself almost feels like something that could have played out in the 1990s or the 2000s or even the 2010s. And the atmosphere of miserable, mundane suburban life is a surprisingly timeless thing too.
All in all, this is a really good horror novel 🙂 If you like ancient Egypt or want a 1980s horror novel that might actually scare you, then this one is well worth reading 🙂 Seriously, Guy N. Smith really is a better horror writer than I’d previously thought.
If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.