Review: “Death Walkers” By Gary Brandner (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for a 1980s horror novel, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand one that I found online several weeks earlier. I am, of course, talking about Gary Brandner’s 1980 novel “Death Walkers”. Interestingly, looking online, this novel was originally titled “Walkers” (which seems to be the most well-known title) and the edition I read was retitled for some reason.

So, let’s take a look at “Death Walkers”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1980s Hamlyn (UK) paperback edition of “Death Walkers” that I read.

The novel begins at a pool party in Los Angeles, attended by a woman called Joana Raitt and her boyfriend Glen Early. During the party, a trained disco dancer called Peter Landau tries to ask Joana out but, when he realises that he won’t get anywhere, he gives her his business card instead. After all, he has a nice side-job as a psychic counsellor. The party continues and Joana decides to take a dip in the pool.

However, she has eaten less than an hour before swimming and her whole body is seized by painful, paralysing muscle cramps that cause her to drown. She sees a tunnel with a white light and a benevolent figure at the end of it. But, as she floats down the tunnel, something seems to be pulling her back. So, she decides to try going back. The tunnel turns fierce and menacing in an instant, as the souls of the dead begin to emerge from the walls. Shortly before she leaves, they give her a cryptic warning that they will keep coming for her and that she will return to the afterlife by the Eve of St. John.

Joana returns to life beside the pool, resuscitated by Glen. A doctor living nearby, Dr. Hovde, checks Joana over and, although she is still haunted by the ominous warning, she is fine. A couple of days later, she goes into the city to do some shopping and is almost run over by a car that crashes into some nearby shrubbery. When the bystanders rush to the crashed car, they find that the driver is dead. Curious about this strange turn of events, Dr. Hovde decides to ask the local pathologist to show him the autopsy results. To his surprise, the driver died a day before the crash…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it has a slightly silly/contrived opening segment, it’s a really cool horror thriller novel that also does some innovative things with the zombie genre too. But, if you’re expecting a typical “1980s video nasty”-style horror story, then I should probably point out that whilst this novel was published in 1980, it was very clearly written during the mid-late 1970s.

Which brings me on to the novel’s horror elements. Unlike the typical zombie novels of the 1980s, such as Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, this novel is very much a 1970s-style horror story, where there is a lot more focus on things like suspense, the paranormal/occult (and, yes, both ouija boards and the “Death” tarot card make an appearance) and traditional old-school macabre/death-based horror that the kind of intense gory horror that you’d typically associate with the zombie genre. Yes, there are a few slightly gruesome moments, but this focus on relatively bloodless traditional horror actually lends the story much more of an ominous and “realistic” tone (that is also vaguely reminiscent of old 1950s horror comics).

Likewise, the focus on death and near-death experiences gives the novel a timelessly creepy feel that is reminiscent of horror films like “Flatliners”, “Final Destination” etc… or novels like Kaaron Warren’s “Slights” or Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s “Inferno”. Plus, the ominous warning from the realm of the dead casts a dark shadow over the story, whilst also allowing for all sorts of brilliantly suspenseful moments and other cool horror movie style stuff. Whilst this novel isn’t outright scary, it is certainly gothic, suspenseful and creepy at times 🙂

It’s also a refreshingly different take on the zombie genre too. In addition to the fact that the zombie-based scenes are relatively bloodless and have more of a focus on the macabre, suspense and the paranormal, this novel is also notable in the fact that it doesn’t feature a zombie apocalypse.

Instead, the only reason that invididual zombies occasionally return from the dead is to chase Joana and drag her back to the afterlife – so, not only are there relatively few zombies (which actually makes them scarier), but they are a bit more intelligent/agile, they follow a different set of “rules” to typical Hollywood zombies and the fact that only one appears at any one time gives the story much more of a suspenseful slasher movie-style atmosphere too. Seriously, if you want an innovative zombie story, read this one.

Likewise, thanks to all of the suspense, this novel is also a bit like a traditional thriller novel too – something also helped with the classic thriller technique of having several different plot threads that focus on different characters (eg: Joana & Glen, Dr. Hovde and Peter Landau). Whilst this novel is still very much a horror novel, these thriller elements really help to keep the story compelling and to make the rest of it feel a bit more “serious” after the hilariously silly opening segment.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect a huge amount of in-depth characterisation here, they are realistic/interesting enough to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re probably a little bit on the “stock characters” side of things. Still, the story remains fairly compelling nonetheless.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is mostly fairly good. The narration uses a reasonably informal (by mid-late 1970s/early 1980s standards) and “matter of fact” style that also includes a decent number of descriptive moments and, for the most part, is very readable. However, the very beginning of the novel isn’t as well-written as the rest, with the first few pages being written in a slightly stodgier way (eg: “telling” narration, slower-paced descriptions etc..) than the rest of the book. So, don’t judge the writing by the first few pages.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 Not only is it a lean and efficient 222 pages long, but the novel makes brilliant use of suspense and thriller genre techniques to keep the plot compelling throughout. Not only that, although you’ll probably see at least one plot twist coming a mile away (if you’re paying attention to the story) and might guess the nature of another one (if you’ve seen enough horror movies and are paying attention to the page numbers), this novel has one of the most gripping endings that I’ve seen in a horror novel during the past few weeks.

In terms of how this forty-year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Although the novel has a wonderfully retro 1970s-style atmosphere (similar to an early episode of “Columbo”), the scenes of suspense and macabre horror are still very compelling. Plus, for the time it was written, this novel was also a fairly progressive one, and although a few moments may seem mildly “politically incorrect” by modern standards, the novel as a whole has aged surprisingly well.

All in all, this is a really compelling 1970s-style horror novel that also does some innovative stuff with the zombie genre too 🙂 Yes, the beginning is a bit silly and the characters can feel a little like stock characters at times, but this novel is still a really good retro horror novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Kill The Dead” By Tanith Lee (Novel)

Well, after seeing several horror fiction websites mention Tanith Lee’s novels over the years, I’ve been meaning to read one of them. But, when I looked online for second-hand copies, they often seemed to be slightly on the pricer side of things. So, when I saw that a second-hand copy of Lee’s 1980 fantasy novel “Kill The Dead” was going cheap, I decided to check it out. And I’m so glad that I did 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Kill The Dead”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (but I’ll avoid major ones).

This is the 1990 Legend (UK) paperback edition of “Kill The Dead” that I read.

The novel begins in the leaning tower of a decaying house beside a mountain road. A young woman called Ciddey Soban stares out of a window and sees a mysterious man in a dark cloak walking along the road. Panicked, she warns her sister – Cilny – to hide.

The man on the road, Parl Dro, is a famous exorcist who is searching for the legendary city of the dead, Ghyste Mortua. But, when he nears the house, he senses something. So, he enters the garden to investigate. Ciddey rushes out of the door with a knife and tries to threaten him. More amused than frightened, Parl leaves with a promise to return.

In a nearby inn, the star-struck locals are more than happy to tell Parl all of the gossip about the Soban family. Yet, they are disappointed that Parl doesn’t want to do anything about the ghost they suspect lives with Ciddey. On his way to bed, Parl plays a sneaky practical joke on a musician called Myal who tries to pick his pocket.

The next morning, Parl climbs a nearby hill and watches the villagers throw stones at Ciddey’s house. To Parl’s surprise, Myal joins him on the hill to remonstrate about the fact that the purse he’d stolen contained nothing but stones. The two of them talk for a while and then go their separate ways, both of which lead towards Ciddey’s house…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is excellent 🙂 Once you get used to Lee’s writing style, you will be rewarded with an enchantingly atmospheric, gloomily gothic and beautifully bittersweet tale that will draw you in and leave you tearful and astonished when it is over. Seriously, this novel is astonishingly good. Imagine a mixture between an Alice Hoffman novel, a 19th century ghost story and an episode of “Game Of Thrones” – and this should give you some idea what to expect.

Interestingly, it’s a bit difficult to categorise this novel by genre. It has elements of a traditional ghost story/horror story, elements of gothic fiction, elements of dark fantasy and elements of “grimdark” fantasy. It’s a tale that is hauntingly tragic, gloomily morose and bitterly bleak and yet it also has a heart and soul to it that you might not expect. Despite the fantastical trappings, this is very much a human story about loneliness, sorrow, redemption, memory, genius, self-loathing and psychology.

The novel’s fantasy elements are fairly interesting. In essence, the novel only really has one fantastical element – ghosts. But, by focusing on the mechanics of how ghosts are created and dispelled, this novel has an intensity to it that stories with lots of different fantasy elements don’t really have. Seriously, by just using this one fantastical thing as the main focus of the story, Lee gives the novel much more depth than you might expect. Not to mention that the novel’s ghost-based elements also contain some hints of vampire fiction too 🙂

The novel’s medieval-like settings are really atmospheric too. With the exception of one mystical location (Ghyste Mortua), none of the other locations are named. They are just small villages, crumbling houses, desolate plains etc… and, yet, rather than making these locations seem generic, this just adds realism and atmosphere to the story. In addition to lots of well-written descriptions, the fact that these rural locations are so ordinary that they aren’t even named really helps to add emphasis to the “long journey” theme and bleak atmosphere of the novel too.

In terms of the characters, this novel is exquisite. Not only is the begrudging friendship between the terse, mysterious and morose ghost-hunter Parl Dro and the optimistic, but tragic, musician/thief Myal Lemayal a huge part of what makes this novel so interesting, but both characters get loads of characterisation too 🙂

In addition to this, the novel’s antagonist – Ciddey Soban – comes across as a very chilling, yet thoroughly realistic and tragic, character too. Seriously, the main characters in this novel are some of the most well-written that I’ve ever seen.

And not only that, even the briefly-glimpsed/described background characters seem intriguing and real too. Seriously, the characterisation in this book is so good that it can even make you care very deeply about an inanimate musical instrument. Yes, a musical instrument is a character in this book – and it works!

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is utterly brilliant… when you get used to it. In short, the novel is written in a highly elaborate and ultra-formal 19th century-like style which will probably seem “overwritten” at first.

It is the kind of book that casually uses phrases like “such a dwelling betokened the proximity of the village” and even taught me a new word (“concupiscence”) too. But, Lee uses this style for a good reason. Not only does it add to the historical/fantastical atmosphere of the story, but it also gives everything in the story a level of atmosphere and depth that might catch you by surprise.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really interesting. At a gloriously efficient 172 pages, this novel is that wonderfully rare thing – a short medieval fantasy novel 🙂 Due to the highly formal and detailed writing style, this novel is very much on the slow-paced side of things. But, once you’ve got to know the characters and immersed yourself in the setting, the story becomes so compelling that the fact that it moves slowly just means that you have more time to enjoy it 🙂

As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged really well 🙂 Thanks to the vaguely medieval setting, the elaborate 19th century-style narration and the really well-written characters, this novel is timeless.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. Yes, it might take you a while to get used to the writing style, but it is well worth putting in the effort. This novel is an atmospheric, poignant and compelling gothic/dark/grimdark fantasy story that is filled with some of the best characters you’ll ever see. Plus, it is a short fantasy novel too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “The Hunger” By Whitley Strieber (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for another 1980s horror novel. So, I thought that it was finally time to read the copy of Whitley Strieber’s 1980 novel “The Hunger” that I found by accident whilst searching through one of my book piles for another novel several weeks earlier. If I remember rightly, this was a novel that I originally found in a charity shop in Aberystwyth sometime during late 2009/early 2010.

So, let’s take a look at “The Hunger”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1985 Corgi (UK) paperback edition of “The Hunger” that I read.

The novel begins at 3am in Long Island, with a man called John Blaylock breaking into a house in order to murder a teenager called Kaye. He has planned the crime meticulously and he carries it out with ruthless efficiency. But, after the dastardly deed is done, he bites his victim’s neck and we learn that John is a vampire.

Not only that, he lives in a nice suburban house with a much older vampire called Miriam and her young human protege Alice. Although they have to keep their vampiric nature secret from both Alice and the world, Miriam and John live a relatively happy life together – filled with classical music, beautiful gardens and passionate romance.

However, after John returns from his latest killing, Miriam senses that something is wrong with him. Like all of the previous people she has turned into vampires, John has finally started to age at an accelerated rate. Soon, his vampiric hunger will overwhelm him and turn him into little more than a beast. Still, she has read about a scientist called Sarah Roberts who has been conducting promising research into treatments that could prevent ageing. So, Miriam decides to seek her out…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a lot creepier than I expected. Yes, it has some flaws, but if you want a vampire story that will actually frighten you, then this one is worth reading.

Seriously, I cannot praise this novel’s horror elements highly enough 🙂 It contains a wonderfully disturbing mixture of psychological horror, character-based horror, medical/scientific horror, gory horror, body horror, tragic horror, sexual horror, paranormal horror, claustrophobic horror, suspenseful horror, cruel horror, slasher movie-style horror and criminal horror too.

This is the kind of novel that won’t shock you that often, but will instead leave you in a decidedly unsettled mood after you’ve read it (kind of a bit like playing “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines).

The main source of the novel’s horror is probably the exquisitely disturbing main character, Miriam. She’s an extremely evil character, but the novel shows us enough of her tragic backstory (through some really atmospheric historical flashback scenes) and profound feelings of loneliness to actually make the reader feel sorry for her – only to then recoil with disgust when they realise what a monster they have been sympathising with.

The novel’s portrayal of vampirism is fairly inventive too. In essence, vampires are initially presented as serial killers and, later, as some kind of “Mimic“-like predatory species. They quite literally suck the life out of people, leaving their victims little more than shrivelled husks. They can also sire new vampires, who end up turning into frenzied, decaying monsters after 200-1000 years. They can walk in daylight and aren’t affected by garlic or crosses. Their only weaknesses are that they involuntarily fall asleep for six hours a day (with vivid nightmares) and need to bite someone once a week.

As the title suggests, this is a novel about hunger. In addition to the vampires’ hunger for blood, this novel is also about hunger for companionship, for food, for pleasure etc.. In essence, it is a novel about how hedonism is an integral part of humanity. And, in the tradition of 1980s horror novels, this isn’t really a novel for the prudish either.

In terms of the characters, there’s a lot of characterisation in this novel. Good horror relies on characterisation and this novel doesn’t disappoint. Although some of the characters may seem a little bit stylised, stereotypical and/or cheesy, there’s often enough characterisation here to make you care about them. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, Miriam is one of the creepiest vampire characters I’ve seen in a while.

In terms of the writing, it is both brilliant and terrible at the same time. The novel’s third-person narration uses a rather descriptive, formal and/or melodramatic style which can seem incredibly corny at times but, when you get used to it, really helps to add a lot of atmosphere and depth to the story. Yes, this makes the story a bit slow-paced but, once you get used to the writing style, then it really helps to breathe life into the story.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit strange. At 249 pages in length, it initially seemed like the kind of gloriously short novel that used to be standard in the good old days. However, thanks to the writing style, this novel is a lot more slow-paced than you might expect. Still, the fact that it uses a thriller-style structure and the fact that the level of suspense increases throughout the story means that the later parts of the novel were compelling enough to binge-read 🙂

In terms of how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it’s a bit complicated. The story itself is still compelling and the horror is, if anything, even more creepy than it probably was in the early 1980s. However, the writing style is a bit old-fashioned, there are some dated and/or stereotypical depictions of LGBT characters and the science/technology elements of the book will also seem fairly dated too.

All in all, even though this isn’t always a perfect novel, it is still an incredibly compelling, atmospheric and creepy vampire novel. Seriously, I’m genuinely shocked that a vampire novel can be this scary. If you want an inventive version of a familiar genre, then this book is well worth reading.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would maybe get a four.

Review: “The Eye Of The Beholder” By Marc Behm (Novel)

Although I hadn’t planned to read another Marc Behm novel (after “Afraid To Death” left me less than impressed), I was searching for another book in one of my book piles when I happened to find a copy of Behm’s 1980 novel “The Eye Of The Beholder” that I’d bought sometime during the ’00s. And, since the weather was hot and the book was short, I thought “what the hell” and decided to read it.

So, let’s take a look at “The Eye Of The Beholder”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1999 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “The Eye Of The Beholder” that I read.

The novel begins with a private investigator called “the Eye”, who works for a mysterious detective agency called Watchmen, inc. After shooting an embezzler in self-defence some time ago, he has been relegated to desk duty. But, when a wealthy couple show up at the agency to look into their wayward son’s mysterious new girlfriend, the Eye is given the case.

Aside from a mysterious incident where the Eye falls unconscious in the middle of a park, the case seems fairly ordinary at first. He watches the couple withdraw a large sum of money from the bank and have an impromptu wedding. But, whilst surveilling the couple’s honeymoon, the Eye sees her poison her husband and dispose of the body before stealing the money.

Although the Eye should report her, he finds himself fascinated by her. So, after concealing the body even further, he decides to follow her. In every town she visits, she assumes a new identity, meets a new husband and then kills him. Soon, this obsession with the killer begins to take over the Eye’s life….

One of the first things I will say about this novel is that it is a lot better than Behm’s “Afraid To Death”. It is a quirky hardboiled tale about obsession, observation, death and loneliness. The plot is compellingly suspenseful, the characters are intriguingly bizarre and the story moves at a reasonably decent pace too.

Although this novel is technically a crime/detective novel, the story flips all of this on it’s head – with the “detective” being an obsessed stalker who tries to cover up the killer’s crimes and/or furtively warn her about incoming police attention etc.. Likewise, most of the mystery and detection in this story comes from the Eye trying to learn more about the mysterious killer that he is following. Surprisingly, all of this works really well and helps to add a lot of compelling suspense to the story.

This novel also has a number of interesting motifs and sub-plots too. In addition to a running sub-plot about the Eye trying to solve a crossword clue, there are a lot of visual motifs (eg: regardless of her disguise, the serial killer always eats pears, listens to a song called “La Paloma”, wears the same necklace and smokes French cigarettes) and other recurring things, like a dream the Eye has about visiting his missing daughter’s school. Given that this is a novel about people whose are constantly on the run and whose identities are slowly being eroded by this, these small repeated details really help to add a sense of stability and humanity to the story.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly matter of fact “hard-boiled” style, but is a little bit more informal than classic 1920s-50s noir novels. This informality helps to add intensity, vividness and suspense to the story in addition to emphasising the murky world that the two main characters live in too. Plus, it also helps to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace too.

As for the characters, the novel’s main characters are really interesting and there is a lot of character development throughout the novel. For example, the Eye is an intriguingly ambiguous protagonist, who goes from being a typical grubby hardboiled P.I, to being a rather creepy stalker/voyeur to being a strange kind of unseen guardian angel. Plus, in some parts of the novel, there is at least a small amount of ambiguity about whether he is real or just a figment of the killer’s imagination.

Likewise, although the serial killer starts out as a typical mysterious “femme fatale” kind of character, we learn a lot about her and her backstory as the novel progresses, and she becomes a much more sympathetic character.

Like in Behm’s “Afraid To Death”, this novel contains numerous high-brow cultural references too. The most prominent of these is probably Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” – which provides moodily ominous quotes about death, evil etc.. during various parts of the story. Likewise, despite the fact that one main character is a stalker and the other is a serial killer with a tragic background, both of them seem to be fairly cultured- which adds an intriguing level of stylised strangeness to the story.

In terms of length and pacing this novel is really good. At an efficient 213 pages in length, it never really feels bloated. Plus, although some earlier scenes where the killer meets several victims feel a little bit repetitive, the novel soon adds enough compelling twists and events to keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace.

In terms of how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged better than I’d expected. Although the novel contains some dated descriptions, a few brief moments of homophobia (although it’s nowhere near as bad as “Afraid To Death” in this regard) and the atmosphere/style of the story seems more “1960s/70s” than “1980s” ( although, if it was written a year or two before publication, then this might explain it), the story is still a surprisingly compelling tale that is just as intriguingly weird today as it probably was in the 1980s.

All in all, this was a much better book than I expected! It is a compellingly bizarre tale of two strange characters living a suspenseful life of crime. It has complexity and a bit of depth and it tells a fairly focused story too. If you only read one Marc Behm novel, then read this one instead of “Afraid To Death”.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “More Tales Of The City” By Armistead Maupin (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and review a comedy novel today. This is mostly because, a week or two before I wrote this review, I was reminded of Armistead Maupin’s brilliant “Tales Of The City” series 🙂 Although I read the first novel in this series during the mid-late 2000s, I couldn’t remember if I’d read any more of them.

So, I found a cheap second-hand copy of Maupin’s 1980 novel “More Tales Of The City” online and decided to take a look at it. Although this novel is a sequel to “Tales Of The City”, it works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel (thanks to a few recaps). However, having some vague memories of the characters from “Tales Of The City” will help you get into the story a lot more easily.

So, let’s take a look at “More Tales Of The City”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the [2007-10?] Black Swan (UK) paperback reprint of “More Tales Of The City” that I read.

The novel takes place in San Francisco in 1977 and follows the inhabitants of a boarding house run by an old hippie called Mrs. Madrigal. It is Valentine’s day, so Mary Ann Singleton and her GBF Michael Tolliver are making hilariously irreverent Valentine’s day resolutions. After the events of the previous novel, Mary Ann has inherited $5000 from her previous boss. So, the two of them decide to go on a cruise to Mexico. Of course, after they spot a mysterious handsome man by the pool, they aren’t sure who should ask him out…

Meanwhile, Mona Ramsay decides to leave San Francisco. On the way, she meets a kindly old woman who is travelling to Winnemucca, Nevada and decides to travel with her. Of course, things take a slightly unexpected turn when Mona learns more about her travelling companion.

Meanwhile, Brian Hawkins is looking for a girlfriend and finds himself both spying on and being spied upon by a mysterious woman living in a nearby tower block. Plus, following the events of the previous novel, DeDe is several months pregnant with twins and her husband Beauchamp isn’t particularly happy about it, given that he isn’t the father….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is amazing 🙂 It’s a complex, relaxing and gleefully hedonistic comedy novel that is so much fun to read 🙂 In addition to having a wonderful atmosphere, amazing writing and brilliant characters, this is the kind of novel that has a level of personality and humanity to it that is comparable to Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics. In other words, this is a wonderfully quirky novel that will make you laugh out loud and cry with joy. It’s also an utterly brilliant piece of classic LGBT fiction too.

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s comedy elements. This novel contains a really good mixture of irreverent humour, character-based humour, cynical humour, social satire, complex humour, farce, parody (eg: the soap opera style storyline with DeDe) and eccentric humour. In addition to several laugh out loud moments, a lot of the novel’s humour tends to be more of a constant background thing that really helps to keep the story amusingly compelling throughout. Not to mention that some of the comedy comes from how all of the story’s various sub-plots connect with each other too.

And, yes, I should probably talk about this novel’s plot. Although the story does have one, it’s more like a collection of lots of sub-plots which are expertly interwoven throughout the novel (kind of like in a good sitcom episode). Although you may have to take notes at first, the juggling of several plotlines works really well and gives the story a level of realism and complexity that contrasts perfectly with the hilariously random, bizarre and occasionally contrived events of the story.

In addition to this, the novel’s plot also contains some more serious elements – like a detective thriller sub-plot later in the story, a sub-plot about Mona’s parents, a sub-plot about Michael’s ex and a medical sub-plot. These elements of the story contrast really well with the novel’s comedy elements and really help to add some extra warmth and humanity to the story too (and, yes, expect to cry during a few moments).

The novel’s characters are, in a word, superb. They’re an absolutely wonderful group of quirky, realistic individuals who I really enjoyed hanging out with whilst writing the novel. I could spend ages talking about the characters in this novel but they are certainly one of the story’s greatest strengths. Likewise, the friendships and relationships between the characters are also another major strength of this story too.

This novel is also an utterly stellar work of LGBT fiction too 🙂 In addition to lots of retro LGBT humour/in-jokes, this novel also includes lots of romance, a fairly realistic depiction of coming out (eg: something that has to be done multiple times in multiple situations), some brilliant dialogue segments (such as a letter that Michael writes to his conservative parents) and – for the time it was written – a surprisingly well-written transgender character too.

The atmosphere of this novel is brilliant too – in addition to the kind of locations that you’ll really want to visit, this novel has the kind of irreverently countercultural attitude and quirky atmosphere that really makes it feel like the story is taking place a mere 7-8 years after the 1960s ended.

In terms of the writing, Maupin’s third-person narration has a brilliantly unique voice and style. Maupin’s narration is a gloriously impish mixture of more formal, descriptive narration and much more irreverent informal narration. This is one of those novels that is worth reading for the writing alone 🙂

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 288 pages in length, it is concise enough to remain compelling throughout. Likewise, although most of the story is rather moderately paced, the humour and the many sub-plots keep the story compelling throughout and this is one of those novels that you’ll probably want to savour. Not to mention that a few mildly suspenseful thriller elements also appear in the later parts of the story too 🙂

As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, there are a few dated descriptions and story elements that will probably seem “politically incorrect” these days but, for the most part, this novel holds up surprisingly well when read today. A lot of the novel’s irreverent humour seems slightly ahead of it’s time (eg: I can’t believe this wasn’t written during the 1990s!) and is still brilliantly funny when read today. Plus, this novel shows a much more open-minded side of the 1970s too, whilst still having a charmingly “retro” atmosphere too. Seriously, this novel was ahead of it’s time!

All in all, this novel is brilliant 🙂 If you want the kind of novel which is not only fun, funny and compelling but also has an atmosphere, warmth and humanity to it that can sometimes be difficult to find in fiction, then read this novel. It was an absolute joy to read 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.

Review: “Plasmid” By Jo Gannon & Robert Knight (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a 1980s horror novel. So, for today, I thought that I’d re-read one that I bought in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton about a decade ago (mostly on account of the awesome cover art) called “Plasmid” By Jo Gannon & Robert Knight.

Surprisingly, this book seems to have had a rather interesting history. Although Gannon’s name is the only one on the cover, a note inside the book explains that it was written by Knight based on a (seemingly unproduced) screenplay by Gannon. So, this book seems to be that fascinatingly rare thing – a novelisation of a film that was never made.

So, let’s take a look at “Plasmid”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1980 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plasmid” that I read. *Sigh* I wish books still had cover art like this…

“Plasmid” begins on the south coast of England (seriously, it’s always awesome to see books set here 🙂 ), in the fictional seaside town of Oakhaven. Near the town, there is a problem with one of the test subjects at the Fairfield Institute – a government-sponsored laboratory. When a couple of the scientists go to investigate, they are brutally murdered by a mutated man with superhuman strength. The mutant then escapes into the sewers.

A while later, an investigative reporter at the local radio station called Paula Scott is about to get a few stern words from her boss because of complaints about a rather daring investigative report on some important local people. However, she produces a secret recording that proves the facts in her report. After this, she is sent to a press conference about the deaths at the Fairfield Institute – but she soon suspects that there might be a cover-up……

One of the first things that I will say about “Plasmid” is that, despite the gnarly cover art and the fact that it was published by Star Books, this is not really a splatterpunk novel.

Yes, it follows the same “disaster and government response” plot template as 1980s splatterpunk novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” do. Yes, it even uses the splatterpunk technique of introducing many (short-lived) side characters and it also contains a typical splatterpunk-style “shock” ending too. But, if you are expecting the gallons of gore that you’d expect from a proper 1980s splatterpunk novel, you’re going to be disappointed.

Apart from a surprisingly small number of mildly to moderately grisly (by splatterpunk standards) moments, this novel is remarkably tame. A lot of the story’s gruesome and risque moments are either described in a relatively undetailed and brief way or are left “off screen”. The story also mostly focuses on other types of horror than gory horror (eg: suspense, tragic horror, moral horror, political horror, bleak horror, scientific horror etc..) too.

All of this stuff is probably a hangover from the fact that this novel was originally a film script, and would have had to pass the BBFC censors (who were notoriously stricter during the 1980s) if it was produced. So, the style of horror in this novel is more “horror movie” than “splatterpunk novel”.

Even so, this novel is a rather compelling and gloriously cheesy story that could have only have come from the 1980s. If anything, this novel almost reads more like a vaguely splatterpunk-influenced thriller than a horror novel. Most of the story is taken up with Paula trying to investigate what is going on and the scientists trying to deal with the fanatical Dr.Fraser who is behind the evil experiments. Likewise, this story also contains a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia about the government, press censorship etc.. too.

Plus, in addition to the fact that “Plasmid” is set in the kind of town that I know quite well, another surprising thing is this novel’s wonderfully cheesy, immature, groan-inducing sense of humour too. Yes, some of this hasn’t aged well – but, on the whole, it is an amusing relic of another age that includes things like a rockstar called “Big Willie”, a cat called “Fido” and this hilariously clunky attempt at political correctness when describing a group of homeless people: “Nearby another ‘citizen of the road’ was stretched out on a mouldering sofa, fast asleep.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Paula Scott is a realistic, determined reporter in the classic ’80s horror novel tradition. Likewise, many of the scientists seem like fairly realistic and ordinary characters. Plus, some of the short-lived side characters are fairly interesting too (such as a homeless aristocrat), although many of them are just the typical “ordinary people” characters you’d expect to see in a 1980s horror novel.

Likewise, the plot of the novel is reasonably good. As I mentioned earlier, it reads a lot like a thriller novel, with some splatterpunk-style plot techniques. In addition to this, some hints of the novel’s cinematic origins can be seen in things like cutaway-style flashback scenes that are printed in italics. Plus, at a lean and efficient 191 pages, this novel never really gets bloated or slow. I’ve said it many times before, but I miss the days when paperback novels could be short 🙂

In terms of Robert Knight’s writing and third-person narration, it’s reasonably ok too. This novel is written in a slightly more descriptive, but “matter of fact”, way that is pretty much par for the course in British horror novels of this vintage. It’s still very readable but people who are more used to modern novels may find it a little bit slow-paced or formal.

As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. In other words, this novel is very much a product of the 1980s (eg: the emphasis on local radio, the ominous government conspiracies etc…). But, although a few moments seem creepily sleazy when read these days, there isn’t that much shockingly dated stuff here. So, if you want to read something that is decidedly “retro”, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. Seriously, it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of the culture and imagination of this part of history.

All in all, this novel is “splatterpunk lite”. If you like the idea of splatterpunk fiction, but don’t have the stomach for too much gore or horror, then you’ll probably like it. Likewise, it’s a reasonably ok thriller novel and it is also gloriously retro too. So, if you want something that is decidedly ’80s and can be read in a small number of hours, then “Plasmid” might be worth looking at. But, honestly, you’re better off reading Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” instead – it has got most of the stuff that this novel has, but turned up to 11.

If I had to give “Plasmid” a rating out of five, it would maybe get a three.

Review: “Scorpion” By Michael R. Linaker (Novel)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, I first heard of Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” (1980) when I saw a review of it on a website about old horror novels (I used to read a lot of these novels when I was a teenager during the early-mid 2000s). Needless to say, the review made me morbidly curious enough to find a cheap second-hand copy of “Scorpion” on Amazon.

When the book arrived, it was a refreshingly slender volume (only 159 pages! If only modern books could be this concise!) whose pages had turned a warmly familiar shade of second-hand bookshop orange and also exuded the oddly reassuring aroma of old cigarette smoke. Not only that, the cover also had a perfectly-placed crease that made holding the book even more ergonomic than usual. Likewise, the back page of the book also contained a postal order form for books like James Herbert’s “The Rats” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Needless to say, I was feeling nostalgic already. You don’t get this with e-books.

So, let’s take a look at “Scorpion”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS (and some spoilers for James Herbert’s “The Rats” too).

This is the 1980 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Scorpion” that I read.

“Scorpion” begins in the town of Long Point in Kent. Outside the local nuclear power plant, there is an environmentalist protest that is being attended by a man called Les Mason. However, he’s got other things on his mind. Something has stung his hand!

Within minutes, Les starts to feel ill and one of the protest organisers – Chris Lane – insists on driving him home. When they get back to Les’ flat, he tells Chris to return to the protest, although she insists on calling a doctor before leaving. Once she leaves, Les looks at his hand. It looks absolutely horrifying!

Within an hour or two, he is wheeled into the emergency ward of the local hospital. Despite heavy sedation, he keeps screaming in agony. A medical researcher at the hospital, Allan Brady, decides to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good”. Everything from the occasionally corny dialogue, the descriptions of the scorpions, the ridiculous amount of sleaze, the premise of the story to Linaker’s narration just oozes low-budget cheesiness. I was torn between laughter and the sad feeling that I’d have probably enjoyed this book twice as much if I was half as old.

Even so, the experience of reading this book made me nostalgic for the Cornish summer holidays of my youth where I’d go on shopping sprees in second-hand bookshops and binge-read old second-hand horror and sci-fi novels on car journeys. Although the novel is set in Kent rather than Cornwall, I could almost taste the clotted cream and feel the summer sun when I was reading this book.

But, anyway, this is a good old-fashioned 1980s splatterpunk novel that was also part of the “creature feature” craze of the 1970s-80s. A lot of the horror in this novel is achieved through descriptions of swarms of scorpions and through the kind of grisly over-the-top blood-soaked ultra-violent horror that the splatterpunk genre is famous for. And, whilst this novel doesn’t have quite as much gore as a Shaun Hutson novel like “Erebus“, it could still give a modern horror movie a run for it’s money.

Whilst the scenes involving the scorpions often display a reasonable amount of inventiveness and never really get that monotonous, there is at least one scene that is possibly a cool little homage to the ending to James Herbert’s “The Rats”. This is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the story where the main characters encounter two larger, but weaker, scorpions within the scorpions’ lair. These scorpions are then splattered with pickaxe handles. Although there are differences, it reminded me a little bit of the memorable scene near the end of “The Rats” where the main character encounters the giant two-headed rat.

In terms of the narration, it is gloriously low-budget. Yet, the very slight clunkiness and/or amateurishness of it is all part of the charm. You sometimes get the sense that Linaker was actually trying to tell a story, that he was trying to find a way to write the type of novel he’d like to read. Yes, he isn’t always as eloquent as his contemporaries (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..), but this is part of the fun of the story. I mean, it’s a novel that sometimes reads a bit like an episode of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“. And this is adorable!

Although, saying all of this, the narration does get a bit sleazy at times. This isn’t to do with the subject matter being written about (regardless of author, 1980s horror novels aren’t for the prudish) but it is to do with the way that these scenes are described and what the narration chooses to focus on. These scenes sometimes feel like they were written more for the author’s private enjoyment than because they are an organic part of the story.

The novel’s characters are reasonably good. As you would expect from a 1980s horror novel, even the background characters get a fair amount of characterisation. A lot of the novel’s best character-related moments take place during arguments with unsympathetic characters. Whether it is Chris Lane’s long-standing rivalry with the nefarious Mr.Condon who guards the gates of the power station, or Allen Brady’s dealings with the patronising and overbearing Dr. Camperly – the novel’s arguments are often hilariously dramatic. The romance between Chris and Allen is also fairly understated and rather heartwarming too.

In terms of the plotting, pacing and structure, this story is really good. Not only is it split into a three-act structure but there are also a couple of plot threads which go together fairly well. Likewise, this novel also makes full use of the classic splatterpunk technique of introducing new characters (eg: a hiker, a homeless man, a nude sunbather, an amourous couple, a mechanic, wealthy American tourists etc..) only for them to die in some horrible scorpion-related way a couple of pages later.

Not only that, this novel’s short length (a lean and efficient 159 pages) means that there are barely any wasted pages here too. Seriously, I miss the days when books could be short. This book tells a complete story that can be read in 2-4 hours and feels very much like a “full-length” novel. Seriously, I wish more books were like this! Not every novel needs to be a doorstopper!

In terms of how this thirty-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. Whether it’s the earnestness of the story’s message about the dangers of nuclear power, or the “sleazy” narrative tone of many of the novel’s more risque scenes or just the general 1980s-ness of the story, it is very much a relic of another age. Even so, the underlying story remains compelling and the scenes of horror still retain their potency. Not only that, the novel also includes a bit of timeless cynicism about the right-wing tabloid press too.

All in all, this novel is “so bad that it is good”. It’s the novelistic equivalent of a low-budget horror movie. Although it is a lean, efficient story with some timelessly horrific and creepy moments (that can also be read within 2-4 hours), it is still very much a “low-budget” horror novel. It’s so bad that it’s good. Still, if you’re in the mood for retro nostalgia or you want an old splatterpunk novel that you haven’t heard of before, then “Scorpion” will probably do the job.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would maybe just about get a three.